Resources Research

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Posts Tagged ‘biomass

The magical fieldscapes of Uttara Kannada

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This is the green western edge of the Deccan plateau of India, the gigantic highland of peninsular India that slopes gradually from west to east. They say that the western ‘ghats’, the range of hills (some say mountains, but the real mountains are the Himalaya and Hindu Kush, far to the north, while the Ghats rise about 1,500 metres above the continent in some of their southern spurs), that run for about 1,600 kilometres dissuade the south-west monsoon from bringing rain inland, but this is not quite true, for districts along the western edge of the plateau are well-watered in a good monsoon.

This magical landscape is found about 10 kilometres east of the the small town of Yellapur, in the district of Uttara Kannada, in the state of Karnataka. The land is gently rolling, and by mid-November early mornings bathe the landscape in a soft golden light. Mornings at this time are chilly, below 10 Celsius, and you can see the farmers here stride down the dusty pathways between fields, their worn sweaters keeping the chill away, their omnipresent cotton shawls – faded after months in the sun – wrapped that much tighter around their necks. In the distance, the taller peaks loom blue-grey in the distance, the skies above are cobalt with clarity.

Standing four to five metres tall, the larger of the cylindrical haystacks are minor engineering marvels and take shape organically thanks to the communal work of the farming household, neighbours, sharecroppers and of course youngsters with more enthusiasm than skill.

Dotting every cultivated hectare are the haystacks, the hayricks and the crop residue bales. These are gathered, tied, carried, lifted, piled, arranged and stacked by hand, and so the shapes they assume are organic, cones and rough domes that mimic the primal hut-shape, but dense with biomass. We are used to saying and hearing words like ‘crop residue’ and ‘agricultural biomass’, but the shapes that emerge at the end of a hectic harvest are made of material that goes by many local names. Often, these haystacks formed from rice straw, sugarcane tops, stalks of ‘jowar’ or ‘bajra’ (millets, or what the agricultural establishment demeaningly calls coarse grains).

Making the haystacks is a communal activity, inspiring for the ease with which the work gets done, and inspiring for the artistry that surrounds their fieldcraft. There are two men who stand atop a partially-formed haystack, and when they are up there you can judge the size of the pile and appreciate better how much ‘residue’ it must contain.

Crisp air enlivened with the scents of field and jungle, the sounds of a district that contentedly stewards forest and land

Women and men in the nearby fields arrange and tie the bales of gathered stalks and stems, their children help, their cattle continue to graze alongside, the ever-present companions to the good-natured ruminants, the cattle egrets, wait patiently or circle aloft impatiently, dogs snooze and the elderly offer quiet advice. The men atop the growing stack bark their instructions, from further up the fields, a group of women in bright sweaters but barefoot – tough and hardy – chat and chuckle as they work. This is district India, so alive with community spirit, secure in its fertility, in the stewardship of land and water, of stem and stalk.

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Visualising livestock geography

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One of the major limitations in livestock sector planning, policy development and analysis is the paucity of reliable and accessible information on the distribution, abundance and use of livestock. With the objective of redressing this shortfall, the Animal Production and Health Division of FAO has developed a global livestock information system (GLIS) in which geo-referenced data on livestock numbers and production are collated and standardized, and made available to the general public through the FAO website.

Where gaps exist in the available data, or the level of spatial detail is insufficient, livestock numbers are predicted from empirical relationships between livestock densities and environmental, demographic and climatic variables in similar agro-ecological zones.

[Reference: FAO. 2007. Gridded livestock of the world 2007, by G.R.W. Wint and T.P. Robinson. Rome, pp 131, Environmental Research Group, Oxford, and FAO Animal Production and Health Division]

The spatial nature of these livestock data facilitates analyses that include: estimating livestock production; mapping disease risk and estimating the impact of disease on livestock production; estimating environmental risks associated with livestock due, for example, to land degradation or nutrient loading; and exploring the complex interrelationships between people, livestock and the environment in which they cohabit.

It is through quantitative analyses such as these that the impact of technical interventions can be estimated and assessed. Also, by incorporating these data into appropriate models and decision-making tools, it is possible to evaluate the impact of livestock-sector development policies, so that informed recommendations for policy adjustments can be made.

The components of the information system thus created include: a global network of providers of data on livestock and subnational boundaries; an Oracle database in which these data are stored, managed and processed; and a system for predicting livestock distributions based on environmental and other data, resulting in the Gridded Livestock of the World (GLW) initiative: modelled distributions of the major livestock species (cattle, buffalo, sheep, goats, pigs and poultry) have now been produced, at a spatial resolution of three minutes of arc (approximately 5 km). These data are freely available through the GLW website1, through an interactive web application known as the Global Livestock Production and Health Atlas (GLiPHA)2, and through the FAO GeoNetwork data repository.

