Monday, 30 November 2009


Six years ago, research results were published in the journal Nature which concluded that during the previous fifty years, ninety percent of all large fish in the world's oceans had disappeared. There are many threats to the oceans today, including pollution and global warming, but perhaps the most immediate threat, and the primary cause of this massive collapse in global fish stocks, is overfishing and the use of harmful fishing methods.

Since 1950, world population has more than doubled from roughly 2.5 billion people to now close to 7 billion. The demand for seafood has risen dramatically since then, and the number of people fishing commercially rose for several decades. Additionally the use of large scale industrial fishing methods expanded and intensified during this period. In the past 20 years, however, fish catches peaked in many parts of the world, with a collapse usually following soon afterwards. In Newfoundland, for example, the cod fishery completely collapsed in the early nineties. The Canadian government was forced to close the fishery and roughly 40,000 people lost their jobs.

Ironically, one of the main reasons governments have been hesitant to restrict catches or lower quotas in the past, at the recommendation of experts and scientists, has been a concern about the loss of jobs. Yet, by not taking action, even more jobs have been lost with the complete disappearance of this traditional way of life in many places. Along with the loss of jobs has been the destruction of many important sources of food. Fish stocks in many locations may take decades to recover, while others may be gone forever.

To make matters worse, when a fishery begins to collapse and catches drop sharply, rather than immediately reducing or stopping fishing, the reaction of many governments is to increase subsidies, without which commercial fishing would no longer be economically viable. This means that normal market feedback which would tend to discourage fishing in areas of dropping productivity is overridden. Subsidies allow for continued fishing, pushing a fishery further past the breaking point, at taxpayer expense. Clearly this is both economically and ecologically destructive.

As demand for seafood increases and stocks decline, many intensive fishing methods are being used to try to increase catches. One method is bottom trawling, which involves the use of large nets being dragged across the sea floor. The problem with this method is that many non-catch creatures are caught in these nets, which end up being killed and dumped back into the ocean. The disturbance of the sea floor stirs up sediment, which can kill coral and otherwise damage local ecosystems. A relatively small number of the target fish are caught compared to the damage caused to other species.

Trawling at higher depths also causes similar problems for non-catch species. Additionally, the nets kill large numbers of marine mammals such as dolphins and porpoises. One report estimates that 1000 marine mammals are killed every day by fishing nets. Because of declining fish stocks in many areas, fishing vessels often need to travel much further distances in order to catch sufficient fish. This means a lot more fuel needs to be burned, which contributes to global warming.

One way to help solve the problem is to declare some parts of the ocean to be protected and off limits to fishing, pollution, mining or other damaging activity. This is similar to how national parks and reserves are created on land. Currently about 12 percent of the Earth's surface is protected in this way. Some marine sanctuaries are being created, but at a very slow pace. Currently, less than one percent of the world's oceans are protected.

Overfishing is one of the largest problems affecting the oceans today. It is threatening the viability of many marine ecosystems, and eliminating large food supplies. Many species may never recover and could become extinct. Additionally, overfishing destroys jobs, costs taxpayers money and has significant impacts on local economies. This short sighted and self destructive behaviour clearly needs to end. Immediate action is needed to curtail overfishing, ban harmful fishing methods, and increase areas of the ocean under protection.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Impacts on India

The impacts of global warming, which is primarily caused by the carbon emissions from rich nations over the past hundred years, will be most strongly felt by the poorest countries, which have the least ability to deal with the consequences. One of these countries is India, with a population of just over a billion people. The threat from climate change for the people of this country is very serious, but this is not just a concern for the future. India is already feeling the effects of climate change in many areas.

Rising sea levels are one of the biggest threats. The Sundarbans is the largest Mangrove forest in the world and is located in the south of India and Bangladesh. This is a delta region at the foot of the Ganges, and is famous as the home of the endangered Bengal Tiger. The BBC reported almost three years ago that rising water levels have already caused some islands to vanish from the map. This has resulted in thousands of people having to be relocated. As climate change advances, it has been predicted that the entire delta region will be submerged. This will result in the dislocation of many millions more, as well as the complete destruction of this unique ecosystem and the extinction of many species found nowhere else.

The Tibetan Plateau contains many glaciers which are the ultimate source of fresh water for much of Asia, especially India and Bangladesh. The vital Ganges is fed from this plateau. The glaciers are melting so fast they could be completely gone in as little as 25 years according to the IPCC. Millions have already been affected in Bangladesh leading to a mass migration to northern India, straining resources, and causing ethnic conflict. Once this supply of water is gone, tens or even hundreds of millions of people could be affected. Vast areas of cropland depend on this water, and without it a great deal of food production will no longer be possible. Many people will no longer have access to drinking water or food, leading to mass migration and starvation.

India also gets much of its food from the ocean. Yet much of the ocean is dying. Ninety percent of large fish have already disappeared. The primary cause here is overfishing, not global warming, though global warming is making things worse. Vast "dead zones" have been created and acidity levels are rising. This is causing the death of coral reefs, which are home large and diverse ecosystems that cannot survive without the coral. As acidification increases and ocean temperatures rise, the death of coral is expected to continue. The result of all of this will be a great reduction of food sources from the Ocean, putting even more stress on India.

Of course, all of these changes will also have a major impact on the Indian economy. One Indian study has suggested that crop yields could fall as much as 40 percent, and that the partial submergence of Mumbai alone could result in a loss of $48 billion dollars. The economic impact of this and other changes caused by global warming could mean a reduction in GDP by 9 percent. This is based on the 2007 IPCC report, however, which is already outdated and new data points to the impacts of global warming happening much faster than predicted in that report. It seems clear that as the effects get worse, the prospect for economic growth will disappear and the focus will likely switch to reducing the rate of contraction.

