Environment

Hornbill_Commons

Research review: Hornbills and their role in maintenance of rainforests

First published: Biodiversity of India

The role of birds in maintaining rainforests is frequently under-appreciated. An example in this regard is the Hornbill. Hornbills are large frugivores birds which are more efficient in seed dispersal in terms of wider range of fruit/seed sizes than other small frugivores birds.

Mindanao Wrinkled Hornbill at the Philippine Eagle Center, Philippines

There are total fifty-four species of hornbills found in sub-Saharan Africa, India, and Southeast Asia and New Guinea of which —23 species are fond in Africa and 31 in Asia. Their contribution to the maintenance of forests has been scientifically recognized and they are regarded as “farmers of the forest”.  The most extensive study on feeding behavior of hornbills by Shumpei Kitamura (1) suggests that they feed on 748 plant species from 242 genera and 79 families.  In this report, author also suggests that, survival of the seeds after passing through gut of hornbill is quite good. Also, a significant number of seed species showed enhanced germination efficiency after passing through their digestive system. After feeding, hornbills usually regurgitate or defecate seeds when perched. The home range of these birds, depending on their size, can vary from 700 Hectare to 2400 Hectare with daily movements regularly extend to at least 10 km, which suggests they can be much more efficient than the other smaller frugivores in dispersing seeds at a wider range of territory. Studies by Kinnaird(2) on the distribution pattern of seeds by hornbills suggested that they help in increasing the abundance and diversity seedlings near the nesting site. A relatively long retention time of the seeds in the gut also contributes to relatively wide spread of seeds.

Unfortunately, relatively large frugivores like Hornbills are vulnerable to extinction, as most of the rain forests in Asia are under tremendous anthropogenic pressures such as hunting, and habitat loss or, degradation. Some of these hornbill species are among the rarest in the world, with only ~40 individuals left! Dwindling number of these forest farmers will have reaching effects on the maintenance of the rainforests itself. So, the close association between hornbill population for maintenance of rainforests as well as conservation of rainforests to prevent extinction of Hornbills has to be scientifically examined before implementing any developmental projects in such eco sensitive zones.

References:

1)     Frugivory and seed dispersal by hornbills (Bucerotidae) in tropical forests. (2011) Shumpei Kitamura, Acta Oecologica, 37, (6), 531–541

2)     Evidence for effective seed dispersal by the Sulawesi red-knobbed hornbill, Aceros cassidix (1998), Kinnaird  M.F., Biotropica, 30 (50–55)

India’s energy choices and their environmental impacts – Part 3

Seven steps to energy stability

Read Part1 here

Read Part2 here

Over the last two weeks (see Part 1 and Part 2 of this series), I reviewed various sources of energy which form the backbone of India’s energy policy. However, what remains to be discussed is where do we go from here? Our country has millions and millions of poor. While cutting back on energy use to stem India’s environmental degradation, we also have to think about lifting these millions out of poverty, providing the children of India a better life with better opportunities. How do we balance economic development with environmental conservation? In this part, I will lay out salient features that, I think, should be an integral part of India’s energy policy.

 

Slums like this in Mumbai have little access to electricity. People survive and run their businesses with stolen electricity, frequently in connivance with officials. (Source:Wikimedia Commons)

1) We need to increase access to energy

Out of the 1.6 billion people in India, 400 million have little or no access to electricity. How can we educate people, teach them computers, provide them good health and good food, make them better-informed citizens without electricity? We need to get out of the medieval age and fast. The 21st century is no place for laggards. India’s energy requirements are supposed to double by 2035. I feel that without (atleast a few) visionary and honest people in state and central power boards, this is a very tall order to achieve. The fact that the Ministry of Power and the Ministry of Coal ends up being embroiled in so major corruption cases (Adarsh scam/Coal mining scam) does not give much confidence.

2) Reducing transmission losses and power thefts

According to Central Vigilance Commission, as high as 50% of the generated power never reaches the customers, due to theft and transmission losses. Shockingly, 30% of the loss occurs as theft in connivance with Electricity Board employees. Central and State governments have tried various measures – from using smart meters to awareness campaigns to increasing degree of punishment. But thieves rarely get caught. One solution to this conundrum is massively privatizing the electricity sector (currently at 21% of total capacity). Experience suggests that privatization of utilities (eg: telephone) significantly reduces corruption in that sector. In addition, technological innovations like Smart Meters can help alleviate the theft of electricity.

