OPINION: How Shifting to the Cloud Can Unlock Innovation for Food and Farming

Climate change and variability demands new varieties of beans. A Massive Participatory Assessment in Yojoa Lake in Honduras led by the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) work together with local NGOs and farmers to make group observations and share their results with their neighbors. Credit: J.L.Urrea (CCAFS)

Climate change and variability demands new varieties of beans. A Massive Participatory Assessment in Yojoa Lake in Honduras led by the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) work together with local NGOs and farmers to make group observations and share their results with their neighbors. Credit: J.L.Urrea (CCAFS)

By Andy Jarvis
LIMA, Dec 13 2014 (IPS)

The digital revolution that is continuing to develop at lightening speed is an exciting new ally in our fight for global food security in the face of climate change.

Researchers have spent decades collecting data on climate patterns, but only in recent years have cost-effective solutions for publicly hosting this information been developed. Cloud computing services make the ideal home for key climate data – given that they have a vast capacity for not only storing data, but analysing it as well.Gone are the days when farmers could rely on almanacs for predicting seasonal planting dates, as climate change has made these predictions unreliable.

This rationale is the basis for a brand new partnership between CGIAR, a consortium of international research centres, and Amazon web services. With 40 years of research under its belt, CGIAR holds a wealth of information on not just climate patterns, but on all aspects of agriculture.

By making this data publically available on the Amazon cloud, researchers and developers will be empowered to come up with innovations to solve critical issues inextricably linked to food and farming, such as reducing rural poverty, improving human health and nutrition, and sustainably managing the Earth’s natural resources.

The first datasets to move to the cloud are Global Circulation Models (GCM), presently the most important tool for representing future climate conditions.

The potential of this new partnership was put to the test this week at the climate negotiations in Peru, when the CGIAR Research Programme on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) hosted a 24 hour “hackathon”, giving Latin American developers and computer programmers first access to the cloud-based data.

The challenge was to transform the available data into actionable knowledge that will help farmers better adapt to climate variability.

The results were inspiring. The winning innovation from Colombian team Geomelodicos helps farmers more accurately predict when to plant their crops each season. Gone are the days when farmers could rely on almanacs for predicting seasonal planting dates, as climate change has made these predictions unreliable.

The prototype programme combines data on historical production and climate trends, historical planting dates with current climate trends and short-term weather forecasts, to generate more accurate information about optimal planting dates for different crops and locations. The vision is that one day, this information could bedisseminated via SMS messaging.

Runners up Viasoluciones decided to tackle water scarcity, a serious challenge for farmers around the world as natural resources become more scarce. Named after the Quechua goddess of water, Illapa, the innovation could help farmers make better decisions about how much water to use for irrigating different crops.

The prototype application combines climate data and information from a tool that directly senses a plant’s water use, to calculate water needs in real-time. In times of drought, this application could prove invaluable.

Farmers are in dire need of practical solutions that will help protect our food supply in the face of a warming world. Eight hundred million people in the world are still hungry, and it is a race against time to ensure that we have a robust strategy for ensuring these vulnerable people are fed and nourished.

By moving agricultural data to the cloud, developing innovations for food and farming will no longer be dependent on having access to expensive software or powerful computers on internet connection speeds.

Making sense of this “big data” will become progressively easier, and one day, farmers themselves could even take matters into their own hands.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

OPINION: Europe Has Lost Its Compass

In this column, Roberto Savio, founder and president emeritus of the Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency and publisher of Other News, argues that, with the fall of the Swedish government orchestrated by the far-right and centre-right opposition, a symbol of civic-mindedness and democracy in Europe has fallen, and the grip of an irrational fear of immigrants tightens as Europe’s politicians seek a scapegoat.

By Roberto Savio
ROME, Dec 13 2014 (IPS)

The Swedish Social Democrat government, which took office only two months ago, has just resigned. The far-right anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats sided with the four-party centre-right opposition alliance, and new elections will be held in March next year.

In Europe, Sweden has been the symbol of civic-mindedness and democracy – the place where those escaping dictatorship and hunger could find refuge; the country without corruption, where social justice was a national value.

Roberto Savio

Roberto Savio

However, in just a short period, the Sweden Democrat xenophobic party, which wants to close the country to foreigners and is now the third-largest party in parliament, was able to topple the government on Dec. 3.