India is one of the countries that will be worse affected by global warming, and general environmental pollution and destruction. The loss of fresh water, cropland, and ocean resources, as well as rising sea levels, will result in the migration and death of millions of people, and a much harder life for those who remain. Some of the poorest people in the world, who generate the lowest carbon emissions, are facing a very bleak future.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Emissions Targets

We are now finally starting to see real numbers in the discussion of carbon emissions reduction targets from large non-EU countries in the lead up to Copenhagen. The US has now publicly announced their proposed targets, after months of downplaying expectations, and shortly after President Obama agreed to attend the opening of the conference. China had been long been unwilling to discuss numbers until after the US did, and they quickly responded to the US announcement with their own specific targets.

In one sense, this is a sort of progress. At least we are now dealing with real numbers that can be negotiated. Also, unlike pronouncements about "significant" reductions and "strong" targets, the official positions can now be objectively analyzed. Unfortunately, this analysis shows that many of these targets are far below the levels scientists say are needed to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.

The EU has for some time pledged to reduce carbon emissions by 20 percent from 1990 levels by 2020, with the potential to increase this to 30 percent if other large emitters (especially the US) also agree to strong targets. The 1990 level is the standard baseline that has been used in negotiations, and it goes back to the Kyoto agreement. It provides a common measuring stick for all nations.

The US has now publicly proposed a reduction of 17 percent, but only from 2005 levels, by 2020. Apparently they are unwilling to use the same 1990 baseline as the rest of the world because it would make clear how weak this target is. This is because if you convert the numbers, this would represent only a 4 percent reduction from 1990 levels. The US is the world's largest emitter, and is historically responsible for a vast amount of the emissions already in the atmosphere, yet they are proposing one of the weakest targets.
China has responded to this by announcing a cut of 40 to 45 percent of emissions per unit of GDP, relative to 2005 levels, by 2020. Developing countries, of course, are generally growing the fastest in carbon emissions, and the goal being sought from these countries is the fastest possible reduction in the rate of the growth, with an eye towards reaching a peak as soon as possible. China has not yet committed to a date when their emissions will peak. They have often hinted that they may be willing to commit to stronger targets, but this is largely dependent on how far the US is willing to go.
China has also called on western countries to cut emissions by 40 percent, compared to 1990 levels, by 2020. This is a much stronger target that many scientists, as well as other third countries, have called for. The African Union has been insisting on this same target for some time, and has threatened to walk out from talks if their demands are not met. They have already declared that the 20-30 percent cuts proposed by the EU are unacceptable, so their response to the US announcement is likely to be sharply critical.
Unfortunately, many countries are working on data from the 2007 IPCC report, which is already outdated. Recent data shows that many effects from climate change are accelerating faster than predicted, meaning that we have less time to act. They are working on a new report, but most negotiators are still working from the old data.
A recent German report says that much stronger targets are needed. The IPCC had previously called for a 25-40 precent reduction (from 1990) by all Western countries by 2020, in order to avoid catastrophic climate change. The new data says the US must reduce emissions by 100 percent by 2020 (i.e., zero carbon) and other industrial nations (EU, Australia, Canada) must do so by 2025-2030. China would have until 2035.
There is, of course, zero possibility that any agreement at Copenhagen would ever commit to these levels of emissions reduction. But Copenhagen is only a starting point. If an agreement is reached there, we will then need to move quickly over the next few years to continually improve the official targets. Because of how far there is to go, however, it is extremely important that we get as strong an agreement as possible at Copenhagen. At the very least we need to get something close to the original IPCC recommendations. It will not be enough, but it will at least put monitoring and enforcement regimes into place, and establish a framework for further negotiations where these targets can be improved.
This may indeed be our last chance to avoid the worst consequences of global warming. If we cannot reach an agreement with at least moderately strong targets, we risk extensive environmental damage and loss of life. In many ways a weak agreement at Copenhagen could even be worse than no agreement, as it would lock countries into targets too small to make a significant difference. This is the time when we need to put as much pressure as possible on our leaders to ensure this doesn't happen.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Cell Phones and Towers

Many people are worried about cell phones, and the towers used to broadcast and receive signals from them. There are many concerns about serious damage they may be causing to the environment and to human health. Unfortunately there is a great deal of misinformation in this area, and many of the concerns are unwarranted. There are some legitimate concerns, but these are often lost among claims with no scientific basis.

A recent issue, which has been promoted by the media, is that cell phones can cause brain cancer or other forms of cancer if they are used too frequently. This a widely held belief today, yet there is no evidence for it. No scientific studies have shown any link between cell phone use and cancer, nor has there been any credible hypothesis proposed that could explain how the technology could cause such effects. One study was done in Denmark over a 13 year period, and showed no increase of cancer of any type in cell phone users.

In the UK, there's a similar belief. In that case, the suggestion is that cell phone towers (which they call masts) are a cause of cancer and other illness, not the phones themselves. The World Health Organization (WHO) after reviewing many scientific studies, concludes that cell phones and towers have not been shown to have any impacts on health. They also make the point that exposure to RF fields (radio waves) is 1000 times higher from cell phones than from the broadcasting towers, obviously because they are closer to the individual.

Of course, the use of cell phones while driving (or operating trains, subways, or airplanes) has been shown to result in more accidents. This is not caused by the phones themselves, obviously, but by human distraction, and many other activities (reading, playing video games, shaving) can also be distracting to drivers and cause more accidents. For this reasons the use of cell phones while driving has been banned in many countries.

Cell towers do have negative environmental effects, however. This isn't limited to just towers used for cell networks, but television, radio and other towers have the same problems. Many studies have shown that communications towers are responsible for the death of millions of birds, including many endangered species. The US Fish and Wildlife Service (PDF) says that as many as 50 million birds are killed annually. Some types of towers, such as those with guy wires and with lights are much more damaging than others, and not surprisingly, taller towers are worse than shorter ones.

