The international community has widely acknowledged the severe threats posed by the impacts of climate change to a series of human rights, including the rights to life, health, and an adequate standard of living. But a stark gap has emerged between this acknowledgement in global climate policy – evidenced by a non-binding clause in the preamble of the Paris Agreement – and their actions to meet promised targets. Continue reading
There are few dams in the world that capture the imagination as much as Belo Monte, built on the “Big Bend” of the Xingu river in the Brazilian Amazon. Its construction has involved an army of 25,000 workers working round the clock since 2011 to excavate over 240m cubic metres of soil and rock, pour three million cubic metres of concrete, and divert 80% of the river’s flow through 24 turbines.
Costing R$30 billion (£5.8 billion), Belo Monte is important not only for the scale of its construction but also the scope of opposition to it. The project was first proposed in the 1970s, and ever since then, local indigenous communities, civil society and even global celebrities have engaged in numerous acts of direct and indirect action against it.
While previous incarnations had been cancelled, Belo Monte is now in the final stages of construction and already provides 11,233 megawatts of energy to 60m Brazilians across the country. When complete, it will be the largest hydroelectric power plant in the Amazon and the fourth largest in the world.
A ‘sustainable’ project?
The dam is to be operated by the Norte Energia consortium (formed of a number of state electrical utilities) and is heavily funded by the Brazilian state development bank, BNDES. The project’s supporters, including the governments of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party) that held office between 2003 and 2011, have justified its construction on environmental grounds. They describe Belo Monte as a “sustainable” project, linking it to wider policies of climate change mitigation and a transition away from fossil fuels. The assertions of the sustainability of hydropower are not only seen in Brazil but can be found across the globe – with large dams presented as part of wider sustainable development agendas.
With hydropower representing 16.4% of total global installed energy capacity, hydroelectric dams are a significant part of efforts to reduce carbon emissions. More than 2,000 such projects are currently funded via the Clean Development Mechanism of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol – second only to wind power by number of individual projects.
While this provides mega-dams with an environmental seal of approval, it overlooks their numerous impacts. As a result, dams funded by the CDM are contested across the globe, with popular opposition movements highlighting the impacts of these projects and challenging their asserted sustainability.
Beautiful hill, to beautiful monster
Those standing against Belo Monte have highlighted its social and environmental impacts. An influx of 100,000 construction and service workers has transformed the nearby city of Altamira, for instance.
Hundreds of workers – unable to find employment – took to sleeping on the streets. Drug traffickers also moved in and crime and violence soared in the city. The murder rate in Altamira increased by 147% during the years of Belo Monte construction, with it becoming the deadliest city on earth in 2015.
In 2013, police raided a building near the construction site to find 15 women, held against their will and forced into sex work. Researchers later found that the peak hours of visits to their building – and others – coincided with the payday of those working on Belo Monte. In light of this social trauma, opposition actors gave the project a new moniker: Belo Monstro, meaning “Beautiful Monster”.
Today I’m thinking of the thousands of Brazilian families along the Xingu River who lost their homes and livelihoods to the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam. #HumanRightsDay @hrw @amnesty @AmazonWatch pic.twitter.com/Xo3qmQhpyO
— Chris Feliciano Arnold (@chrisarnold) 10 December 2017
The construction of Belo Monte is further linked to increasing patterns of deforestation in the region. In 2011, deforestation in Brazil was highest in the area around Belo Monte, with the dam not only deforesting the immediate area but stimulating further encroachment.
In building roads to carry both people and equipment, the project has opened up the wider area of rainforest to encroachment and illegal deforestation. Greenpeace has linked illegal deforestation in indigenous reserves – more than 200km away – to the construction of the project, with the wood later sold to those building the dam.
Brazil’s past success in reversing deforestation rates became a key part of the country’s environmental movement. Yet recently deforestation has increased once again, leading to widespread international criticism. With increasing awareness of the problem, the links between hydropower and the loss of the Amazon rainforest challenge the continued viability of Belo Monte and similar projects.
