Environment & the World

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Introducing the Reading Group

Filed under: Books, Reading Group — amirj @ 8:44 pm

We thought it might be fun to try something different with this blog. In addition to our regular posts, we’ll be starting an environmental reading group. Taking advantage of the online availability of some relatively new books written by leading environmental thinkers, we’ll be reading and discussing them on this blog. Since the first books we’ll chose are available online for free, anybody with internet can read with us, and indeed we welcome anybody who’s interested to chime in on the discussions.

We’ll aim to read a new section of a book roughly every week, but we’ll leave it up to the discussion leader for that week to post at their discretion. We’ll rotate discussion leaders, meaning every week someone else will write a new blog entry with their reaction to the section we read that week. The discussion will continue in the comments section for that post, and we invite anyone to post their reactions, questions, suggestions or thoughts about the reading.

The first book we will be reading is Natural Capitalism by Amory Lovins, Hunter Lovins and Paul Hawken. The first chapter of the book is available online, so feel free to get reading and perhaps even join us in a week!


Monday, December 25, 2006

Ecological Restoration in China

Filed under: Agriculture, China, Development — Cathy @ 12:59 am

Last weekend I managed to get outside of Beijing and visit Shanxi Province, about 7 hours west by train.  I visited the city of Datong, famed for its coal mining industry.  The surrounding countryside, however, is a poor farming area, dominated by terrace farming.  Shanxi is located on the Loess Plateau, an area larger than France, with some of the poorest soil in China.

The Loess Plateau, which contains the Yellow River, is considered the cradle of China’s first civilization.  However, as with the other once-fertile areas that gave rise to ancient civilizations, hundreds of years of cultivation have taken a severe toll on the land.  More recently, increased population pressures, deforestation, and overgrazing have also contributed to the soil erosion.  The Loess Plateau now has the dubious distinction of being “the most eroded place on earth”, according to a recent report by Forum for the Future (http://www.greenfutures.org.uk/supplements.aspx?id=27)

However, it is also home to a recent success story in ecological restoration.  In Shaanxi Province (just west of Shanxi), also located on the Loess Plateau, a 7 year restoration project has lifted hundreds of thousands of farmers out of poverty.  It also appears to be one of the relatively few examples of the World Bank successfully contributing to its goal of a “world free of poverty.”  The World Bank-financed Loess Plateau Watershed Rehabilitation Project focused
on about 2% of the Plateau’s land area containing some of the poorest of counties in China.  In order to reduce soil erosion and restore soils, the project emphasized replanting slopes with trees and grasses and restricting grazing.  Locals were employed to replant the hillsides, while also creating terraced fields for agriculture so that crops were no longer planted on hillsides.  According to the World Bank, “the population living under the poverty line in the poverty
area has dropped from 59% in 1993 to 27% in 2001.” (http://info.worldbank.org/etools/reducingpoverty/docs/newpdfs/case-summ-China-Loess-Plateau.pdf)

A key reason for the success of the Shaanxi was the involvement of local people in planning and carrying out the restoration.  Similar ecological restoration is desperately needed in other areas in China. South China also boasts severe soil erosion as a result of deforestation.  In northern China, overgrazing is rapidly turning grassland into desert.  As with the former situation in Shaanxi, these areas seem hopeless because as the environment degrades the poor people in the region have no other option but to continue to sustain their pressure on the region in order to survive.  But the example of the Loess Plateau project suggests that this seemingly hopeless cycle can be broken by well-planned government and/or international

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Environmental Justice on Navajo Reservation

Filed under: Energy, Environmental Justice, Waste — Cathy @ 12:41 am

I wanted to give some publicity here to a struggle that some Navajo Indians are waging to protect their community from a coal power plant to be built on their reservation.  The Desert Rock power plant would be constructed in the sacred region of Dinetah (in New Mexico), a region which already has 2 power plants and where the air is so dirty that people with asthma and other respiratory illnesses have difficulty breathing.  Moreover, the electricity from power plants on Navajo land primarily supplies non-Indians, so that many Navajos in the region still live without electricity, according to http://www.unobserver.com/layout5.php?id=2951&blz=1.

Last week, local residents started a blockade after learning that water drilling had been started without notifying the local residents. They are refusing to move until they get documents that would prove that the company has complied with Clean Water Act requirements.  In what appears to be an attempt to intimidate the protestors, the sheepdog of an 80-year-old elder protestor was brutally killed, according to http://www.gallupindependent.com/2006/dec/121606lw_dogskinnedalive.html.