Similar parties exist in the other Nordic countries – Finland, Norway and Denmark – where they have been similarly able to take a decisive role in national politics. The myth of northern Europe, the modern and progressive Nordic Europe, has vanished.

A few days later, in Dresden (the Florence of Germany) in Saxony, thousands of demonstrators marched to the cry ”Wir sind das Volk” [“We are the people”] – the same battle cry used in protests against the Communist regime in then East Germany 25 years ago, only this time the protest was against immigrants.

A previously unknown activist, 41-year-old Lutz Bachmann, has set up the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West, and in seven weeks has been able to rally thousands of people. The local paper, the Sachsische Zeitung, has reported that Bachman has several criminal convictions for burglary, dealing with cocaine and driving without a licence or while drunk.“The fact that without immigrants Europe would grind to a halt and be unable to compete internationally is not matter for a campaign that appeals to politicians. On the contrary, they are flying the flag of defending Europe from a dangerous influx of immigrants”

Such details were irrelevant to the demonstrators. They “miss their country”, demand “protection of the Homeland” and applaud Bachmann’s call for a “clean and pure Germany”.

In Saxony, foreign immigrants account for only two percent of the population, and only a small fraction of those are Muslim. But the announcement that facilities would be opened for some 2,000 refugees from Syria, was the trigger in this town of 530.000 inhabitants. In the last state legislative elections, a new populist party, the Alternative for Germany, took almost 10 percent of the vote.

A similar irrational fear is gripping many European countries.

Italy, for example, now has two major parties (the Northern League and the Five Star Movement), which together account for around 35 percent of the vote, with xenophobic tones, and another major party, Forza Italia (literally Forward Italy) led by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, is flirting with an anti-European policy. The three more or less openly advocate withdrawal from the Euro.

At the same time, in 2013, only 514.308 children were born (including those of immigrants), 20.000 less than the year before. Between 2001 and 2011, according to ISTAT, the national statistical institute, the number of families formed by one person increased by 41.3 percent, while those with children fell by five percent. Of those with children, 47.5 percent had one child, 41.9 percent two and only 10.6 percent three or more.

If, as is conventionally held, the demographic replacement rate is 2.1, this means that the Italian population, like everywhere in Europe, is on a steep decline.

Of course, having child today is not an easy choice. To put it simply: in 2009, Italy had a budget of 2.5 billion euro for social interventions and, four years later, only one-third of that; in 2009, Italy’s Family Policies Fund stood at 186.5 million euro and is now less than 21 million. No wonder then that 60 percent of the population lives in fear of becoming poor.

The number of NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training) rose from 1.8 million in 2007 to 2.5 million in 2013. And while Italy’s young people are being humiliated, its senior citizens are being mistreated – 41.3 percent of pensions are less than 1,000 euro per month.

By the way, 83,000 Italians expatriated in 2013, and the number of young people with a university degree that went to the United Kingdom, for example, was just over 3,000 – but in the same year, 44,000 foreigners also left Italy and while Italy received nearly 355,000 immigrants in 2011, two years later the number was just 280,000. And yet the campaign of xenophobia in Italy has it that there is a dramatic increase in immigrants.

This social decline is happening at different speeds and in different proportions all over Europe. In Germany, the core country, 25 percent of the population fall into the so-called “Hartz IV” category – under the Hartz Committee reform of the German labour market introduced by then Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder – and have to survive on the bare minimum of benefits.

This social decline is being accompanied by an unprecedented increase in social inequality. Two French economists, François Bourguignon and Christian Morrisson, published a study In 2002 on inequality among world citizens, starting from the 19th century, using the Gini index of inequality (where absolute equality = 0). In 1820, the index stood at 50, had risen to 60 in 1910, 64 in 1950, 66 in 1992 and 70 ten years later.

Today the ratio between a minimum wage and a top salary is very simple – the small guy must work 80 years to earn what the big guy earns in a year!

According to a number of sociologists, ‘catching up’ (or the so-called ‘demonstration effect’), is one underlying reason for corruption. It is no accident that the south of Europe has much more corruption than the north (but the Protestant Ethic must also play a role).

