Inter Press Service » Stephen Leahy Turning the World Downside Up Tue, 21 Oct 2014 08:36:29 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Green Economy Isn’t Rocket Science – And It’s Not Even Costly Mon, 22 Sep 2014 13:25:08 +0000 Stephen Leahy A framework for this transformation includes a price on carbon, green investment funds, and strong policies to decarbonise energy and land use. Credit: Bigstock

A framework for this transformation includes a price on carbon, green investment funds, and strong policies to decarbonise energy and land use. Credit: Bigstock

By Stephen Leahy
UXBRIDGE, Canada, Sep 22 2014 (IPS)

Acting on climate change will not hurt domestic economic growth, and in fact is more likely to boost growth, most analyses now show.

The latest to confirm the dictum that swift action is eminently affordable is the recent report by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, released on the eve of the Sep. 23 U.N. Climate Summit in New York.“We’ve been hiding what’s going on from ourselves: A high-carbon future is being locked in by the world’s capital investments.” -- Princeton University’s Robert Socolow

“There is no reason to fear that more ambitious action to reduce carbon emissions will have a high economic cost,”said economist Robert Repetto, an International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) fellow and former professor at Yale University.

“Those claiming the costs of climate action will be high represent the economic sectors that will be adversely affected,”Repetto told IPS.

These include the fossil fuel industries and others that profit from burning carbon including railroads, pipeline and other industries.

Repetto was not involved in the Global Commission’s report by the U.N., the OECD group of rich countries, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and co-authored by leading climate economist Lord Nicholas Stern.

Repetto agrees with their findings that the costs of acting on climate now will not hurt economies but delaying action will be extraordinarily costly.

“The costs of burning fossil fuel are enormous even without factoring in climate impacts,”he said

Air pollution costs China 10 per cent of its annual GDP due to increase health costs from particulate pollution and smog damage to crops and buildings. In India, pollution costs are up to six per cent of GDP. Germany also loses six percent of its GDP to pollution because it and neighbouring countries like Poland continue to rely on coal, Repetto told IPS.

“Those costs alone are way more than additional costs of installing renewable energy,” he said.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon notes that, “Domestic economic growth and acting on climate change are two sides of the same coin.”

Too many governments and leaders don’t understand this reality and that must change, Ban said at the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate press conference.

However, the U.S. government, among others, continue to rely on a high-profile but deeply-flawed economic model called DICE. Developed by well-known Yale economist William Nordhaus, the DICE model claims that action on climate will cost more than the damages from climate change.

Repetto and Robert Easton, professor emeritus of applied mathematics at the University of Colorado, have just completed a “sensitivity analysis”of the DICE model. They found that DICE has many questionable assumptions, including that damages from climate impacts will increase at a modest level no matter how high the global temperature rises.

It also assumes improvements in renewable energy will be far slower than they actually have been over the last decade.

When these and other dubious assumptions are corrected, the DICE model shows that “much more aggressive policies to reduce emissions are warranted”because economic growth would continue to be robust. The actual costs of keeping global temperatures below 2C are far less than previously estimated, they conclude.

Staying below 2C means that by 2018, no new electrical power plant, factory, school, home or car can be built anywhere in the world unless they are replacing old ones or are carbon-neutral.

That’s the shocking implication of a recent study looking both CO2 emissions and CO2 commitments. Build a new coal or gas power plant and it will emit CO2 every year for the 40- to 60-year lifespan of the plant. That’s a CO2 commitment.

The study “Commitment accounting of CO2 emissions,”is the first to total these commitments.

Last year, the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report established a global carbon budget in order to stay below 2C. Adding up current CO2 emissions and commitments, in less than five years that global carbon budget will be fully allocated with business as usual.

Carbon commitments should be a fundamental part of any decision to build most things. Instead, hundreds of billions of dollars are invested in new infrastructure that will make climate change worse.

“We’ve been hiding what’s going on from ourselves: A high-carbon future is being locked in by the world’s capital investments,” said Princeton University’s Robert Socolow, a co-author of the commitment study.

Any plan or strategy to cut CO2 emissions has to give far greater prominence to those investments. Right now the data shows “we’re embracing fossil fuels more than ever,” Socolow previously told IPS.

The time has long passed where “we can burn our way to prosperity,” said Ban Ki-moon. “A structural transformation is needed.”

A framework for this transformation includes a price on carbon, green investment funds, and strong policies to decarbonise energy and land use.

Time is not on our side; the urgency grows with each passing day.

“We’ve already waited too long…significant climate impacts are now unavoidable,”Repetto said.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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World’s Last Remaining Forest Wilderness at Risk Fri, 05 Sep 2014 17:35:32 +0000 Stephen Leahy Canada has been leading the world in forest loss since 2000, accounting for 21 percent of global forest loss. Credit: Crustmania/ CC by 2.0

Canada has been leading the world in forest loss since 2000, accounting for 21 percent of global forest loss. Credit: Crustmania/ CC by 2.0

By Stephen Leahy
UXBRIDGE, Canada, Sep 5 2014 (IPS)

The world’s last remaining forest wilderness is rapidly being lost – and much of this is taking place in Canada, not in Brazil or Indonesia where deforestation has so far made the headlines.

A new satellite study reveals that since 2000 more than 104 million hectares of forests – an area three times the size of Germany – have been destroyed or degraded.Since 2000 more than 104 million hectares of forests – an area three times the size of Germany – have been destroyed or degraded

“Every four seconds, an area of the size of a football (soccer) field is lost,” said Christoph Thies of Greenpeace International.

The extent of this forest loss, which is clearly visible in satellite images taken in 2000 and 2013, is “absolutely appalling” and has a global impact, Thies told IPS, because forests play a crucial in regulating the climate.

The current level of deforestation is putting more CO2 into the atmosphere than all the world’s cars, trucks, ships and planes together, he said, adding that “governments must take urgent action” to protect intact forests by creating more protected areas, strengthening the rights of forest communities and other measures, including convincing lumber, furniture manufacturers and others to refuse to use products from virgin forests.

Greenpeace is one of several partners in the Intact Forest Landscapes initiative, along with the University of Maryland, World Resources Institute and WWF-Russia among others, that uses satellite imagery technology to determine the location and extent of the world’s last large undisturbed forests.

The new study found that half of forest loss from deforestation and degradation occurred in just three countries: Canada, Russia and Brazil. These countries are also home to about 65 percent of world’s remaining forest wilderness.

However, despite all the media attention on deforestation in the Amazon forest and the forests of Indonesia, it is Canada that has been leading the world in forest loss since 2000, accounting for 21 percent of global forest loss. By contrast, the much-better known deforestation in Indonesia has accounted for only four percent.

Brazil's Amazon forest - 2000. Credit_Courtesy of Global Forest Watch

Brazil’s Amazon forest – 2000. Credit: Courtesy of Global Forest Watch

Brazil's Amazon forest - 2013. Credit_Courtesy of Global Forest Watch

Brazil’s Amazon forest – 2013. Credit: Courtesy of Global Forest Watch

Massive increases in oil sands and shale gas developments, as well as logging and road building, are the major cause of Canada’s forest loss, said Peter Lee of Global Forest Watch Canada, an independent Canadian NGO.

A big increase in forest fires is another cause of forest loss. Climate change has rapidly warmed northern Canada, drying out the boreal forests and bogs and making them more vulnerable to fires.

In Canada’s northern Alberta’s oil sands region, more than 12.5 million hectares of forest have been crisscrossed by roads, pipelines, power transmission lines and other infrastructure, Lee told IPS.

Canada’s oil sands and shale gas developments are expected to double and possibly triple in the next decade and “there’s little interest at the federal or provincial political level in conserving intact forest landscapes,” Lee added.

The world’s last remaining large undisturbed forests are where most of the planet’s remaining wild animals, birds, plants and other species live, Nigel Sizer, Global Director of the Forest Programme at the World Resources Institute, told a press conference.

Animals like Siberian tigers, orangutans and woodland caribou require large areas of forest wilderness, Sizer noted, and “losing these top species leads to a decline of entire forest ecosystems in subtle ways that are hard to measure.”

While forests can re-grow, this takes many decades, and in northern forests more than 100 years. However, if species go extinct or there are too few individuals left, it will take longer for a full forest ecosystem to recover – if ever.

Trees, plants and all the creatures that make up a healthy forest ecosystem provide humanity with a range of vital services including storing and cleaning water, cleaning air, soaking up CO2 and producing oxygen, as well as being sources of food and wood. These ‘free’ services are often irreplaceable and generally worth far more than the value of lumber or when converted to cattle pasture, said Sizer.

In just 13 years, South America’s Paraguay converted an incredible 78 percent of its remaining forest wilderness mainly into large-scale soybean farms and rough pasture, the study found. Satellite images and maps on the new Global Forest Watch website offer see-it-with-your-own eyes images of Paraguay’s forests vanishing over time.

The images and data collected for the study are accessible via various tools on the website. They reveal that 25 percent of Europe’s largest remaining forest, located 900 km north of Moscow, has been chopped down to feed industrial logging operations. In the Congo, home of the world’s second largest tropical forest, 17 percent has been lost to logging, mining and road building. The Global Forest Watch website also shows details of huge areas of Congo forest licensed for future logging.

Deforestation starts with road building, often linked to logging and extractive industries, said Thies. In some countries, like Brazil and Paraguay, the prime reason is conversion to large-scale agriculture, usually for crops that will be exported.

The new data could help companies with sustainability commitments in determining which areas to avoid when sourcing commodities like timber, palm oil, beef and soy. Market-led efforts need to gain further support given the lax governance and enforcement in many of these forest regions, Thies said.

He called on the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) – a voluntary certification programme that sets standards for forest management – to “also play a stronger role” and to improve those standards in order to better protect wilderness forests.

Without urgent action to curb deforestation, it is doubtful that any large-scale wild forest will remain by the end of this century, concluded Sizer.

(Edited by Phil Harris)

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Dumping Ban Urged for Australia’s Iconic Reef Thu, 21 Aug 2014 17:43:58 +0000 Stephen Leahy A Barrier Reef Anemonefish (Amphiprion akindynos) in host anemone. Pixie Garden, Ribbon Reefs, Great Barrier Reef. Credit: Richard Ling/cc by 2.0

A Barrier Reef Anemonefish (Amphiprion akindynos) in host anemone. Pixie Garden, Ribbon Reefs, Great Barrier Reef. Credit: Richard Ling/cc by 2.0

By Stephen Leahy
UXBRIDGE, Canada, Aug 21 2014 (IPS)

Increased effort is needed to protect Australia’s iconic Great Barrier Reef, which is in serious decline and will likely deteriorate further in the future, according to a new report.

“Greater reductions of all threats at all levels, reef-wide, regional and local, are required to prevent the projected declines,”said an outlook report by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, the government agency responsible for protecting the reef.“A thriving commercial fishery is gone, so are the dolphins and dugongs.” -- Richard Leck of WWF-Australia

However, the same agency recently approved the dumping of five million tonnes of dredging spoil in the reef region. Scientists and coral reef experts universally condemned the decision.

Documents obtained by Australia’s ABC TV investigative programme this week revealed scientists inside the Park Authority also opposed the dumping inside the UNESCO World Heritage Area.

“That decision has to be a political decision. It is not supported by science at all, and I was absolutely flabbergasted when I heard,”Charlie Veron, a renowned coral reef scientist, told ABC. Veron is the former chief scientist at the Australian Institute of Marine Science.

The Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is one of the seven greatest natural wonders of the world. Visible from space, it is a startlingly beautiful mosaic made up of thousands of reefs, sea grass beds, and islands running 2,300 km along the coast of the state of Queensland.

The GBR from above. Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

The GBR from above. Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

In 1981 UNESCO declared the GBR a World Heritage Area, calling it “an irreplaceable source of life and inspiration”. It was home to 10 percent of all fish on the planet. Dugongs and many varieties of dolphins and sea turtles were once abundant.

