Sustainablog

This blog will cover some news items related to Sustainability: Corporate Social Responsibility, Stewardship, Environmental management, etc.

23.5.09

Financial Times: Current climate changes - a spur for some to adapt (IBM sponsored Report)


Thanks to Cathy for this one


UK, Financial Times, 11/05/09, Current climate changes a spur for some to adapt

In the Financial Times'  "FTfm" section on 11/05/09 an article was published discussing climate change adaptation and the fact investors need to know about the exposures of the companies that they own. The piece discusses how the environment has already been impacted by climate change and how different industries will be affected - with a focus on the insurance and energy industries. The recent Acclimatise FTSE 330 climate change adaptation report, sponsored by IBM is mentioned and is the only report included in the piece, linking both companies to adaption issues in a major business publication with worldwide visibility.

'Businesses across every sector of the economy - from aviation to agriculture - will be affected. Security of water and energy supplies, seasonal shortages, and changes in water quality will all have cost implications, says a report by Acclimatise for IBM, published last month.'

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/04e3542c-3cc1-11de-8b71-00144feabdc0,Authorised=false.html?_i_location=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.ft.com%2Fcms%2Fs%2F0%2F04e3542c-3cc1-11de-8b71-00144feabdc0.html&_i_referer=http%3A%2F%2Fsearch.ft.com%2Fsearch%3FsortBy%3Dgadatearticle%26queryText%3Dibm

Current climate changes a spur for some to adapt
By Mike Scott
Published: May 10 2009 11:02 | Last updated: May 10 2009 11:02
Dealing with climate change is mostly couched in terms of the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions, with targets often set far in the future.
But focusing on these mitigation strategies has distracted attention from the need to adapt to changes happening now, according to experts.



"People are looking to the future and what will happen then, but climate change really is happening now," says Paul Dickinson, chief executive of the Carbon Disclosure Project.
Some climate change is inevitable, regardless of how much emissions are cut in future, because of the gases that have already been pumped into the atmosphere.
Climate scientists meeting in Copenhagen in March heard that it will be almost impossible to meet targets to limit temperature rises to 2ºC because emissions have continued to surge.
According to New Energy Finance, the clean energy analysts, heat waves are becoming more common and rainfall patterns are changing, with increased risk of flooding and drought.
"Glaciers are melting, which will have profound effects on water supplies in locations ranging from the Indian sub-continent to North and South America," the report says.
"Permafrost is thawing, affecting building foundations and potentially releasing billions of tonnes of previously locked away methane. Sea levels are rising; storm surge heights are increasing; and the intensity of storms is increasing, all of which will affect millions of people."
Businesses across every sector of the economy – from aviation to agriculture – will be affected. Security of water and energy supplies, seasonal shortages, and changes in water quality will all have cost implications, says a report by Acclimatise for IBM, published last month.
Consequently, investors need to know about the exposures of the companies they own, says Rory Sullivan, head of investor responsibility at Insight Investment, a specialist asset manager. This is easier said than done, however, because exposure varies across countries and sectors of the economy.
"There are different challenges in different regions," says Connie Hedegaard, Denmark's environment minister. "The issues you face in northern Finland are nothing like what you have to deal with in southern Spain."
Nonetheless, there are certain common themes when it comes to adaptation. "Scarcity of water will be one of the main challenges," Ms Hedegaard says.
Many regions also face more severe flooding while changes to rainfall patterns mean that even if the overall amount of rainfall does not change, the amount of usable water – for water supplies, agriculture and to cool power stations – will reduce. Finally, sea level rises put at risk the lives and livelihoods of billions of people around the world who live near coasts.
As well as dredging companies and builders of sea defences such as Boskalis of the Netherlands, companies dealing with storm water management such as Hydro International and those that provide water treatment services will see their markets grow, says Bruce Jenkyn-Jones, chief investment officer of Impax, a fund manager investing in a cleaner economy.
The increase in severe weather events puts the insurance sector firmly in the front line of dealing with climate change. Losses from natural catastrophes were $200bn (£133bn, €150bn) in 2008, according to Munich Re. Property and casualty insurance are the most affected by this and companies are reacting by limiting cover or increasing premiums in flood-affected areas. The state government is now the biggest residential insurer in Florida, for example, because insurers have withdrawn cover from hurricane-prone areas.
Insurers are also offering new products, providing catastrophe insurance and cover for renewable energy projects and extending cover in emerging markets that are likely to be hard hit by climate change, thus increasing the resilience of businesses and consumers.
Infrastructure and the built environment will also be affected, not least because the sector involves assets that last for decades – and may therefore be heavily affected by rising temperatures and more severe weather.
Michael Riley, equity analyst at SAM, the sustainable investment specialist, says the value of property and infrastructure that will be affected is massive.
Mr Sullivan says: "Those companies that are most exposed in the short term are those that are not diversified and are in infrastructure – such as the water companies."
Energy companies will also have to take climate effects into account during the massive programme of capacity expansion that is under way around the globe. The unforeseen impacts on electricity generators was illustrated during the 2003 heat wave in Europe, when France had to shut down nuclear power stations because of a lack of water to cool the reactors. The shortage of water hit its hydro-electric plants as well.
Businesses able to improve the resilience of the grid will benefit from increased uncertainty over supplies, as well as suppliers of uninterruptible power supplies and energy storage, says Mr Jenkyn-Jones.
Meanwhile, buildings will need more cooling as temperatures rise, but will also have to use less energy.
This will provide opportunities in areas from insulation to specialist glazing and building controls systems. 
Finally, the bewildering range of changes and the need for local knowledge to assess risks and opportunities will bring strong demand for the services of environmental consultancies and companies that can provide their clients with information about their own energy consumption and emissions .
The advance of adaptation up the climate agenda will be uneven, receiving increased attention in the wake of various natural disasters, says Mr Dickinson of the Carbon Disclosure Project. "Mitigation is a business that will move at the speed of politics. Adaptation will move at the speed of events."
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009