3) Reducing reliance on fossil fuels

This goes without saying. NGOs all over the world are campaigning governments to go green but in India, the voice is quite subdued. India contributes 4% of world’s CO2 emissions and is the world’s THIRD LARGEST emitter. In March 2010, India’s energy mix consisted of 53% coal, 23% hydroelectricity, 11% natural gas, 3% nuclear, and 10% renewable-energy sources. India’s National Action Plan on Climate Change aimed to bring up the renewables to 15% by 2020, however, that is too low.  We need to satisfy at least a quarter of our energy needs through renewable sources. Government subsidies and private sector investments are needed in the renewables sector if we are to make a mark in this market around the world. Nuclear energy is a good option but needs to be used with great care, especially given our cultural history of “Chalta hai” attitude, bribery of pollution control board officials and lax implementation of punishments.

 

Energy research and innovation is crucial to energy independence. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

4) More money for R&D

India spends abysmally low on research on energy efficiency and alternative energy sources. US, for example, spent an average of $3.6 billion on energy research between 1993 and 2006. That’s just federal money. Hundreds of private enterprises likely will have added a few more billions to that amount.  On the other hand, India’s budgetary allocation for ENTIRE higher education in its 2002-2007 five year plan was around $800 million!!!

It is unlikely that India will match this amount in the near future, but the government as well as the private enterprises in India should be spending more on focused research on biofuels, increasing fuel economy, making our coal plants cleaner, making our nuclear plants safer, solar energy and wind energy. Almost all of the innovations in these fields come from the perceived leaders – US, China, Japan, Germany, France, UK.

5) Local energy to reduce costs and transmission losses

The Gujarat government initiated an excellent project for tapping solar energy – they put solar panels on the Narmada river canal. Not only does that provide solar energy to the farms nearby thereby reducing transmission losses, but it also prevents loss of 90 lakh litre of water from the canal due to evaporation annually. Similarly, asking buildings to harvest rainwater, mandatory installation of solar panels, using biogas for heating/cooking should be encouraged through active policy making.

6) Learn from experiences of states

It is important to realize that the Central Government can only do so much. Experiences in Gujarat and Tamil Nadu have shown that efforts of each state in this field can serve as a learning experience for other states. Gujarat’s expertise in Solar and TN’s expertise in wind can be transferred to other states. Plus, each state is different in geographical and socioeconomic aspects. Kerala, West Bengal and the north-eastern states, for example, can afford to focus on hydro-electricity. MP, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan need to focus on solar and wind. Nuclear power is dangerous in Gujarat, which lies on the intersection of two tectonic plates, however, can be effectively implemented where probability of earthquakes and density of people are low.

7) A collaborative effort between government, private sector and common man

In Pune, many new buildings come with installed solar panels. If we mass market such panels (as well as mass produce instead of importing from China), we can get the cost of solar significantly down. At the same time, big companies like ONGC, Reliance, Adani must be made to spend more on alternative, non-polluting energy. Offsetting carbon is just one way to alleviate problems created due to pollution. These companies need to make their installations greener and need to contribute more towards bringing down our energy costs through non-polluting means. Programs like Centre for Science and Environment’s Green Rating Program should be implemented with more gusto. These companies should also be made to contribute more towards conservation of our forest-lands.

Once the government efforts are aided by the private sector as well as the common man, India can effectively move towards forgetting the days of load shedding and burgeoning energy deficits. We will be superbly positioned to satisfy our energy needs as well as take care of our environment. Let’s hope such a day comes soon!!

Do you have any more suggestions? Let us hear them in the comments!!

Read Part1 here

Read Part2 here

 

Baby bottles and bisphenol A, pesticides and obesity – A ‘new’ matter of concern?

The rusty Union Carbide plant in Bhopal which was the site of a massive toxic gas leak (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