In just a few months, the former prime minister of Portugal, José Socrates, has been jailed, former president Nicolas Sarkozy has returned to politics in France to try to escape several accusations and Spaniards are riveted by the revelation of giant webs of corruption that the government is now trying to stymie by changing the judge in charge of the prosecution.

Meanwhile, Romans have awakened to find out that a criminal organisation has been controlling the town council and the administration, and this coming on the heels of a similar discovery in Milan, where individuals who had been already convicted of corruption got back into business and did more of the same in the public works for next year’s Expo.

It is no wonder that, as in every crisis, in a climate fear and uncertainty, there is a need for a scapegoat. The fact that without immigrants Europe would grind to a halt and be unable to compete internationally is not matter for a campaign that appeals to politicians. On the contrary, they are flying the flag of defending Europe from a dangerous influx of immigrants.

This all shows that Europe has lost its compass – and there is nothing on the horizon indicating that it can be recovered soon.

Who is going to provide an answer to Europe’s anguish when those in power escape from reality and look for scapegoats? (END/IPS COLUMNIST SERVICE)

(Edited by Phil Harris)

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, IPS – Inter Press Service. 

Renewable Energy: The Untold Story of an African Revolution

By Wambi Michael
LIMA, Dec 13 2014 (IPS)

Africa is experiencing a revolution towards cleaner energy through renewable energy but the story has hardly been told to the world, says Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Steiner, who had been advocating for renewable energy at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Lima, said Africa is on the right path toward a low carbon footprint by tapping into its plentiful renewable resources – hydro, geothermal, solar and wind.

Achim Steiner, UNEP Executive Director. Credit: Wambi Michael/IPS

Achim Steiner, UNEP Executive Director. Credit: Wambi Michael/IPS

“There is a revolution going on in the continent of Africa and the world is not noticing it. You can go to Egypt, Ethiopia Kenya, Namibia, and Mozambique. I think we will see renewable energy being the answer to Africa’s energy problems in the next fifteen years,” Steiner said in an interview with IPS.

Sharing the example of the UNEP headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, Steiner told IPS that the decision was taken that “if UNEP is going to be centred with its offices in the African continent on the Equator, there can be reason why we are not using renewable energy. So we installed photovoltaic panels on our roof which we share with UN Habitat, 1200 people, and we produce 750,000 kilowatt hours of electricity every year, that is enough for the entire building to operate.”

He noted that although it will take UNEP between eight and 10 years to pay off the installation, UNEP will have over 13 years of electricity without paying monthly or annual power bills. “It is the best business proposition that a U.N. body has ever made in terms of paying for electricity for a building,” he said.

According to Steiner, the “revolution” is already happening in East Africa, especially in Kenya and Ethiopia which are both targeting renewable energy, especially geothermal energy.

“Kenya plans to triple its electricity generation up to about 6000 megawatts in the next five years. More than 90 percent of the planned power is to come from geothermal, solar and wind power,” he said. “If you are in Africa and decide to exploit your wind, solar and geothermal resources, you will get yourself freedom from the global energy markets, and you will connect the majority of your people without waiting for thirty years until the power lines cross every corner of the country” – Achim Steiner, UNEP Executive Director

Kenya currently runs a geothermal power development corporation which invites tenders from private investors bid and is establishing a wind power firm likely to be the largest in Africa with a capacity of 350 megawatts of power under a public-private partnership.

In Ethiopia, expansion of the Aluto-Langano geothermal power plant will increase geothermal generation capacity from the current 7 MW to 70 MW. The expansion project is being financed by the Ethiopian government (10 million dollars), a 12 million dollar grant from the Government of Japan, and a 13 million dollar loan from the World Bank.

Renewable energy has costs but also benefits

Phillip Hauser, Vice President of GDF Suez Energy Latin America, told IPS that geothermal power is a good option for countries in Africa with that potential, but it comes with risks.

“It is very site-dependent. There can be geothermal projects that are relatively cost efficient and there are others that are relatively expensive. It is a bit like the oil and gas industry. You have to find the resource and you have to develop the resource. Sometimes you might drill and you don’t find anything – that is lost investment,” Hauser told IPS.

Steiner admitted that like any other investment, renewable energy has some limitations, including the need for upfront initial capital and the cost of technology, but he said that countries with good renewable energy policies would attract the necessary private investments.

