Friday, December 09, 2011

First carbon capture testbed opens in Yorkshire

In the spirit of balance I felt it important to acknowledge that:

'Energy and climate change secretary Chris Huhne has opened the UK's first real-world pilot project to test whether carbon emissions can be captured from coal-fired power stations and buried underground, to fight global warming.'

The article acknowledges that the project  'comes after considerable uncertainty over the viability of projects in the UK, since several other large players including SSE, BP and E.ON have recently cancelled projects due to cost factors.'

The article also makes clear that UK government policy in this area is in dissaray, and increasingly out to attack what George Osborne has termed 'green tape'!  My own feeling is that 'green tape' is an emergent property of a policy position that lacks systemic clarity, urgency and strategic resolve.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Not seeing and talking about the bigger picture - and why it matters

Miles Mander and colleagues make an excellent point in their article that argues:

'As environmentalists, we are terrible salespeople. We are not enabling people in society to make informed decisions. So people are left to make their own meaning of the role that the natural environment plays in their lives and in the lives of others based on lists of ecological components, but without a sense of the bigger picture. People end up making trade-offs between ecological curiosities, on one hand, and the services supplied by new developments, on the other. The inevitable result is that they choose the known benefits offered by development.

We environmentalists are failing to explain how ecological processes improve people’s lives and contribute to the success of businesses, governments, and communities. How can lists of ecological curiosities help the city treasurer, city engineer, or city manager make an informed decision when she must choose between providing potable water to city residents or protecting a forest?'

They go on to argue that:

'The evolving language around ecosystem services is now starting to build the bridge between scientists’, engineers’, and society’s perceptions of the environment. Ecosystem services is becoming the common currency, or language, between society, engineers, and ecological sciences. The time for all sides to learn this common language has never been more urgent or, indeed, opportune'
Carbon capture and storage - a systemic non-starter?

Carbon sequesteration has never made systemic sense to me so I am not surprised to see reports emerging such as the following:

'The future of carbon capture and storage (CCS) was called into question last week with two high profile projects being cancelled. The UK government scrapped plans for the nation's first CCS project at the Longannet power station in Fife, as it became apparent the project would require more funding than the £1 billion the government is prepared to allocate.

Meanwhile Vattenfall's application to develop a CCS project at a Danish geological structure has been denied. The country's government is waiting to evaluate the success of CCS projects in other nations before moving forward with any of its own.'

Joe Romm argues here that:

'There are simply too many unanswered questions for anyone to say today that we could rely on large-scale deployment of CCS in the 2030s as a major climate solution.'

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Gale and Gusto launched with fanfare

A few weeks ago we went to the launch of the two new wind turbines commissioned by Hepburn Wind which is Australia's first community wind farm.  It was a delightful community-oriented ceremony in which 760 people gathered on Ron and Nathalie Liversedges property  to witness local 10 year old Neve Bosher of St Augustine’s School in Creswick cut a massive ribbon wrapping the girth of a 68m high wind tower. Neve was the winner of a competition run through local schools to name the turbines - hence Gale and Gusto!  These turbines are symbolic of what could become widespread throughout Australia with far-sighted governance and community engagement. 

Whilst the Australian PM has written in support of the development the policy setting is still very uncertain. Depite the policy uncertainties Hepburn Wind had made significant achievements by the time of their 4th birthday in July this year. Hepburn Wind started from humble beginnings with a simple, but powerful idea — that a community could own and operate its own wind farm for the benefit of the entire community.

The Hepburn Renewable Energy Association (now known as SHARE), with the help of many, established Hepburn Wind.  In July 2007, 23 members came together and voted to form the co-operative and vote in the first board. In just four years Hepburn Wind grew to almost 1900 members and are proud of their role in establishing the community renewable energy movement in Australia.  Their achievements include:
  • built a $13.5m wind farm, the first in the country to be initiated and owned by a community 
  • almost completed commissioning and already begun generating clean, safe energy for our community
  • raised more than $9.6m from the community, been awarded $1.7m in state government grants and secured a $3.1 financing facility with Bendigo Bank
  • joined up almost 1900 members, mostly locals
  • entered into an innovative power off-take agreement with Red Energy that will enable supporters to purchase  locally generated power, while at the same time delivering significant financial benefits to the community
  • applied the co-operative legal structure where members have equal voting rights (ensuring democratic control) but share returns in proportion to their investment
  • developed the most generous benefit sharing program of any wind farm in the country, which will give special benefits to those living closest to the project as well as returning well in excess of $1m to the Hepburn Wind Community Fund over the next 25 years.
  • set a new standard for community engagement and support for a wind farm — recognised with a recent honour, the Victorian Premier’s Sustainability Award for 2011.
Earlier this month the Clean Energy Future package completed its passage through the Australian parliament. From the middle of next year there will be in place the beginnings of the policy framework that will usher in a lower pollution future.

As well as pricing carbon pollution, the full package mandates the establishment of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC). The CEFC will direct $10 billion of the funds collected from the big polluters towards driving commercial investments in clean energy.

Hepburn Wind, Embark and their many supporters have worked hard to establish the community energy sector. With almost 60 groups nationwide starting their own journey of community power, it is important to ensure that the CEFC gets behind this sector.

The CEFC is currently seeking advice on the design of the $10 billion program — this is a great opportunity for systemic perspectives to be heard. Community groups, environment organisations, expert and passionate individuals need to advocate for the inclusion of community renewable energy into the mandate of the CEFC.

