To Combat Scarcity, Increase Water-Use Efficiency in Agriculture

By Sophie Wenzlau

This blog was originally published as part of an online consultation organized by The Broker  on the role of water in the post-2015 development agenda. Click here to read the original post. 

Photo Credit: World Bank

The South Centre has argued that “as oil conflicts were central to 20th century history, the struggle over freshwater is set to shape a new turning point in the world order.” Water scarcity, which already affects one in three people on earth, is set to increase in magnitude and scope as the global population grows, increasing affluence drives up demand, and the climate changes. According to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), “half the world’s population will be living in areas of high water stress by 2030, including 75 to 250 million people in Africa.” In the Sahel region of Africa, desertification caused by overgrazing, unsustainable farming, and the collection of wood for fuel is already responsible for systemic crop failure, soil erosion, and devastating famine. Failure to act on water scarcity will lead to more of the same.

Though water scarcity will surely play a defining role in the 21st century, the assumption that ‘water wars’ are inevitable is overly deterministic and assumes the worst of people. Historically, the need to manage trans-group or trans-boundary water basins has actually tended to facilitate cooperation between groups with competing interests. In the last fifty years, there have been only 37 incidents of acute conflict over water, while during the same period, approximately 295 international water agreements were negotiated and signed. According to Nidal Salim, director of the Global Institute for Water, Environment, and Health, the potential to peacefully overcome water scarcity does exist; it depends on political will, trust between nations, and real manifestations of cooperation.

To peacefully overcome water scarcity, leaders at all levels must prioritize efforts to cooperatively increase water-use efficiency, reduce water waste, and manage demand.

Increasing efficiency in irrigation—which is responsible for the consumption of 70 percent of the world’s total water withdrawal—would be a sensible place to start. Improved water management in agriculture could increase global water availability, catalyze development, reduce soil erosion, and lead to increased and diversified agricultural yields, augmenting our ability to feed a population projected to reach 9 billion by 2050.

Currently, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), an astonishing 60 percent of the water diverted or pumped for irrigation is wasted—via runoff into waterways or evapotranspiration. This does not have to be the case. Farmers can achieve water-use efficiency gains in a number of ways: by growing a diverse array of crops suited to local conditions, especially in drought-prone regions;  by practicing agroforestry or growing perennial crops, to build strong root systems and reduce soil erosion; by maintaining healthy soils, either by applying organic fertilizer or growing cover crops to retain soil moisture; and by adopting irrigation systems like “drip” lines that deliver water directly to plants’ roots.

In arid regions of the Middle East, improved water management in agriculture has notably augmented both water and food security. An experimental drip irrigation project run by the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme in the Syrian village of Fraytan has, for example, reduced the annual demand for water by 30 percent and increased agricultural yields by nearly 60 percent.

Another, though less intuitive, way to reduce inefficient water use in agriculture is to reduce consumer food waste, for wasting food means wasting the resources (i.e. water, land, and energy) that were used to produce it. Worldwide, 30 to 40 percent of all food produced is either lost or wasted between the stages of production and consumption.

Not only is smart water management necessary to combat scarcity, it is necessary to help our global food system adapt to a potentially harsh and uncertain future. Leaders of all persuasions should cooperate to make agriculture water-use efficiency an international priority.

Sophie Wenzlau is a Staff Researcher for the Worldwatch Institute’s Food and Agriculture Program.

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The World Bank: Financing the Future or Living in the Past?

The World Bank president of eight months, Jim Yong Kim, has a lot to say about climate change. Most recently he addressed the G20 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors’ meeting, declaring that “no country- rich or poor – is immune from the impacts of climate-related disasters…. At the World Bank Group we are stepping up our mitigation, adaptation and disaster risk management work.” He argued that climate change needs to be addressed by finance ministers and bank governors, that the economic consequences of climate change pose enormous risks to both developed and developing countries.

Kosovo is currently a battleground over a new coal-fired power plant. (picture courtesy jonworth-eu via flickr)

Kosovo is currently a battleground over a new coal-fired power plant. (picture courtesy jonworth-eu via flickr)

Kim has been vocal about his desires to address climate change in World Bank funded projects. As World Bank president he is responsible for development projects that aid the world’s poorest, who also happen to be those most vulnerable to climate change, so Kim’s emphasis is appropriate. He calls for the world’s political and economic elite to provide leadership in the battle against climate change, placing the burden on those most responsible for it in order to ensure a healthy future for the next generation.