(Green community) Smart Cities & New Urbanism: Built To Last


A little video blurb on th concept of "new urbanism"... Thanks to Colin




JF:  Here's a link I received from a little New Urbanist community we talk to:  http://daily.sightline.org/daily_score/archive/2009/05/12/built-to-last  Possible interest for the Green Community as they think about Smart Cities.

22.5.09

Digital Sustainability Reporting Has Benefits, Pitfalls


MAY 20, 2009
Digital Sustainability Reporting Has Benefits, Pitfalls
griformatsDigital technology is changing the way companies report on sustainability, reducing the use of paper studies, for instance. However, the increased use of digital reporting has made some information more difficult to access, according to a new study from The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), a provider of the sustainability reporting framework, and Radley Yeldar, a UK-based communications consultancy. GRI is one of three major third-party CSR assurance providers.
When the first GRI Guidelines were released in 2000, most sustainability reports were published in a single, printed document, according to GRI. Based on this latest study, sustainability reporting is increasingly published online in PDF formats.
The research evaluates 40 global organizations that report using the GRI G3 Guidelines. The findings identify a number of factors that can determine the effectiveness of online reporting, including the format and how new digital technologies are used to enhance the user experience.
A key finding reveals that sustainability performance data is typically found within two clicks from companies' home pages, which highlights the importance that is now placed on sharing this information with external stakeholders, according to the researchers.
Researchers say that while sustainability reporting is on the rise, there are some pitfalls of using digital technology including making the information more difficult to find. According to the study, more than 20 percent of the companies evaluated require stakeholders to look at three or more locations to get the complete GRI data.
GRI says one solution is to use a fully hyperlinked GRI Content Index to help users find and access the information they require. The report indicates that only 40 percent of surveyed companies had any degree of interactivity in their GRI Content Index.
The study also finds that all companies use PDFs to support the online communication of GRI data, and there is trend towards more creative use of online channels when publishing information on corporate sustainability performance.
Yet, few companies are taking advantage of the more innovative uses of technology, according to the researchers. The study reveals that no companies are using XBRL to tag data or Web 2.0 technologies. Even when other online functionalities are used, there is a focus on design rather than functionality.
Here's a snapshot of key findings:
  • 60 percent of companies distribute their GRI information across two or more sources
  • 40 percent of organizations put all their GRI information in one report; 22.5 percent put the information in 3 or more locations
  • 30 percent of organizations have a direct link to their sustainability report on their homepage
  • 32.5 percent of organizations provide a full online report with PDF as the format of choice
  • 82.5 percent of organizations produce more than one report on sustainability
  • 10 percent of companies use new technologies to enable users to produce a customized version of their report
  • 27.5 percent of organizations use flash functionality for web reporting
  • 7.5 percent of organizations use a RSS feed or email service to keep stakeholders up to date on sustainability issues
  • 10 percent of the companies provide an online feedback form

Handouts and loopholes: America's climate-change bill is weaker and worse than expected...


It's interesting to note that the Economist's criticism is (essentially) that the bill does not go far enough (i.e. permits not auctioned, handouts to energy producers, and lack of a fuel tax)
----------------------------------------


Handouts and loopholes
May 21st 2009 | WASHINGTON, DC 
From The Economist print edition



America's climate-change bill is weaker and worse than expected


Illustration by KAL

Illustration by KAL

AL GORE calls it "one of the most important pieces of legislation ever introduced in Congress". Joe Barton, a Republican congressman and global-warming sceptic, says it will put the American economy in a straitjacket. For something that practically no one has read, the American Clean Energy and Security Act provokes heated debate. It would establish a cap-and-trade system for curbing carbon-dioxide emissions, thus transforming the way Americans use energy.

President Barack Obama has long argued that America should join Europe in regulating planet-cooking carbon. But he has left the details to Congress. And the negotiations to craft a bill that might actually pass have not been pretty. The most straightforward and efficient approach to reducing carbon emissions—a carbon tax—was never seriously considered. Voters do not like to hear the word "tax" unless it is followed by the word "cut".

So Mr Obama proposed something very similar to a carbon tax, albeit slightly more cumbersome. Industries that emit carbon dioxide would have to buy permits to do so. A fixed number of permits would be auctioned each year. The permits would be tradable, so firms that found ways to emit less than they were entitled to could sell some of their permits to others. The system would motivate everyone to reduce emissions in the most cost-effective way. It would raise energy prices, which is the point, but it would also raise hundreds of billions of dollars, most of which Mr Obama planned to give back to voters. Alas, that plan looks doomed.

On May 15th Henry Waxman and Edward Markey, the Democratic point-men on climate change in the House of Representatives, unveiled a bill that would give away 85% of carbon permits for nothing, with only 15% being auctioned. The bill's supporters say this colossal compromise was necessary to win the support of firms that generate dirty energy or use a lot of it, and to satisfy congressmen from states that mine coal or roll steel.

