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Do we really need a nuclear smelter? March 1, 2013

Posted by Andreas in Column, Environment, Nuclear Power, South Africa.
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Do we really need a nuclear smelter?

(This column was first published on 2013-02-25 at News24 here)

Since its birth, the nuclear industry has been beset by a number of intractable problems, among them its propensity to produce an ever-growing mountain of radioactive waste that nobody really knows what to do with for the very long periods of time that it will remain dangerous.

Our very own state-owned Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa) thinks it’s found the solution for 36 000-odd bits and pieces of atomic scrap metal at its notorious Pelindaba site near the Hartbeespoort Dam, about 30 kilometres west of Pretoria: melt it down in a smelter.

If that sounds like a somewhat dubious idea to you, you’re not the only one. A number of environmental organisations and residents’ groups have raised serious concerns about the project, which has been on the cards for years without ever really attracting a whole lot of media coverage.

Necsa has applied for a Nuclear Installation Licence from the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) for the construction and operation of the smelter facility, and some observers believe that it will be issued shortly.

As taxpayers, we should certainly be concerned about the estimated R20m which is about to be spent on a questionable attempt to clean up the remains of apartheid’s toxic A-bomb mess.

The proposal

Over the years, Necsa has accumulated some 14 000 tonnes of waste metal “lightly” contaminated with uranium. About 70% is steel, the rest is aluminium, copper, brass, nickel, cast iron and bronze and almost all of it comes from the decommissioning of uranium enrichment facilities at Pelindaba, the place where South Africa’s atom bombs where developed, built and stored.

Necsa’s plan is to melt all of this metal down in an induction furnace using crucibles with a capacity of 1500 to 4000 Kg per load, expecting to process all of the material over a period of about ten years.

Approximately 98% of the uranium currently contaminating the metal will concentrate in the slag when it’s melted. This slag will be sealed in drums and eventually stored at the national nuclear waste site at Vaalputs in the Northern Cape.

According to Necsa the recycled metal will only contain about 1% of evenly distributed uranium once it’s passed through the smelter, making it clear for “release” onto the market. Not my kind of recycling, to be honest (mental note: check ingredients next time you buy a new frying pan).

The remaining 1% of uranium will be “available as off-gas” which will pass through a filtration system capable of removing more than 99.9% of it. The amount released into the atmosphere will be well below the allowable limit and “the environmental impact will therefore be insignificant”. So says Necsa.

The problems

At a public hearing, hosted by the NNR in Centurion last October, the Pelindaba Working Group’s Dominique Gilbert enumerated various criticisms, including the following:

- Waste incinerators are notorious health and environmental hazards, potentially generating toxic compounds and particulate matter that are difficult to confine.

- Necsa has contracted a controversial Swedish company called Studsvik to help with the design of the smelter, but Studsvik had a complaint of criminal negligence filed against it in 2007 when their bid for a similar smelter was scrapped in the US, allegedly for deliberately failing to follow regulations.

- The NNR does not have the technical or financial capacity to regulate a facility such as this.

- Radioactive smelter projects have a poor track record worldwide, with a number having been shut down as a result of public pressure and successful litigation.

- Experts have expressed serious concerns about the safety and effectiveness of the so-called HEPA filters which are to be used to remove uranium from the smelter off-gas.

- Necsa has refused to consider alternatives, like encapsulating the waste and storing it in a sealed building on site.

I for one don’t like Necsa’s neat little plan for using taxpayers’ money to invest in highly contentious and potentially dangerous technology for cleaning up a nasty mess that the vast majority of us would not have allowed ourselves to get into had we ever been given the choice. How about you?

Why bees are dying like flies February 18, 2013

Posted by Andreas in bees, Column, Environment.
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Why bees are dying like flies

(This column was first published on 2013-02-11 at News24 here)

Bees have had a bad time of late. Ever since 1994, when French beekeepers noticed that their honeybees didn’t return home from foraging trips at alarming rates they’ve been going AWOL and dying in droves. In North America, cases of sudden mass disappearances from apparently healthy hives – referred to as colony collapse disorder (CCD) – were first reported in 2006, with some apiarists losing up to 90% of their hives. CCD has since been observed worldwide.

Over the years, investigators have implicated a number of possible culprits, including disease, genetically modified crops, an artificial diet of corn syrup among commercial bees, parasitic mites, loss of habitat or a combination of all of the above. That all changed last year, when several lines of evidence were found to strongly incriminate a single perpetrator for the mass killings: insecticides.

