In addition to helping produce content and tweak the design for their new website, I’ve created a Facebook page for Bangalore-based NGO The Concerned for Working Chidren. Click ‘like’ for news stories and announcements.
This is the great question of the 21st Century, really, and it’s as hard to settle as it is vital.
For the longest time, it was seen as rather axiomatic that getting carbon emissions down to a sustainable level would mean saying “goodbye to growth.” This was phrased in different ways – usually with some vague comment about how we’d all be better off if we didn’t care so much about ‘stuff’ and how a post-growth society could be fairer, more peaceful, more equal, etc. (See for example Affluenza and Prosperity without Growth, or the provocatively-titled website Make Wealth History.) This seems to be intuitively sensible to quite a lot of people, and there’s a veritable cottage industry devoted to helping people ‘live sustainably’ by reducing their economic activity in order to reduce their personal carbon footprint – growing their own food and so on.
In more recent years, though, this reaction has been roundly challenged by a more optimistic view, apparently nicknamed ‘bright green’, which believes that a combination of technological improvements can enable us to reduce emissions to below dangerous levels without sacrificing (much) economic growth – or the key aspects of our cosy Western lifestyles. This view has quickly become the mainstream view amongst policymakers – particularly since the 2007 Stern report, which argued addressing climate change was achievable for the cost of a few % of GDP growth. (It’s also Al Gore’s basic position.)
It’s also a view I’m instinctively drawn to.
I wrote much of the new website of the Nobel-nominated Indian children’s rights NGO The Concerned For Working Children, including this page on child marriage:
Our approach is to empower children to make change in their own communities. Members of organisations facilitated by CWC for the empowerment of children have prevented many instances of child marriage in their villages through campaigning in their own villages.
In 2002, for example, members of Bhima Sangha (the union of working children facilitated by CWC) staged a protest in their village to help their friend Vedha, 11, from being pushed into an early marriage. Despite the opposition of their parents and neighbours, the children marched to the police station and demanded action to stop the illegal marriage. Policemen gave Vedha to the children for protection until after the wedding date, and she stayed with other members in their small training centre. Since Vedha’s case, many children have been saved from early marriage by activism by their Bhima Sangha friends.
Published in the Deccan Herald, August 2012
Step into any of Karnataka’s glistening malls and you will see a wide range of exciting world cuisine for sale. But away from the glamour, thousands of children across the state do not have enough to eat. It’s a disgrace that more than half of Karnataka’s children under the age of six are malnourished.
The Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), set up by the government to tackle malnutrition has been mired in corruption and controversy. Now with the threat of widespread drought looming over several districts, we can expect further reductions in availability of nutritious food for children. With the state failing to make ICDS work effectively, an alternative implementation framework is desperately needed, which places responsibility for feeding our children in the hands of those best placed to do it – the elected local governments – the panchayats and municipal corporations.
I have a new favourite book.
It’s not a novel. I wouldn’t call exactly call it non-fiction, though, either. If anything it’s an instruction manual. And it’s not written by a famous writer, or journalist, or even a regular joe with a gift for words who had a horrible childhood/exciting divorce.
It’s written by children.
It’s called Work We Can and Cannot Do, and it’s amazing.
It was published a little over ten years ago by The Concerned for Working Children, the organisation I’m volunteering for here in Bangalore. I love it not because it’s inspiring to read, though, in a strange way, it is. I love it because it’s a sudden sharp shock of sense in a very fraught debate. It’s like when you’re in the middle of a heated argument and then someone comes up with a new suggestion and everyone’s left thinking, ‘why didn’t we think of this before’?
The ‘child labour’ debate
You see, coming to work at CWC I have, quite unintentionally, stepped into the middle of one of the most fraught debates in the development sphere in India, and maybe anywhere – that of ‘child labour.’ (I’ll explain the scare quotes in a second.) You might think that this is a fairly straightforward matter, right? Child labour is bad. Children toiling in factories and hotels and fields when they should be in school? That’s bad, right?
If you’re involved in development or you’ve looked into the issue, you might have picked up that it’s a bit more complicated than that. The money that children make from working often provides essential support for their families, to pay medical bills, provide extra food, and so on. Simply taking the children out of work and putting them in school can be disastrous for families’ incomes or, more often, simply doesn’t work – the children skip school and are forced to work in ‘unofficial’ jobs, often with worse pay and conditions. To get them to stop working and stay in school, you have to provide extra financial support to their families to make up for the lost income.