Hepburn Wind's key messages concern three basic requirements for supporting the community energy sector:
  • recognise the value of engaging the community in the clean energy transition by specifically including community energy projects
  • ensure that community projects are not ruled out due to their relatively small scale
  • make provision for early stage equity investment in community projects
The community energy sector warrants specific attention in the construction of the CEFC as it will underpin community understanding of and support for both clean energy policy and the roll out of clean energy infrastructure. This seems to me to be an essential climate chnage adaptation strategy for Australia and to make systemic sense - distributed, resilient, networked community enterprises make sense in a climate change world where surpise and breakdown in the face of extremes will be more common.

Submissions must be emailed to by 5.00pm Thursday 8 December. Anyone can make a submission.

Using systems thinking to good effect

I have made postings before about how the Munro Review of child protection and social work practice drew heavily on systems thinking and advocated more systemic practice.  It is pleasing that good work is emerging in this field influenced by the report's findings and the enthusiasm of local staff in Hackney.
The 'howlers' are in the ascendency?

I began this post some months ago, but never quite finished it despite the plethora of examples that demonstrate my point.   I wrote then:  After nearly three months away from Australia I have returned to find that the 'howlers' have flourished in my absence.  Barbara Kingsolver's potent metaphor from her book The Lacuna fits all too well, unfortunately.  She says, referring literally, but not metaphorically, to a troup of Mexican monkeys:

'In the beginning were the howlers.  [Their howling] would start with just one: his forced rythmic groaning like a saw blade. That aroused the others near him, nudging them to bawl a long with his monstrous tune. Soon the maroon-throated howls would echo back from other trees...As it was in the beginning, so it is every morning of the world' (p. 3)

I find myself very unsettled, and not unlike Kingsolver's young protagonist who, subjected to the daily tirade from the howlers, wakes terified 'at every day's dawn'.

Clearly, and thankfully, I am not the only one worried.  But those who worry as I do are drowned out it would seem by the howlers.  Sean Carney illustrates my point well in his article in the Saturday Age when he says of the howler-in-chief:

"Since he became leader in December 2009, he [Tony Abbot] has reduced himself almost to a political parody - a politician who can rail and complain and harness community anger and generate fear but himself appears to stand for hardly anything, including the words from his own mouth."

Barry Jones pursues a similar line of argument to mine when he claimed during the week: 'intelligent discussion all but extinct'.  What is it about Australians?  More and more they seem to portray all the worst features of those trapped in an island state, where news of difference and reasoned debate merely trigger even more outrageous howling.  My cousin, a therapist, relates a story about a German client, a young woman here because of her relationship with an Australian lad, disturbed because she has yet to encounter anyone in her circle able to engage in civilised critical discussion. Having been in the reverse situation when young, with a German girlfriend, I can relate to her experience. I cannot imagine any Australians I know in Australia sitting in a mixed sauna discussing the latest news of the Baader-Meinhoff gang and the antics of Helmut Schmidt. But that was how it was in Munich in the 1970s.

In many ways the Murdoch press in Australia is the main megaphone for the howlers.  But how it works is not straightforward.  Some years ago when Vice Master of Wesley College at the University of Sydney I helped the students run a guest speaker program. One of the more interesting speakers was Wendy Bacon, then a well recognised and 'radical' journalist.  She was asked whether she had ever had stories censored by her employers (Murdoch, Packer, Fairfax). Her answer was revealing.  My memory of her answer was that to her knowledge she had never had a story censored or blocked by her employer.  Instead, she said, the main form of censorship was self-censorship by journalists themselves. They knew that if they wanted to keep their job, or to get another job in Australia, they had to observe certain rules.  Concentration of ownership in the press has increased since Wendy gave this talk so I imagine that self-censorship has become even more insidious.  There is good evidence for this today in an article by Wendy Bacon in The Age where she reports a revealing exchange with News Corp (Australia) CEO John Hartigan:

"I emailed Hartigan some questions. They included: Do you consider that bias by newspapers in cities where only one company owns a newspaper could ever be an issue? How do you monitor whether fair means of reporting the news are being applied across the company? What auditing or monitoring mechanisms do you apply? Are there occasions when you do take up matters of bias with editors? Do you think that it would be a good idea if the Australian Press Council became an independent body with funding from both media and other sources, including government?
I received this reply:
''Your bias against our organisation over many years and the errors and omissions in your recent New Matilda piece renders your right to answers from me completely redundant. It is deeply troubling to me and to all of our editors that someone like you has any role in teaching young journalists in Australia.''

Hartigan did not elaborate on my errors or omissions. Nor, to my knowledge, has he pointed these out to online magazine New Matilda (which has a policy of publishing corrections)."

It is a pity freedom of information legislation cannot be used to find out what was discussed at the recent meeting of  News International senior staff at Rupert Murdoch's Californian ranch.  Given the power News International has, the intentions of FoI legislation would, in this instance be better directed at News International than governments.

I agree with Martin Flanagan, whose witty piece today sums up the week of Murdoch theatre in tremendous style, when he says:
  "I hope the debate about journalism that the News of the World has triggered hits Australia like a tsunami"

Since I wrote this piece Murdoch junior has reappeared before the House of Commons Committee in the UK highlighting to us all the inadequacy of his answers.  In Australia an inquiry has been mounted and is now underway.   I fear its terms of reference are inadequate to the circumstances. Particularly telling is recent research released from Wendy Bacon's academic group which concludes:

" The first of a two-part analysis of Australian press coverage of climate change, A Sceptical Climate, has found that between February and July this year negative coverage of the carbon policy across 10 major newspapers outweighed positive coverage by 73 per cent to 27 per cent. Report author Professor Wendy Bacon said the overall result was driven by News Ltd group publications (82 per cent negative versus 18 per cent positive), compared to a more balanced result for the Fairfax press (57 per cent positive articles outweighing 43 per cent negative)."

