The Age of Peaking of Resources

Recent news about water crises has again got me thinking about the issue of reaching the maximum levels of extraction of natural resources and then every effort put in results into getting less and less of it.

This is not only true for water or oil, but also for renewable resources like wood. In my field experiences of visiting and staying in villages I often encountered cases of how the depletion of forest has led to increased drudgery over women. Their road miles (these roads are different) for fetching wood to be able to cook has constantly been going up. Once a women explained how the time it takes her to fetch wood is twice as much while the quality of wood is not the same.

Similar would be the case for our efforts in fetching ground water. In fact the increasing depths of borewells in cities is an example of how we are putting in more effort to fetch water which is inferior in quality (often higher TDS is recorded in deep borewell water). The more deeper we go it costs more (electricity for pumping and higher horse power motors). As the ground water crises deepens, at some point in time the costs of water could become so high that we may end up buying it from rationing shops. Hopefully water riots could still be avoided.

Crude oil is no different. My introduction to the world of sustainability or rather un-sustainability was through my research on oil as a commodity in the stock markets. My own modeling projections revealed that the rate at which we are able to extract oil would peak soon and then the supply would be unable to keep up with the demand. This means that the demand would have to adjust. Either by choice or force. The case is pretty similar to water. The demand for water could automatically get managed if we have to purchase it through open markets or if it gets rationed.

So joining the three dots that I mention above, wood, water and oil, today I again think of the issue of peaking of resources and how they are due to transform our lives. Richard Heinberg wrote a book on this called Peak Everything, 11 years ago. I had also read on the issue of peak gold where the underground extraction of gold peaks in a similar fashion like oil and water. The only difference is gold is a non consumable item and hence would still be available in the markets. But oil and wood are being burnt and converted into CO2 while ground water is extracted, evaporated and converted into waste through industrial, agricultural and household consumption.

While it can be argued that freshwater is renewable and thus if we reduce our consumption then we could have more of it. But one must remember that the ground water that we extract is a resource stock build up over centuries which we have exploited in great hurry. In order for that stock to build up again it could take a long long time. Hence, for our day to day purposes ground water is somewhat non renewable.

During my first encounters with the resource depletion issues I thought re-localisation would be a strategy to defy all odds. One relocates to a resource abundant small geography and maintains it through a community driven process. It has been close to 10 years and in reality I have only gone farther away from the idea.

But these recent news of water crises has got me thinking again.

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Challenge of Policy Making for Climate Change Adaptation

Farmers in India and across the world are witnessing new variations in weather and seasonal changes. The challenge to take decisions under these variations gets compounded because often there is no precedent to it. What decisions work best can be known through experimentation and mostly in hindsight. This makes adaptation to climate change a complex process. The cause-effect conundrum, i.e. which solution gives what result is almost impossible to predict with certainty. Thus, human decision making under such unforeseen situations needs to be aided by additional information or decision support systems. Climate Services, the delivery of weather based agriculture advisories using ICT, help aid farmer’s decision making process by providing timely weather forecasts and corresponding advisories on agricultural practices.

The information farmers receive on climate services provides them with an option of incorporating it into their agriculture decision making. But it is almost impossible to measure with certainty how much of this information do they incorporate, in what form and when. This makes impact evaluation of adaptation solutions, like climate services, a very challenging exercise. At times even the farmers are unable to clearly demarcate the important variables they use for their decision making process. This is so because in order to cope with weather variations there are many possible actions and solutions to be experimented with. But the most effective solutions may not be known to them at the early stages and thus their decision making keeps evolving as they experiment with a set of solutions. Through this process of iterative decision making they learn to adapt to weather variations. This makes adaptation a highly localized and continuous process with no clear traces of solution impact pathways. But a set of good practices evolve over time.

