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Posts Tagged ‘sustainable development

The ideologies about knowledge

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The few paragraphs that follow are taken from my recent article for the TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute) magazine, Terragreen. Published in the 2016 May issue, the article links what we often call traditional knowledge with the ways in which we understand ecology and the ways in which we are defining ‘sustainable development’.

quotes-blueSustainable development has today become a commonly used term, yet it describes a concept that is still being considered by different kinds of societies, by each in a manner of its choosing. This has happened because while historically how societies grew to be ‘developed’ was a process that took a variety of pathways, today the prescribed pathway to the ‘modern’ scarcely changes from one country to another.

Hence culturally what these societies have considered as being ‘sustainable’ behaviour – each according to its ecological context – is being replaced by a prescribed template in which interpretations are discouraged. Such a regime of prescription has led only to the obscuring of the many different kinds of needs felt by communities that desire a ‘development’ that makes cultural sense, but also of the kinds of knowledge which will allow that ‘development’ to be sustainable.


Click for image pdf (600kb) of article

Some of this knowledge we can readily see. To employ labels whose origin is western, these streams of knowledge and practice are called traditional knowledge, intangible cultural heritage, indigenous wisdom, folk traditions, or indigenous and local knowledge. These labels help serve as gateways to understand both the ideas, ‘development’ and ‘sustainable’. It is well that they do for today, very much more conspicuously than 20 years earlier, there is a concern for declining biodiversity, about the pace and direction of global environmental change, a concern over the unsustainable human impact on the biosphere and the diminishing of community identity.

There is widespread acknowledgement of the urgency of the situation – this is perceived across cultures, geographical scales (that is, from local units such as a village, to national governments), and knowledge systems (and this includes both formal and non-formal ways of recognising these systems). The need for such a new dialogue on the situation is expressed in several global science-policy initiatives, both older and recent, such as the Convention for Biological Diversity (CBD) which is now 22 years old, and the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), whose first authoritative reports became available in 2015.

Development whose sustainability is defined locally and implemented locally means that the ‘investment’, ‘technology’ and ‘innovation’ (terms that have become popular to describe development efforts) comes from the people themselves. Many diverse agencies at this level – civil society, youth groups, vocational networks, small philanthropies – assist such development and provide the capacities needed. This is the level at which the greatest reliance on cultural approaches takes place, endogenously.

In domains such as traditional medicine, forestry, the conservation of biodiversity, the protection of wetlands, it is practitioners of intangible cultural heritage and bearers of traditional knowledge, together with the communities to which they belong, who observe and interpret phenomena at scales much finer than formal scientists are familiar with. Besides, they possess the ability to draw upon considerable temporal depth in their observations. For the scientific world, such observations are invaluable contributions that advance our knowledge about climate change. For the local world, indigenous knowledge and cultural practices are the means with which the effects of climate change are negotiated so that livelihoods are maintained, ritual and cultivation continue, and survival remains meaningful.


IPCC to world: stop and shrink, or perish

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The language is clear and blunt. The message continues to be, as it was in 2013 September, that our societies must change urgently and dramatically. The evidence marshalled is, when compared with the last assessment report of 2007, mountainous and all of it points directly at the continuing neglect of our societies to use less and use wisely.

This Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) comes seven years after the last. It has said that observed impacts of climate change have already affected agriculture, human health, ecosystems on land and in the oceans, water supplies, and livelihoods. These impacts are occurring from the tropics to the poles, from small islands to large continents, and from the wealthiest countries to the poorest.

"There is increasing recognition of the value of social, institutional, and ecosystem-based measures and of the extent of constraints to adaptation". Image: IPCC

“There is increasing recognition of the value of social, institutional, and ecosystem-based measures and of the extent of constraints to adaptation”. Image: IPCC

“Climate change has negatively affected wheat and maize yields for many regions and in the global aggregate. Effects on rice and soybean yield have been smaller in major production regions and globally, with a median change of zero across all available data, which are fewer for soy compared to the other crops. Observed impacts relate mainly to production aspects of food security rather than access or other components of food security. Since AR4, several periods of rapid food and cereal price increases following climate extremes in key producing regions indicate a sensitivity of current markets to climate extremes among other factors.”

The IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) contains contributions from three Working Groups. Working Group I assesses the physical science basis of climate change. Working Group II assesses impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability, while Working Group III assesses the mitigation of climate change. The Synthesis Report draws on the assessments made by all three Working Groups.

The Working Group II AR5 considers the vulnerability and exposure of human and natural systems, the observed impacts and future risks of climate change, and the potential for and limits to adaptation. The chapters of the report assess risks and opportunities for societies, economies, and ecosystems around the world.

Widespread impacts in a changing world. Global patterns of impacts in recent decades attributed to climate change, based on studies since the AR4 (in 2007). Impacts are shown at a range of geographic scales. Symbols indicate categories of attributed impacts, the relative contribution of climate change (major or minor) to the observed impact, and confidence in attribution. Graphic: IPCC

Widespread impacts in a changing world. Global patterns of impacts in recent decades attributed to climate change, based on studies since the AR4 (in 2007). Impacts are shown at a range of geographic scales. Symbols indicate categories of attributed impacts, the relative contribution of climate change (major or minor) to the observed impact, and confidence in attribution. Graphic: IPCC

“Differences in vulnerability and exposure arise from non-climatic factors and from multidimensional inequalities often produced by uneven development processes. These differences shape differential risks from climate change. People who are socially, economically, culturally, politically, institutionally, or otherwise marginalised are especially vulnerable to climate change and also to some adaptation and mitigation responses. This heightened vulnerability is rarely due to a single cause. Rather, it is the product of intersecting social processes that result in inequalities in socioeconomic status and income, as well as in exposure. Such social processes include, for example, discrimination on the basis of gender, class, ethnicity, age, and (dis)ability.”

"Risk of food insecurity and the breakdown of food systems linked to warming, drought, flooding, and precipitation variability and extremes, particularly for poorer populations in urban and rural settings." Chart: IPCC

“Risk of food insecurity and the breakdown of food systems linked to warming, drought, flooding, and precipitation variability and extremes, particularly for poorer populations in urban and rural settings.” Chart: IPCC

The Working Group 2 report has said that impacts from recent climate-related extremes (such as heat waves, droughts, floods, cyclones, and wildfires) reveal significant vulnerability and exposure of some ecosystems and many human systems to current climate variability. The impacts of such climate-related extremes include alteration of ecosystems, disruption of food production and water supply, damage to infrastructure and settlements, morbidity and mortality, and consequences for mental health and human well-being. The WG2 has starkly said that for countries at all levels of development, these impacts are consistent with a significant lack of preparedness for current climate variability in some sectors.

“Climate-related hazards exacerbate other stressors, often with negative outcomes for livelihoods, especially for people living in poverty. Climate-related hazards affect poor people’s lives directly through impacts on livelihoods, reductions in crop yields, or destruction of homes and indirectly through, for example, increased food prices and food insecurity. Observed positive effects for poor and marginalised people, which are limited and often indirect, include examples such as diversification of social networks and of agricultural practices.”

Here is how the Working Group II report, and it’s a hefty one indeed, has been organised.

"With increasing warming, some physical systems or ecosystems may be at risk of abrupt and irreversible changes." Chart: IPCC

“With increasing warming, some physical systems or ecosystems may be at risk of abrupt and irreversible changes.” Chart: IPCC

Volume 1 is called ‘Global And Sectoral Aspects’. Its sections and chapters are: Context for the AR5 (01-Point of departure, 02-Foundations for decision making), Natural and Managed Resources and Systems, and Their Uses (03-Freshwater resources, 04-Terrestrial and inland water systems, 05-Coastal systems and low-lying areas, 06-Ocean systems, 07-Food security and food production systems), Human Settlements, Industry, and Infrastructure (08-Urban Areas, 09-Rural Areas, 10-Key economic sectors and services), Human Health, Well-Being, and Security (11-Human health: impacts, adaptation, and co-benefits, 12-Human security, 13-Livelihoods and poverty), Adaptation (14-Adaptation needs and options, 15-Adaptation planning and implementation, 16-Adaptation opportunities, constraints, and limits, 17-Economics of adaptation), Multi-Sector Impacts, Risks, Vulnerabilities, and Opportunities (18-Detection and attribution of observed impacts, 19-Emergent risks and key vulnerabilities, 20-Climate-resilient pathways: adaptation, mitigation, and sustainable development).