As well as detailing various components of the GLIS, this publication explains how livestock distributions were determined, and presents a series of regional and global maps showing where the major ruminant and monogastric species are concentrated. Spatial livestock data can be used in a multitude of ways. Various examples are given of how these and other datasets can be combined and utilized in a number of applications, including estimates of livestock biomass, carrying capacity, population projections, production and offtake, production-consumption balances, environmental impact and disease risk in the rapidly expanding field of livestock geography.

Informed livestock-sector policy development and planning requires reliable and accessible information about the distribution and abundance of livestock. To that end, and in collaboration with the Environmental Research Group Oxford (ERGO), FAO has developed the “Gridded livestock of the world” spatial database: the first standardized global, subnational resolution maps of the major agricultural livestock species. These livestock data are now freely available for downloading via this FAO page.

The IPCC speaks, on renewable energy and climate change

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Demand for energy services is increasing. GHG emissions resulting from the provision of energy services contribute significantly to the increase in atmospheric GHG concentrations. Graphic: IPCC-SRREN

The Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation (SRREN), agreed and released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on 09 May 2011, has assessed existing literature on the future potential of renewable energy for the mitigation of climate change. It covers the six most important renewable energy technologies, as well as their integration into present and future energy systems. It also takes into consideration the environmental and social consequences associated with these technologies, the cost and strategies to overcome technical as well as non-technical obstacles to their application and diffusion.

The chapters are dense, but there is a Summary for Policy Makers which provides an overview of the SRREN. It summarises the essential findings concerning the report`s analysis of literature on and experiences with the scientific, technological, environmental, economic and social aspects of the contribution of six renewable energy sources to the mitigation of climate change.

The IPCC has said that on a global basis, it is estimated that renewable energy accounted for 12.9% of the total 492 Exajoules (EJ) of primary energy supply in 2008. The largest RE contributor was biomass (10.2%), with the majority (roughly 60%) being traditional biomass used in cooking and heating applications in developing countries but with rapidly increasing use of modern biomass as well.

Hydropower represented 2.3%, whereas other RE sources accounted for 0.4%. In 2008, RE contributed approximately 19% of global electricity supply (16% hydropower, 3% other RE) and biofuels contributed 2% of global road transport fuel supply. Traditional biomass (17%), modern biomass (8%), solar thermal and geothermal energy (2%) together fuelled 27% of the total global demand for heat. The contribution of RE to primary energy supply varies substantially by country and region.

Deployment of RE has been increasing rapidly in recent years. Various types of government policies, the declining cost of many RE technologies, changes in the prices of fossil fuels, an increase of energy demand and other factors have encouraged the continuing increase in the use of RE.

The current global energy system is dominated by fossil fuels. Shares of energy sources in total global primary energy supply in 2008. Graphic: IPCC-SRREN

Despite global financial challenges, RE capacity continued to grow rapidly in 2009 compared to the cumulative installed capacity from the previous year, including wind power (32% increase, 38 Gigawatts (GW) added), hydropower (3%, 31 GW added), grid-connected photovoltaics (53%, 7.5 GW added), geothermal power (4%, 0.4 GW added), and solar hot water/heating (21%, 31 GWth added). Biofuels accounted for 2% of global road transport fuel demand in 2008 and nearly 3% in 2009. The annual production of ethanol increased to 1.6 EJ (76 billion litres) by the end of 2009 and biodiesel to 0.6 EJ (17 billion litres).

Of the approximate 300 GW of new electricity generating capacity added globally over the two-year period from 2008 to 2009, 140 GW came from RE additions. Collectively, developing countries host 53% of global RE electricity generation capacity. At the end of 2009, the use of RE in hot water/heating markets included modern biomass (270 GWth), solar (180 GWth), and geothermal (60 GWth). The use of decentralized RE (excluding traditional biomass) in meeting rural energy needs at the household or village level has also increased, including hydropower stations, various modern biomass options, PV, wind or hybrid systems that combine multiple technologies.

Climate change will have impacts on the size and geographic distribution of the technical potential for RE sources, but research into the magnitude of these possible effects is nascent. Because RE sources are, in many cases, dependent on the climate, global climate change will affect the RE resource base, though the precise nature and magnitude of these impacts is uncertain. The future technical potential for bioenergy could be influenced by climate change through impacts on biomass production such as altered soil conditions, precipitation, crop productivity and other factors. The overall impact of a global mean temperature change of less than 2°C on the technical potential of bioenergy is expected to be relatively small on a global basis. However, considerable regional differences could be expected and uncertainties are larger and more difficult to assess compared to other RE options due to the large number of feedback mechanisms involved.