“We are moving in a direction where Africa will not have to live in a global fuel market in which one day you have to pay 120 dollars for a barrel of crude oil, then the next day you get it at 80 dollars and before you know it, it is doubled,” he said.

“So if you are in Africa and decide to exploit your wind, solar and geothermal resources, you will get yourself freedom from the global energy markets, and you will connect the majority of your people without waiting for thirty years until the power lines cross every corner of the country,”Steiner added.

A recent assessment by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) of Africa’s renewable energy future found that solar and wind power potential existed in at least 21 countries, and biomass power potential in at least 14 countries.

The agency, which supports countries in their transition to a sustainable energy future, has yet to provide a list of countries with geothermal power potential but almost all the countries around the Great Rift Valley in south-eastern Africa – Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania among others – have already identified geothermal sites, with Kenya being the first to use a geothermal site to add power to its grid.

Adnan Amin, Director-General of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). Credit: Wambi Michael/IPS

Adnan Amin, Director-General of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). Credit: Wambi Michael/IPS

IRENA Director-General Adnan Z. Amin told IPS that the agency’s studies shows that not only can renewable energy meet the world’s rising demand, but it can do so more cheaply, while contributing to limiting global warming to under 2 degrees Celsius – the widely-cited tipping point in the climate change debate.

He said the good news in Africa is that apart from the resources that exist, there is a growing body of knowledge across African expert institutions that would help the continent to exploit its virgin renewable energy potential.

What is needed now, he explained, is for countries in Africa to develop the economic case for those resources supported by targeted government policies to help developers and financiers get projects off the ground.

The IRENA assessment found that in 2010, African countries imported 18 billion dollars’ worth of oil – more than the entire amount they received in foreign aid – while oil subsidies in Africa cost an estimated 50 billion dollars every year.

New financing models for renewable energy

According to Amin, renewable energy technologies are now the most economical solution for off-grid and mini-grid electrification in remote areas, as well as for grid extension in some cases of centralised grid supply.

He argued that rapid technological progress, combined with falling costs, a better understanding of financial risk and a growing appreciation of wider benefits mean that renewable energy would increasingly be the solution to Africa’s energy problem.

In this context, Africa could take on new financing models that “de-risk” investments in order to lower the cost of capital, which has historically been a major barrier to investment in renewable energy, and one such model would include encouragement for green bonds.

“Green bonds are the recent innovation for renewable energy investments,” said Amin. “Last year we reached about 14 billion dollars, this year there is an estimate of about 40 billion, and next year there is an estimate of about 100 billion dollars in green finance through green bonds. Why doesn’t Africa take advantage of those?” he asked.

During the conference in Lima, activist groups have been urging an end to dependence on fossil fuel- and nuclear-powered energy systems, calling for investment and policies geared toward building clean, sustainable, community-based energy solutions.

“We urgently need to decrease our energy consumption and push for a just transition to community-controlled renewable energy if we are to avoid devastating climate change,” said Susann Scherbarth, a climate justice and energy campaigner with Friends of the Earth Europe.

Godwin Ojo, Executive Director of Friends of the Earth Nigeria, told IPS that “we urgently need a transition to clean energy in developing countries and one of the best incentives is globally funded feed-in tariffs for renewable energy.”

He said policies that support feed-in tariffs and decentralized power sources should be embraced by both the most- and the least-developed nations.

Backed by a new discussion paper on a ‘global renewable energy support programme’ from the What Next Forum, activists called for decentralised energy systems – including small-scale wind, solar, biomass mini-grids communities that are not necessarily connected to a national electricity transmission grid.

(Edited by Phil Harris)

Dirty Energy Reliance Undercuts U.S., Canada Rhetoric at Climate Talks

Young protesters at the U.N. climate talks in Lima, Peru highlight out-of-touch North American energy policies. Credit: Adopt a Negotiator.

Young protesters at the U.N. climate talks in Lima, Peru highlight out-of-touch North American energy policies. Credit: Adopt a Negotiator.

