Saturday, December 11, 2010

World Climate Summit

On one of the first days of the conference, I was offered the opportunity to volunteer at a two-day event called the World Climate Summit that was to run parallel to the UNFCCC conference. I hadn't heard about the event and wasn't sure on the details, but I agreed to give it a shot and look into it more.

As it turns out, the World Climate Summit is a proposed series of 10 meetings to occur annually alongside the COP conferences. The summit is meant to bring together major business leaders, investors, and government officials in an event separate from the COP negotiations to try to jump-start climate change mitigation in the business sector. The reality is that regardless of what comes out of the negotiations, most of the mitigation initiatives will require a great deal of funding and capital support, which will ultimately be provided by major corporate investment. Why wait for the diplomats to settle on a text when businesses can start collaborating now?

This was the first year of the World Climate Summit, and 9 more are expected to occur alongside COPs 17-26. The summit consisted of a series of workshops that dealt with case studies in several of the most prominent fields for climate change mitigation and sustainable development. Several companies presented initiatives they have taken so far, recounting failures and successes, and offering suggestions for possible directions for improvement. The break out sessions were supplemented by guest speakers, press conferences, and numerous networking opportunities. The event brought together many influential leaders in a myriad of business sectors, and promises to be an inspiring initiative to jumpstart the efforts paralleled in the official UN negotiations.

Public Health and Climate Change

On the first Friday of the conference, the U.S. Center sponsored a really insightful side event titled Climate Change and Health. The event provided a basic framework for understanding how climate change affects health and where this knowledge ought to direct us in the future. The way it stands now, health issues are rarely examined through the lens of climate change, as the scales on which these two issues are dealt with are so different: climate change is an incredibly slow process, whereas new health concerns and solutions prop up all the time. That being said, there are certainly health effects felt as a result of climate change, and an interdisciplinary framework through which to analyze these concerns is of the utmost importance.

So what are the health impacts of climate change exactly? Well, there are a lot. Climate change causes extreme weather events, which can create a host of health concerns: standing water following flooding events serve as ideal breeding grounds for disease-carrying insects as well as water borne diseases, such as diarrheal diseases and many other viral infections. Changes in climate alter insect life cycles, often increasing the infection period for malarial mosquitoes in sub-Saharan Africa. Poor air quality causes respiratory problems including asthma. Altering rain seasons, climate change also affects crop cycles, which can lead to famine.

Both the direct and cascading health effects from climate change are present and in urgent need of being addressed. Although the time frames for these two issues may appear to make them mutually irrelevant, the reality is that even a slow process like climate change can have major effects on health. What is needed to make progress in this field is interdisciplinary collaboration, both in research to understand the extend of the issues, and in implementation of solutions and mitigation efforts.

Friday, December 3, 2010

REDD+ and the Brazilian Beef Industry

I wasn't able to make it over to the negotiations on my third day in Cancun, but I did make it to several interesting side events. I decided to look attend a few events focused on REDD+ initiatives (, one of the many mitigation proposals, focusing on halting deforestation and environmental degradation. Many Central and South American countries have implemented aggressive REDD+ initiatives, acting to preserve their rainforests on a large scale. REDD is one of the (few) topics for which a potential agreement in Cancun remains possible; the negotiating text is very close to being complete on this issue. That being said, I figured it was a good idea to check out where the world stands on afforestation initiatives.

The overwhelming sentiment conveyed by the speakers at every REDD event I attended on this day was as follows: we need to act now, and learn as we go. As with any UN negotiations, the process is slow and tedious, and final conclusions are few and far between. When it comes to an urgent issue such as climate change, this painstaking process may not be the way to go: deforestation is occurring at an alarming rate; there is no time to work out all of the details about how to report and measure REDD efforts before beginning to implement them. As the case studies of Ecuador, Costa Rica, and Mexico have shown, stopping deforestation requires immediate action. You wont always get it right on the first try, but these countries have shown that you can learn as you go and produce impressive results. The issue is pressing and there is no time to work out all of the kinks and finalize all of the mechanism details before beginning to take action.