That, at least, is the rough concensus amongst Western NGOs and the like. It’s also (kinda, sorta) the underlying principle of Indian legal and political efforts on the issue.
But it turns out it’s still more complicated than that.
For the most part both newspapers and the blogosphere spend their time arguing small, specific questions, as is good and proper. But now and then you read a headline that seems to ask one of The Big Questions. Rarely, though, does the piece that follows offer a convincing answer. A notable exception appears on the Guardian website (and possibly also in the paper, I don’t know) today, where George Monbiot asks: Is protecting the environment incompatible with social justice?
This is, obviously, an important question. Indeed, it’s really the essential question facing mankind in the 21st century: can we, against the odds, finish the job of raising all of humanity to a decent standard of living while simultaneously slashing carbon emissions to prevent catastrophic climate change?
The answer is often assumed to be ‘no’. Monbiot refers to right-wingers who suddenly become champions of the world’s poor when it gives them an excuse to criticise green policies. (Exhibit A.) But greens, too, often express ambivalence about development. The stereotypical traditionalist green view, with its love of home-grown food, reuse of manufactured items and a general rejection of materialism, essentially amounts to a call for rich countries to return to a pre-development lifestyle. Conversations about climate change talk (quite understandably) about China and India’s rapid economic growth as an ecological catastrophe in the making – never mind the fact that it’s lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.
There’s a real problem here – in terms of China and India’s rising carbon emissions, in terms of overpopulation, and so on. But as Monbiot – quoting from a new Oxfam discussion paper – goes on to explain, meeting the basic needs of the world’s poor actually carries with it a very small environmental cost.
Published on CleanTechnica, January 2012
Regular readers are well aware of concentrating solar power (CSP), the growing technology which uses the sun’s energy to heat fluid (not unlike a steam engine) rather than using photovoltaic cells to convert it directly to electricity. If you’re not up to speed, we recently published a quick primer on CSP and why it could be vital to tomorrow’s energy mix.
But every CSP installation requires hundreds of mirrors to catch the sun’s rays and direct them towards the central tower, where the fluid is stored. The problem is, those mirrors take up a lot of space. That’s why, so far, the majority of CSP installations have been in fairly out-of-town desert locations.
But, now, a team of researchers at MIT have come up with a way of packing the mirrors — known as heliostats — in more tightly, while still efficiently directing the sun’s rays to the central tower. And the solution takes its inspiration from a very appropriate source in nature — the sunflower.
At most CSP sites, the heliostats — typically several hundred of them, each the size of half a tennis court — are arranged in concentric circles. As MIT explains, “The spacing between mirrors is similar to the seats in a movie theater, staggered so that every other row is aligned. However, this pattern results in higher-than-necessary shadowing and blocking throughout the day, reducing the reflection of light from mirrors to the tower.” Good sunlight wasted, in other words.
…but still vehemently denies the existence of climate change
Everyone’s jumping up and down: who is Rick Santorum? Who is Rick Santorum?!
The former Senator from Pennsylvania seemed all but invisible over the last year as a series of candidates stole the position of ‘person most likely to be the Republican nominee if it isn’t Mitt Romney.’ First Trump, then Bachmann, then Perry, then Cain, then Gingrich. All fell away after a few weeks in the spotlight, and now it’s Santorum — along with Ron Paul — who’s getting all the attention after he nearly beat Romney in the Iowa primary on Tuesday.
We’ll leave it up to The Washington Post, the BBC, et al to give you a primer on Santorum’s general take on things. One particular detail about Santorum caught our attention: he has received the least donations from oil & gas companies of any of the remaining Republican candidates.
That’s according to recent figures from the Federal Election Commission, as compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. Santorum has received a measly $5,250 from oil & gas companies and their employees so far in this election cycle, it says. Newt Gingrich has received $18,650; Michelle Bachmann, who ended her campaign after coming sixth in Iowa, $37,290; and front-runner Mitt Romney $313,200. The champion, though? Rick Perry, with a whopping $750,408.
Of course, Santorum has received less donations overall, too, as he’s widely been seen as a minor candidate. But if we divide this figure by the candidates’ overall fundraising, we can see roughly what percentage of their funding comes from the oil & gas industry. The results are striking: Rick Perry has got 4.3% of funding from oil & gas; Romney, just under 1%. Rick Santorum? Just 0.4%.