For solar energy, though climate change is expected to influence the distribution and variability of cloud cover, the impact of these changes on overall technical potential is expected to be small. For hydropower the overall impacts on the global technical potential is expected to be slightly positive. However, results also indicate the possibility of substantial variations across regions and even within countries. Research to date suggests that climate change is not expected to greatly impact the global technical potential for wind energy development but changes in the regional distribution of the wind energy resource may be expected. Climate change is not anticipated to have significant impacts on the size or geographic distribution of geothermal or ocean energy resources.

The levelized cost of energy for many RE technologies is currently higher than existing energy prices, though in various settings RE is already economically competitive. Ranges of recent levelized costs of energy for selected commercially available RE technologies are wide, depending on a number of factors including, but not limited to, technology characteristics, regional variations in cost and performance, and differing discount rates. Some RE technologies are broadly competitive with existing market energy prices.

Renewable energy costs are still higher than existing energy prices, but in various settings renewable energy is already competitive. Graphic: IPCC-SRREN

Many of the other RE technologies can provide competitive energy services in certain circumstances, for example, in regions with favourable resource conditions or that lack the infrastructure for other low-cost energy supplies. In most regions of the world, policy measures are still required to ensure rapid deployment of many RE sources. Monetising the external costs of energy supply would improve the relative competitiveness of RE. The same applies if market prices increase due to other reasons. The levelized cost of energy for a technology is not the sole determinant of its value or economic competitiveness. The attractiveness of a specific energy supply option depends also on broader economic as well as environmental and social aspects, and the contribution that the technology provides to meeting specific energy services (e.g., peak electricity demands) or imposes in the form of ancillary costs on the energy system (e.g., the costs of integration).

When humans use up the planet – why we need to do less with a lot less

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By 2050, humanity could devour an estimated 140 billion tons of minerals, ores, fossil fuels and biomass per year – three times its current appetite – unless the economic growth rate is “decoupled” from the rate of natural resource consumption. This is the central recommendation of a major new study by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), ‘Decoupling: natural resource use and environmental impacts from economic growth’.

Developed countries citizens consume an average of 16 tons of those four key resources per capita (ranging up to 40 or more tons per person in some developed countries). By comparison, the average person in India today consumes four tons per year.

With the growth of both population and prosperity, especially in developing countries, the prospect of much higher resource consumption levels is “far beyond what is likely sustainable” if realized at all given finite world resources, warns this report by UNEP’s International Resource Panel. Already the world is running out of cheap and high quality sources of some essential materials such as oil, copper and gold, the supplies of which, in turn, require ever-rising volumes of fossil fuels and freshwater to produce. Improving the rate of resource productivity (“doing more with less”) faster than the economic growth rate is the notion behind “decoupling,” the panel says.

That goal, however, demands an urgent rethink of the links between resource use and economic prosperity, buttressed by a massive investment in technological, financial and social innovation, to at least freeze per capita consumption in wealthy countries and help developing nations follow a more sustainable path.

Humanity is pressing up against the limits of a finite planet to provide resources like water, oil, metals and food, said a news report by IPS on the UNEP study.

[The ‘Decoupling’ report in full, a summary, factsheet and slides can be found here.]

During the 20th century, the rate of resource use has increased twice as fast as the increase in global population. Now, resources are being consumed at an even greater rate and are on pace to triple by 2050, the report calculates. Except there simply aren’t enough resources left on the planet to manage that – the average person in Canada or the United States currently consumes 25 tonnes of key resources every year.

Industrialised countries need to reduce their consumption by making significant reductions in waste and major improvements in the efficiency with which they use resources. At the same time, developing countries need to create new low-carbon, super-efficient resource use pathways for their economic development. Developing countries have to change their idea of what development means in a resource-scarce world. They need to forge a new resource- efficient, low carbon development path, said Mark Swilling of the Sustainability Institute at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa.

There is a pressing need for sanitation in much of Africa, but instead of building expensive Western-style water treatment infrastructure, countries can use their wetlands and natural vegetation to provide the same service, Swilling, a co-author of the report, told IPS. “We will miss out on these kinds of opportunities if we follow Western development patterns,” he said.

Public infrastructure is the biggest determinant of future energy and resource use, said Marina Fischer-Kowalski of the Institute of Social Ecology in Vienna. North America’s infrastructure, including transportation, sanitation, food production and so on, are all high-energy, high-material-use systems, said report co-author Fischer-Kowalski. They were designed with the assumption of never-ending access to cheap and plentiful energy and resources. Efficiency improvements can be made but it is more expensive and limits to what can be done.

