Category Archives: climate change

Rio + 20: Power of Informal Networks and Brazil’s place in the world

ImageRecently returned from Rio + 20,  I wanted to share my overall take on what was important about this mega-event.  In my view, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development was a historic, game-changing event whose importance will not be understood for many years to come. This is because the signficance of what happened in Rio de Janeiro from June 20-22 was diffuse, uncoordinated, distributed across multiple networks and hard to capture in any kind of zero-sum argument.

Two things stood out: Rio + 20 affirmed and strengthened the importance of informal networks and non-state actors for achieving momentum on sustainable development goals. The second was the triumph of Brazilian diplomacy – a team of 200 negotiators sewed up the final document before the conference opened – not just impressive, this achievement signalled something important about Brazil’s place in the world today.

ImageSide events were the main event
Media coverage in the immediate aftermath of Rio + 20 was mostly negative, and focused on the so-called “weakness” of the final document. This reflects a basic misunderstanding of what these conferences have become in recent years: big networking sessions where people involved in sustainable development pitch ideas and projects, and make commitments for the future.
That is to say, the main action was not in the plenary sessions with the heads of state, but rather in the plethora of side events.
The end result was hundreds of non-globally negotiated voluntary commitments. UN Secretary General for Rio + 20 Sha Zukang announced that governments, businesses, NGOs and inter-governmental agencies made commitments totaling $513 billion towards sustainable development.
Rio + 20 demonstrated, beyond any shadow of doubt, the capacity of corporations and grass-roots organizations to deliver concrete actions on sustainable development without any help from governments.
Dan Farber at Legal Planet “The Environmental Law and Policy Blog” noted, “These developments fit well with the theory of network governance.  The idea is that international cooperation does not simply involve formal treaties, but instead involves networks of officials at different levels of government, NGOs, and stakeholders.”

Informal networks are where the action is

“It does seem to be true that we are seeing the emergence of less-centralized forms of coordination with some resemblance to the decentralized global communication web. Especially since the formal process of international negotiation seems stalled right now, networks like these may be our best hope of progress on global issues,” he added.

Indeed, this echoes the work of Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom, who wrote in an op-ed shortly before her death on June 12, “Inaction in Rio would be disastrous – but a single international agreement would be a grave mistake. We cannot rely on singular global policies to solve the problem of managing our common resources: The oceans, atmosphere, forests, waterways and rich diversity of life that combine to create the right conditions for life to thrive.”

This message was echoed in a number of places in the week after Rio + 20.

In an op-ed in the New York Times on June 24, Jim Leape of WWF wrote:
“If you looked around in Rio last week, you saw where the action really is — local and national governments, companies, NGOs, labor unions finding ways to get on with it.
“Governments are coming together in regional initiatives to manage the resources they share. “

Commitments were plentiful and generous

One count showed a total of 600 commitments made at side events at Rio + 20.
These included:

*   Banks, investors, 57 countries, and companies like Wal-Mart agreed to include “natural capital” (and its depreciation) in their measures of wealth.
*   Brazil, Denmark, France and South Africa agreed to adopt UNEP’s initiative to push companies into reporting their environmental footprints.
*   Brazil, Denmark, France and South Africa agreed to adopt UNEP’s global reporting initiative to push companies into reporting environmental footprints.
*   The World Wildlife Fund said it had obtained pledges from twenty-six countries for an agreement to protect transnational water bodies.
*   Microsoft committed to roll out an internal carbon fee on its operations in more than 100 countries, part of a plan to go carbon-neutral by 2030. If it were a country, Microsoft would have the 51st largest GDP
*   A group of prominent development banks announced a $175 billion initiative to promote public transportation and bicycle lanes over road and highway construction in the world’s largest cities.
*   The U.S. EPA and the Brazilian Environment Ministry announced an online tool as part of the U.S.-Brazil Joint Initiative on Urban Sustainability that highlights key links between policies, funding and on-the-ground projects that can help drive urban sustainability investment around the world. The project is a result of a unique bilateral agreement between Presidents Obama and Rousseff and the cities of Philadelphia and Rio.
*   The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) joined six major organizations at Rio+20 to announce the Global Initiative on Urban Resilience (GIUR), an effort designed to spur building and infrastructure development, create new investment opportunities and foster community action around the world. Partner organizations include the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, ICLEI International, the World Bank, the Eye on Earth Summit, the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies Program on Energy, Resources, and the Environment and the Earth Council Alliance of Rio de Janeiro. The GIUR aims to create solutions by focusing on urban geographies, identifying the synergies between city governments, non-governmental organizations, financial institutions and different business sectors.

