Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Is improved transport and communication a blessing?

It is very common that people explain lack of development with deficient infrastructure, e.g. bad roads, no railroad etc. If you look at where economic development takes place it is clear that coastal areas compares very well compared with others. Three percent of the land area that is within 100 km from the coastline has 13% of the world's population and 32% of the world's GDP. With the exception of a few European countries , all land-locked countries are relatively poor. Outside of Europe, the 29 countries without coast have a GDP of US$1,771 per person and those with coast had a GDP per person of US$5,567 in the end of the 1990s. Even if you compare the development in countries without a coast (e.g. Bolivia, Paraguay, Rwanda, Zambia and Nepal with the inland of big countries with a coast (Brazil, China and India), the economic development is stronger in those inlands, despite that their distance to the coast is as great (FAO 2003). Coastal zones are often rich and give human settlements the combination of drawing from resources both in the sea an on shore. Even more important is probably that communications and trade are well developed in coastal areas. So it is a fair assumption that improved communication is a boon for economic development. But are things so simple?

The transportation sector accounts for over a quarter of total world energy use, and the proportion has increased since 1973. Cars, trucks and air transport take most of the transport energy; in the EU, road transport represents 82% and air transport represent 14% of the transport energy. Transport of people both for work and for leisure increase dramatically as people become wealthier. A flight from England to Mallorca was a big thing, and very costly in the 1960s, now it is almost like catching a bus, and would be a lot more so if it weren’t for all the security measures. Unless there is a major shift away from current patterns of energy use, world transportation energy use is expected to grow at 2% per year, with energy use 80% above 2002 levels by 2030 (UNEP 2009, IEA 2009, EU 2010). In that perspective, the transport sector is problematic to say the least.

Lev Tolstoy's character Levin in Anna Karenina notes that the railways provided no support for the agriculture sector, on the contrary, it supported the expansion of credit and industry at the expense of the farm sector (Tolstoy 1925). The roads and railways that once were built to generate wealth can finally also be used for moving people away; many of the early railway hubs are now empty of people. The highways criss-crossing the USA didn't prevent the interior from going empty. And the better roads of the inland of Sweden seems to promote the expansion of large malls in the outskirts of county capitals as well as being the final blow to small rural shops.

Improvements in transportation technology, in particular steamships and rail-roads were both a driver and prerequisite for the increased trade. A bushel of wheat cost 60 cents in Chicago 1870 and the double in London. By the end of the century transport costs, and thereby the price difference, had shrunk to 10 cents (FAO 2003). This increased global competition tremendously, which of course was good for the winners - but for the losers? A report from the World Bank, ”Rural Roads: The Development Impact Evaluation Initiative” concludes that richer people have better possibilities to increase their income through improved communication than the poor. The Asian Development Bank says:
Most of the journeys made by the rural poor are for subsistence tasks. For them, access to local facilities and the primary transport network is critical during times of need, especially for health and social reasons. Improvements to the primary village network of paths, tracks, culverts,and access routes that reduce the burden of basic household and productive tasks, as well as the increased availability of intermediate modes of transport with larger carrying capacity to collect water, firewood, etc., are likely to have a greater initial impact on the well-being of the poor than improved availability of motorized transport services, which they do not or cannot afford to use.
A World Bank research paper from Uganda concludes that:

Taking into account the fact that plot size is limited on average to less than 1 hectare, a farmer's transport requirement is usually minimal and does not necessarily involve massive investments in infrastructure. This is because most farmers cannot fully load a truck or pay for this service and, even if productivity were to increase significantly, the production threshold would not be reached by most individual farmers. Therefore, in terms of public policy, maintenance of the existing rural roads rather than opening new roads should be given priority.
The similarity in effects of globalisation and "improved" (read cheap) communication/transportation is very cleary. After writing this post, I read a post in the Ttransition Culture blog that says: "In the same way that vast amounts of cheap fossil fuels made globalisation possible, the end of the age of cheap oil will inevitably put globalisation into reverse." It was also posted in the Guardian.

All in all, I guess, roads give more opportunities to people, but it seems less clear to me that they necessarily leads to improvements in rural areas.  The fact that countries with good rural networks are the ones that lost most of their rural population is disturbing.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The One Tonne life is hard

 way down to 2.5 tonnes we didn’t have to make any major compromises in our everyday lifestyles. After that, however, things got tougher. Living at the 1.5 tonne level was an extreme experience for us,” comments Alicja Lindell. 
When Andreas Carlgren switches off Vattenfall’s smart Energy Watch monitoring system in the “One Tonne Life” house, this will mark the end of the groundbreaking trial by the Lindell family (father Nils, mother Alicja and children Hannah and Jonathan) to cut carbon dioxide emissions to one tonne per person per year. This corresponds to the level that will probably be necessary in order to avoid serious climate changes.