News Corp is clearly the verdant forest for modern day howlers!

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Release of Insight Maker

Systems Thinking World has just advised of the first general release, on Friday, October 21, 2011, of  Insight Maker -  a FREE web based drawing and simulation package.

Insight Maker was designed as a modeling and simulation environment but it also does Rich Pictures, Mind Maps, Dialogue Maps and Causal Loop Diagrams with ease.

Please refer to the overview at  this site for further insights as well as a list of the new features in the general release.

Feedback from users is welcome.
New Book from Bernard Scott

Second-order cybernetician, Bernard Scott has  had a collection of his papers published recently. Bernard is well know as a scholar of 'conversation theory' as developed by Gordon Pask.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The geoplitics of water and dams

This article provides valuable insights into the current status of the geopolitics of water, particularly the China, Laos, Burma 'triangle':

"The Mekong and Irrawaddy rivers, though unconnected and hundreds of miles apart, are both integral to life in Southeast Asia, supporting millions of people and more than 1,200 species of animals, including freshwater dolphins and-in the Mekong-giant catfish.

Now, in an energy-hungry age on the continent, the rivers share another distinction, as wellsprings of financial temptation for the struggling countries that rely on their flow, Laos and Myanmar (Burma). Both countries are grappling with decisions on whether to build massive hydropower dams on the two significant rivers. The projects could put fragile ecology and associated livelihoods at risk, but the dams could help the two countries reap billions of dollars by exporting the megawatts to China and Thailand, two neighbors with rapidly growing energy demand......."

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Thinking clearly about China?

The achievements of China within the paradigm they have pursued have been so impressive that it is sometimes easy to be seduced by the numbers.   In his recent thought provoking talk at the LSE, Malcolm Turnbull made the following observations about China:
  • 'Population – 22 to 20 per cent
  • Poverty (< $US1.25/day) – 38 to 15 per cent
  • Manufacturing value added – 5 to 11 per cent
  • Steel production – 12 to 39 per cent
  • Foreign reserves – 3 to 22 per cent
  • Resident-owned patent filings – 1 to 15 per cent
  • Telephone lines – 1 to 29 per cent
  • Internet users – 0 to 15 per cent
  • Carbon emissions – 11 to 20 per cen'
Acknowledging the great achievements of the last 30 years, Turnbull goes on to say:

'Finally, consider the environment. Over millennia floods and famines have seen off many an Emperor – tangible evidence that he had lost the mandate of heaven. China faces some of the most severe environmental challenges in the world. Some are direct consequence of global warming; as the Himalayan glaciers melt more water becomes available when it is not wanted, in winter, and less when it is, in summer.

At the same time, industrial pollution of the air and water is so severe that it’s a political issue – what good is it to have a television or a car if you cannot breathe the air or drink the water?

And China’s ability to feed itself is threatened by diminishing water availability.  Agriculture on the northern plain is largely irrigated using groundwater which has been unsustainably extracted to a point where wells are running dry.  Water can be desalinated or pumped from the south for cities, but that is too expensive for farming.'

Following an excellent analysis Turnbull asks: what is to be done?   Amongst his many suggestions none question the current development trajectory, nor suggest how China, Australia (as a major suppier of environmentally damaging resources) and other resources intensive countries might address the fundamental environmental conundrum that the current trajectory delivers.

So it is hard to get one's thinking straight.  Much, for example, has been said about the BRIC countries. Yet asthey are unlikey to rescue the world from meltdown:

'So with Japan still reeling from its two "lost decades" (drenched in QE), the only hope seems to be the emerging economies, such as China, India, Brazil and South Africa. Yet can they save us from worldwide economic stagnation? The answer is a definite no. Even with three decades of growth and 1.3 billion people, China's economy is still just over 8.5% of the world's (as of 2009), so whatever it does pales in significance compared to what goes on in the rich world. Moreover, it faces the challenges of deflating its huge property bubble without creating a financial crisis and managing its intensifying social conflicts – it experiences thousands of riots and strikes every year. And its dependence on exports makes it vulnerable to crises in the rich world.'

What will emerge?

Monday, October 24, 2011

Insensitive heavy-handedness only increases alienation

I wonder to what extent the Mayor of Melbourne and the Premiers of Victoria and NSW did their homework to fully appreciate why there has been a wave of protest around the globe, before insensitively sending in the police to close protest camps down in Sydney and Melbourne?  A useful place to start would have been with the US situation.  Central to the US protests is  the extreme inequality that has developed in the US economy over the past 30 years.

According to todays Age, Australia now has a three speed economy.  Alienation, inequality  and disillusionment with our governance institutions prevail in several of these 'economies'.  Under such circumstances protest seems a legitimate form of social action.
Excellent systemic account of the Euro crisis

My thanks to Bruce Legay for drawing my attention to this New York Times piece entitled: It’s All Connected: An Overview of the Euro Crisis.  The question becomes how to act on such systemic understandings.  My own experience suggests interventions that move damaging positive feedback processes in to virtuous negative feedback processes - but what these might be is beyond my experience.  The latter could involve some institutional innovations within the Eurozone designed to provide more resilience in future - the current arrangements have clearly failed.  Many commentators are comparing the Greek situation with that of Argentina.  On the surface these arguments seem to make sense, although in this posting the author refutes this claim, going on to say:

"There is no clear answer to what will happen or what should happen. There is a big mess out there. Once is certain though. The similarities between Argentina and Greece point to another worrying development. The citizens won’t be able to suffer the burdens of austerity any longer more (especially when they are made to pay for the bloated public servants). When that happens the situation will be beyond saving by the IMF, the EU and the ECB."