The World Bank funds a variety of projects to mitigate and adapt to the changing climate, ranging from light bulb efficiency to solar power to safety nets in response to extreme weather events. They also provide extensive data and analysis on climate change, which can help policy makers develop and implement projects and policies that address climate change, or account for climate change in their development strategies. This includes the Bank’s recent Turn Down the Heat, Why a 4°C Warmer World Must Be Avoided –a bold report that draws clear attention to the reality that humanity is currently heading toward a 4 degree Celsius future, one where we will most likely lose control of our destiny, instead forced simply to react to disaster after disaster.

While Kim’s climate change rhetoric is hopeful and important, it may be diverting attention from other World Bank projects, ones that aren’t so concerned with climate change. In an interview during the World Economic Forum in Davos, which can be viewed below, Kim outlines three major ways to mitigate climate change, which he hopes to accomplish in his tenure – setting the correct price and developing a global carbon market; removing fossil fuel subsides; and developing green planning strategies for mega-cities. These are three enormous goals, and are certainly easier said than done, which may be a general problem of Kim’s rhetoric. In that same interview Kim explains that he hasn’t signed off on any coal-fired power plants, and hopes to avoid doing so in the future, acknowledging that energy development needs to be focused on more sustainable processes. However, when pressed, he admits that his job is to help lift people out of poverty, and energy is an important step in that process, and that “[his] first priority is helping countries have the energy they need.”

Indeed, the World Bank is currently pushing forward with plans to open a coal-fired power plant in Kosovo, against local opposition. Besides the obvious issue of emissions, the plan will draw water from a system that is already stressed, which may lead to even more water limitations in a country currently facing shortages. Additionally, the plant would endanger Kosovo’s entrance into the European Union, as it would make it difficult for the state to implement EU energy and environmental legislation. While Kim was not at the helm when this project began, he is at the helm now, and could have some influence in stopping it.

He could also have some influence in determining not to fund the Oyu Tolgoi copper and gold mine in Mongolia. While not a coal-fired power plant, the giant mine will surely complicate water access and cause problems for nomadic herders. And, the mining project stipulates that it will be powered by a new coal-fired plant. In fact, the World Bank currently supports 29 coal plants, financed with $5.3 billion. Of course, as Kim only took over in July of 2012, he is not to be blamed for that. However, for someone who says, “If you really care about the children, you’ve got to care about the climate,” Kim has yet to prove he cares about future generations. We can only hope that his actions will soon reflect his words.

Smart Grid and Energy Storage Installations Rising Worldwide

The full text of this Vital Signs Online article can be found here.

Smart meters are just one component involved in emerging smart grid networks. Smart meter deployments are increasing, with many nationwide installations planned worldwide. (Source: Wired)

Global investment in smart grid technologies rose 7 percent in 2012 from the previous year. On top of direct investments, numerous countries around the world are making headway on smart grid regulatory policies, development plans, and frameworks to support future grid infrastructure upgrades.  Smart grids consist of many different technologies serving different functions. Smart grids are commonly defined as an electricity network that uses digital information and communications technology to improve the efficiency and reliability of electricity transport. Such modernized grids are becoming more important as current grid infrastructure ages and regions begin connecting more variable generation from renewable energy sources into the electricity network.

The United States had the highest investment of all countries in 2012 despite seeing a 19 percent decrease in smart grid spending from 2011. While the U.S. federal government has funded smart grid development and supported deployment projects throughout the country, many individual utilities are contributing their own efforts to update grid infrastructure. At the beginning of 2012, U.S. smart grid development efforts had installed 37 million smart meters, covering 33 percent of American households. Continued efforts by utilities to deploy smart grid solutions will become increasingly important in the U.S. as federal funding initiatives enacted under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 begin to expire.

As investment in the U.S. declined, smart grid investment in China continued to grow. Wide-scale smart grid technology deployment has been included as part of a massive ongoing overhaul of China’s inefficient transmission infrastructure. The country’s investment in smart grid technology accounted for 57 percent of all smart grid investment in Asia, an already very active region for smart grid development that accounted for around 40 percent of global investment, with Japan and South Korea heavily focused on development plans and installations.