By Leehi Yona
LIMA, Dec 13 2014 (IPS)

While U.S. and Canadian officials delivered speeches about how the world needs to step up to their responsibilities at the U.N. climate negotiations in Lima, Peru, activists from North America demanded clear answers back home on their governments’ relationships with fossil fuel corporations, as well as the future of several major oil projects across the continent.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke Thursday about the role each country should play on tackling climate change and referred to the U.S.-China agreement announced in November. The agreement, which pledged unforeseen emissions reductions for both countries, has been lauded by many countries as a progressive step forward at the U.N. negotiations.“Under Stephen Harper, Canada has no climate policy beyond public relations.” — Canadian MP Elizabeth May

However, civil society delegates have expressed concern over the disconnect between the messaging the United States has been taking in Lima, and its domestic fossil fuel reliance.

This international discourse collides with Washington’s hesitance to repeal the Keystone XL pipeline, a proposed project that would transport over 800,000 barrels of bitumen a day from the Alberta tar sands to Texas oil refineries.

“The best way the U.S. can support progress in the U.N. Climate Talks is to start at home by rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline now,” said Dyanna Jaye, a U.S. youth delegate attending the conference with SustainUS.

TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline has been stalled in political procedures since 2011. Once considered to be a done deal, the project has grown to be a bone of contention among environmental groups, who have mobilised to put pressure on President Barack Obama to reject it.

Having been presented as a bill to Congress numerous times, it most recently passed a House of Representatives vote but failed in the Senate by only one vote on Nov. 5.

Youth have taken a leading role on been pushing for Kerry to reject Keystone XL, shining a spotlight on the influence of the fossil fuel industry in hindering progress.

Following Kerry’s speech to the U.N. on Thursday, Jaye and other U.S. and Canadian youth activists organised an action in protest of proposed pipelines through the two countries.

Calling for the industry to be kicked out of the negotiations, youth have highlighted that a successful deal in Lima would necessitate a phasing out of fossil fuel use to zero production by 2050, as stated in a World Wildlife Fund report.

“Dirty fossil fuel projects like Keystone XL clearly fail the climate test,” Evan Weber, executive director of US Climate Plan, told IPS. “We’ll be drawing the line on any new fossil fuel infrastructure and calling for investment in renewable energy solutions.”

Protesters emphasised the need for domestic action at home in order for there to be any progress at the United Nations

The United States, however, isn’t the only country whose domestic issues directly contradict their statements here at COP20. The Canadian government has been criticised for their lack of domestic ambition and their close relationship with fossil fuel companies at this conference.

At the talks, Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq stated on Dec. 9 that Canada is “confident [they] can achieve a climate agreement” at these talks, “however it will require courage and common sense.”

While the government has attempted to portray itself as a climate leader in these negotiations, members of civil society have pointed out discrepancies between the emissions goals they are promising and the emissions trajectory the country is actually on track to produce.

“Under Stephen Harper, Canada has no climate policy beyond public relations,” said Elizabeth May, a Canadian Member of Parliament and leader of the Canadian Green Party attending COP 20.

“The zeal to exploit fossil fuels has led to the evisceration of ‎environmental laws. We have distorted our economy in the interests of exporting bitumen,” she told IPS.

Canada has once again entered into the non-governmental spotlight at U.N. climate negotiations. On Tuesday, uproar ensued when Prime Minister Stephen Harper stated that any regulation of the oil and gas industry would be “crazy” considering the industry’s current financial state.

On the conference’s last day, Canada was also awarded a Fossil of the Day, a daily non-prize awarded by civil society during the Climate Talks to the most regressive country, for its consistent meddling with and lack of participation in the U.N. process.

“As members of civil society, we’ve seen Canadian negotiators prioritise fossil fuel companies over public interest time and time again in Lima,” Catherine Gauthier of ENvironnement JEUnesse, a Québec youth environmental organisation, told IPS.

Both countries have come under scrutiny for their promotion of climate action on the international level while promoting tar sands expansion and shale gas fracking projects at home. Shale gas has particularly been promoted by both governments as a bridge fuel to help wean societies off fossil fuels with the goal of increasing renewable energy sources.

“The use of fracking as a bridge fuel is the biggest lie the American public has ever been fed,” Emily Williams of the California Student Sustainability Coalition told IPS. “It poisons our health and our communities, and destroys our environment. It cannot be part of the climate solution as it starves the renewable energy revolution of the investment it needs.”

Both Canada and the United States have been active in calling for swift action on the international level when it comes to climate change. The U.N. negotiations are currently running over time in Lima as countries work towards a compromise agreement.

Edited by Kitty Stapp