Saturday, December 29, 2007

Global Problem, Local Solutions

"If we want to tackle climate change, we have to be local. Our aim is for the cities to push the governments to act on climate change." - Pedro Ballesteros Torres, manager of the European Commission's Sustainable Energy Europe campaign.

With the inability of governments around the world to take immediate and concrete actions to reduce greenhouse gases emissions, many cities, towns and even villages across Europe are forging ahead with their own initiatives to cut carbon emissions and mitigate the effects of climate change and global warming.

From Vaxjo, in southern Sweden, to major cities like London, Munich and Paris, Europeans are taking the lead and using novel ways to reduce their carbon footprints, with some of them achieving emission cuts that exceeded those prescribed by the Kyoto Protocol. Here are some heartwarming examples of what an environment-conscious citizenry can achieved :
Woodchip fuel, Vaxjo
Vaxjo, Sweden
This southern city of 78,000 in Sweden, which aims to be completely free of fossil fuels eventually, has been using leftover products from forestry industry and sawmills, namely fir and pine chips, to generate electricity. Its centralised "district heating system", running on the low-emitting woodchip fuel, provides about 90 per cent of local heating needs. Ashes from the process are also brought back to fertilize the forest.

With emissions from cars being a major contributor to carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere, Vaxjo has also been encouraging its citizens to use bicycles as the main mode of transport. Snow is cleared from the cycle paths before roads and its bicycle network has also been expanded. So successful has been its efforts that Vaxjo has managed to cut greenhouse gases emissions by 30 per cent since 1996 and is confident it can get a 50 per cent cut by 2010. Visitors from all over the world also come to see what can be done on a local level.

Photo-voltaic panels, Woking
Woking, England
An early pioneer in adopting environmental-friendly practices, this town south of London has gained a reputation as Britain's greenest city. With its solar-powered street lights, photo-voltaic panels and energy-efficient power generators, it has managed to cut carbon emissions by about 20 per cent since 1990. Enterprising solutions like installing photo-voltaic panels on top of glass-roofed structures along its roads, generates more than 50,000Kwh of energy every year and reduces carbon dioxide emissions by more than 40 tonnes annually. Thanks to its alternative energy supplies, parts of Woking will remain lit even if the national energy grid were to go down.

Gussing, Austria
This tiny town in Austria is the first community in the European Union to cut carbon emissions by more than 90 percent since 1995. Using a technology that produces natural gas from scrap lumber, which is use to drive the town's power plants, Gussing generates about 22 megawatt hours of power a year, more than enough to meet its energy needs and sells the surplus of 8 megawatt hours to the national grid.

Big signs of "Eco-Energy Land" greet visitors to the town and its alternative and renewable energy movements have spawned an entire "eco" industry with many companies producing power, heat and fuels from sawdust, corn, cooking oil and creating more than 1,000 jobs. So determined is this tiny outpost in Austria in seeking alternative energy that it is now embarking on a major project to harness the power of the sun through a 50 million euros plant built by Solon AG Fuer Solartechnik of Germany, which is scheduled to begin operation next year.
"Velib" bicycle scheme, Paris
Major metropolises in Europe are also doing their part in reducing their carbon footprints. In Barcelona, through its Solar Thermal Ordinance, all new and renovated buildings are required to be fitted with solar panels to generate at least 60 per cent of the energy needed for hot water production while in Munich, old buildings are been refurbished to tackle energy wastage through poor insulation.

The Europeans are also tackling the fastest-growing source of carbon-emissions in cities : transport. Paris has its "Velib" free bicycle rental scheme, a self-service bicycle-hire scheme that is available round the clock to encourage people to cut down usage of cars. Similar bicycle schemes can also be found in Copenhagen, Helsinki and Brussels. In London, its much-admired congestion charge has tremendously cut down weekday traffic through the city centre. And through the Climate Alliance of European Cities, a grouping of more than 1,400 cities and municipalities across Europe, the Europeans have also set the ambitious target of cutting carbon emissions by 10 per cent every five years.

Cities covers just 1 per cent of the earth's surface but are home to more than half the world's population. They consume about 75 per cent of global energy and are responsible for 80 per cent of the world's greenhouse gases emissions. As a result, it is cities that have an important role to play in mitigating the effects of climate change and it is also in cities that climate and sustainability solutions are to be found.

