Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Bio-Fuel and the Food Crisis

Hemantha Withanage,
Executive Director, Centre for Environmental Justice

Sri Lanka is planning to run train engines with bio-fuel by 2010. Big corporations are eyeing to cultivate 65,000 hectares of sugar cane in Sri Lanka to produce ethanol. However, the so called green solution to climate change and increasing fossil fuel prices seem much more disastrous to the human society and the environment.

The most recent worry of human society is the growing food crisis. Rising food prices have ignited riots in some countries. Some think that this is the first real economic crisis of globalization. About 850 million of people go to bed in hunger every night. About 1.1 billion people are still living below the one dollar poverty line. According to reports the new food crisis pushed 100 million more people back below the poverty line.

It was told that world has adequate food but the issue is that there is no proper distribution. However, according to the Asian Development Bank (ADB) “the era of cheap food for Asia is over as surging demand, supply problems and the growing production of bio-fuels will keep food prices high.” The Bank refers to the growing demand for food in Asia. However, as reported by the Guardian in early July 2008, the leaked World Bank study disputes that: "Rapid income growth in developing countries has not led to large increases in global grain consumption and was not a major factor responsible for the large price increases."

The US government claims that plant- derived fuels contribute less than 3% to food-price rises. Meanwhile, as the Guardian reported, an unpublished report of the World Bank state that Bio-fuels have forced global food prices up by 75% - far more than previously estimated. The other factors, such as high energy prizes, and fertilizer prices, have contributed only 15% according to the report.

Bio-fuel is the controversial alternative fuel to reduce emission of greenhouse gases and reduce dependence on imported fuel. Bio-fuel is any fuel that is derived from biomass i.e. present living organisms or their metabolic byproducts. Therefore, it is a renewable energy source, unlike other natural resources such as petroleum, coal, gas and nuclear energy. Since so-called bio-fuel is mostly based on agricultural plants, activists consider bio-fuel as agro-fuel.

The plants whose oils are popularly considered for bio-fuel are soybeans, rapeseed, sunflower, safflower and palm, which are mostly food sources. Agricultural products specifically grown for use as bio-fuels include corn and soybeans, mostly in the United States, and flaxseed and rapeseed, mostly in Europe. The recent G8 summit however called for promotion of bio-fuel derived from non food sources.

The most famous agro-fuel is ethanol derived from molasses a byproduct of the sugar industry. Brazil’s transport sector uses ethanol upto 30%. The World Bank report points out that agro-fuels derived from sugarcane, which Brazil specializes in, have not had such a dramatic impact. However, cultivation of sugar cane has increased tremendously which has resulted in loosing fertile land for food production and increased water pollution. The most controversial agro-fuel is ethanol derived from corn in the United States which is only about 2% of the transport energy requirement.

Bio-diesel refers to any diesel equivalent bio-fuel made from renewable biological materials such as vegetable oils, castor oil or animal fats etc. Bio-diesel can be used in diesel engines either as a standalone in modified diesel engines or blended with petro diesel for unmodified diesel engines. Fuel containing 20 % bio-diesel is labeled B20 and pure bio-diesel is referred to as B100.

Bio-diesel is mostly produced in Europe. It needs large amounts of land. Millions of hectares of agricultural and forest lands have been converted to oil palm, sugar cane, and other cultivations that produce bio-fuel in India, Colombia, Indonesia, Brazil etc, which creates many other social and environmental issues. Other than land, water is a limiting factor for cultivation of such plants.

Political leaders of the developed countries seem to be ignoring the strong evidence that agro-fuels are a major factor in recent food price increase. They concentrate more in keeping industry going and learning poor people live in hunger. Yet, there is no clear policy on the use of agro-fuel. Some countries have mandatory agro-fuel in addition to petrol and diesel. Since April 2008 Britain has had to include 2.5% from agro-fuels. The EU has been considering raising that target to 10% by 2020. Philippines also use 10% addition to fossil fuel.

Both bio-fuel and bio-diesel prices are higher than the conventional petrol and diesel, unless subsidized by the governments. According to sources it can replace only about 15% of the world fuel requirements, while it will be responsible for releasing 17- 450 times green house gas emission due to conversion of Forest for cultivation of such plants as Conservation International forecasts.

