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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

Posted by Andreas in Column, South Africa.
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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

Climate change: game over? November 19, 2012

Posted by Andreas in Climate change, Column, Environment, Global warming.
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Climate change: game over?

(This column was first published on 2012-11-13 at News24 here)

Climate change didn’t enter the 2012 US presidential elections as a topic worth debating until superstorm Sandy knocked out the nation’s most populous city. But before we point accusing fingers at those clueless Americans, we should ask ourselves how serious we and our own government have taken this issue.

For years, the vast majority of the world’s climate scientists have warned that we need to restrict average global temperature increases to a maximum of 2oC above pre-industrial levels in order to prevent catastrophic and irreversible climate change.

At COP-15, the 2009 UN climate conference in Copenhagen, this 2oC target was officially agreed on by the signatories to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Many experts now believe that the target is too high and that we should be aiming at 1.5 oC to be safe.

A new analysis by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) predicts that we’re headed for 6oC by the end of this century. According to the international accounting firm’s Low Carbon Economy Index 2012, entitled “Too late for two degrees?”, the pace of reducing global emissions of greenhouse gasses has been way too slow.

While reductions in the carbon intensity (i.e. the emissions per unit of GDP) of countries like the UK, Germany and France reached rates as high as 6% or more in 2010-2011, they appear to have stalled in the world’s emerging economies. The so-called E7 group of countries (China, India, Brazil, Mexico, Russia, Indonesia, Turkey) now emit more than the G7 countries (USA, France, UK, Germany, Italy, Japan, Canada).

According to the PwC report, the global economy has to decrease its collective carbon intensity by a massive 5.1% annually until the year 2050 to stand a chance of achieving the 2oC target – a rate never achieved in any single year since World War 2. “Even to have a reasonable prospect of getting to a 4°C scenario would imply nearly quadrupling the current rate of decarbonisation,” says the study.

So does this mean that we’re toast? That the 2oC target is a pipedream and that we’re doomed to follow the Ancient Maya in succumbing to drastic climate change?

Not quite yet, but we do need to urgently decide how we are going to respond to this depressing news? It seems to me that we have three options. Take your pick:

1. Business as usual

There are a number of reasons why you might think that we should simply carry on burning oil, gas and coal, regardless of the consequences:
– you don’t believe in climate change in the first place;
– you think that any detrimental effects have been vastly exaggerated;
– you have faith in the powers of the “free market” to sort things out in the end;
– you’re looking forward to the long-awaited collapse of capitalism;
– you believe that global warming is a natural phenomenon that humans can’t do anything about; or
– you just don’t give a damn.

2. Addressing the symptoms

You may argue that we should focus our attention on:
– developing technologies to help us and future generations adapt to life on a warming planet;
– capturing and safely storing enough of the carbon we pump into the atmosphere to mitigate our continued reliance on fossil fuels; or
– searching for geoengineering solutions, like dumping iron dust into the oceans to stimulate CO2-trapping plankton blooms, or launching space mirrors to shield us from the sun’s radiation.

3. Tackling the causes

Like most environmentalists you may believe that the way to go is to transition to a low-carbon economy by:
– maximising energy efficiency; and
– replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy alternatives such as wind and solar power.

Personally, I’ve long been a supporter of option 3, but a considerable need for adaptation to the symptoms of climate change now seems inevitable. The authors of the PwC index agree, calling for “radical transformations in the way the global economy currently functions: rapid uptake of renewable energy, sharp falls in fossil fuel use or massive deployment of CCS [carbon capture and storage], removal of industrial emissions and halting deforestation.”

Which option do you choose?

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

Are you eating genetically modified food? November 8, 2012

Posted by Andreas in Environment, genetic engineering.
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Wow, I haven’t posted anything for a very long time! I’ll try to be a bit more active again from now on.

Are you eating genetically modified food?

(This column was first published on 2012-11-06 at News24 here)

Are you consuming food made using genetically modified (GM) crops? You probably are, even if you’re not aware of it.

The Washington-based Environmental Working Group recently conducted an interesting investigation. Using 2011 data provided by the US Department of Agriculture, they estimated that average Americans consume more than their body weight – 193 pounds or about 87.5 kg – in GM food every year.

The South African government along with much of our agriculture industry has been as enthusiastic about genetic engineering as their US counterparts. This remains the only country in the world that allows GM varieties of its national staple food – white maize – to be grown commercially. In the 2011/2012 season approximately 72% of all maize seed sold in South Africa was GM.

So, unless you’re extremely vigilant or on an organic-only diet, chances are pretty good that you are eating your share of GM food on a regular basis, since maize and its by-products find their way into a surprisingly wide variety of food.

Exactly what the human health implications are remains a very controversial topic. In September, a French study published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal argued that rats fed on GM maize and exposed to Monsanto’s Roundup, a glyphosate herbicide which is routinely sprayed on this maize, increased the rate of premature death in the animals compared to control groups.

They also claimed a significantly raised incidence of cancerous tumours and severe kidney and liver damage. The variety of maize used, Monsanto’s NK603, has been approved in South Africa since 2002 and is extensively planted as yellow and white maize.

As soon as it was released, the study was simultaneously embraced by GM critics and branded as inadequate and deeply flawed by pundits of the technology. What remains a fact, however, is that precious little independent, large-scale and long-term research into the human health effects of GM crops has ever been conducted anywhere. We continue to be our own guinea pigs in this area.

The detrimental environmental impact of GM crops is less contentious. For years, one of the biotech industry’s main selling points has been the promise that GM crops would reduce the use of toxic pesticides.

Some GM crop varieties are engineered to release their own insecticide, supposedly reducing the need for farmers to apply synthetic equivalents. Others GM crops are designed to be resistant to glyphosate herbicides like Roundup. In this case the idea is that limited applications of glyphosate would be sufficient to control weeds while doing no harm to the crops themselves.

There are now increasingly worrying signs, however, that nature is beating the genetic engineers at their game. In September, a paper published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Sciences Europe, showed that herbicide use in the USA increased by 239 million kilograms or about 11% between 1996 and 2011, because weeds are becoming increasingly resistant to glyphosate, some developing into so-called superweeds.

Statistics on pesticide use in South Africa are difficult to come by, but data from the UN show that glyphosate imports have risen from 12 million litres in 2006 to 20 million litres in 2011.

Last month also saw researchers from Iowa State University release the results of a study which indicates that western corn rootworm, an insect very destructive to maize plants, has developed resistance to Monsanto’s insecticide-producing YieldGuard variety of GM maize. In the past, this pest, which feeds exclusively on maize, was largely controlled by the age-old technique of crop rotation with farmers alternating their plantings of maize with other crops, like soybeans. As insect resistance to GM crops increases, we can expect the use of toxic insecticides to rise as well.

There is some good news for consumers who want to steer clear of GM food though. On 9 October, the Department of Trade and Industry published a draft amendment to the regulations that govern the labelling of GM food in South Africa. If it’s approved – and let’s hope it is – all imported and locally produced goods that contains 5% or more GM components or ingredients have to be labelled as “contains genetically modified ingredients or components”, giving South Africans the option to choose if they want to support this technology or not.

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