Volume 2 is called ‘Regional Aspects’. Its chapters are: 21-Regional context, 22-Africa, 23-Europe, 24-Asia, 25-Australasia, 26-North America, 27-Central and South America, 28-Polar Regions, 29-Small Islands, 30-The Ocean. There is also ‘Summary Products’ which contains: a Technical Summary and WGII AR5 Volume-wide Frequently Asked Questions. There is ‘Cross-Chapter Resources’ which contains: a Glossary, WGII AR5 Chapter-specific FAQs, Cross-chapter box compendium. Finally there is ‘Edits to the Final Draft Report’ which contains: Changes to the Underlying Scientific/Technical Assessment, List of Substantive Edits.

The fifth tolling of the IPCC bell

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The first release of the IPCC's AR5.

The first release of the IPCC’s AR5.

The Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will begin to be released this week. Between 2013 September and 2014 November, what is now widely referred to as the ‘AR5’ (the fifth assessment report) will be released in stages as the three working groups present their completed work and finally when the overall synthesis report is delivered. AR5 will be the most comprehensive assessment of scientific knowledge on climate change since 2007 when Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) was released.

From around early August, the popular media has begun – in a typically lethargic and lazy manner, choosing to look for controversy rather than the very clear IPCC warnings – to report on the series of releases that will be AR5. But despite the strenuous efforts of the oil and gas industry PR firms, of the automobile industry lobbyists, of the carpetbaggers for the financiers and the banks that have propped up for decades the whole damned mess, even so, the messages have come out and together they are stark and strong.

IPCC_WG1_processExtreme weather events, including heatwaves and storms, have increased in many regions while ice sheets are dwindling at an alarming rate. In addition, sea levels are rising while the oceans are being acidified. From climate change experts to spokespersons of small island states, governments have been told bluntly to end their dithering about fossil fuels and start working to create a global low-carbon economy to curtail global warming.

What it all coalesces into we will begin to see this week. Consult the handy factsheet for WG I that explains how much drafting and reviewing the first release has emerged from. And here is the time-table for the AR5:

The contents of the Working Group I report in 14 packed chapters.

The contents of the Working Group I report in 14 packed chapters.

Working Group I assesses the physical science basis of the climate system and natural and anthropogenic climate change (release 2013 September 23-27 in Stockholm, Sweden). [You will find all material for this release at the website devoted to this group’s work.]
Working Group II assesses the vulnerability of socio-economic and natural systems to climate change, negative and positive impacts of climate change, and options for adapting to it (release 2014 March 25-31 in Yokohama, Japan).
Working Group III assesses options for mitigating climate change through limiting or preventing greenhouse gas emissions and enhancing activities that remove them from the atmosphere (release 2014 April 07-12 in Berlin, Germany).
The Synthesis Report will integrate material contained within IPCC Assessment Reports and Special Reports, based exclusively on material contained in the three Working Group Reports and Special Reports produced during the 5th or previous Assessment Cycles, and will be written in a non-technical style suitable for policymakers and address a broad range of question relevant to policy (release 2014 October 27-31 in Copenhagen, Denmark).

[You’ll find more on the websites of the IPCC’s three working groups – Working Group I: The Science of Climate Change; Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability; Working Group III: Mitigation of Climate Change – and the Task Force on Greenhouse Gas Inventories. See the chapter contents of the World Group I report here.]

IPCC_AR5_technical_summary_imageThese details have been missed by the press, some of whom are still spreading the canard that climate change science is beset by uncertainty (it is not, dear biased editor of the Los Angeles Times), or that the IPCC will try “to explain a hiatus in the pace of global warming this century” (look at the charts and read the graphs, Reuters), or that a “global warming pause is central to IPCC climate report” (tell me, BBC, where is the real centre of 14 dense chapters?), or that “the findings muddy the picture about how much carbon dioxide output is affecting the climate” (why, Bloomberg Businessweek, is the truth of climate data so difficult to digest for a news group used to copious amounts of finance data?).