Brazil, another major actor on the REDD initiatives, took another spin on the issue during a side event about their beef industry - an industry that is largely responsible for said deforestation. The presenter explained that by manipulating aspects of beef production (pasture management, feeding habits, and fertility rates), Brazilian farmers have been able to decrease their carbon footprint in beef production. Brazil also has an aggressive public policy that severely limits deforestation for agricultural purposes, forcing the farmers to become more efficient land users. Satellites are used to monitor farmers' performance, ensuring that they are using sustainable practices, not violating the rights of indigenous peoples, and not abusing workers. Brazilian cattle are also slaughtered earlier, allowing them to produce less methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gases, during their lives. Some concepts of the presentation were contested by the audience, but the main message was not: when it comes to issues of farming and agriculture, the crux of the problem is this: poverty is unsustainable. Sustainable initiatives cannot be pursued in poverty; financial assistance is a necessary component of sustainable development. Farmers do not choose to degrade their land; they do so out of necessity.

Tequila: Waste and Renewable Energy

The most exciting event I attended today was by far a workshop sponsored by the Mexican Pavilion about tequila. Tequila production involves cooking and mashing the agave azul tequilana plant, and subsequently extracting the juices from which tequila can be distilled. As the only useful part of the plant is the juice, all of the leftover stock(known as bagasse) and leaves go to waste. However, a new start-up company in Mexico has devised a way to use this waste as a renewable energy source! The leftover crop waste (leaves and bagasse) is chipped and mixed into a powder that is then compressed into small, dense pellets or larger bricks. These pellets and bricks can then be burned as a fuel source, replacing fossil fuel energy. The bricks have a high heat value and burn with a low residue, so they are not harmful to the environment. Even more, the left over plant parts would naturally decay and release the same amount of CO2 and CH4 regardless; this method allows that energy that would otherwise go to waste to be harnessed and is thus a carbon neutral process. The bagasse is available year round, and converting the excess into fuel is beneficial for many reasons - not only is an economical, carbon neutral fuel source extracted, but excess waste is also eliminated. Because the fuel can be produced so cheaply, it will be a competitive source against fossil fuels. The company has plans to export the energy (which is readily transportable) throughout North America, and potentially to Europe as well.
As if that isn't already too good to be true, the lecture was followed by a tequila tasting, in which we got a chance to sample the three major tequila varieties! It's being run again today (because it was so awesome), so if you're in Cancun, I highly recommend checking it out!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Day 3: December 1

I started off my second day at the conference by attending the second session of the Conference of the Parties serving as the Meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocal (CMP). These negotiations are meant to discuss the contentious issue of the future of the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty that has recently caused a major uproar following Japan's statement in the opening ceremony implying that the country will not agree to a second period of the KP under any circumstances. This comment has not helped foster the trust and collaboration that was hoped for Cancun; if the KP dies after the first period, there will no longer be any international legally binding commitments to emissions reductions. Given that less-than-pleasant precedent, I was excited to see how the discussions would go.

The discussions focused mainly on CDM (clean development mechanisms), with a strong voice coming from fossil fuel exporting nations requesting the inclusion of CCS (carbon capture and storage) in the CDM. Inclusion of CCS would allow for net reductions in emissions from these countries, without jeopardizing their main industries. Interest was also expressed in permitting more local projects (such as those on a city-wide level) under the mandate of the CDM, as development is often managed on a local level anyway. The delegate from Palestine made a compelling speech requesting special consideration for occupied territories (of which Palestine remains the only one), which have tried and failed to receive funding under the CDM. Palestine lamented not having control over its water resources, and requested help from the parties with accessing funding. When the delegates finished speaking, the Chair entertained a comment from the World Bank, which presented a 5-pointed proposal to streamline the mechanism of the CDM governance to improve implementation and funding access. A speaker on behalf of over 300 NGOs, primarily women's organizations, made a powerful speech against the inclusion of nuclear energy under CDM funding, claiming it to be polluting, dangerous, and excessively expensive.