Green Economy Goes Mainstream
The mainstreaming of green economics may well turn out to be the big legacy of Rio + 20. UNEP was effective at putting Green Economy on the agenda, despite G77/China’s successful efforts on “green economy means different things to different countries” approach to the final text. Achim Steiner, the executive director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), said the final document produced at Rio + 20 is “a reflection of the global situation at a moment in which there is a global crisis and we have to act collectively. [But] the document itself is very rich in terms of actions, initiatives and programs.”
The Nature Conservancy, Corporate Eco Forum and 24 companies representing half a trillion dollars in annual revenue committed to a potentially game changing initiative around ecosystem valuation.

“A new generation of business and political leaders has started to connect company success with social and environmental issues that were previously the concern only of NGOs,” wrote John Vidal in the Guardian.

Fred Pearce wrote in Yale Environment 360 that: “… behind the scenes, something really interesting just may have happened in Rio.” Green economics, as represented in Rio, meant primarily introducing metrics about the use and abuse of nature and natural resources into corporate and national accounting. Once natural capital appears on balance sheets in the same way as man-made capital, then CEOs and policy makers will adopt greener ways, and environmental protection goes from being a cost to an investment.

On the triumph of Brazilian diplomacy, Nicolas Bourcier of Le Monde provides a good summary.

“Rio + 20 marked the end of a cycle. And the arrival of what one can call “a diplomacy of prosperity”, cherished by the strongmen of Brasilia. A world where south-south relations often have a more decisive dimension than north-south relations.”

He goes further to say that Rio + 20 didn’t just affirm Brazil’s position as a leader of the south; but also that the US was tacitly supportive of their position, judging from the self-effacing and moderate tone the US delegation struck at the conference.

My feeling from the outset, before the conference even began, was that this show belonged to the BRICs and that Obama/Cameron/Merkel’s no-show was at most a minor distraction. In the weeks before Rio + 20, Brazil’s Foreign Minister Ambassador Patriota – who is taking Chinese lessons – ran an op-ed in the China Daily to say that green economy means different things to different countries. The message was clear – Brazil had aligned with China on this key issue of the final document, source of much disappointment to those who had pinned their hopes on “The Future We Want”.

Anecdotally, Rio de Janeiro during the conference was staggering beautiful and contrary to dire predictions that we would be stuck in traffic gridlock for 3 days, the buses ran regularly and on time, security was abundant but not stifling, every Brazilian I came in contact with went out of their way, and beyond the call of duty to ensure that we were welcome and that things ran smoothly. They were, quite simply, outstanding hosts.

I’ve seen the future, and it belongs to Brazil.

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France dumps the carbon tax – death knell for Grenelle?

Daniel Cohn-Bendit, from the barricades of 1968 to 2010 - the only Green left standing in France

Sputtering signs of economic recovery in France have coincided with a big political defeat at the regional polls last month for the right-wing UMP majority and President Nicholas Sarkozy. One of the first things Sarkozy did in the aftermath of the elections was to dump the carbon tax. NGO’s were the first to declare that this meant the death of the Grenelle de l’Environnement. Getting rid of the carbon tax was Sarkozy’s concession to his right-wing base, who had been progressively alienated in the past 2 years by his government’s overtures to the socialist left. Nicholas Hulot, a TV presenter and very popular environmental advocate, denounced the move as a step backwards by the political class. His Fondation Hulot said that it would suspend its participation in the working groups led by the government for the Grenelle – both for the environment and for the Oceans.

France’s Junior Ecology Minister Chantal Jouanno joined the chorus of disapproval.
“I am in despair over this step back, in despair that eco-scepticism has defeated it,” she said, adding: “I am not onside with this decision.”