The European Union saw lower financial investment than the United States or Asia, but has established smart meter installation mandates in recent years and is funding research and development programs focused on smart grid technologies. Electricity Directive 2009/752/EC requires that by 2020 EU member states deploy smart meters in 80 percent of households where the cost-benefit analyses for installations is positive. Smart grid progress in individual countries in Europe varies at present, with high penetrations of smart meters in some and planned nationwide smart meter rollouts in others.

An artist's rendering of a grid-tied battery storage system. Advanced batteries are receiving more attention for storage services. (Source: A123 Systems)

Energy storage technologies offer their own benefits to the modern electricity grid, but can also act as alternatives to or complements of smart grid infrastructure. The number of energy storage projects worldwide rose 19 percent in 2012. Pumped hydropower still dominates all global energy storage infrastructure, accounting for 98 percent of installed storage capacity globally. However, the location-dependent aspect of pumped hydro and the recognition of the growing need for grid-tied energy storage have put emerging technologies, such as advanced batteries, into sharper focus as well.

Smart grid networks and energy storage technologies are gaining traction in energy sector development plans with larger-scale deployments currently beginning or being planned for the near future. The next few years will see numerous nationwide smart grid deployment projects and advancements in energy storage markets. The success of these developments will surely influence the respective paths of each technology’s development.

Reese Rogers is a MAP Sustainable Energy Fellow at Worldwatch Institute.

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New Reports Reveal the Human and Financial Costs of Large-Scale Land Acquisitions

By Laura Reynolds

The Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), a coalition of groups working for the rights of rural people to access and use their local natural resources, recently released two reports on the state of large-scale land acquisitions and investments, also known as land grabs.

Activists protest against ‘land grabbing’ in 2011. (Photo credit: Andreas Solaro, AFP/Getty Images)

The reports looked at the financial risk associated with international land investments and gave an overview of the setbacks and progress made in land tenure during 2012.

Investors, often from foreign countries, have turned to land development in recent years because of the high profits that can be made from activities such as mining, industrial food production, logging, and production of rubber or biofuels. But these investments often come with high costs as well, according to a December report from RRI. In addition to the human rights abuses and environmental destruction that can coincide with large-scale land acquisitions, investors can face an increase in their operational costs of as much as 2,800 percent.

The report, “The Financial Risks of Insecure Land Tenure: An Investment View,” profiles five foreign land investments that failed because of a lack of transparency or legality, resulting in financial hardship for the investors. In 2005, the Swedish ethanol producer SEKAB attempted to purchase 400,000 hectares in Zanzibar, Tanzania, to cultivate biofuel crops, but public outcry and the company’s failure to follow policy and environmental protocols led creditors to adandon the project and forced SEKAB to sell its assets at a loss of over $20 million.

In Grand Cape Mount, Liberia, the Malaysia-based multinational Sime Darby, the world’s largest producer of palm oil, had planned to develop 220,000 hectares for oil palm and rubber plantations after signing a 63-year concession with the national government. But land tenure disputes and large-scale rioting have repeatedly disrupted operations, putting the project’s long-term feasibility at risk.

“Far from being an ‘externality,’ land tenure can be a real threat to stable returns, and one that should be included in any risk assessment of a land-dependent investment,” the report argues. “The financial risks posed are multiple, ranging from slippage in construction times and unexpected cash flow loss due to suspensions to expropriation of assets following the loss of insurance coverage.”

A second RRI report, “Landowners or Laborers: What Choice Will Developing Countries Make?,” released in January, examines major developments in 2012 with regard to land grabs and land-tenure advocacy.

On a positive note, the 82-country Committee on World Food Security adopted the landmark Voluntary Guidelines for the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Lands, Fisheries, and Forests, which call for transparency in land deals, consultation with local communities, and respect for human rights. But other developments in 2012 were more worrisome: assassinations of land activists spiked, with 201 activists and protesters killed in Cambodia alone, and the Chinese and Indian governments were implicated in a rising number of internal land grabs. Each year, an estimated 4 million rural Chinese lose their land, many through forced eviction with minimal or no compensation.