I start this post with a question – Are toxicants present in the environment a cause of concern for us today? It is definitely not making headlines in the nation’s leading newspapers nor is it causing a drastic effect to cause death.  So, do we even care? Well, as Paracelsus, a German-Swiss physician and alchemist had quoted- “All substances are poisonous. There is none that is not a poison and it is the dose that differentiates a poison from a remedy”.  This means that toxicants are pervasive and there is no way we can escape them but these days the chance that we get exposed to them has increased tremendously.  Here is how: We complain about pollution in cities and drive an air-conditioned vehicle to work to avoid breathing the carbon monoxide and diesel particulates. These are air pollutants whose amounts have escalated given the industrialization in our cities and towns. We drink bottled water fearing lead and other heavy metals that could potentially be present in our water and furthermore forget to recycle that plastic bottle.  With the lure of ‘instant meals’ we microwave in plastic containers ignoring the effects some of the toxicants in the plastic can have on us. Furthermore, we disregard the fact that all these daily activities have contributed towards not only polluting the air we breathe, water we drink, land we use but also affecting the human body which we have learned to care less about. The effect of environmental toxicants is only evident when hundreds of thousands of people get exposed to methyl isocyanate gas and other toxicants in a blast caused at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal. Twenty nine years have passed since this event occurred but the areas surrounding the Union Carbide plant are still deemed to be highly toxic and families live in threat of developing growth related disorders. Little has been done ever since this event occurred to increase awareness among the general public about the health effects of environmental toxicants.

Deepwater Horizon Oil spill in Gulf of Mexico (Source:Wikimedia Commons)

Our fast-paced lives have made us a victim of environmental diseases. In fact, scientists are garnering evidence to show that dietary, pharmaceutical and industrial compounds may alter metabolic processes and in turn lead to cardiovascular disease and obesity.  Recent research suggests that direct long-term health effects are caused from exposure to various environmental toxicants. Bisphenol A- a toxicant present in most plastics has recently caught attention of US-Environmental protection agency as it is shown to disrupt the endocrine system. The effects are not only be seen in the current generation that is exposed to the toxicant but ‘trans-generational’ effects permeable to the next  several generations  have been noted in laboratory animal models. Pthalates which are used as plasticizers are found in plastic toys and even the enteric coating of pills and these have been shown to cause birth defects in animals and are being phased out of many products in the west.   The recent Deepwater horizon oil spill caused by BP in the Gulf of Mexico has created extensive damage and affected tons of wildlife and contaminated ground water. Of particular relevance to India are concerns about the widespread use of the pesticide Endosulfan in the state of Kerala. Groundwater contamination with a heavy metal Arsenic in West Bengal has led to increasing amounts of Arsenic in rice which is a staple for a majority of the population living in that area. Heavy metals such as Lead, benzo[a]pyrene and fine particulate matter such as that in cigarette smoke can cause lung inflammation and chronic illnesses. Dioxins too are pervasive in the environment owing to effluents from industries and laxed environmental regulation about proper disposal of waste. Industrial chemicals such as perfluoroctanoic acid, a surfactant used in production of non-stick cookware is a potential endocrine disruptor and risk factor for human health. The list of hazardous environmental toxicants is endless and the effects are less explored. It is in our ‘health’ interest to be aware of these environmental pollutants and take requisite efforts to decrease occupational and general exposure. Education and awareness about the toxic nature of some of these contaminants has to be brought to the attention of the common man, the industrial workers and even the policy makers! This will require co-operation on several fronts. Scientists will need to communicate research in a non-scientific language to policy makers (who may be power-hungry politicians), NGOs and private industries (with environment-thrust) in India. This idea may appear far-fetched but if started today may well be  a small stepping stone towards a larger benefit.

So, through the next series of posts I will be exploring several major environmental toxicants in detail.  Being in a field of environmental toxicology, I plan to emphasize on the toxic effects and the potential health effects through a scientific perspective. There is a lot of exaggeration and simultaneously a grave concern about several toxicants whose effects have still not been explored in-depth.  It is important that we are aware of the research that is being conducted and be critical about accepting what media has to say about environmental toxicants and pollutants.

India’s energy choices and their environmental impacts – Part 2

Part 1 of this three-part series (Read Part 3 here) dealt with the traditional sources of energy – Coal, Oil, Natural gas, Hydroelectric and Nuclear. In this part, I will review three other sources – Solar energy, Wind energy and Biomass. Of these, Solar and Wind technologies are just rising while biomass, as an energy source, has been used for centuries by people. While burning biomass leads to carbon pollution, it is still the most popular source of energy in India. Its local use and possibility to develop clean energy from it may make it an attractive source of energy.

 

Solar resource map of India (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Solar energy:

The numbers associated with solar energy are mind-boggling. The amount of solar energy reaching the surface of the planet is so vast that in one year it is about twice as much as will EVER be obtained from all of the Earth’s non-renewable resources of coal, oil, natural gas, and mined uranium combined. India receives 600 terawatts of energy every year and states like Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and parts of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are superbly positioned to harvest this energy. Given we have most of energy coming from coal and other dirty fuels today and given most of India experiences frequent load-shedding, solar power would be a boon for a country like India.