“It was possible to have done it in France before doing it in Europe,” she said. “It was what we had thought from the beginning; it was what other countries like Sweden have done.”

There are other signs that the societal consensus sealed in 2007 over the urgency to move to a more sustainable mode of economic activity and governance is eroding. My feeling at this point is: Sarkozy did this because he believes he can get away with it, politically. In March, a GM potato called Amflora, was authorized by the European Commission. This is the first GM crop to be authorized in Europe since 1998. A global conference in Doha, Qatar in March overturned a European Commission ruling to ban fishing for bluefin tuna. Sure, NGO’s issued protest statements, but somehow their response has been underwhelming.

But was the Grenelle – which inspired Sarkozy to declare that he would make France a world leader on the environment – ever more than just a process?
The process – which in itself was innovative and ground-breaking at the time – involved being inclusive with all stakeholders, and bringing them together around a round-table to make decisions collectively. The substance of most of the decisions was already written into European legislation, and the subtlety of French political action consists in seeking – or at least appearing to seek – at every turn to enact legislation and/or standards that are more ambitious than what the EU prescribes.

New lab in France to study biodiversity and climate change

Does biodiversity stimulate the flows of gases and enhance the efficiency of our ecosystems? This is one of the big questions that a new research platform near Montpellier seeks to address in the coming years.

The Ecotron platform is the first of its type in France and claims to be one of the most advanced in the world. It’s mission is to combine the study of ecosystems with biochemical (gas) exchanges so that scientists can simulate a wide range of climate change scenarios in conditions which mimic the complexity of living ecosystems.

The first set of soil samples – collected from high-altitude regions in the Massif Central – will be stocked under the plastic domes atop the building, each dome having been calibrated to receive exactly the same amount of light. Researchers from INRA (France’s National Institute for Agricultural Research), who are leading the experiment, want to expose the samples to possible climate conditions for 2050 and study their reactions to a variety of stressors. The scientists know that drought will cause the stomata – tiny orifices in the epidermis of plants which enable gas exchanges – to tighten to protect the plant from too much evaporation. But what happens if the drought is prolonged? What unleashes genetic adaptations for the plant’s long-term survival?

“We have a unique opportunity to trace the trajectory of carbon in the ecosystem and to understand how plants reallocate their resources in the face of climatic stress,” head of Ecotron, Jacques Roy, told Les Echos.

If carbon dioxide increases, plants reduce their photosynthesis, and require less enzymes, which contain nitrogen. Where will this excess be stored? Will it be used for root growth, which would help carbon sequestration, or for leaves, which would accelerate the release of CO2 into the atmosphere.

Ecotron is open to all European scientists who wish to submit proposals for experiments.

via Les Echos

After Copenhagen – the view from France

Not a pretty sight. Nicholas Sarkozy has been roundly criticized for putting national interests above those of Europe (he spearheaded a failed bid – along with Brazil – to challenge China’s leadership of African nations), and Le Monde ran a blunt article today saying that Europe basically sat on its hands at Copenhagen and let China and the U.S. call the shots. “Europe, lacking dynamism and vision, did not dare to push them (China and U.S.). Despite the fact that it has the most coherent climate policy, that it has pursued tough climate negotiations for 20 odd years… it abandoned the field.

…Angela Merkel was preoccupied with elections, Silvio Berlusconi and Donald Tusk (Poland) were indifferent or hostile, Jose Manuel Barroso focused on the renewal of his mandate, while France and the U.K. were working unilaterally. On the French side, Jean-Louis Borloo travelled the globe armed with generous ideas, but failed to work on European coordination. Sweden and Denmark prepared for the conference almost as lone rangers.”

Anger at China for sabotaging the process is widespread; and Corinne Lepage (European MP) outlines her version of the fiasco in Copenhagen here as well as in a long video on Terre TV. She lists the culprits: climate sceptics, OPEC states such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, China and the U.S., and blames all of them for instrumentalizing the climate cause towards narrowly national and economic ends.