Giving away permits creates several problems. First, it generates no money, thereby royally messing up Mr Obama's budget. Second, it means that the permits go not to those who value them most (as in an auction) but to those whom the government favours. Under Waxman-Markey, electricity-distributors would get the largest share, with the rest divided between energy-intensive manufacturers, carmakers, natural-gas distributors, states with renewable-energy programmes and so on. Oil firms, with only 2% of the permits, feel hard done by. But most polluters, having just been promised hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of permits for nothing, are elated. So it is not just the owners of ski resorts and businesses with negligible carbon footprints that are queuing up to praise the bill. Duke Energy, a power generator with lots of coal-fired plants, is also enthusiastic.

The grand handout to shareholders is meant to last until around 2030, by which time all permits will be auctioned. In the meantime, the bill's supporters say that consumers will be protected from higher energy prices because the largest chunk of the free permits will go to tightly regulated electricity distributors. Regulators can simply order these firms to keep prices low. Problem solved.

Not so, says Alan Viard, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank. If electricity is cheap, Americans will buy more of it, generating more emissions than would otherwise have been the case. Other industries will accordingly have to cut their emissions more, since there are a fixed number of permits. The cost of this will be passed on to consumers. Overall, ordinary Americans will endure price hikes just as severe as they would have under Mr Obama's plan, while receiving far less compensation. Mr Viard likens giving permits to polluters to handing the proceeds of a tobacco tax to the shareholders of Philip Morris.

Another problem with Waxman-Markey is its complexity. At 932 pages, it is half as long again as an already-bloated previous draught. It includes a dizzying array of handouts, mandates and technical standards for everything from hot-food-holding cabinets to portable spas. It allows for a huge increase in "offsets"—where a polluter pays someone else to stop polluting instead of curbing his own emissions. These are open to abuse, as Europe's experience shows. There is little to stop foreign factories from starting to pollute just so that someone will pay them to stop.

Among environmentalists, support for the bill varies. Some denounce it for doing less to curb greenhouse gases than was once promised. It aims to cut emissions by 17% below the level in 2005 by 2020, instead of 20%. Greenpeace's American arm says it cannot support the bill in its current state. Other greens reckon that if this is the strongest bill that can pass, the best idea is to pass it now and tighten it later.

That is the most likely outcome, though far from certain. Mr Waxman wants his bill to pass through the House energy committee this week. Republicans such as Mr Barton could slow it down by offering hundreds of amendments or forcing it to be read aloud. (Mr Waxman has hired a speed-reader, just in case.) But they probably do not have enough votes to stop it, either in committee or when it eventually comes before the full House.

The next step will be the Senate, where the minority has more power. It is hard to predict what will happen there. Republicans plan to berate the bill as both a job-destroyer and a handout to big business. Some will also argue that it will make little difference to the climate if China and India do not also curb their emissions.




The bill's supporters retort that both countries will come on board only if America sets a good example. Time is running out before the big global climate conference in Copenhagen in December. If the United States does not have a cap-and-trade law in place by then, the chance of a global agreement will plummet. The bill may be imperfect, says Steve Tripoli of Ceres, a green business group, but having no bill at all would be unthinkable.

Meanwhile, Mr Obama continues to attack climate change from other angles. On May 19th he announced that he would impose tougher fuel-efficiency standards. Carmakers will have to produce vehicles that go eight miles farther on a gallon of petrol by 2016. Cars must eke out 39 miles (63km) per gallon, on average; light trucks must manage 30 miles. Carmakers, some of whom would be bankrupt if Mr Obama was not pumping them full of taxpayers' money, meekly applauded. In the past an agreement such as this would have been thought impossible, the president crowed.

Mr Obama admitted that more fuel-efficient cars might cost more. But he promised that motorists would save thousands of dollars by cutting their fuel bills. In fact, they can already cut their fuel bills by buying smaller cars, but most choose not to. Mr Obama could discourage petrol use more directly and efficiently by taxing the stuff, but that would be unpopular. Ideally, politicians who want to save the planet would be honest with voters about how much this will cost. But America's leaders do not seem to think Americans are ready for straight talk about energy.

21.5.09

Shaking hands with Al Gore and the TCP Nashville summit, 2009

 
Posted by Picasa

20.5.09

UN hopeful about climate change



http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/8060336.stm
 
UN hopeful about climate change
The head of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change says he has seen "encouraging developments" in recent climate change negotiations.

His comments come as the first "negotiating text" for the UN's December climate change conference is published on the UNFCCC website.

Yvo de Boer said this document marked "an important point on our road".

The text collates discussion proposals from all of the nations that will take part in the December talks.

Mr de Boer said the publication of the 53-page document was the first time "real negotiating text" had been put on the table.

He said it could "serve as a basis for governments to start drafting... an agreed outcome" to the long-awaited Copenhagen conference.

"We have an almost complete list of industrialised nations' pledges to cut emissions after 2012, so governments can see now, more clearly, where they are in comparison to each other, and can build a higher ambition on that basis," he said.

He added that the US had committed to a Copenhagen agreement and a "clean energy future".

"In response to the financial crisis, many national stimulus packages have been launched that include green economic objectives," he added.

"With only 200 days before Copenhagen, time gets tighter but the world is not standing still on climate change."