(This extremely unscientific, as the overall fundraising figures are for only the first three quarters of 2011, while the oil & gas figures reach into November. But it’s enough to get the gist.)
You might think, given this massive disparity, that Rick Santorum might be considerably less of a shill for oil & gas interests than his rival candidates. Sadly, not so much. As Grist pointed out earlier this week, Santorum is a denier of the grade-A class…
Low-carbon development isn’t always about expanding renewable energy and public transport. The World Bank recently published a report laying out how Brazil can meet its aims for economic development while reducing greenhouse gas emissions – and its main recommendations are in the areas of agriculture and land use.
With over 190 million people, Brazil is the world’s fifth-largest country and expected to be one of the economic giants of the 21st Century. The Brazilian parliament has adopted a voluntary goal of reducing emissions in 2020 by about 37% against current predictions. The World Bank study designs a ‘low carbon scenario’ for Brazil which sees emissions between 2010-30 reduced 37% against projections, and leaves emissions in 2030 20% below the level of 2008.
Brazil’s economy is already relatively green, with renewables – mostly hydropower – already accounting for much of its electricity generation and biofuels, mostly ethanol, providing a large proportion of transport fuel. Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions per person each year are less than half the global average. The World Bank’s report recommends a familiar list of steps to further reduce Brazil’s emissions, including further expanding renewable energy, improving urban public transport, and further increasing the proportion of transport fuel provided by biofuels to 80%.
But Brazil has one very big source of greenhouse gas emissions: deforestation. The basin of the Amazon river, which lies mostly within Brazil’s borders, has suffered from extensive logging in recent decades. Deforestation releases carbon trapped in trees, and prevents future trees from extracting carbon from the atmosphere. The Brazilian government has made considerable progress in reducing deforestation in the last few years, but it still accounts for two-fifths of Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, the activities which tend to lead to deforestation – livestock farming and the farming of corn for ethanol biofuel – need to expand significantly in the next few decades if Brazil is to meet its targets for development. Agriculture accounts for another quarter of Brazil’s emissions.
How do you expand agriculture while freeing up space to return to forest? You increase the land efficiency of your farming.
The heading ‘geo-engineering’ covers a vast array of possible interventions. Broadly speaking, they fit into two categories. The total climate change the Earth experiences will depend essentially on two key factors: how much sunlight is absorbed by the planet, and how much of of that heat – when it radiates out again – is trapped by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Conventional climate change mitigation efforts try, in one way or another, to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases – and particularly carbon – we put into the atmosphere.
Some geo-engineering projects build on this by trying to take some of the excess greenhouse gases we’ve already put in the atmosphere out again and store them elsewhere. In the common ‘greenhouse effect’ analogy, this is like taking a few panes of glass out of the greenhouse.
Other geo-engineering projects try to reduce the warming effect by reflecting more of the Sun’s rays so they don’t get trapped in the ‘greenhouse’ in the first place – the equivalent of putting some shade over the greenhouse when it gets too hot.
Instinctively, the former – carbon extraction – seems more reasonable, right? If we’ve put too much carbon in the atmosphere, it stands to reason we should take some out again. But carbon-extraction geo-engineering schemes can be highly controversial. For example, research into ‘seeding’ areas of ocean with iron in order to promote the growth of carbon-munching plankton has been the subject of protests by green groups.
Meanwhile, sunlight-reflecting geo-engineering conjures up images of giant space mirrors that will remain, most likely, in the realm of science fiction. But one of the least controversial and simplest methods of geo-engineering works by reflecting more sunlight: painting streets and buildings white.
So any conversation about the topic needs to bear in mind that some geo-engineering projects are far more complex and risky than others. Nevertheless, the IPCC’s research programme seems to include some pretty hi-sci stuff, such as bio-engineering crops on a global scale to be lighter and more reflective. So while we should keep in mind that some geo-engineering ideas are a lot more controversial than others, it’s nonetheless appropriate to consider the case against the kind of projects the IPCC is about to assess.
The most notable success from my development blog, this post received over 1000 hits in a few days and was linked to by several development blogs worldwide.
For those of you who found my chart summarising African history since independence too complicated, my amazing friend John has (amazingly) produced a simpler version. Rather than tracking country by country, it helps you see how the governmental composition of Africa has shifted over time.
The wider a section the more states were in that situation at the time. So we can clearly see how colonialism gave way to dictatorship and war, then in many cases to one or other level of democracy. But war and tyranny remain with us today.