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Davos Sees Challenges, ‘Smart Cities’ Seize Opportunities: Finding Sustainable Solutions Via Public-Private Dialogue

Christopher Colford's picture



As the world’s policymakers and business leaders converge in Davos, Switzerland for tomorrow’s opening of the World Economic Forum, there’s certainly no shortage of global threats for them to worry about during the WEF’s annual marathon of policy seminars and economic debates. A world of anxiety enshrouds this week’s conference theme of the “New Global Context,” judging by the WEF’s latest Global Risks Report: Its analysis of 28 urgent threats and 13 ominous long-term trends offers a comprehensive catalogue of extreme dangers to social stability and even human survival.

As if the Davos data isn’t worrisome enough, several just-issued scientific studies – which document worsening trends in climate change, humanity’s imminent collision with the limits of the planet’s resilience and the intensifying damage being wrought by voracious consumption-driven growth – trace a relentlessly gloomy trajectory.

Relieving some of the substantive tension, there’s also often a puckish undercurrent within each year’s Davos news coverage. Poking holes in the self-importance of Davos’ CEOs and celebrities – with varying degrees of lighthearted humor or reproachful reproof – has become a cottage industry, springing up every January to chide the mountaintop follies of “the great and the good.” Skeptics often scoff that the lofty pronouncements of Davos Deepthink have become almost a caricature of elite self-importance, and there’ll surely be plenty of the customary sniping at the insularity of Davos Man and at the insouciance of the globalized jet set as its over-refined One Percent folkways become ever more detached from the struggles of the stagnating middle class and desperate working poor.

Despite such Davos-season misgivings, it’s worth recalling the value of such frequent, fact-based knowledge-exchange events and inclusive dialogues among business leaders and thought leaders. Some of the Davos Set may revel in after-hours excess – its Lucullan cocktail-party scene is legendary – yet the substantive centerpiece of such meetings remains a valuable venue for expert-level policy debates, allowing scholars to inject their ideas straight into the bloodstream of corporate strategy-setting. The global policy debate arguably needs more, not fewer, thought-provoking symposia where decision-makers can be swayed by the latest thinking of the world’s academic and social-sector experts. Judging by the fragmented response to the chronic economic downturn by the global policymaking class, every multilateral institution ought to host continuing consultations to help shape a coherent policy agenda.

Focusing on just one area where in-depth know-how can serve the needs of decision-makers: The World Bank Group has long been tailoring world-class knowledge to deliver local solutions to client countries about one of the trends singled out in this year's WEF list of long-term concerns – the worldwide shift from “predominantly rural to urban living.” The biggest mass migration in human history has now concentrated more than 50 percent of the world’s population in cities, leading this year’s Global Risks Report to assert that the risk of failed urban planning is among the top global concerns.

“Without doubt, urbanization has increased social well-being,” commented one WEF trend-watcher. “But when cities develop too rapidly, their vulnerability increases: pandemics; breakdowns of or attacks on power, water or transport systems; and the effects of climate change are all major threats.”

Yet consider, also, the potential opportunities within the process of managing that trend toward ever-more-intense urban concentration. What if the prospect of chaotic urbanization were able to inspire greater city-management creativity – so that urban ingenuity makes successful urbanization a means to surmount other looming dangers?

For an example of the can-do determination and trademark optimism of the development community – with the world’s urbanization trend as its focus – consider the upbeat tone that pervaded a conference last week at the World Bank’s Preston Auditorium, analyzing “Smart Cities for Shared Prosperity.” With more than 850 participants in-person, and with viewers in 92 countries watching via livestream, the conference – co-sponsored by the World Resources Institute (WRI), Embarq, and the Transport and Information & Communications Technology (TICT) Global Practice of the World Bank Group – energized the world’s leading practitioners and scholars across the wide range of transportation-related, urban-focused, environment-conscious priorities.

(Thinking of the Preston gathering’s Davos-season timing and full-spectrum scope: It sometimes strikes me that – given the continuous procession of presidents, professors, poets and pundits at the Preston podium – there could be a tagline beneath Preston's entryway, suggesting that the Bank Group swirl of ideas feels like “Davos Every Day.”)