I wonder if allowing Greece to default within an institutionalised firewall is not a good strategy, whilst maintaining transfer payments from the rest of the EU, much as has happened over the last 30 years?  One thing is clear that without transformation of Greek institutions the situation is likely to reoccur.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Postcard from China 4

From a water culture perspective one of the most interesting aspects of our trip was a visit to Dujiangyan, in Sichuan Province.  Established in 256 BC during the Qin Dynasty this is now a World Heritage site.  It is regarded as one of the three outstanding hydraulic engineering feats of the Qin dynasty (along with with the Zhengguo Canal in Shaanxi Province and the Lingqu Canal in Guangxi Province). It is particularly interesting because 'unlike contemporary dams where the water is blocked with a huge wall, Dujiangyan still lets water go through naturally. Modern dams do not let fish go through very well, since each dam is a wall and the water levels are different' (see wikipedia).
I found what was said and observed by the majority of our group, as well as our local hosts and staff of  CTGPC, to be fascinating.  Almost all, including the content of the talk given by the guide in the associated museum, focused on the technology. For them it was the fact that the technology and its different elements had been conserved for over 2000 years that was the main achievement.  Certainly the elegance of the technology is impressive.  But in contrast what interested me was how, as a sociotechnical system, the governance arrangements had been conserved as operationally effective through wars, earthquakes, many dynasties etc.  It took some perserverance to have satisfactory answers and I suspect there is more to be said on the matter.  One reason it has been conserved , it would seem, is to do with the strategic importance of the irrigation system in that part of central China. The emperor (or would-be ruler) who commanded this irrigation system with security of food supply had one of the keys to ruling China.  Food availability is central to political power in China.  For this reason all rulers invested in the management and upkeep of the irrigation system.  I imagine there have been other institutions invented over the 2260 years that have helped.
The rebuilding of nearby Dujiangjan City, following the effects of the 2008 earthquake were impressive.  I hope also that new technologies have been incorporated into the rebuilding that make them more secure in future.

Visiting Dujiangan City invies a reflection on how sustainability can be understood as a structurally coupled social-biophysical system.  Dujiangan survives and functions effectively because the coupling between the social and the biophysical has remained viable for over 2000 years.  From a long-term perspective it is hard to imagine that major dams will achieve the same longevity. In my previous email I adressed the complexities of upstream management that have to be addressed in the Yangtze.  And despite the short and medium term social benefits through flood mitigation we know that in the long-term the fertility of the whole lower Yangtze flood plain will be diminished by preventing regular flooding and associated silt deposition.

In some ways it could be claimed that Dujiangan survives because it is in systemic harmony with its context.  China, along with the rest of the world  faces a great challenge to innovate in ways that produce systemic harmony.  According to the Global Times (October 13) China will invest 4 trillion Yuan (US$628 billion) in water conservation in the next decade.  But as the article notes, how the money is spent will determine how effective it will be.   I will go further and claim that how effective it will be will entirely depend on the type of thinking that informs the decision making. Unfortunately I doubt if systems thinking and practice (see the OU STiP program) will be the driving force.  According to the article 20 percent of future expenditure will be on farmland irrigation projects, 38 percent on flood control and disaster prevention, 35 percent on water supply projects and the rest for water and soil conservation as well as 'ecological construction'.

The underpinning discourse in the Global Times article is  one of business as usual, in an attempt to gain ever more control. It says 'China aims to harness more than 5000 rivers...reinforce 5,400 reservoirs...'   On our visit we even heard of a proposal (perhaps entirely fanciful, perhaps not) to reduce the height of the Himalayas so that China could get more rain from the 'Indian' monsoon.  In this commitment to technical and scientific modernism China, along with many other countries, demonstrates a commitment to a way of thinking and acting that whilst necessary,  is certainly not sufficient for today's circumstances.

In the Global Times of October 14 news that 'China will make grass-roots work  experience [of 2 years] a requirement for civil service hopefuls eyeing central and provincial-level posts..' seems to be the out-of-the-box thinking that is required.  It is certainly something that could be emulated in Australia, and extended to Parliamentary advisors!  Impetus for the change comes from the Chinese Academy of Governance.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Postcard from China 3