Myanmar and Liberia were flashpoints for unjust land acquisitions. U.S. President Barack Obama, in his November 2012 visit to Myanmar to celebrate that country’s political reforms, argued that reforms “must ensure that the people…can have that most fundamental of possessions—the right to own title to the land on which you live and on which you work.” Myanmar is home to fierce disputes over mining, logging, and hydropower projects, and largely as a result of this resource extraction (much of it pursued illegally), its forest cover has declined from 46 percent in 1990 to only 20 percent in 2010.

In Liberia, local analysts calculated that around three-quarters of the country’s land had been allocated or promised to large investors—one of the highest such rates in the world. In late 2012, the Land Commission of Liberia reported that 95 percent of domestic Supreme Court cases involved land disputes.

Land grabs around the world continue to threaten rural dwellers with hunger, poverty, and displacement. Global market forces may curb these threats as investors realize the risks—to both their finances and their reputations—of becoming involved in land acquisition. But governments, international organizations, nongovernmental groups, and citizens can also support a more just global system of land-ownership and resource development.

What do you think about large-scale land acquisitions? Let us know in the comments.

Laura Reynolds is a Staff Researcher for the Worldwatch Institute’s Food and Agriculture Program.

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The Myths of Sustainable Consumption

Eco-labeling provides consumers with socially and environmentally friendly choices, but it also encourages even more consumption. (photo courtesy of jetalone via flickr)

Eco-labeling provides consumers with socially and environmentally friendly choices, but it also encourages even more consumption. (photo courtesy of jetalone via flickr)

Across the globe the concept of sustainable consumption is being touted as the way of the future, a change in lifestyle and values that promises “green growth”– economic growth that doesn’t hurt the environment. Though not without obstacles and controversy, this concept has been embraced by policymakers, consumers, and industry. The idea is that, by providing consumers with a choice of products reflecting their new environmental values, the market will self-regulate its way towards a more sustainable future, one in which supermarket shelves are lined with ecologically friendly products, and workers in developing countries are receiving fair wages for their labor. Eco-labeling, taxes on water and energy consumption, recycling incentives, education and communication campaigns, and advertising are examples of methods to promote sustainable consumption, all of which are endorsed by the OECD.

Does recycling perpetuate the high consumption paradigm? (photo courtesy of timtak via flickr)

Does recycling perpetuate the high consumption paradigm? (photo courtesy of timtak via flickr)

However, sustainable consumption fails to address the root problem: that unfettered economic growth–no matter how ecologically-minded–is still unsustainable. In State of the World 2013, Annie Leonard points out that the focus on sustainable consumption “distracts us from identifying and demanding change from the real drivers of environmental decline…. Describing today’s environmental problems and solutions as individual issues also has a disempowering effect, leaving people to feel that their greatest power lies in perfecting their daily choices.” A Nordic research group is attempting to dispel the myths of sustainable consumption in order to help policymakers implement genuinely effective policies. Belief in these myths helps pave the dangerous road to timid government policies.

The most damaging myths, outlined in a recent webinar, are the following:

  • the belief that small individual actions will have a spill-over effect;
  • if everyone does a little we will collectively achieve a lot;
  • more information leads to sustainable behavior.

The reason that these myths are so dangerous is that they place the burden of responsibility on consumers instead of producers, and this in turn influences the types of policies implemented by the state. However, the focus is still on consumption itself, as opposed to a deep-seated behavioral shift towards downsizing and degrowth. These myths allow government to enact short-term, minimal policies like taxes on bottled water and plastic bags, or requiring energy labels on appliances. While individual effort is certainly important, and a good starting point, it is a terrible end-point. Leonard argues that radical change involves three stages – a big idea of how things could be better, a commitment to move beyond individual action, and finally, collective action. A focus on sustainable consumption keeps society firmly fixated on individuals and increases the barriers to taking collective action.

An Interview with Tilahun Amede: Improving Water Resource Management in the Nile Basin

By Carol Dreibelbis

In October 2012, Nourishing the Planet’s Carol Dreibelbis spoke with Tilahun Amede of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT). ICRISAT aims to empower people living in drylands around the world to overcome poverty, hunger, and a degraded environment through better agriculture.

Tilahun Amede, systems agronomist with the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics. (Photo credit: ILRI/Ewen Le Borgne)

For the past several years, Dr. Amede has been involved in research-for-development projects on rainwater management strategies in the Nile River Basin. He has worked for the International Water Management Institute and the International Livestock Research Institute to lead the CGIAR Challenge Programme on Water & Food’s Basin Development Challenge for the Nile.