The USFWS mentions that communications towers are growing at an exponential rate, so the threat to birds is growing rapidly. They provide several recommendations for reducing this, including removing lights were possible, building free-standing structures that don't require the use of guy wires, and using collocation (putting many towers at the same site). They also suggest environmental assessments be done before construction and that in the case of an area where there is a significant bird population, or that is used by migrating birds, an alternative site should be used instead. They also suggest that old towers no longer in use should be removed as quickly as possible.

Another significant problem with cell phones (and the infrastructure to support them) is that they consume a massive amount of resources and energy. According to one estimate Americans throw out an average of 426,000 cell phones every day. That's over 150 million a year. In the entire world, this number could be close to a billion. This is waste on a scale hard to imagine. Many of these phones contain toxic substances and many of them are shipped to the third world, causing significant environmental damage and pollution which impacts local populations.

We need to ask if this is really the best way to be using our resources while faced with the threat of global warming and environmental destruction. The carbon emissions generated by the continual manufacture of billions of cell phones is enormous. People replace their phones about every 18 months on average. Cell networks are continually being upgraded to provide new services, and faster data rates.

At the very least, we need to consider slowing this down dramatically. We have a working communications infrastructure, and we have billions of working cell phones. There is no need to continually rebuild this every few years. We don't need to take this service away from anyone, but this level of consumption just isn't sustainable. We desperately need to apply the brakes.

Cell phones and towers have not been shown to have any direct health impact on humans. Claims to the contrary are based on pseudo-science and have not been demonstrated by scientific studies. Nevertheless, towers, and the cell phone industry itself, are contributing significantly to global warming and other environment damage, which does impact human health indirectly, and the health of the planet. We must have limits.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Don't Be a Good German

During the second world war, many Germans were not in the Nazi party, and weren't directly involved in the murder of innocents. They mostly supported their government, or remained silent and kept their opinions to themselves. Many of them worked in factories supplying war materiel or worked to provide food for the troops, or simply served as cogs in the machinery of German government and industry. These are those mockingly referred to as the "Good Germans". History has rightly judged them harshly, because apathy and collaboration in the midst of mass murder and genocide on global scale can never be justified.

Today, we have another global threat, not Nazism, but global warming and climate change. The threats of global warming are widespread and may result in the death of millions. This includes massive species extinction, rising sea levels, greater flooding and draught, loss of cropland and the destruction of our oceans. In the longer term, as warming and environmental damage escalates, the lives of billions could be at risk, along with viability of our species or at least our modern civilization.
Many people are now aware of these threats, and have begun to make changes in their lives to reduce their consumption somewhat, to increase their energy efficiency and increase recycling. Unfortunately, even the most optimistic estimates show that personal lifestyle changes can only slow the growth of carbon emissions, not reduce them. Even recycling won't solve the problem because it often involves the use of more energy (and more emissions) and avoids the necessity of massive reduction and reuse.

It is clear that in order to really address global warming, and environmental damage in general, we need to dramatically reduce carbon emissions on an absolute level. This will require large scale changes in many areas, such as our energy infrastructure, our transportation infrastructure, our agricultural methods, our policies and laws, and perhaps even our economic system. We simply cannot have infinite growth on a finite planet. Through whatever means are most effective, we need to essentially scale back in as many areas as possible.

Obviously, while each nation needs to do whatever it can to address this problem, it is important that we have an international treaty to monitor, and enforce, a global reduction in carbon emissions. We did something similar 20 years ago with the Montreal Protocol to reduce CFCs in the atmosphere which were causing ozone depletion. That agreement was successful, and we now need a new one to address global warming, which is the goal of the upcoming conference in Copenhagen.

Despite all the above, however, many in the West, and in the US in particular, are focused only on personal changes in their lives. They are "going green" with the honest belief that this will solve the problem, so long as enough people get on board. Even well known attempts to publicize the seriousness of global warming, such as the documentary An Inconvenient Truth, while clearly and dramatically laying out the problem and the consequences, end with discussions about changing light bulbs or buying a more efficient car. When the media discusses the problem (when not simply denying it is real), they often take a similar approach.

Of course, there are also those who deny global warming or those who simply don't care and wish to continue their overconsumption of products and energy out of a sense of entitlement. These are analogous to the "Bad Germans". They are actively taking part in the destruction of the environment, or actively attempting to stop efforts to deal with the problem, either out of ignorance, or vested interests.

Those who are trying to be green are better than the deniers, just as a German working as a government clerk during WWII was better than a guard at a death camp. But the clerk was still guilty of collaborating with the very government that was running the death camp. Those who are willing to live green, but are unwilling to do anything else, are likewise collaborators in the destruction of our environment. They are Good Germans.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Carrying Capacity

The planet we live on can obviously not support an infinite number of people. There is an upper limit on population size, though this is not a hard limit. It is possible for species to overshoot the carrying capacity of the Earth (or any individual ecosystem) by consuming resources at an unsustainable rate. By drawing down ecological capital, instead living off the returns of that capital, short term growth can be accomplished at the cost of reducing future carrying capacity, with generally disastrous results.
Carrying capacity is defined as follows:
The carrying capacity of a biological species in an environment is the population size of the species that the environment can sustain indefinitely, given the food, habitat, water and other necessities available in the environment.
Like any other species, we are obviously limited by the amount of fresh water and food available to us. Unlike other species, though, we have the capability to modify our environment in ways that can increase or decrease supplies of these necessities. In some cases, we can make changes that will maximize short term supply at the expense of long term supply. Our technology and intelligence give us more flexibility than other species, though we are still subject to physical limits, like any other species, barring expansion beyond our planet.