Our Australian Water Culture Delegation was sponsored by the Australia-China Council, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australia, through the project Linking Australia and China - a "Bridge of Water Culture". The hosting organizations were the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences (IGSNRR), the China Three Gorges Corporation (CTGPC) and the Shaanxi Normal University in Xi'an.  We had a packed but informative schedule. Our hosts received us with great warmth and hospitality at each venue.
The Three Gorges Dam is a mammoth undertaking and a major feat of engineering. It is the largest dam of its type in the world.  The Yangtze River, which once flowed at an average depth of 10m, now stands at 135 m at the dam wall.  The water backs up 650km to the city of Chongqing, one of the four provincial level cities in China (with Beijing, Tianjin and Shanghai). As is well known it is also highly controversial.  We were shown good evidence of significant flood control, at least 10 times in the period 2004-10, with significant downstream flooding averted particularly in 2010. 
The dam contains 33 turbines producing hydro-power.  The data for CO2 emission reductions  and tonnes of coal saved are impressive as are enhanced river transport efficiencies.  In other words the dam is clearly delivering certain social and economic benefits. Having met Academican Lu Youmei, one of the driving forces behind the dam, and the first CEO of CTGPC, I can appreciate that the dam was the outcome of a long political process within the Party.  When modernisation won out the dam was inevitable; it is symbolic of China's chosen pathway over the last 30 years. That said, Lu Youmei and current Vice Chairman Fan Qixiang, clearly appreciate the range of systemic difficulties that lay ahead.  I will turn to some of these in a moment.  What is not clear however, is whether having developed world's best expertise in what they do, CTGPC will follow the path of another engineering company that started by building dams, namely the Australian Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation (SMEC).  Experience suggests that such companies actively pursue opportunities to conserve and further develop their existing expertise. They move from the work of building a system in response to a problem to looking for a problem to retain the system they have built! CTGPC is currently constructing further dams on the Jinsha River, an upstream tributary of the Yangtze.  They aim to have four new dams completed in 10 years. These will have double the current power generating capacity of the Three Gorges Dam. Around 300,000 people will be affected - many fewer than the 1.2-3 million affected by the Three Gorges Project.  Over lunch I learned that CTGPC were in discussions in over 30 countries about possible hydro opportunities.  I expect these include countries along the Mekong and in Burma.
On a cruise up the river from the dam some of the issues that confront CTGPC, as managers of the dam, became apparent.  The rise in water levels has, in places, undermined the steep walls of the valley.  We saw work actively trying to avoid landslips, and thus added siltation. After impoundment of water a number of seismic events were triggered.  There is substantial investment in seismic monitoring.  Water qualty is also clearly an issue.  A colleague counted hundreds of floating shoes and thongs on our relatively short boat journey.  But it is probably what cannot be seen that is more of a worry.  It was reported that water quality was generally level 2 or 3, but I failed to find out what this really meant.

Water quality is a much wider problem than that in the Three Gorges Dam.  In fact, along with water availability, it is probably the main environmental problem in China today.  The China Daily of October 15-16 reports that:
"China has only a quarter of the world's average in terms of fresh water resources, ranking 110th in the world. Among 600 Chinese cities, more than 400 suffer from an insufficiency of water, 110 seriously, including some along the Yangtze River, the country's longest river.  Worse the decades-long rapid economic growth means the country's limited water resources are increasingly threatened by pollution. Statistics show that more than 70 percent of China's rivers and 60 percent of its underground water resources are polluted to different degrees."

The complexities of the water issues facing China can be gleaned from the issues now facing CTGPC. These include the extensive diffuse pollution coming from agriculture (nitrogen and phosphorus mainly), sewage from the many upstream cities, towns and villages and of course, industrial pollution and acid rain.  Given the size of the overall river system upstream from the dam this is a massive issue with many siloed ministries involved, meaning that concerted action amongst the many stakeholders is difficult to achieve.  Algal blooms have increased in the dams. We heard little about other organisms and invertebrates in the river system other than some substantial breeding and preservation actions.  There is a Yangtze River Commission which in theory has oversight but in our various conversations the governance of rivers consistently emerged as a major issue - not only within river basins but between river basins. Clearly more systemic and adapative water governance is needed as CTGPC are finding - they now have to deal with 5-6 other "owners" of upstream dams and power generators i.e., they are not the sole provider on the Yangtze.
Having seen on my last visit the massive south-north canal that transfers water from the wetter south to the drier north, including Beijing, I was surprised to discover that it is not linked to the Three Gorges Dam, but another relatively minor tributary of the Yangtze which enters downstream of the dam (if there is any water left, that is!). China's second most important river, the Yellow River, only has one twentieth of the the water resources of the Yangtze.  Alarmingly much of the water in the Yellow and Hai River (further north) is used before they get to the sea i.e., current levels of demand are not sustainable.  Part of  China's predicament was explained by Lu Youmei.  The high rainfall period in the Yangtze is in the summer, and this is also the time of maximum flood risk - currently 950 million cubic m of run-off enters the sea from the Yangtze.  Unfortunatly, some view this as lost water!   At the moment, and for the forseeable future, there is unlikely to be enough storage capacity to save more water in the period of excess whilst at the same time fulfill flood mitigation responsibilities.  The corollary to this is that in winter, flows are low and power generation is generally well below peak capacity.  It is also dangerous for the Yangtze river itself, and associated river traffic, to transfer too much water in winter.  For example, the Yangtze currently has a very low flow so only 13 turbines were operating during our visit. 
Another major problem in China is groundwater depletion as well as contamination.  I was well aware of this from our prevous research visit spent on the North China Plain in Hebei Province around Lake Baiyangdian. In fact the long term scenario for water in this vital breadbasket of China is very worrying. A telling example of the issue became apparent in our visit to Xi'an.  One of the cultural and thus tourist landmarks is the Big Wild Goose Pagoda.  During our visit the guide advised us against climbing it as it had begun to lean, much as the Leaning Tower of Pisa, because of the falling water table under the city of Xi'an.  I hope the spectacular 'dancing water fountains', newly installed nearby, were not exacerbating the problem as they were clearly a great civic amenity. 

In the 12th Five Year Plan period (2011-15) China has vowed to address the water issues.  The report in the China Daily cited earlier describes this as a 'determination to bring the country's fast gowing economy onto a more sustainable and greener track'.  The governament is demanding that 'water usage for every 10,000 yuan-worth [of] GDP be reduced 50 percent by 2020 from the 2008 level and an additional 40 percent after 2020.'  In this same article Beijing is held up as an example that others might follow: 'Coupled with a considerable decline in energy intensity, the water consumption for every 10,000 yuan of GDP in the capital has declined considerably [how is not specified], decreasing to 24.9 cubic meters in 2010 from 49.5 cubic meters in 2005.'  These are policy developments that should be welcomed, but are they enough?  How will they be enforced?   The same article ends by stating that: ' To ensure the 100 percent realization of the national energy and water saving targets mapped out, the country should hold accountable officials whose regions fail to attain these targets and lay down a set of strict punishment measures'!  In future provinces that use more water than they are allocated will be penalised. 