Now if you think like me, your first response to this revelation would be: “No shit Sherlock! They’re called insecticides; bees are insects; ipso facto the bees bite the dust.”

But it’s not that simple. You see, commercial agrochemicals go through very stringent testing procedures to make sure they’re safe. As it turns out, however, the data that these safety assessments are based on more often than not originate from the very companies that sell the chemicals. Yes, it’s the old “self-regulation” boondoggle so beloved by industries with something to hide and the governments beholden to their big budget lobbying.

So for years, these companies have been telling us that their concoctions are perfectly safe for our yellow-and-black pollinating friends. But when independent scientists started publishing their research findings in peer-reviewed publications last year, their results suggested otherwise.

The class of insecticides implicated in offing the bees is called the neonicotinoids, particularly the unpronounceable triad of imidacloprid, clothianidin (both products of German mega-firm Bayer) and thiamethoxam (sold by Swiss giant Syngenta). Since the 1990s, they have been among the most widely used pesticides, selling hundreds of millions of dollars every year and being sprayed on millions of hectares of land worldwide, including South Africa. They appear as the active ingredients not only in agricultural products but in some of the everyday garden plant treatments you buy at your local nursery as well.

So what happened in 2012?

- French scientists found that thiamethoxam severely impairs the homing instinct of honeybees. Individuals dosed with small quantities were two to three times more likely to get lost on the way back to their hive than their unexposed colleagues (in case you’re wondering, the researchers glued tiny microchips onto free-ranging honeybees to track them).

- One US study found that “exposure to sub-lethal levels of imidacloprid [...] causes honey bees to exhibit symptoms consistent with CCD”, while another claimed that the same chemical resulted in bees performing less of their famous waggle dance to alert others to good sources of food.

- Two groups of British scientists showed that imidacloprid hampered the food gathering ability of bumblebee workers, leading to increased mortality rates, and caused an 85% decline in the production of queens in their colonies. The effects were worse if the bees were exposed to both imidacloprid and lamda-cyhalothrin, another commonly-used pesticide.

On the basis of the mounting evidence, France, Germany, Italy and Slovakia have already banned some neonicotinoids and last month, the European Commission requested its member states to suspend the use of the three main offenders on flowering crops pollinated by bees, including maize, sunflowers, rapeseed and cotton.

Not everyone agrees, of course. Both Bayer and Syngenta vehemently deny that their “crop protection” products are linked to CCD whatsoever, blaming “unrealistic research” and an “over-interpretation of the precautionary principle”.

Even though CCD has not been reported to have had a significant impact on South African beekeeping operations (as far as I know), we should surely take heed of the accumulating scientific results documenting the detrimental effects of synthetic pesticides, especially since others have been shown to do despicable damage to frogs and other amphibians, the world’s most threatened vertebrate group.

Isn’t it time for an independent reassessment of the things we choose to douse our crops with?

Heavy metal is bad for you February 6, 2013

Posted by Andreas in Column, Environment, South Africa.
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Heavy metal is bad for you

(This column was first published on 2013-02-04 at News24 here)

I don’t have a problem with Metallica, Iron Maiden or even Ozzy Osbourne. It’s the original heavy metal villains, the chemical elements that inhabit the nether regions of the periodic table, that I’d prefer to keep out of my bloodstream. But in our industrialised world, that’s becoming ever harder.

We’ve managed to liberally spill these unhappy by-products of our machine culture all over the planet with some rather detrimental effects. Two of the nastier members of the clan – lead and mercury – have been in the news lately.

Journalists Kevin Drum and George Monbiot have summarised intriguing research which suggests a causal link between lead pollution and violent crime. This disturbing relationship is the result of the now largely abandoned use of lead in paints and petrol.

Chemical analyses of the growth rings of trees chronicle the story of the lead we’ve spewed into the air. When tetraethyl lead was introduced as a performance-enhancing additive to petrol in the early 20th Century, levels in tree rings started to rise. As the unhealthy side-effects became apparent and the practice was phased out beginning in the 1970s, measured values peaked and then declined. But we’re still dealing with the legacy.

While excessive lead exposure can result in gastrointestinal, cardiovascular and kidney problems as well as many other ailments in the general population, children are most at risk, even at low levels. For them lead poisoning can cause learning disabilities, growth impairments and behavioural issues including ADHD, aggressiveness and violence.

Studies have shown that in many areas, violent crime peaked about 20 years after lead pollution was at its worst as those who were poisoned by it in infancy reached maturity.

Efforts to remove lead from paints and petrol, though too late for many, were certainly effective. Which is not to say that lead pollution is a thing of the past. The Blacksmith Institute ranks lead-acid battery recycling and lead smelting as the first and second most significant global pollution problems, potentially affecting over 150 sites and as many as 3.5 million people in developing countries.

In the case of mercury we’ve only just begun to clean up our mess with a legally binding, albeit flawed, UN treaty to reign in the pollution.

From Victorian England’s famous mad hatters to well-documented pollution events at Minamata in Japan and Cato Ridge in KwaZulu-Natal, it’s not as though we haven’t known about the problem for a long time. Better late than never, I suppose.

According to the latest figures from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), artisanal small-scale gold mining is now the largest single contributor of mercury pollution in the world, accounting for around 37% of anthropogenic emissions in 2010. Next are fossil fuel combustion, predominantly by coal-fired power plants, metal and cement production, waste incineration and others.

After it’s emitted into the atmosphere, where it spreads around the globe, mercury (which is also released by natural sources such as volcanoes, hot springs and erosion) is oxidised, deposited on the earth’s surface and converted into toxic methyl mercury (MeHg) by bacteria. MeHg is bio-available, meaning that it’s absorbed into the bodies of animals that ingest it, and accumulates especially in the marine food chain with apex predators like tuna, swordfish, sharks, seals, beluga whales and polar bears ending up most contaminated.

Humans predominantly absorb mercury by eating fish and seafood – in the US, this accounts for 90% of all MeHg exposure, 40% of which just from tuna. From there a sorry litany of health defects, from brain damage to blindness, ensues. In the EU, as many as 2 million babies are born with long-term IQ deficits every year as a result of mercury poisoning.

Although the extent and impact of mercury pollution have not been exhaustively investigated in South Africa, we are certainly part of the problem. Our coal-burning power plants alone are estimated to emit 39.4 tonnes of mercury per year – not an insubstantial portion of UNEP’s estimate for annual global emissions (1960 tonnes).

Makes me wonder exactly how much mercury pollution I caused by turning on my PC this morning to write this article. One thing’s certain though: guitar-based hard rock has caused nowhere near as much damage to the planet as lead, mercury and the other toxic escapees from civilisation’s smokestack.

Fracking, climate change and greed February 6, 2013

Posted by Andreas in Climate change, Column, Environment, Fracking, Global warming, South Africa.
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Fracking, climate change and greed

(This column was first published on 2013-01-29 at News24 here)

The global fracking boom is gaining momentum. It’s in full swing in America. China, a country with shale gas reserves comparable to those of the USA, is preparing to establish its own massive fracking industry. The British government has recently lifted an earlier suspension of fracking activities and green-lighted a controversial new gas generation strategy. In South Africa, we’re ready to join the fray.

In trying to persuade us that these are positive developments, the oil and gas industry would have us believe that shale gas produced by fracking is:

a) a low-carbon energy solution that generates less greenhouse gasses (GHGs) than other fossil fuels,

b) a bridging fuel to a future low-carbon economy, and

c) an invaluable tool in the fight against climate change.

Each of these assertions deserves some scrutiny.

A low-carbon fossil fuel?

While shale gas, just like conventional natural gas, burns more cleanly than oil or coal, there is considerable scientific debate over whether it has a smaller carbon footprint than other fossil fuels when all the stages in its production are taken into consideration.

In the first peer-reviewed paper on methane emissions from fracking wells, a group of researchers led by Cornell University professor Robert Howarth argued that such wells leak up to twice as much methane, a much more potent GHG than CO2, than conventional gas wells, resulting in emissions comparable to those associated with coal. These results have been disputed by a number of other scientists, but Howarth has defended his findings, stating “that for most uses, the GHG footprint of shale gas is greater than that of other fossil fuels on time scales of up to 100 years”.

A new study has brought into question the rate of methane leakage in natural gas fields in general. The authors found that as much as 4% of all the methane produced at a field near Denver disappeared into thin air – that’s about twice the rate claimed by industry. At a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in December, they presented additional data from Colorado and Utah suggesting leakages of up to 9%. These measurements exclude any losses from pipelines and distribution systems.

The figures are important: in April last year, scientists showed that electricity generated by burning natural gas only has immediate climate change benefits if the total leakage from production is below 3.2%.

A bridging fuel?