By lanternlight in rural Asia

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The Shivalaya Bazaar, Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, India

One of the magazines of the CR Media group of Singapore interviewed me about energy needs in rural Asia. My responses to some thoughtful questions have been published, although I don’t have a link yet to any of the material online. Until then, here’s a selection of questions and replies.

Do you have a case study or know of an innovative instance when an Asian country has broken the mould successfully in generating energy for its citizens in a way that is remarkable?

When you travel in rural South Asia you see that in almost every unelectrified village there is a flourishing local trade in kerosene and kerosene lanterns for lighting, car batteries and battery-charging stations for small TV sets, dry cell batteries for radios, diesel fuel and diesel generator sets for shops and small businesses and appliances. It’s common to spot people carrying jerricans or bottles of kerosene from the local shop, or a battery strapped to the back of a bicycle, being taken to the nearest charging station several kilometres away. People want the benefits that electricity can bring and will go out of their way, and spend relatively large amounts of their income, to get it. That represents the opportunity of providing power for energy appliances at the household level (LED lamps, cookstoves, solar- and human-powered products) and of community-level power generation systems (village bio-gasification, solar and small-scale hydro and wind power).

Household income and electricity access in developing countries, IEA, World Energy Outlook 2010

Household income and electricity access in developing countries, IEA, World Energy Outlook 2010

In areas such as western China, the South American rainforest or the Himalayan foothills, the cost of a rural connection can be seven times that in the cities. Solar power has spread rapidly among off-grid communities in developing countries, only sometimes subsidised. A typical solar home system today in South Asia provides light, power for TVs, radios and CD players, and most important charges mobile phones. At US$ 400-500, such a system is not cheap for rural Asia, especially when households are struggling with rising food and transport costs. But targeted subsidies and cheap micro-credit has made this energy option more affordable.

How can Asian countries cooperate to bring a new energy reality into Asia and balance development with conservation?

Let’s see what some authoritative forecasts say. The Sustainable World Energy Outlook 2010 from Greenpeace makes projections of renewable energy generation capacity in 2020: India 146 GW, developing Asia 133 GW, China 456 GW. These are enormous quantities that are being forecast and illustrate what has begun to be called the continental shift eastwards of generation and power. India dwarfs developing Asia the way China dwarfs India – the conventional economies today reflect this difference in scale. It’s important to keep in mind, while talking about energy, that Asia’s committed investment and planned expansion is centred to a very great degree around fossil fuel.

Factory and high-tension power lines, Mumbai, India

Certainly there are models of regional cooperation in other areas from where lessons can be drawn, the Mekong basin water sharing is a prominent example. But cooperation in energy is a difficult matter as it is such an essential factor of national GDP, which has become the paramount indicator for East and South Asia. Conversely, it is because the renewables sector is still relatively so small in Asia that technical cooperation is flourishing – markets are distributed and small, technologies must be simple and low-cost to be attractive, and business margins are small, all of which encourage cooperation rather than competition.

What could be immediately done to help alleviate energy shortage in South Asia for the masses, at a low cost? Do you have a case study of this?

Let’s look at Husk Power Systems which uses biomass gasification technology to convert rice husk into gas. Burning this gas runs generators which produce relatively clean electricity at affordable rates. Rice husk is found throughout northern, central and southern India and is a plentiful fuel. While Husk Power says that the rice husk would otherwise be “left to rot in fields” that isn’t quite true, as crop biomass is used in many ways in rural South Asia, but the point here is that this entrepreneurial small company has successfully converted this into energy for use locally.

Household income and access to modern fuels in developing countries, IEA, World Energy Outlook 2010

Household income and access to modern fuels in developing countries, IEA, World Energy Outlook 2010

I think it’s important that access to energy be seen for its importance in achieving human development goals. Individuals in governments do see this as clearly as you and I, but disagreements over responsibility and zones of influence get in the way. Responsible private enterprise is one answer. If you look at micro-enterprise funders, like Acumen, they recognise that access to electricity is also about healthcare, water and housing, refrigerated vaccines, irrigation pumps and also lighting in homes so that children can study.

What issues (externalities etc) do Asian governments do not factor in when they go for new sources of energy?

The poverty factor has for years obscured many other considerations. Providing energy, infrastructure and jobs has been the focus of central and provincial governments, and in the process issues such as environmental degradation and social justice have often been overlooked. That has been the pattern behind investment in large, national centrally-funded and directed power generation plans and in many ways it continues to shape centralised approaches to renewable energy policy.