Story from BBC NEWS:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/1/hi/sci/tech/8060336.stm

Published: 2009/05/20 18:11:48 GMT

[Water Management] Sin aqua non: Water shortages are a growing problem, but not for the reasons most people think


Water 

Sin aqua non

Apr 8th 2009 | ISTANBUL 
From The Economist print edition



Water shortages are a growing problem, but not for the reasons most people think


Panos

Panos

THE overthrow of Madagascar's president in mid-March was partly caused by water problems—in South Korea. Worried by the difficulties of increasing food supplies in its water-stressed homeland, Daewoo, a South Korean conglomerate, signed a deal to lease no less than half Madagascar's arable land to grow grain for South Koreans. Widespread anger at the terms of the deal (the island's people would have received practically nothing) contributed to the president's unpopularity. One of the new leader's first acts was to scrap the agreement.

Three weeks before that, on the other side of the world, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California declared a state of emergency. Not for the first time, he threatened water rationing in the state. "It is clear," says a recent report by the United Nations World Water Assessment Programme, "that urgent action is needed if we are to avoid a global water crisis."

Local water shortages are multiplying. Australia has suffered a decade-long drought. Brazil and South Africa, which depend on hydroelectric power, have suffered repeated brownouts because there is not enough water to drive the turbines properly. So much has been pumped out of the rivers that feed the Aral Sea in Central Asia that it collapsed in the 1980s and has barely begun to recover.

Yet local shortages, caused by individual acts of mismanagement or regional problems, are one thing. A global water crisis, which impinges on supplies of food and other goods, or affects rivers and lakes everywhere, is quite another. Does the world really face a global problem?


Water, water everywhere…




Not on the face of it. There is plenty of water to go around and human beings are not using all that much. Every year, thousands of cubic kilometres (km3) of fresh water fall as rain or snow or come from melting ice. According to a study in 2007, most nations outside the Gulf were using a fifth or less of the water they receive—at least in 2000, the only year for which figures are available. The global average withdrawal of fresh water was 9% of the amount that flowed through the world's hydrologic cycle. Both Latin America and Africa used less than 6% (see table). On this evidence, it would seem that all water problems are local.

The trouble with this conclusion is that no one knows how much water people can safely use. It is certainly not 100% (the amount taken in Gulf states) because the rest of creation also has to live off the water. In many places the maximum may well be less than one fifth, the average for Asia as a whole. It depends on how water is returned to the system, how much is taken from underground aquifers, and so on.

But there is some admittedly patchy evidence that, given current patterns of use and abuse, the amount now being withdrawn is moving dangerously close to the limit of safety—and in some places beyond it. An alarming number of the world's great rivers no longer reach the sea. They include the Indus, Rio Grande, Colorado, Murray-Darling and Yellow rivers. These are the arteries of the world's main grain-growing areas.

Freshwater fish populations are in precipitous decline. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, fish stocks in lakes and rivers have fallen roughly 30% since 1970. This is a bigger population fall than that suffered by animals in jungles, temperate forests, savannahs and any other large ecosystem. Half the world's wetlands, on one estimate, were drained, damaged or destroyed in the 20th century, mainly because, as the volume of fresh water in rivers falls, salt water invades the delta, changing the balance between fresh and salt water. On this evidence, there may be systemic water problems, as well as local disruptions.

Two global trends have added to the pressure on water. Both are likely to accelerate over coming decades.

The first is demography. Over the past 50 years, as the world's population rose from 3 billion to 6.5 billion, water use roughly trebled. On current estimates, the population is likely to rise by a further 2 billion by 2025 and by 3 billion by 2050. Demand for water will rise accordingly.

Or rather, by more. Possibly a lot more. It is not the absolute number of people that makes the biggest difference to water use but changing habits and diet. Diet matters more than any single factor because agriculture is the modern Agasthya, the mythical Indian giant who drank the seas dry. Farmers use about three-quarters of the world's water; industry uses less than a fifth and domestic or municipal use accounts for a mere tenth.

Different foods require radically different amounts of water. To grow a kilogram of wheat requires around 1,000 litres. But it takes as much as 15,000 litres of water to produce a kilo of beef. The meaty diet of Americans and Europeans requires around 5,000 litres of water a day to produce. The vegetarian diets of Africa and Asia use about 2,000 litres a day (for comparison, Westerners use just 100-250 litres a day in drinking and washing).

So the shift from vegetarian diets to meaty ones—which contributed to the food-price rise of 2007-08—has big implications for water, too. In 1985 Chinese people ate, on average, 20kg of meat; this year, they will eat around 50kg. This difference translates into 390km3 (1km3 is 1 trillion litres) of water—almost as much as total water use in Europe.

The shift of diet will be impossible to reverse since it is a product of rising wealth and urbanisation. In general, "water intensity" in food increases fastest as people begin to climb out of poverty, because that is when they start eating more meat. So if living standards in the poorest countries start to rise again, water use is likely to soar. Moreover, almost all the 2 billion people who will be added to the world's population between now and 2030 are going to be third-world city dwellers—and city people use more water than rural folk. The Food and Agriculture Organisation reckons that, without changes in efficiency, the world will need as much as 60% more water for agriculture to feed those 2 billion extra mouths. That is roughly 1,500km3 of the stuff—as much as is currently used for all purposes in the world outside Asia.

The other long-term trend affecting water is climate change. There is growing evidence that global warming is speeding up the hydrologic cycle—that is, the rate at which water evaporates and falls again as rain or snow. This higher rate seems to make wet regions more sodden, and arid ones drier. It brings longer droughts between more intense periods of rain.

Climate change has three big implications for water use. First, it changes the way plants grow. Trees, for example, react to downpours with a spurt of growth. During the longer droughts that follow, the extra biomass then dries up so that if lightning strikes, forests burn more spectacularly. Similarly crops grow too fast, then wilt.