It is too early for Sri Lanka to learn from other countries the pros and cons of using agro-fuel. While it can be a solution to the use of fossil fuel in the transport sector, the transport sector is only responsible for 20% of the total fossil fuel consumption. 80% of the fossil fuel is used for electricity generation. Sri Lanka is fast advancing towards high carbon economy. Sri Lanka will generate 3300 MW electricity using coal by 2015. However coal is not a cheap fossil fuel source anymore. It is highly polluted compared to other thermal options. Converting few train engines to run with bio-fuel is not a big relief then.

It is a shame that converting food to bio-fuel when 850 million people suffer and 25,000 people die each day from hunger. Although the situation in Sri Lanka is not bad as India, Bangladesh or Pakistan, Bio-fuel is not a green option for Sri Lanka too. As an island, Sri Lanka has limited land. It will perhaps destroy our remaining forests, and fertile agricultural land and water. Making ethanol will pollute the remaining water sources. This will worsen the food crisis. We already have enough social and environmental problems due to Pelwatta and other sugar cane cultivations. Perhaps Sri Lanka needs a scientific debate over this issue before politicians make another ad-hoc decision.

29 July, 2008

Friday, July 18, 2008

Climate Change and Environmental Governance

Paper presented at the Climate Change and Ecological Justice parallel session at the South Asian People’s Assembly( People’s SAARC) held in Colombo from 18-20 July 2008

Hemantha Withanage
Executive Director, Centre for Environmental Justice, Sri Lanka

Most environmental decisions are still taken by the politicians and high level bureaucrats. Those who have scientific knowledge are still not in the front line in these decisions. Climate negotiations once again prove this reality. While IPCC is clear about the global warming the mandatory emission cuts, it is a hot issue among the elite, corporations and the politicians. Self appointed body, G8 undermines the UNFCCC negotiations. The affected communities and the vulnerable communities nowhere near the discussion tables.

Floods and cyclone Sidr in Bangladesh killed over 3000 people and affected over 900,000 families in year 2007. Last floods in Sri Lanka affected over 200,000 people and killed few. Recent cyclone Nargis killed over 100,000 Burmese and affected more than 2.5 million people. Meanwhile stories from India, China, are much more catastrophic. During the drought of 1999-2001 in Afghanistan FAO suggest that about half of the population was directly or indirectly affected by drought. About 3 to 4 million people were severely affected and another 8 to 12 million were under the threat of famine and stranded. Around 300,000 people fled to neighboring Iran and Pakistan and more than 400,000 moved to safe places within the country. There are similar stories across South Asia.

According to new Greenpeace Report “Blue Alert, Climate Migrants in South Asia” More than 120 million people from India and Bangladesh alone will become homeless by the end of this century." It estimates that 75 million people from Bangladesh will lose their homes. It also predicts that about 45 million people in India will also become "Climate migrants". Around 130 million people now live in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh in which are called low elevation coastal zones, which comprise coastal regions that are less than 10m above the average sea level.
Growing number of natural disasters such as floods, droughts, cyclones are mostly affecting the poor who have no idea of what is happening in the world. How many poor coastal, communities knows melting glaziers in the North Pole and Himalayas is the reason for sea level rise and coastal erosion? How many poor people know that burning fossil fuel is the reason for the strong cyclones and disastrous floods? How many Maldivians know that they will go under water within next few decades due to the GHG emission produced by those tourists who come from the rich countries?
For the first time in the history Environment ministers from the South Asian regional body, SAARC, met in early July 2008 in Bangladesh have agreed on measures to tackle climate change. They agreed to share data on weather patterns and their experiences of dealing with natural disasters. The environment ministers have agreed to a series of resolutions to pool resources and know-how. Bangladesh, which is frequently hit by massive floods and cyclones, will share its experience of handling large-scale natural disasters. The ministers want South Asia to speak with as one in the international negotiations on climate change and also to appeal jointly for global funds. Will this alone solve the problems?