Challenges to measure or generate evidence of adaptation further hinder the uptake and popularity of good practices. There is also a theoretical difficulty in establishing units for measuring adaptation and establish monitoring systems for its evaluation. This makes communicating adaptation through evidence a very difficult task. It also challenges the imagination of policy makers who mostly rely on numbers for estimating impacts. For example, the climate mitigation negotiations use the 2°C limit of temperature rise as the reference for determining how much emissions need to be reduced to achieve this climate goal. But in case of adaptation there is a dearth of quantifiable numbers which could guide the policy planning process. Thus, policy making for adaptation requires a shift of two kinds

1)   Moving away from relying only on numbers, and

2)   Decentralization of policy making to account for localized adaptation processes.

This shift further brings up two challenges

1)   How to measure what is intangible or un-measured, and

2)   At what scale should the policy making process be localized.

Unless research on climate change adaptation focuses to find answer to these two challenges, policy making for adaptation to climate change would remain a very challenging task.

Note: This article was first posted on my linkedin on October 3, 2016 for TERI’s World Sustainable Development Summit 2016. Link: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/challenge-policy-making-climate-change-adaptation-mihir-mathur/

Envisioning Carbon Neutral Villages

I am very pleased to share my paper on Envisioning Carbon Neutral Villages published in Current Science Journal. 

This is an outcome of my 5 year engagement of working closely with rural communities in India for a climate change adaptation programme. It had 10+ thematic areas of research and intervention. I focused on local money flows, climate risk impact assessment, carbon neutrality, livelihood resilience and alternate energy. 

This paper integrates all those thematic interventions, through a systems thinking approach, and positions them as enablers for transiting towards carbon neutrality. These interventions qualify as mitigation and adaptation both. Thereby, it also breaks the stereotype of ‘either/or’ and highlights the synergies between mitigation and adaptation.

It presents a scenario where social, technological and environmental interventions could potentially mitigate emissions, strengthen sinks and ultimately enable them to reach equilibrium.

With the risk of ‘runaway climate change’ increasing, I personally think lot of bottom up pilots need to be done in order to demonstrate that carbon neutrality could be achieved. Relatively soon and we need not wait till year 2100 (as science and models suggest). 

It is the need of the hour! By design or destiny… 

I hope you like reading the paper!.

Paper Link: http://www.currentscience.ac.in/Volumes/110/07/1208.pdf  

Presentations

These are a set of presentations on various topics which I have presented at different forums. It is being made freely available for non commercial use and source attribution would be highly appreciated. For any questions, clarifications or corrections please write to me.

Source: Presentations

The Idea of Localisation

Here is a note on my views of localization and why it is an effective way of achieving a sustainable society.

I welcome reader’s comments on this.

Vision: Communities thrive on resilient exchange of local goods and services in sustainable ecosystems for their overall well-being.
Mission: Enable social transformation towards more localized economy through regeneration and conservation of ecosystems and creation of local green jobs

