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Holding our breath in India’s cities

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India's cities and PM2.5 - the official response has been to reject the WHO findings

India’s cities and PM2.5 – the official response has been to reject the WHO findings

The findings by the World Health Organisation on the quality of air in India’s cities are the strongest signal yet to our government (old and new, for the results of the 2014 general election will become known on 16 May) that economic ‘growth’ is a weapon that kills citizens through respiratory tract diseases and infections.

Amongst the 124 Indian cities in the new WHO database on urban air quality worldwide, one city only is at the WHO guideline for PM2.5 and one city only is just above the guidelines for PM10. As a bloc, the quality of air in India’s cities are at alarmingly high levels above the guidelines, above Asian averages (poor as they are, and even considering China’s recklessly poor record) and above world averages.

This is not a singular matter. Already, the WHO has warned that India has a high environmental disease burden, with a significant number of deaths annually associated with environmental risk factors. The Global Burden of Disease for 2010 ranked ambient air pollution as the fifth largest killer in India, three places behind household air pollution. Taken cumulatively, household and ambient air pollution constitute the single greatest risk factor that cause ill health -leading to preventable deaths – in India.

The WHO database contains results of ambient (outdoor) air pollution monitoring. Air quality is represented by ‘annual mean concentration’ (a yearly average) of fine particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5, which means particles smaller than 10 or 2.5 microns). The WHO guideline values are: for PM2.5 – 10 micrograms/m3 annual mean; for PM10 – 20 micrograms/m3 annual mean. The two charts show just how dangerously above the WHO guidelines the air quality of our cities are.

India's cities and PM10 - it is the latest amongst many signs that India's GDP growth fever is a killer.

India’s cities and PM10 – it is the latest amongst many signs that India’s GDP growth fever is a killer.

Half of India’s urban population lives in cities where particulate pollution levels exceed the standards considered safe. A third of this population breathes air having critical levels of particulate pollution, which is considered to be extremely harmful. “We are also running out of ‘clean’ places. Small and big cities are now joined in the pain of pollution,” commented Down To Earth, the environment magazine.

Typically, the official Indian response was to question the WHO findings (these were carried out in the same way in 91 countries, and we don’t hear the other 90 complaining) and to reject them. The reason is easy to spot. Global offender Number One for air pollution amongst world cities is New Delhi, a city that has been pampered as the showcase for what the Congress government myopically calls “the India growth story”.

Hence government scientists are reported to have quickly said that WHO overestimated air pollution levels in New Delhi. “Delhi is not the dirtiest… certainly it is not that dangerous as projected,” said A B Akolkar, a member secretary of the Central Pollution Control Board.

The same recidivist line was parroted by Gufran Beig, chief project scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (which otherwise does good work on the monsoon and on climate change). He is reported as having said that New Delhi’s air quality was better than Beijing’s, and that pollution levels in winter are relatively higher in New Delhi because of extreme weather events. Beig said: “The value which has been given in this (WHO) report is overestimating (pollution levels) for Delhi … the reality is that the yearly average is around 110 (micrograms).”

The WHO database has captured measurements from monitoring stations located in urban background, residential, commercial and mixed areas. The world’s average PM10 levels by region range from 26 to 208 micrograms/m3, with a world average of 71 micrograms/m3.

PM affects more people than any other pollutant. The major components of PM are sulfate, nitrates, ammonia, sodium chloride, black carbon, mineral dust and water. It consists of a complex mixture of solid and liquid particles of organic and inorganic substances suspended in the air. The most health-damaging particles are those with a diameter of 10 microns or less, which can penetrate and lodge deep inside the lungs. Chronic exposure to particles contributes to the risk of developing cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, as well as of lung cancer.

Central and state governments show no inclination to join the obvious dots. These are, that with more fuels being burned to satisfy the electricity and transport needs of a middle class now addicted to irresponsible consumption, the ‘India growth story’ is what we are choking to death on.

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.