There is no question among the scientific community that GHG emission is the main cause for the melting glaciers and increased intensity of floods and droughts. Rich nations, mostly highly industrialized countries release more than 50 per cent of CO2 emissions by burning fossil fuel in order to maintain their luxury life style. Current per capita emission levels in the SAARC countries which is around Sri Lanka 0.6 tonnes, Bangladesh 0.3 tonnes, Maldives 2.5 tonnes, Pakistan 0.8, Afghanistan…..India 1.2 tonnes Nepal 0.1 Butan 0.2 is quite low comparing to the 21 tonnes in United States.[1] Among few other solutions, reducing CO2 by limiting consumption of fossil fuel will be the number one solution.

During the SAARC Environment Ministers meeting Bangladesh's interim Prime Minister, Fakruddhin Ahmed, said that rich polluting nations had a duty to help poor countries adapt to changes, like rising sea levels, which threaten to inundate coastal areas.”However, the truth is United States and some other rich nations block reduction of emission negotiated by the UNFCCC. Agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally by 50 percent by 2050, which was among the major decisions of the recent G8 summit held in Japan which seems to be a reverse from the minimum action that was demanded by the global community during the United Nations Summit on Climate Change in Bali last December. It was also projected the minimum cut needed by 2050 to be in the range of 80 to 90 percent, if the rise in global temperature was to be kept below 2 degrees centigrade in the 21st century.

Except India, no other countries in the SAARC region can make a strong voice in this debate. However, India is a growing economy that increases GHG emission day by day. To my opinion other countries in the region are more fascinated with the so called mechanisms provided by the UN and other Multilateral Development Banks which are more towards financial packages for clean development mechanism, climate investment Funds , Carbon credit etc. Sri Lankan Carbon Fund is an incorporated entity that promotes public private partnership. They deal with the big polluters in order to promote clean development and sell purchase carbon credits.

There can be engineering and scientific solutions to mitigate the problems. But it is not simple as the rising sea levels would be devastating. The impacts will also include flood and storm damage, drinking water shortage, loss of economic activities and income generation, erosion, saltwater intrusion, rising water tables and wetland loss. These will greatly reduce the ability of the SAARC countries to provide people access to land for living and cultivation, water, causing severe hardship.

As Greenpeace report pointed out “about 125 million migrants, comprising about 75% from Bangladesh alone could be rendered homeless by climate change. The bulk of migrants from Bangladesh are likely to move to India creating further tensions.” The region is already home to the largest number of people living in poverty and such impacts will take a horrendous human toll. The report says that India should seek policy options that are proactive in terms of developing international strategies to reduce the risk of destructive climate change.

Can the elected governments and handful of aid agencies deal with the problems without mobilizing the civil society? The Civil society, especially those Poor who are most vulnerable to the climate disasters are still in dark with regard to the climate impacts. Therefore, responsible governments and agencies should enlighten the civil society and bringing the vulnerable groups to the climate decisions.
  • Establish both formal and informal climate impact education
  • Identification and mapping of disaster prone areas
  • Learning of traditional community adaptation; survival techniques during droughts, floods, cyclones etc.,
  • Sharing community knowledge with other communities in the region who are vulnerable to similar disasters
  • Combine expert opinion of the scientific community with community knowledge and make suitable plans for mitigation climate impacts
  • Identify suitable economic models and income generation for communities those vulnerable to loss of properties and income
  • Educate small industrial sector for emission reduction techniques and promote green industries
  • Educate every citizen for the protection of trees and forest as carbon sinks and
  • Promote a low carbon economic model across the nations though public participation.
  • Approach carbon credits and other mechanisms for necessary fund generation and make transparent mechanism to spend those funds for the implementation of agreed mitigation, income generation and establishment of suitable economic models

True environmental governance needs all stakeholder groups to take part on the environmental decisions. Governments and the bureaucracy cannot manage the climate crisis without true participation of the civil society especially those who are vulnerable and affected from climate related disasters.

19th July 2008
[1] UNDP, Human development Index 2007/2008- http://hdrstats.undp.org/indicators/238.html

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The G8, Environment and Climate Change

Hemantha Withanage
Executive Director, Centre for Environmental Justice

Climate Change and Food crisis were two major items that dominated the G8 summit 2008 just ended in Hokkaido, Japan. However, the agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally by 50 percent by 2050, which was among the major decisions, is perhaps a reverse from the minimum action that was demanded by the global community during the United Nations Summit on Climate Change in Bali last December.

