Sunday, March 25, 2012

Sentences of note

"Murle raids for cattle and a far more valuable commodity, children, have prompted Dinka and Nuer warriors to retaliate in kind."

Well, that certainly jumped out at me anyway. From THIS article in this week's economist.

Development and military expenditure

A quote from this week's Economist: "Military analysts at IHS Jane’s say that South-East Asian countries together increased defence spending by 13.5% last year, to $24.5 billion. The figure is projected to rise to $40 billion by 2016. According to SIPRI, arms deliveries to Malaysia jumped eightfold in 2005-09, compared with the previous five years. Indonesia’s spending grew by 84% in that period."

The full article is HERE.

What. if anything, should this imply for development expenditure? I must confess, I am actually not at all sure. Does it matter in any way at all? Thoughts?

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Does climate change fuel terrorism?

Here are a few paragraphs from an article on the more general topic strife in the Sahal in this week's Economist.

Low precipitation may seem normal near the Sahara. In fact, much of the Sahel normally gets enough rain to allow modest farming. But a rise in water temperatures in the nearby Gulf of Guinea has shifted the flow of rain clouds southwards, meteorologists say. Livestock have died in droves. Long-term overgrazing and fast population growth have made the problem worse.

Oxfam, an aid agency, warns of a humanitarian disaster, with more than 1m children facing severe malnutrition. Villagers in Chad already dig up ant hills to gather grain the ants have stored. But the worst-affected place is now Niger, a landlocked country of 15m people which, even in normal times, accounts for a sixth of global child deaths from malnutrition. Save the Children, another aid agency, says that the situation in Niger has worsened since September, when a lack of rain led to crop failures of up to 80%.

Misery has made the Sahel’s thousands of unemployed an easy target for recruiters from extremist groups. Their main base lies across Niger’s badly patrolled border with Algeria, where the Sahel becomes outright desert. A two-decade-old Islamist insurgency there has adopted the mantle of global jihad and renamed itself al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Having failed to dislodge the military regime along Algeria’s densely populated Mediterranean coast, these extremists are increasingly focused on the sandy hinterland.

Weather insurance

Climate change is causing more weather extremes and more micro climates. Those who rely on agriculture in developing countries are hit extremely harshly. Mongolia, a country which relies on livestock, saw 25% of its stock die in 2010 resulting, largely from arctic oscillations. The World Bank (amongst plenty of others) is working on a number of weather insurance schemes and I attended an interesting seminar about some of these a few weeks ago.

There are great challenges however when implementing such schemes. The first challenge is to decide when to pay out. The schemes presented in the seminar require publicly available indexes. For example, a publicly available index of rainfall. When it falls below a certain level, if your farm is within a certain radius of the weather station you receive a payout. This was the case in an example in Hondurus presented. In Mongolia, an index of livestock death was used. In both cases, the aim is that an individual farmer cannot influence the likelihood of payout. They also ensure that a farmer who suffers less because he has made investment to protect himself from climate change is not penalised because he has been hit less hard. This encourages such investments. Finally, the index is public, clear and verifiable helping to win trust and gain buy-in.

There are problems though. The first is often weather stations. They often don't exist in sufficient numbers and relevant places in developing countries, so a network may have to be set up. A second issue comes in managing the scheme. Some experiences show that the scheme stops becoming viable when just a key employee or two, with the relevant expertise, leave an insurance company. In nomadic places like Mongolia, sales agents have to chase herds around the country to sell insurance! This makes the costs very high. An Indian example extended to groundwater levels which is a function of the previous monsoon. Therefore insurance has to be purchased prior to the monsoon.

Overall, the practical implementation of these schemes seems challenging but the benefits in the face of climate change, extremely high, when the schemes work.

One of my favourite things about the World Bank is the openness. You can read all about these different projects online. Here are links to the different documents:  Mongolia ; India ; Central America.

Geo-engineering and climate change

I recently attended an absolutely superb seminar given by Prof. Edward Parson on geo-engineering. I occasionally hear interesting things about some of the possibilities on my favourite science podcasts from the Guardian Science, Scientific American and Nature but it is not really a topic I know much about. I learnt some fascinating things from this seminar.

Some simple examples of geo-engineering include painting roads and house roofs white so that they reflect the sun. More advanced examples include putting reflexive (e.g. sulphur) particles into the stratosphere which can reflect heat. As it happens, there is an article on today's BBC suggesting that cloud whitening towers could be built to slow warming across the Arctic. 

The single main message that geo-engineering massively widen the climate possibilities, in both the good and bad directions. In the best case, it may have the capacity to solve global warming. In the worst case scenario, it can wipe humanity off the face of the earth and re-create 'snowball earth'. 

Good things: 
* Within a couple of years it can achieve the kind of cooling that it would take decades of carbon capture to achieve. And this an be achieved by putting reflexive particles into the atmosphere from almost anywhere. We know this because Mount Pinatuba erupted it cooled the earth by around half a degree Celsius and this lasted for a few years.
* It is cheap. The direct costs of doing this are probably just a few billion dollars a year. Basically nothing.
* When placed into the lower atmosphere they could reduce some of the more local effects of climate change such as tornadoes, floods etc.

* They don't solve everything. As pointed out by The God Species (one of my favourite books on climate change), the earth has many boundaries and crossing any one of them can have severe consequences.
* These technologies do not control earth and water temperatures in the same way so we are left with a much drier earth. This could effect things like the monsoon upon which billions of people rely.
* There may be ozone depletion which is worse that currently estimated. We will make the sky whiter and we are putting acid into the sky which will come down in the rain.