Knives are out for the UN. The official French position favours a new international body with greater authority that deals only with climate change. Daniel Cohn-Bendit (European MP for the Europe Ecology party) wants a “Security Council on Climate” with 20 member states including a majority whose future existence is directly threatened by climate change.

Documentary explodes myth of nuclear energy as clean and green

France: Pierrelatte

France: Pierrelatte

Since the 1970s, France’s commitment to nuclear energy has been axiomatic and based on a societal consensus that it provides energy independence as well as a source of energy which is both clean and green. The green component of the argument rests on the assertion – taught to all engineering students as gospel – that 97 % of spent nuclear fuel in France is recycled and transformed into re-usable fuel. That myth was shaken last week by a documentary broadcast on Arte entitled “Déchets – le cauchemar du nucléaire” (Waste: the nuclear nightmare) which showed that EDF, which is France’s main electricity provider, sends nuclear waste to Siberia where most of it is not recycled, but instead is laid to rest in the atomic security complex of Tomsk-7, Siberia.

The documentary provoked disarray in parliament, where the Junior Minister for the Environment, Chantal Jouanno, said she would order an internal enquiry. Speaking on France Info radio, she said: “For my part, I haven’t been able to confirm or deny this information, so there has to be an enquiry.”

The main argument of the documentary is that Areva and EDF run a fuel “cycle” where after first use in nuclear power plants, the fuels are treated and transformed into 3 % of of nuclear waste which has to be stored, 1% of plutonium which is re-used to make MOX (a mixture of uranium oxide and plutonium) and 96 % uranium which is enriched to produce new combustible fuels.

Whereas in fact, of the 96 % of the uranium which is sent to Russia to be enriched, only a tiny fraction is actually re-used (in 4 out of France’s 59 nuclear power plants). This means the real rate of re-use is closer to 10 %. Areva and EDF maintain that under French law, it is illegal to send nuclear waste overseas, and therefore the 96 % of uranium which goes to Russia is recyclable fuel.

Now, the fact that this used uranium is sent to Russia is not news. An official overview of France’s nuclear policy is available online, and the pdf entitled “L’énergie nucleaire en 110 questions“, on page 45, states the following: “The volumes of URT (uranium issu du retraitement) used today in France do not justify the extension of or the creation of a specific industry dedicated to the manufacture of URT fuel, this is why it has relies on existing installations overseas, for example in the Russian Federation.”

The semantics of this debate clearly illustrate the chasm between France’s elite engineering corps – notably graduates of the Ecole Des Mines – and the political class and civil society, both of whom have probably fallen victim to a kind of consensual blindness in wanting to believe the myth of a perfectly clean, green and safe nuclear industry in the competent hands of the country’s best and brightest, who themselves have operated behind the veil of their techno-scientific jargon which few have sought to explain clearly to the man in the street.

Earlier this year, Areva withdrew the use of its corporate slogan “L’Energie au sens propre” (“Energy in the literal sense of the term” with a play on the word “propre” which means clean) following action by the ARPP (France’s watchdog for advertising standards) based on a complaint filed by the Green party that the claim that nuclear energy was clean was inconsistent with the production of nuclear waste. Watch this short video (set, oddly, to “Funky Town”) to get a sense of the corporate message Areva is trying to get across – the offending slogan has been replaced by “Experts en énergie (Energy Experts).

French panel urges carbon tax

A French government panel has recommended the imposition of a carbon tax on transport and heating fuel as soon as 2010. The panel, headed by former Prime Minister Michel Rocard, recommended last month that the tax be imposed on all citizens “without exception and exemption”. A commitment to the carbon tax was one of the victories of the 2007 Grenelle on the Environment; however it has already generated an outcry from trade unions and consumer associations.
Under the recommendations, France would bill 32 euros for every tonne of carbon dioxide emitted in 2010, rising to 100 euros per tonne in 2030. This compares with the current 14 euros per ton on the European carbon emissions market. In practice the levy would add 7 centimes extra per litre of petrol, and represent an increase in 10%-15% in heating costs for households. According to the Ademe, the carbon tax would generate an extra charge of 160 euros per household per year.