Dr. Amede has also worked as a senior research fellow at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture and as an assistant professor at Hawassa University in Ethiopia. He has been making a valuable contribution to the fields of agronomy and water management in Africa for over 20 years, and has published more than 40 papers in peer reviewed journals.

What is a “Basin Development Challenge,” and what makes these research programs effective?

Each Basin Development Challenge (BDC) works at the river-basin level to identify one big agricultural challenge. Research then focuses on developing interventions that can improve livelihoods and ecosystem services in ways that benefit all countries in the river basin. BDCs emphasize collective action and cooperation to achieve these goals. In the drought-prone Nile basin, rainwater management has the potential to increase agricultural productivity and improve water access for all member countries.

What specifically does your work in the Nile River Basin focus on, and what knowledge gaps does the BDC aim to fill?

Many upstream countries of the Nile, including Ethiopia, Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda, are under extreme pressure from land degradation, deforestation, and drought. This threatens food security, aggravates poverty, and creates local conflict. Land and water degradation in upstream countries also affects downstream countries as it reduces water flow, increases siltation, and affects dams and infrastructure. It costs Egypt and the Sudan up to US$500 million per year to de-silt dams.

In the Nile, we have identified rainwater management systems as a key development challenge. We hope to map, store, and efficiently utilize runoff for agricultural production and ecosystem management. We also aim to improve the management of landscapes in upstream countries by promoting integrated rainwater management; reducing erosion; increasing vegetative cover; improving water storage in soils and reservoirs; improving productivity of crops and livestock; creating institutional capacity to manage resources; and generating evidence for policy change in upstream and downstream countries.

We have also established a national platform in Ethiopia that enables researchers, development partners, government institutions, investors, and policymakers to share best practices, jointly identify knowledge gaps, and develop priorities for collective action.

How is most food produced in the Nile Basin now, and what would sustainable food production look like in the future?

Most food in the Nile is produced through rainfed systems, although irrigation is used in the Sudan and Egypt. There is already food insecurity in most of these countries, and it is expected to worsen due to increasing population pressure, climate change, declining soil fertility, and recurring drought. Food insecurity in these countries can be best addressed by improving the productivity of farms using improved rainwater management strategies. There is a huge yield gap (two to three tons per hectare) that leaves room for increased production in the Nile basin. To close this gap, the region needs to engage in sustainable intensification to produce more food per unit of land and water.

How will integrated rainwater management strategies improve the resilience of rural livelihoods?

Water management is the key to reducing poverty. Integrated rainwater management strategies will help communities improve the management of their landscapes and improve food security by reducing erosion, increasing water availability, increasing access to small-scale irrigation, and increasing livestock and crop productivity.

The Nile BDC recognized early on that these improvements can happen only if community organizations are strengthened, market opportunities are improved, institutional linkages are strengthened, and evidence-based policy is designed to support local communities. Because of this, we are supporting multiple initiatives in this direction.

What has surprised you the most while working in the Nile basin?

Despite century-old debates on how best to use the Nile water, there has been very limited regional discussion to date on how best to manage Nile basin landscapes. Downstream countries tend to focus only on getting more water, while upstream countries tend to think little about the consequences of their actions downstream. This is a real concern.

Similarly, public awareness about the need to improve the basin is non-existent. Many farmers know little about or pay little attention to land degradation until they are suffering its consequences; this means that instead of preventing low crop yields, farmers react to low crop yields. I believe solving this issue requires collective action. Institutions need to improve their communication with farmers and create awareness that land and water are interconnected.

It has been said that water will be the cause of future conflicts in Africa and around the world. Do you agree with this?

I don’t share the belief that water must be a source of conflict. In my experience, water is a way to connect countries, bringing them together to talk about both water and other issues. By working together to improve water access and management, decision makers have a forum to discuss both water and other issues, and minimize overall tension.

Do you agree that water and landscape management can be a source of cooperation rather than conflict? Please let us know in the comments section below.

Carol Dreibelbis is a former research intern with the Worldwatch Institute’s Food and Agriculture Program.