This has been a high profile project sponsored by corporate interest to show that already with best possible technology a one tonne life is possible. Was it successful. Well that can be discussed. The data need to be studied closer. And there are some conditions that are rather special. By converting to an electric car and electric heating in the house - and claiming to use only renewable energy (hydro-power). But honestly, there will not be enough renewable energy to allow people to use cars in the current extent. The carbon footprint of their jobs, schools is not included - except for the food they eat, also not the carbon footprint of the society infrastructure. Per capita emissions of public consumption are estimated at 2 tonnes CO2-eq/capita/year in Sweden (Naturvårdsverket, 2008). Last but not least - the family has not traveled anything by a air.
The method report is found here.

Conclusions: One can do a lot, but it is very hard to reach a one tonne per capita level. And it will require far-reaching lifestyle changes as well as system changes.

Promotional movie:

First published 15 June, updated 17 June

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Why am I not surprised!

The growing problem with weeds that have become resistant to the most common herbicide used by American corn, soybean and cotton farmers has gotten so serious that new strategies are needed to combat them,  according to David Mortensen.

Mortensen should know. The professor of weed ecology in the College of has spent his career researching weeds that affect , sustainable ways to control them, and the relationships between crops, native and , and pollinators.

"During the period since the introduction of glyphosate-resistant crops, the number of weedy plant species that have evolved resistance to glyphosate has increased dramatically, from zero in 1995 to 19 in June of 2010," Mortensen said.

In the summer of 2009, glyphosate-resistant weeds were reported on as many as 14,262 sites on up to 5.4 million acres, and the most recent summary indicates 30,000 sites infested on up to 11.4 million acres, according to Mortensen. In a period of three years, the number of reported sites infested by glyphosate-resistant weeds has increased nine fold, while the maximum infested acreage increased nearly fivefold.
 No further comments are really needed

Monday, June 13, 2011

EU farm land increasingly sealed

In the European Union (EU) about 1,000 km² were annually subject to land take for housing, industry, roads or recreational purposes between 1990 and 2006. This is exceeding the size of Berlin. About half of this surface is actually sealed by buildings, roads and parking lots.

4.1 %, 4.3 % and 4.4 % of the EU territory was classified as artificial surface in 1990, 2000 and 2006 respectively. This corresponds to a 8.8 % increase of artificial surface in the EU between 1990 and 2006. In the same period, population increased by only 5 %. In 2006 each EU citizen disposed of 389 m² of artificial surfaces, which is 3.8 % or 15 m² more compared to 1990.

Unsustainable land use trends can be observed in Cyprus, Denmark, the Netherlands and Portugal where land take is growing considerably faster than population growth. Furthermore, there are several new Member States also affected by unsustainable land use trends due to continuing land take and at the same shrinking populations. Policy targets for land take. Quantitative limits for annual land take exist only in six Member States: Austria, Belgium (Flanders), Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. In all cases the limits are indicative and are used as monitoring tools.

This can be read in a recent EU report, Overview of best practices for limiting soil sealing or mitigating its effects in EU-27. The reports continues: 
Only very few Member States have defined national policies which explicitly address these issues....In view of rising energy prices, food and biomass production within the EU are gaining impor-tance and the demand for productive soils is growing. Despite several initiatives it can be concluded that soils are not adequately protected in the EU. Soil quality is rarely respected along planning processes and compensation of soil losses hardly realised.
Economic growth is still highly depending on land take and soil sealing (see graph). In order to decouple economic growth from land take and soil sealing, it is suggested to strictly follow the prevent, limit and compensate principle for soil sealing. Several elements of this logic are already being realised in some Member States as described in the section above and in the country profiles of this report. However, limitations to soil sealing are primarily based on voluntary agreements and non binding measures.

The graph shows the area of "artificial surface" per capita. It shows that the artificial surfaces are increasing not only in absolute numbers, but also per person, with a few exceptions (those marked in red). This means that there is certainly no "decoupling" going on regarding soils.

The report calls for EU wide regulations with the logic that "It can be expected that single Member States will refrain from applying stricter regulations to protect their soils from sealing as this could represent a market disadvantage."  This kind of argument is in my view flawed. And if it really is correct perhaps the solution is to change and challenge the market logic rather than to call for EU wide regulations of everything?
The continued sealing and conversion of agriculture land to "built land" is troublesome, and I have written about it before, for instance calling for a soil convention:

Time for a soil convention!

and I explained how delicately we live in: 

Earth as an apple

Other postings are about the increasing competition over resources:

increasing shortages and growing inequality - a lethal mix

The fight over resources

Shortages of resources will be a permanent feature of our lives


The Commission's Soil Thematic Strategy has identified soil degradation, including soil sealing, as a serious problem at EU level. To protect European soils the Commission presented a proposal for a Soil Framework Directive in 2006, with the support of the European Parliament. However due to opposition from some Member States the proposal is currently stalled in the Council.

For more information on the Thematic Strategy for soil protection:
For more information on the EU policy on soil protection: