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Archive for April 2013

Convenience inertia, 400 ppm and continental warming

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CO2_399ppm_201304The bad news first. The Guardian has reported that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has reached 399.72 parts per million (ppm) and is likely to pass the symbolically important 400 ppm level for the first time in the next few days. Every additional single ppm is that much closer to the many tipping points earth scientists and climatologists have warned governments and policymakers about.

There are three strands of information tied together here. One of these helps us understand what 400 ppm is, relative to a history that we can measure. Another shows us why, despite repeated warnings about the rise of CO2 in the atmosphere and evidence piled upon new evidence with every passing year, policymakers and the consuming public have simply not reacted. And then there is the ppm counter itself, remorseless in its upward march.

The paper, ‘Continental-scale temperature variability during the past two millennia’ (in Nature Geoscience (Vol 6, May 2013)), analysed a number of records (called ‘proxy records’, which indicate temperature change. The researchers found that “of the 323 individual proxy records that extend to ad 1500, more sites seem warmest during 1971-2000 than during any other 30-year period, both in terms of the total number of sites and their proportion in each region”. Moreover, “of the 52 individual records that extend to ad 500, more sites (and a higher proportion) seem warmest during the twentieth century than during any other century”.

Next, the human response. The European Commission’s Joint Research Centre has released an excellent publication which is a collection of interviews concerning climate, but also what humans have done to climate (and is also about science). The book, ‘Air & Climate: Conversations About Molecules And Planets, With Humans In Between’, contains an interview (there are several) with Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, the founder and Director of the immensely influential Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. Schellnhuber has been a member of the German Advisory Council on Global Change since its inception in 1992, and its chairman since 2008.

Schellnhuber in the interview has talked about a moral and a time issue involved, with creating “tremendous inertia in the behaviour of people and the making of politics”. He has said:

“The moral issue goes as follows: if you brought your child to the school bus, and the driver said there was a 50% chance of an accident because something was wrong with the engine, nothing on Earth would make you put your child onto that bus. Climate change undoubtedly creates, with more than 50% probability, the risk of destroying the life of some child in some region that is heavily hit by anthropogenic warming at the other side of the planet – the life of a child who is not even born yet and who you will never get to know. Acting to save that anonymous life is a really tough test for our moral standards, even if you believe every word of what science says about climate disruption.”

“Even when your own survival is at stake it seems far too inconvenient to change your habits now and to reap the benefits later. So it is not that people are wicked or dumb or not perceptive of scientific insights, there is simply this inertia related to the demi-god ‘convenience’.”

[The book ‘Air & Climate’ (by Frank Raes, European Commission, Joint Research Centre, 2012) can be found here.]

How powerful can the satisfaction of the ‘convenience’ idea be to modern humans? Is it possible that the satisfaction of this idea overrides personal, community, species and ecosystem survival? Although I agree with Schellnhuber’s comment, especially given the speed at which industrial agriculture and food systems are overrunning our landscape, it seems almost inconceivable that the motor of convenience insulates consuming humans from all evidence, even evidence as weighty as the Nature Geosciences paper.

This has said, as clearly as possible, that (1) the best estimate of past temperature from seven continent-sized regions indicates that 1971–2000 was warmer than any other time in nearly 1,400 years, (2) the global warming that has occurred since the end of the nineteenth century reversed a persistent long-term global cooling trend, and (3) the increase in average temperature between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries exceeded the temperature difference between all other consecutive centuries in each region, except Antarctica and South America.

And finally, the deadly ppm counter. Readings at the US government’s Earth Systems Research laboratory in Hawaii, are not expected to reach their 2013 peak until mid-May this year, but were recorded at a daily average of 399.72 ppm on 25 April – that is, last week. CO2 atmospheric levels have been steadily rising for 200 years, registering around 280 ppm at the start of the industrial revolution and 316 ppm in 1958 when the Mauna Loa observatory started measurements. “The increase in the global burning of fossil fuels is the primary cause of the increase,” said the Guardian article. Profiting from convenience as a way towards extinction?