One option would be to use geo-engineering to buy time or just on a local level. But this itself carries the human-behaviour risk that we come to rely on these technologies and don't make the efforts we should to reduce climate change. In addition, if we use geo-engineering to, say, keep the planet 5 degrees cooler than it would be given the pollution we cause, and then one day we are unable or unwilling to use the technology, the earth would very suddenly gain those 5 degrees with all of the consequences.

We then have issues related international cooperation and conflict. Who has the right to decide to use this technology? Many large, wealthy and technologically advanced countries have the ability to do this and there would be winners and losers. Could it create international conflict? Could it be used as a tool for international conflict? If a country or group of countries take the lead, even if it is with the best intentions, there would be some losers. How do we compensate those losers? What if something goes wrong, the leaders could be blamed for it and perhaps accused of deliberately behaving in a malevolent way even when no such intentions existed. 

How do we create international laws and institutions which are capable of addressing these issues?

On the other hand, without this option, we could be heading for disaster already. We could behave badly and take humanity on a path to destruction. But we could also simply be unlucky. Even if we do everything we should do, climate change might still place human existence in peril. If we arrive at this point and have not already tested this technology, then we risk either not being able to develop it quickly or using it in a dangerous way.

Therefore, we somehow want to have the option to use this technology. BUT without it in any way causing a moral hazard problem - i.e. without it changing human behaviour. Knowing that we MIGHT be able to call on this in the future is not a good reason not to behave correctly now. AND we need to be able to think carefully about the scientific and institutional international context including all of the risks. Geo-engineering has the capacity to save humanity or kill us. Abandoning it has severe consequences and so might developing it if we are unable to manage it. Should be fun to watch the scientific progress and follow the emotional debates it will generate.

Buy your own environment bonds

Ecuador has lots of oil sitting beneath its rainforest. It could chop down the forest and become richer almost overnight. But you and your children would have less nice clean air to breath, and the world would lose one of its most diverse ecosystems - and who knows what medications might be found there in the future if it is left unharmed. This poor country would lose about USD 7bn if it does not tap this oil. But if the world contributes just half of these losses then it will be prepared to forego the lost resources. Effectively, a relatively poor country is prepared to subsidise your clean air. Pretty generous, I'd say. 

I bought a 'green bond' some time ago. You can contribute just $5 if you like and, if ever the decision is taken to pump the oil, the government has to give you the money back. The scheme is administered by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The returns are in-kind. You and those around you get cleaner air; you keep the opportunity to visit this part of the world any time in your life; you get to feel good that you are doing something for the world and that you are helping to compensate a poor country for part of its losses (you like to give a little something back :)  ) and occasionally you receive emails giving you updates and reminding you what a fantastic human being you are. And it's one of those emails that prompted me to write this entry.

You can read about the scheme and buy your green bonds HERE. The Yasuni National Park website about the scheme is HERE (in Spanish) and an analysis of the scheme by the World Resources Institute is HERE.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

"The effects of climate change will principally be felt by poor people in poor countries"

I went to a discussion yesterday with the authors of the different chapters of the soon-to-be released Oxford Companion to the Economics of Africa. The whole conversation was interesting but I found climate change to be perhaps the most scary part. Here are a couple of things that jumped out at me:

- Simulations suggest that if the surface temperature of the plane increased by 2 degrees Celsius, the cost in terms of world GDP would be around 3 to 4%. That is not very much. For most people in developed countries, that would be like not getting a real wage increase for a couple of years. You could probably live with that. But, if the billion poorest people in the world lost half of their daily income, that is around two thirds of one percent of world GDP. Practically nothing for the world. But pretty tough for them. Given that most of the cost of climate change will fall on them, this is worrying.

- The best defence poor countries can have against climate change is their own development. So it is difficult to insist that out of their own resources they should make changes in terms of energy use, infrastructure development etc. So developed countries should pay for, for example, the development of low emissions energy networks or transport infrastructure.

- Unless the well-to-do of the world get themselves together to do something about climate change, the worst sufferers will be in places that look like Africa.

- Whilst googling to find a picture to put here, I found this book, which I have just ordered. I'll write about it another time.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Why I love my Brompton

1. Isn't she a beauty?

2. The greenness of a bike combined with the practicality of having the option to take a cab after a few beers.
- fits easily in the boot of a cab and metro

3. Safe: solidly (hand-)made

4. Folds up wonderfully small and is carry-able

5. It takes under 30 seconds to fold and unfold

6. The gearing is *amazing*. You can comfortably get up steep hills but you can build up impressive speeds on straight stretches of road. (Mine has six gears)

7. Loads of fantastic little features like the bag that clips on the front (and looks professional enough when slung over the shoulder), the nicely tucked away pump, the foldaway pedal, the little bag it packs away into.

8. Much easier to duck onto and cycle on pavements than normal bikes because it is smaller and less disturbing for pedestrians. 

9. Carry it in to restaurants/bars - no need to search for a place to lock it up and then worry about it getting stolen. Even better, the people who give snide remarks about it being a 'children's bike' look like the ones who would be most likely to steal it.

10. There is a World Championship! (see the video)

Learn more about Bromptons HERE.

You can buy them in DC from Bicycle Space.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Will higher fuel prices hurt you significantly?

Apparently, Gingrich sees lower fuel prices as his ticket to the White House. You can vote in today's pole as to whether higher fuel prices will hurt you significantly. (HT: The Daily Beast). Of course, it doesn't matter if they would hurt you significantly; your current low fuel prices are basically a plundering of the poor by the relatively rich (and if you are reading this, you are relatively rich). And if the nice Mr Gingrich lowers your fuel bill even more, it is a lot less free than you think.