Sweden, Norway, Finland, the Netherlands and Britain have already adopted similar measures. In Sweden, a carbon tax was introduced in 1991 and the price of carbon currently stands at 97 euros per ton. The proposed French carbon tax would generate an estimated 8 billion euros in government revenue per year, some of which would be used to offset the price rises for the most vulnerable French households and businesses.

The French climate contribution is separate from a proposal floated by President Nicholas Sarkozy in March for a carbon tax on imports from countries which have lower environmental standards than France.

via Les Echos and Mediapart

High stakes for food security at Tunis meeting

I just returned from Tunis where the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources is holding its 3rd Governing Body session. Getting funding for the Treaty and stimulating the free and unimpeded (by seed companies) flow worldwide of crop genetic resources among plant breeders and scientists is an uphill battle, which all those present at the meeting will freely acknowledge.

France and Germany have been particularly obstructionist – partly because of recession at home, partly because they prefer to act bilaterally than multilaterally. Some 120 countries ratified this treaty in 2004, but it still lacks funding for its core functions and the operational costs of the Rome-based secretariat at FAO headquarters. A key sticking point is how to budget contributions – many rich countries have earmarked funds for the Treaty under development assistance, but Jose Esquinas Alcazar points out that it’s an issue of national security.

José "Pepe" Esquinas Alcazar, father of the treaty

Food shortages equal political instability; if a crop virus wipes out the wheat harvest in Europe, plant breeders need to work quickly to come up with a new, hardier variant and be able to access plant genetic resources from all over the world to do this.

“This is money for national development, for national security. The countries need to understand this. There is some mental laziness on this subject,” he said.

Plant genetics is an obscure subject which has little public visibility but it is absolutely vital to the future of our food systems and the way we farm and eat in the future. As Pat Mooney of Canada’s ETC Group told me in the corridors, “You’re not going to have agriculture 50 years from now because of climate change unless we have exchanges of germplasm.”

Pat Mooney, the man who put the "seeds" issue on the world's political agenda

Pat Mooney, the man who put the "seeds" issue on the world's political agenda

The highlight of the conference for me was seeing Dr Melaku Worede of Ethiopia take the floor. Founder of Ethiopia’s Gene Bank – the first of its kind in Africa, he is a tireless advocate for the importance of on-farm diversity as a strategy to increase and conserve biodiversity. Dr Worede is today a frail, deeply spiritual presence with a tremendous capacity to inspire.

Here is the text of his intervention yesterday – which provoked spontaneous applause from the assembled Plenary of biocrats, plant breeders, NGO activists and crop scientists.

“I’m the international scientific advisor to the Seeds of Survival progamme of USC Canada and the founder of the Ethiopian Gene Bank, the first of its kind in Africa. At one point in my career I also chaired an FAO Commission on Plant Genetic Resources.

“Farming communities have always implemented conservation methods. Many species little known to science or industrial technology are already managed by local farmers and indigenous communities. Seed is planted in situ and is frequently exchanged. This accounts for the broad range of adaptability and plasticity in gene materials. Maintenance of diversity by small farm comunities in this way provides wide options for self reliance for food crop production and security, thereby lowering the risk of food shortage. All high-tech conservation methods depend on this.

“More than 1,400 gene banks around the world maintain ex-situ some six million samples of germplasm They distribute hundreds and thousands of germplasm collections to scientists and plant breeders. Most of these crop collections and these gene banks are however in a precarious state. One response to this has been the creation of the (Global Crop Diversity) Trust to provide sustainable funding through an endowment, which is today worth some 150 million dollars to ensure the perpetual conservation of crop germplasm around the world. I wish to congratulate the progress made by the Trust today.

“It is most crucial to place a precondition that funding to support genebanks requires linking in-situ funding conservation of cultivated crop lands and semi-wild species by small farmers and pastoralists and indignenous peoples. Otherwise Africa will suffer unparallelled food shortages and rural poverty already touching one billion people. This is especially urgent in view of the rapidly dwindling but still abundant plant genetic resources, and in view of climate change.”

Here’s a recent interview with Dr Worede from GRAIN.