TBGP #2: Climate Change and you

+ Green New Deals for a post-COVID recovery; Indian states as ecological regions; the importance of river bends; and the valuable plastic waste chain

For better decisions towards sustainability, we need to be better informed. To be better informed, we need narratives with depth that present facts with context. This is lacking today.

The Big Green Picture is a twice a month punt towards this. It looks to offer a better understanding of shifts towards sustainable development, a reality that requires more than a newsletter, through deep-dives explaining current trends, cases, and models (Commentary); dedications to good and bad policy (Policy Lost and Policy Gained); bite-sized interesting pieces I’ve come across in the last 14 days (The Big Short).


The State of Climate Change: The need for more existential dread and healthy opportunity

This piece is long because Climate Change is big and there’s a lot to relook in how we approach it as individuals and as institutions. Also included are the most positive impacts on climate change you can do. No hyperbole.

The largest global carbon dioxide emissions drop ever

On 7th April 2020, we experienced the largest per day reduction of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions ever witnessed. Emissions dropped by 17% as compared to the average daily emissions amount for 2018.

Global daily CO2 emissions trend since the 1970s (left), and a dive-in at daily emissions in 2020 until April 30th (right). (Source: Nature Climate Change)

A lot has been written about this, mainly how it is not much to celebrate even when you remove its cause: a rampant global pandemic. It is a blip. We are poised to obliterate reductions as soon as restrictions loosen. A well-oiled capitalist machine is chomping at the bit for near-term economic growth through exploitative business-as-usual approaches. 

My mind went to this thought:

The most extensive restriction of human and industrial activity in modern times should offer a good insight into the impact of collective action by individuals towards climate change.

Individual, Action, Collective: What do these meaningless words mean

I use a lovely little Chrome extension called bullshit.js to flag verbiage in my writing. I expected the words individual, action and collective to be flagged as bullshit. It was not. Sustainability was though, but that’s going to be unavoidable here.

Here’s what we mean by “collective action by individuals on climate change”.

Individual action on climate change focuses on changes, tweaks, and improvements you can make in your lifestyle. When many individuals take part in an action to a noticeable level of impact to reduce GHG emissions, we get collective action by individuals on climate change. It is advocated as a key way to address climate change.

An extremely summarised look of your lifestyle. I am sure it is a lot more interesting. (Source: Me; Vectors: The Noun Project)

In a lockdown, aside from residential emissions, most other individual-driven carbon dioxide emissions should be at a minimum - working, transport, leisure activities; all the things you miss, and probably curse me for reminding.

We have a chance for a real-world look at something only mapped in models and controlled small tests:

What actually happens if collective action on individuals is enforced at a larger scale, with realistic scenarios of behaviour accounted for?

My job was done through a well-introduced piece by Quartz. The link is behind a paywall, so here are the choice parts.

COVID-19 shows the limits of individual action on Climate Change

Drops in CO2 emissions classified into 6 overarching economic sectors: power; industry; surface transport; public buildings and commerce; residential; aviation (Source: Quartz)

Electric power plants are responsible for almost half of global CO2 emissions. But at the height of the coronavirus global shutdown, their emissions fell by only 7.4% compared to 2018 averages, from about 44.6 million metric tons per day to about 41.3 million.

The biggest percentage drop seen by April 7, no surprise, came from the aviation industry (it saw a 60% drop, or 1.7 million metric tons). And the biggest raw drop in emissions came from surface transportation, which fell by 36%, or 7.5 million metric tons… Stay-at-home orders [of COVID-19 lockdowns] that kept personal vehicles off the road were likely the main driver.

But those are exactly the emissions that are likely to rebound after lockdown orders are lifted. And achieving that dramatic dip took all the individual behavior change the world could muster. It’s barely getting us where we need to be, and with a lot of pain.

These findings carry important implications for the shape of global climate action... Specifically, they highlight that individual choices that tend to get a lot of attention as causes of climate change—how much we fly and drive—can only do so much when they aren’t accompanied by policy changes to decarbonize the electric grid.

Individual action as we currently approach it and the collective action it feeds has significant limits to tackle climate change.

The part on “individual choices that tend to get a lot of attention” got, well, my attention. We need to change how we inform and define individuals taking action on climate impact, and as a collective.