Although protected as a marine park for decades, more than half of the coral is dead.Without concerted action, just five to 10 percent of the coral will remain by 2020, according to a 2012 scientific survey reported by IPS.

“I’ve worked on the reef for over a decade and those survey results were absolutely stunning,”said Richard Leck, spokesperson for WWF-Australia.

“The GBR is likely the best monitored reef in the world and we’re seeing the impacts of massive coastal development,”Leck told IPS.

In 2010, the Australian government approved four massive liquid natural gas (LNG) processing plants with port facilities at the coal port of Gladstone in central Queensland. Extensive dredging resulted in the dumping of 46 million tonnes of material in the harbour and inside the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park boundaries.

Much of the most toxic dredging material was to be contained inside a huge retaining or bund wall in the Gladstone Harbour. It soon began to fail, eventually leaking as much as 4,000 tonnes of material daily. The impacts have been devastating.

“A thriving commercial fishery is gone, so are the dolphins and dugongs,”said Leck. “Gladstone was a clear failure by state and national governments.”

Local tourist operators say the water quality and clarity has declined significantly.

Queensland is also a major mining and export region, shipping 156 million tonnes annually, mostly to Asian markets. Now there are proposals to expand that output sixfold to nearly one billion tonnes annually by 2020.

India’s Adani Group plans to spend six billion dollars to build Queensland’s biggest coal mine, including a new town and a 350 km railway to connect to Port Abbot, near the tourist town of Bowen.

Other Indian miners, along with a number of Chinese mining interests, have locked up an estimated 20 billion tonnes of coal resources in central Queensland. Australian mining companies,including mining billionaire Gina Rinehart’s Hancock Prospecting, are also expanding their operations.

In December 2013, Australia’s Minister of Environment Greg Hunt approved a plan to create one of the world’s largest coal ports at Port Abbot. A few months later, and in spite of strong opposition from its own scientists, the Park Authority agreed to allow five million tonnes of dredged material from Port Abbot to be dumped in the GBR.

“The Park Authority was in a difficult position. Saying ‘no’meant rejecting the minister’s approval of the dredging,”said Leck.

Hunt told ABC TV that he’d conducted “a very careful and deep review”and concluded that “the unequivocal advice we received was: this can be done safely.”

There is substantial scientific literature showing sediment from dredging can smother and kill marine species. Sediment also reduces light levels, causes physiological stress, impairs growth and reproduction, clogs the gills of fish, and promotes diseases, said Terry Hughes, director of the Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University in Townsville, Queensland.

Some dredge spoil is very fine sediment — tiny little particles suspended in the water column — readily dispersed by winds, currents and waves. Over a period of just a few months they can travel 100 kilometres or more, Hughes told IPS.

A recently published modelling study predicts that fine sediments in suspension can spread up to 200 kilometres from coal ports within 90 days. It also measured sediments found in coral reefs in the GBR near another coal port and found high levels of chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) which are associated with coal dust.

Given the perilous health of the reef, which is also facing enormous threats from rising water temperatures and ocean acidity due to CO2 emissions from fossil fuels, Hughes and other scientists are calling for a complete ban on dumping in the GBR or anywhere near it.

The additional threat posed by coal ports and other industrial developments along the coast is so serious that UNESCO warned Australia it would change the reef’s prestigious World Heritage Site designation to a “World Heritage Site in Danger”.

The UNESCO decision is expected mid-2015, which is also when the Port Abbot dredging is scheduled to begin.

Edited by: Kitty Stapp

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Disasters Poised to Sweep Away Development Gains Tue, 22 Jul 2014 17:39:42 +0000 Stephen Leahy Climate change effects, such as extreme weather events, drive up environmental remediation costs. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Climate change effects, such as extreme weather events, drive up environmental remediation costs. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

By Stephen Leahy
UXBRIDGE, Canada, Jul 22 2014 (IPS)

Extreme poverty and hunger can be eliminated, but only through far greater efforts to reduce carbon emissions that are overheating the planet and producing punishing droughts, catastrophic floods and ever wilder weather, said climate activists involved in talks to set the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Last weekend, the United Nations released the 17 draft SDGs following a year and a half of discussion by more than 60 countries participating in the voluntary process."You can’t climb out of poverty if you have to rebuild your home every other year." -- Harjeet Singh

The SDGs are a set of goals and targets intended to eliminate extreme poverty and pursue sustainable development. When finalised in 2015, at the expiration of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the SDGs are intended to be the roadmap for countries to follow in making environmental, social and economic policies and decisions.

“Disasters are a major reason many of the MDG goals will not be met,” said Harjeet Singh of ActionAid International, an NGO based in Johannesburg.

“A big flood or typhoon can set a region’s development back 20 years,” Singh, ActionAid’s international coordinator of disaster risk reduction, told IPS.

Last year’s Super Typhoon Haiyan killed more than 6,000 people and left nearly two million homeless in the Philippines, he said. Less than a year earlier, the Philippines was hit by Typhoon Bopha, which killed more than 1,000 people and caused an estimated 350 million dollars in damage.

In the past two weeks, the country was struck by two destructive typhoons. The Philippines may face another 20 before the end of typhoon season.

“Everything is affected by disasters — food security, health, education, infrastructure and so on. You can’t climb out of poverty if you have to rebuild your home every other year,” Singh said.

Goals for poverty elimination or nearly anything else in the proposed SDGs are “meaningless without reductions in carbon emissions”, he said.

Carbon emissions from burning oil, coal and gas are trapping heat from the sun. The amount of this extra heat-energy is like exploding 400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs per day 365 days per year, according to James Hansen, a climate scientist and former head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. As a result the entire planet is now 0.8 C hotter.

“All weather events are affected by climate change because the environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be,” Kevin Trenberth, senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado previously told IPS.

Climate change doesn’t necessarily cause weather disasters but it certainly makes them worse, said Trenberth, an expert on extreme events.

Climate and low-carbon development pathways need to be fully reflected in the SDGs, said  Bernadette Fischler, co-chair of Beyond 2015 UK. Beyond 2015 is a coalition of more than 1,000 civil society organisations working for a strong and effective set of SDGs.

“Climate change is an urgent issue and needs to be highly visible in the SDGs,” Fischler told IPS.

In the current SDG draft climate is goal 13. It calls on countries to “take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts”. There is no target to reduce emissions, and nearly all of the targets are about adapting to the coming climate impacts.

“Countries don’t want to pre-empt their positions in the U.N. climate change negotiations,” said Lina Dabbagh of the Climate Action Network, a global network of environmental NGOs.

The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change ( UNFCCC) involves every country in a negotiation to create a new global climate treaty in 2015. After five years of talks, countries are deadlocked on key issues.

“The SDGs are a huge opportunity to move forward on climate, but the climate goal is weak and there is no action agenda,” Dabbagh told IPS.

Finalising the SDGs draft was highly politicised, resulting in very cautious wording. The country alliances and divisions are remarkably similar to those in the UNFCCC negotiations, including the South-North divide, she said.

Every country is concerned about climate change and its impacts but there is wide disagreement on how this should be reflected in the SDGs, with some only wanting a mention in the preamble, said Fischler.

Some countries such as the United Kingdom think 17 goals is too many and it is possible that some will be cut during the final year of negotiations that start once the SDGs are formally introduced at the U.N. General Assembly on Sep. 24.

The day before that the U.N. secretary-general will host a Climate Summit with leaders of many countries in attendance. The summit is intended to kick-start political momentum for an ambitious, global, legal climate treaty in 2015.

“Civil society will make a big push during the summit to make climate an integral part of the SDGs,” said Dabbagh.

However, much work remains to help political leaders and the public understand that climate action is the key to eliminating extreme poverty and achieving sustainable development, she said.

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In Developing World, Pollution Kills More Than Disease Fri, 13 Jun 2014 22:56:47 +0000 Stephen Leahy Air and chemical pollution are growing rapidly in the developing world with dire consequences for health, says Richard Fuller, president of the Pure Earth/Blacksmith Institute. Credit: Bigstock

Air and chemical pollution are growing rapidly in the developing world with dire consequences for health, says Richard Fuller, president of the Pure Earth/Blacksmith Institute. Credit: Bigstock

By Stephen Leahy
UXBRIDGE, Canada, Jun 13 2014 (IPS)

Pollution, not disease, is the biggest killer in the developing world, taking the lives of more than 8.4 million people each year, a new analysis shows. That’s almost three times the deaths caused by malaria and fourteen times those caused by HIV/AIDs. However, pollution receives a fraction of the interest from the global community.

“Toxic sites along with air and water pollution impose a tremendous burden on the health systems of developing countries,” said Richard Fuller, president of the Pure Earth/Blacksmith Institute, which prepared the analysis as part of The Global Alliance on Health and Pollution (GAHP). GAHP is a collaborative body of bilateral, multilateral, and international agencies, national governments, academia and civil society.

Air and chemical pollution is growing rapidly in these regions and when the total impact on the health of people is also considered, “the consequences are dire,” Fuller told IPS.

This future is entirely preventable as most developed countries have largely solved their pollution problems. The rest of the world needs assistance, but pollution has dropped off the radar in the current draft of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), he said.

The SDGs are the U.N.’s new plan for development assistance for the next 15 years. Countries, aid agencies and international donors are expected to align their funding and aid with these goals when they are announced in September 2015.

“Pollution is sometimes called the invisible killer…its impact is difficult to track because health statistics measure disease, not pollution,” Fuller said.

As a result pollution is often misrepresented as a minor issue, when it actually needs serious action now, he said.

The GAHP analysis integrates new data from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and others to determine that 7.4 million deaths were due to pollution sources from air, water, sanitation and hygiene. An additional one million deaths were due to toxic chemical and industrial wastes flowing into air, water, soil and food, from small and medium-sized producers in poor countries.

The health burden of environmental pollution in these countries is on top of health impacts from infectious diseases, and smoking, said Jack Caravanos, professor of Environmental Health at the City University of New York and a technical advisor to the Blacksmith Institute.

It’s extremely difficult to estimate the health impacts from many thousands of toxic sites contaminated with lead, mercury, hexavalent chromium and obsolete pesticides, Caravanos told IPS.

But the one million death estimate is likely a gross underestimate since investigations into the scope of the problem have only just started. “We’ve recently found sites filled with obsolete pesticides in Eastern Europe that have some very toxic chemicals,” he said.

These chemicals don’t stay put. Rain washes them into soils and waterways, and wind blows toxic particles long distances, sometimes coating crops and food, Caravanos said. A 2012 study by Blacksmith estimated that mining waste, lead smelters, industrial dumps and other toxic sites affect the health of 125 million people in 49 developing countries.

“We have identified over 200 places with contaminated air, soil or water that are putting at risk some six million people,” said John Pwamang of the Ghana Environment Protection Agency.

“These include places with lead poisoning from recycling used lead-acid or car batteries, and e-waste dismantling areas, where cables are burnt in the open air and the toxic smoke poisons whole neighborhoods,” Pwamang said in a release.

A growing body of scientific evidence is revealing an astonishing array of illness including cancers, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, ADHD, autism, Alzheimer’s and depression, with links to the ever-increasing amount of toxic chemicals in our bodies, said Julian Cribb, author of the new book “Poisoned Planet: how constant exposure to man-made chemicals is putting your life at risk”.

“There are at least 143,000 man-made chemicals plus an equally vast number of unintentional chemicals liberated by mining, burning fossil fuels, waste disposal,” Cribb said in a release.

“Around 1000 new industrial chemicals are released every year, which the United Nations says are largely untested for human and environment health and safety.”

GAHP members worldwide have come together to urge the U.N. to spotlight pollution in the SDGs (see the growing list of supporters). A position paper and a draft of GAHP’s proposed revised SDG text have been created. These will be presented to the Open Working Group of the SDGs, meeting in New York City next week.