After the negotiations, I headed back to Cancunmesse for a few side events. The first event I went to was held in the EU Pavillion, and consisted of a variety of speakers talking about ecosystem-based approaches to climate change mitigation. The first speaker, a representative from the Seychelles, presented just a small glimpse of the misfortune his country is currently facing. The Seychelles has been adapting to ecosystem changes out of necessity for a long time--their main industries are marine tourism and fishing, and thus the economy depends entirely on ecosystem stability. Several years ago, the country ran out of flat land on which to build, and in an effort to preserve the existing forest ecosystems, decided to build new islands out of the ocean. These islands had to be built on top of coral reefs (building in deep water is far too expensive), and thus one ecosystem was sacrificed to preserve another. Destroying the reefs, however, came at a huge cost: coral reefs serve as the islands' first and only defense against coastal erosion and damage due to wave intensity. In addition to the reef problem, due to an increased demand in tourism, the Seychelles needs to add a second runway to their airport. However, the airport as it is now is only 10m above sea level, and is surrounded by water on 3 sides and a cliff on the other. There is nowhere to build a second runway, and even if there was space, due to sea level rises, the entire airport really needs to be raised anyway, which obviously just cannot be done. On top of all of these problems, the nation is also suffering from the worst drought it has ever experienced: most islands have received between 1 and 15% of the rainfall they should have by this time of year, and households are limited to one hour of piped water each day. Despite these seemingly insurmountable obstacles, the country remains ready to combat climate change, and just desperately needs outside assistance.

A representative from the Center of Biological Diversity (CBD) spoke next, speaking about how ecosystem restoration can prove to be a cost-effective way to manage impacts due to climate change. Restoring coastal mangroves, for example, prevents flooding and helps improve water storage mechanisms: concrete walls cannot absorb excess water during flooding events; mangroves and salt marshes do just that. In addition, forest restoration can help stabilize land slopes, decreasing the incidence of landslides and avalanches, and regulating water flow to prevent flooding and inefficient water dispersal. The environment is naturally designed to manage its own disasters; the way to mitigate the problems created by climate change, in the long run, will need to come from ecosystem restoration.

The next side event I attended was sponsored by the U.S., and was a presentation on a program that works to develop famine early warning system, working primarily in East Africa. The group has compiled data concerning weather and food production patterns, and works to highlight anomalies in the data to predict and mitigate famine events.

I had to leave that event early to make it in time for the next presentation, which was about food security. The speakers spoke about the importance of reforming the agriculture industry, shifting from an agrobusiness focus back to an agro-ecological one. Small farmers, the use of bio-pesticides, and a 3-crop rotation system must all be supported and more widely implemented. As it stands now, there is plenty of food to feed everyone on the planet. Ignoring the sustainability issues associated with some farming practices, the issue of hunger is due largely to lifestyle and food dispersal: on a typical indian diet, there is enough food produced today to feed 11 billion people. However, there is only enough food to feed 2.75 million people on a typical American diet.

The final side event I attended was sponsored by Israel, and consisted of a series of presentations about practical solutions the Israeli people have developed to allow for food production in hot and arid climates. The first presentation was on water harvesting: by redirecting water conduits and building stone terraces, farmers have managed to collect water resources in small valleys, allowing them to grow trees and crops in regions that receive a maximum of 50mm of rainfall a year. The harvested water is then stored deep in the ground, so it will not evaporate during times of flooding (yes, apparently it does flood there), but not so deep that the plant roots cannot access it. The second speaker spoke about the Israeli dairy farming industry, which is surprisingly successful and eco-friendly. Cattle have been bred to tolerate the harsh environment of the Negev desert, and are fed a specialized diet that makes use of available resources while allowing the cows to manage a large heat load. The diet and feeding practices have been designed to increase milk production while decreasing methane expulsion and thus the carbon footprint of dairy farming. The last speaker spoke about making use of impure water resources. Though the technologies are not yet cheap and the process may not prove to be sustainable in the long term, many farmers have found ways to grow crops using the brackish water available to them. Some plants, such as dates and olives, have proven to be more tolerant of high salt levels, and other plants, like bell peppers, have miraculously been able to be harvested using copious amounts of salt water. Because the process is expensive, it works best with high-yield crops. Some lingering issues remain, mostly concerning what to do with the water after irrigation (water that is now salty, full of fertilizers, etc). A possible solution is to purify the water before irrigation. The main goal of these practices is to make the desert regions of Israel economically viable, and to provide the people living there with livelihoods, so the environmental concerns are still being worked out.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Day 2: November 30, 2010

I joined the conference in time for the second day of negotiations. The setup is a little unfortunate, as the main conference center is a bus ride away from many of the side events and exhibition booths, making transit between the two types of events less fluid. It was predicted at first that this would result in less people attending side events and visiting exhibits, it turns out that really what seems to be happening is the side events run behind schedule to accommodate commuters. Of course I did not pick up on this trend until the day ended, so I spent several hours nervously waiting for events to start. Still an excellent day though.