The actions by the Europeans are definitive and shining examples of what the local populace can do and achieve in the battle against global warming, proving that it does not need international agreements like the Kyoto Protocol or the recently ended contentious Bali Climate Talks to come to grips with climate change.

*Sources :
- The Nature Conservancy
- Climate Alliance of European Cities
- Sustainable Energy Europe Campaign, European Commission
- Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, United Nations

*Related posts :
- A Planet In Peril
- From Ice To Water
- The Kyoto Song And The Bali Dance

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Saturday, December 15, 2007

Bali Climate Talks - A Nation Who Lost The Plot.

"....So, I am going to speak an inconvenient truth. My own country, the United States, is principally responsible for obstructing progress here in Bali," - Former US Vice-President Al Gore.

Having followed the progress of the Bali Climate Talks and waiting in anticipation for the outcome, I was compelled to ditch today's post on deforestation around the world in favour of a piece on the divisive behaviour of some nations, especially the United States, in the Bali Talks.

Exasperated and disgusted are understatements of how I felt. What's with the moral police and champion of democracy of the world? So quick on the draw with Iraq and Afghanistan and condemnation of human rights abuses around the world, but seemingly myopic, almost blind to the urgent task at hand to come up with a coherent agenda to tackle global warming. The behaviour of the United States at the Bali Talks seems like a nation with a leader who is morally bankrupt.

A recent headline by Associated Press : "US obstructing progress of talks, says Gore," spoke volumes of a nation who have both the ability and resources, but most importantly, a moral responsibility, by being the world's largest emitter of carbon emissions, to take on a leadership role in pressing for a solution to global warming but instead, chooses not to do so.

The moral responsibility and need for the United States to take decisive actions to curb carbon emissions cannot be overstated. Recent statistics released by the Washington-based National Environmental Trust, showed that 42 US states individually emitted more carbon dioxide per year than 50 developing countries combined and 3 states individually emitted more CO2 than 100 developing countries. The US President home state of Texas, with just 24 million people, emits 696 million tonnes of CO2 per year, much more than Britain, whose 60 million people emit 578 million tonnes annually.

It is one thing not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol (which is already bad enough), but to throw spanners in the works at every opportunity, adopting a divisive stance and creating dissension among nations in an attempt to derail the Bali Talks smacks of the behaviour of an over-sized bully out of control. From opposing mandatory carbon emission caps, going off in a different direction with its unilateral decision to have its own climate change talks to the constant proposing of amendments, even at the end of negotiations, the United States arrived at the Bali Talks without any intention of working with the rest of the world in forging a common consensus. Not only was the EU at odds with the US position, but all the members of the G77 developing countries, including China, found US demands that all countries be treated the same way, illogically and unacceptable.

While the United States is not the only country that opposed mandatory carbon dioxide emission caps, the Bali Climate Talks - already saddled with a whole range of contentious issues to deal with, from equity, worries of slowing of economic growth to calculation of carbon emissions caps by per capita basis or by per volume basis between developed and developing nations - certainly can do without the needless posturing of the United States. A statement by the delegate from Papua New Guinea, Kevin Conrad, aptly summed up the general feelings about the behaviour of the United States : "If you are not willing to lead, then get out of the way!" - a position that i had adopted and thought was necessary in order to achieve a modicum of progress in the Bali talks in my previous post - The Kyoto Song And The Bali Dance.

Well, the Bali Climate Talks are now over and the United States should be patting themselves on the back, as the outcome was a compromised piece of watered-down "Bali Road Map", with no mandatory and binding carbon emissions capping, but 2 more years of further negotiations leading to a new accord to replace the Kyoto Protocol by 2009. The original goal of the Bali Climate Talks to cut industrialised nations' carbon emissions by between 25 per cent to 40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020 was eliminated and relegated to a footnote, replaced by vague goals like "....developed countries should take the lead in driving cuts in emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases," and "....developing nations should consider measurable and reportable national mitigation actions." More talks, more song and dance.