Because of these differences, some past estimates of human population development have been inaccurate. Paul R. Ehrlich famously predicted a population crash, caused by mass starvation, in the seventies and eighties in his book The Population Bomb, published in 1968. He was unaware of the Green Revolution which was starting to take off during that period and would allow for great increases in agricultural productivity through the use of industrial farming methods and the widespread use of fertilizer.

Unfortunately, however, while the Green Revolution has indeed allowed us to produce much more food, which has also allowed for additional population growth, it is not sustainable. There are three main reasons for this. First of all, we are nearing the point of peak oil. This is the point at which oil production reaches its maximum, then begins to slowly decline in every subsequent year. This doesn't mean we will run out, but that there will be a smaller supply every year than the year before. This means increasing prices and the possibility of supply interruptions. Industrial farming methods and fertilizer are dependant on this oil, but it will not be available forever, at least not at prices that make these methods feasible.

The second reason is that while industrial agriculture produces abundant results in the short term, this is at the cost of depleting the soil over the long term, which can only be avoided using sustainable farming methods. Organic farming methods can produce stable production over the long term, in a sustainable way, but they cannot produce as much food. Nevertheless, the longer we maintain the industrial methods, the more arable land will be lost, and the more the limit of future sustainable food production will be reduced. We are producing more food now, at the expense of our ability to do so in the future.

The third issue is that of global warming. Rapidly rising temperatures, and an increase in both draught and flooding will have a negative impact on crops. Rising sea levels will mean that a great deal of farmland will simply be underwater and no longer available for use. Of course, this will have many other negative effects on food availability beyond agriculture. The increasing rate of species extinction is going to eliminate large sources of food. The damage to our oceans will do the same for supplies of fish, crustaceans and other animals.

History shows us what happens when humans overshoot their carrying capacity. A famous example is that of Easter Island. The island was originally heavily forested and home to a wide variety of species. However, the inhabitants gradually proceeded to deforest the entire island, destroying an ecosystem home to many food sources, and eliminating supplies of wood needed to make boats, meaning that off shore fishing was no longer be possible. This resulted in a population crash from as many as 20,000 people to only around 2,000 when Europeans first visited the island. Things were so bad, they even resorted to cannibalism.

A recent report says that humans have already exceeded the carrying capacity of the planet by 25 percent, and that by 2050, if current trends continue, we would need the resources of two Earths to support ourselves. They also mention that we are on the verge of a large-scale ecological collapse because of species and ecosystem loss. Clearly, if this damage continues, we are unlikely to still be growing by 2050.

Human population has already reached (and surpassed) sustainable levels, given our current level of resource consumption and damage to the environment. It is possible that we could raise the planet's carrying capacity to some degree if there were a massive effort to reduce overconsumption, carbon emissions, pollution and environmental damage. Without such efforts, nature will correct the overshoot herself.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Forest Fire Suppression

Traditionally during the twentieth century, forest fires have been viewed primarily as a negative which humans should always attempt to suppress as fully as possible where the capability exists. That is the strategy we have followed, and unfortunately, in many cases, this has caused more harm than good. Forest fires are a natural occurrence that species and ecosystems have evolved to deal with over millennia. In recent years, scientists and fire fighters have begun to reconsider this approach.

Historically, there has been a wide variety in forest conditions in large regions of boreal and temperate deciduous forest, as found in the western and northern US, Canada and Russia. Over thousands of years, forest fires have happened regularly, in different areas, at different intensities, and at different times. This means that at any given time there are recently burned areas, alongside young forest and old growth forest areas, and everything in between.

In areas of a recent burn, while the trees may be dead, their remains and the lack of shade, provide a very hospitable environment for a different variety of species. Only the outside of the trees, the bark, is burned, inside is fresh wood. Many types of beetles will come from as far as hundreds of kilometres away to eat the unprotected wood and lay their larvae. Birds especially adapted to eat this larvae will also seek out recently burned areas in order to burrow into the dead trees and eat the grubs.

Many plant seeds remain dormant in the ground for years, or even decades, and begin to sprout after a forest fire, taking advantage of the access to sunlight and the rich soil left behind from the fire. Smaller trees that require more sunlight, and are resistant to the beetles, such as spruce or fir, will begin to grow in place of the original trees, such as pines. Eventually the pines will regrow as well, but it will take a long time before they are large and tall enough to dominate, creating an intermediate ecosystem.

This is a natural lifecycle of growth, death and re-growth that creates a patchwork throughout a forest region. This provides several advantages. First, areas of different ages can support dramatically different ecosystems, and are home to different numbers and types of plants, animals and insects. This allows for a large amount of biological diversity. As this patchwork evolves, different species will migrate to different areas, and different plants will sprout or die, in a continual cycle.

Another great advantage to this diversity in forest growth is that it provides natural firebreaks. Any new forest fire is naturally contained by other areas that have recently burned, which it cannot cross. Contrast this to many forests today. In many cases active firefighting over decades or longer has created vast areas of homogeneity. When a fire breaks out in an area like this, it may spread much further and cause much more damage than was historically possible. This is similar to the creation of monocrops in agriculture where vast areas are at risk from a single disease or pest.

Also, because of extensive forest fire suppression, there are fewer habitats for the plants and animals that thrive in recently burned forest areas, or in areas of young forest growth. Without a sufficient number of these areas for animals to migrate to, or for plants to grow in, many species are seeing large reductions in number and may be subject to extinction down the road.

Fortunately many scientists and fire fighters are now pushing for changes in forest fire management. This is important not just for protecting the environment, but also for saving lives and reducing costs. The costs of firefighting have rising dramatically as humans have expanded housing to areas that are greatly at risk of fires. A large percentage of the expense often comes from protecting a small number of homes. This often leads to a higher loss of life by firefighters as well.