When I started this newsletter - all of two weeks ago - I resolved not to leave any post without insight on a fix or a diagnosis that may address it. There’s too much of just stating the negatives and leaving it to you to figure things out.

So, here is the most effective way for you to individually contribute to addressing climate change.

Have fewer children

I came across a fascinating study published in Environmental Research Letters in 2017 that looked to quantify the effectiveness of key types of individual action towards climate change. They classified these actions as high, medium, and low impact.

The statistics are based on developed economies due to data availability issues but offer a good insight into what individuals can do.

High, medium, and low-impact actions an individual can take to address climate change (Source: Environmental Research Letters)

The bars coloured turquoise are high-impact actions - ones the study identifies as reducing GHG emissions per year by more than 0.8 tons CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) or 5% of an individual’s emissions in a developed economy. The orange-coloured bars are medium impact between 0.8 and 0.2 tons CO2e savings annually, and low-impact actions - the upgrading of light bulbs - with yearly savings less than 0.2 tons of CO2e.

I just have to talk about the stats behind “One Fewer Child” and that number of 58.6 tonnes.

There is a ridiculous disparity of having one fewer child across different parts of the world, which unsurprisingly is due to differences in lifestyle. It is still staggering to see that one fewer child in the USA will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 117.7 tonnes CO2 per year. In Bangladesh, one fewer child leads to a drop of 0.9 tonnes of CO2 per year. The GHG reduction of 130 fewer children in Bangladesh is equivalent to 1 fewer child in the US.

The same amount of GHG reduction of one fewer American child against children in Bangladesh, India, and Japan

Population control is, on paper, the most effective way you can act towards climate change. Not just in developed countries. Even in growing developing economies like India, when you account for the disparate inequality between people, it is likely to be the largest individual action to reduce carbon emissions. Try having that conversation with anyone. In fact, do and let me know how that conversation went.

Your private car is the next largest emitter and is reflected in surface transport having the largest proportion of the 17% CO2 drop experienced on 7th April - 43% of the reduction.

Recycling is lower than one may expect, given the growing trend to frame recycling as a climate action initiative. This link does not make sense. Its carbon impact is minimal compared to reducing waste and saving virgin materials. You may dilute the message of an essential initiative by shoehorning climate impact on everything.

Individual actions on climate change are rooted in a person experiencing existential dread or seeing healthy opportunity.

These seemingly opposing views are the be-all and end-all of a person’s incentives to act on climate change: 

Existential dread: We are doomed if global temperatures exceed 2 degrees 

Healthy opportunity: Clean renewable energy would offer a low-cost form of energy for all

Urge to act on climate change: the same

We do not have enough of this in place because the ways we inform people to think and act on climate change are not widespread enough. Perhaps, if more people are made aware of the “cost” of giving up higher impact activities - e.g. procreation is quite an essential thing that I'm very much in favour of for other reasons - impetus at the more medium and low impact activities would be created to start making up for it. It would only be a start, but it is the start of a behaviour change that reframes a person’s incentives.

Missing the forests for the trees

That does not solve Climate Change.

Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions need to reduce by 7.6% every year until 2030 to start to contain global warming. 2020 is expected to see a global GHG drop of 5% to 8% as a result of COVID-19 lockdowns

This drop is not going to be sustained by business as usual practices or lifestyle impacts.

A breakdown of sectors, uses and respective GHG emission contributions across the globe in 2016 (Source: World Resources Institute)

The gif outlines the effects and interplay around global GHG emissions. A static image or a gif will not do justice to the brilliance of this diagram which you should dive into at the World Resources Institute.

A few choice stats highlight the gap between what we need to do more and what is given “attention”:

  • Aviation has been advocated extensively to address climate impact - the EU and China with policy, media, remote work proponents, and much more. It is 1.9% of total GHG emissions. Agriculture and land-based emissions come to 18.3%. Aviation emissions are a bigger part of the global narrative and drive of what can be done by individuals and institutions as compared to action on land-based emissions, perhaps other than tree planting.

  • Groundwater withdrawal in India may contribute up to 7% of the country’s carbon dioxide emissions and is barely spoken about as a GHG source.

  • Energy contributes 73% of GHG impacts. This is prominent in the discourse but mainly as renewables. We do not give enough emphasis in “selling” energy efficiency, which can cut energy use and GHG emissions in the US in half by 2050.