Why go local?
Many reasons,
a. Learning is a feedback process. Behavior would modify if we receive feedback on our actions in relatively short time. Eg. While driving a vehicle the speedometer provides a feedback, similarly the fuel gauge also provides a feedback where we can take proactive steps to refuel in time. On these lines if our daily actions start providing us with feedback it will help us to be aware of the consequences our actions would have and affect behavior modification. Hence, it is important to collapse the space time between cause and effect. This is not possible if distant actions affect remote communities and ecosystems much beyond the temporal and spatial boundaries of the people living in those places. This delay creates blindness and hence restricts their learning process and awareness towards the consequences of their actions. The large delay involved between the unsustainable consumption practice and its impact on environment could very well close the window of opportunity where proactive actions could be taken to recover the situation or adapt to it. Thus it is important to go local and as much as possible have a close loop economy where what goes comes back in relatively short time. This could enable a self-governing system.
b. Complexity needs to be managed and harnessed. Tools which help us analyze data and make sense are good to understand situations which we don’t know. But at least here we are aware that we don’t know. Hence, it can be known through use of methods, tools, technology etc. But what happens when we don’t even know that we don’t know? The current situation of climate change, ecosystems degradation, governance issues, and economic uncertainty is interrelated, interconnected and interdepended in nature. I am not very sure how the tools which we use to understand complicated stuff would work in this complex situation. Hence, if the world is banking on technology, mathematical modeling and other forecasting tools to help us understand what we don’t know then it could be a recipe of disaster. The world has become too interconnected for us to comprehend its mischievous nature. Thus we need to decouple and start working with subsystems. We have to first make it manageable and then harness the complexity involved in it. Thus, going local is more manageable to develop models of change which may get adapted when the time comes.
c. Many subsystems make up the entire system. Top down approaches for development and policy often get disconnected with the local context. Hence set of best practices does not account for local diversity rather it relies on standardizing practices and one size must fit all type of approach. Rather a bottom up approach which self optimizes itself over a period of time would ideally take into account the local diversity and priorities. Policies and practices evolving from ground could have more acceptance and endurance as compared to top down planning.
How to go local?
a. Local but not isolated. Going local does not imply cutting ourselves from the external environment. It does not imply boycotting or living on isolated territories. In fact 100% local would not allow for risk transfers to take place through exchange of resources. Thus, it is only advisable to have semi closed economy where local substitution takes place for goods and services which are consistent with local priorities and are feasible in the near term.
b. Import substitution. Participatory appraisal would be the key for deciding on what to substitute, what resources are required for that substitution to take place, what their state is and how to maintain or achieve the desired state.
c. Green jobs. In most likelihood the state of local ecosystem and ecosystem services would be below the threshold for their sustainable consumption. Thus, it could very well be the case where regenerating and conserving ecosystems becomes the immediate action and people, institutions engaged in these activities earn their livelihood by providing their services. These could also be termed as local green jobs. It is of utmost importance that they earn through regeneration and conservation of ecosystems since this would provide them immediate incentives instead of motivating them for long term anticipated benefits.
d. Local currency. If green jobs are to be paid then a local revolving fund where the medium of exchange is not rupee but a local currency which cannot be used outside the locally decided boundaries but can be used for purchase and sale of local goods and services can be established. This initial infusion would then keep revolving within the community through exchange and transaction of local goods and services. But we will have to put more thought on the design of such a system.
e. Building credibility. Going local may not be the solution to all the problems and that’s not the idea of localization. It has to be seen as a systemic response to the multiple stresses of resource depletion, climate change and macroeconomic oscillations. The objective is to establish a proof of concept and test our assumptions in a safe manner. Most of our learning would come from failures and the pedagogy would evolve as we keep experimenting. Hence, the project should be done in the spirit of experimentation and not to prove success. We should seek to build credibility of the approach/concept and enhance our own understanding in an evolutionary manner.
f. Safe fail approach. It is only ethical that the size and nature of interventions should be such that even if they fail they don’t hurt the community or cause long term damage. They have to be small, diverse and must be developed in participatory manner.

Local Exchange Systems – Building Resilience

Local Exchange Systems

Here (above link) is a discussion paper, “Local Exchange Systems – Designing Community Incentives” which pitches localisation as one of the systemic and strategic ways of building adaptive capacity of communities towards climate change and potential risks of economic globalization. This was part of my Climate Change Adaptation work at WOTR (www.wotr.org)

It examines the role of alternative economics to provide incentives in form of coupons, vouchers, tokens, rewards etc. to people for ecosystem regeneration, local production and consumption of goods and services. The objective of the paper is to facilitate a discussion on the potential local economics holds in building adaptive capacities of communities to facilitate adaptation.

Lets create a discussion thread on this!!

Below is the abstract of the paper:

Abstract: Economic Globalization in its current form is a centralizing juggernaut which often causes large-scale resource depletion in remote eco-systems, unpredictable price variations in essential commodities and lead to macroeconomic upheaval. Coupled with this is the potential of widespread impacts of Climate Change which increases the vulnerability of human settlements especially the resource poor within. In context of the dual risks of economic globalization and climate change, Localisation appears to be the most systemic response mechanism. Localisation is the manifestation of a decentralized, democratized economy that allows communities to develop ecosystems based Climate Resilient Economies.