Today firefighters are often taking a different approach. They will sometimes allow fires to burn in areas that are unpopulated, though they will still try to limit the size of the area. This will hopefully lead to a greater variety in ecosystems in the future, which could reduce the costs and risk of firefighting. Also, the goal is no longer to protect all homes. A risk and cost assessment is now often done, and in some cases where the risk or cost is too high, people will be evacuated, and the homes allowed to burn. Hopefully this will lead to a realization by local governments that some areas are just too risky to allow for the construction of large expensive houses, and the infrastructure needed to support them.

The lesson here is that forest fires are a natural event that have been part of the ecosystem for thousands, or even millions of years. Not only has life adapted to this, in many cases life depends on a regular cycle of burning and regrowth. We must protect areas where there is a high population density, but in other cases, it makes more sense to allow nature to take its course. In the long term, this will help to naturally limit forest fires, save money and lives, and contribute to a healthier environment with greater biodiversity.

Friday, 13 November 2009

The Tibetan Plateau

The Tibetan Plateau is a large elevated plateau in Asia, most of which is located in China. It has an average elevation of 4.5 kilometres and has a total area of 2.5 million square kilometres (four times the size of Texas), giving rise to the nickname "The roof of the world". It is the third largest frozen store of freshwater in the world, and is the source for 10 major rivers in Asia. Almost half (47 percent) of the world's population depends on rivers that originate here. Unfortunately, according to a 2007 IPCC report, the ice in these glaciers is melting faster than anywhere else in the world.

It is difficult to overstate the important of the glaciers in the Tibetan Plateau. When considering the significance of their status as the third largest store of ice in the world, it is important to remember that the largest store, in Antarctica, provides water for none of the world's population, and the second largest, in Greenland, provides water for only a small number of people. This means that the glaciers in Tibet are the single most important store of ice in the world, in terms of supplying water for human needs.

In the short term, the accelerated melting may provide additional flows of freshwater. However, according to a 2007 report by the IPCC, the glaciers could completely disappear by 2035. This leads to the double impact of flooding in the short term, with some villages having already been washed away, with dwindling supplies leading to shortages in the medium term.

China has the world's largest population, with roughly 1.3 billion people, and has often had difficulty trying to feed its people. Over a quarter of China's land is desert, and the country is suffering from increasing desertification. Currently, about 2500 square kilometres are being converted to desert every year, and the rate has been rapidly increasing over the past decades. This has also led to an increase in dust storms, which prevent travel by blocking roads and railways, and cause significant casualties. Around 50 years ago, these occurred only every eight years or so, but now happen annually.

In addition to desertification, which obviously limits where crops can be grown, many existing rivers in China have become unusable because of pollution, and other rivers have begun to run dry. China has a great need for freshwater, and these problems, along with a growing population, are just making this need more acute. In order to meet their demand, China has been building dams and redirecting water from the Tibetan Plateau, and has plans to increase this activity.

The Ganges, fed from the plateau, is one of the most important sources of water to India and Bangladesh, and is considered a holy river by many Hindus. Shortages of water have already affected millions in Bangladesh, which has led to a mass migration to northeast India. This has led to demographic changes in the area and an increase in ethnic conflict. China is currently planning to divert the Brahmaputra River, as well, which could impact many millions more. This is creating significant political tension between China and India.

Many other countries depend on rivers sourced from the plateau, and are impacted by water diversion, including Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Pakistan, and others. There are already many people in these areas that do not have access to a safe supply of drinking water, or who do not have a sufficient supply for irrigation. Clearly, as water supplies diminish, contention over the remaining supplies will only increase. This has the potential to cause significant political instability in the region, as well as an increase in starvation.
Unfortunately, even if all carbon emissions were eliminated today, many of these problems could not be prevented. The carbon already in the atmosphere means we are committed to a certain level of warming, and a certain amount of melting. However, we still have time to try to reduce the impact and scope of the problem as much as possible. This another reason why a very strong agreement is needed at Copenhagen. The fact that it is too late to fix all the problems caused by global warming is not a reason to give up, but, if anything, it is a warning of how much worse it could get if we fail to prevent global warming from accelerating even more.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Low Hanging Fruit

Everyone knows that preventing climate change, or at least the worst consequences of it, is not going to be easy. This is going to be a big challenge for the world and for every single country in it. Many scientists now think we are at, or very close to, the point of no return. Copenhagen is now less than a month away, and expectations are being lowered by our leaders, even as the pressure on them is increasing. While the task required is large and difficult, there are some simple, quick, and easy fixes that can make a real difference, and perhaps even buy us more time. But they are being ignored.
In the long term, we are going to have to change our infrastructure in order to be able to live sustainably and permanently keep emissions down. This will involve changes to transportation, agriculture, energy use and distribution, and consumption. For example, we need sustainable farming methods in order to avoid depleting soil so we can continue to grow as much food as we need in the future. We also need to increase rail use for cargo and passengers, and decrease the use of cars and trucks. These are necessary, but they can't be done overnight.

In the short term, though, we do have some options. One of the most obvious is to eliminate the manufacture and use of plastic water bottles. This is a massively wasteful product, both in terms of resources and energy, and is completely unnecessary. Just over a decade ago, most people didn't even buy these products, so eliminating them would have little effect on people's lives. Some towns and cities have already banned these products, and we must do the same at the national and international level. This should be a no brainer.

A second easy option is to ban junk mail. This is a "product" the majority of people don't even want, and it is also extremely wasteful. Junk mail uses up about 100 million trees every year in the US alone. This involves the use of a lot of energy both for making the junk mail, and delivering it to every residence across the country. This is the type of useless production and waste we simply cannot afford, and eliminating it is another obvious choice for reducing carbon emissions.