Developing Asia is still mired in the legacy bureaucracies that have dominated (and continue to) social sector programmes, which for decades have been the cornerstone of national ‘development’. Energy is still seen as a good to be allocated by the government, even if the government does not produce it. And it still takes precedence over other considerations – ecosystem health, sustainable natural resource management – because of this approach. If India has a huge programme to generate hydroelectricity from the rivers in the Himalaya, there is now ample evidence to show both the alterations to river ecosystems downstream and the drastic impacts of submergence of river valleys, let alone the enormous carbon footprint of constructing a dam and the associated hydropower systems. Yet this is seen as using a ‘renewable’ source of energy.

Understanding Cancún

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The ETC group – the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration – describes itself and its work as being dedicated to the conservation and sustainable advancement of cultural and ecological diversity and human rights. Amongst the financiers, diplomats, agents, fixers, saboteurs, rogues, destructive multi-lateral banks, geoengineers, evil biotech corporations and assorted carpetbaggers, there are some NGOs who are taking the sensible route. The ETC Group is one of these.

They are at Cancún, Mexico, for the climate summit. There, they have released two hard-hitting new reports and a third, just as blunt, which was used at the Convention on Biodiversity meeting in Japan. These are:

‘The New Biomassters – Synthetic Biology and The Next Assault on Biodiversity and Livelihoods’, a groundbreaking report that lifts the lid on the emerging global grab on plants, lands, ecosystems, and traditional cultures. The New Biomassters is a critique of what OECD countries are calling ‘the new bioeconomy.’ Concerted attempts are already under way to shift industrial production feedstocks from fossil fuels to the 230 billion tons of ‘biomass’ (living stuff) that the Earth produces every year -not just for liquid fuels but also for production of power, chemicals, plastics and more. Sold as an ecological switch from a ‘black carbon’ (ie fossil) economy to a ‘green carbon’ (plant-based) economy, this emerging bioeconomy is in fact a red-hot resource grab of the lands, livelihoods, knowledge and resources of peoples in the global South, where most of that biomass is located.

In how many languages does the Cancún talkfest need to hear the word 'danger'?

‘Geopiracy: The Case Against Geoengineering’ examines the high stakes involved in the rapidly advancing field of geoengineering – the intentional, large-scale manipulation of the Earth’s systems by artificially changing oceans, soils and the atmosphere. More than a set of climate altering technologies, geoengineering is a political strategy aimed at letting the industrialized countries off the hook for their climate debt. This report will help civil society organizations navigate the coming global debates over the science and politics of climate-change techno-fixes.

In ‘Gene Giants Stockpile Patents on ‘Climate-Ready’ Crops in Bid to Become Biomassters’, the ETC Group says that under the guise of developing “climate-ready” crops, the world’s largest seed and agrochemical corporations are filing hundreds of sweeping, multi-genome patents in a bid to control the world’s plant biomass. ETC Group identifies over 262 patent families, subsuming 1663 patent documents published worldwide (both applications and issued patents) that make specific claims on environmental stress tolerance in plants (such as drought, heat, flood, cold, salt tolerance). DuPont, Monsanto, BASF, Bayer, Syngenta and their biotech partners account for three-quarters (77%) of the patent families identified. Just three companies – DuPont, BASF, Monsanto – account for over two-thirds of the total. Public sector researchers hold only 10%.

The Group’s strength is in the research and analysis of technological information (particularly but notes exclusively plant genetic resources, biotechnologies, and [in general] biological diversity), and in the development of strategic options related to the socioeconomic ramifications of new technologies.

Another NGO-advocacy taking the sensible route is the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development, which is also at Cancún, Mexico, for the climate summit. ICTSD says that the fourth assessment report by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), the Stern Review of the economics of climate change, the Bali Action Plan and multiple authoritative studies have all highlighted the critical role that economic instruments, markets, and regulatory tools will play in efforts to address climate change.

Who says 2°C more is 'safe' for us?

“Addressing climate change requires no less than a fundamental transformation in the way in which energy is sourced and used today – a redefinition of what we produce, trade and consume. In a globalized, interdependent world, such an enterprise requires bold and innovative policies and the enabling regulatory frameworks to support them.”

“Indeed, the concern for both climate and trade policy, is how to steer a global and local transition of such magnitude, without compromising development and growth prospects; and in the way, how to manage impacts on competitiveness in an equitable manner. This would require a range of deliberate policies and conducive international institutions to ensure that social primary goods are generated and that natural resource use is conducted in ways that don’t compromise their renewal and ensure the integrity of natural energy and biological functions.”

Laudable and good. The trouble is that the idea of a responsible economy – the current trade-finance-exploitation economy – is as daft as the ideas of “green growth” and “clean coal”. Such labels would be comical if they weren’t being bandied about by all those entities I described in the first paragraph. Lobbying groups, industry associations and banks are turning these – and others such as “fast-track climate financing” – into full-time consulting industries with their own revenue sources. Far away from the victims and the dishoused and the jobless, these groups are driven by the same profit motive that led to the 18th century colonial race for new territories and resources. A bicentennium later, the stage has changed and the threat of climate change has become living fact, but greed and exploitation are ever at the forefront.