IPCC-AR5-WG1-reviewBeyond and above the efforts of the mainstream press and media to play down the stark and clear warning that demands immediate action, the AR5 will place greater emphasis on assessing the socio-economic aspects of climate change and its implications for sustainable development. New features to look for in the AR5 will include: a new set of scenarios for analysis across Working Group contributions; dedicated chapters on sea level change, carbon cycle and climate phenomena such as monsoon and El Niño; much greater regional detail on climate change impacts, adaptation and mitigation interactions; inter- and intra-regional impacts; and a multi-sector synthesis.

India’s mantra of ‘inclusion’

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Vendor of alamancs (kaal-nirnay and panchangs), Maharashtra

Vendor of alamancs (kaal-nirnay and panchangs), Maharashtra

The Holi and Id-e-Milad breaks coming right after the presentation of Union Budget 2010-11 have been welcome, for they allow an unhurried look at what the Government of India is saying versus what it indicates it will do. This Budget’s two key documents – the Budget proposals for 2010-11 and the Economic Survey 2009-10 – contain a term which was entirely absent from government-speak only three years ago. That term is “inclusive”. The central and state governments are now using the words “inclusive” and “inclusion” to talk about almost everything: inclusive growth, financial inclusion and inclusive development. It has gained, in India of today, the same sort of currency that “sustainable development” did worldwide about a decade ago. What on earth does it mean for the sarkar?

“For the UPA Government, inclusive development is an act of faith. In the last five years, our Government has created entitlements backed by legal guarantees for an individual’s right to information and her right to work. This has been followed-up with the enactment of the right to education in 2009-10. As the next step, we are now ready with the draft Food Security Bill which will be placed in the public domain very soon. To fulfil these commitments the spending on social sector has been gradually increased to Rs 137,674 crore which now stands at 37% of the total plan outlay in 2010-11. Another 25% of the plan allocations are devoted to the development of rural infrastructure. With growth and the opportunities that it generates, we hope to further strengthen the process of inclusive development.”

Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee

Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, caricatured by 'Mint', the financial daily newspaper

So said Pranab Mukherjee, Minister of Finance, in his Budget speech on 26 February 2010.

“A nation interested in inclusive growth views the same growth differently depending on whether the gains of the growth are heaped primarily on a small segment or shared widely by the population. The latter is cause for celebration but not the former. In other words, growth must not be treated as an end in itself but as an instrument for spreading prosperity to all. India’s own past experience and the experience of other nations suggests that growth is necessary for eradicating poverty but it is not a sufficient condition. In other words, policies for promoting growth need to be complemented with policies to ensure that more and more people join in the growth process and, further, that there are mechanisms in place to redistribute some of the gains to those who are unable to partake in the market process and, hence, get left behind.”

This is from Chapter 2 of the Economic Survey 2009-10, titled ‘Micro-foundations of Inclusive Growth’. Notice that the word “growth” has become a corollary to “inclusive”/”inclusion”. This is a serious problem, but not one that seems to concern the sarkar. Growth (most broadly, of GDP, which is a deviant, outmoded concept) and inclusion are utterly different ideas. The problems of “growth” can easily be illustrated by this paragraph:

“Price movements during fiscal 2009/10, as reflected in both the WPI [wholesale price index] and the CPI [consumer price index], have been characterised by very high rates of inflation in primary food articles and manufactured food products. The WPI rate of inflation for primary food articles crossed 20% in November 2009 and even at the end of January 2010 was close to 18%. Other than food products, the prices of other primary and manufactured goods have generally not increased by much.