While I am not totally surprised by the failure of the Bali Talks to come up with concrete and decisive actions to deal with global warming, considering the complexity of the talks as the threat of climate change cuts across all aspects of our life and challenges the very structure and system that our current societies are built on, what actually surprised me was the continual faux pax that the guy in the White House, with that funny-sounding plant name, keeps doing in recent years, from the fiasco in Iraq to his handling of the sub-prime mortgage crisis in US.

With the latest "performance" by the United States at the Bali Talks, I doubt he can look at his children and children's children eyes and say he did what was best for the only home we will ever have. My children will certainly say he did not.

*Related articles :
- Climate Talks Near End Amid Row - BBC News
- Al Gore Lays Blame Of Bali Stalemate On US - Reuters
- The Kyoto Song And The Bali Dance

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Friday, December 7, 2007

The Kyoto Song And The Bali Dance

"...the world is already at or above the worst-case scenarios in terms of emissions and we are moving past the most pessimistic estimates of the IPPC." - Germany's Kiel Institute for World Economy.

Representatives from more than 190 nations are meeting in Bali this week for talks to find a successor to the emissions-curbing Kyoto Protocol, which ends in 2012. The outcome of the 13th meeting of the Conference of Parties (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will define the world's response to the threat of global warming and climate change in years to come.

Will the Bali talks result in a universal framework of concrete actions and commitments from the world's industrialised nations to adopt binding and absolute targets to curb and reduce greenhouse gases or will it be just another song and dance showpiece like the Kyoto Protocol?

The Kyoto Protocol came out of the UNFCCC and was adopted in Japan in Dec 1997 with an expiry in 2012. The Protocol committed 36 developed countries to reducing emissions of six greenhouse gases by around 5 per cent below 1990 levels and the target must be met between 2008 and 2012.

But since its inception 10 years ago, global carbon dioxide levels have increased instead, from 365 parts per million in 1998 to 383 parts per million today and the United States, the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases with an annual emission of more than 6 billion metric tons, has yet to ratify the Protocol, with Australia signing it just recently with its change of government. Countries like Canada, while being a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol, has largely ignored it with emissions up by about 25% from 1990 levels, without taking environmental degradations like deforestation in Canada into account.

Clearly, the 36 developed countries under the Kyoto Protocol have failed to deliver on their promises and carbon emissions have actually continued to rise in many industrialised countries that ratify the Protocol. Emissions have also soared in developing countries, like China, India and Brazil, who have ratified the accord but were not required to cut emissions. According to a report recently released by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, explosive economic growth and voracious coal consumption has led China to overtake the U.S. in CO2 emissions in 2006.
Deforestation in Indonesia
Large scale deforestation, a major contributor to global warming and which accounts for about 20 per cent of all global carbon dioxide emissions, is still unchecked in Indonesia and Brazil. Recent reports by Greenpeace indicated that between 2000 and 2005, an area of forest equivalent to 300 soccer pitches was destroyed every hour in Indonesia, making it the third largest CO2 polluter.

Probably the only positive outcome of the Kyoto Protocol was the increase in awareness among the general public and there is now a greater readiness among the people to act and to demand action. What is sorely lacking and what is needed is the political will.

With the United States divisive stand and indication that it is still opposed to mandatory capping in carbon emissions and Japan's latest proposal to adopt a broad "least common denominator" approach, without legally binding targets, in the Bali talks plus the contentious issues of equity, slowing of economic growth due to environmental controls and reduction definitions by per capita or per volume basis, the Bali conference is unlikely to produce an updated and strengthened successor to the Kyoto Protocol.

But produce it must, as the time for talking is over and the days of waiting for Bush is long gone. With or without the US, the world must act now as it no longer can afford another 10 years of inaction. The UN, EU and ASEAN must show desperately needed leadership and use the Bali conference to come up with a coherent agenda and mobilise global public opinion to support concrete, legally binding and absolute reduction targets in greenhouse gases emissions.

Let's hope the Bali conference is a dance that will result in a revolution that the world desperately needs - a healing one - before it is too late.

*Sources :
- Greenpeace
- World Wildlife Fund
- Kiel Institute for World Economy
- Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency
- Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, United Nations

*Related post : A Planet In Peril

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