Shale gas could only possibly be considered as a transitional source of energy to a low-carbon economy if there was, in fact, an unbridgeable gap that needed crossing. There isn’t and the argument is a red herring.

Numerous reports have shown that currently available renewable energy technology is perfectly capable of satisfying most if not all of our power requirements by 2050. A small recent sampling includes studies by the US National Energy Laboratory, some of Europe’s most distinguished renewable energy experts and Germany’s Heinrich Böll Foundation.

The transition to a cleaner, low-emission economy based on renewable energy sources – with which we are richly blessed in SA – requires political will, not a push to exploit more fossil fuels.

A weapon against climate change?

Instead of saving us from global warming, shale gas stands to push us over the edge.

According to the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook 2012, no more than a third of the world’s proven reserves of all fossil fuels – not just shale gas – can be consumed before 2050 if we’re to have a 50% chance of constraining average temperature increase to 2oC above pre-industrial levels and maintain a reasonably stable climate. More conservative estimates argue that, to be safe, 80% of fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground.

The bottom line is simple: if we dig up all of the shale gas beneath our feet, the planet fries.

That should be a good enough reason not to, but to the oil and gas companies the stuff simply represents profits waiting to be liberated. If you believe they will stop drilling holes into the ground before they’ve got it all or before the weather turns nasty, you’re dreaming.

A refreshingly honest summation of the industry’s greedy rationale by Professor Terry Engelder, a geologist at Pennsylvania State University, published in Nature in 2011 says it all: “Fracking is crucial to global economic stability [read “money in our pocketses”]; the economic benefits outweigh the environmental risks”.

January 24, 2013

Posted by Andreas in Climate change, Column, Environment, Global warming, South Africa.
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We’ve got too much coal

(This column was first published on 2013-01-21 at News24 here)

If you’re under the impression that the age of coal is over, you’d better think again. In December, the International Energy Agency (IEA) released a report which forecasts that coal will challenge oil as the world’s biggest source of energy within the next five years. With China and India taking the lead, IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven announced that we will be burning about 1.2 billion more tonnes of the black stuff in 2017 than today – “equivalent to the current coal consumption of Russia and the United States combined.”

South Africa is right in the middle of the global coal industry. In fact, we have way more of the stuff than is good for us: some 28 billion tons of proven reserves, which at the current annual mining rate of around 253 million tons will only be depleted in 110 years.

“That’s a good thing!” you might say. “After all, much of this country’s industrial economy and wealth were built on the back of easily accessible, cheap coal.”

There have been some massive downsides too, however, including air pollution, acid rain and a per capita carbon footprint rivalling those of many developed countries. About 70% of the coal mined in South Africa is used domestically and approximately 70% of that is burned in power stations to generate almost all of our electricity. Most of the rest (20%) is turned into synthetic petroleum products by SASOL.

The pesky fact that our coal-burning habit has us pumping huge quantities of climate-changing CO2 into the atmosphere every year is becoming a major headache.

In international climate change negotiations, the SA government has committed itself to doing its share to keep average global temperature rise to below 2oC compared to pre-industrial levels, a figure that may prevent run-away climate change – if we’re lucky. Government endorsed a set of Long Term Mitigation Scenarios (LTMS) for transforming the economy to achieve this goal.

In its National Climate Response White Paper published in October 2011, government announced that within two years, carbon budgets would be drawn up for those sectors of the economy that emit significant quantities of greenhouse gasses. These carbon budgets will define the emissions allowable under the 2oC regime.

Based on one of the scenarios included in the LTMS – the one “required by science” to make the 2oC target – WWF-SA has estimated a total greenhouse gas emissions budget for the country for the period from 2010 and 2050 of about 16.4 GtCO2e (gigatons of CO2 equivalent), meaning that during those 40 years, we can afford to emit greenhouse gasses equivalent to a grand total of 16.4 billion tons of CO2 if we want stand a decent chance of maintaining a reasonably stable climate. This figure includes all of our emissions, not just those due to coal.

So how does our coal industry stack up in this calculus? Not well at all, I’m afraid.

A recent report compiled by the Carbon Tracker Initiative and commissioned by WWF calculates that at current rates, a total of at least 19.2 GtCO2e of South African coal reserves will be used locally between 2010 and 2050. In other words, if we carry on as we are now, just the coal we’ll burn during this period is going to produce the equivalent of nearly three billion more tons of CO2 than we’re aloud to emit if we are to stay within our climate-safe budget.