The 6 June water event that our planners have missed

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This was in January 2013, in Mysore district, Karnataka. Can these women even reach the little island today?

This was in January 2013, in Mysore district, Karnataka. Can these women even use their coracle today?

In just under six weeks from today, the water available per head in India from our major reservoirs will drop under the 100 litres per day mark. This will happen on or around 06 June 2013, give or take a day.

Two charts with water levels for half the 84 major reservoirs, early February to late April 2013. Data taken from CWC

Two charts with water levels for half the 84 major reservoirs, early February to late April 2013. Data taken from CWC

For India’s 59 cities with populations of over a million (this will be so in mid-2013, see ‘India in 2015 – 63 million-plus cities’) this will mean an ever more frantic and dangerous race to secure water stocks by urban water mafia, who plunder public water storage and groundwater aquifers alike.

In the largest of these cities, their water boards claim to supply between 160 and 200 litres per capita per day (lpcd). This amount is roughly in line with what residents in comparably large East and South-East Asian cities are supplied, and is well above the lower end (100 lpcd) offered by the World Health Organisation as the minimum ‘optimal’ daily water stock required by an individual to maintain health and hygiene (100-200 lpcd is the band).

That’s the WHO view, but even in the Tenth Five Year Plan (2002-07) it was recommended that in India’s largest metropolitan cities the minimum must be 150 lpcd and in large non-metro cities the minimum must be 135 lpcd.

But six weeks from now, judging by the rate at which water has been used in 2013 from the 84 major reservoirs, we are not going to have, per head per day, even 100 litres of water. (Also see ‘Big dams, scarce water, thirsty India, uncertain monsoon’.)

Two more charts with water levels for the rest of the 84 major reservoirs, early February to late April 2013. For both sets of charts, the trendlines describe water volume as a per cent of the full reservoir volume. Data taken from CWC

Two more charts with water levels for the rest of the 84 major reservoirs, early February to late April 2013. For both sets of charts, the trendlines describe water volume as a per cent of the full reservoir volume. Data taken from CWC

How did we get here, so quickly and so dry? On 14 February 2013, the total water stored in the 84 major reservoirs was 68.718 billion cubic metres (bcm). Over the next ten weeks, until 25 April 2013, that total has dropped steeply to 42.304 bcm.

The Central Water Commission monitors the levels of and volumes in these 84 reservoirs, which if they all were full would store 154.421 bcm. These 84 reservoirs, says the CWC, represent 61% of the country’s water stored in reservoirs, which is altogether 253.388 bcm.

Judging by the same rate of water drawal from these 84 reservoirs, we have used over 43 bcm from all reservoirs in ten weeks, depleting our reservoir stock from 112.6 bcm to 69.3 bcm. This also means that in early February 2013, each of us were (notionally) holding a water stock of about 247 litres per day, a stock that was shrinking at a rate of about 1.3 litres per day to reach 152 litres per day in late April. And remember this is notional water stock per head from reservoirs, water that is used for agriculture and industry too.

What will happen between now and 06 June, when that individual stock drops under 100 lpcd? The Indian Meteorological Department has claimed (the usual bland and bored claim, as if monsoon was just another filing cabinet) that we will have a normal monsoon. As usual, the IMD has made no effort to link water with our alarming depletion of litres per head per day (it does link monsoon with GDP though, typically correct politically, typically unconcerned about human, animal and ecosystem need).

And what if the monsoon is late, scanty or erratic, as has happened with every monsoon since 2009? The IMD doesn’t know, your city’s PWD and municipality don’t know. But the water mafia do, and they’re getting very busy.

