What can we learn from Kerala?

Guest Post by Geoff Russell. Geoff recently released the popular book “Greenjacked! The derailing of environmental action on climate change“.

Kerala is a state on the South Western coast of India; about a third the size of Tasmania or just slightly bigger than Hawaii. It’s been on my radar ever since it featured in an inspirational segment of David Attenborough’s 2009 “How many people can live on planet earth” documentary (35:16).

With 33 million people in an area half the size of Tasmania, you can imagine it’s rather crowded. Some official methods of forest counting nevertheless claim that 44 percent of Kerala is still covered in forest of some kind or another, but scientific studies put the figure much lower at about 21 percent of the country having forests with a crown density higher than 40 percent and another 5 percent with a crown density between 10 and 40 percent. The statistical discrepancy brings to mind Australia’s little Kyoto trick of defining a forest as an area with trees over 2 metres in height and a crown cover of 20 percent or more.

Kerala is experiencing many developing country problems; for example, it is heavily dependent on a couple of million of its population working in the Gulf states and sending back cash. This helps it to import food with its area dedicated to rice halving in recent times as cash crops like rubber and coconut take over. Kerala’s chicken consumption is also increasing and now triple the Indian average. While it’s still just 15 grams a day, chickens are net food consumers, not producers. The bottom line is that Kerala’s remaning forests are under threat from all manner of activities, both legal and illegal.

But the inspirational part is that Kerala has been educating its girls and reaping the rewards; families are now small and the population is stable. Kerala’s life expectancy at birth is 74; the highest of any state in India. It also has the highest literacy rate of 93 percent. Kerala’s Human Development Index of 0.854 is similar to that of Australia in 1980. This is a spectacular achievement considering that Kerala’s installed electrical capacity is about 2700 MW plus another 266 MW from the Kudankulam nuclear plant across the border in Tamil Nadu. So if it’s all running, she can generate about the same power as the South Australian peak demand, which services just 1.6 million people. In 2001, 77 percent of households cooked with wood, LPG was next with 18 percent. Down at the bottom is electricity at just 0.1 percent along with an assortment of kerosene, coal, biogas, crop residues and cow dung. Cooking smoke is a potent killer of young children in India. In 2010, Kerala had the lowest mortality rate for children under 5, but that still meant 16 deaths per 1000 births. More electricity would help, but there still needs to be a cultural shift. Rice is a staple in Kerala and the preferred method of preparation is parboiling, a fascinating ancient process which improves the nutrient profile but lengthens the cooking process. More cooking means more energy and wood fires have a cultural significance that will be tough to shift. I haven’t worked out where the firewood comes from but Kerala uses about 8 million tonnes of it for rice cooking alone. This is more than all the wood and paper products Australia produces from its 2 million hectares of plantations.

Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant in neigbouring Tamil Nadu state, with first unit (1,000 MW) commissioned in the year 2013. With initial capacity of 2,000 MW, this station will be expanded to 6,800 MW capacity.

Kerala’s been on the radar of the World Health Organisation for over half a century ago and the reasons have nothing to do with population or rice or wood cooking fires or dodgy forest data. Kerala has a very high rate of background radiation due to sands containing thorium. The level ranges from about 70 percent above the global average to about 30 times the global average. For thousands of years, some of the population of Kerala have been living bathed in radiation at more than triple the level which will get you compulsorily thrown out of your home (evacuation) in Japan. The Japanese have set the maximum annual radiation level at 20 milli Sieverts per year around Fukushima while some parts of Kerala have had a level of 70 milliSieverts per year … for ever.

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The Limits of Planetary Boundaries 2.0

Back in 2013, I led some research that critiqued the ‘Planetary Boundaries‘ concept (my refereed paper, Does the terrestrial biosphere have planetary tipping points?, appeared in Trends in Ecology & Evolution). I also blogged about this here: Worrying about global tipping points distracts from real planetary threats.

Today a new paper appeared in the journal Science, called “Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet“, which attempts to refine and clarify the concept. It states that four of nine planetary boundaries have been crossed, re-imagines the biodiversity boundary as one of ‘biodiversity integrity’, and introduces the concept of ‘novel entities’. A popular summary in the Washington Post can be read here. On the invitation of New York Times “Dot Earth” reporter Andy Revkin, my colleagues and I have written a short response, which I reproduce below. The full Dot Earth article can be read here.