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Bhutan’s Happiness Paradigm, Up Close and Personal

Alison Singer’s recent post about Bhutan introduced the country’s Gross National Happiness initiative. I thought I’d follow up with some personal impressions from a visit to Bhutan earlier this month to attend a conference sponsored by the secretariat of the New Development Paradigm. The NDP is the Bhutan government’s initiative to create a widely applicable alternative template for development that focuses on the conditions supportive of true wellbeing, and uses indicators reflective of those conditions rather than defining “progress” in terms of rising GDP. The conference drew together about 40 members of the initiative’s international expert working group and some support staff (that’s where I fit in) to hash out the preliminary details of the template.

King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and Queen Jetsun Pema Wangchuck of Bhutan, with New Development Paradigm Working Group members and staff, February 2013.

Bhutan’s government is doing the world a major public service with this effort, as it’s obvious to all but willful deniers that the conventional paradigm of development—high energy- and resource throughput in pursuit of rising GDP, heedless of consequences—is ecocide. But what about the country itself? Bhutan’s coinage of Gross National Happiness in 1974 was and is revolutionary, but it has invited caricature: even when people are aware of the country, they may imagine a kind of Shangri-La, not lost after all. Photographs of Bhutanese people typically show broadly smiling children—and indeed, most of the kids I encountered on the street had ready smiles and greetings, in English.

On the other hand, wandering around the capital, Thimphu, revealed crowds looking much like those in any other city, intent on the business at hand, hardly lost in bliss. Transitioning through the airport in Bangkok, we saw returning Bhutanese checking big flat-screen TVs as luggage, and even the crudest shack in the countryside is likely to mount a satellite dish on the roof. Some 44 percent of the total population of a little over 700,000 are farmers. The CIA World Factbook puts per-capita income at about US$6,500 per year. Paro (where the airport is) and Thimphu have a raw, hardscrabble appearance, while for the most part the countryside looks as if it has changed little in generations, if not centuries.

But there I go, equating wellbeing with material improvements—which to some extent misses the point. In their descriptions of the new paradigm, the Bhutanese scholars are careful to note that “happiness” does not mean the passing surge of pleasure that one might get from, say, winning $50 in a lottery or buying a new car. It’s the pursuit of that kind of ephemeral happiness, which recedes before us as fast as we chase it, that fuels consumerism and is killing the planet. Instead, they’re talking about the kind of deep contentment that comes from being supported socially with a decent education, good health care, an intact environment, sound community, and so on.

Are the Bhutanese happier than the rest of the world, for all their emphasis on happiness and wellbeing as the goal of development?

Various indices ranking countries by happiness, however defined, don’t put Bhutan at, or even near, the top; those spots seem reserved mainly for northern European countries—which have both high per-capita incomes and extensive social infrastructure. Bhutan is not there yet—and they know that. In A Short Guide to Gross National Happiness Index, from the government-affiliated Centre for Bhutan Studies, the authors note that “…most Bhutanese enjoy sufficiency in value, safety, native language, family, mental health, urbanization issues, responsibility towards environment, satisfaction in life, government performance, healthy days and assets. …Less than half of Bhutanese enjoy sufficiency in literacy, housing, donations, work, services, schooling, cultural participation and knowledge.”

Is happiness a warm puppy? Our home-stay hostess' younger son.

Is happiness a warm puppy? Our home-stay hostess’ younger son.

On personal observation, the Bhutanese don’t appear noticeably un-happier than any other people I’ve seen at first hand, either—despite a standard of living, measured in conventional terms, that is significantly lower than developed-nation levels. During our one-night home stay at a farm deep in the countryside, our hosts graciously gave up their own bedrooms for us. The rooms were unheated and the temperature inside dropped to about 40 degrees F. In the morning we all took turns using an outside squat toilet; the first person to use it had to break the ice on the sluice bucket. I came home much more deeply appreciative of central heating and modern plumbing. But I also realized that delivering such wellbeing-supporting amenities would hardly require per-capita GDPs in the US$50,000–100,000 range, and that if I had never known them, their lack would have had little effect on my life.

And maybe that’s the point: the effect of material surroundings and amenities on perceived quality of life is radically relative: above a threshold, it depends more on what you’re used to than on some absolute level of wealth. Establishing a floor by means of good education, health care, sanitation, employment opportunities, public infrastructure, good governance, and so on, should create the conditions for basic satisfaction with life—at least that’s the hope and theory at work in Bhutan. (Will the flood of affluence imagery poured into Bhutanese homes by those big flat-screen TVs undermine the theory?)

