Global Briefs Nov-Dec 2010

The Good News Paradox: Reflecting on the HDI

This year’s Human Development Index (HDI) came out in early November and it was full of good news. The HDI started out 20 years ago to provide a way of indexing development and progress that gives a fuller picture of human well being than GDP’s shallow economic calculations. This year’s report celebrates the fact that over the past 40 years “average life expectancy rose from 59 to 70 years, primary school enrollment grew from 55 to 70 percent, and per capita income doubled to more than $10,000.”

This is great stuff. But the question that the HDI asks is can it be sustained? Can we hope to see similar gains in the next 40 years?

Climate Change & Development

The main threat, which haunts the report, is climate change. By some projections, much of the already wealthy North will not directly feel the negative impacts of climate change until late in the century. But many of the areas where gains have been made in access to education, nutrition and life expectancy are also going to be the most vulnerable to climate change. As the HDI puts it:
“The main threat to maintaining progress in human development comes from the increasingly evident unsustainability of production and consumption patterns. The consequences of environmentally unsustainable production are already visible. Increased exposure to drought, floods and environmental stress is a major impediment to realizing people?s aspirations.”

Unrealized Urban Possibilities Cities have an important place in all this. Beyond coastal communities that will face increased flooding, all of the world’s ever growing cities are directly dependent on external supplies of food, potable water, and energy that make it possible for such a high density of people to live together in relative comfort.

With 40% reductions in staple grain crops currently expected by mid century (as well as a bundle of other climate related disasters) the spectre of resource conflicts and urban unrest is very real. At the same time, decoupling urbanization from increased energy use could play a huge part in mitigating the intensity of climate change. Unfortunately recent reports on the US and China show that this is ? on the whole ? simply not happening.

This contrast between how good things are and how challenging they will get is a bit of a brain twister. How can things be going so well if they are really going so badly?

The Environmentalist’s Paradox Dr. Ciara Raudsepp-Hearne dubs this sticky situation the “Environmentalist’s Paradox.” Given the unprecedented burdens we are placing on the planet’s resources, projecting forward from past data is tricky. But beyond just supplying a catchy name, she and her co-authors, with that proviso, Hearne and her co-authors argue that on the one hand, agricultural innovations have helped increase human well-being despite declines in other areas. And, on the other hand, that there is a time lag between the damage we do to our ecosystems and when we feel its impacts.

Cities of Change

Going into a century of rapid climate change with already depleted ecosystems is a frightening prospect. But, as the HDI points out, in many ways things are better than ever. To keep that going on a rapidly urbanizing globe means designing urban systems that are more resilient to climatic shocks, resource shortages (and the social tensions they create), and that also impose a lighter load on the ecosystems we depend on.

Concretely, that means more attention to technical projects like decentralized renewable energy that increase the resilience and efficiency of our hard infrastructure. It also means continued progress on social issues like education, health, and equality that build the resilience of our societies. Change happens, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Our cities need to be ready to respond to both.
This post was shared by WorldChanging & originally appeared on Alex’s personal blog openalex.

1,000 Tigers Killed in Last 10 Years for Skins, Parts – that’s roughly 20% of all tigers

The black market trade in big cat parts leaves 100 critically endangered tigers dead every year. Over the last ten years, an estimated 1,000 wild tigers have been killed by poachers, a new report from the wildlife monitoring group Traffic International reveals. This devastating number is made even more devastating considering that currently, there are only an estimated 3,500 tigers in existence around the world — meaning this poaching is one of the, if not the, gravest threats to tigers there is.

The BBC reports:

Traffic International, a wildlife trade monitoring network, found that skins, bones and claws were among the most common items seized by officials.The trade continues unabated despite efforts to protect the cats, it warns.

Photo: Traffic International

Over the past century, tiger numbers have fallen from about 100,000 individuals to just an estimated 3,500.The study, which used data from 11 of the 13 countries that are home to populations of Panthera tigris, estimated that between 1,069 and 1,220 tigers were killed to supply the illicit demand for tiger parts.
The BBC also published these grisly photos of seized tiger parts that drive home the nature of this trade:

The illegal wildlife trade is the third biggest “illicit commodity” trade in the world, after weapons and drugs- it’s a multi-billion dollar industry. And demand for animal parts, especially for exotic ones like tigers, is only continuing to grow.

Which is bad news, especially since the report also reveals that the wide swath of efforts enacted by NGOs, governments, and conservation groups to halt the illegal trade of tiger parts have been hugely ineffective. The authors of the Traffic International report conclude that the only hope to save the tigers is to reduce demand in the countries where tigers are still sought after — primarily India, where over half the world’s remaining tigers live, and China, where the second most tigers are seized annually.