And those are conservative figures. SA coal miners, including Anglo American, BHP Billiton, Exxaro and SASOL, are investing in the development of their as yet unproven coal resources. If only a third of these actually come into production, the report says, this would add another 19 GtCO2e of emissions.

I for one am intrigued to find out exactly what share of the national carbon budget government is planning to allocate to coal by October this year. The bottom line is simple though: if our coal industry continues to operate as it is now and if we as a nation remain shackled to it, our chances of making an effective contribution to halting climate change are zero.

Fairtrade is greener, too December 11, 2012

Posted by Andreas in Column, Environment.
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Fairtrade is greener, too

(This column was first published on 2012-12-10 at News24 here)

After doing some research on the impact of Fairtrade on farm workers and small farmers for Fairtrade Label South Africa recently, I argued that this growing movement represents a viable alternative to the very explosive labour relations that exist in parts of South Africa’s agricultural sector. I also discovered that it has an important environmental side to it.

Fairtrade is primarily motivated by social justice. It’s an ethical accreditation system that aims to raise the standard of living and promote social upliftment among small farmers and farm workers in the developing world by improving working conditions and providing access to global markets on a more equitable footing.

The Fairtrade development premium, for example, is a portion of the profits made from the sale of every Fairtrade product, which is democratically administered by the producers themselves and used for community development projects from building crèches to paying school and college fees.

While this may be the main reason why you prefer Fairtrade goods over conventional equivalents when you have the choice, there are additional green benefits that you may not have been aware of until now. Just as there are Fairtrade labour standards which are monitored through regular farm audits to guarantee decent working conditions, there are strict Fairtrade environmental standards that have to be met by accredited producers.

They:

- champion sustainable farming methods to promote soil fertility and prevent erosion, such as cover-cropping, composting and mulching, as well encouraging producers to reduce, reuse and recycle farming inputs and resources;

- emphasise conservation, the protection of natural habitats and ecosystems and practices that protect and increase biodiversity;

- place strict regulations on the use of pesticides to minimise detrimental impacts on the environment and health risks to workers;

- encourage the efficient and sustainable use of water;

- ban genetically modified crops from Fairtrade farms;

- require that hazardous waste is safely disposed of; and

- define progressive standards for offsetting greenhouse gas emissions.

The production of coffee and rooibos tea are two great examples showing how Fairtrade makes a difference to the lives of small-scale African farmers while simultaneously having environmental benefits.

Improve food security

The members of the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union of southern Ethiopia produce over 25 000 tonnes of Fairtrade-certified Arabica coffee on small family farms annually, while their counterparts in Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro Native Cooperative Union cultivate Arabica on the slopes of Africa’s highest mountain. They do so without the use of synthetic agro-chemicals and receive training in sustainable farming practices, like composting the by-products of coffee production, employing indigenous plants for pest control, as well as utilising natural fertilisers and shade trees.

They’re also involved in local conservation efforts and intercrop their coffee plots with various food crops to enhance soil fertility and improve food security. Fairtrade coffee from both unions is available in South Africa, for example at Woolworths.

Their association with Fairtrade helps to make coffee production – the lifeblood of hundreds of thousands of families in the region – environmentally and economically sustainable at a time when it’s under substantial threat not only from low commodity prices on world markets, but also from climate change and deforestation.

Coffee is very sensitive to climate: as Kilimanjaro’s glaciers disappear, for instance, Tanzanian coffee planters are slowly being deprived of the melt water they depend on to irrigate their crop. Scientists have warned that wild Arabica may be extinct by 2080.

Barend Salomo, rooibos farmer and managing director of the Wupperthal Original Rooibos Cooperative (WORC) in the Cederberg says that without Fairtrade, the 90-odd members of the cooperative could not survive financially. He too, places a high premium on the environment: “There must be harmony between our activities and nature. So we can’t use every bit of land for rooibos farming and I think that’s easier to accomplish on small plots like ours rather than on large commercial fields.”

WORC farmers don’t irrigate their plots or apply synthetic chemicals, and they cultivate and harvest by hand. Their tea, along with other Fairtrade rooibos, is available locally.

By purchasing Fairtrade accredited products you’ll not only be supporting farm workers and small farmers, but more eco-friendly farming methods as well.

- Andreas freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

Climate change: An update December 5, 2012

Posted by Andreas in Climate change, Column, Environment, Global warming.
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Climate change: An update

(This column was first published on 2012-11-26 at News24 here)

There has been overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change for years. A recent survey found that out of 13 950 peer-reviewed scientific papers published on the topic between the beginning of 1991 and the beginning of last month, only 24 argued against human-induced global warming.