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Small Islands, Beacons for the Rest of the World Fri, 06 Jun 2014 21:19:35 +0000 Stephen Leahy Installing a solar panel on Lefties’ snack shack in Bridgetown. Credit: Stephen Leahy/IPS

Installing a solar panel on Lefties’ snack shack in Bridgetown. Credit: Stephen Leahy/IPS

By Stephen Leahy
BRIDGETOWN, Jun 6 2014 (IPS)

Facing potential extinction under rising sea levels, many small island nations are embracing renewable energy and trying to green their economies. Although the least responsible for carbon emissions, small countries like Barbados are on the front lines of climate impacts.

“Small island nations’ voices have to be heard by the rest of the world,” said Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

“Many will undergo fundamental changes. Some will lose 60 to 70 percent of their beaches and much of their tourism infrastructure. Climate change will destroy some countries and the livelihoods of millions of people,” Steiner told IPS in Bridgetown.

Up to 100 percent of coral reefs in some areas of the Caribbean sea have been affected by bleaching due to too-hot seawater linked to global warming. Without global action to reduce emissions there may not be any healthy reefs left in the entire Caribbean region by 2050, according to UNEP’s Small Island Developing States Foresight Report.

Released in Bridgetown on World Environment Day Jun. 5, the report calculates that island nations in the Caribbean face187 billion dollars in shoreline damage from sea level rise well before the end of this century.

A 50-cm sea level rise will mean the country of Grenada will lose 60 percent of its beaches. Sea levels are destined to rise far higher than that, say recent science reports about the unstoppable melt of the massive ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland along with hundreds of glaciers.

Islands are especially vulnerable to the impacts of global warming which will adversely affect multiple sectors including tourism, agriculture, fisheries, energy, freshwater, health and infrastructure, the report concludes.

“When our planet speaks we must listen,” said Barbados Prime Minister Freundel Stuart.

“Nature knows how to hit back,” Stuart told IPS.

For Barbados, World Environment Day with its theme “Raise Your Voice Not the Sea Level” was not just a ceremonial action but part of a commitment to become “the most advanced green economy in the Latin American and Caribbean region,” he said.

This country of 275,000 people is in the eastern Caribbean, 800 km from the shores of Venezuela. Facing recurring droughts in the past two decades, Barbados has been forced to use energy-intensive desalination to provide enough drinking water.

Imported fossil fuel means energy costs are many times higher than in rich countries like the U.S. Barbados has set a goal of 30 percent renewable energy by 2029 but expects to achieve this by 2019, said William Hines, Barbados’ Chief Energy Conservation Officer.

Solar energy is 30 to 40 percent cheaper but requires significant upfront investment since nearly everything must be imported. However, the payback period in a sun-rich country like Barbados is five to seven years, Hines said.

Aside from finding the money to build large-scale solar, integrating into the nation’s electrical grid has also been challenging. But because this is a small nation, the scope and scale of such challenges are smaller, and they can be resolved relatively quickly.

The three-coral atoll nation of Tokelau in the South Pacific became the first country in the world to become 100 percent powered by renewable energy in October 2012. Other South Pacific nations, including the Cook Islands and Kiribati, plan to be 100 percent renewable by 2020.

As a group, the 52 Small Island Developing States (SIDS) have committed to cut their fossil fuel dependence by 50 percent by 2035. This is as much about setting an example for the world as it is a solution to the crippling fossil fuel costs that devour half of some countries’ budgets.

Barbados is going beyond renewable energy and has put policies into place intended to ‘green’ its entire economy. It has already completed a three-year study called the Green Economy Scoping Study to determine what needs to be done. That research concluded that green policies are not enough, and that Barbados also needs more public and private investment, along with education and changes in consumer behaviour.

“Barbados is one of the world leaders in greening their economies,” Steiner told IPS in an interview.

Small islands need support including financing and technology transfer from the developed world to be able to make this transition and to cope with current and future climate impacts. They can and want to move quickly to diversify their economies, create green jobs, increase resource efficiency and shift to green energy, he said.

“Small islands can serve as beacons for the rest of the world,” Steiner stressed.

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World Applauds Ambitious U.S. Carbon Cuts Tue, 03 Jun 2014 17:02:22 +0000 Stephen Leahy The new U.S. effort to reduce carbon emissions sends a powerful signal to the business and energy sectors that the country is moving away from coal and embracing energy efficiency and renewables, says the WWF’s Samantha Smith. Credit: Rennett Stowe/CC by 2.0

The new U.S. effort to reduce carbon emissions sends a powerful signal to the business and energy sectors that the country is moving away from coal and embracing energy efficiency and renewables, says the WWF’s Samantha Smith. Credit: Rennett Stowe/CC by 2.0

By Stephen Leahy
UXBRIDGE, Canada, Jun 3 2014 (IPS)

New efforts by the U.S. to reduce its carbon emissions are being welcomed around the world. On Monday the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a plan to cut carbon emissions from power plants 25 percent from 2005 levels by 2020.

This “is the strongest action ever taken by the U.S. government to fight climate change,” said Connie Hedegaard, the European Union’s Climate Action Commissioner.

Hedegaard said it’s an important step for “a president really investing politically in fighting climate change.”

“We’ve been waiting a long time to see who will be the first through the climate action doorway,” said the Seychelles Islands Ambassador Ronald Jumeau, who is a spokesperson for the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS). The very existence of many of these low-lying islands is threatened by sea level rise from a warming climate.

As the largest carbon emitter historically it’s important for the U.S. to take the lead, Jumeau told IPS.

“Now its time for other major carbon-emitting countries to step up,” he said. This is especially true for Japan, Canada and Australia, as well as China and India. “Small islands states are moving quickly to reduce our emissions and we cheer anyone who joins in.”

Several Pacific island countries hope to have their electricity from 100 percent renewable energy by 2020. Just last year the tiny country of Palau near New Zealand became the first nation to achieve this.

Other countries have also stepped up. China recently increased its renewable energy target and has banned new coal power plants in many urban regions. Just two weeks ago, Mexico increased its ambitious renewable energy target from 15 to 25 percent by 2018.
The U.S. announcement is one of a series of recent steps by a few countries to reduce emissions, said Samantha Smith, the leader of the WWF Climate and Energy Initiative.

“This is very encouraging and ought to inspire others to act,” Smith told IPS in an interview from Oslo.

In taking a strong public stance on emissions, the U.S. is sending a powerful signal to the business and energy sectors that the country is moving away from coal and embracing energy efficiency and renewables, Smith said.

“There are already more jobs and better jobs in the U.S. solar industry than in coal,” she added.

A recent study found that employing energy efficiency alone would create more than 600,000 skilled jobs, cut air pollution, fight climate change and result in 17 billion dollars in energy savings.

Jumeau said many countries will closely watch to see if the EPA can actually deliver on its promise given the contentious politics in the U.S.

The coal industry and its supporters in the Republican party will try to block the EPA, but they’re unlikely to be successful, said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, DC.

While the EPA action on power plants is a positive sign by the U.S., it’s not ambitious enough to prevent global warming from rising well beyond 2 degrees C, Meyer told IPS.

New and larger commitments to cut carbon are what U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wants leaders to bring the Climate Summit 2014 in New York City in September.

“Ban Ki-moon has made it clear he wants commitments not speeches in New York. But it’s not clear what will happen,” said Meyer.

The European Union is the leader in cutting emissions – but it could and needs to do far more, said Smith.

“The EU has already reached its 2020 target but is unwilling to go further, when it could do more on renewables and energy efficiency,” she said.

She hopes the U.S. announcement will encourage the EU to be more ambitious in the run-up to the new global climate treaty to be finalised in Paris in 2015. Short-term reduction targets like 2020 are very important from an energy investment perspective, since they spell out where a country or region is going, she said.

Equally important is the scientific reality that carbon emissions must peak before 2020 to have a reasonable chance of staying below 2 degree C of global warming.

Jumeau says his colleagues at AOSIS are cautiously optimistic. They sense a change in the wind regarding public concern about global warming.

“Everyone around the world is suffering and its getting worse. The public is beginning to notice and see the impacts support scientists’ warnings.”

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Small Farmers’ Loss of Land Increases World Hunger Thu, 29 May 2014 23:54:53 +0000 Stephen Leahy Small farmers - like Ndomi Magareth, planting beans here on her land in Cameroon - “are losing land at a tremendous rate. It’s a land reform movement in reverse,” says GRAIN’s Henk Hobbelink. Credit: Monde Kingsley Nfor/IPS

Small farmers - like Ndomi Magareth, planting beans here on her land in Cameroon - “are losing land at a tremendous rate. It’s a land reform movement in reverse,” says GRAIN’s Henk Hobbelink. Credit: Monde Kingsley Nfor/IPS

By Stephen Leahy
UXBRIDGE, Canada, May 29 2014 (IPS)

The world is increasingly hungry because small farmers are losing access to farmland. Small farmers produce most of the world’s food but are now squeezed onto less than 25 percent of the world’s farmland, a new report reveals. Corporate and commercial farms, big biofuel operations and land speculators are pushing millions off their land.

“Small farmers are losing land at a tremendous rate. It’s a land reform movement in reverse,” said Henk Hobbelink, coordinator of GRAIN, an international non-profit organisation that works to support small farmers, which released the report Thursday.

“The overwhelming majority of farming families today have less than two hectares to cultivate and that share is shrinking,” Hobbelink told IPS.

“If we do nothing to reverse this trend, the world will lose its capacity to feed itself.”

GRAIN’s Hungry for Land report provides new data to show small farms occupy less than 25 percent of the world’s farmland today – just 17 percent, if farms in India and China are excluded. Despite this they still provide most of the world’s food because they are often much more productive than large corporate farms.

If all farms in Central America matched the output of small farms the region would produce three times as much food, the report said.

“Every day we are exposed to the systematic expulsion from our land,” said Marina Dos Santos of the National Coordination of the Brazilian Landless Movement.

“We want the land in order to live and to produce, as these are our basic rights against land-grabbing corporations who seek only speculation and profit,” she said.

With the launch of 2014 as the International Year of Family Farming the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and many agriculture experts acknowledged how important small farms are for feeding the world. However, they wildly overestimate how much land is being farmed by smallholders.

“I couldn’t believe it when the FAO said family farms manage 70 percent of all farmland. This contradicts all of our experience with small farms around the world,” said Hobbelink.

Researchers at GRAIN dug into mountains of data from every country as well as FAO statistics and information to find out who owns what. In many countries farmland ownership is very difficult to determine and there are varying definitions of what is a small farm or a family farm. Some giant corporate farms are family-owned.

“Our report outlines how we did our analysis. We checked our findings with other sources and this is closer to reality than the FAO number,” he said.

“It’s an important report and corresponds to our own research,” agreed Frederic Mousseau, policy director of the Oakland Institute, a U.S.-based policy think tank focused on global land and food issues.

Small farmers can feed the future nine billion people on the planet if they have the land, Mousseau told IPS.

“The current global food system is set up to provide fuels and food for western markets,” he said. “It’s not about feeding the most people.”

Zimbabwe was harshly criticised by the international community for redistributing farmland to smallholders in 2000. They now produce over 90 percent of the nation’s food crops, compared to 60 to70 percent before 2000.

“More [Zimbabwean] women own land in their own right, which is key to food sovereignty everywhere”, said Elizabeth Mpofu, general coordinator of La Via Campesina.

Since the 2008-2009 food crisis there has been a rush to buy up farmland all around the world by Wall St and financial institutions, said Mousseau.

In developing countries an estimated 250 million hectares worth of land investment, also known as ‘land grabbing’, has occurred between 2000 and 2011. The same thing is happening in the U.S.

In many areas the price of land has shot upwards pushing many farmers off their land. “U.S. farms are increasingly run by corporate farm managers who hire farm workers not farmers,” he said.

Investors see farmland as a safe and secure investment, especially in the U.S., with its multi-billion dollar farm subsidies. As a result, an estimated 10 billion dollars in capital is already looking for access to U.S. farmland, according to the Oakland Institute’s Down on the Farm report.

Over the next 20 years, 400 million acres, or nearly half of all U.S. farmland, is set to change hands as the current generation retires. Institutional investors are eagerly waiting to buy, the report said.

