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    Alex has been consulting to many of South Africa’s blue-chip companies for the past five years, using innovative thinking to help them reduce their impact on the environment and enhance their bottom line. He is also a founding member of Carbon Calculated, a carbon management consultancy, and is also the creator of Carbon Known, a carbon management software solution.
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    To add water, subtract weeds

    Thursday, December 15, 2016

    Mandela’s least known legacy may be his Working for Water programme, which employs thousands of marginalised people to clear invasive plant species, securing precious water supplies in perpetuity. 


    Having eradicated apartheid and sown the seeds of real democracy, Nelson Mandela had to confront a looming threat to the security and hope of South Africans. Weeds.

    The rampant growth of invasive alien plant species (IAPs) was choking riparian areas, draining river systems and overrunning natural ecological habitats – all in a semi-arid landscape where there was not enough water to
    go around.

    Each species in isolation – and there were over 80 species – may have seemed little more than a noxious nuisance. But together they had grown to cover 16 percent of the country’s land area, and the cumulative effect was to reduce annual streamflow by 7 percent.

    Recognising this risk, Mandela’s team began, through labour-intensive plant removal, to claw back 4 percent of this water, and make it newly available for human use. The result led to an inter-governmental, multi-million dollar national response known as the Working for Water (WfW) programme.

    This approach could also make sense in other parts of the world. Christo Marais, Chief Director of Natural Resource Management Programmes, of which the largest is WfW, urges governments to consider upstream alien plants in the water supply/demand equation. “The degradation and transformation of wetlands,riverbanks and flood plains leads to a reduced amount of water being absorbed into the natural systems and later released into the aquatic ecosystems,” he says.

    A national problem doesn’t arise overnight or by accident. European settlers had deliberately introduced many plant species over three hundred years to support dune stabilisation, woodlots, and tannin production. Acacias, wattle, pine and eucalyptus have become among the most prominent species. Under dry windy conditions, a single Australian bluegum (Eucalyptus salinga) can absorb seven hundred litres per square metre of leaf cover each day. Invaded landscapes can annually consume 300-400 millimetres (mm) more than natural grassland, cutting runoff by 3-4,000 cubic metres per hectare.

    South Africa is caught between diminishing rainfall (now 464mm/ year) and a growing population of 55 million. It cannot afford to sacrifice water to alien plants.

    Indeed, there’s less than nothing to spare. The country’s 2013 National Water Resource Strategy stresses that the country’s financially viable freshwater resources are already “fully utilised”, putting its 4,395 dams under immense pressure as agriculture and urban demand runs apace. As 8 percent of the country’s landmass produces more than half its runoff, every drop must be harnessed for productive use.

    “The water needs to be captured before we lose it,” says Marais. “We can’t allow the natural ecosystems to clog with invasive alien vegetation.” He adds that every 3-10 hectares of densely infested land, once restored to full ecological function through alien plant eradication, releases enough water to irrigate a hectare of land in perpetuity.

    After amassing two decades of proof, WfW has become a poster child for innovative, strategic, and scalable responses to invasive vegetation – augmenting supplies in water scarce regions. But Marais says this isn’t an either/or approach to water security.

    “It is important to understand that the eradication of aliens works in tandem, and supports, necessary infrastructure,” he says. “All we are doing is improving the efficiency of existing water supply systems.”

    As a supplementary service WfW can focus on water replenishment while exploring the wider social benefits of a plant-clearing public works programme.

    The WfW model has attracted foreign visits and requests for presentation worldwide. While replicated nowhere in its exact form, other public employment programmes adapt its restorative focus. China’s “Grain for Green” project rehabilitates degraded mountainous areas while Ethiopia leverages labour, policy and official support to restore watershed services. Yet any city, agency or nation seeking to adapt the WfW recipe must grasp the five ingredients that underpin it.

    First, before eradicating existing alien species, stop new arrivals. National and local policy prohibits the continued introduction of invasive plants into the natural landscape, coupled with land use incentives against their detrimental effect. Trained customs officials practice stringent control at South Africa’s ports of entry.

    Second, strategic investment can yield multiple outcomes. By working directly with land users, WfW can direct government, corporate and development funding towards the most critical areas where eradication of invasive vegetation can yield the highest water resources. In the arid, northern part of the country, the state electricity utility, Eskom, led partners to invest US$3.3 million by clearing plants in order to enhance water availability and the productive land use for communities upstream of a newly built coal-fired power station.