I am not knocking any initiative that reduces GHG emissions. Every bit counts. But we need to throw equal and adequate light on other areas that can be more transformative.

The bulk of the other 83% of CO2 emitted on 7 April 2020, and other GHG emissions need institutional action (by organizations, policymakers, any formal body) on climate change to reduce them. Solutions do exist for a lot of these, but their adoption does not happen enough. Near-term cost vs. long-term return and availability of cheaper business-as-usual alternatives are key reasons. 

Creating existential dread and healthy opportunity in institutions: a different form of collective action

We need to create the same effect of existential dread and healthy opportunity on climate change in institutions. Not the dread or opportunity defined by near-term fiscal reasons.

The incentives of an organization are too often and too much around short-term revenue generation and profitability. Everything else is secondary.

An organization is a collective of individuals in a hierarchy. In addition, there is a shared responsibility among all these individuals - with different levels of responsibility based on that hierarchy - for their collective to continue and grow. If incentives are aligned towards the sentiment of individuals, we may be able to instill existential dread or healthy opportunity to move them away from business-as-usual or greenwashed approaches that have little effect.

A different form of collective action by individuals.

What’s the one fewer child parallel for an institution? One less oil pipeline system perhaps?

Here’s a way to start this change

We need to define the success of companies, cities, and countries away from one dominated by terms open to just financial engineering and accounting - hello Ireland in 2015 with the highest global GDP growth rate of 25% with little actual local benefits.

We need to move away from the GDP. To read more, here’s a great piece of radio on how it was never meant to be, and economists stating that the GDP does not work.

There’s a fix to the GDP: an alternative model of success that defines progress against ecological ceilings and social foundations. It includes monetary aspects of growth, just a lot more as well. And it has just got its first real-world adoption, which is a sign of things to come.

I am not adding to an already lengthy post, so I’ll be cover this model in the next edition. A clue to the name of this alternative model is what links John F. Kennedy and a confectionary.


A part of the early-stage I enjoy is experimenting with what does or does not work. Today it is A/B testing what will get readers to hit the share button (the A version is here. The B option is at the end of this newsletter)

  • A direct approach:
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Yes, it is a flawed attempt at A/B testing. Substack has limitations.

Also, if you are reading this and have not subscribed, there’s a different button for you below.

I’m still getting to grips on structuring a newsletter.


Green Deals for a post-COVID recovery

As soon as COVID-19 lockdown restrictions start to relax, the expectation is for business-as-usual practices to go on overdrive, make up for lost growth, and eliminate any of the environmental benefits witnessed. Some countries, however, are looking to extend COVID’s environmental bump by outlining green and sustainability-focused economic recovery plans.

The black arrow points to Mount Everest (Source: @AbhushanGautam, Twitter)

The largest daily CO2 drop in history, the cleanest air quality since 1994, Mount Everest visible 160km away from Kathmandu. The environmental effects of the pandemic lockdowns are noteworthy, and we expect them not to continue once restrictions ease up and the near-term economic growth machine continues from where it paused.

But it may not be the case; if the leads of South Korea and its New Green Deal and the European Union’s Green Deal are followed by more. The lack of imagination in naming convention among global policymakers does leave a lot to be desired.

The aims of both are similar: climate neutrality by 2050. Net-zero emissions - all GHG emissions in South Korea and the EU will be offset by emission reduction strategies.

The Won Deal

Soyoung Lee, who is so young at 35, was one of many protestors on the streets of Seoul, following the lead of Greta Thunberg. A year on, she became the architect for the world’s seventh-largest CO2 emitter to adopt the Green New Deal as its growth strategy.

Soyoung states that out of the 300 legislators in the National Assembly, only about 10 would be truly committed to climate action. Except South Korea has taken earlier moves towards climate impact, including the development of a hydrogen-based economy to produce 500,000 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles by 2030, and the world’s third-largest carbon trading scheme - the Korea Emission Trading Scheme (KETS)

South Korea did rely on a green-focused recovery in the 2008 Global Financial Crisis - the Green Growth strategy. Despite 80 percent of the stimulus directed to green initiatives, impacts were not translated. South Korea’s GHG emissions actually increased.

The EU climate-neutral way

Relaunching the economy does not mean going back to the status quo before the crisis, but bouncing forward. We must repair the short-term damage from the crisis in a way that also invests in our long-term future.

These are words to inspire anyone.