That will be bad news for food production, farmland, the environment and the economy. The U.S. and far too many other countries have bought into agribusiness propaganda and financial lobbying that commercial, large-scale agriculture is how to feed the world, create jobs and grow the economy, said Mousseau.

“Instead government policies need to be aligned to favour small farmers, not corporations,” he added.

The hard evidence from many studies shows that small farmers practicing agroecological farming produce more food, protect soil and water, have far lower CO2 emissions and provide better livelihoods, said Hobbelink.

“Small farmers give each hectare of their precious land far more attention and care,” he stressed.

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Conflict with Local Communities Hits Mining and Oil Companies Where It Hurts Sun, 18 May 2014 09:39:03 +0000 Stephen Leahy Rosa Tanguila, a Quechua indigenous woman, cleaning up the pollution caused by Texaco in a stream in her community, Rumipamba, in Ecuador’s Amazon jungle region. Credit: Gonzalo Ortiz/IPS

Rosa Tanguila, a Quechua indigenous woman, cleaning up the pollution caused by Texaco in a stream in her community, Rumipamba, in Ecuador’s Amazon jungle region. Credit: Gonzalo Ortiz/IPS

By Stephen Leahy
UXBRIDGE, Canada , May 18 2014 (IPS)

Conflicts with local communities over mining, oil and gas development are costing companies billions of dollars a year. One corporation alone reported a six billion dollar cost over a two-year period according to the first-ever peer-reviewed study on the cost of conflicts in the extractive sector.

The Pascua Lama gold mining project in Chile has cost Canada’s Barrick Gold 5.4 billion dollars following 10 years of protests and irregularities. No gold has ever been mined and the project has been suspended on court order.

And in Peru, the two billion dollar Conga copper mining project was suspended in 2011 after protests broke out over the projected destruction of four high mountain lakes. The U.S.-based Newmont Mining Co, which also operates the nearby Yanacocha mine, has now built four reservoirs which, according to its plan, are to be used instead of the lakes.

“Communities are not powerless. Our study shows they can organise and mobilise, which results in substantial costs to companies,” said co-author Daniel Franks of Australia’s University of Queensland, who is also deputy director of the Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining.

“Unfortunately conflicts can also result in bloodshed and loss of life,” Franks told Tierramérica.

The study is based on 45 in-depth, confidential interviews with high-level officials in the extractive (energy and mining) industries with operations around the world.

“Conflict translates environmental and social risk into business costs” was published May 12 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). A special report “Costs of Company-Community Conflict in the Extractive Sector” based on the study is also available.

“We wanted to document the costs of bad relationships with communities. Companies aren’t fully aware and only some investors know the extent of the risk,” Franks said.

“If companies are interested in securing their profits then they need to have high environmental and social standards and collaborate with communities,” Franks said in an interview.

Investing in building relationships with communities is far less costly than conflict. Local people are not generally opposed to development. What they oppose is having little say or control over how development proceeds, he added.

“We want development that benefits indigenous people and doesn’t just benefit someone’s brother-in-law,” said Alberto Pizango, president of the  Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest (AIDESEP), an indigenous rights organisation in Peru representing 1,350 Amazon jungle communities.

Peruvian indigenous leader Alberto Pizango, who is on trial in connection with the 2009 massacre in Bagua, has at the same time been asked by the Environment Ministry to help plan the next climate summit. Credit: Coimbra Sirica/BurnessGlobal

Peruvian indigenous leader Alberto Pizango, who is on trial in connection with the 2009 massacre in Bagua, has at the same time been asked by the Environment Ministry to help plan the next climate summit. Credit: Coimbra Sirica/BurnessGlobal

“Indigenous people have something to say about harmonious development with nature. We don’t want development that destroys our beloved Amazon,” Pizango told Tierrámerica from Lima.

Pizango has been actively resisting the government of Peru’s selling of petroleum concessions to foreign companies on lands legally titled to indigenous people.

The struggle turned violent outside the northern jungle town of Bagua on Jun. 5, 2009, when armed riot police moved to evict peaceful protesters blocking a road. In the clash 24 police officers and 10 civilians were killed.

Pizango and 52 other indigenous leaders were charged with inciting violence and 18 other crimes. They went on trial May 14 in Bagua.

The indigenous people were protesting 10 legislative decrees they considered unconstitutional, which were put in place by the government to foment private investment in native territories.

“We had no choice and thought our protests were fair and that we were right. But it was too high a price. We don’t want to see that again. We want to move from the ‘big protest’ to the ‘big proposal,” said Pizango, who faces a life sentence if he is found guilty.

The study published in PNAS shows that the violence in Bagua could have been avoided if companies and the government acknowledged indigenous rights and worked with local communities.

“It is with great sadness I say this has yet to happen in Peru,” said Pizango, who was not even in Bagua when the violent clash occurred.

Meanwhile, Peru’s Environment Ministry has asked Pizango and AIDESEP to assist in the planning of the big U.N. climate conference to be held in Lima at the end of the year. The indigenous leader hopes the event will show the world that native people can protect the forest and the climate.

Repairing relationships between communities and companies and governments is difficult, said Rachel Davis, a Fellow at the Corporate Social Responsibility Initiative at Harvard University.

“It is much harder for a company to repair its relationship with a local community after it has broken down; relationships cannot be ‘retro-fitted’,” said Davis, a co-author of the study.

Franks compares this to a divorce, pointing out that only rarely do partners remarry.

Leading mining corporations have apparently begun to understand this, and are implementing the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and adopting the International Council on Mining and Metals Sustainable Development Framework, Davis said in a statement.

But this is not the case in the oil and gas sector. “Their culture is very different. They’re not used to dealing with communities,” said Franks.

The study shows that environmental and water issues are the biggest triggers of conflicts. Activities like hydraulic fracking for unconventional gas and oil are on the rise and are affecting water. Big conflicts are coming, he predicts.

“It’s a good report but doesn’t address the broader economic and political pressure to push projects through quickly,” said Jamie Kneen of MiningWatch Canada.

Shareholders want big returns on their investments and governments want their royalties sooner rather than later. All of this makes corporations less willing to compromise or to take the time to find alternatives that might be acceptable to local people,” Kneen told Tierrámerica.

“Companies know there will be problems with local communities. Companies often gamble that any conflict will not get too high a profile and try to hide this risk from investors,” he added.

Not all conflicts are resolvable, Kneen said. “Some communities will never accept any risk of contamination to their water.”

This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network.

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CO2 Producing Hollow Food Wed, 07 May 2014 19:02:30 +0000 Stephen Leahy Women plant rice in Nepal. More than 2.4 billion people get key nutrients from rice, wheat, maize, soybeans, field peas and sorghum. Credit: Mallika Aryal/IPS

Women plant rice in Nepal. More than 2.4 billion people get key nutrients from rice, wheat, maize, soybeans, field peas and sorghum. Credit: Mallika Aryal/IPS

By Stephen Leahy
UXBRIDGE, Canada, May 7 2014 (IPS)

Rising carbon dioxide (CO2) levels will make many key food crops like rice and corn less nutritious, a new study shows.

Important food crops will contain lower levels of zinc and iron by mid-century without major cuts in CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels, an analysis of field experiments conducted on three continents has found.“Higher levels of CO2 helps plants grow faster but it is mainly in the form of increased starch and sugars." -- David Wolfe

“Two billion people already suffer from low levels of zinc and iron. It’s an enormous global health burden today,” said Samuel Myers of the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, co-author of the Increasing CO2 threatens human nutrition study published in the journal Nature Wednesday.

Deficiencies of zinc and iron have wide range of impacts on human health, including increased vulnerability to infectious diseases, anemia, higher levels of maternal mortality, and lowered IQs.

More than 2.4 billion people get these key nutrients in their rice, wheat, maize, soybeans, field peas and sorghum, Myers told IPS.

Myers and colleagues assessed new data from 143 experiments growing crops at CO2 levels that are 100 percent greater than the pre-industrial average. At current emission rates, CO2 in the atmosphere will be 100 percent greater around the year 2060. Wheat grown at those concentrations has 9.3 percent lower zinc and 5.1 percent lower iron than those grown at today’s CO2 concentration.

“We found significant effects from higher CO2 for all of these crops but some cultivars [seed varieties] did better than others,” he said.

The nutrition content of many food crops has already declined over the past 100 years, Myers acknowledged. One reason is that plant breeders have favoured rapid growth and yield while ignoring nutrition. Add to this the reality that CO2 levels today are 42 percent higher than 150 years ago.

“Higher levels of CO2 helps plants grow faster but it is mainly in the form of increased starch and sugars,” said David Wolfe, a professor of plant and soil ecology at Cornell University in New York State.

“There’s more carbohydrates [starch and sugar] but less protein, nutrients and other effects,” Wolfe told IPS. Wolfe was not involved in the Harvard study.

This is resulting in what some call “hollow food”, that is, food with insufficient nutrition. It is suspected of playing a role in the rapid rise in obesity, as people may be eating more in order to get the nutrition they need, said Ken Warren, a spokesman with The Land Institute, an agricultural research centre in the U.S. state of Kansas.

Crops take minerals, trace elements and other things from the soil every year. All that modern agriculture puts back into the land are some chemical fertilisers which do not replace all that has been lost, Warren previously told IPS.

A 2006 analysis of British government nutrition data on meat and dairy products revealed that the mineral content of milk, cheese and beef had declined as much as 70 percent compared to those from the 1930s. Parmesan cheese had 70 percent less magnesium and calcium, beef steaks contained 55 percent less iron, chicken had 31 percent less calcium and 69 percent less iron, while milk also showed a large drop in iron along with a 21 percent decline in magnesium.

Copper, an important trace mineral (an essential nutrient that is consumed in tiny quantities), also declined 60 percent in meats and 90 percent in dairy products.

Modern high-yielding crops and intensive farming methods were believed to be responsible, according to The Food Commission, an independent watchdog on food issues that published the study.

The measured impacts of high levels of CO2 on food crops in the Harvard study did not replicate the higher temperatures and extreme weather conditions expected mid-century. Other studies have shown that high temperatures stress plants and while the extra CO2 results in larger plants their yield was much lower, said Cornell’s Wolfe.

Growing food will be much more challenging with climate change, especially in California, the Southwest and parts of the Great Plains, according to the U.S. government’s National Climate Assessment released Tuesday.

Four years in the making, the assessment is the definitive scientific statement of current and future impacts of carbon pollution on the United States.

The projected increase in temperatures will dry out soils, making it impossible to grow food without extensive irrigation. The entire region is already in a decade-long drought that is likely to worsen. Warmer temperatures also increase evaporation rates, drying out soils even more and making irrigation less effective. Groundwater resources are also in serious decline throughout the region.

“California and the Southwest face huge water challenges,” said Wolfe, one of the 300 scientists who contributed to the assessment.

“California has the perfect climate for growing food right now but it won’t if gets hotter,” he said.

There is little doubt California and the rest of the U.S. will get hotter unless CO2 emissions decline there and around the world. While the western half of the U.S. gets drier the eastern half, and particularly the Northeast, will get heavier rains and more flooding.

The Northeast will see increasing droughts in the summer. But when the rains come it will be in form of deluges, Wolfe said. Over the past decade the region has experienced wildly erratic winter weather. In 2012, an extremely warm winter allowed fruit crops to bloom four weeks early, only to later have a hard frost that killed the blooms, resulting in losses amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars.

“Unpredictability is the biggest challenge for farmers,” Wolfe said.

He added that he’s an optimist but sees a future with higher food prices, beyond what the poor can afford, and a great deal of disruption in farm communities. U.S. farmers are going to need help to adapt, in terms of education and funding.

“We have to get beyond crop insurance. Change is risky for farmers and many don’t have the funds to adapt to what is coming.”

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Energy Efficiency Is an Untapped Goldmine Fri, 02 May 2014 13:49:11 +0000 Stephen Leahy At its Balzac Fresh Food Distribution Centre, Walmart uses infrared scanning technology to identify areas where energy can be lost to the environment and uses the information to improve the insulation performance of building penetrations, door seas, dock plates and air curtains. Credit: Walmart/cc by 2.0

At its Balzac Fresh Food Distribution Centre, Walmart uses infrared scanning technology to identify areas where energy can be lost to the environment and uses the information to improve the insulation performance of building penetrations, door seas, dock plates and air curtains. Credit: Walmart/cc by 2.0

By Stephen Leahy
UXBRIDGE, Canada, May 2 2014 (IPS)

The U.S. could create more than 600,000 skilled jobs, cut air pollution and fight climate change while its citizens reap 17 billion dollars in energy savings by doing one simple thing: Boost energy efficiency.

Employing existing energy-savings technology could reduce electricity demand by 25 percent. That’s like shutting down 494 power plants by 2030, according to a new report by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE).Programmes aimed at helping customers save energy cost utilities only about three cents per kilowatt hour, while generating the same amount of electricity from burning coal or natural gas can cost two to three times more.

“Americans’ energy bills will be lower and that will boost local economic growth,” said the study’s lead author, Sara Hayes.

“The CO2 emissions reduction would be massive – 600 million tonnes a year by 2030,” Hayes told IPS.

That’s nearly as much as Canada’s annual emissions, which are among the highest in the world.

“We were very conservative in our study. The benefits could be far greater,” she said.

The health and environmental cost savings from reducing air pollution were not part of the study.

“Those savings would blow the other savings right out of the water,” Hayes added.

What will it take to bring all this about at no net cost? Strong public support for a regulatory standard under the U.S. Clean Air Act to set a CO2 emission limit on existing power plants. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is currently preparing a draft regulation that will be made public Jun. 1.

States would enforce the new CO2 reduction target for existing power plants and it is important that the EPA ensure that energy efficiency is a way to meet it, said Hayes.

The study, Change is in the Air, shows how the EPA could use four common energy efficiency policies to allow states flexibility to meet the reduction targets.

These include setting a state energy savings target of 1.5 percent per year, implementing updated national model building codes, constructing economically attractive combined heat and power facilities, and adopting standards for five appliances.

These policies have been thoroughly tested and many states already take advantage of some end-use energy efficiency programmes and policies. All states have vast untapped reserves of this resource, the study found.

The U.S. leads the world in wasting energy, other studies have also shown. This is costly, amounting to an estimated 130 billion dollars per year, according to the Alliance to Save Energy.

In one small community programme in the state of Massachusetts, families saved more than 10 million dollars in electric and gas bills in 2012. All it took was information on household energy use, neighbourhood benchmarks and advice about how to use less energy.

“The EPA has a huge opportunity to grow the economy,” says Richard Caperton, director of national policy at Opower, an energy efficiency software company based in Arlington, Virginia.

By providing households with daily reports on their energy use and what the average is for their area along with ways to reduce it, Opower will help the U.S. save as much electricity as the Hoover Dam generates this year, Caperton told IPS.

“We started out eight years ago with two people and now more than 500 work at Opower,” he said.

The “Change is in the Air” study estimates that the gradual energy efficiency roll-out would create 611,000 jobs in 2030. This number includes those directly employed in energy efficiency jobs like home contractors and construction, and people like small business owners and their employees who benefit as money saved is spent back into the local economy.

However, EPA’s CO2 reduction target is virtually certain to face fierce opposition from powerful vested interests in the fossil fuel and power generation sector. Moreover, many electric utilities operate on a growth model, profiting from building new power plants and selling more electricity, not less, Hayes said.

Utilities’ business model can be restructured to recover the costs of efficiency while still profiting from selling less electricity. Another recent report by ACEEE also found that energy efficiency is the lowest-cost electricity resource for utilities.

Programmes aimed at helping customers save energy cost utilities only about three cents per kilowatt hour, while generating the same amount of electricity from burning coal or natural gas can cost two to three times more.

The U.S. is not alone in failing to prioritise energy efficiency.

An 2012 international study showed that despite the potential for huge cost and emission reductions, governments put nearly all their energy research efforts into new sources of energy like new power plants rather than helping to develop energy-efficient cars, buildings and appliances.

It found that improving energy efficiency provides by far the best bang-for-the-buck for energy security, improved air quality, reduced environmental and social impacts and carbon emission reductions. The study was published Oct. 26, 2012 in the science journal Nature Climate Change.

Energy efficiency is the most effective way to reduce carbon emissions causing climate change, co-author of the study Charlie Wilson previously told IPS.

Getting governments to fully commit to energy efficiency won’t be easy. By far the world’s biggest corporations are the fossil fuel energy and power producers, and they wield enormous political influence, said Wilson, a scientist with the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Laxenburg, Austria.

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Charting a Course for Survival, or Oblivion? Tue, 22 Apr 2014 19:08:59 +0000 Stephen Leahy Flooding in Trinidad's capital of Port of Spain left residents little choice but to wade through the deluge. The Caribbean region is already seeing numerous impacts from climate change. Credit: Peter Richards/IPS

Flooding in Trinidad's capital of Port of Spain left residents little choice but to wade through the deluge. The Caribbean region is already seeing numerous impacts from climate change. Credit: Peter Richards/IPS

By Stephen Leahy
UXBRIDGE, Canada, Apr 22 2014 (IPS)

Hopefully, on Earth Day today, high-level ministers from all countries are thinking about what they can bring to the table at a key set of meetings on climate change in early May.

This will be the first opportunity for governments to discuss their proposed climate action plans in light of the final Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released last week.“There is a clear message from science: To avoid dangerous interference with the climate system, we need to move away from business as usual.” -- Professor Ottmar Edenhofer

That report warned that carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from burning fossil fuels are still rising far too fast, even with more than 650 billion dollars invested in renewable energy in the last three years. However, over the same time period even more money was invested in getting more fossil fuels out of the ground.

The latter investment is keeping humanity and the planet locked onto a devastating path of a global temperature increase of four to five degrees C, the IPCC’s Working Group III report warned.

Scientists and economists say that unlocking ourselves from disaster will require a massive reduction in emissions – between 40 percent and 70 percent – by midcentury. This is can be readily accomplished without inventing any new technology and at a reasonably low cost, reducing global economic growth by a comparatively tiny 0.06 percent.

“It doesn’t cost the world to save the planet,” economist Professor Ottmar Edenhofer, who led the IPCC team, said at a press conference.

It does mean an end to investments in expanding fossil fuel infrastructure as the annual growth in CO2 emissions from burning oil, coal and gas must peak and decline in the next few years. The atmosphere already has 42 percent more CO2 than it did prior to 1800.

This extra CO2 is trapping more heat from the sun, which is heating up the oceans and land, creating the conditions that spawn super storms and extreme weather. And it will do so for the next 1,000 years since CO2 is a very durable molecule.

Current emissions are adding two percent more heat-trapping CO2 each year. That will push humanity’s ‘CO2 contribution’ to 50 percent four years from now.

“There is a clear message from science: To avoid dangerous interference with the climate system, we need to move away from business as usual,” Edenhofer said.

The IPCC’s first report released last September as part of its Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) clearly stated once again that the climate is changing rapidly as a result of human activity and urgent action is needed.

This was followed last month with a strong confirmation that climate impacts are already occurring on every continent and throughout the world’s oceans. This second report warned that one of the major impacts will be declines in food production unless emissions begin to decline.

The fossil fuel sector, the richest in human history, appears to be ignoring the IPCC warnings.

Earlier this month, oil giant ExxonMobil issued a report to its shareholders saying it does not believe the world will curb CO2 emissions and plans to extract and sell all of its 25.2 billion barrels worth of oil and gas in its current reserves. And it will continue investments hunting down more barrels.

“All of ExxonMobil’s current hydrocarbon reserves will be needed, along with substantial future industry investments, to address global energy needs,” said William Colton, ExxonMobil’s vice president in a statement.

The IPCC agrees oil, gas and coal will still be used in future but there is a CO2 maximum to have a reasonable chance of staying below two degrees C. That fossil energy cap won’t be enough to meet global energy needs so Working Group III recommends shifting to large-scale bioenergy and biofuels, waste incineration, nuclear power and carbon capture and storage (CCS).

These energy sources are controversial and risky. Large-scale bioenergy and biofuels needs huge areas of land and vast quantities of water and will compete with food production.

Studies show ethanol results in more emissions than burning gasoline. Even making ethanol from the leftovers of harvested corn plants released seven percent more CO2 than gasoline while depleting the soil, a new study revealed in Nature Climate Change this week.

The IPCC acknowledges bioenergy and biofuels can increase emissions, destroy livelihoods and damage the environment, says Rachel Smolker of Biofuelwatch, an environmental NGO.

“It is a shame they put so much stock in something that would make things worse rather than better,” Smolker told IPS.

Given all this, what climate action plans are governments going to propose when they meet in Abu Dhabi on May 4 and 5th? This is an informal ‘put your cards on the table’ regarding a new set of commitments on emission reduction targets and action plans to be made public at the U.N. Climate Summit in September.

Current reduction targets will not avoid four degrees C, most experts agree.

In hopes of getting countries to increase their reduction targets, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon asked governments to bring new proposals to New York City in September. With the current U.N. Climate Change Convention meetings deadlocked on key issues, the New York Summit is intended to kick-start political momentum for an ambitious, global, legal climate treaty in 2015.

The May get-together titled the “Abu Dhabi Ascent” is the only meeting before the Summit where governments, and invited members of the private sector and civil society will come together to explore how to get ambitious action to reduce emissions.

The Abu Dhabi meeting will be a window into the future of humanity: ascent or descent?

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South Scores 11th-Hour Win on Climate Loss and Damage Sun, 24 Nov 2013 20:34:06 +0000 Stephen Leahy COP19 delegates huddle to resolve the issue of loss and damage. Credit: Courtesy of ENB

COP19 delegates huddle to resolve the issue of loss and damage. Credit: Courtesy of ENB

By Stephen Leahy
WARSAW, Nov 24 2013 (IPS)

The U.N. climate talks in Warsaw ended in dramatic fashion Saturday evening in what looked like a schoolyard fight with a mob of dark-suited supporters packed around the weary combatants, Todd Stern of the United States and Sai Navoti of Fiji representing G77 nations.

It took two weeks and 36 straight hours of negotiations to get to this point."We need those promises to add up to enough real action to keep us below the internationally agreed two-degree temperature rise.” -- U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon

At issue in this classic North versus South battle was the creation of a third pillar of a new climate treaty to be finalised in 2015. Countries of the South, with 80 percent of the world’s people, finally won, creating a loss and damage pillar to go with the mitigation (emissions reduction) and adaptation pillars.

Super-typhoon Haiyan’s impact on the Philippines just days before the 19th Conference of the Parties (COP19) amply illustrated the reality of loss and damages arising from climate change.  Philippines lead negotiator Yeb Saño made an emotional speech announcing “fast for the climate” at the COP19 opening that garnered worldwide attention, including nearly a million YouTube views

His fast would only end with agreement on a loss and damage mechanism – an official process now called the “Warsaw Mechanism” to determine how to implement this third pillar. Much still needs to be defined. Climate impacts result in both economic and non-economic losses, including the growing issue of climate refugees, people who are forced to move because their homelands can no longer support them.

“This Warsaw decision on loss and damage is a major breakthrough,” said Bangladesh’s Saleem Huq, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development in the UK.

“There is a long way yet to go for an effective climate treaty,” Huq told IPS.

Overall, the results from COP19 are mixed, said Alden Meyer, the Union of Concerned Scientists’ director of strategy and policy, who has attended all but one of these climate negotiations over the past 19 years.

“Loss and damages is big but we have the bare minimum in the rest to keep going,” he told IPS.

The U.N. talks known as COPs are part of a complex and acronym-laden process to create a new climate treaty to keep global warming to less than two degrees C, and to help poorer countries survive the mounting impacts.