The amount of research generated in this field is massive, but little of it ever makes it into the mainstream media (I don’t know if that’s because editors are bored with the subject or just overwhelmed by it), which is why I thought it would be a useful exercise to highlight a few of the most recent findings and forecasts. This is by no means a comprehensive review, merely a bullet-pointed précis to give you an inkling of how much trouble we’re in. Click on the links for more details on the assorted items.

- Records of average global temperatures show a consistent warming trend for the last three decades and according to the UN’s World Meteorological Organisation, 2012 is expected to be the ninth warmest year since records began in 1880.

- Atmospheric CO2 concentrations reached a record high of 390.9 parts per million in 2011 – that’s a 40% increase since the start of the industrial revolution.

- Ice is melting ever more rapidly in the Arctic and the Antarctic.

- Sea level rose by about 3.2mm per year between 1993 and 2011, significantly faster than previously estimated. Highlighting the long-term impacts of climate change, worst-case scenarios predict up to 6.8 metres of sea level rise by the year 3000.

- This year, the inhabitants of Vunidogoloa on the Fijian island of Vanua Levu became some of the first people in the world to be relocated to higher ground because seal level rise has made their seaside village uninhabitable.

- The destruction of mangrove forests, salt marshes, sea grass beds and other coastal ecosystems releases between 150 million and 1.02 billion tons of CO2 annually, several times more than previously thought.

- The world’s largest reinsurance company, MunichRe, has warned that risk from climate change related natural disasters is rising globally and local insurers agree. Insured losses from such events have risen from $9bn in the 1980s to $36bn in the 2000s.

- Significantly reduced rainfall during Asia’s annual monsoon season is predicted for the next two centuries with potentially devastating impacts on agriculture in the region.

- In November, the planet’s most powerful investors, managing some $22.5 trillion between them, wrote an open letter to the governments of major countries, warning that climate change is a major threat to the world economy.

- Slashing 1.6% off the global GDP, climate change has been estimated to cost the world economymore than $1.2 trillion every year and according to a recent World Bank report, it’s the poorest countries that will suffer most.

- The effects of climate change on the world’s oceans are forecast to lead to a severe drop in fish stocks and a shrinkage of 14-24% in the size of adult fishes by 2050.

Pollen counts are expected to more than double by 2040 and in combination with highly allergenic new strains of pollen from invasive species, hay fever season may be extended by weeks.

- With the disappearance of much of the bamboo they feed on, the natural habitat of the giant panda in China may be lost by the end of the century.

- Diseases carried by mosquitoes, ticks, fungi and algae, including Lyme disease, the West Nile virus, Chikungunya Fever, Rift Valley Fever and Dengue Fever are already spreading to areas where they were not found in the past.

- The collapse of the southern Caribbean’s sardine fisheries during the past decade has been linked to climate change.

Wild Arabica coffee, indigenous to East Africa, may become extinct within 70 years.

- While warming temperatures and increased levels of CO2 in the air may improve agricultural production in some regions, an 8% average decrease in the yield of eight major crops, including maize, millet, sorghum and wheat, is predicted for Africa and South Asia by the 2050s.

- Andreas freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

Climate change and the Garden Route November 29, 2012

Posted by Andreas in Climate change, Column, Environment, Global warming.
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Climate change and the Garden Route

(This column was first published on 2012-11-26 at News24 here)

I wonder how many of you know that today’s the first day of COP 18, the UN climate change conference in Doha. It’s the sequel to COP 17 in Durban last year, which was the sequel to COP 16 in Cancún the year before, which was the sequel to COP 15 in Copenhagen, which was the sequel to… etc., etc. I wonder how many of you really care.

These conferences seem to produce more hot air than tangible results and even if you follow environmental issues in the news with interest, climate change always seems to be happening somewhere else, far away – in the atmosphere, where average global temperatures are rising, on the US East Coast, where storms are getting more vicious, and in the thawing Arctic.

But what about us, here on the southern tip of Africa? There’s a real shortage of news about exactly how climate change is going to affect our lives. Which is why I was quite excited to come across a report that analyses what’s in store for an area loved by many South Africans, the Garden Route. It was actually published last year, but it’s still very relevant now.