Housing is another area where we can make some big gains. Even though we are building new green houses, these are much larger than the average home from fifty years ago, and have an average of fewer people living in them. This means the efficiency savings are entirely offset by the larger sizes and greater use of resources by fewer people. In the short term, we need to stop building new homes, and instead focus on making existing smaller homes more efficient, and perhaps subdividing large homes into more residences or apartments. With the current housing glut from the real estate bubble, this should be another obvious choice.

There are two more changes that can be made and also have a big impact, but the importance here is more symbolic than practical. They will reduce emissions, but the message they send is likely more important. The first is NASCAR, perhaps the greatest symbol of waste for the sake of waste. Our tolerance of such blatant, unnecessary, excess sends a strong signal that we are happy to drive off the cliff. Eliminating it would send a much better signal that this sort of thing is no longer acceptable.

The other symbolic change is a bit more controversial. The Olympics generate a massive amount of carbon emissions. They also require a great deal of new construction of buildings and infrastructure in host cities, and cause other environmental damage. This is a time where we need to be scaling back and conserving, not expanding. Unlike NASCAR, the Olympics themselves are not useless and the promotion of sport is a good thing. However, such a global indulgence of excess and overconsumption is not something we can afford today, and it also sends the wrong message. We need to seriously consider a moratorium on future Olympics, and perhaps focus instead of local sport and competition. This would be difficult, but would send a very powerful international message. People of the world, and especially Americans, might actually stop and think: "If things are so bad that the Olympics are being cancelled, maybe we really do need urgent changes."

There is some low hanging fruit on the tree of climate change. There's not a lot of it, but our leaders are refusing to pick what's there for the taking. The measures discussed here need to be addressed urgently, and should be on the agenda at Copenhagen. If we cannot make the simple, obvious, choices that are needed, how can we ever expect to tackle the hard stuff? The time for dithering and weak excuses is over.

Monday, 9 November 2009


There are few human recreational activities today that produce as much cognitive dissonance as NASCAR auto racing. While the world is trying to deal with the accelerating impacts of global warming, and the world's leaders are being pressured to take strong action at Copenhagen, millions of people are watching and attending events such as NASCAR racing, a completely unnecessary, and extravagantly wasteful endeavour. There is, perhaps, no better symbol of our cheerful self destruction.

This is a sport which celebrates the automobile like no other. The race cars travel at high speed and burn up massive amounts of gasoline, generating carbon emissions we can ill afford. Many of the cars are very inefficient and only get a mileage of 5 MPG. Even worse, these vehicles don't have the normal catalytic converters designed to reduce pollutants and CO2 emissions in regular cars. Additionally, until last year, toxic leaded gasoline was still used.

Events are sponsored by many large oil industry companies, such as Exxon Mobile, which are responsible for some of the highest carbon emissions in the world. Despite this, NASCAR is extremely popular. The company that runs the business claims about 75 million fans. That's more people than watch baseball. NASCAR is also a marketing powerhouse, with sales of over $3 billion in licensed products annually, an example of yet more overconsumption.

During the early seventies oil crisis, some auto racing was cancelled and NASCAR was scaled back. This was done voluntarily, but legislation was being seriously considered to place limits on auto racing, or even to ban some of it. Because of rationing, this was a popular position, and many people were supportive of a ban. The crisis today with global warming is even worse, so the idea of a ban should not be considered unreasonable.

In the grand scheme of things, as wasteful as NASCAR is, the total emissions generated are not globally significant. But it is a powerful symbol of our excess and overconsumption. Of course, NASCAR isn't the only "sport" that is wasteful and unnecessary, but it is the supreme archetypal expression of our blind wastefulness and environmental destruction.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Evil Editor

The editor of an architectural website thinks she knows better than the world's scientists. Apparently, there's new evidence that says global warming is in fact not real after all, and the earth isn't warming, so we can just call off Copenhagen and get on with our lives.

There's just the small problem that all the data shows the Earth is in fact warming, and there's been no new evidence published in any scientific journal I can find that suggests there's any doubt at all about global warming. This remarkable claim, not surprisingly, isn't backed up with any references.

By spreading this nonsense, this editor is directly threatening the lives of millions of people. If she, and others like her, manage to prevent or block the real action desperately needed to prevent the worst consequences of global warming, the lives of real people will be affected. I would remind her that there are limits to free speech.

I hereby nominate you as an official Self Destructive Bastard.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

The Case for Rail

In previous articles, I have mentioned that transport by railroads, and especially electrified rail, is much more efficient, and less damaging to the environment, than transportation by car or truck. In this article I will provide more information on how and why railroads can provide these benefits, what other countries are doing, and how we can get there.

One study shows that in the US, for cargo transport, the existing rail system, which is not one of the most efficient systems in the world, and is generally not electrified, still manages to be four times more efficient than transportation by truck. Another study says that trucks use 11 times more oil in order to transport only a quarter of the cargo. By electrifying two-thirds of US rail, and switching half of truck cargo shipping to rail, total US oil consumption could be reduced by 7 percent. This is a massive reduction in energy use and would dramatically lower carbon emissions.

If the rail infrastructure (electric or not) were expanded further in order to provide a real alternative for cross-country passenger transportation, this could provide even more savings. Like a subway system in a major city, once it reaches a critical size, people are able to depend it on it as a primary transportation method and can give up their cars. In many cases, there are existing unused rail lines that were abandoned decades ago. These may be rebuilt or repaired, and even where the lines are gone, existing right of ways are often still in place. This would facilitate any expansion.

As the network expands, the need for trucks for long distance cargo transportation could be virtually eliminated. We would still need trucks to deliver goods to and from local train depots, but this would require vastly fewer trucks, and electric vehicles would be a good candidate to fill this role. This could help to reduce even further our dependence on gasoline-powered vehicles.