It’s too easy to think that the historical injustices that European settlers perpetrated against native populations in the United States were just that – historical.  This incident is a good reminder that we still have a long way to go to make amends for past and current wrongs.  Moreover, this is not an isolated incident.  In Arizona, Native Americans are trying to halt expansion of a hazardous waste site on their land; the Navajo Nation is fighting in federal
court to protect a sacred mountain from a proposed ski resort; etc. More info and suggested opportunities for action on this issue can be found at the Indigenous Environmental Network’s website:

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Public Transportation in France

Filed under: Transportation — Cathy @ 1:17 am

In previous posts, I’ve talked a little bit about the advantages of “bus rapid transit” systems, which, if properly designed, can greatly enhance urban mobility at a fraction of the cost of traditional subway systems.  It seems that many French cities are now becoming interested in the idea of surface public transportation – not buses, but trams (http://www.spiegel.de/international/0,1518,454517,00.html).  Paris recently unveiled its new tram line, which will carry almost twice as many people every day as the local buses.  Despite the fact that only about 28% of Parisians own cars, the city’s streets are still overcrowded, with an average speed of only 10 mph in the downtown areas.

Already six other French cities have modern tram lines and 3 more cities plan to build them next year.

In an interesting twist, not only do the trams make public transportation more convenient, but they also make private transportation less convenient.  One lane of road has been converted to tracks for the train, and traffic lights have been set to give the trams an automatic right-of-way so they never have to brake for red lights.
It would be interesting to understand why the French have chosen to go the tram route rather than making significant improvements to their bus system.  The capital investment for a bus system would be cheaper because there is no need to install rails.  Moreover, the same policies that favor trams – creating designated lanes and setting traffic lights to always give the right-of-way to public transit – could also be applied to buses. Perhaps the impetus for trams is to restore and modernize a historically popular mode of transportation.   After all, streetcars were the first form of urban public transportation, with their use in France dating back to 1853.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Congress Okays More Drilling

Filed under: Energy, Oil, Politics — amirj @ 1:46 am

This past weekend both the U.S. House and Senate overwhelmingly approved the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act (S. 3711). This legislation makes 8.3 million acres available for new oil and natural gas production projects.

The Act also contains other provisions, the inclusion of which enabled the Act’s proponents to frame it in a positive, progressive light. As a “consolation” (or a slap in the face depending on your viewpoint) for environmentalists, the Act allocates funds from drillling revenues for coastal wetlands restoration, hurricane protection and flood control projects in the Gulf States in addition to funds for parks and green space preservation in all 50 states. Thanks to these provisions, the Act manages to rationalize, on the surface, increased oil exploration and extraction in as a win-win solution. Along the same lines, the bill comes off as a benevolent boost for efforts to help protect Gulf states from future hurricanes and especially as a much-needed source of rebuilding funds for Katrina-stricken Louisiana. It also justifies the drilling in terms of creating new jobs and helping the U.S.A.’s energy security.

On that latter note, D-LA Senator Landrieu’s press release on the bill reads: “The area is projected to produce enough natural gas to sustain more than 1,000 chemical plants for 40 years, and enough oil to keep 2.7 million cars running and 1.2 million homes heated for more than 15 years.” These statistics fail, however, to convey that the U.S.’s voracious appetite for hydrocarbons means that all this new oil and natural gas would serve more as a light hor d’oeuvre than a serious fix for our petro cravings. At a consumption rate of over 20 million barrels of oil per day, all of the oil that this bill makes available would only satisfy a meager 2 months worth of the U.S.’s oil needs. Simiarly, with U.S. natural gas consumption at about 22 trillion cubic feet per year, the 6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas believed to be in this area would only meet an equivalent of one quarter of a year’s worth of U.S. natural gas demand. Of course, the oil and natural gas from this area would not be pumped out in such a short period of time, nor would this area ever constitute the sole source of hydrocarbons for the U.S. at any point in time. Nevertheless, these general calculations illustrate how minute these sources are compared to the total U.S. demand.

In a completely unsurprising move, President Bush praised the Act and will likely sign it into law swiftly. Ironically, even though the President has professed that this country is addicted to oil, signing this new law will do no nothing to wean us off the addiction. In fact, the sort of short-term, pseudo-petro-security this Act provides will only assuage our fears over the looming oil shortage, distract us from urgency of the matter, and will exacerbate our global warming emissions in the time being.

The Sierra Club opposed this bill, arguing that it makes more sense to improve car fuel efficiency and invest in wind and solar power. Indeed, it would have been much more fruitful for Congress to look into ways to improve energy efficiency and to reduce our humongous rate of fossil fuel consumption. Small-scale energy efficiency projects rolled out across the entire country could easily save more energy than we would ever pump from this area in the Gulf of Mexico. Furthermore, Congress could have seized this opportunity to show some really innovative and inspiring leadership. Instead of providing Gulf states with funds, generated from additional fossil fuel extraction, to protect the environment and guard against future hurricanes, Congress could have authorized financial incentives for new solar and wind energy projects in these Southern states, the tax revenues from which could serve the same end goal.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Hydropower – not so clean after all?