In 2009 at the semi-infamous Copenhagen talks, the rich countries made a deal with developing countries, saying in effect: “We’ll give you billions of dollars for adaptation, ramping up to 100 billion dollars a year by 2020, in exchange for our mitigation amounting to small CO2 cuts instead of making the big cuts that we should do.”

The money to help poor countries adapt flowed for the first three years but has largely dried up. Warsaw was supposed to be the “Finance COP” to bring the promised money. That didn’t happen.

Countries like Germany, Switzerland and others in Europe only managed to scrape together promises of 110 million dollars into the Green Climate Fund. Developing countries wanted a guarantee of 70 billion a year by 2016 but were blocked by the U.S., Canada, Australia, Japan and others.

“Rich governments have refused to recognise their legal and moral responsibility to provide international climate finance,” said Lidy Nacpil, director of Jubilee South, Asia Pacific Movement on Debt and Development.

The mitigation pillar in Warsaw is even shakier. Japan said they couldn’t make their promised emission reductions and gave themselves a new extremely weak target. Canada and Australia thumbed their noses at their reduction commitments and are increasing emissions.

Today’s reality is that slightly more than half of annual CO2 emissions are coming from the global south. In Warsaw, the big emitters like China and India refused to take on specific reduction targets. Instead they agreed to make “contributions”.  Specific details about reduction amounts and timing was deferred to a specially-convened leader’s climate summit in New York on Sep. 23, 2014.

“We need those promises to add up to enough real action to keep us below the internationally agreed two-degree temperature rise,” U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said here in Warsaw.

The one surprising success at COP 19 was an agreement on REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation). This will provide compensation for countries that could lose revenue from not exploiting their forests. Deforestation and conversion of forests to farmland contributes about 10 percent of total human-caused CO2 emissions.

“We now have a system in place to do REDD and reduce emissions,” said Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, an indigenous representative from the Philippines.

It’s a strong package that includes verification, monitoring and safeguards for local communities. Countries have to put all of this in place before they can access finance either through the Green Climate Fund or through carbon markets, Tauli-Corpuz told IPS.

“Hopefully, it will pump a lot of money into local communities and reduce deforestation,” she said.

Honouring land tenure or land rights of local communities to care for the forests is the key to making REDD work as intended and benefit local people and not corporations or national governments, she said.

Emissions from deforestation have been slowly declining. However, the vast majority of CO2 comes from burning fossil fuels, especially coal, and it continues to grow quickly. Those emissions will heat the planet for centuries and yet governments spend more than 500 billion dollars to subsidise these industries, said Kumi Naidoo, Greenpeace international executive director.

“Democracy has been stolen by corporations,” Naidoo told IPS. “While activists and protesters are arrested, the real hooligans are the CEOs of fossil fuel companies.”

The only avenue left to people is civil disobedience and 2014 will be the year of climate activism, he said.

“Now is the time to put our lives on the line and face jail time,” Naidoo said.

In what may be the first of many such actions, more than 800 members of civil society walked of the COP negotiations on the second to last day “in protest against rich industrialised countries jeopardising international climate action” they said.

While international negotiations inch along, climate scientists are growing increasingly alarmed by mounting evidence that climate change is happening faster and with larger impacts than projected.

To have a good chance at staying under two degrees C, industrialised countries need to crash their CO2 emissions 10 percent per year starting in 2014, said Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Manchester.

“We can still do two C but not the way we’re going,” Anderson said on the sidelines of COP 19 in Warsaw. He wondered why negotiators on the inside are not reacting to the reality that it is too late for incremental changes.

“I’m really stunned there is no sense of urgency here,” he told IPS.

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Carbon Emissions on Tragic Trajectory Tue, 19 Nov 2013 22:36:36 +0000 Stephen Leahy Brandon power plant, March 2006, Manitoba, Canada. Coal is the biggest source of climate-heating emissions in 2013. Credit: Bigstock

Brandon power plant, March 2006, Manitoba, Canada. Coal is the biggest source of climate-heating emissions in 2013. Credit: Bigstock

By Stephen Leahy
WARSAW, Nov 19 2013 (IPS)

Burning of fossil fuels added a record 36 billion tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere in 2013, locking in even more heating of the planet.

Global CO2 emissions are projected to rise 2.1 percent higher than 2012, the previous record high, according to a new report released Tuesday by the Global Carbon Project."Going beyond two degrees C is very risky, it's completely unknown territory." -- Corinne Le Quéré

This increase is slightly less than the 2000-2013 average of 3.1 percent, said lead author Corinne Le Quéré of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in the UK.

“This is the second year in a row of below average emissions. Perhaps this represents cautious progress,” Le Quéré told IPS.

Still, these hard numbers demonstrate that the U.N. climate talks have failed to curb the growth in emissions. And there is little optimism that the latest talks known as COP19 here in Warsaw will change the situation even with the arrival of high-level ministers Wednesday.

Global emissions continue to be within the highest scenario of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), she said.

“This is a five-degree C trajectory. It’s absolutely tragic for humanity to be on this pathway,” Le Quéré said.

This year’s 36 billion tonnes of CO2 will raise the planet’s temperature about 0.04 degrees C for thousands of years. Every tonne emitted adds more warming, she said. (If one tonne of CO2 was a second, 36 billion seconds equals about 1,200 years.)

CO2 levels in the atmosphere have risen about 40 percent in the last century. The oceans have absorbed 97 percent of the additional heat from those emissions, which is the only reason global temperatures have not risen much faster. However, the oceans will not continue to soak up all the extra heat forever.

Who is most responsible for the 2013 emissions?

In total volume it’s China, with 27 percent of the total. But Australia’s emissions per person are nearly three times higher than China’s. The other big emitters are the United States at 14 percent, the European Union at 10 percent, and India at six percent, the Global Carbon Project report says. The Project is co-led by researchers from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia.

While emissions grew year on year in China and India, U.S. emissions declined 3.7 percent. This reflects the switch from coal to gas as a result of the boom in natural gas production. Gas contains less CO2 than coal. However, U.S. coal exports soared.

“The shale gas boom in the U.S. is making more fossil fuels available, resulting in greater overall emissions,” said Le Quéré.

A new tool anyone can use to explore where emissions are coming is also being released Tuesday.  The Global Carbon Atlas is an online platform that allows anyone to see what their country’s emissions are and compare them with neighbouring countries – past, present, and future. It shows the biggest carbon emitters of 2012, what is driving the growth in China’s emissions, and where the UK is outsourcing its emissions.

The Atlas clearly shows that coal is the biggest source of emissions in 2013. It is the “dirtiest” fossil fuel by far for the climate. This is true even with the most modern, efficient coal power plant.

Poland generates 86 percent of its energy from coal and hopes to grow this industry even though it is hosting the U.N. climate talks. In a shock to many, it is also hosting the World Coal Summit this week.

“Our people are suffering because of climate change. I can’t believe the Polish government is ignoring this by hosting that summit,” said Robert Chimambo of the Zambia chapter of the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance (PACJA).

“Millions and millions of people are going to die in future just so coal companies can gain profits,” Chimambo told IPS.

“There is no such thing as clean coal. Energy companies should never get a social license to build another coal plant,” said Samantha Smith, head of the global climate and energy initiative at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

Although the coal industry talks about carbon capture and storage (CCS), it is too expensive and there are not enough places to store the captured CO2, Smith told IPS.

For developing countries, renewable energy is faster, cheaper, more decentralised and has the benefit of not polluting the air, water or land, she said.

The narrowing carbon budget is another reason to pursue green energy. To have a reasonable chance of staying below two degrees C in coming decades, cumulative emissions must not exceed 2,900 billion tonnes of CO2, the IPCC says, and 69 percent of that is already in the atmosphere. It bears repeating that even two degrees C is not safe given the increases in extreme weather, ocean acidification, melting of Arctic sea ice and other impacts already seen with the 0.8C of current heating.

“We have exhausted about 70 percent of the cumulative emissions that keep global climate change likely below two degrees,” said Pierre Friedlingstein at the University of Exeter in UK.

This knowledge doesn’t seem to make a difference to most political leaders or delegates at the U.N. climate talks. Some like Canada and Japan either don’t care or fail to realise their responsibility, said Le Quéré.

“My message to delegates in Warsaw is for every country to make the most stringent cuts they can now. If we wait till after 2020 it will far more difficult and expensive,” she said. “We have the solutions. Going beyond two degrees C is very risky, it’s completely unknown territory.”

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Japan Bails Out on CO2 Emissions Target Fri, 15 Nov 2013 16:17:46 +0000 Stephen Leahy The Japanese government blames the shutdown of its 50 nuclear reactors as the reason why it must revise its target. Credit: Bigstock

The Japanese government blames the shutdown of its 50 nuclear reactors as the reason why it must revise its target. Credit: Bigstock

By Stephen Leahy
WARSAW, Nov 15 2013 (IPS)

Japan announced Friday that it will renege on its carbon emissions pledge, likely ending any hope global warming can be kept to 2.0 degrees C.

The shocking announcement comes on the fifth day of the U.N. climate talks in Warsaw known as COP19, where more than 190 nations have agreed to a 2.0 C target and are trying to close the carbon emission gap to get there."It's like a slap in the face of those suffering from the impacts of climate change such as the Philippines." -- Wael Hmaidan

Japan will increase that gap three to four percent with its new 2020 reduction target, according to the Climate Action Tracker (CAT). It amounts to a three-percent increase compared to a 1990 baseline. Japan’s 2009 Copenhagen Accord pledge was a 25 percent reduction by 2020.

“Japan is taking us in the opposite direction,” Marion Vieweg of Climate Analytics, a German climate research organisation, told IPS here in Warsaw.

“Their revision shows the bottom up approach is not working if countries can simply drop their pledges at any time,” Vieweg said.

Climate scientists have long maintained that the 2020 target for industrialised countries should be to reduce emissions 25-40 percent compared to a 1990 baseline. However, even if nations meet their current climate pledges under the Copenhagen Accord, CO2 emissions in 2020 are likely to be eight to 12 billion tonnes higher than what’s needed, according to the U.N. Environment Programme’s Emissions Gap Report 2013.

Japan, the fifth largest emitter of CO2, is just the latest to abandon its international commitments.

While Australia hasn’t officially torn up its reduction pledge, the newly elected Tony Abbott government has gutted nearly all the emission programmes it needs to fulfill its 2020 promise of reductions between five and 25 percent compared to 2000, said Vieweg.

Canada may be the worst offender. Itrecently said its carbon emissions will be 20 percent higher than its Copenhagen pledge. More importantly, Canada’s emissions in 2020 will be 66 -107 percent greater than what’s actually required to do its share to reach 2.0 C.

“We’re getting results,” claimed Canada’s Environment Minister Leona Agglukaq.

“Australia, Canada and now Japan are having a destructive impact on the climate negotiations,” said Kimiko Hirata, Japanese Climate Action Network spokesperson. Climate Action Network (CAN) is an international network of more than 800 NGOs.

“There has been no public discussion about this lower target. We are very embarrassed by our government’s decision,” Hirata said in a press conference here.

The Japanese government blames the shutdown of its 50 nuclear reactors as the reason why it must revise its target. However, analysis by Climate Action Tracker has found that even with Japan’s current fossil fuel mix it could still reduce emissions 17-18 percent.

Climate Action Tracker produces independent reports by Climate Analytics, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Dutch-based energy institute Ecofys.

“With more energy efficiency and renewables, Japan could still make its 25-percent target,” said Vieweg.

Three separate studies by Japanese civil society organisations also show Japan could meet its 25-percent target without nuclear power. One detailed economic study shows that investments in energy efficiency and green energy would create more than two million jobs without reducing Japan’s GDP.

“Last October has been the hottest October Australia has ever experienced. Australians want action on climate,” said Heather Brewer of Climate Action Network, Australia.

More than 200 events and actions will be held in Australia on Nov. 17 to protest the Abbott government’s climate policies, she said.