Beyond the fundamentals, as some of the working group members argued, a person’s “aptitudes” for happiness take over. Those are probably the outcomes of one’s genetic temperament and how well one’s parents taught such intra-personal skills as mastering impulses, sticking to difficult tasks, and so on. It’s not clear what any development paradigm can do about that, although growing up in a strong community seems a good way to provide kids with a variety of role models.

Whether or not the new development paradigm gains traction in the rest of the world, it will be fascinating to see what the Bhutanese achieve in the next 20 years or so.



Change We Can Believe In: Obama Prepares For Climate Change Action in His Second Term

Following the call to action and sweeping plan of attack offered by President Obama during his Second Inaugural Address last month and State of the Union this week, it is clear that he has made climate change a priority in his second term.  From outlining the need to increase renewable energy research and installations to setting an ambitious goal of improving efficiency in homes and businesses by 50 percent over the next twenty years, President Obama’s wide-reaching plan has the potential to once again make the United States a global leader in environmental action.

President Obama discusses Hurricane Sandy, an extreme weather event that has been linked with climate change, with disaster response officials. Obama has reaffirmed his intention to fight climate change in his second term (Source: The White House)

While President Obama’s renewed commitment to address climate change has raised hopes, it is important to review the successes and failures of his last four years in order to set realistic expectations for what is possible during his second term.

Early during his first term, the United Nations climate negotiations in Copenhagen presented President Obama with a major international opportunity to demonstrate how his Administration would differ from the previous eight years of the United States playing foil to international environmental cooperation during the Bush Era.  The Obama Administration did not rise to the challenge, instead offering minor concessions while continuing to push for stalling the negotiations until 2015 and beyond, effectively deferring the responsibility for an international treaty to the next Presidential term.

Domestically, Obama’s environmental track record fared somewhat better.  The Administration has advanced environmental protection by increasing vehicle mileage standards, expanding protected areas, strengthening air quality standards, and raising federal investment in clean energy to the highest levels in US history.  On the other hand, the Obama Administration failed to oversee comprehensive climate legislation, and has drawn out the decision on the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.

Of course, there are some extenuating circumstances that Obama faced in his first term that made success more difficult to achieve.  While a lack of political readiness or will to move may be to blame for the Administration’s lack of forward progress at international negotiations, domestically the Obama team’s success was tempered by a divided congress, the prolonged economic depression, and a desire to remain an appealing candidate throughout a hotly contested re-election. 

But with pressing economic and social issues and an arguably more partisan divide in Congress continuing to present barriers similar to those in the first term, why should we believe that success on environmental action in Obama’s second term will be any different?

For starters, the President has already demonstrated that he is not afraid to bypass Congress this term, especially in achieving his ambitious social policy reform agenda.  In his State of the Union address, President Obama urged the joint houses of Congress to once again pursue a market-based solution to climate change, but affirmed, “if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will.”  Sending a strong message, this call to action indicates that the Environmental Protection Agency will finalize carbon emission standards from new power plants and move forward to establish emission limits from existing power plants, regardless of action from Congress.

With new momentum for environmental action at the start of his second term, President Obama has filled several positions in his Administration with appointees well known for their leadership on environmental issues.  By bringing in Dennis McDonough, an advocate of urgency in tackling climate change, as Chief of Staff, and nominating Sally Jewell, former CEO of REI and outspoken conservation advocate, as Secretary of Interior, President Obama demonstrated his commitment to addressing environmental challenges this term.  Notably, President Obama chose John Kerry, who as a Senator sponsored a comprehensive climate bill, as Secretary of State – a position that will place him in charge of international climate negotiations and make him instrumental in the decision on the Keystone XL pipeline.

Additionally, President Obama made a point of linking environmental action with other priorities of his second term.  The President could not have been clearer about the role that environmental action will play in continuing the long path out of the recession, explaining to Congress that “we can make meaningful progress on this issue while driving strong economic growth.”   And when President Obama addressed the need to improve our national infrastructure, he did so through the lens of creating climate-resilient infrastructure, integrating environmental action into the solutions our nation’s problems need.