Why the surprise over biomass vs biodiversity?

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COP10/COP-MOP5 LogoIf you’re a member of a poor rural household, used to gathering forest debris for burning and creating mulch, how much attention do you pay to the idea of biodiversity anyway? The answer is unsurprising to most people who have worked on questions of rural development – biomass means fuel for cooking stoves, whereas biodiversity is a concept usually found in communities that have a history of preserving indigenous cereals, legumes, leafy greens and fruit.

Yet surprise has been expressed over the finding, as reported by SciDev.net, that “preserving biodiversity may be the goal of conservationists and environmental activists, but preserving biomass is a more important priority for the poor”. SciDev has reported that researchers said the finding “was unexpected”.

I can’t imagine the reason for their surprise. Agriculture extension workers have long known that the idea of food security, which finds its way into the speeches and strategy documents of government bureaucrats, has no place amongst poor cultivators or subsistence farmers. A rural cooperative bank official had once told me: “The farmer wants to know what he can grow which will earn him enough for his family. For him, what you call ‘food security’ has no meaning. He is looking for income.”

In the SciDev.net report, Craig Leisher and Neil Larsen of the US-based Nature Conservancy, have said much the same thing. “People just don’t care about biodiversity,” Leisher told SciDev.Net, and then gave the example of a poor fisherman, for whom the route out of poverty is to catch more fish — not more kinds of fish.

The findings were presented on the same day as a study was published in Science magazine, showing that the world has failed in its bid to halt the decline in biodiversity by 2010. “If you restore degraded lands, you will increase biomass and restore nature,” Leisher said, adding that the result was a direct impact on poverty reduction. [Use this link, via SciDev.net, to download the paper.]

Jayant Sarnaik — deputy director of the Applied Environmental Research Foundation, India, said that a problem dogging studies of biodiversity and poverty is that the former is defined in various ways. “The biggest financial institutes like the World Bank … say that biodiversity is non-renewable biomass. So how can we expect that communities will not [use up resources]? They need biomass for a number of reasons.”

“We are always trying to understand things from our perspective, we are not trying to look at how [local communities] perceive biodiversity,” said Sarnaik, and he is spot on. An academic understanding of biodiversity and the need to nurture it – however necessary and laudable, however uncontentious – can be and usually is quite different from the poor household’s view of a biome’s net primary production.

I have written about the woodfuel economy here. There’s another account of rural fuel needs here.

Written by makanaka

December 2, 2010 at 13:20

Exposé of false carbon accounting for biofuels

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Cover of a brochure on a 'biorefinery' project in Sweden

Cover of a brochure on a 'biorefinery' project in Sweden

False carbon accounting for biofuels that ignores emissions in landuse change is a major driver of global natural habitat destruction, incurring carbon debts that take decades and centuries to repay; at the same time, the emissions of nitrous oxide from fertilizer use has been greatly underestimated, says a damning new briefing from the Institute of Science in Society (I-SIS), Britain.

A team of thirteen scientists led by Timothy Searchinger at Princeton University, New Jersey, in the United States, pointed to a “far-reaching” flaw in carbon emissions accounting for biofuels in the Kyoto Protocol and in climate legislation. It leaves out CO2 emission from tailpipes and smokestacks when bioenergy is used, and most seriously of all, it does not count emissions from land use change when biomass is grown and harvested, says the I-SIS briefing.

“The team maintained that bioenergy reduces greenhouse emission only if the growth and harvesting of the biomass for energy captures carbon above and beyond what would be sequestered anyway, and offsets the emissions from energy use. This additional carbon may result from land management changes that increase plant uptake or from the use of biomass that would otherwise decompose rapidly.”

Graph from World Energy Outlook 2010 titled 'Ranges of well-to-wheels emission savings relative to gasoline and diesel'.

Graph from World Energy Outlook 2010 titled 'Ranges of well-to-wheels emission savings relative to gasoline and diesel'.

“The worst case is when the bioenergy crops displace forest or grassland, the carbon released from soils and vegetation, plus lost future sequestration generate huge carbon debts against the carbon the crops absorb, which could take decades and hundreds of years to repay.”