    Also, research and development pays surprising dividends. For example, biological control of alien infestations may prove the most natural, safe and affordable tool. Officials annually invest US$3.5 million in the strictly managed introduction of host-specific species that drastically reduce seed production and even, in some cases, kill off the alien species.

    You also need to encourage diversified spin-offs. A strong focus on value-added enterprises from the WfW programme has germinated numerous small businesses. These convert cleared vegetation into building materials, energy sources and other economic activities. Rather than simply dispose of dead vegetation, people recycle it, even in the manufacture and distribution of school desks to the national Department of Basic Education.

    A final step is to highlight how plant eradication generates skills, income, and jobs in urban and rural areas alike. Against a national 30 percent unemployment rate, WfW forges linkages between ecosystem services and steady careers. Those benefits stand out as a double revelation. Since inception, Marais’ programme, of which WfW is part, has created more than 225,000 person-years of employment, with opportunities for the poorest and most marginalised. Indeed half of all recent WfW employment opportunities go to women, more than sixty percent are under 35 years old, and military veterans and parolees often find work through the programme.

    Even WfW proponents stress that alien-plant clearing is not a panacea for all water supply ills. Nor does it play the lead. Its importance lies in the ‘best supporting actor’ role: improving the performance of existing infrastructure. But if strategically manipulated, ecosystem service programmes like WfW can offer far wider socio-economic benefits than merely building and filling dams.

    Source: Alex Hetherington, The Source, September 2016


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    How much water are you wearing?

    Wednesday, June 29, 2016

    How much water are you wearing


    Source: Fin24, 28/06/2016

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    Carbon credits: How to tell if they’re the real deal or not

    Wednesday, May 4, 2016

    Author: Vaidehi Shah

    Publication: Eco-Business



    As the global community accelerates efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and curb climate change, carbon neutral labels are an increasingly common sight on products and services. How can consumers tell if these claims are the real thing or just fluff?

    Sustainability is slowly but surely gaining ground in the business sector, and showcasing a company’s environmental initiatives is now mainstream.

    Carbon neutrality has become the new Holy Grail in sustainable business as companies ranging from airlines to manufacturers to tour operators try to set themselves apart as good corporate citizens who are reducing climate change impacts.

    Being carbon neutral typically involves a company ‘offsetting’ the carbon emissions it generates by funding initiatives such as reforestation or renewable energy projects that produce carbon ‘credits’ of the equivalent amount.

    The unfortunate reality, however, is that these claims range from rigorously verified to downright shady, says Prof Ann Smith, chief executive officer of New Zealand-based sustainability certification firm Enviro-Mark Solutions.

    Dodgy carbon neutral claims can take many forms, says Smith. For example, some carbon offset schemes allow companies to simply do rough calculations of their emissions and say that they have offset them by paying for some trees to be planted – a well-meaning but ultimately unscientific method.

    Firms that peddle such schemes to companies may issue carbon neutral logos to unwitting clients without measurement against a recognised standard and without independent verification notes Smith.

    Some use vague methods to estimate the emissions which need to be offset, or sell suspect credits – such as from the planting of forests which are then used for firewood, or “forward-sell” credits from uncompleted projects before the emissions reductions have been achieved.

    One such scheme claims to have more than 2,500 clients and allows websites to display a carbon neutral logo where the emissions to be offset are estimated from the number of page views.

    From this, it estimates how much energy is used by data centres and servers to keep the site up. Rather than requiring users to fill in details about their energy sources, the site bases its estimates on the assumption that all energy used is coal generated, which is not the case in many countries including New Zealand.

    Disregarding cleaner energy sources from their calculations maximises the number of offsets that need to be purchased. The site also does not calculate the emissions linked to manufacturing the hardware to power the website.

    Companies wanting to market themselves as carbon neutral must avoid such unreliable schemes because they undermine their genuine sustainability achievements and could lead to challenges that their carbon neutral claim is misleading, says Smith.

    Many countries, including New Zealand and Australia, have, in recent years, passed consumer protection regulations which stipulate that environmental and carbon claims must be “accurate, scientifically sound and substantiated”.

    Still, misleading claims persist because companies are not aware of the questions to ask. However, a complaint to the regulator could spark an investigation and severe damage to a company’s brand reputation, says Smith.