Amid its focus on building “smart cities” and strengthening urban sustainability, the annual Transforming Transportation conference took the “smart cities” concept beyond its customary focus on analyzing Big Data and deploying the latest technology-enabled metrics. By investing in “smart” urban design – and, above all, by putting people rather than automobiles at the center of city life – the scholars insisted that society can reclaim its urban destiny from the car-centric, carbon-intensive pattern that now chokes the livability of all too many cities.

The fast-forward series of “smart cities” speeches and seminars reinforced the agenda summarized by TICT Senior Director Pierre Guislain and WRI official Ani Dasgupta – formerly of the Bank Group and now the global director of WRI’s Ross Center on Sustainable Cities – in an Op-Ed commentary for Thomson Reuters: “We can either continue to build car-oriented cities that lock in unsustainable patterns, or we can scale up existing models for creating more inclusive, accessible and connected cities. Pursuing smarter urban mobility options can help growing cities leapfrog car-centric development and adopt strategies that boost inclusive economic growth and improve [the] quality of life.”

The Genie in a Bottle: How Bottled Biogas Can Contribute to Reducing Kenya’s Dependence on Fossil Fuels

Edward Mungai's picture


Growing up, I always dreaded to enter my grandmother’s kitchen in the village. She used firewood to cook: There was such a dark, thick smoke in the room that I couldn’t breathe or keep my eyes open. I really don’t know how my grandmother could spend hours and hours in there, every day, for so many years. And unfortunately, my grandmother is not an isolated case. More than 90 percent of Kenya’s population uses firewood, charcoal or kerosene for their daily cooking needs.

I always dreamed that clean sources of energy would make Kenyans more independent and less exposed to the serious health risks posed by fossil fuels. In rural areas, most women like my grandmother rely on firewood; its consumption not only depletes our forests but also emits hazardous smoke that causes indoor pollution and eventually respiratory illness. In areas where firewood is scarce, women have to use cow dung as fuel, an option possibly even worse in terms of pollution. Urban areas are affected too: The poor rely mostly on charcoal, another biomass that has the same negative effects and health risks of firewood.
 
Cleaner fuel options have already been developed but are often too expensive or too difficult to transport across the country to be adopted by a large part of the population, especially by the 40 percent of people at the base of the pyramid.

So what can be done? How can we make clean fuels more affordable and accessible?
 
I first heard about bottled biogas when I visited a "green" slaughterhouse in Kiserian, Kenya. I was really impressed: My dream of a cleaner, more affordable and easily accessible fuel was right there before my eyes.

The Keekonyoike Slaughterhouse found an innovative way to produce affordable biogas and package it for distribution all around the country. Using a special bio-digester, this business can turn blood and waste from a community-based Maasai slaughterhouse into biogas for cooking. To facilitate transport, the firm stores the fuel in recycled cylinders and used tires, reducing even further the environmental impact of the operation. Just to give me a better idea of the "green" potential of his business, the manager told me that this first biogas plant is expected to cut methane emissions by more than 360,000 kilograms per year (the equivalent of almost 2,000 passenger vehicles).
 
Indeed, "bottled" biogas (biogas compressed into a cylinder) has huge potential in Kenya: Farmers can directly produce it, recycling the waste from their farms; can use it for their cooking needs; and, thanks to the bottling process, can sell the excess on the local market, generating income while saving the environment.
 
The Genie in the Bottle


Keekonyokie is a company that began operations in 1982. It runs an abattoir that slaughters about 100 cows per day to meet the meat demand in Nairobi and its environs. In 2008, with the support from GTZ, the company constructed two 20-foot-deep biogas digesters that would help manage the abattoir waste, which was becoming a menace and a health hazard. Within a short time, the biogas being produced from the digesters was more than the company could absorb. The company managers started thinking of compressing and bottling the excess biogas, but they needed support to test the technical and commercial viability of their idea.

When infoDev’s Kenya Climate Innovation Center (KCIC) opened its doors in October 2012, Keekonyokie was one of the first companies to be admitted.
 