The policy response by China is ambitious, but is it too much a captive of  concepts such as eco-efficieny? Improving the environmental performance of a single car ultimately achieves little if the rate in the overall growth of cars means that all gains per car are overwhelmed by gross outputs.  The same arguments can be applied to the metric of water savings per unit of GDP.  Already China appears to be approaching CO2 outputs per capita similar to the main developing countries.  Now is not the time for reform - change that makes the wrong strategy more efficient - rather it is time for transformation - invention that creates the right thing to do in the circumstances.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Postcard from China 2

One of the most inescapable features of this visit for me was the air pollution. Not only was it in Beijing with its 21 million people but also in Chengdu (14 million), and to a lesser extent Xi'an (7 million).  However the most disturbing experience was at the Three Gorges Dam and in the Yangtze River Valley upstream.  It also had its amusing side.  We were taken to the main viewing platform for the dam wall, but like all tourists that day there was no wall to be seen. The smog was too thick.  As ever technology saved us!  We left with an excellent photo of ourselves with the dam wall clearly visible in the background all thanks to photoshop (or some such similar program)! 
In the Global Times of the 3rd October a report entitled 'gloomy outlook for pollution targets' gives some background to what we were experiencing.  According to the article the first six months of this year had seen a 6.17% rise in nitrogen oxides released into the atmosphere compared with the previous year.  The official target is for a 1.5 percent reduction in 2011!  Of course this is an average - how was it calculated?  The article does not make that clear, but the rise is likely to have been much, much higher in some places.  As the article says "nitrogen emissions, which are a major cause of acid rain and smog, are harmful to the human respiratory system and can cause cardiovascular disease." 

Before leaving for China I had been writing up some of the history of my own family in Hackney and Bethnal Green, now suburbs of London.   London was the first mega city. It had major pollution problems which began in the 1830s and 1840s as industrialisation progressed.  The effects of pollution was probably one of the reasons my ancestors emigrated to Australia.  As we travelled through China I could not help but wonder when and how the Chinese will turn the corner on air pollution in the face of ever growing cities, increasing car numbers, industrial development and frequent inversion layers over cities.

A timely paper in the journal Ecological Economics makes apparent the situation in London that my ancestors had encountered. This figure (courtesy of David Pannell and the author) shows that London did not start to turn the corner, to reduce pollution, till about 1900.  There was an almost 80 year period before things started to get better. As the graph shows incidence of deaths due to bronchitis peaked at about the same time as pollution (total suspended particles).  The challenge for China is to devise strategies to turn the corner.  Nitrogen oxides come mainly from cars and coal-fired thermal power plants.  Apparently nitrogen oxides now excede sulfur dioxide as the major pollutant of air, and thus of acid rain.  This is a classic systemic problem as nitrogen oxide and ammonia (which comes mainly from animal waste and garbage) accumulate in the water which, according to the article 'is the most serious pollution problem in China'.

I cannot help but consider what might have happened for China, and the rest of the world, had Deng Xiaoping, the reformer who led China towards a market-based economy, and his contemporaries not bought in to the failing western economic model.  The environmental externalities of car-based economic development - in terms of pollution, congestion and the transformation of identity (consumerism and mobility) - were already well known when reforms began. This is not to say that China should have remained static - but another pathway was already apparent, and if pursued may have left us all in a better position.  That said it may be that China will pull something out of the hat and follow the trajectory achieved by London over a century ago.  If so we will all benefit.  At the moment I am not optimistic.

There have of course been both substantial critiques as well as champions of China's chosen pathway. Writing in 1997 Joshua Muldavin analyzed environmental degradation in rural China as structurally embedded in China's rapid economic growth in the post-Mao era. He wrote:

"A critical assessment of the Chinese hybrid economy challenges standard views of the reforms. The overall environmental problems of state socialist agriculture in China have been aggravated following the agrarian reforms of the current regime. Rather than mitigating negative trends, marketization and privatization have brought new, qualitatively different, environmental problems. Resource decline and its attendant social problems are not limited to aspects of transitional economy but are a fundamental part of the new hybrid system."

There are still about 860 million rural inhabitants of China.  What their fate is to be is uncertain.
In a remarkably frank interview in the same issue of Global Times, Huang Nbo, a business tycoon (China's 161st richest man) who has just purchased 300 square km of Iceland (and former official in the Publicity Department of the Communist Party of  China Central Committee), comments on business ethics and the current pathway. He said:

 " I think moral ambiguity is overwhelming...   ...I have a sense of guilt accumulated over the years over the inevitable immorality in business transactions, including the damage we cause to the environment and forcing people out of their homes to give way for real estate development.  We achieved development, but it was done through brutal means."

I felt pensive as I returned to Australia  - then saddened when flying into Tullamarine to be greeted by an inversion layer and a discernable smog haze over Melbourne.  Members of the Committee for Melbourne who advocate for a city of 10 million people ought to travel to China and learn from the situation there, before it is too late.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Postcard from China 1

As I write I am homeward bound having just finished a short study tour in China as part of an “Australian Water Culture Delegation” organised by the Australia China Centre on Water Resources Research (ACCWRR).  In this series of Postcards I reflect on various experiences and thoughts during the 9-day trip.  