So whats holding us back? Turns out that solar panels are expensive. According to U.S. Energy Information Administration, coal costs 7 cents/watt while solar energy costs 22 cents/watt. In a country like India where 40% of the population lives below $1 a day, it is difficult to justify such expense. However, in recent years, the costs for solar panels have dropped significantly due to a ramp in production by China and the US. Several companies in India – Reliance, Adani, Moser Baer, Tata, Mahindra & Mahindra etc. – are getting into the solar business. The government has pledged to invest $19 billion in solar power through 2020 through the National Solar Mission. All of these choices literally make the future for solar power bright in India.

Small wind turbines and solar panels on lamp posts in Shanghai (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Wind energy:
In 2011, India had an installed capacity of ~16000 MW of wind power, which is a minuscule 1.6% of the total power generated. It is estimated that the total power that can be generated through wind energy is ~65000 MW. Wind energy is abundant in India, however, it is hardly tapped. As compared to India, China, which is the world’s leader in wind production, produced 62,000 MW, of which almost all of the capacity was installed in the last five years. As compared to that, since 2005, India has added only ~10,000 MW of wind capacity.

One reason why China raced ahead in the wind game is because the wind turbines are manufactured in China at extremely low costs and are shipped to other countries at a profit. However, the policy paralysis in India and lack of incentives to clean, renewable power generation has significantly stunted the Indian wind industry. For example, Suzlon, a wind-turbine manufacturing Indian company is facing economic woes due to competition by China. Also, in 2008, wind power in India cost Rs. 3.5/kWh as compared to Rs 1.5/kWh for coal, thus making it almost twice as expensive.

However, with enough government interest, more efficient turbine designs and cheaper manufacturing, India can indeed move to harness wind power in a greater way than so far. A prime example in this case is Tamil Nadu, which has made enormous progress in tapping its wind energy potential. At certain times of the year, up to 40% of the power grid is fed by its massive wind farms. This proportion is next only to Denmark, the world leader in wind energy.

 

Biomass:

Biomass use is not considered “installed capacity” because most of the biomass use occurs in villages and on a very local scale. People burning leaves and wood for heat, using cowdung-cakes for cooking, biogas for energy are all examples of how biomass is used in India. By some estimates, almost a third of the energy in India comes from biomass (56% of biomass-energy comes from wood). The biggest advantages of biomass are its cost – its almost always made from natural waste – and its local generation, which gives the power to control it in the hands of the people.

Both of these issues are also what make biomass unattractive in its current form. Since biomass is largely carbon, burning it releases toxic fumes and greenhouse gases. Also, since the production is not regulated, the process is highly inefficient, and a lot of biomass in the fuel is left underutilized. Finally, biomass use in ecologically threatened areas can lead to wildfires or environmental degradation.

Current challenges, however, call for a redrafting of the biomass-energy strategy. Biogas plants, for example, are an attractive source of local and community energy. The biggest biogas plant in India is in the Patan area of Gujarat. The plant is continually fed by cowdung of the large number of cows in the nearby villages. Large biogas plants are also being set up in Haryana and other states, however, a significant interest by the Central Government is needed in this area.

Another source of biomass-energy thats piquing interest worldwide is biofuels. Plants like corn, switchgrass, jatropha etc. as well as unicellular fatty-acid producing algae are being actively researched for biofuel production. Research on biofuels is abysmally low in India. These fuels can help us reduce our dependence on foreign oil as well as help us reduce our carbon footprint.

The final part of these three part series will try to synthesize the two parts of this short-essay and will try to build a coherent picture of the energy policy in India.  Stay tuned!

 

India’s energy choices and their environmental impacts – Part 1

A solar panel array (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

Several odes have been written about the Gujarat Solar Park. With its capacity to produce ~1000 Megawatts (MW) of clean, pure energy when finished in 2013, it will partially satisfy an energy-hungry country. Although it will satisfy only a small fraction of the total energy requirement of the country, the National Solar Mission aims to create 20GW of solar energy by 2020 – which will be almost 10% of the installed capacity. However, India is expected to ramp up its energy production to 1000GW by 2050 if it is to satisfy its economy. To provide electricity access to its entire population, an investment of $135 billion is needed in the energy sector, according to International Energy Agency estimates.