The Limits of Planetary Boundaries
Erle Ellis, Barry Brook, Linus Blomqvist, Ruth DeFries

Steffen et al (2015) revise the “planetary boundaries framework” initially proposed in 2009 as the “safe limits” for human alteration of Earth processes(Rockstrom et al 2009). Limiting human harm to environments is a major challenge and we applaud all efforts to increase the public utility of global-change science. Yet the planetary boundaries (PB) framework – in its original form and as revised by Steffen et al – obscures rather than clarifies the environmental and sustainability challenges faced by humanity this century.

Steffen et al concede that “not all Earth system processes included in the PB have singular thresholds at the global/continental/ocean basin level.” Such processes include biosphere integrity (see Brook et al 2013), biogeochemical flows, freshwater use, and land-system change. “Nevertheless,” they continue, “it is important that boundaries be established for these processes.” Why? Where a global threshold is unknown or lacking, there is no scientifically robust way of specifying such a boundary – determining a limit along a continuum of environmental change becomes a matter of guesswork or speculation (see e.g. Bass 2009;Nordhaus et al 2012). For instance, the land-system boundary for temperate forest is set at 50% of forest cover remaining. There is no robust justification for why this boundary should not be 40%, or 70%, or some other level.

While the stated objective of the PB framework is to “guide human societies” away from a state of the Earth system that is “less hospitable to the development of human societies”, it offers little scientific evidence to support the connection between the global state of specific Earth system processes and human well-being. Instead, the Holocene environment (the most recent 10,000 years) is assumed to be ideal. Yet most species evolved before the Holocene and the contemporary ecosystems that sustain humanity are agroecosystems, urban ecosystems and other human-altered ecosystems that in themselves represent some of the most important global and local environmental changes that characterize the Anthropocene. Contrary to the authors’ claim that the Holocene is the “only state of the planet that we know for certain can support contemporary human societies,” the human-altered ecosystems of the Anthropocene represent the only state of the planet that we know for certain can support contemporary civilization.

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Climate heating for 2014 in Australia

The Bureau of Meteorology in Australia has released its annual climate statement, for 2014. As expected, it was once again a hot year across the continent (and indeed, globally):

There is a lot of year-to-year variation driven by natural climate variability, but the running mean (10-year average) plots a relatively steady rise over the last 60+ years.

The mean continental temperature was 0.91 C above the average of the whole time series (starting in 1910, when sufficient station records were available), and that average reflects temperatures as they were in about 1980. If you look at the mean for the decade centred around 1914, it was ~1.3 C cooler than the year 2014.

Globally, the story is similar:

In this case the annual variations are more suppressed (averaging over a larger area, and including buffered oceans), but again the trend upwards is clear. Broad multi-decadal patterns are clear, and there has been some slowing of the rate of increase over the past decade.

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Current World Energy Demand, Ethical World Energy Demand, Depleted Uranium and the Centuries to Come

Guest Post by NNadir (who blogs occasionally at Daily Kos, profile here). This is a long but really interesting post. If you’d rather a PDF version, click here.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) released last year, 2013, a free PDF brochure, available online, entitled “Key World Energy Statistics”[1] which reports total world energy consumption, comparing figures from 2011 with those of 1973.    The energy unit that is used to described is the non-SI, if evocative, unit, “MTOE” which is an abbreviation for “Million Tons of Oil Equivalent,” a somewhat artificial energy unit – given that the energy content of grades of oil vary considerably depending on their source – that pretends that all the world’s energy comes from a standardized form of the dangerous fossil fuel petroleum, which, of course, it doesn’t.    The conversion factor, as given in the free IEA brochure, between the SI unit, the Joule, here reported as terajoules, TJ, a trillion Joules, is 1 MTOE = 41,868 TJ.

The actual forms of primary energy that the consumed energy took are shown in the following graphic from the text:

As shown in the graphic, the document reports that in 2011, world energy consumption (TPES = “Total Primary Energy Supply”) was 13,113 MTOE; in 1973, the year which those old enough to remember will recall as the year of the “oil shock” where gasoline prices in the United States surged toward the then unheard of figure of $1.00/gallon, world energy consumption was, according to the document, 6,109 MTOE.   Before leaving this somewhat curious unit for the more satisfying SI units, it serves to note that it suggests, on a planet with a population in 2011 reported as 6.9 billion[2], plus or minus some 100 million human beings, that, on average, each person, as recorded in recent times, is responsible for burning the equivalent of 1.9 tons of oil equivalents per year.  In 1973, the world population was something on the order of 3.9 billion people, and on average, each person on the planet was responsible for consuming 1.5 tons of oil equivalent energy each year.