The work of Searchinger, referred to by I-SIS, has been mentioned in connection with this false accounting as long as a year ago. For instance, the Industrial Biotechnology and Climate Change blog had noted in 2009 November:

The Science Insider blog last week hosted an interesting debate between Tim Searchinger, Princeton visiting scholar, and John Sheehan, of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, regarding the recent policy proposal in the pages of Science by Searchinger et al. to ‘fix’ the carbon accounting of biomass for bioenergy and biofuels in U.S. legislation and the successor to the Kyoto protocol, by giving credit only to biomass that can be managed in such a way as to sequester additional atmospheric carbon in the soil. As Searchinger puts it in the recent debate, “bioenergy only reduces greenhouse gases if it results from additional plant growth or in some other way uses carbon that would not otherwise be stored.”

Cover of the World Energy Outlook 2010 report, International Energy Agency

Cover of the World Energy Outlook 2010 report, International Energy Agency

Also pertinent is a short section on biofuels and emissions in the World Energy Outlook 2010, which has recently been released by the International Energy Agency. “Biofuels are derived from renewable biomass feedstocks, but biofuels are not emission-free on a life-cycle basis,” says WEO2010. There is keen debate about the level of emissions savings that can be attributed to the use of biofuels and, more generally, to biomass. Greenhouse-gas emissions can occur at any step of the biofuels supply chain. Besides emissions at the combustion stage, greenhouse-gas emissions arise from fossil-energy use in the construction and operation of the biofuels conversion plant. In addition, the cultivation of biomass requires fertilisers, the use of machinery and irrigation, all of which also generate emissions.”

The short section is part of Chapter 12 – titled ‘Outlook for Renewable Energy’ – of the massive tome, and the section on Biofuels emissions is found in pages 372-374. As the WEO must perforce sound upbeat about all forms and sources of energy, it ventures, “If appropriate feedstocks and process conditions are chosen, biofuels can offer significant net greenhouse-gas emissions savings over conventional fossil fuels”. That’s a big “if” there.

“This is particularly the case with sugar cane ethanol, as much less energy is required to convert the biomass to ethanol.” In a laboratory perhaps, but as there are as many ways of converting sugarcane as there are types of cane, it would be difficult to say, wouldn’t it?  “But variations are large and calculating average emissions savings is complex.” So they are, so it is.

After such kerfuffle, the WEO2010 does get down to brass tacks: “Using land for biofuels production that was previously covered with carbon-rich forest or where the soil carbon content is high can release considerable amounts of greenhouse gases, and even lead to a ‘carbon debt’. In the worst cases, this debt could take hundreds or even thousands of years to recover via the savings in emissions by substituting biofuels for fossil fuels.”

And there you have it, in black and white, from the venerable International Energy Agency itself.

Seasonal pollution changes over India

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Data from the Multi-angle Imaging Spectroradiometer (MISR) instrument on NASA’s Terra spacecraft have been used in a new study that examines the concentration, distribution and composition of aerosol pollution over the Indian subcontinent. The study documents the region’s very high levels of natural and human-produced pollutants, and uncovered surprising seasonal shifts in the source of the pollution.

Larry Di Girolamo and postdoctoral scientist Sagnik Dey of the University of Illinois, used a decade’s worth of MISR data to comprehensively analyse aerosol pollution over the Indian subcontinent. This densely populated region has poor air quality and lacks on-the-ground pollution monitoring sites. The study was published recently in the Journal of Geophysical Research.

The NASA report said that aerosols — tiny particles suspended in the air — are produced both by natural sources, such as dust and pollen carried on the wind, and by human activities, such as soot and other hydrocarbons released from the burning of fossil fuels. They can affect the environment and human health, causing a range of respiratory problems. Aerosol pollution levels can be measured on the ground, but only the most developed countries have widespread sensor data.

Since standard satellite imaging cannot measure aerosols over land, Di Girolamo and Dey used NASA’s MISR, developed and managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. MISR’s unique multi-view design allows researchers to differentiate surface variability from the atmosphere so they can observe and quantitatively measure particles in the air. MISR not only measures the amount of aerosols, but can also distinguish between natural and human-produced particles.

The scientists found very high levels of both natural and human-produced aerosol pollutants. The level of atmospheric pollution across most of the country was two to five times higher than World Health Organization guidelines.

But the study also revealed some surprising trends. For example, the researchers noticed consistent seasonal shifts in human-produced versus natural aerosols. Before monsoon season begins, the winds over the Indian subcontinent shift, blowing inland instead of out to sea. These winds carry immense amounts of dust from Africa and the Arabian Peninsula to India, degrading air quality.

“Just before the rains come, the air gets really polluted, and for a long time everyone blamed the dust,” Di Girolamo said, “but MISR has shown that not only is there an influx of dust, there’s also a massive buildup of man-made pollutants that’s hidden within the dust.”

During monsoon season, rains wash some of the dust and soot from the air, but other human-produced pollutants continue to build up. After monsoon season, dust transport is reduced, but human-produced pollutant levels skyrocket, as biomass burning and the use of diesel-fueled transportation soar. During winter, seaward-blowing breezes disperse all the pollutants across the subcontinent and out to sea, where they remain until the pre-monsoon winds blow again.