Another advantage of electrified rail is that this is existing, proven technology that has been in use for decades in many places such as Europe. We are not dependent on any experimental or speculative new technology, we already know how to do this. With such a significant reduction in the use of fossil fuels, it also becomes much more feasible to generate the electricity required for the new rail network with renewable power sources.

There are other potential savings as well. Across most of the US and Canada, we are still building new roads and highways. This requires significant resources and energy. The asphalt used is also made from fossil fuels. At the very least we could stop all expansion of road networks. Maintenance of existing roads is also very resource intensive. Trucks, especially, do significant damage to roadways because of the weight they carry. By eliminating more cargo transport by truck, we can greatly reduce the amount of maintenance required, saving even more energy and resources.

Governments frequently talk about the need for more green jobs, and how this can be an area of growth which can help to reduce unemployment. A national project to expand and improve rail infrastructure could create a great deal of jobs, perhaps as many as hundreds of thousands. Many autoworkers have lost their jobs with the collapse of the US auto industry, and most of these workers could likely be easily retrained to build train cars instead of automobiles. Even better, many existing factories could likely be reused for this purpose.

Once the infrastructure is fully established, taxes or other incentives can be put in place in order to provide an impetus for more people and companies to switch to rail. Over time, as the rail system expands and usage grows, we should be able to actually reduce the number and size of roads and highways. This can save money and resources by reducing future maintenance, and some of the land could even be reclaimed for sustainable agricultural use.

By investing in a larger and more efficient rail system, we can create jobs, dramatically reduce our energy use and put in place an infrastructure that can serve us for decades. We already have the technology, and other countries can show us the way and provide assistance. This can be a win for the economy, a win for the environment and a win in the fight against global warming.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Junk Mail Must Go

Last week, I wrote an article about banning plastic water bottles. This is clearly one of the easiest measures the world can take to reduce environmental damage and to decrease carbon emissions. There aren't many easy options like this one, but there are a few. Junk mail seems like another simple and obvious target if we want to improve the environment and reduce wasteful energy use. It is another completely unnecessary product that most people throw away without even reading.

If many areas, of course, it is possible for individuals to opt out of receiving junk mail, either through registries, or simply by putting up a notice by the mailbox. This doesn't always, work, though, and while it is good people are doing this, it isn't going to solve the problem. It doesn't help with the other 5.8 million tons of waste in the US every year, according to one estimate. That's about 100 million trees required yearly to produce all the junk mail in the US.

Recycling isn't the answer either. It still takes energy to recycle the paper (and the plastic wrapping its sometimes put in), which just generates more carbon emissions. It's much more effective to reduce and reuse as this can reduce the resources used and emissions generated throughout the chain of production, including transportation. With millions of trees spared, we should have more than enough paper for our needs.

The only potential drawback from eliminating junk mail is that some companies may need to change how they do their marketing. There are many other ways to market today, including using the Internet, and there is little doubt companies can adapt. But even if there is difficulty for some companies, that is not a sufficient reason to justify the massive waste caused by junk mail and its contributions to global warming and resource depletion. In fact, reducing advertising is perhaps a beneficial step towards reducing our massive overconsumption.

Junk mail doesn't only include paper, but sometimes there are product samples, CDs or DVDs, and other materials. This is more waste that can be eliminated. Credit card applications are also frequently delivered. US credit card debt is at a record high, so by eliminating these, people's debt might be improved, and excess consumption reduced.

Junk mail is one of the few products that can be easily eliminated without any impact on people's lifestyles and without large infrastructure changes, yet can still deliver significant emissions reduction. It needs to simply be banned. The countries meeting at Copenhagen need to consider a ban on junk mail as part of the international agreements they are working on. Unlike many of the other hard decisions that are needed, this one is likely to be very popular among voters.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Organic Myths and Realities

Organic farming methods offer several benefits for the environment and human health as a whole, but unfortunately, there are many misconceptions and falsehoods being spread regarding organic food and farming methods. Both proponents and detractors have been guilty of spreading false information and there are many widespread misunderstandings. The goal of this article is to present the facts so that we can reach a better understanding of how organic methods can be properly used to benefit the environment.

First, let's dispense with the issue of nutrition. Many studies, including one based on 50 years of research have shown no difference in the nutritional value of regular food as compared to organic food. This means that the consumption of organic foods will not make an individual any healthier. It is possible for organic farming methods to improve health indirectly, however, by being used to improve the environment, as we will see below. A healthier environment, obviously, leads to healthier humans.

A major problem with regular farming methods is the use of pesticides. However, before going into the environmental damage caused by pesticides, I need to address the issue of pesticides in food. As the above studies show, there are no detectable differences in the healthiness of regular food and organic food. However, studies have also shown that organic food does have substantially less pesticide residue. How do we reconcile this difference? The short answer is we need more studies. It's possible that the benefits of lower pesticides in organic food is offset by something else, such as natural biotoxins. But really, we just don't know right now. The point is that no nutritional advantage of organic food has been demonstrated, and it is not useful as a rational argument in favour of organic food.

Pesticide use in farming, however, has clearly been shown to be damaging to the environment, and to farm workers. According to a study (PDF) by the World Health Organization (WHO), there are 1 million unintentional poisonings each year and 2 million intentional ones (suicide attempts) requiring hospitalization. Since this only counts reported cases, others have estimated the total number could be as high as 25 million. That's a lot of people, and it indicates a serious global problem.
The effects of pesticides on the environment are also very significant.
Over 98% of sprayed insecticides and 95% of herbicides reach a destination other than their target species, including nontarget species, air, water, bottom sediments, and food.
The above link provides a summary of the environmental impact of pesticides and provides links to various studies. They can result in increased air pollution, water pollution and soil contamination. They can also result in the disruption or death of non-target plants, insects, birds and other animals, and aquatic life in lakes, streams and oceans. Pesticides can also accumulate and become more concentrated as they cycle through the food chain. Runoff of pesticides and fertilizers are also contributing to large dead zones in the oceans.