A woman perched on the side bar of an autorickshaw, Surat district, Gujarat

A woman perched on the side bar of an autorickshaw, Surat district, Gujarat

Within the primary food articles basket, the goods that have exhibited the highest rate of inflation are foodgrains – pulses, wheat and rice, in decreasing order of magnitude. Within the manufactured food products segment, sugar products (sugar, khandsari and gur) have increased the most with annual inflation of over 51%. Another factor, which considerably blunted the impact of foodgrain releases by the government, was the overload on the PDS. There is a clear imperative to develop a distribution channel by the State governments, to supplement the PDS, so as to enable faster distribution of the additional releases made by the central government.”

From ‘Concluding Coments’, ‘Management of Prices’ in Review of the Economy 2009/10, by the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister. That is what “growth” does to prices, and prices that move the way food prices have in India for the last three years utterly wreck “inclusion”. I find it worrying that the Economic Advisory Council is talking about a parallel distribution channel to supplement the PDS, when (1) any number of independent studies have pointed out that the PDS has been handicapped in fact by exclusionary policy and (2) when state governments are quite likely to use public-private partnership methods to set up alternative distribution channels, which heap more misery on the rural and urban poor.

"Pade likhe bane minister, Chale naukri paane ko, Dhakke khaakar bane driver, Mila truck chalaane ko"

"Pade likhe bane minister, Chale naukri paane ko, Dhakke khaakar bane driver, Mila truck chalaane ko"

How contradictory the government’s “inclusive” claims are versus its intentions as contained in its other Budget measures can be seen in the Budget highlights, in which the Ministry of Finance summarises the major provisions.

“Rs 200 crore provided for sustaining the gains already made in the green revolution areas through conservation farming, which involves concurrent attention to soil health, water conservation and preservation of biodiversity.”

The contradictions in this point are ludicrous in the extreme. The Green Revolution methods ignore entirely conservation farming, soil health, water conservation and preservation of biodiversity. These four points are achieved by orgnic and biodynamic methods, for which state support is either neglible or not there at all. The Budget highlights add:

“Reduction in wastage of produce:
* Government to address the issue of opening up of retail trade. It will help in bringing down the considerable difference between farm gate, wholesale and retail prices.
* Deficit in the storage capacity met through an ongoing scheme for private sector participation – FCI to hire godowns from private parties for a guaranteed period of 7 years.
Credit support to farmers – Banks have been consistently meeting the targets set for agriculture credit flow in the past few years. For the year 2010-11, the target has been set at Rs 375,000 crore.”

Retail trade has so far done exactly the opposite of what is claimed here, while more storage capacity will directly benefit the flourishing agricultural commodity futures traders and brokers. Increased credit support is visible only in bank statements whereas small and marginal farmers (who together account for 81.9% of operational agricultural land holdings) are left out. Several estimates made in the last three years (a World Bank study amongst them) show that 87% of marginal and 70% of small farmers are not getting credit through institutions. In fact, 51% of all farmers, big and small, get no banking services, let alone credit. If 2009-10 was the year in which “inclusion” became popular with Bharat sarkar, 2010-11 needs to be the year in which its “inclusive” claims are either backed up by credible action or thrown out.

Climate finance, the new fiscal frontier

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I’ve extracted two paras from a comment article published by Energy Bulletin, authored by me:

New frontiers in climate finance

"The audience comprises investment banks, corporate and oligopolistic investors, and major compliance buyers all of whom will focus on how they can profit today from an increasingly diverse range of carbon-related investment opportunities which are being designed to enter the markets from 2010"

The numbers being prepared for discussion in København are staggering by any measure, at least to those who struggle to find money for social programmes, city infrastructure needs and social sector essentials like health and education. For those accustomed to constructing enormous virtual edifices of dizzying interlinks, this is finance redux with a new set of fundamentals that are defined by the science of climate change and by the growing list of acceptable technologies used to provide adaptation and mitigation methods.


The point here, after half a decade of carbon trading and emissions and climate exchanges, is whether in fact the principles of sustainable development, social justice, equity to all – and especially – respect to and protection for the poorest and most vulnerable has been helped by the CDM and its constellation of allied activities. The short answer is ‘no’, and because that is the short answer, the future of any successor system – many will be unveiled at the København summit – is equally bleak in the terms that genuinely concern us. The evidence of failure on a global scale is in fact all around us.

There’s more to be read here