Written by makanaka

April 27, 2013 at 18:06

Tiffin: dry regions, China’s guidelines, permaculture, GM crops, valuing drylands, FAO saves money

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(1) The International Instititute for Environment and Development (IIED) says that current policy narratives limit climate resilience in world’s dry regions: “Partial narratives that underpin policymaking prevent people in arid regions from fulfilling their potential to provide food and sustain resilient livelihoods in a changing climate.” IIED has country-specific papers on the following topics: rainfed agriculture for an inclusive, sustainable and food secure India; pastoralism as the custodian of China’s grasslands; moving beyond the rhetoric and the challenge of reform in Kenya’s drylands. (Thanks to the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog for this.)

(2) International Rivers says that on 28 February 2013 the Chinese government released its ‘Guidelines for Environmental Protection in Foreign Investment and Cooperation’ which was based on recommendations by the Chinese NGO Global Environmental Institute. These Guidelines provide civil society groups with a new source of leverage when it comes to holding Chinese companies responsible for their environmental and social impacts overseas. These (non-binding) guidelines cover key issues, including legal compliance, environmental policies, environmental management plans, mitigation measures, disaster management plans, community relations, waste management, and international standards.

(3) Permaculture programmes are more multifunctional than typical agricultural development programmes, according to this comment in the Guardian, which is important given the growing call for ‘triple-win solutions’ (more management gobbledygook) for agriculture, health, and environmental sustainability. Some examples are given. Partners in Health ran a model permaculture farmer programme in Malawi which helped HIV/Aids patients get the additional caloric and micronutrient intake that they need. In Malawi and South Africa, permaculture is used “as a sustainable, non-donor dependent tool for improving the health, food and nutrition security, and livelihoods,” of orphans and vulnerable children, according to a recent USAid report. In Indonesia, Oxfam funded a permaculture school that taught ex-combatants and tsunami survivors how to improve their food security and livelihoods, while protecting the environment.

(4) A review article in the Agronomy for Sustainable Development journal concludes that GM crops will not only not feed the world, they are hampering efforts to sustainably feed the world by jeopardising existing biological and genetic diversity. The authors argue that agrobiodiversity should be a central element in sustainable agriculture development, and increased access to genetic resources is necessary to increase food production for an expanding world population under the threat of climate change. GM crops on the other hand concentrate ownership of agricultural resources in the hands of corporate interests in developed countries through intellectual property rights instruments. (Thanks to Third World Network for this.)

(5) Drylands in European and North American countries on average generate US$4,290 and US$277 per hectare respectively every year, but this figure jumps to US$6,462 in Asia, US$9,184 in Africa and US$9,764 in Latin America. Around 40 per cent of the world’s total land area consists of dryland ecosystems, the majority of which are in developing nations. The economic value of dryland ecosystems — determined by factors including food and raw material production, ecosystem services and tourism — is far greater in (what are still commonly called) ‘developing countries’, according to a study. This value in Africa and Latin America is more than double that in Europe and more than 30 times that in North America, which should influence how policymakers prioritise dryland conservation, according to the study that was presented at the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification’s (UNCCD) 2nd Scientific Conference this month.

(6) During the FAO Council’s Hundred and Forty-sixth Session (in Rome, 22-26 April 2013) delegates learned that in addition to the US$6.5 million in savings that member countries mandated FAO to identify, the Organization was able to cut costs by an additional $19.3 million. The total savings of $25.8 million, nearly four times what was required, consisted mostly of savings in administrative areas especially at FAO headquarters. Director-General Graziano da Silva said that this process made it possible to advance with the Organization’s decentralisation, which includes the creation of 55 professional posts worldwide while maintaining technical capacity at Headquarters. “As I have argued before, I believe that a strong presence in the field is the way to truly make FAO a knowledge organization with its feet on the ground,” Graziano da Silva said.

Peaks, spikes and food price worries in India

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This chart traces the trends of the wholesale prices of ten major food and crop groups in India. The data is from the Office of the Economic Adviser to the Government of India, which is a part of India’s Ministry of Commerce and Industry.