Energy Leverage in Agriculture

While human beings lived as hunters and gatherers, 500 calories of human effort yielded 2000 calories of food produce giving a ratio of 1:4 (Beyond Civilization by Daniel Quinn). In our endeavor to leave nomadic life we moved from tribal to agriculture age although it resulted into lower return on food energy. During the transition supplementary requirements for survival, like shelter, clothing, domestication of animals etc., laid the foundation for occupations other than growing food. This resulted in drop of human effort to food yield, but we still managed not only to survive but also to grow. This growth was due to the external source of surplus energy which we found in form of Fossil Fuels.

Before the industrial era, farming was a net producer of energy. Today the food system has turned into a net user of energy, it takes 7-10 calorie of fossil energy to produce 1 calorie of food produce (Searching for a Miracle, Richard Heinberg). Fossil energy is a onetime gift, in a span of 3.5 billion years of earth’s formation, which will start running dry during lifetime of most of us alive today. The effects will be felt on food production and supply, one of the non negotiable for our existence. If Maharashtra exports 90% of its tomato produce to places all over the country (from Gujarat to Delhi) then it is worth thinking on how many miles does our basket of food items travel before landing on our table??

It’s time we proactively prepare for Peak Oil and strive for sustainability by moving from Globalization to Localization forms of living. Many such small movements have started where people with a purpose have started developing spaces which have low environment footprint and are more local. (Van vadi, Acres Wild, SuryaGram)

With time closing on us, lets hope such movements keep getting intensive and extensive.

 

 

Going Small for a Big Change

The paradigm of economics and its emphasis has created the problem of blinded consumption of the masses. What we consume and how we consume leads to an impact on people and environment, often at distance places which cannot be seen by naked eyes or felt without knowing.

The consumer and producer are distant in time and space. The cause and effect are distant in time and space. Hence, in order to behave in an “eco-friendly” manner there has to be a wave of fashion about it or an element of guilt, for the masses to follow. Some examples – Low Impact Denim – Low water, energy , 8 bottles for 1 jeans – made out of progress (feel good about it, feel good in it), save water save earth, “one touch to change the future” (new air conditioners) etc.
But this approach only suffices to fix the emergent behavior patterns and not the paradigm. And the behavior can only be as good as it is allowed to be.
At a deeper level in order for sustainability to kick in and public/individual behaviors to change the blindness needs to be removed and proper incentives need to be designed.
Incentives
If this is already happening with corporate and governments becoming more socially, environmentally responsible then why is Alternate Energy prices more expensive than Mainstream energy?? Why a low impact denim costs more than a “High” impact denim?? Why for saving water no one gets a reward?? Why are 5 star air conditioners more expensive than 2 star air conditioners??
Because it is a business fit. Sustainability is the new wave of business and economy. It is a proposition which gets transformed into a product/commodity which creates a brand and initiates a new wave of consumption – A responsible behavior or low guilt behavior.
If we dream of having a sustainable society and culture, then there needs to be rewards for changing public/individual behavior patterns which move towards more just and sustainable consumption and production. Not subsidize but incentivize has to be the mantra. And this does not include carbon credits!!! Because they allow non emitting entities to emit and pay for it.
Remove Blindness
The consumer and producer have to come close in time and space. The impacts of production have to be felt by the consumer and vice versa. This is possible if they live in close vicinity and the planetary boundaries are shrunk at a local level. There is an element of localization, where we produce using local resources, consume and then recycle within the local ecosystem. All ends of the economy are tied up, in a closed loop system. What goes come back and in relatively quick time. The feedback received becomes evidence of our learning. Behaviors start changing.
This also provides a possibility to have a proxy or actual indicator of the environmental footprint of the combined lifestyles (may be of a community). This might help begin a conscious journey towards a sustainable movement towards sustainability.
The above theory needs proof of concept and for that we should start small, very small. A model at local level will enable us to test our assumptions and crystallize our understanding before launching an assault at national or global level. Ultimately it is the small unseen, unheard movements at nano level which will do the front-running in our ultimate quest for sustainable change.
Till that time, lets keep Dreaming!!!