In the Bali Climate Conference, opposition from the US, Japan, and Canada almost killed a developing consensus that should commit industrialized countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 25-40 percent from 1990 levels by 2020. It was also projected the minimum cut needed by 2050 to be in the range of 80 to 90 percent, if the rise in global temperature was to be kept below 2 degrees centigrade in the 21st century.

The G8 emission cut has no clear baseline. According to Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda it was from 1990 levels. However, subsequently he mentioned that it is based on year 2000 baseline. Furthermore this declaration of intent is not binding.

Even though the G8 countries, responsible for half of the GHG emissions, the G8 recipe suggests a global cut, not one undertaken by the industrialized countries alone. This gives opportunity for the big polluters, like the US, to reduce only a little and pressure other countries to reduce emissions. As indicated by the Bush administration they would block any plan to tie G8 countries to commitments on emission targets without a global deal. However, within hours China and India and other emerging economies refused to endorse the targets, arguing that richer nations should carry more of the burden.

G8's endorsement of the World Bank's Climate Investment Funds seems to be another wrong push. According to the G8 communiqué certain countries had already pledged $6 billion. The said fund does not have a clear definition of clean technology. Therefore it will lead the funds may be used to finance projects that do not clearly mitigate climate change or may take up resources that bring only incremental change when we need a fundamental change. Many developing countries see the World Bank mechanism as a threat to serious efforts to assist the global South to deal with climate change.

According to the Civil society statement, “Challenge to the G8 Governments” since the signing of the Climate Convention in 1992, and even after instituting “environmental policies,” the World Bank approved more than 133 financial packages for oil, coal and gas extraction projects, comprising mainly loans but also including equity investments, guarantees and some grants. The total amount exceeds US$28 billion dollars. Fossil fuel corporations based in G8 countries benefit from almost every project finance package. The International Finance Corporation of the World Bank is increasing its fossil fuel lending portfolio. The Asian Development Bank, of which Japan and the United States are the biggest shareholders, is a major lender to coal, oil and gas projects in Asia, approving close to US$2 billion worth of loans since the year 2000.

The said G8 statement undermines the already established Adaptation Fund under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Bali by the Conference of Parties in December 2007 to provide technological assistance to developing countries. It is unfortunate that instead of funding this mechanism, the G8 countries will divert their contributions to the World Bank Climate Investment Funds to maintain control of the process of technology transfer.

According to the G8 Action Network, “after failing as a development bank, the World Bank is now trying to create the image that it is the "climate bank." With the 2 billion already spent on coal, oil and gas projects over the last year, the World Bank has broken its own record as the world's largest multilateral financier of greenhouse-emitting energy initiatives.”

While the G8 agreed to the importance of clean energy it promotes nuclear power as one of the solutions. Considering the risk of Nuclear power it is not a clean source. Meanwhile it proves business for certain G8 countries.

The G8 statement on Forest sector is a positive approach. It says “we will make all possible efforts by ensuring close coordination among various fora and initiatives with a view to promoting effective forest law enforcement and governance and sustainable forest management worldwide.” They also plan to combat wildfires which largely contribute to the global warming. However, G8 countries do not own much Forest resources.

Under the 3R( Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) initiative by endorsing the Kobe 3R Action Plan G8 “supports the international circulation of reusable and recyclable materials and resources in an environmentally sound manner consistent with the Basel Convention.” However, this might promote the electronic waste circulation from the developed countries to the developing countries.

The G8 climate solution undermines the global process and become an obstacle for the agreed processes. Global warming is a result of overconsumption by several rich nations. There is no other solution other than reduction of the emission of GHG by reducing consumption. However self appointed G8, led by United States is a greater obstacle for such a process.

G8 calls Multilateral Development Banks to support the adaptation efforts of the least developing countries and small island countries that are most vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climate change. Perhaps while the endless global debate on climate change continues, adaptation is the only available option for the vulnerable communities.

July 2008, Colombo