How can we increase the production of electricity in India without polluting the already polluted environment and destroying the already fragile ecosystems?  This is an important question in front of the Indian nation today. I decided to do a quick survey of various available methods and their impact on environment. There may be more points to talk about…I have only included ones that I thought were the biggest concerns.

In this part, I talk about the traditional methods of producing energy (primarily electricity) – Coal, Hydroelectric, Natural Gas, Oil and Nuclear Energy. In Part 2, I will talk about the alternative popular sources – Wind, Solar and Biomass. I’m omitting other sources like Tidal energy and Geothermal energy because their contribution to energy production in India (and around the world) is minimal.

This is, by no means, an expert or a comprehensive review. I encourage readers and experts to comment, point out errors if any and provide their own insights!

Technology

Advantages Impacts/Issues

Comments

Coal Coal is cheap. India has the fourth largest reserves of coal in the world. 53% of India’s energy requirements are met by coal today. Carbon Capture and Storage (Clean coal/CCS) is being touted as the solution to coal’s polluting nature. There are doubts regarding India’s coal reserves. Most of the coal-reserves are in Maoist affected areas or in national parks/national forests. Coal mining destroys mountains, rivers, groundwater and other habitats. Coal is a dirty fuel and is responsible for 20% of the greenhouse gases emitted today. Coal use is being phased out in developed nations, but developing nations are still largely dependent on it. Also, CCS technologies are still not economically viable for global application.
Hydroelectric India is a land of rivers. Hydroelectricity accounts for 22% of electricity generation today, producing about 38GW. There is capacity of ~90GW possible. Dammed water can also be used for irrigation. No GHG emisisons. Building dams submerges land, displaces people and all the living fauna of the land. Dams cause an obstruction in free flow of water, thus fragmenting habitats of animals like Gangetic Dolphins. Hydroelectric power should be used but with caution. Proper environmental assessment needs to be done to ensure that endangered species are not being lost. People displaced should be properly rehabilitated.
Natural gas 11% of our energy comes from NG. India has huge reserves of natural gas – mainly off Mumbai/Gujarat coast (Bombay High) and now in Krishna-Godavari basin in AP. NG is a cleaner fossil fuel than coal and oil – NG plants produce less than half the CO2 emissions as compared to coal and oil fired plants. Natural gas extraction requires boring inside either sea or land. This affects natural habitats of many species and can lead to water and soil pollution and land erosion. NG production does produce methane, but to a lower extent than other fossil fuels. A recent process called fracking allows more extraction of NG from soil. However, it has been severely criticized to contaminate groundwater. In India where droughts are rampant, groundwater contamination is not acceptable.
Oil Oil is primarily used for transportation/agriculture/industrial purposes and not for power generation. However, increased load-shedding is making industries and households to use diesel run generators. Oil and coal have been the primary energy source for much of the 20th century. Extraction processes are well-standardized and large investments have been made. Enough has been already written about the dirty nature of oil combustion – in cars or in generators. Fossil fuel burning causes release of GHG, environmental pollutants and soot that are detrimental to individual and community health. India’s oil reserves are meager and we’re in competition with China, USA and European nations for the same oil fields. This is a geopolitical challenge. It is no new knowledge that weeding the country off oil is an immediate priority. However, as GDP rises, more cars get on the roads. Given India’s poor infrastructure and lax pollution control measures, there is ample “encouragement” given to vehicular pollution.
Nuclear Around 5000 MW (2.5%) of today’s electricity output is from nuclear power. Govt. has plans to increase this to 32,000 MW by 2030. Nuclear power doesnt emit GHG and has been reliably used worldwide for the past 40-50 years. Emission of nuclear radiation causes genetic defects which can last for generations. Chernobyl and Fukushima are prime examples. Waste generated after energy production is also radioactive and hazardous. Disposal of this waste is difficult and is a contentious issue. Uranium reserves in India are meagre. Sanctions, such as after the Pokhran blasts, can impact supply of fuel and can shut down plants. Nuclear companies say that disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima occurred because of old technology. New methods are significantly safer. Govt. has opened up the nuclear market in India but there has been a big debate about who’s liable if an accident occurs.

It has now become crystal clear that India cannot afford to meet its energy requirements the way its been doing for the past 60 years. We do need a higher proportion of our energy from renewables and the Gujarat Solar Park is a glorious example of how we can make it work. The next part will take a look at the emerging clean technologies – Solar Power and Wind Power – and the traditionally used fuel source in India – Biomass – along with the development of Biofuels.

Read Part 2 here

Read Part 3 here

Go to Top