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February 2011

People, plots and pixels

Chris Meyer's picture

Photo credit: Max Nepstad

 

If you are in a forest in Ecuador and see indigenous communities standing with an android phone, a measuring tape and a good pair of boots, don’t be surprised. These ‘indigenous forest carbon monitors’ have been trained to collect field data by measuring a 40m x 40m sample plot. They align the center of the square plot with a GPS coordinate associated with the center of a satellite footprint, and measure the diameter of the trees in the plot. Once the measurements of the trees are determined, they are sent via phone to scientists who use satellite images – and now even images available on Google Earth – to estimate the amount of carbon stored in forests.

 

These communities can efficiently traverse terrain that is typically inaccessible to foreign technicians. The result is better forest carbon density maps that can determine changes in the amount of forest carbon present over time.

 

With the cutting and burning of trees contributing to about 15% of global carbon dioxide emissions, any realistic plan to reduce global warming pollution sufficiently – and in time to avoid dangerous consequences – must rely in part on preserving tropical forests.

 

A critical part of ensuring that the rate of deforestation is decreasing - and the part where skeptics are most vocal - is monitoring, reporting, and verifying (MRV) the area and density of forests. The MRV process measures the amount of carbon stored in a forest, and also helps make sure that further deforestation and degradation do not occur. It also requires both modern technology and old fashioned boots on the ground.

Come to this Malaysian province to see an alternative path on energy

Daniel Kammen's picture

 

   Photo courtesy Willem V.
   Strien/Flickr under Creative
   Commons License

It is all too easy to see environmental protection and economic development simply as competing philosophies, and nothing more. A range of studies attest to the fact that this is a false dichotomy. In my earlier blog, I described the alternative vision that became a reality in a small Nicaraguan coastal community that chose to invest in a diverse set of clean energy alternatives.  Even with cases like this one described in the literature, there remains in some circles a sense that these must be concocted.

 

The headlines often reinforce this simple dichotomy of environment versus economic growth, where the choice presented is “preserve a forest and forego the lumber”, “save a river and deny a community hydropower”, or “find the financing for more expensive solar power or accept ill-health and global warming from coal.” I have been convinced that another path or paths exist, ever since reading a remarkable paper on the `valuation’ of a tropical rain forest (Peters, Gentry and Mendelsohn, `Valuation of an Amazonian Rainforest', Nature). This short paper got me thinking about how we ignore the longer-term economic wins of sustainability for short-term profit.

 

I recently had the wonderful fortune to get involved in a case that reinforced the fact that options always exist, if we work together to find them.

 

Early in 2010, a consortium of citizens from Sabah, Malaysia came to my laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, convinced that unexplored options must exist to provide the energy needed for this Malaysian Province without placing a 300 MW coal fired power plant on the edge of the ‘coral triangle’ off the coast of North Borneo. This plant was planned at a site only 20 kilometers from the last remaining reserve for the critically endangered Sumatran Rhino of Borneo (of which there may be only 30 individuals or so remaining). This plan would have required the weekly import of coal from South Borneo (Kalimantan). Just a few years ago, the coal plant seemed inevitable.

Trillions of dollars at risk for investors from climate change

Alan Miller's picture

Here is a trillion dollar question: How will the portfolios of long-term asset managers like pension funds, foundations and endowments be affected by climate change? These institutions, in contrast to commercial banks, are legally obligated to take a long-term view in managing their returns. A new report by Mercer, a leading consulting and investment services firm, provides the first look at yet another window on the complex consequences of climate change—the implications for strategic asset allocation. 

 

A headline result of the study is the estimated increase of up to 10 % in overall portfolio risk, primarily due to policy uncertainty—equivalent to as much as US$8 trillion by 2030. Traditional equity and bond holdings—usually the most conservative forms of hedging against uncertainty –- are most at risk of underperformance.  In contrast, carefully selected investments in climate- sensitive sectors may actually reduce overall portfolio risk. 

 

The International Finance Corporation (IFC) and UK’s Carbon Trust, along with 14 institutional investors collectively managing over US$2 trillion, funded the analysis, which was carried out by Mercer. The analysis looks at impacts by sector, region, and asset category (bonds, private equity, real estate, etc.) and builds on a set of climate change scenarios out to 2030 developed by the Grantham Research Institute at the London School of Economics and the consulting firm Vivid Economics. 

Is the renewable energy target for India within reach?

Daniel Kammen's picture

Almost 400 million Indians—about a third of the subcontinent’s population—don’t have access to electricity. This power deficit, which includes about 100,000 un-electrified villages, places India’s per capita electricity consumption at just 639 kWh—among the world’s lowest rates.