In 1976, which – if I have the math right – was 3 years after 1973, the energy mystic Amory Lovins published a paper in the social science journal Foreign Affairs, “Energy Strategy, The Road Not Taken?”[3] that suggested that by the use of conservation and so called “renewable energy” all of the world’s energy problems could be solved.    The thin red sliver on the 2011 pie chart, identified as “other” – solar, wind, etc, – obviates the grotesque failure of so called “renewable energy” to become a meaningful source of energy in the worldwide energy equation, despite consuming vast resources and vast sums of money, this on a planet that could ill afford such sums.   As for conservation, in 2011 we were using 147% of the dangerous petroleum we used in 1973, 286% of the dangerous natural gas we used in 1973, and 252% of the dangerous coal we used in 1973.  The rise in average figures of per capita energy consumption, as well as total energy consumed worldwide, show that energy conservation as an energy strategy has not worked either.

The reason that energy conservation as an energy strategy has failed is obvious, even divorced from population growth.   According to the 2013 UN Millennium Goals Report[4], as shown in the following graphic from it, the percentage of the Chinese population that lived on less than $1.25 (US) per day fell from 60% of the population in 1990 to 16% in 2005 and further to 12% in 2010.     From our knowledge of history, we would be fair to assume that the situation in China was even worse in 1976 than it was in 1990.


By the way, it ought to weigh on the moral imagination…that figure…less than $1.25 a day…less than $500 per year…for all a human being’s needs…food, shelter, transportation, child care, education, health, care for the elderly…

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It’s time for environmentalists to give nuclear a fair go

This is an article by me and Corey Bradshaw, published today in The Conversation. I’m republishing it here.

Should nuclear energy be part of Australia’s (and many other countries’) future energy mix? We think so, particularly as part of a solution to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prevent dangerous climate change.

Is the future of biodiversity conservation nuclear?

Is the future of biodiversity conservation nuclear?

But there are other reasons for supporting nuclear technology. In a paper recently published in Conservation Biology, we show that an energy mix including nuclear power has lowest impact on wildlife and ecosystems — which is what we need given the dire state of the world’s biodiversity.


In response, we have gathered signatures of 66 leading conservation scientists from 14 countries in an open letter asking that the environmental community:

weigh up the pros and cons of different energy sources using objective evidence and pragmatic trade-offs, rather than simply relying on idealistic perceptions of what is ‘green’.

Energy demand is rising

Modern society is a ceaseless consumer of energy, and growing demand won’t stop any time soon, even under the most optimistic energy-efficiency scenario.

Although it goes without saying that we must continue to improve energy efficiency in the developed world, the momentum of population growth and rising living standards, particularly in the developing world, means we will continue to need more energy for decades to come. No amount of wishful thinking for reduced demand will change that.

But which are the best forms of energy to supply the world, and not add to the biodiversity crisis?

Assessing our energy options

In short, the argument goes like this.

To avoid the worst ravages of climate change, we have to decarbonise fully (eliminate net carbon emissions from) the global electricity sector. Wildlife and ecosystems are threatened by this climate disruption, largely caused by fossil-fuel derived emissions.

But they are also imperilled by land transformation (i.e., habitat loss) caused in part by other energy sources, such as flooded areas (usually forests) for hydro-electricity and all the associated road development this entails, agricultural areas needed for biofuels, and large spaces needed for wind and solar farms.

Energy density of different fuels. This infographic shows the amount of energy embodied in uranium, coal, natural gas and a chemical battery, scaled to provide enough energy for a lifetime of use in the developed world. Shown are the amount of each source needed to provide same amount of energy, equivalent to 220 kWh of energy per day for 80 years.

In the paper, we evaluated land use, emissions, climate and cost implications of three different energy scenarios:


  • a “business as usual” future dominated by fossil fuels
  • a high renewable-energy mix excluding nuclear promoted by Greenpeace
  • an energy mix with a large nuclear contribution (50% of energy mix) plus a balance of renewable and fossil-fuel sources with carbon-capture-and-storage.

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