The study, a collaboration between the WWF, the United Nations Environment Programme Finance Initiative, researchers from UCT and the CSIR, and Santam, was motivated by the fact that the insurance industry is having to deal with a growing number of damage claims resulting from natural disasters. It considers the impact of climate change in the Western Cape’s Eden District Municipality which includes Gouritsmond, Mossel Bay, George, Sedgefield, Knysna and Plettenberg Bay.

Here are the findings in a nutshell:

- Winter and spring temperatures in the region have risen by about 1.4 degrees Celsius over the past hundred years and are predicted to increase by a further 1 degree Celsius by 2040.

- The number of high fire risk periods, particularly during winter, is forecast to increase by around 41% for the period between 2020 and 2050 when compared to 1960 to 1990.

- There are expected to be significantly more intense rainfall days (more than 20mm) between 2020 and 2050 compared to 1960 to 1990. For the winter months, a 36% increase is predicted.

- With a sea level rise of a metre expected by 2100, extreme wave run-up events are predicted to increase by six times (wave run-up, which refers to the maximum vertical level above the still water line reached by wave uprush on the shoreline, can cause significant erosion).

Interestingly, the report highlights the fact that the impacts of humans on the natural environment in the region are of equal or greater importance than the expected effects of climate change itself. The authors point out that:

- the introduction of invasive alien trees has increased the number of fire risk areas by over 30%;

- the degradation of wetlands and riparian zones along rivers, large fires in commercial forest plantations, as well as the clear-felling of such plantations without active rehabilitation, have all diminished the environment’s natural capacity to effectively deal with major rainfall events; and

- the destruction of foredunes has reduced natural protection against storm surges and sea level rise.

Good news

While this may all be rather depressing, there’s good news, too: “proactive management and restoration of these ecological systems has the potential to offset most of the future increases in risk related to climatic changes.”

In other words, if fire-prone invasive trees in the area are eradicated or managed more effectively, if wetlands and riparian zones are rehabilitated and if foredunes are repaired and protected, we’ll go a long way towards offsetting the expected effects of climate change.

That doesn’t sound very hard to accomplish. And while you and I have no chance of influencing the multilateral talks at COP 18, we are much more likely to make an impression locally. If we live on the Garden Route or go on holiday there, we can talk to others about these protective measures, get actively involved with organisations which are already working to implement them and raise awareness about their importance among public servants and representatives on the municipal level.

- Andreas freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

A fairer deal November 22, 2012

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A fairer deal

(This column was first published on Nov 21 2012 on Fin24 here)

The severity of the bloody conflict between striking farmworkers and police in the Hex River Valley and elsewhere has come as a shock to many South Africans.

The clashes are the result of disputes over working conditions and pay, which remain desperate in many parts of the country’s agricultural sector.

It turns out that when it comes to more equitable farm labour systems, there is already one in operation which represents a viable alternative to the conditions that brought about what’s happening in De Doorns right now.

It’s called Fairtrade.

I don’t mean to imply that there aren’t many South African farmers who treat their workers fairly and pay them a decent salary, or that farmworkers shouldn’t organise and unionise themselves. Far from it.

In fact, I don’t believe that there is a one-size-fits-all solution to this situation, but in times of crisis it’s imperative to look for ways of doing things differently and I believe that Fairtrade is one such option.

The Fairtrade movement originated in Europe in the 1990s with the intention of enabling small farmers in the developing world to compete equitably in global markets increasingly dominated by giant multinational companies and unjust trade rules.

In South Africa it now has a small, but dynamic and growing presence.

I recently interviewed workers from three Fairtrade-accredited wine farms, one near Stellenbosch and the other two in the Breede River Valley, not very far from De Doorns.

All of them expressed the sentiment that Fairtrade had changed their lives, as well as those of their families and communities, for the better.

Some of the benefits they mentioned include the fact that:

- strict Fairtrade labour standards have led to better conditions and working hours;
– relations and communications between workers and management have improved; and
– Fairtrade health and safety regulations have meant the provision of appropriate protective gear and procedures, for example when handling hazardous agricultural chemicals.

In addition to improved working conditions, workers benefit from the so-called Fairtrade development premium. For every bottle of Fairtrade wine sold, about 50 cents go to the workers, who decide democratically how this premium money is to be used.

On the farms I visited, the premium has been used, among other things, to:

- equip workers’ houses with solar water heaters and satellite TV;
– buy a bakkie and a minibus to provide transportation for members of the community;
– build a crèche and pay the teachers’ salaries;
– build a food kitchen;
– pay for school fees, uniforms and stationery;
– build a community centre;
– tile the bathrooms in workers’ homes;
– pay for the college education of older children; and
– contribute to workers’ retirement funds.