Second, climate change increases problems of water management. Larger floods overwhelm existing controls. Reservoirs do not store enough to get people or plants through longer droughts. In addition, global warming melts glaciers and causes snow to fall as rain. Since snow and ice are natural regulators, storing water in winter and releasing it in summer, countries are swinging more violently between flood and drought. That is one big reason why dams, once a dirty word in development, have been making a comeback, especially in African countries with plenty of water but no storage capacity. The number of large dams (more than 15 metres high) has been increasing and the order books of dam builders are bulging.

Third, climate change has persuaded western governments to subsidise biofuels, which could prove as big a disaster for water as they already have been for food. At the moment, about 2% of irrigated water is used to grow crops for energy, or 44km3. But if all the national plans and policies to increase biofuels were to be implemented, reckons the UN, they would require an extra 180km3 of water. Though small compared with the increase required to feed the additional 2 billion people, the biofuels' premium is still substantial.

In short, more water will be needed to feed and heat a world that is already showing signs of using too much. How to square that circle? The answer is by improving the efficiency with which water is used. The good news is that this is possible: vast inefficiencies exist which can be wrung out. The bad news is it will be difficult both because it will require people to change their habits and because governments, which might cajole them to make the changes, are peculiarly bad at water policy.


…nor any drop to drink




Improving efficiency is doable and industrial users have done it, cutting the amount of water needed to make each tonne of steel and each extra unit of GDP in most rich countries (see first chart). This can make a difference. The Pacific Institute reckons that, merely by using current water-saving practices (ie, no technological breakthroughs) California, a water-poor state, could meet all its needs for decades to come without using a drop more.

Still, industry consumes less than a fifth of the world's water and the big question is how to get farmers, who use 70-80%, to follow suit. It takes at least three times as much water to grow maize in India, for example, as it does in America or China (see second chart). In some countries, you need 1,500 litres of water to produce a kilo of wheat; in others, only 750 litres. It does not necessarily follow that water is being used unsustainably in the one place and not the other; perhaps the high-usage places have plenty of water to spare. But it does suggest that better management could reduce the amount of water used in farming, and that the world could be better off if farmers did so. Changing irrigation practices can improve water efficiency by 30%, says Chandra Madramootoo, of the International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage. One can, for example, ensure water evaporates from the leaves of the plant, rather than from the soil. Or one can genetically modify crops so they stop growing when water runs dry, but do not die—they simply resume growth later when the rains return.




The world might also be better off, at least in terms of water, if trade patterns more closely reflected the amount of water embedded in traded goods (a concept called "virtual water" invented by Tony Allan of King's College London). Some benign effects happen already: Mexico imports cereals from America which use 7 billion cubic metres (m3) of water. If it grew these cereals itself, it would use 16 billion m3, so trade "saves" 9 billion m3 of water. But such beneficial exchanges occur more by chance than design. Because most water use is not measured, let alone priced, trade rarely reflects water scarcities.

To make water use more efficient, says Koichiro Matsuura, the head of UNESCO, the main UN agency dealing with water, will require fundamental changes of behaviour. That means changing incentives, improving information flows, and improving the way water use is governed. All that will be hard.

Water is rarely priced in ways that reflect supply and demand. Usually, water pricing simply means that city dwellers pay for the cost of the pipes that transport it and the sewerage plants that clean it.

Basic information about who uses how much water is lacking. Rainwater and river flows can be measured with some accuracy. But the amount pumped out of lakes is a matter of guesswork and information on how much is taken from underground aquifers is almost completely lacking.

The governance of water is also a mess. Until recently, few poor countries treated it as a scarce resource, nor did they think about how it would affect their development projects. They took it for granted.

Alongside this insouciance goes a Balkanised decision-making process, with numerous overlapping authorities responsible for different watersheds, sanitation plants and irrigation. To take a small example, the modest town of Charlottesville in Virginia has 13 water authorities.

Not surprisingly, investment in water has been patchy and neglected. Aid to developing countries for water was flat in real terms between 1990 and 2005. Within that period, there was a big shift from irrigation to drinking water and sanitation—understandable no doubt, but this meant less aid was going to the main users of water, farmers in poor countries. Aid for irrigation projects in 2002-05 was less than half what it had been in 1978-81. Angel Gurría, the head of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, talks of "a crisis in water financing".

As is often the way, business is ahead of governments in getting to grips with waste. Big drinks companies such as Coca Cola have set themselves targets to reduce the amount of water they use in making their products (in Coke's case, by 20% by 2012). The Nature Conservancy, an ecologically-minded NGO, is working on a certification plan which aims to give companies and businesses seals of approval (a bit like the Fairtrade symbol) according to how efficiently they use water. The plan is supposed to get going in 2010. That sort of thing is a good start, but just one step in a long process that has barely begun.

19.5.09

Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization? The biggest threat to global stability is the potential for food crises in poor countries to cause government collapse... our continuing failure to deal with environmental declines undermine the world food economy



SciAm.com logo
Scientific American Magazine -  April 22, 2009
Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization?
The biggest threat to global stability is the potential for food crises in poor countries to cause government collapse

By Lester R. Brown

One of the toughest things for people to do is to anticipate sudden change. Typically we project the future by extrapolating from trends in the past. Much of the time this approach works well. But sometimes it fails spectacularly, and people are simply blindsided by events such as today's economic crisis.