Big dams, big problems
While the Clean Development Mechanism focuses on the reduction of carbon emissions, it overlooks other greenhouse gases emitted by hydropower. Large dams effectively emit significant quantities of methane for instance, released by the decomposition of plants and trees below the reservoir’s surface. While methane does not stay in the atmosphere for as long as carbon dioxide (only persisting for up to 12 years), its warming potential is far higher.
Belo Monte has been linked to these methane emissions by numerous opposition actors. Further research has found that the vegetation rotting in the reservoirs of dams across the globe may emit a million tonnes of greenhouse gases per year. As a result, it is claimed that these projects are – in fact – making a net contribution to climate change.
Belo Monte is just one of many dams across the globe that have been justified – and funded – as sustainable pursuits. Yet, this conflates the ends with the means. Hydroelectricity may appear relatively “clean” but the process in which a mega-dam is built is far from it. The environmental credentials of these projects remain contested, with Belo Monte providing just one example of how the sustainability label may finally be slipping.
If we have to feed 9.8 billion people by 2050, food from the ocean will have to play a major role. Ending hunger and malnutrition while meeting the demand for more meat and fish as the world grows richer will require 60% more food by the middle of the century.
But around 90% of the world’s fish stocks are already seriously depleted. Pollution and increasing levels of carbon dioxide (CO₂) in the atmosphere, which is making the oceans warmer and more acidic, are also a significant threat to marine life. Continue reading
Over 110,000 people were moved from their homes following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in March 2011. Another 50,000 left of their own will, and 85,000 had still not returned four-and-a-half years later.
While this might seem like an obvious way of keeping people safe, my colleagues and I have just completed research that shows this kind of mass evacuation is unnecessary, and can even do more harm than good. We calculated that the Fukushima evacuation extended the population’s average life expectancy by less than three months.
To do this, we had to estimate how such a nuclear meltdown could affect the average remaining life expectancy of a population from the date of the event. The radiation would cause some people to get cancer and so die younger than they otherwise would have (other health effects are very unlikely because the radiation exposure is so limited). This brings down the average life expectancy of the whole group.
But the average radiation cancer victim will still live into their 60s or 70s. The loss of life expectancy from a radiation cancer will always be less than from an immediately fatal accident such as a train or car crash. These victims have their lives cut short by an average of 40 years, double the 20 years that the average sufferer of cancer caused by radiation exposure. So if you could choose your way of dying from the two, radiation exposure and cancer would on average leave you with a much longer lifespan. Continue reading
Ethiopia tends to conjure images of sprawling dusty deserts, bustling streets in Addis Ababa or the precipitous cliffs of the Simien Mountains – possibly with a distance runner bounding along in the background. Yet the country is also one of the most volcanically active on Earth, thanks to Africa’s Great Rift Valley, which runs right through its heart.
Rifting is the geological process that rips tectonic plates apart, roughly at the speed your fingernails grow. In Ethiopia this has enabled magma to force its way to the surface, and there are over 60 known volcanoes. Many have undergone colossal eruptions in the past, leaving behind immense craters that pepper the rift floor. Some volcanoes are still active today. Visit them and you find bubbling mud ponds, hot springs and scores of steaming vents. Continue reading
In 1928 Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, thus bringing one of the greatest medical advances of our time: antibiotics.
Innocuous infections, operations and injuries were no longer a death sentence.
Since then, antibiotics have been developed to treat an array of diseases but this slowed, and then stopped in the 1980s. Although our arsenal of development ceased, the bacteria, viruses and fungi did not stop evolving.
This asymmetric development has resulted in an antimicrobial resistance problem: bacteria causing common infections and illnesses are now increasingly resistant to the drugs used to treat them.
Solving this issue is not straightforward.
It involves a complex landscape of policy makers, clinicians, vets, law makers, and many others.
As part of Bristol Doctoral College’s Research without Borders Festival 2017, a public discussion was held exploring the problem of superbugs and antibiotic resistance, in both the context of research happening at the university of Bristol, and from a wider perspective.