One of the major criticisms of organic farming methods is that they cannot produce enough food to feed the entire population of the planet. Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution, is famous for making this argument. He also argues that if all farming were organic, much greater amounts of land would be required, and this could lead to deforestation. This is a valid argument, and it is a very good reason why we should not try to switch all agricultural production around the world to organic methods over the short term. It is also a powerful reminder that we have overshot the carrying capacity of the Earth, and that we must immediately cease paving over farmland, and indeed must consider reclaiming this land in many areas.

At the same time, however, while conventional industrial farming methods, using fossil fuel based fertilizer and mass mechanization, may dramatically increase crop yields, they are unsustainable. They can produce much larger yields today, at the expense of the future productivity of the land. These intense farming methods degrade the land by eroding the soil and increasing soil salinity. Over time, the land becomes infertile.

Conventional farming methods are largely dependant on fossil fuels, which are needed for fertilizer and for running the machinery. As peak oil approaches, we will soon be faced with a yearly decline in the availability of oil. Oil won't run out, but there will simply be a bit less available every year than the year before. For the past hundred years, our economy (and agriculture) has depended on the yearly growth of oil production. This decline will raise prices and could potentially make it much harder to obtain supplies. Conventional methods will then become either too expensive, or simply starved of supply.

Organic farming methods, then, become a critical tool for revitalizing land that is becoming damaged and less fertile. Since the remaining productive life of this land has already been curtailed, there is little point in continuing conventional methods in these areas. The use of organic methods, which includes intermixing crops, rotating crops, and allowing the land to remain fallow for periods, can slowly begin to replenish the land. Eventually a stable and sustainable level of production can be reached.

We also need to reclaim land that has been paved over. This can be done by introducing more efficient transportation methods such as electrified rail in order to reduce the need for some roads and long distance highways. We can also restructure our cities to be more dense and efficient and eliminate some suburb or exurb areas. In many parts of the US the housing crisis and unemployment have already left many of these areas virtually abandoned. By pulling up the pavement and using organic farming methods this land can be returned to agricultural use and can generate a stable level of sustainable food production.

In Africa, a recent study by the UN has suggested that small-scale organic farming methods in Africa can more than double current yields. This can produce a significant increase in production, yet still remain sustainable. Also, many farmers in Africa cannot afford the fossil fuels or machinery needed for large scale industrial farming. Even better, the study suggests that organic practices would result in crops more resistant to drought, an important advantage as global warming increases.

Still, with an increasing population and decreasing arable land, organic farming probably can't deliver enough food for everyone. In some areas it may be necessary to use intense industrial methods over the short term in order to produce enough food. However, these practices should be limited to a certain number of years and then rotated to other areas while the original areas are then converted to organic production. A difficult balancing act will be needed in order to maximize total production without completely destroying the productivity of large areas, which would just make the problem worse in the future.

There is no room for extreme positions on either side of the organic debate. Organic food is not a magic product that will solve all our problems. But it is also absolutely necessary in the long term for stable and sustainable food production, which industrial methods cannot provide. As we deplete the supply of fossil fuels (or hopefully voluntarily reduce their use) organic methods will become essential. We must expand the use of organic farming where appropriate, reclaim and restore land where we can, and use conventional methods in some areas to fill the gaps. We need a comprehensive long term approach based on science and foresight.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Real Green Houses

On a recent episode of Radio Ecoshock, Canadian scientist Bill Rees emphasized the need to reduce our emissions, not just reduce the growth rate of emissions. He mentioned that we are already past the carrying capacity of the planet, and that we cannot continue to grow without further depleting our "ecological capital". The show is available as a free download at the above site.

During his talk, Dr Rees provided some very interesting statistics about housing and the construction of so-called "green" houses. In 1950, the average house size was 900-1000 square feet. In 2004 it was 2300 square feet, and has probably risen since then. That's a massive increase. The additional construction has required much more material and energy and has produced much greater carbon emissions. Also, larger houses are further away from each other, so you have more transportation, longer roads, and more farmland paved over. Modern houses also have much larger appliances, and more of them. Air-conditioning wasn't common in 1950, for example.

However, it gets even worse. The average number of people living in a house in 1950 was 3.7, today it is only 2.6. So, we have houses as much as 2.5 or more times larger, but with a third less people living in them. On a per capita basis, the amount of floor space per person has more than tripled since 1950. Yet, for decades, we've been hearing about how housing is being built more efficiently, and how "green" features are being incorporated.

Today we do have houses specifically designed to be green. Some of these manage to improve efficiency by as much as 25 percent. However, a 25 percent improvement over an average house today, is still using more than twice as much energy as a house from 1950! You've had doubling and tripling of sizes, then just a 25 percent reduction in energy use from today's inflated house. That is not green!

We already have green houses available to us, without having to build big new special buildings with fancy technology. Most of the houses built from 1950 or before are much lower impact. With improved insulation, efficient appliances and other simple changes, their environmental impact can be lowered even further.

For the many large houses that already exist, many of these can be subdivided into 2 or more separate residences, or converted into apartments. This is a great way to increase density, which makes it cheaper and more efficient to deliver residential services such as roads, water, power, etc. This can also save a lot of resources by not building new houses. With a glut of housing already on the market and the ability to repurpose existing houses, there is no reason we should be building more houses in the vast majority of areas.

Sometimes new technology can provide useful energy savings and can be help to protect the environment. This should be used where appropriate. But in many cases, the simple approach of downsizing and using low tech solutions is far more effective. Both should be used together, but we shouldn't be building bigger and more wastefully, and using new technology and methods just to hedge this waste a bit.