For most of us, the idea that civilization itself could disintegrate probably seems preposterous. Who would not find it hard to think seriously about such a complete departure from what we expect of ordinary life? What evidence could make us heed a warning so dire—and how would we go about responding to it? We are so inured to a long list of highly unlikely catastrophes that we are virtually programmed to dismiss them all with a wave of the hand: Sure, our civilization might devolve into chaos—and Earth might collide with an asteroid, too!

For many years I have studied global agricultural, population, environmental and economic trends and their interactions. The combined effects of those trends and the political tensions they generate point to the breakdown of governments and societies. Yet I, too, have resisted the idea that food shortages could bring down not only individual governments but also our global civilization.

I can no longer ignore that risk. Our continuing failure to deal with the environmental declines that are undermining the world food economy—most important, falling water tables, eroding soils and rising temperatures—forces me to conclude that such a collapse is possible.

The Problem of Failed States
Even a cursory look at the vital signs of our current world order lends unwelcome support to my conclusion. And those of us in the environmental field are well into our third de cade of charting trends of environmental decline without seeing any significant effort to reverse a single one.

In six of the past nine years world grain production has fallen short of consumption, forcing a steady drawdown in stocks. When the 2008 harvest began, world carryover stocks of grain (the amount in the bin when the new harvest begins) were at 62 days of consumption, a near record low. In response, world grain prices in the spring and summer of last year climbed to the highest level ever.

As demand for food rises faster than supplies are growing, the resulting food-price inflation puts severe stress on the governments of countries already teetering on the edge of chaos. Unable to buy grain or grow their own, hungry people take to the streets. Indeed, even before the steep climb in grain prices in 2008, the number of failing states was expanding [Purchase the digital edition to see related sidebar]. Many of their problems stem from a failure to slow the growth of their populations. But if the food situation continues to deteriorate, entire nations will break down at an ever increasing rate. We have entered a new era in geopolitics. In the 20th century the main threat to international security was superpower conflict; today it is failing states. It is not the concentration of power but its absence that puts us at risk.

States fail when national governments can no longer provide personal security, food security and basic social services such as education and health care. They often lose control of part or all of their territory. When governments lose their monopoly on power, law and order begin to disintegrate. After a point, countries can become so dangerous that food relief workers are no longer safe and their programs are halted; in Somalia and Afghanistan, deteriorating conditions have already put such programs in jeopardy.

Failing states are of international concern because they are a source of terrorists, drugs, weapons and refugees, threatening political stability everywhere. Somalia, number one on the 2008 list of failing states, has become a base for piracy. Iraq, number five, is a hotbed for terrorist training. Afghanistan, number seven, is the world's leading supplier of heroin. Following the massive genocide of 1994 in Rwanda, refugees from that troubled state, thousands of armed soldiers among them, helped to destabilize neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo (number six).

Our global civilization depends on a functioning network of politically healthy nation-states to control the spread of infectious disease, to manage the international monetary system, to control international terrorism and to reach scores of other common goals. If the system for controlling infectious diseases—such as polio, SARS or avian flu—breaks down, humanity will be in trouble. Once states fail, no one assumes responsibility for their debt to outside lenders. If enough states disintegrate, their fall will threaten the stability of global civilization itself.

A New Kind of Food Shortage
The surge in world grain prices in 2007 and 2008—and the threat they pose to food security—has a different, more troubling quality than the increases of the past. During the second half of the 20th century, grain prices rose dramatically several times. In 1972, for instance, the Soviets, recognizing their poor harvest early, quietly cornered the world wheat market. As a result, wheat prices elsewhere more than doubled, pulling rice and corn prices up with them. But this and other price shocks were event-driven—drought in the Soviet Union, a monsoon failure in India, crop-shrinking heat in the U.S. Corn Belt. And the rises were short-lived: prices typically returned to normal with the next harvest.

In contrast, the recent surge in world grain prices is trend-driven, making it unlikely to reverse without a reversal in the trends themselves. On the demand side, those trends include the ongoing addition of more than 70 million people a year; a growing number of people wanting to move up the food chain to consume highly grain-intensive livestock products [see "The Greenhouse Hamburger," by Nathan Fiala; Scientific American, February 2009]; and the massive diversion of U.S. grain to ethanol-fuel distilleries.

The extra demand for grain associated with rising affluence varies widely among countries. People in low-income countries where grain supplies 60 percent of calories, such as India, directly consume a bit more than a pound of grain a day. In affluent countries such as the U.S. and Canada, grain consumption per person is nearly four times that much, though perhaps 90 percent of it is consumed indirectly as meat, milk and eggs from grain-fed animals.

The potential for further grain consumption as incomes rise among low-income consumers is huge. But that potential pales beside the insatiable demand for crop-based automotive fuels. A fourth of this year's U.S. grain harvest—enough to feed 125 million Americans or half a billion Indians at current consumption levels—will go to fuel cars. Yet even if the entire U.S. grain harvest were diverted into making ethanol, it would meet at most 18 percent of U.S. automotive fuel needs. The grain required to fill a 25-gallon SUV tank with ethanol could feed one person for a year.

The recent merging of the food and energy economies implies that if the food value of grain is less than its fuel value, the market will move the grain into the energy economy. That double demand is leading to an epic competition between cars and people for the grain supply and to a political and moral issue of unprecedented dimensions. The U.S., in a misguided effort to reduce its dependence on foreign oil by substituting grain-based fuels, is generating global food insecurity on a scale not seen before.