I started my day off at the Moon Palace, where the Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI) had its first session. Before the session even began, the Chair made a point of acknowledging the time constraints of the conference, putting an instant damper on the day. It really is tragic that delegations have just two weeks to get through the negotiating text, and it is clear that expectations for the outcome are low.

I stayed through the adoption of the agenda, and listened as countries presented general statements on behalf of the main parties. The majority of the speeches weren't terribly substantive; most parties essentially expressed eagerness about being at the COP and a willingness to debate key issues. Yemen, in a 7-minute speech on behalf of the G-77 and China, stated that the party wanted to see real reductions commitments from developed countries, as well as an expansion of the fund for Least Developed Countries (LDCF). The delegate also mentioned an interest in mandatory reporting on Annex 1 countries' "progress, or lack thereof". (Ouch.) Many speeches reflected the urgency and redundancy of the negotiations, requesting flexibility and a focus on "concrete issues,"mainly adaptation and finance, on which a real consensus can be reached at the conference.

I left the SBI meeting after about an hour and a half of speeches in this vein, and headed back to Cancunmesse to check out some side events. I started off at an event on systematic climate observations, sponsored by UN bodies UNEP, FAO, and UNESCO, as well as the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and International Telecommunication Union (ITU). This scientific talk focused on the need for a globalized system for climate observations and measurements. Many countries lack climate measuring systems, particularly in Africa and South America, resulting in gaping holes in global climate observations. Where measurements can be taken regularly, measurement parameters and units vary widely, resulting in incompatible or hard to compare data. As any climate change negotiations depend fundamentally on climate science, the UNFCCC needs a unified global system for measuring climate data.

The next side event I attended focused on equity issues of environmental change and development, and was sponsored by South Centre, Third World Network (TWN), and UNANIMA International. The social development issues raised by climate change, as with any crises that results in economic shock and/or resource reallocation, magnify existing inequalities, primarily among women and indigenous peoples. Climate change policy, on a domestic level, will need to acknowledge and account for these inequalities if further social stratification is to be avoided. The key question to answer at this COP is, how will we allocate the remaining atmospheric "space" for greenhouse gases among emitting nations? Contentious issues on this point include historical responsibility and the right to develop, which have led to the current deadlock between the U.S. and China. Since this issue is unlikely to be resolved in Cancun, a new issue has been taken to be the litmus est for success in Cancun: the establishment of a climate fund. This is almost a pathetically small goal, as the nature and size of the fund are unlikely to be set at this conference, but even this goal may not be attainable, as the U.S. is holding out until it gets its way on other issues. Following this uninspiring note, the final speaker addressed concerns over water access- an absolutely crucial issue that is often overlooked. Water scarcity remains a serious problem that is only getting worse, and we need to pursue more aggressive development policies in terms of decreasing agricultural water use as well as improve water sanitation mechanisms.

...which leads me to the next and final side event I attended, a talk on sustainable agriculture through the lens of carbon sequestration, sponsored by Cornell University and the Rainforest Alliance. The speakers presented innovative mechanisms they are working to implement in New York State and in Central and South American states to promote carbon credits through farming. The Rainforest Alliance presented on a new program to promote "shaded coffee agroecosystems," a coffee farming system that helps small farmers reduce their carbon footprint by preserving soil carbon while increasing crop yield. An interesting report on the increased productivity from un-tilled soil over tilled soil was also presented. The speakers generally seemed to believe that soil carbon is a facet of the agricultural issue that is largely overlooked, and shouldn't be- soil carbon retention provides long-term climate security; if we invest in the soil now, we will be able to grow food long after many of the other impacts of climate change have been realized.

And thus concludes my first day at the COP!

Jensen Takes on the COP

Hello! I'm here now in Cancun for the next week to observe the 16th annual Conference of the Parties (COP16), a climate change conference organized by the UNFCCC. Though there are many contentious issues being discussed at this conference, I plan on focusing mainly on issues related to sustainable agriculture and land use. This topic lends itself quite naturally to a focus on LDCs, as well as African and South American states, as well as to general issues of sustainable development, so I'll be looking at these facets of the climate problem as well. My time here will be split between observing negotiations and attending side events, so I should be able to report on a variety of issues and perspectives as they come up at the conference.

I'm so excited to be here! More to come in a bit.