The Green Deal is the EU’s growth strategy for the future. Aligned with a digital transformation built around every conspiracy nut’s nightmare, 5G, the EU’s climate-neutral path builds on 4 drivers: a circular economy boom in infrastructure and buildings for closed-loop systems where “wastes” are channelised as raw materials, with little to no loss of value; electric vehicles and clean public transport; renewables 18.9% share increasing; and a transition fund to re-skill people for new economic opportunities.

Details of specific targets and priorities are scant for both Green Deals. I give them the benefit of doubt to pull through with a ready plan soon. It will be worth revisiting.

Leave No Green Deal behind

To adopt an environmentally-focused economic growth plan at the best of times is no small feat. At its lowest, where the temptation to double down on business-as-usual is high to climb quickly out of a recession, it is on another level.

South Korea and the EU’s stance can leave them poised to define sizeable mindshare of future innovation and with it economic growth - the wanted mantra of any rote policymaker.

Countries should be made to view the lack of a Green New Deal as a risk of falling behind for the future. Just do not blindly ape South Korea and EU’s lofty targets of carbon neutrality, without past progress.

COVID-19 could present the best option to do something like this. With any recovery - to whatever normalcy is - expected to be slow, long, and phased, economies may be able to invest in initiatives with longer gestation periods. The pressure to demonstrate quarterly near double-digit economic growth may be excused in the near term.

Perhaps, there really seems to be no better time than the present.


1. A reimagining of Indian states if it was drawn on ecological regions

The States Reorganization Commission in the 1950s drew India’s state borders along the lines of languages to promote the diversity of linguistic identities. What if we classified the country to capture another form of diversity: ecology?

That’s what Ganesh Babu, an architect, and designer, currently in TU Delft in the Netherlands, has done with a reimagining of India’s states along its ecological regions.

The map of Indian states as ecological regions overlaid (Source: ganeshbabu.me)

We would be a republic of 48 eco-regions. Forests may dominate in name but the diversity of each is profound and stark. Blackbucks found in the Deccan thorn scrub forests of Karnataka would be like a fish out of water in the North-Western Ghats montane rain forests; one of the 10 slivers of ecology regions across Maharashtra.

Connecting each Indian state to ecological regions found within them (Source: ganeshbabu.me)

Yes, I do like my Sankey diagrams.

2. Meandering rivers are better for the environment over linear rivers

The most photographed meander, Horseshoe Bend, Arizona. (Source: Wikipedia)

The only thing I remember about meandering rivers from my Year 7 Geography class was erosion and silting can lead the river to form a new path that bypasses the meander. With water supply cut to the bend, it becomes an ox-bow lake. I had no idea what to do with this information. 21 years later, I know.

An article in The Economist highlights the environmental value of meandering waterways over artificially sculpted straight rivers which became favoured for agricultural irrigation:

Meandering waterways have many virtues. They are slower; they have a greater diversity of wildlife habitats from ponds to gravel beds and rapids which draw more oxygen into the water; they boost water quality, by creating elbows and pools where sediment flowing down the river gets trapped rather than washing off the land; they are prettier. And—a matter of increasing salience—their water spends more time upstream, reducing the risk of floods downstream.

Britain has introduced a campaign to restore bends to linear rivers with the term “re-wiggling”.

India’s plans for linking rivers, evidently to transfer water at times of scarcity and something vague about riverine transport links, would do well to account for meanders.

3. How plastic waste becomes a value

Plastic waste value chain of Surabaya, Indonesia (Source: irhash_muhammad. Courtesy of SecondMuse)

This representation of the plastic waste value chain in Surabaya, Indonesia gives a brilliant outline of the complexities and stakeholders involved in making value from plastic waste in South and Southeast Asia.

The plastic waste chain is one of the few spaces that need a co-dependency between formal and informal sectors to function. This chain is a trading and logistics market, where plastic waste is a valuable commodity defined by the demand-side pull of the end customers, e.g. The Body Shop for shampoo bottles, Unilever for… well, a lot. They both have to rely on an informal waste collector picking up your plastic waste.

A more in-depth piece on plastics waste is planned in the coming months. A big reason for including it here was Surabaya was the first place I called home growing up, and the nostalgia feels when I saw this.

Here is the B option of today’s experiment on what will get readers to hit the share button.

  • A more saccharine approach:
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