“We desperately needed these observations to help validate our atmospheric models,” said Di Girolamo. “We’re finding that in a complex area like India, we have a long way to go. But these observations help give us some guidance.”

As MISR continues to collect worldwide aerosol data, Di Girolamo says atmospheric scientists will continue to refine models for India and other areas and begin to propose new regulatory measures. The MISR data may also reveal trends in aerosol concentration over time, which can be compared with climate and health data.

For further information, read the complete University of Illinois news release.

The images represent MISR data used to measure the concentration of aerosol pollutants over the Indian subcontinent and how it varies by season. The most polluted areas are depicted in red. Image credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Illinois.

A banner year for renewables

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REN21 (the Renewable Energy and Policy Network for the 21st Century) has released its annual publication – the ‘Renewables 2010 Global Status Report’. REN21 is a global policy network that provides a forum for international leadership on renewable energy.

The new report says that 2009 was unprecedented in the history of renewable energy, despite the headwinds posed by the global financial crisis, lower oil prices, and slow progress with climate policy. “Indeed, as other economic sectors declined around the world, existing renewable capacity continued to grow at rates close to those in previous years, including grid-connected solar PV (53%), wind power (32%), solar hot water/heating (21%), geothermal power (4%), and hydropower (3%). Annual production of ethanol and biodiesel increased 10% and 9%, respectively, despite layoffs and ethanol plant closures in the United States and Brazil.”

Many recent trends also reflect the increasing significance of developing countries in advancing renewable energy. Collectively, developing countries have more than half of global renewable power capacity. China now leads in several indicators of market growth. India is fifth worldwide in total existing wind power capacity and is rapidly expanding many forms of rural renewables such as biogas and solar PV. Brazil produces virtually all of the world’s sugar-derived ethanol and has been adding new biomass and wind power plants. Developing countries now make up over half of all countries with policy targets (45 out of 85 countries) and also make up half of all countries with some type of renewable energy promotion policy (42 out of 83 countries).

Key findings: (1) For the second year in a row, in both the United States and Europe, more renewable power capacity was added than conventional power capacity (coal, gas, nuclear). Renewables accounted for 60% of newly installed power capacity in Europe in 2009, and nearly 20% of annual power production; (2) China added 37 GW of renewable power capacity, more than any other country in the world, to reach 226 GW of total renewables capacity. Globally, nearly 80 GW of renewable capacity was added, including 31 GW of hydro and 48 GW of non-hydro capacity; (3) Wind power additions reached a record high of 38 GW. China was the top market, with 13.8 GW added, representing more than one-third of the world market — up from just a 2% market share in 2004. The United States was second, with 10 GW added. The share of wind power generation in several countries reached record highs, including 6.5% in Germany and 14% in Spain.

‘Global Trends in Sustainable Energy Investment 2010 – Analysis of Trends and Issues in the Financing of Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency’ is also a new report by SEFI, the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Sustainable Energy Finance Initiative – a platform providing financiers with the tools, support, and global network needed to conceive and manage investments in the complex and rapidly changing marketplace for clean energy technologies. SEFI’s goal is to foster investment in sustainable energy projects by providing up-to-date investor information, facilitating deal origination, developing partnerships, and creating the momentum needed to shift sustainable energy from the margins of energy supply to the mainstream.

Key findings: (1) New investment in sustainable energy in 2009 was $162 billion, down from a revised $173 billion in 2008. The 7% fall reflected the impact of the recession on investment in Europe and North America in particular, with renewable energy projects and companies finding it harder to access finance; (2) China saw a surge in investment. Out of $119 billion invested worldwide by the financial sector in clean energy companies and utility-scale projects, $33.7 billion took place in China, up 53% on 2008. Financial investment in Europe was down 10% at $43.7 billion, while that in Asia and Oceania, at $40.8 billion, exceeded that in the Americas, at $32.3 billion, for the first time; (3) Research, development and deployment spending by governments and corporations totalled $24.6 billion in 2009, with government R&D up 49% at $9.7 billion and corporate RD&D down 16% at $14.9 billion. The shifts reflected greater willingness by governments to invest in research on sustainable energy technologies – to help generate economic activity – and also caution on the part of some big corporate players at a time when their profits were under pressure.

The SEFI report said that global new investment in sustainable energy reached $162 billion in the year 2009, the second highest figure ever, after 2008’s revised $173 billion. Although the 2009 figure was down by 7%, it was higher than the $157 billion achieved in 2007, at the height of the world economic boom, and it was nearly four times the 2004 total of $46 billion.