(i)                Back in Beijing for the second time.  It was the end of the National Holiday week and Tiananmen Square was well decorated with many local tourists on hand.  The amount of smog was my first impression – worse then in an earlier visit in May-June.  The air quality, as I outline below, was a recurring theme.  As a group of seven we became amiable fellow delegates.
(ii)              Apparently Mao’s portrait is renewed every holiday – if so we saw the fresh one!!

(iii)           The imperial Palace was as impressive as my first visit. The crowds interfered with the stronger virtual images I continue to hold of previous emperors and their courts gained from various movies. I expect it to be my last visit to the palace. 
 (iv)          As with last time a visit to the Lindang Hutung was a highlight. A short guided tour this time made it all the more interesting. It seems tragic to me that so much of the old has been lost from around central Beijing.
 (v)             An evening walk to the Birdsnest stadium and parts of the Olympic village reacquainted me with the creativity of the architecture.  The striking lighting of the key buildings created an eerie effect in the smog.  I sensed the complex was underused and undergoing further (re)development. Someone later told me it was.  The main activity was a rock band launch of the new Audi car!!  A celebration of consumerism! 
(vi)            Free hotel internet (all week) is a great boon.  Although I was unable to load this Blog all week though – no problems with the BBC or ABC.
 (vii)         A smoggy drive to the Great Wall on Sunday morning. My first visit. Now I have seen it and walked on it.  I pity the builders and soldiers who have manned it over the centuries.  I did not walk far – on the steep climb part I opted for caution, not wanting to expose my lungs to dragging in lots of smoggy air! As with most of our visit there were large numbers of local tourists – more than outsiders.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Simon Caulkin - insightful as ever

After his departure from the Observer/Guardian it took a little while for Simon to get back into what he does best: insightful, systemic journalism which unpacks the failures and successes of  management actions.  He now has a new website - you can subscribe for the latest aricles (highly recommended) or wait a while until they move into the public domain.  Below are links to some of his recent pieces.  For anyone interested in John Seddon's work (see my last post) I recommend the article 'Police Intelligence'.

Saving capitalism from itself   (This article is only available at present to paid-up members, as is)

It's management, stupid

Other recent articles include

Trust in organisations: who stole it, how can we get it back?

Recovery: you can't get there from here

The rules of power

Police intelligence

Suicide bomb at Wapping: family mansion in flames

Friday, August 19, 2011

John Seddon in Oz

I have made earlier postings about John Seddon's work   He is scheduled to be in Sydney and then Melbourne at the end of the month.  I recommend attendance if you can make it.   This column by Simon Caulkin is worth looking at in its own right as well as for getting a feel for the sort of change that Seddon and his colleagues facilitate.

Lessons from the front line: What works and what doesn’t in UK public sector reform | Professor John Seddon 

Wednesday 31 August, 3pm to 5pm (followed by wine and canapés)
Dixon Room, State Library of NSW,
Shakespeare Place Sydney (Mitchell Wing entrance)

Cost: $22 (NSW IPAA members) or $44 (non-members), includes canapés and drinks following the presentation.
RSVP here. Limited places so register now This event is being organised by CPD and IPPA, registrations are being coordinated by IPPA

Join the Centre for Policy Development & the Institute of Public Administration Australia (NSW) for a seminar with Professor John Seddon, providing insights into the UK government’s radical reforms of the public sector – with some lessons for Australia. Read John’s thoughts on Big Society here.

Through the Blair years John Seddon gained a reputation as a leading critic of public sector reform. His 2008 book, Systems Thinking in the Public Sector: the failure of the reform regime… and a manifesto for a better way, was read by Cameron’s policy team while in opposition and was thought to be ‘going too far’; but in some ways Cameron’s new coalition government has gone further. The target-setting regime is over and the Audit Commission is to close. On other fronts, Seddon remains a strident and informed voice against UK government policy, arguing that ministers seek policy-based evidence rather than evidence-based policy.

Seddon is as vociferous about what works. Those who follow his ideas achieve performance improvements that represent economic benchmarks. In this unique seminar John Seddon will talk about what works, what doesn’t work and he will offer up some clear advice for Australia:
  • Why change should start with studying (no plan required)
  • How studying can reveal counter-intuitive truths (e.g. managing costs drives costs up)
  • How managing value drives costs out of public services while improving service delivery
  • How conventional approaches to sharing services lead to massive and costly failure
  • Why economy of scale is a myth
  • Why targets and inspection/regulation make performance worse
  • Three steps to sharing services that are guaranteed to maximise efficiency and improve service
  • How to get knowledge; studying service organisations as systems, the prerequisite to effective and profound improvement
  • The role of central government; constructive things to do and things to avoid
  • An evidence-based view of current UK government initiatives, including the Big Society.
The seminar is being presented as part of CPD’s Public Service Research Program. To  download “The State of the Australian Public Service: An alternative report”, visit the program webpage. Be sure to sign up to our email list here [link] to get the latest updates.

About Professor John Seddon

John has received numerous academic awards for his contribution to management thinking. Originally an occupational psychologist, John was persuaded by Deming’s obvious truth, that we, mankind, invented management and we can change it. John has developed methods to help managers of service organisations change from a conventional command-and-control design to a systems design.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The State of the Australian Public Service: An Alternative Report

Today the Centre for Policy Development released The State of the Australian Public Service: An Alternative Report, as part of its Public Service program.