On Monday at the opening of COP19, Yeb Sano, lead negotiator of the Philippines delegation, spoke emotionally about the devastation caused by Super Typhoon Haiyan. An extraordinarily powerful storm, it was the 24th typhoon to hit the country this year. Many see this as an indicator of climate change and of what is to come.

“I will now fast for the climate. I will not eat during this COP until there is a meaningful outcome in sight with concrete pledges,” Sano said in the opening plenary.

Sano has now been joined by more than 100 people here in Warsaw and more outside.

And in an unprecedented action, Sano launched a public online petition today to call on U.N. countries to take urgent and bolder action to tackle climate change. Within hours, more than 100,000 people had signed on.

“Superstorm Haiyan is a climate nightmare — carbon pollution is driving more frequent and intense storms which are devastating vulnerable communities. New realities require new politics, I urge you to stop the sad tradition of feet-dragging on commitments to cut pollution, and breaking promises on finance,” it reads in part.

Japan’s announcement “is like a slap in the face of those suffering from the impacts of climate change such as the Philippines,” said Wael Hmaidan, director of CAN International.

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Brazil Headed Towards an Energy Revolution Fri, 15 Nov 2013 15:15:35 +0000 Stephen Leahy The mega hydropower dams under construction in Brazil, like the Santo Antônio dam, are just one aspect of the energy revolution that the country will undergo in the next few decades. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

The mega hydropower dams under construction in Brazil, like the Santo Antônio dam, are just one aspect of the energy revolution that the country will undergo in the next few decades. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

By Stephen Leahy
WARSAW, Nov 15 2013 (IPS)

Energy consumption and production are undergoing fundamental shifts but the world is still on course to a 3.6 degree C hotter climate according a report released during the U.N. climate talks in Warsaw.

Brazil will play a major role in quenching the developing world’s growing thirst for oil, says the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) 2013 edition of the World Energy Outlook. This edition of the report looks to the year 2035 and projects that the biggest future consumers of oil and gas will be India and countries in Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

While low-carbon energy sources – renewables and nuclear – will meet around 40 percent of the growth in global energy demand, carbon emissions will still be 20 percent higher in 2035 from the energy sector. And that’s assuming countries achieve all of their current 2020 reduction targets. Countries like Canada will not.

Emissions need to peak and decline by 2020 to have a good chance of keeping global temperature rise to less than 2.0 degrees C according to the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) Emissions Gap Report 2013, released Nov 5.

“If we stay on the current path, we will not come close to the internationally agreed goal of limiting the rise in global temperatures to two degrees C,” IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven said in a statement published Nov. 12 at the 19th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 19) to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which will run through Nov. 22 in Warsaw.

Fossil fuel subsidies, which amounted to 544 billion dollars globally in 2012 alone, are the biggest barrier to staying below two degrees. These government subsidies keep the cost of fossil fuels artificially low, undermining the benefits of improving efficiency and installing renewable energy sources, the IEA report notes.

“In Bolivia diesel, gasoline and natural gas are heavily subsidised, so it is almost impossible to work with renewable energy sources,” said Dirk Hoffmann, director of the Instituto Boliviano de la Montaña in La Paz, Bolivia.

“Transportation is also heavily oriented towards conventional cars, and numbers are rapidly rising,” Hoffman told Tierramérica*.

The IEA report has a special section devoted to Brazil saying it will become a global energy superpower. Offshore oil deposits will lead to a tripling of oil production by 2035, making Brazil the world’s sixth largest producer. Natural gas production will increase five-fold by 2030, more than enough to meet Brazil’s needs, it says.

Energy consumption in Brazil will skyrocket 80 percent with the average electricity consumption doubling with a vastly larger middle class. Investments of 90 billion dollars a year and improved energy efficiency will be needed to achieve all this, the report concludes.

Remarkably Brazil will still be a low-carbon country. It is currently the world leader, with 42 percent of its energy from renewable sources – mainly hydropower, biomass and biofuels. In future, due to environmental considerations Brazil will be less reliant on big hydro projects and will shift to onshore wind and electricity from biofuels, the report says.

Brazil’s Ten-Year Energy Expansion Plan that ends in 2020 prioritises hydropower, wind power and biomass. These measures are expected to reduce projected emissions by 234 million tons of CO2 by 2020, a spokesperson for the Brazilian government told Tierramérica.

“Wind, thermal biomass and small hydroelectric plants together will double from eight percent to 16 percent,” she said.

Latin America could be powered by 100 percent renewable energy, a number of studies have shown, including the 2012 Global Energy Assessment, the most exhaustive integrated energy assessment ever done. By 2050 at least 60 percent, and up to 100 percent, of Latin America’s energy needs could be met by renewables, it found.

However, if large hydro is excluded, less than 10 percent of energy in South America is from renewables.

While nearly every country has said it wants to have more clean sources, subsidies for fossil fuels distort the market, according to the report Renewable Electricity Generation in South America. Written by experts in Germany, Chile, Brazil and Bolivia, it says these subsidies are far larger than existing incentives or tax benefits designed to encourage renewables.

Another barrier is getting investments in renewables, especially from outside the country. Better regulations and incentives to respond to changing market conditions are needed, the report says.

Greening South America’s energy mix would accelerate with the expected 2015 climate treaty requiring developing nations to reduce emissions. However domestic considerations, including the rising costs and impacts of fossil fuels, ought to increase interest in expanding the green energy sector, the report concludes.

* This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network.

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World Headed for a High-Speed Carbon Crash Thu, 07 Nov 2013 18:55:27 +0000 Stephen Leahy Climate change effects, such as extreme weather events, drive up environmental remediation costs. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Climate change effects, such as extreme weather events, drive up environmental remediation costs. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

By Stephen Leahy
UXBRIDGE, Canada, Nov 7 2013 (IPS)

If global carbon emissions continue to rise at their current rate, humanity will eventually be left with no other option than a costly, world war-like mobilisation, scientists warned this week.

“It’s blindingly obvious that our economic system is failing us,” said economist Tim Jackson, a professor of sustainable development at the University of Surrey in the UK."Prosperity isn’t just about having more stuff. Prosperity is the art of living well on a finite planet." -- economist Tim Jackson

Climate change, pollution, damaged ecosystems, record species extinctions, and unsustainable resource use are all clear symptoms of a dysfunctional economic system, Jackson, author of the report and book “Prosperity Without Growth”, told IPS.

“It is a travesty of what economy should be. It has absolutely failed to create social well being and has hurt people and communities around the world,” he said.

Emissions need to peak and decline by 2020 to have a chance at keeping global temperature rise to less than 2.0 degrees C, according to the Emissions Gap Report 2013, involving 44 scientific groups in 17 countries and coordinated by the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP).

Carbon dioxide (CO2) from burning fossil fuels has raised the global average temperature only 0.85C so far, but even that has produced a wide range of impacts.

Despite years of negotiations, countries’ commitments to reducing emissions remain far short of what’s needed, said Merlyn van Voore, UNEP climate change coordinator.

Even if nations meet their current climate pledges under the Copenhagen Accord, CO2 emissions in 2020 are likely to be eight to 12 billion tonnes higher than what is needed to stay below 2C at a reasonable cost, the report concluded. Failure to close this “emissions gap” by 2020 will require an unprecedented global effort to crash carbon emissions.

“Waiting brings huge additional costs,” van Voore said in a press conference.

No country has offered to do anything beyond their 2009 Copenhagen commitments. Nor is anyone expecting new offers at next week’s UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP 19) in Warsaw. Very few country leaders will attend COP 19, making this a technical negotiation on the shape of new climate treaty that will only come into force in 2020.

In the six years remaining before 2020, not only do countries need to increase their reduction commitments, some countries have to actually put policies in place to meet their Copenhagen commitments. China, India, Russia and the European Union are on track, but the U.S. and Canada are not, the report found.

In recent months, however, the U.S. has introduced some new policies and plans, including emissions caps on power plants. Canada is going in the opposite direction.

A government report recently acknowledged its emissions will be at least 20 percent higher than its Copenhagen reduction target. This was considered “good progress” given the skyrocketing emissions from its rapidly expanding tar sands oil operations, the Canadian government report said.

“Canada is a wealthy country. It could easily meet its target,” said Jennifer Morgan, director of the Climate & Energy Programme at the World Resources Institute.

“It’s very important for Canada to meet its target. That sends a very important message to the world,” Morgan, lead author of the UNEP report, told IPS.

However, economics is getting in the way of action. Canada has become very rich as the biggest supplier of foreign oil to the U.S. In less than 20 years, Canada’s GDP has tripled to 1.8 trillion dollars, with ambitious plans to grow even more. Politicians in Canada, and all over the world, reject anything they believe would hurt their countries’ economic growth.

Jackson and number of ecological economists say the current self-destructive economy must be transformed into one that delivers a shared and lasting prosperity. This kind of Green Economy is far beyond business as usual with some clean technology thrown in. It is what Jackson calls a “fit-for-purpose economy” that is stable, based on equity and provides decent, satisfying livelihoods while treading lightly on the earth.

The current growth-worshiping consumption economy is “perverse” and at odds with human nature and our real needs, he said.

“Prosperity isn’t just about having more stuff,” he said. “Prosperity is the art of living well on a finite planet.”

With powerful vested interests in the current economy, making this transformation will be difficult but it is already starting to happen at the community level. Jackson and co-author Peter Victor of Canada’s York University lay all this out in a new report “Green Economy at Community Scale“.

They see the roots of a transformational Green Economy in community banks, credit unions and cooperative investment schemes that enhance local communities. The Transition Town movement, creating local currencies, community-owned energy projects, global Ecocity movement are all part a response to an economy that does not work for most people and has created an environmental crisis, said Victor in a press release.

“Using GDP as measure of success is like riding a bike while only paying attention to how fast you are pedaling,” Jackson said.  “It is wrong in so many ways.”

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The Sickest Places in the World Tue, 05 Nov 2013 20:28:46 +0000 Stephen Leahy The Agbogbloshie e-Wasteland in Ghana. Fires are set to wires and other electronics to release valuable copper and other materials. The fires blacken the landscape, releasing toxic fumes. Credit: Blacksmith Institute

The Agbogbloshie e-Wasteland in Ghana. Fires are set to wires and other electronics to release valuable copper and other materials. The fires blacken the landscape, releasing toxic fumes. Credit: Blacksmith Institute

By Stephen Leahy
UXBRIDGE, Canada, Nov 5 2013 (IPS)

Parts of Indonesia, Argentina and Nigeria are among the top 10 most polluted places on the planet, according to a new report by U.S. and European environmental groups.

They are extraordinarily toxic places where lifespans are short and disease runs rampant among millions of people who live and work at these sites, often to provide the products used in richer countries.

“People would be shocked to see the conditions under which their lovely jewelry is sometimes made,” said Jack Caravanos, director of research at the New York-based Blacksmith Institute, an independent environmental group that released the list Monday in partnership with Green Cross Switzerland.

The Most Polluted Places in 2013 (unranked)

Agbobloshie, Ghana
Chernobyl*, Ukraine
Citarum River, Indonesia
Dzershinsk*, Russia
Hazaribagh, Bangladesh
Kabwe*, Zambia
Kalimantan, Indonesia
Matanza Riachuelo, Argentina
Niger River Delta, Nigeria
Norilsk*, Russia

*included in the original 2006 or 2007 lists

In Kalimantan, Indonesia, local people extract gold using mercury, which is both poisonous and a potent neurotoxin.

“They do this processing inside their homes, not realising the danger,” said Bret Ericson, senior project director of the Blacksmith Institute.

Blacksmith has gone into those homes and measured mercury levels 350 times higher than what is considered safe, Ericson told IPS.

This directly affects the health of 10 to 15 million people, Ericson said. “It is also a huge source of mercury pollution worldwide.”

Once released into the environment, mercury can end up in fish and other foods people eat anywhere on the planet. Low-cost, mercury-free methods for gold mining do exist but this knowledge is not widespread, he said.