 

The access gap is complicated by another problem: more than three-quarters of India’s electricity is produced by burning coal and natural gas. With India’s rapidly-growing population— currently 1.1 billion—along with its strong economic growth in recent years, its carbon emissions were over 1.6 billion tons in 2007, among the world’s highest.

 

This is unsustainable, not only from a climate change standpoint, but also because India’s coal reserves are projected to run out in four decades. India already imports about 10% of its coal for electricity generation, and this is expected to reach 16% this year.

 

India’s national and state governments are taking action to correct this vicious circle of power deficits and mounting carbon emissions. The national government has set a target of increasing renewable energy generation by 40 gigawatts (GW) by 2022, up from current capacity of 15 GW, itself a threefold increase since 2005.  Still, renewable sources account for just 3.5% of India’s energy generation at present, so the scale of the challenge is formidable. The cost of meeting it will be high unless the tremendous innovative capacity of India and market reforms can be coordinated to make India a clean energy leader.

The long and winding road to the Green Climate Fund

Athena Ballesteros's picture

Photo courtesy: IISD

 

The UN Climate Talks in December 2010 concluded with a set of decisions known as the Cancun Agreements, which included the establishment of the Green Climate Fund (GCF). Having been involved in many of the negotiating sessions, I know that this fund is seen by many, particularly developing countries as an opportunity to create a ‘legitimate’ institution for delivering scaled-up finance to address climate change. However, there remains significant skepticism on whether or not this Fund could deliver adequate and predictable resources in a timely manner. Much work has yet to be done before the Green Climate Fund could become a reality.

 

Getting organized

In Cancun, the COP decided to set up a Transitional Committee (TransComm) and entrusted it with the task of developing the operational documents for the GCF and making recommendations to the COP in Durban. The Transitional Committee will include representatives from 25 developing countries and 15 developed countries. Some countries have announced their nominations, while others are still in the process of finalizing. The delay comes as no surprise of course. Nominations within regional groups remain a highly contentious and political issue. With limited seats countries are grappling to ensure they have a voice in the body that will design the Fund. I’ve heard the mix of skills and expertise on finance, climate and, development represented in the individuals nominated and they vary from country to country.

Look under the canopy: There are people, not fences

Gerhard Dieterle's picture

This week I was at the UN Forum on Forests  meeting in New York where the International Year of the Forests was formally launched.

The Year of the Forests starts with a cautiously optimistic message: FAO’s report on the State of the World’s Forests  released at the forum says that the forest loss across the world has slowed down over the last decade.  Now the pattern of deforestation varies and is country-specific rather than being negative across the board. China, Vietnam and Costa Rica among others are countries where the forest cover is actually going up. 
 

More importantly, I see an opening in how the problems of deforestation and forest degradation are being addressed internationally. Like the logo of the International Year of Forests, people are seen at the heart of this effort now. This has not always been the norm. Take the case of REDD  (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) which was debated in Bali at the first Forest Day in 2007. At that time, reducing emissions meant simply putting up fences to conserve the last pristine forests in the Amazon, the Congo basin and in Indonesia.
 

Now our understanding of how to address deforestation has evolved.  Forests today are more strongly linked in people’s minds to questions of food security, improved livelihoods and the general resilience of the people. This is where REDD + comes in, with approaches that go beyond restrictive approaches and focus now more and more on approaches to enhance forest stocks and restore degraded landscapes. It is good news for people and forests that the role of forests in climate change mitigation is being understood in a much broader context.

 

10-year-old Felix Finkbeiner speaks at the United Nations Forum on Forests. Watch the full speech here. 

Ecosystem services: Seeking to improve human and ecological health together

Daniel Kammen's picture

While attending the CITES (Convention on Trade in Endangered Species) biodiversity summit in Nagoya, Japan, late last year, World Bank President Robert Zoellick said that we must foster development and reduce poverty, and at the same time preserve and improve the planet’s biodiversity and ecological resilience.

 

He noted during a speech at the Cancun COP16 Climate Convention that “empty forests are greatly diminished.” He is completely right, but globally efforts to achieve ecologically sustainable development have been difficult and fraught with failure. Sadly, to some the issue is yet another complication to be ignored or avoided.

 

I spent this weekend at the Mpala Research Center, in Laikipia, central Kenya, which is a remarkable partnership with the National Museums of Kenya, its local partners in Laikipia district, the Smithsonian Institution, and Princeton University in the United States.

 

Mpala is very dear to me. Working more than a decade ago with a remarkable doctoral student of mine who is now a professor, Majid Ezzati, and a fabulous team of local Kenyan medical and energy researchers and extension officers, we completed a detailed “dose-response” study of the health benefits of improved cookstoves. We found that while initial particulate levels were very high–7,000 or more micrograms of particulates per cubic meter (mg/m3)–combinations of improved stoves and clean burning fuels could reduce the incidence of acute respiratory illness by 50%.