Water Shortages Mean Food Shortages
What about supply? The three environmental trends I mentioned earlier—the shortage of freshwater, the loss of topsoil and the rising temperatures (and other effects) of global warming—are making it increasingly hard to expand the world's grain supply fast enough to keep up with demand. Of all those trends, however, the spread of water shortages poses the most immediate threat. The biggest challenge here is irrigation, which consumes 70 percent of the world's freshwater. Millions of irrigation wells in many countries are now pumping water out of underground sources faster than rainfall can recharge them. The result is falling water tables in countries populated by half the world's people, including the three big grain producers—China, India and the U.S.

Usually aquifers are replenishable, but some of the most important ones are not: the "fossil" aquifers, so called because they store ancient water and are not recharged by precipitation. For these—including the vast Ogallala Aquifer that underlies the U.S. Great Plains, the Saudi aquifer and the deep aquifer under the North China Plain—depletion would spell the end of pumping. In arid regions such a loss could also bring an end to agriculture altogether.

In China the water table under the North China Plain, an area that produces more than half of the country's wheat and a third of its corn, is falling fast. Overpumping has used up most of the water in a shallow aquifer there, forcing well drillers to turn to the region's deep aquifer, which is not replenishable. A report by the World Bank foresees "catastrophic consequences for future generations" unless water use and supply can quickly be brought back into balance.

As water tables have fallen and irrigation wells have gone dry, China's wheat crop, the world's largest, has declined by 8 percent since it peaked at 123 million tons in 1997. In that same period China's rice production dropped 4 percent. The world's most populous nation may soon be importing massive quantities of grain.

But water shortages are even more worrying in India. There the margin between food consumption and survival is more precarious. Millions of irrigation wells have dropped water tables in almost every state. As Fred Pearce reported in New Scientist:

Half of India's traditional hand-dug wells and millions of shallower tube wells have already dried up, bringing a spate of suicides among those who rely on them. Electricity blackouts are reaching epidemic proportions in states where half of the electricity is used to pump water from depths of up to a kilometer [3,300 feet].

A World Bank study reports that 15 percent of India's food supply is produced by mining groundwater. Stated otherwise, 175 million

Indians consume grain produced with water from irrigation wells that will soon be exhausted. The continued shrinking of water supplies could lead to unmanageable food shortages and social conflict.

Less Soil, More Hunger
The scope of the second worrisome trend—the loss of topsoil—is also startling. Topsoil is eroding faster than new soil forms on perhaps a third of the world's cropland. This thin layer of essential plant nutrients, the very foundation of civilization, took long stretches of geologic time to build up, yet it is typically only about six inches deep. Its loss from wind and water erosion doomed earlier civilizations.

In 2002 a U.N. team assessed the food situation in Lesotho, the small, landlocked home of two million people embedded within South Africa. The team's finding was straightforward: "Agriculture in Lesotho faces a catastrophic future; crop production is declining and could cease altogether over large tracts of the country if steps are not taken to reverse soil erosion, degradation and the decline in soil fertility."

In the Western Hemisphere, Haiti—one of the first states to be recognized as failing—was largely self-sufficient in grain 40 years ago. In the years since, though, it has lost nearly all its forests and much of its topsoil, forcing the country to import more than half of its grain.

The third and perhaps most pervasive environmental threat to food security—rising surface temperature—can affect crop yields everywhere. In many countries crops are grown at or near their thermal optimum, so even a minor temperature rise during the growing season can shrink the harvest. A study published by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences has confirmed a rule of thumb among crop ecologists: for every rise of one degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) above the norm, wheat, rice and corn yields fall by 10 percent.

In the past, most famously when the innovations in the use of fertilizer, irrigation and high-yield varieties of wheat and rice created the "green revolution" of the 1960s and 1970s, the response to the growing demand for food was the successful application of scientific agriculture: the technological fix. This time, regrettably, many of the most productive advances in agricultural technology have already been put into practice, and so the long-term rise in land productivity is slowing down. Between 1950 and 1990 the world's farmers increased the grain yield per acre by more than 2 percent a year, exceeding the growth of population. But since then, the annual growth in yield has slowed to slightly more than 1 percent. In some countries the yields appear to be near their practical limits, including rice yields in Japan and China.

Some commentators point to genetically modified crop strains as a way out of our predicament. Unfortunately, however, no genetically modified crops have led to dramatically higher yields, comparable to the doubling or tripling of wheat and rice yields that took place during the green revolution. Nor do they seem likely to do so, simply because conventional plant-breeding techniques have already tapped most of the potential for raising crop yields.

Jockeying for Food
As the world's food security unravels, a dangerous politics of food scarcity is coming into play: individual countries acting in their narrowly defined self-interest are actually worsening the plight of the many. The trend began in 2007, when leading wheat-exporting countries such as Russia and Argentina limited or banned their exports, in hopes of increasing locally available food supplies and thereby bringing down food prices domestically. Vietnam, the world's second-biggest rice exporter after Thailand, banned its exports for several months for the same reason. Such moves may reassure those living in the exporting countries, but they are creating panic in importing countries that must rely on what is then left of the world's exportable grain.

In response to those restrictions, grain importers are trying to nail down long-term bilateral trade agreements that would lock up future grain supplies. The Philippines, no longer able to count on getting rice from the world market, recently negotiated a three-year deal with Vietnam for a guaranteed 1.5 million tons of rice each year. Food-import anxiety is even spawning entirely new efforts by food-importing countries to buy or lease farmland in other countries [Purchase the digital edition to see related sidebar].