The report’s key findings include:
  • a widening gap between the anti-public servant rhetoric of some politicians and commentators and the positive attitudes held by Australian citizens about public servants and the services they deliver and
  • a decline in the ratio of public servants per capita in contrast to claims of public service ‘bloating’.
Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey has declared the Coalition’s plans to slash public spending and axe at least 12,000 public servants’ jobs if they gain government at the next election in a rush to bring the budget to surplus. In recent days it has been revealed the Coalition plans to cut public spending by $70 billion, shutting down entire government departments.

The Australian Public Service (APS) employs approximately 160,000 people across 133 agencies, making it one of our largest employers and most significant investments. The staffing of the APS generates heated debate in the media as well as in Parliament. Views are polarised. But what do we really know about the APS? And does much of the rhetoric match up to the reality?

The State of the Australian Public Service analyses 20 years of opinion research on  the public service. The report finds evidence of a disconnect between frequent public service ‘bashing’ by politicians and commentators and generally positive views of the public sector in the general community.

Most Australians are willing to forego income to pay for public services. There’s a strong preference for services to be provided by the public sector: twice as many people support public over private provision of health and education for example.
Our research into long term staffing trends also contradicts the portrayal by some politicians and media commentators of a public sector that is ‘bloated’.

 “To return the ratio of APS staff to Australian citizens to 1991 levels would require increasing APS staffing to approximately 214,000, an increase of approximately 50,000 staff.”

Unless the community expects less of the public service or the APS is able to deliver its services with significantly fewer employees, the argument that we have a ‘bloated’ public service is baseless.
The report also finds that the APS is an increasingly top-heavy workforce that does not reflect the diversity of the Australian community, with Indigenous Australians and people with a disability under-represented, and women under-represented in the senior ranks.

Dr James Whelan, the report’s author and Director of CPD’s Public Service Program said, “British Prime Minister David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ vision entails cutting the public sector budget by ₤80 billion, freezing wages and calling for tenders for most services. At a time when the public service is under attack in the UK, Canada, New Zealand and the US, Australian politicians who are tempted to follow suit should be aware of Australian voters’ strong support for the public sector.”

CPD’s  The State of the Australian Public Service offers an accessible handbook of all you need to know about attitudes toward the public service and staffing trends.
Climate skeptics and white conservative men

I recommend the articles on this site as an antidote to the climate skepticism being fostered by News International (see today's Herald Sun) and Australia's howler-in chief.

In particular take a look at the article by David Roberts called:"Stuff white people like: denying climate change". Here is an extract:

"There's a study running soon in the journal Global Environmental Change called "Cool dudes: The denial of climate change among conservative white males in the United States." It analyzes poll and survey data from the last 10 years and finds that ... are you sitting down? ... conservative white men are far more likely to deny the threat of climate change than other people.

OK, that's no surprise to anyone who's been awake over the last decade. But the paper goes beyond that to put forward some theories about why conservative white men (CWM) are so loathe to accept climate change. The explanation is some mix of the following, all of which overlap in various ways:
  • First there's the "white male effect" -- generally speaking, white males are less concerned with a variety of risks. This probably has to do with the fact that they are less exposed to risk than other demographics, what with running things and all.
  • Then, as Chris Mooney notes, there's the "social dominance orientation" of conservatives, who see social life as following the law of the jungle. One's choice is to dominate or be dominated; that is the natural order of things. Such folk are leery of climate change solutions premised on fairness or egalitarianism.
  • Then there are the well-understood "system-justifying tendencies" of conservatives. The authors explain that conservatives ...
  • ... strongly display tendencies to justify and defend the current social and economic system. Conservatives dislike change and uncertainty and attempt to simplify complexity. Further, conservative white males have disproportionately occupied positions of power within our economic system. Given the expansive challenge that climate change poses to the industrial capitalist economic system, it should not be surprising that conservative white males' strong system-justifying attitudes would be triggered to deny climate change."

I also recommend his follow up article: "How do you solve a problem like conservative white men?"  There are some good arguments here  which resonate with my own view that we have gotten ourselves into the wrong conversation.  It is not that climate change is not important it is just that it is the wrong framing of the issue.  We needs conversations of hope and transformation as well as ones that embrace the complexity of our situation - the intersections of loss of biodiversity, resource, particularly oil depletion, income inequality, urban congestion and city dysfunction and post carbon societies.

To Mr. and Mrs David Cameron from Nathaniel Tapley

Much has been written on the riots in Britain and no doubt there will be many theses produced in the coming few years.  Having spent May to July in Europe, much of it in England, I must admit to not being surprised that the riots have occurred, deplorable though all such acts are.   In the many pages of analysis look for those that address the systemic factors that  have given rise to the riots but perhaps more importantly look to the future and ask: starting from here how is the situation to be dealt with systemically?

For me one key issue to look at is the English schooling system and the very low percentage of students who go on to A levels.  In some ways aspects of  the schooling system are designed to  produce alienation - and this has nothing to do with teachers and the many well intentioned people who contribute to schooling.  It is a long-standing structural problem in my view - yet to be fully overcome despite recent innovations.

But this is only one aspect of a complex situation.  Natt Tapley points to another important facet - that is the role models that leaders provide, and in this respect his letter is a beauty. Nothing alienates more than those who cannot walk the talk - it is bad enough when those who do not know that that is what they do prognosticate but even worse when this behaviour is pursued knowingly.

REDD-plus at the crossroads in Papua New Guinea

Some of the politics and institutional complexity around REDD schemes are well analysed in this article by Colin Filer of ANU. The potential for systemic failure seems significant. As in so many other contexts Colin's conclusion that: "Programme and donors grow increasingly despondent about the prospects for effective institutional reform" highlights the domain in which so much systemic failure rests.