Posts tagged ‘environment’

Urban Air Pollution Is a Public Health Emergency

By , 22 January, 2016, No Comment

I’ve finally returned to Cambridge after spending the better part of 2015 conducting field research in India, South Africa and Kenya. With luck, I’ve now got all the data I need to finish my thesis, and I’m going to be chained to my desk from now until I finish writing it. Naturally, I am procrastinating by writing assorted other things instead, including my monthly blog at SciDev.net.

My most recent piece covers the air quality crisis affecting the developing world’s major cities. India, where I spent much of the summer, is home to many of the worst offenders, and Delhi is the most polluted city of all. I have been visiting Delhi regularly for the past decade, and the change is visible. Many a rickshaw journey consists of wondering exactly how the driver knows to break before crashing into a car in front of him, when neither he nor I can see the road in front of us. The situation in African cities is not as bad, but Nairobi, where I spent the fall, is getting there. Yet despite traveling regularly in the developing world, often in the company of asthma sufferers in my family and household, statistics saying pollution kills more people than HIV and malaria combined, still shock.

We are making progress, and huge credit is owed here to my mother, the incredible Shazia Z. Rafi, who campaigned successfully to get air quality targets included in the new Sustainable Development Goals. This should put pressure on governments, but it is not just a government problem. Urban air pollution in the developing world is a direct product of economic growth, of the fuel consumed both by industrial operations and the transport workers use to reach those new factories. Businesses who are driving this wave of industrialized urbanization bear some responsibility here. My piece, which you can read here, lays out some steps companies can take to clean up their act.

Back to the thesis now, I swear…

UN Week Blogging

By , 8 October, 2012, No Comment

Belatedly, taking note of two blog posts I’ve written for Forbes recently based on events I attended during UN Week.

1. The UN hosted an event on energy access and sustainability that was notable because it tried to bridge the gap between environmental activism and anti-poverty work.

Energy access is a critical prerequisite to poverty reduction, necessary for everything from heating homes to delivering public services to powering the businesses that create jobs.

Emerging powers sometimes paint these economic imperatives as incompatible with the fight against climate change. They see emissions caps as an unfair restriction on their economic advancement. But they’re wrong.

The IEA’s most recent World Energy Outlookconcluded (see p. 488) that achieving universal electricity access by 2030 would result in only a 2% increase in global emissions. That’s because the 1.3 billion people living without electricity today live in the world’s poorest countries. And poor countries that do have universal electricity today draw far less power, on a per-capita basis, than rich ones.

Of course, the ultimate aim of expanding energy access is to spur economic growth and allow poor countries to become richer. But even with dramatic economic growth, these countries won’t be approaching the kilowatt-hours consumed in the developed world until long after 2030. And by that time, we could and should have viable, affordable carbon-neutral energy systems in place.

Read the rest here.

2. The Concordia Summit held a panel discussion on women in Afghanistan that was notable because it highlighted the role the U.S. government has played in helping Afghan women achieve economic and political freedom, just days before U.S. government officials began telling the press that the U.S. won’t have much role in the postwar peace.

But the most important, and least frequently discussed danger (it gets no mention in the Timesstory) is the fate of Afghan women. One of the few goods to have come of the ISAF presence in Afghanistan is an Afghan constitution that gives women equal legal status to men (Article 22), the right to go to school (Articles 43 and 44), access jobs (Article 48) and hold political office (Article 84). Not only would a postwar government with Taliban members reverse such gains, but many woman who have made social, political and economic gains in the last decade would be in danger of suffering violent retribution and shaming from the men in their communities.

Read it all here.

I’ll be discussing what NATO withdrawal means for Afghan women on HuffPost Live today at 10:30AM Eastern. You can watch it here.

Thinking About Food

By , 17 November, 2010, No Comment

Latest at Foreign Exchange:

Lately, I’ve been perusing some new research into the global food crisis: the dramatic spike in prices in 2007 and 2008 and the price volatility, inflation, and hunger that has followed it in search of some cases to probe in longer-form.

It’s an issue whose significance did not come home to me until I was reporting on sugar shortages in Pakistan. It was clear that the shortages were a political risk for the government, and that they were indicative of a much wider spectrum of economic mismanagement. But at a more basic level, I got the sense that hunger, even more than poverty, was the index against which people measured their suffering. That’s when I started reading up food and water in earnest.

Here’s the thing: we in the business press have a tendency to cover commodities like these in two ways, first as fodder for this-or-that futures market, and secondly, as raw materials for biofuels. We don’t spend nearly enough time on food and water as the nuts and bolts of subsistence. And yet, to me, the most exciting thing about following wheat prices or sugar prices or water management is that these are data points that cut vertically and geographically across the global economy. It is one of the few things I’ve covered that feels like I’m scratching at the edge of something universal. I’m still looking for the story that will let me communicate that. But in the meantime, here’s the picture of the crisis I have so far:

For the details, read the whole thing.

The Failure of Institutions

By , 26 December, 2009, 2 Comments

Another round of reader requests led to the following reflections on 44’s latest moves on two issues near and dear to me: health care and climate.

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Maha Breaks the Space-Time Continuum

By , 8 December, 2009, 1 Comment

Today, from my bedroom in New York, I video-blog about the problems with the cultural/individualist left, postmodernism and the dire state of environmental reform:

Also today, from Islamabad, I opine on the role of the middle class in Pakistan’s political future:
Capitalism is the best insurer of political stability, Nasr posits, but not all capitalisms are equal. To promote peace, growth must do more than simply reduce absolute poverty by expanding the proverbial economic pie. It must also curb inequality by expanding the middle class, and tie their success explicitly to the stability of the state.

Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint

Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint

The Muslim world’s middle classes are the ultimate stakeholders in the war on terrorism. While demanding liberal pro-growth policies that raise the incomes of those at the bottom, middle-class business leaders remain dependent on the state for core services such as education and healthcare which both facilitate their own entrepreneurship and benefit the poor.

Unlike upper-crust investors, they can’t pack up their assets and their families and leave when political turmoil hits. Because they have real wealth to lose if the state falls apart, middle classes remain engaged in the democratic process and protect democratic institutions from violence and corruption. By strengthening the state, and enriching their societies, they undermine the sales pitch of militant leaders who prey on inequalities and power vacuums to recruit followers. Even in economically troubled, war-torn Pakistan, a small middle class is beginning to play this very role. [Read the rest.]

Am I miraculous, or what?

Obama Plays Institutionalist?

By , 9 October, 2009, No Comment

Two weeks ago, I mentioned that I was frustrated with Obama’s approach to big international issues like climate change, because it followed his preference for decentralized consensus governance over the institutions and realpolitik of great power diplomacy. (Worse still is the extent to which others seem to buy into his vision.)

On the environment, the opportunity to throw some real institutionalist punches and ram climate legislation through the Senate passed us by in June, when the House passed the bill and the health care debate hadn’t taken over everyone’s attention spans. Being individualists, the Obama-ites failed to think about the institutional structure of the Senate and the fact that it doesn’t take on more than one big bill at a time, as well as about the institutions of other governments who would not, despite their general admiration for Obama, be duped into taking a handshake from him in December instead of real policy commitments to reduce emissions.

That said, there are occasional fleeting moments where it seems that Obama has grown savvy to these problems with his radical individualism. That’s why, as I reported in Fortune today, he’s using the institutions he still has power over (the executive agencies) to regulate individual industries in lieu of getting a comprehensive bill. In some ways, discretionary regulation beats Congressional oversight–career bureaucrats tend to be less beholden to lobbyists. On the other hand, discretionary regulation tends to be less economically efficient in the policies it produces, because industries are considered piecemeal and without proper attention to the way they interact in the macroeconomy. Furthermore, discretionary regulation is, well, discretionary, and doesn’t have any value once power changes hands. Congressional policies, on the other hand, are very hard to undo once they’re in place. Still, is this better than nothing? Hell, yeah.

International Week

By , 26 September, 2009, 4 Comments

The madness of Qaddafi aside, there was some value to this weeks UN and G20 meetings: they introduced the world to Barack Obama’s foreign policy.

Readers of this blog will know that I am skeptical of 44, because I see him as representing the rise of the liberal-tarian left at the expense of liberal institutionalists like myself. In foreign policy, however, Obama has endorsed the institutionalist path, memorably promising during the campaign that he would negotiate with any and all world leaders instead of taking unilateral action and would engage international institutions to combat international problems like climate change.

I had struggled to reconcile this with his professed love of diffuse power. Now I understand: Obama thinks of governance as consensus building amongst individuals. As a result, his vision of international institutions is much the same as his vision of Congress, as a place we go to engage in banter until we arrive at broad and general consensus, rather than as a place for realpolitik dealmaking around concrete specifics.

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Begging for Discipline

By , 20 November, 2008, 2 Comments

Here’s an interesting new phenomenon: executives going to Washington to beg for regulation.

C-suiters from Google, Starbucks, Nike, Sun Microsystems, Timberland and Levi’s are encouraging Congress to pass legislation (likely under Obama) that will force them to get more energy-efficient and bring us closer to a carbon-neutral economy.

Some of these companies have been hit hard for their social irresponsibility before: remember Nike and the sweatshop debacles of the 1990s? Some of them have great PR, but belong to industries that make a massive footprint on our environment–home electronics like computers make up 20% of our energy consumption. So this shift in rhetoric, if taken up by legislators, is notable.

But it strikes me as strange too: if all these executives recognize that consumers now care about the sustainability of the brands they buy, why not just dive in to the emerging market, instead of begging government to force all your competitors to come with you? I’m in favor of mild government coercion on this issue because I don’t think there are enough pro-environment executives in the big emission sectors (ahem, oil), but that doesn’t explain the behavior of those who do see the pot of gold and still need the government to push them over the rainbow.

It reminds me of this time in middle school when my kid sister bombed a test, knew she needed to study more, and begged my mother to ground her. I didn’t get it then, and I don’t get it now.

It Ain’t Easy Being Green

By , 8 June, 2008, No Comment

You know, I always had a thing for Kermit and I was thinking of his famous quip today when I saw this story about UPS. Apparently, the dudes in brown are going “green,” by telling all their drivers to take delivery routes with only right turns. That way, they won’t waste any gas waiting to turn left.

Get real, UPS. Going green, for real, isn’t about making little tweaks like that, though they help. It will require rethinking the big picture of how we live–it means deciding to call a local store near your grandmother’s house to have them deliver her a gift (by bike), INSTEAD of buying a present and shipping it via UPS.

Not to mention that UPS has had this program for two years, but managed to make it a new story this weekend as part of the global warming media hype.

Then again, I’m sometimes afraid to beat up on companies for greenwashing for fear they’ll stop trying altogether.