Evidence Wanted: Effectiveness of Sovereign Disaster Risk Financing and Insurance

Daniel Clarke's picture



Photo: When disasters strike – like floods, tsunamis, earthquakes or cyclones – they can cause, not just human suffering, but financial damage. Using well-crafted Disaster Risk Financing and Insurance (DRFI) instruments can help ease the impact of a potential financial catastrophe. Credit: World Bank Photo Collection.

When Tropical Storm Sendong battered the Philippines in late 2011, catastrophic flash floods claimed more than 1,200 lives and damaged over 50,000 houses. In addition to the human suffering, disasters like this often have a devastating effect on the budget of vulnerable countries, leading to the reallocation of scarce resources away from development programs to recovery and reconstruction. Governments also need immediate resources for rapid response to minimize post-disaster impacts.

But the Philippines had taken steps to prepare against such disasters. Just months before Sendong made landfall on the island of Mindanao, the government signed a US$500 million contingent credit line with the World Bank. This provided immediate access to liquidity to help finance emergency response and recovery operations.

Yet questions remain about financial protection strategies and instruments such as this contingent credit in the Philippines. For example: Does a government need to establish prior rules for post-disaster expenditure, or does it otherwise risk a slow and poorly targeted response with low impact on poverty and developmental outcomes? Was contingent credit the most appropriate instrument to finance this risk, or should other instruments, such as insurance, have been considered instead of or in addition to it? And fundamentally: Is disaster risk financing and insurance (DRFI) a cost-effective way of reducing (expected) poverty and improving (expected) developmental outcomes?

How to Cut Down the Illegal Logging Mafia


Illegal logging is a global epidemic (Credit: Getty Images)

“Every two seconds, across the world, an area of forest the size of a football field is clear-cut by illegal loggers.” This is not the work of poor people trying to find wood to cook a few grains of rice to sustain life. No. This is the work of the illegal logging mafia - aided and abetted by corrupt government officials - from forest rangers to ministers of government. They do this for greed and with the arrogance of those who have no fear of arrest or prosecution. 

Managing garbage to save the planet

David Lawrence's picture

The plight of refugees is in the news all the time, mostly as a result of war. But recently, I saw a post in Dot Earth, a New York Times blog, about a documentary called Climate Refugees. It suggests that climate change will lead to massive refugee problems, mainly as a result of flooding. Disasters in New Orleans, Bangladesh and Myanmar offer a glimpse of what might come.

Geothermal energy: an under tapped, climate-friendly resource

David Lawrence's picture

A few years ago I had the pleasure of swimming in a big, heated pool. Outdoors. In winter. It sounds like an unaffordable luxury, and in most places, it is. But in Iceland, you can swim all year round in geothermal swimming pools. Iceland sits on the boundary of the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates, which are slowly pulling apart, giving it extraordinary geothermal resources. Besides year-round outdoor swimming, this renewable resource provides heat, hot water, and electricity.

World Investment Report 2010: Investing in a low-carbon economy

Low-carbon FDI in areas such as renewables, recycling and low-carbon technology manufacturing is already large (some $90 billion in 2009), but its potential is huge. This is one of the conclusions of UNCTAD’s 2010 World Investment Report, released last month. The report is the most recent in an annual series exploring the latest trends and prospects for FDI flows and recent policy changes, and also offers a deeper analysis of a topically relevant issue of the day.

Seeking sustainable development in a climate changed world

Rachel Kyte's picture

The weekend in Copenhagen was characterized by a plunging thermometer outside - forcing demonstrators to wrap up ever warmer on the streets of the city. Inside the Bella Center, a whole new set of people have arrived, just as negotiations enter into in a fragile state. The second week is VIP week, and so we add around 200 limousines to the general melee.

But there is good news: huddled in various hotels and echoing "offices" in the delegation portakabins, national actions are being readied irrespective in some ways of the agreement reached.

What is the best way to fail?

Rachel Kyte's picture

So now the drama really starts ratcheting up inside and out of the

Bella Center in Copenhagen. Outside in the kind of biting cold that

reminds you of standing (before stadium seating) in a fourth division

football match on a Saturday afternoon as a kid, thousands of people

are massing to march on the center - they say 50,000 and on the TV

screen it looks like it could be.

Inside, the entrenched positions see no sign of budging yet and the

negotiations are poised for the second week, normally characterized by

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