But the positive effects haven’t just been material or monetary.

The workers told me that the need to collectively decide about what to do with their Fairtrade premium money, while not always being easy, had brought their communities together and had improved the situation of women who are equal to their male counterparts in the decision-making process.

Self-esteem has been raised – several workers mentioned no longer being ashamed of being farm labourers when visiting town on the weekend, and one suggested that he had observed more moderate drinking habits among his colleagues who now had more to look forward to in life than before Fairtrade.

A recurring theme among the people I spoke to was that Fairtrade had opened doors for their children, who, often for the first time in generations, had the opportunity of receiving a better education than their parents and finding jobs off the farm.

Fairtrade is already well established in South Africa and it should be straightforward for farmers who want to get involved to apply for accreditation.

And as consumers, Fairtrade allows us to vote with our rands by, for example, choosing Fairtrade wines the next time we’re in the liquor store to pick up a bottle or two.

It’s not just about the rhinos November 21, 2012

Posted by Andreas in Column, Environment.
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It’s not just about the rhinos

(This column was first published on 2012-11-19 at News24 here)

The 21st Century is not a good time to be a rhino. After having been around for millions of years, the species might not survive humanity.

As of last Monday, the annual rhino poaching toll in South Africa, home to about 80% of the planet’s rhinos, stood at a sobering 549. That’s a grim new record, way up from 2011’s figure of 448, and it comes in a year when more than 200 people have already been arrested in connection with rhino poaching and one has been sentenced to a 40-year jail term.

The situation elsewhere is no better. In other African countries with much smaller rhino populations, ongoing poaching, even at far lower rates than ours, has a devastating impact. The Javan rhino, formerly distributed throughout much of South East Asia, has been decimated to a mere 35 confirmed individuals in Indonesia’s Ujung Kulon National Park.

Much of the demand for rhino horn in recent years has come from Vietnam, the only country in the world where rhino horn grinding bowls are mass produced and where offering your dinner guests a supposedly detoxifying drink laced with rhino horn powder is the thing to do in affluent society.

The idea that rhino horn acts as an aphrodisiac appears to actually have been created largely by western media hype which, ironically, was embraced by the Vietnamese populous, as was the more recent myth that the substance has cancer-curing powers. With a more-expensive-than-gold street value of around $65 000 per kilogram, it’s easy to understand the pressure on the supply of rhino horn from South Africa’s national parks and game reserves.

But rhinos aren’t the only wildlife that’s under increasing threat from humans through poaching, deforestation, habitat destruction, pollution and climate change. North of the Limpopo, Africa’s elephant population is being decimated by well-armed syndicates who are not above butchering entire herds in one go.

There have been reports of a rise in the export of lion bones to practitioners of Asian traditional medicine. In India, it’s estimated that four leopards are poached for their body parts every week. Scientists believe that 95% of South East Asia’s and 75% of the Caribbean’s coral reefs are in danger of collapse and 25 of the world’s primate species are on the brink of extinction, as are one in eight bird, one in four mammal and one in three amphibian species.

Human activities are the main reason that extinctions now occur 1000 to 10 000 times more frequently than the expected natural rate.

So what would it take to reverse this depressing trend? About $81 billion a year, worldwide, according to a study published in Science in October. That’s the total needed to reduce the risk of extinction for threatened species and to establish and maintain the necessary protected areas.

Sounds like an impossibly large amount, doesn’t it? But, as the authors have pointed out, it’s less than half the money splurged on bankers’ bonuses in 2011 and not even 20% of what humans spend on soft drinks annually – just $11.42 per year for every man, woman and child.

And we’re not talking about a bleeding-heart handout to nature or a bunny-hugger tax here. Spending this money would be an economically sound investment in our own future.

You see, our activities on Earth are busy causing a very substantial loss in so-called ecosystem services every year. Those are the myriad of natural processes, from bees pollinating our crops to photosynthesising plants absorbing the CO2 we keep pumping into the atmosphere, without which we simply couldn’t survive.

And the monetary value of this loss in nature’s services to humans? A gob-smacking $2 to 6.6 trillion annually! So spending billions a year to halt the earth’s sixth great extinction, which we’re currently orchestrating, will save us trillions in the long run, and we’ll get a more liveable planet thrown in on the side. Sounds like a good deal to me…

- Andreas freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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