The Top Ten Toxic Threats report is the latest in a series of annual reports documenting global pollution issues. The list is based on the severity of the health risk and the number of people exposed.

Previous reports have documented that the disease burden of pollution is comparable in scope to tuberculosis or malaria, posing a threat to 200 million people. Globally, one-fifth of cancers and 33 percent of disease in children can be blamed on environmental exposures, but this is far higher in low income countries, the report notes.

The Blacksmith Institute has conducted more than 3,000 initial risk assessments in 49 countries since the last list of polluted sites released by the two groups in 2007. Some sites listed in 2007, such as the lead battery recycling site in Haina, Dominican Republic, have been fully remediated.

“The good news is countries like India have come to grips with their pollution problems,” said Ericson. India has imposed a “Clean Energy Cess” or coal tax to help fund a clean energy fund of up to 400 million dollars which will inventory and clean up contaminated areas.

However, one of the emerging issues around toxic hotspots are clusters of poorly-regulated small-scale industries now found in many countries. There are more than 2,000 industries along the Citarum River in Indonesia, contaminating an area 13,000 sq km in size with lead, mercury, arsenic and other toxins, the report found.

“Clean-up is beginning thanks to a 500-million-dollar loan from the World Bank, but it will take a decade or more to complete,” said Ericson.

Near Buenos Aires, Argentina an estimated 50,000 small-scale industries dump a toxic mix of chemicals and metals into the air, soil and water. At least 20,000 people living along the Matanza Riachuelo river are exposed to dangerous levels of toxins, the report shows. The World Bank is also funding a major clean-up, with Blacksmith providing technical support.

Some toxic hotspots are so big and so badly polluted it will cost billions of dollars and take decades to clean up, said Stephan Robinson of Green Cross Switzerland.

“There are places that will be on our list for many years,” Robinson told IPS.

Russia has two of these. Russian authorities have finally acknowledged the issue and set aside three billion dollars to clean up Soviet-area legacy sites. One of these is Dzerzhinsk, a city of 300,000 people where chemical weapons like sarin, VX gas, mustard gas, and phosgene were manufactured for 50 years. At least 300,000 tonnes of waste from their manufacture were disposed of in the groundwater.

Birth defects are very common and the average lifespan of residents has fallen to the low forties. The situation is similar in Siberia’s Norilsk region, where the world’s biggest nickel smelter has killed all the trees within a 30-km radius.

“There has been lots of talk about improving pollution controls in Norilsk but not much action,” said Robinson.

A new site that will be on the list for years is the very polluted Niger Delta in Nigeria. Millions of barrels of oil have been spilled over the years and a U.N. study found two-thirds of the sites tested to be highly contaminated. Petroleum and its byproducts are very toxic, and when combined with poor nutrition, are a major unrecognised health threat for the 30 million people who live there, the report noted. The U.S. has been the major export destination for Nigerian oil.

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No Safe Havens in Increasingly Acid Oceans Tue, 15 Oct 2013 22:06:47 +0000 Stephen Leahy Because many deep-sea ecosystems are so stable, even small changes in temperature, oxygen, and pH may lower the resilience of deep-sea communities. Credit: Courtesy NOAA HURL Archives

Because many deep-sea ecosystems are so stable, even small changes in temperature, oxygen, and pH may lower the resilience of deep-sea communities. Credit: Courtesy NOAA HURL Archives

By Stephen Leahy
UXBRIDGE, Canada, Oct 15 2013 (IPS)

Oil, gas and coal are contaminating the world’s oceans from top to bottom, threatening the lives of more than 800 million people, a new study warns Tuesday.

“It took a year to analyse and synthesise all of the studies on the impacts of climate change on ocean species,” Camilo Mora, an ecologist at University of Hawai‘i in Honolulu and lead author, told IPS."We are seeing greater changes, happening faster, and the effects are more imminent than previously anticipated." -- Alex Rogers of the University of Oxford

Mora is also lead author of ground-breaking climate study published in Nature last week.

“It was very sad to see all the responses were negative. We were hoping there might be some safe havens,” he said.

The study found that carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels are overheating the oceans, turning them acidic and reducing the amount of oxygen in seawater. This is happening too fast for most marine species to adapt and ocean ecosystems around the world will collapse.

By 2100, no corner of the oceans that cover 70 percent of the Earth’s surface will be untouched.

“The impacts of climate change will be felt from the ocean surface to the seafloor. It is truly scary to consider how vast these impacts will be,” said Andrew Sweetman of the International Research Institute of Stavanger, Norway, co-author of the PLOS Biology study published Oct. 15.

This ambitious study examined all the available research on how current and future carbon emissions are fundamentally altering the oceans. It then looked at how this will impact fish, corals, marine animals, plants and other organisms. Finally the 29 authors from 10 countries analysed how this will affect the 1.4 to 2.0 billion people who live near the oceans or depend on them for their food and income.

Some 500 million to 870 million of the world’s poorest people are likely to be unable to feed themselves or earn incomes from oceans too contaminated by fossil fuel emissions, the “Biotic and Human Vulnerability to Projected Changes in Ocean Biogeochemistry over the 21st Century” study concludes.

“We are making a big mess of the oceans. Climate change is having a major impact illustrating the need for urgent action to reduce emissions,” said Mora.

The researchers used models of projected climate change developed for the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to build their analysis. These models are validated using measurements from past decades.

Additionally the findings of the PLOS Biology study were verified using actual observations. There were some differences but not significant enough to alter the conclusions, said Mora.

More shocking is that the oceans will be dramatically altered even with reduced growth in use of fossil fuel in coming decades and major declines starting in 2050, he said.

Only an abrupt decline in consumption of oil, gas, and coal within the next 10 years will minimise the impacts on the oceans.

This study only looked at how climate change is impacting the oceans and did not look at other impacts such as overfishing, chemical and nutrient pollution or plastic trash.

However, the 2013 update to the Ocean Health Index also released Tuesday did look at all current impacts on oceans. It ranked the current overall health of the oceans as a 65 out of possible 100. The index was launched in 2012 and is annual international collaboration to assess health of oceans based on 10 measures such as biodiversity, coastal livelihoods and protection, food provision.

The oceans’ ability to provide food only scored 33 out of 100, showing that food security is already at risk. It also means fish and other foods from the oceans are being harvested far faster than nature can replace them, the index reports.

China, Taiwan, Russia, India and Japan had the worst scores indicating that their regional wild-caught fisheries are nearly depleted.

“The Ocean Health Index measures how well we are sustainably producing seafood,” said Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Centre for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Fish are a vital source of protein for many but the index shows food security is at risk in some parts of the world, said Rosenberg in a release.

In regions subject to damaging storms and cyclones, the health of their coastal zones including mangroves, salt marshes, seagrass beds and coral reefs are a poor 57 out of 100, the index found. Tropical cyclones cause an estimated 26 billion dollars a year in lost property.

“Coastal habitats mitigate the damage that storms cause…. We must try to restore naturally protective coastal habitats,” Elizabeth Selig, director of Marine Science at Conservation International, said in a statement.

The Index “reveals the areas that must be improved in order to provide our children and their children a healthy thriving ocean,” said well-known oceanographer Sylvia Earle who is explorer-in-residence at National Geographic.

“This must be done as if it’s a matter of life and death – because it is,” Earle said in a statement.

Yet another independent assessment of ocean health reached a similar conclusion.

The world’s oceans are changing faster than previously thought with potentially dire consequences for both human and marine life, said the State of the Oceans report released last week by the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Climate change combined with other impacts like chemical pollution and overfishing have put the oceans into a downward spiral.

“We are seeing greater change, happening faster, and the effects are more imminent than previously anticipated,” Alex Rogers of the University of Oxford and IPSO’s scientific director told IPS.

“What these latest reports make absolutely clear is that deferring action will increase costs in the future and lead to even greater, perhaps irreversible, losses,” said Dan Laffoley of the IUCN in a release.

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The Coming Plague Thu, 10 Oct 2013 00:37:28 +0000 Stephen Leahy Rich benthic fauna and associated reef fish, Southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia, which is expected to be one of the first places in the world to see prolonged, record-breaking heatwaves. Credit: Courtesy of Keoki Stender,

Rich benthic fauna and associated reef fish, Southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia, which is expected to be one of the first places in the world to see prolonged, record-breaking heatwaves. Credit: Courtesy of Keoki Stender,

By Stephen Leahy
UXBRIDGE, Canada, Oct 10 2013 (IPS)

A climate plague affecting every living thing will likely start in 2020 in southern Indonesia, scientists warned Wednesday in the journal Nature. A few years later the plague will have spread throughout the world’s tropical regions.

By mid-century no place on the planet will be unaffected, said the authors of the landmark study."Within my generation, whatever climate we were used to will be a thing of the past." -- Nature study lead author Camilo Mora

“We don’t know what the impacts will be. If someone is about to fall off a three-storey building you can’t predict their exact injuries but you know there will be injuries,” said Camilo Mora, an ecologist at University of Hawai‘i in Honolulu and lead author.

“The results shocked us. Regardless of the scenario, changes will be coming soon,” said Mora.

The “climate plague” is a shift to an entirely new climate where the lowest monthly temperatures will be hotter than those in the past 150 years. The shift is already underway due to massive emissions of heat-trapping carbon from burning oil, gas and coal.

Extreme weather will soon be beyond anything ever experienced, and old record high temperatures will be the new low temperatures, Mora told IPS. This will affect billions of people and there is no going back to way things were.

“Within my generation, whatever climate we were used to will be a thing of the past,” he said.

In less than 10 years, a country like Jamaica will look much like it always has but it will not be the same country. Jamaicans and every living thing on the island and in its coastal waters will be experiencing a new, hotter climate – hotter on average than the previous 150 years.

The story will be same around 2030 in southern Nigeria, much of West Africa, Mexico and Central America without major reductions in the use of fossil fuels, the study reports.

“Some species will adapt, some will move, some will die,” said co-author Ryan Longman also at the University of Hawai‘i.

Tropical regions will shift first because their historical temperature ranges are narrow. Climate change may only shift temperatures by 1.0 degree C but that will be too much for some plants, amphibians, animals and birds that have evolved in a very stable climate, Longman said.

Tropical corals are already in sharp decline due to a combination of warmer ocean temperatures and  higher levels of ocean acidity as oceans absorb most the carbon from burning oil, gas and coal.

The Nature study examined 150 years of historical temperature data, more than a million maps, and the combined projections of 39 climate models to create a global index of when and where a region shifts into novel climate. That is to say a local climate that is continuously outside the most extreme records the region has experienced in the past 150 years.

Canada’s climate won’t shift until 2050 under the business as usual emissions scenario the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) calls RCP8.5. The further a region is from the equator, the later the shift occurs. If the world sharply reduces its use of fossil fuels (RCP4.5), then these climate shifts are delayed 10 to 30 years depending on the location, the study shows. (City by city projection here)

Tropical regions are also those with greatest numbers of unique species. Costa Rica is home to nearly 800 species, while Canada, which is nearly 200 times larger in area, has only about 70 unique or endemic species.

Species matter because the abundance and variety of plants, animals, fish, insects and other living things are humanity’s life support system, providing our air, water, food and more.

“It’s an elegant study that shows timing of when climate shifts beyond anything in the recent past,” said Simon Donner, a climate scientist at Canada’s University of British Columbia.

Donner, who wasn’t involved in the study, agrees that the new regional climates in the tropics will have big impacts on many species.

“A number of other studies show corals, birds, and amphibians in the tropics are very sensitive to temperature changes,” Donner told IPS.

The impacts on ecosystems, food production, water availability or cites and towns are not known. However, the results of the study confirm the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions to reduce those future impacts, he said.

Developed countries not only need to make larger reductions in their emissions, they need to increase their “funding of social and conservation programmes in developing countries to minimize the impacts of climate change”, the study concludes.

Amongst the biggest impacts the coming ‘climate plague’ will have is on food production, said Mora.

“In a globalised world, what happens in tropics won’t stay in the tropics,” he said.

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