The cereals group has from early 2012 risen relatively more steeply than it has from the beginning of the period described by the chart. The pulses group has gone through three peaks (late 2006, late 2009-early 2010 and mid-2012) that have led to successively higher base levels. (In the panel below, these groups are coloured to distinguish them from the rest.)

The eggs, meat and fish group has accelerated from about mid-2009, rising fairly steeply for about a year-and-a-half and then steadily thereafter. The vegetables groups shows the distinct cyclical nature of prices, with nine peaks erupting from a steady upward trend (the last being in mid-2012).

The other groups – fruit, milk, spices, tea and coffee – help us understand the causes for the overall rise in food price inflation experienced by the consumer and also the changing market prices for crops in the fibres (6 components) and oilseeds (11 components) groups. [You can get a zipped set of these charts here.]


Written by makanaka

April 10, 2013 at 16:40

India’s billion and a quarter

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A table of the 25 most populous districts, in 2011 and in 2013

A table of the 25 most populous districts, in 2011 and in 2013

It would have happened in February 2013, the crossing of the billion and a quarter mark. Quietly, oddly so for such a statistically adept people, the mark went by unnoticed and unremarked.

[Update: Several readers have asked questions about this post so here are replies to common questions: (1) These calculations are mine based on the 2011 Census data and use the 2001-2011 decadal growth rate. (2) The table is of districts, not metropolises or cities, but remember that the metros include district areas. (3) Population figures in the table are for the district total (rural and urban) and are calculated on the overall population growth rate of the districts, estimated for 2013.]

It’s all in the districts really. Thane in Maharashtra remains the most populous district with 11.84 million, North 24 Parganas (part of the Kolkata metropolis) with 10.34 million has been moved down to third place, in second place is Bangalore which has crossed the 10 million mark and is now 10.48 million.

It is two years since India’s Census 2011 and, using the decadal population growth rates (for the period 2001-2011) for each district, I find that in two short years there is some reshuffling in the top 25 districts by population.

Positions four to 10 (Pune, Mumbai Suburban, South 24 Parganas, Bardhaman, Ahmedabad, Murshidabad and Jaipur) stay where they were (Jaipur has crossed the 7 million mark). Surat (6.59 m) has replaced Nashik (6.38 m) in the 11th spot. The next three have not changed – Allahabad, Paschim Medinipur and Patna (which has crossed the 6 million mark).

In position 16 Rangareddy (5.8 m) has replaced Hughli (5.62 m). In position 17 Purba Champaran (5.37 m) has replaced Nadia (5.29 m) and in position 21 East Godavari (5.2 m) has been pushed down two places by faster growing districts.

There are now 24 districts with populations of five million and more as compared with 2011 when the number of such districts was 21. Two years ago the combined population of the 50 most populous districts was 277.65 million. Now, in 2013, the combined population of the 50 most populous districts is 289.09 million.

Comparing the ranks of districts (ranked by population) in 2011 with the calculated 2013 list, Kancheepuram (Tamil Nadu) has moved up the most, 11 places. Sitamarhi (Bihar) has moved up 10 places, Bilaspur (Chhattisgarh) has moved up nine. Banka (Bihar), Barmer (Rajasthan), Giridih (Jharkhand) and Indore (Madhya Pradesh) have all moved up eight places. Araria (Bihar), Bahraich and Siddharthnagar (both Uttar Pradesh) have moved up seven places.

More urban residents, certainly more in shanty-towns, ‘jhuggi-jhopdis’ and slums. More demand for a staple food basket from fewer cultivators. More demand for water (piped, tanker, water mafia, rainwater harvesting – which will they choose? Can they even choose any more?). More transport, two-wheelers (on credit), mobile phones, LPG cylinders (but biomass is still used for cooking in urban settlements). More informal jobs with little or no workplace security. That is the speeding urbanisation, the consequence of policies oriented to manic ‘growth’, two years after the 2011 population marker.

And India? From 1,210 million in 2011 to 1,252 million. One and a quarter billion.