    The recent Paris Agreement, where 195 global leaders inked a deal in the French capital last December to limit global temperature rise to 2 deg C above pre-industrial levels, gives a further boost to carbon offsetting efforts, says Smith.

    The aim of reaching emissions neutrality by 2050 – as outlined in the Agreement – will pressure governments, businesses and environmental groups to ensure their emissions reductions claims and any offset used are genuine, she notes.

    Recognising the real deal

    The good news is that there are reliable and rigorous schemes available, and asking just a few basic questions can help companies separate the wheat from the chaff, says Smith.

    “First, firms should check if a scheme is based on a recognised environmental standard,” she advises. “Second, the certifying body should be internationally accredited to offer certification against the standard, which ensures that the scheme logo will be recognised in global markets”.

    The certification schemes offered by Enviro-Mark Solutions, a subsidiary of the New Zealand government’s Crown Research Institute Landcare Research, meet both these criteria, says Smith, who has headed the company since 2013.

    The company’s CEMARS programme, or Certified Emissions Measurement And Reduction Scheme, certifies companies which accurately measure and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, while its carboNZero programme endorses companies which go one step further and offset all their unavoidable emissions.

    Both schemes use the International Standards Organisation’s (ISO) criteria for quantifying and reporting greenhouse gas emissions and reductions or ISO 14064. A similar set of guidelines, known as the Publicly Available Specification (PAS) and developed by the British Standards Institution, is used for product and service lifecycle carbon footprints.

    “Everything we do is science-based,” says Smith. “It is important to have a rigorous measurement so you have a baseline against which to measure performance and set targets for improvements”.

    Both certifications require companies to undergo an annual audit, and can cost between NZ$4,000 (ZAR40946,37) and NZ$30,000 (ZAR307097,80) per year, depending on the size and complexity of the firm.

    A company would need to provide Enviro-Mark Solutions with data about business operations, such as its electricity and fuel use, and it will then use an extensive set of software tools and technical support from Enviro-Mark Solutions to measure its emissions.

    The company must then prepare a management plan for reducing emissions, ideally based on science nased targets which require about 5 per cent emissions reduction per year.

    Independent auditors verify the company’s emissions figures and reduction plans before a technical reviewer double-checks them. Once these stringent requirements have been satisfied, Enviro-Mark Solutions advises the firm on how many credits it must buy to achieve carboNZero status and provides a range of pre-approved credit options.

    Only verified credits that meet Enviro-Mark Solutions’ high standards may be used to achieve carboNZero certification.

    Certifying the certifiers

    The CEMARS and carboNZero Programmes use international standards to assess companies and are also accredited as credible by the Joint Accreditation System of Australia and New Zealand (JAS-ANZ) under another set of ISO standards.

    The schemes were the first carbon certification programmes to be accredited under the ISO’s standard for organisations which verify greenhouse gas claims (ISO 14065).

    International reporting mechanisms such as CDP (formerly known as the Carbon Disclosure Project) and the UK Environment Agency’s Energy Savings and Opportunity Scheme also accept CEMARS and carboNZero certifications as a way to report.

    This international recognition makes it easier for certified companies to meet environmental requirements in global markets and grow their consumer base, says Smith.

    Beyond carbon certification, Enviro-Mark Solutions also applies the same stringent standards to its Enviro-Mark certification for environmental management systems, which pegs its certification standard to ISO’s 14001 standard; and the Energy-Mark, which guides companies to measure and reduce their energy use in line with ISO 50001.

    Companies participating in both schemes can progress from Bronze labels for basic adherence to the certification requirements to Gold or, in the case of Enviro-Mark, Diamond awards for conscientious efforts to implement and measure improvements in environmental performance.

    Enviro-Mark Solutions’ international credibility has attracted more than 400 clients in five countries – New Zealand, Australia, the United Kingdom, Chile, and the United Arab Emirates. The certifications are available in 17 countries and recognised in over 60 nations globally.

    Among the companies which have been certified as carbon neutral are Yealands Estate Wines – an acclaimed New Zealand wine producer – Ricoh Australia and New Zealand, Kia Motors New Zealand and BusinessNZ, the country’s largest business advocacy network.

    It was a particularly proud moment for Enviro-Mark when BusinessNZ attained carboNZero certification in 2015, shares Smith, as the network can advocate the benefits of carbon neutrality to its members.