Previous anti-Keystone XL rallies led to the decision being postponed. President Obama will have to make a final decision on the pipeline in his second term (Source: Flickr, The Sierra Club)

Finally, increasingly stranger and more powerful weather patterns, such as the superstorms, droughts and wildfires that caused billions of dollars of damage across the US, are helping to contribute to a rise in public awareness and interest in taking climate action, presenting a unique window of opportunity for the President to act.  As the evidence continues to stack up and point towards the need for increasingly immediate action to stall global emissions, and as citizens become more and more vocal in their support for action, President Obama is gaining the momentum needed to take advantage of this unique opportunity.

In what is perhaps the best demonstration of the public’s increasing support for environmental action and the increasing pressure on the Obama Administration to fulfill its environmental promises, thousands of activists are expected to descend on Washington, D.C. this weekend for the latest rally against the Keystone XL pipeline.  President Obama’s decision on the pipeline will be one of the first tests of his seemingly renewed environmental resolve, signaling whether he is truly committed to transitioning away from fossil fuel dependence.  With no shortage of environmental issues to address in the next four years – from the path to energy security, to the call to end fossil fuel subsidies and the need for a serious U.S. proposal for an international climate treaty – the Keystone XL decision will set the tone for the rest of his time in office, either confirming or undermining the President’s promise to take environmental action.

Spencer Fields is a Climate & Energy Intern at Worldwatch Institute.

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Jamaican Poultry Producer Not Chicken About Solar Investment

While the Jamaican government’s efforts to increase renewable energy production have yet to produce significant results, some private enterprises are forging ahead on their own. Due to the prohibitively high cost of purchasing electricity from the national grid operator (around 40 cents per kilowatt-hour), many companies have found it is cheaper to generate their own electricity – often with renewable energy sources.

The Jamaica Broilers "Best Dressed Chicken" mascot looks forward to solar power. (Source: Facebook, Best Dressed Chicken)

The Jamaica Broilers "Best Dressed Chicken" mascot looks forward to solar power. (Source: Facebook, Best Dressed Chicken)

The Jamaica Broilers Group, the largest poultry producer in the Caribbean, is one of the companies pioneering the transition to renewable energy. As with many other industries and services in Jamaica, electricity is the largest single cost in chicken farm operations. In order to reduce this expense, Jamaica Broilers is currently installing solar photovoltaic (PV) systems – along with efficient LED lighting – at its chicken houses. The first phase of the project will install 15 kW systems at about 40 chicken houses by the end of March, for a total capacity of approximately 600 kW.

The project will cost an estimated US$10 million over two years. Rather than require that chicken farmers leverage their farms as collateral to purchase the solar equipment, Jamaica Broilers will facilitate obtaining supplies and financing to allow farmers to lease the equipment. Each participating farmer applies for the loan, which is financed by the Development Bank of Jamaica (DBJ) through the PanCaribbean Bank at 8.5 percent interest – a relatively low rate for the country. The expected payback period – that is, the amount of time it takes for reduced electricity costs to make up for the solar panel investment costs – is five to six years.

The Jamaica Broilers solar program is a trailblazer in Jamaica’s renewable energy market as one of the first projects that uses renewable energy equipment – rather than farms – as collateral for loans. Jamaica Broilers has the right on behalf of the banks to repossess and sell the solar equipment if farmers fail to meet loan repayment requirements. The project makes use of DBJ’s partial loan guarantee program to reduce the risk faced by private lenders in accepting renewable energy equipment as collateral.

The current phase of the Jamaica Broilers solar project is aimed at supplying energy for daytime use at the chicken farms. Grid access for the PV systems is will be necessary to incentivize the addition of more modules in future phases. In a previous blog I addressed the importance of including solar power in the electricity regulator’s proposed electricity wheeling program. This would allow Jamaica Broilers to send electricity over the grid from its chicken farms to its offices, further reducing the company’s electricity expenses.

Solar investments by private industry are a clear sign that Jamaica is ready for a sustainable energy transition. Renewable energy already makes economic sense on the island due to high electricity costs. It is now up to the government and electricity regulator to create a stable investment environment that will enable the country to meet its goal of 30 percent renewable energy by 2030.

Shakuntala Makhijani is a Climate and Energy Research Associate at the Worldwatch Institute.

Supported by the International Climate Initiative of the German Government, Worldwatch currently works on Sustainable Energy Roadmaps for the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Jamaica.

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