Filed under: Climate Change, Energy, Water — Cathy @ 7:18 pm

I have never been a fan of large dam projects.  In the United States, dams have decimated salmon populations, reduced the Colorado River to a trickle by the time it reaches the Pacific, and otherwise transformed the ecology of our western rivers.  And in many developing countries, dam projects displace hundreds of thousands of people, often without giving them adequate compensation.  Large popular movements have arisen against major dam projects like the 3 Gorges Dam in China or the Narmada River dams in India.

But dam proponents have argued that dams don’t emit carbon dioxide, so they must still be better than coal, right?  Well, perhaps not, at least in tropical regions.  A recent article in the journal Nature (“Methane quashes green credentials of hydropower”, Nature 444(30): 524-525, 2006) highlights recent research suggesting that “the global-warming impact of hydropower plants can often outweigh that of comparable fossil-fuel power stations.”  How?  When land is flooded to create the reservoir, a large amount of organic matter is trapped underwater, and more organic matter flows in over time.  In warm tropical waters, this organic matter decays into methane and carbon dioxide.  Since methane is a 20 times more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, these reservoir emissions can be quite significant.  Indeed, the article cites an example of Brazil’s Balbina Dam, whose construction caused the flooding of 2500 square kilometers of rainforest; it is now accepted that a coal plant would have been better for the climate!

The article notes that the debate over the magnitude of reservoir emissions is not yet settled, largely due to a lack of data on dam methane emissions.  However, by some estimates, counting the methane emitted by dams (95-120 million tons per year) would represent a 20% increase in global methane emissions!  This is a large enough number, and enough is known about dam methane emissions, to make many scientists want to start acting now on this problem. 

Saturday, December 2, 2006

China’s “development aid” to Africa

Filed under: China, Development, Environmental Justice — Cathy @ 5:26 pm

I want to follow up on my earlier post discussing China’s increasing involvement in Africa’s extractive industries.  At November’s China-Africa summit, Chinese Prime Minister Hu Jinbao made a number of promises for increasing aid to Africa, including doubling China’s aid money to Africa by 2009, giving debt relief to impoverished nations with diplomatic relations with China, and setting up a US$5 billion fund to encourage Chinese companies to invest in Africa (http://english.people.com.cn/200611/04/eng20061104_318372.html).

However, this does not guarantee that any of the problems I discussed in my previous post regarding the environmental and human rights violations from extractive industries will be resolved.  Many African newspapers are less than enthusiastic about China’s increasing role in their continent, citing concerns over human rights abuses and a lack of commitment on the part of Chinese companies to sustainable development.  A recent article discussing China’s business dealings in Zambia is a case in point.  As part of the new aid package for China, Zambia would receive debt relief and would be the site of a new economic zone for China.  However,

“locals have become less enthusiastic about China’s embrace, largely because of poor labor practices … Ministry of Labour and Social Security permanent secretary, Ngosa Chisupa, said ‘about 80 percent of foreign investors in Zambia do not remit anything to the pensions board for employees, they don’t give employees any benefits upon termination, and the employees are made to work without any signed contracts on the conditions of service.’” 

Last year, 51 Zambian miners were killed in an explosion at China’s biggest mine in Zambia.  Foreign investors can get away with ignoring Zambia’s labor laws thanks to corruption on the part of Zambian government officials. 

So, despite the promises of increased aid money to Africa, there is no guarantee that Chinese corporations will start acting more responsibly.  And, given China’s own lax labor standards, it seems unlikely that the Chinese government will exert any serious influence on its companies’ business dealings in Africa.  It seems clear that the only way around this impasse is the development of international laws government multinational corporations; a report by the UK charity Christian Aid (http://www.christian-aid.org.uk/indepth/0401csr/index.htm) argues quite powerfully for such international laws requiring corporate social and environmental responsibility.  As the report says “when a company’s primary legal obligation is to make profit for its shareholders, its human rights and environmental responsibilities must also be legally binding.”  Because so many multinational corporations have separate branches operating in different countries to limit their liabilities, it is difficult for national laws to be applied.  The report argues that the EU and international financial institutions like the World Bank should play a large role in developing and implementing such regulations; certainly, a commitment by the World Bank to only finance projects run by companies satisfying social responsibility criteria would go a long way towards solving this problem.  Of course, given the Bank’s historical lack of interest in environmental concerns, this would basically be a revolution in the Bank’s lending practices.  It seems to me that the pressure to develop and enforce such international laws would have to come from outside.   In short, it is likely going to be up to concerned citizens and NGOs in the developed world to make sure that the investments that China and other countries make in African development will truly contribute to improved living conditions in the region.

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