Traditional conservationist thinking has been unable to halt the drastic decline of one of the world’s most recognizable and beloved animals — perhaps it’s time to take another tack.
Shared by TreeHugger, an online media outlet dedicated to driving sustainability mainstream

Does Wi-Fi Kill Trees?

PCWorld reports that radiation from Wi-Fi networks might be killing trees.

Here’s the gist of it, from ReadWriteWeb: According to the study, translated from Dutch using Google Translate, trees in urban areas of the Netherlands showed an increasing number of damage such as cracks, bumps, discoloration and various forms of tissue damage. The research, by Wageningen University, was commissioned by officials from Alphen aan den Rijn, a city in the western region of the Netherlands. They asked for the research after discovering trees that did not appear healthy. Further, the trees could not be identified as suffering from a virus or bacterial infection.

Granted, a false cognate or two could send that translation into a tailspin. But it’s become abundantly clear over the past few centuries of industrialization that technology does, indeed, affect our environment. Here’s how PCWorld explains it:

The study exposed 20 ash trees to various radiation sources for a period of three months. Trees placed closest to the Wi-Fi radio demonstrated a “lead-like shine” on their leaves that was caused by the dying of the upper and lower epidermis of the leaves. This would eventually result in the death of parts of the leaves. The study also found that Wi-Fi radiation could inhibit the growth of corn cobs.

If Wi-Fi radiation is hurting trees, it probably isn’t a boon to our health. At what point does the environmental or physical cost of a given technology outweigh its benefits?
Shared by GOOD – GOOD is a collaboration of individuals, businesses, and nonprofits pushing the world forward.

Stern Warning: US Could Be Faced With Global Boycott Because of Carbon

On November 26, 2010, Lord Nicholas Stern, the author of the British government’s 2006 report on climate change economics, warned that many countries might boycott US goods if they were deemed to be responsible for too much carbon emissions.

After the disappointing showing by the US in Copenhagen last year and the failure by Congress to follow through with any action this year, the influential economist?s pointed remarks should not be surprising.

Stern told the London Times, “The US will increasingly see the risks of being left behind, and 10 years from now they would have to start worrying about being shut out of markets because their production is dirty,” He specifically mentioned aircraft, cars and machine tools as goods which could face restrictions.

There is an irony here that should not be missed. Many who opposed the climate bill in the Senate, particularly on the Republican side, cited economic concerns, weakness in the economy, potential loss of jobs, etc. as reasons for not supporting the bill, saying, in essence, that the cost of compliance was too high. But if Lord Stern”s prediction turns out to be true, the economic cost of non-compliance could be far higher. This is another clear example of politicians failing to see the larger picture, in this case, the international one.

A recent piece in the New Yorker by Ryan Lizza, gave a detailed accounting of the climate bill’s failure to pass the Senate despite the extraordinary coalition of Kerry, Lieberman, and Graham that worked very hard on its behalf. Besides the more obvious causes for the bill’s defeat that have previously been discussed in this column, such as: partisanship, inertia, paid influence, and the economy, there were also several miscues within the administration, or should I say between the administration of the Senate bill that was working to get the bill passed.

First, there were two cases in which the administration freely gave away what the Senators had been hoping to barter for support: expansion of offshore drilling, and the nuclear loan guarantees. These were promises that “Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman wanted to negotiate with their colleagues. But Obama had served the dessert before the children even promised to eat their spinach.” Additionally, there were critical times in the process, when the President’s support was needed but did not come through.

Meanwhile, the Arctic ice continues to drip into the ocean as it melts and pound after pound of CO2 continues to waft into the atmosphere, approximately25% of the world?s total coming from the United States of America with its roughly 5% of the world’s population.

BRIMCS Countries Outspend Rich Countries in Energy Research & Development

A lot of very smart people have been saying for a very long time that rich countries (see the IEA members at, and especially the U.S., aren’t investing enough in energy R&D. That’s sad, because energy is so central to almost everything in modern society, including our environmental problems that without some real acceleration of progress the road ahead can only be pretty bumpy.

Another reminder of this lag came form a paper by a team of Harvard Kennedy School researchers led by Ruud Kempener. They found that “six key developing countries-Brazil, Russia, India, Mexico, China, and South Africa, known as the BRIMCS countries–spent more on energy technology research, development, and demonstration in 2008 than the governments of the world’s two dozen richest countries, combined. […] total national and regional government investments in IEA countries were $12.7 billion dollars. […] a minimum of $13.8 billion was invested by central governments and 100% government-owned enterprises in energy RD&D in the BRIMCS countries.”

Of course, technologies developed in emerging economies can still be used in rich countries, so nothing’s lost (this isn’t zero-sum game), but we’d get there faster if everybody was working harder.
Shared by TreeHugger, an online media outlet dedicated to driving sustainability mainstream

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