    Further afield, organisations such as the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body and UK-based building and infrastructure developer Skanska have been CEMARS certified since 2010 and 2011 respectively.

    “Our clients get certification on a voluntary basis and are driven by a moral imperative,” Smith says. “But they get frustrated by a lack of consumer demand for products certified by us, as well as uncertainty around climate policy in the Australia and New Zealand region”.

    Nevertheless, companies should be proactive about reducing their emissions because climate change has the potential to directly impact their operations and supply chains.

    As investors seek to remove carbon-intensive companies from their portfolios, companies also face significant economic risk if they do not keep up with the shift towards a low-carbon economy, says Smith.

    Despite the multiple reasons for companies to be accountable for their emissions, Smith’s own motivation for advocating corporate environmental responsibility is much simpler.

    “I have grandchildren,” she says.

    Source: Eco-Business, Vaidehi Shah, 22/04/2016

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    Much of Africa’s food supply at risk to climate change, according to new study

    Thursday, March 17, 2016

    Researchers warn it will become impossible to grow some staple food crops in parts of sub-Saharan Africa if action is not taken to help farmers.



    Fast Facts:

    • In a study, published in Nature Climate Change, of how global warming will affect nine crops that make up half the region’s food production, scientists found that up to 30% of areas growing maize and bananas, and up to 60% of those producing beans could become unviable by the end of the century.
    • Cassava, groundnut, pearl millet, finger millet, sorghum and yam – are projected to remain stable under moderate and extreme climate change scenarios.
    • “This study tells where, and crucially when, interventions need to be made to stop climate change destroying vital food supplies in Africa,” said Julian Ramirez-Villegas, the study’s lead author who works with the CGIAR Research Programme on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS).
    • The study warns that about 40% of maize-growing areas will require “transformation”, which could mean changing the type of crop grown or, in extreme cases, even abandoning crop farming.
    • Sorghum and millet, which have higher tolerance to drought and heat, could replace maize in most places under threat.
    • But for 0.5% of maize-growing areas — equal to 0.8-million hectares in SA that now produce 2.7-million tonnes — there was no viable crop substitution, the study said.
    • The need to adapt to climate change is already urgent, the researchers said. Those include pockets in highly climate-exposed areas of the Sahel in Guinea, Gambia, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Niger.
    • Banana-growing regions of West Africa, including areas in Ghana and Benin, will need to act within the next decade, as the land is expected to become unsuitable for bananas by 2025.
    • Maize-growing areas of Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Tanzania also had less than 10 years left to change tack under the most extreme climate change scenarios.
    • Adaptation options begin with shorter-term actions like improving irrigation and weather information services for farmers, and developing new varieties of maize and beans that can better tolerate heat and drought.
    • Such measures are already under way in parts of Africa, including the Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa initiative that has released 160 varieties, benefiting up to 40-million people in 13 countries.

    Source: Business Day: Africa/African News, Megan Rowling, 08/03/2016.

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    Obama’s Clean Power Plan put on hold

    Friday, February 12, 2016

    The US Supreme Court has blocked President Barack Obama’s sweeping plan to cut emissions from power plants.


    Fast Facts:

    • EPA’s Clean Power Plan has been halted until at least the final months of Obama’s presidency.
    • Utilities, coal miners and more than two dozen states say the agency had overstepped its authority and intruded on states’ rights.
    • The court action blocking implementation until an appeals court can rule “confirms that the legal justification for the Clean Power Plan should be examined by the courts before scarce state and private resources are used to develop state plans,” said Melissa McHenry, a spokeswoman for American Electric Power Co.
    • This development highlighting the prospect that Obama’s signature program for combating climate change could be in legal jeopardy. It also risks undermining the US commitment to curb greenhouse gas emissions as part of an international accord reached in Paris last December.
    • “The Clean Power Plan is based on a strong legal and technical foundation,” Obama press secretary Josh Earnest said in an e-mailed statement.
    • The plan will now be on hold until the Supreme Court either rules or refuses to get involved.
    • A final ruling in 2017 would leave it up to Obama’s successor – potentially one of the Republicans who have criticised the Clean Power Plan on the campaign trail.
    • The Clean Power Plan is designed to accelerate a shift away from coal as the chief source of electricity generation, toward natural gas, wind and solar power.

    Source: IOL, Greg Stohr and Jennifer A. Dlouhy, 10/02/2016

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