Discussions revolved around patent law, and how it may affect development of new drugs and solutions, the role of agriculture, in particular dairy farming, in reducing antimicrobial resistance, and what we can do as individuals to help address this problem.
Below is a brief snapshot of the research relating to antimicrobial resistance being undertaken across the University of Bristol by the postgraduate researchers who took part in the RWB discussion panel. Continue reading
The effects of climate change vary hugely across political borders, and have wide-ranging impacts on different communities and environments. Climate policy responses must recognize this global interconnectedness, and integrate international cooperation with effective local action. This is why global treaties such as the Paris Agreement are so important in the fight against climate change, but individual nations must also do their bit to achieve the objectives set out in the agreement. In Environments without Borders (part of Research Without Borders), a panel debate hosted by Bristol Doctoral College and the Cabot Institute on Wednesday 10th May, we will discuss some of these issues, using examples from our research on particular challenges facing our global ocean and water environments.
Sustainable Development Goal 11 outlines a global ambition to ‘make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’. It is arguably one of the most important of the 17 recently agreed Goals, but we’re unlikely to reach it in most parts of the world by 2030.
The importance of Goal 11 stems from global demographic trends. As Figure 1 illustrates, over 50% of the world’s population already lives in towns and cities, and that percentage is set to rise to 66% by 2050. In fact, nearly all projected population growth between now and 2050 is expected to be absorbed in towns and cities, and the vast majority of this growth will happen in Africa and Asia (see Figure 2).
These trends mean that when it comes to eliminating poverty and hunger, improving health and education services, ensuring universal access to clean water and adequate sanitation, promoting economic growth with decent employment opportunities, and creating ‘responsible consumption and production patterns’ (and achieving many other goals) urban centres are on the front line by default. Continue reading
Back to the future?
The historical ability for the UK state to periodically create self-inflicted harm upon its own food system seems to be raising its head again as the country triggers Article 50 to remove itself from the European Union. We should remember that the repeal of the Corn Laws in the 1840s, opening up the UK to cheap food imports (based indeed on subsidised imperial preferences to its colonies), in exchange for colonial penetration of its financial and manufacturing interests and sectors, created the conditions for a long- running agricultural and rural depression in the UK, lasting well into the 1930s. That Imperial regime of ‘free trade’ created much harm to the British food system, its rural areas, and indeed shaped a dependent food diet based upon imports from colonies and other European nations (like Danish Bacon and Dutch eggs and pork). What is ironically labelled as the ‘full English’ breakfast up and down the land derives from the successful import penetration of its component parts from overseas. The decline in our food-based infrastructure was so bad that, by the onset of the 1st World War, Lloyd George had to go ‘cap in hand’ to the likes of Henry Ford to plead concessions on building his tractors on these shores in order to resolve food and rural labour shortages. Even by 1941 the national farm survey found the agricultural situation in a parlous state, even before the U-boat campaign further disrupted food supplies and led to a period of prolonged public food rationing until 1954. Continue reading
We are energy consumers. Every day we devour energy, and most of the time we don’t even realise it. Before we wake up, our boiler has heated up our water for a hot shower, and at this time of year our homes are warmed. We unplug our mobile phones, switch on the bedroom lights, and boil a kettle to make our morning tea or coffee, before we travel into work, university or school, often by car or bus, consuming energy as we go. And that’s before we think about any of the embodied energy in everything we use. We have direct access to energy through the infrastructure made available to us.
However this isn’t the same all over the world. The International Energy Agency report in their World Energy Outlook 2016 that 35% of the world’s population still cooks on traditional biomass, with 18% having no access to electricity, and with over 80% of these people living in rural areas. Those that are connected often suffer from frequent power cuts, and have to revert back to traditional methods for lighting and power. 4.3 million people each year die from illnesses attributed to indoor air pollution using traditional fuels for cooking, heating and lighting (World Health Organisation, 2016). Along with the health implications, exposed flames can cause fires in basic housing, and burning of fuel wood and charcoal leads to extensive deforestation causing soil erosion and land degradation. Continue reading