In spite of such stopgap measures, soaring food prices and spreading hunger in many other countries are beginning to break down the social order. In several provinces of Thailand the predations of "rice rustlers" have forced villagers to guard their rice fields at night with loaded shotguns. In Pakistan an armed soldier escorts each grain truck. During the first half of 2008, 83 trucks carrying grain in Sudan were hijacked before reaching the Darfur relief camps.

No country is immune to the effects of tightening food supplies, not even the U.S., the world's breadbasket. If China turns to the world market for massive quantities of grain, as it has recently done for soybeans, it will have to buy from the U.S. For U.S. consumers, that would mean competing for the U.S. grain harvest with 1.3 billion Chinese consumers with fast-rising incomes—a nightmare scenario. In such circumstances, it would be tempting for the U.S. to restrict exports, as it did, for instance, with grain and soybeans in the 1970s when domestic prices soared. But that is not an option with China. Chinese investors now hold well over a trillion U.S. dollars, and they have often been the leading international buyers of U.S. Treasury securities issued to finance the fiscal deficit. Like it or not, U.S. consumers will share their grain with Chinese consumers, no matter how high food prices rise.

Plan B: Our Only Option
Since the current world food shortage is trend-driven, the environmental trends that cause it must be reversed. To do so requires extraordinarily demanding measures, a monumental shift away from business as usual—what we at the Earth Policy Institute call Plan A—to a civilization-saving Plan B. [see "Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization," at 
www.earthpoli cy.org/Books/PB3/]

Similar in scale and urgency to the U.S. mobilization for World War II, Plan B has four components: a massive effort to cut carbon emissions by 80 percent from their 2006 levels by 2020; the stabilization of the world's population at eight billion by 2040; the eradication of poverty; and the restoration of forests, soils and aquifers.

Net carbon dioxide emissions can be cut by systematically raising energy efficiency and investing massively in the development of renewable sources of energy. We must also ban deforestation worldwide, as several countries already have done, and plant billions of trees to sequester carbon. The transition from fossil fuels to renewable forms of energy can be driven by imposing a tax on carbon, while offsetting it with a reduction in income taxes.

Stabilizing population and eradicating poverty go hand in hand. In fact, the key to accelerating the shift to smaller families is eradicating poverty—and vice versa. One way is to ensure at least a primary school education for all children, girls as well as boys. Another is to provide rudimentary, village-level health care, so that people can be confident that their children will survive to adulthood. Women everywhere need access to reproductive health care and family-planning services.

The fourth component, restoring the earth's natural systems and resources, incorporates a worldwide initiative to arrest the fall in water tables by raising water productivity: the useful activity that can be wrung from each drop. That implies shifting to more efficient irrigation systems and to more water-efficient crops. In some countries, it implies growing (and eating) more wheat and less rice, a water-intensive crop. And for industries and cities, it implies doing what some are doing already, namely, continuously recycling water.

At the same time, we must launch a worldwide effort to conserve soil, similar to the U.S. response to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Terracing the ground, planting trees as shelterbelts against windblown soil erosion, and practicing minimum tillage—in which the soil is not plowed and crop residues are left on the field—are among the most important soil-conservation measures.

There is nothing new about our four interrelated objectives. They have been discussed individually for years. Indeed, we have created entire institutions intended to tackle some of them, such as the World Bank to alleviate poverty. And we have made substantial progress in some parts of the world on at least one of them—the distribution of family-planning services and the associated shift to smaller families that brings population stability.

For many in the development community, the four objectives of Plan B were seen as positive, promoting development as long as they did not cost too much. Others saw them as humanitarian goals—politically correct and morally appropriate. Now a third and far more momentous rationale presents itself: meeting these goals may be necessary to prevent the collapse of our civilization. Yet the cost we project for saving civilization would amount to less than $200 billion a year, a sixth of current global military spending. In effect, Plan B is the new security budget.

Time: Our Scarcest Resource
Our challenge is not only to implement Plan B but also to do it quickly. The world is in a race between political tipping points and natural ones. Can we close coal-fired power plants fast enough to prevent the Greenland ice sheet from slipping into the sea and inundating our coastlines? Can we cut carbon emissions fast enough to save the mountain glaciers of Asia? During the dry season their meltwaters sustain the major rivers of India and China—and by extension, hundreds of millions of people. Can we stabilize population before countries such as India, Pakistan and Yemen are overwhelmed by shortages of the water they need to irrigate their crops?

It is hard to overstate the urgency of our predicament. [For the most thorough and authoritative scientific assessment of global climate change, see "Climate Change 2007. Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change," available at www.ipcc.ch] Every day counts. Unfortunately, we do not know how long we can light our cities with coal, for instance, before Greenland's ice sheet can no longer be saved. Nature sets the deadlines; nature is the timekeeper. But we human beings cannot see the clock.

We desperately need a new way of thinking, a new mind-set. The thinking that got us into this bind will not get us out. When Elizabeth Kolbert, a writer for the New Yorker, asked energy guru Amory Lovins about thinking outside the box, Lovins responded: "There is no box."

There is no box. That is the mind-set we need if civilization is to survive. 
Further Reading
Taming Humanity's Urge to War
Valley Fever Blowing on a Hotter Wind
The Mind-Body Problem
Photo Safaris: Environmentally Friendly "Hunting" Trips
 
Scientific American reviews: Lucy's Legacy