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The Acidification of the Oceans

December 7, 2010 Leave a comment

This post has been contributed by Seán McDonagh SSC.

The wonder of the oceans

The oceans have a very special place in the story of the Universe. To many of us, they are just there and seem ordinary and common place. But we can truly appreciate their significance when we view them as a special aspect of the unfolding of the universe itself. As far as we know, liquid water is found nowhere else in the Universe. Water vapor and ice has been found on other planets, but only on planet Earth have the oceans been created and maintained in their liquid form for four billion years. Oceans were probably on the Red planet (Mars), but they have long since vanished.

Furthermore, the oceans are the womb of life. For almost 2 billion years, bacteria were the only forms of life on earth. During the first billion years, the blue-green algae learned how to take hydrogen from the oceans and to release oxygen into Earth’s carbon-dominated atmosphere. This was the beginning of photosynthesis.


More serious disruption than sea-level rising

Many people are now aware that the increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, since the beginning of the industrial revolution, is contributing to the rise in the ocean levels through thermal expansion and through melting glaciers in the Antarctic and Greenland.

But something else is also happening about which few people are aware. About one quarter to one third of the CO2 ends up in the oceans, where it dissolves to form carbonic acid, and then dissociates into bicarbonate and hydrogen ions. The more hydrogen ions there are in the water, the lower its pH is. In other words, it is more acidic. Furthermore, the excess of hydrogen ions react with, and eliminate carbonate ions, which are necessary for the formation of calcium carbonate skeletons and shell production in many species of marine organisms. Scientists have found that there are less carbonate ions in the ocean now than at any other time in the past 800,000 years.

Normally the surface waters of the oceans are slightly alkaline with a pH greater than 7. However, because they are absorbing more CO2, the oceans are about 30% less alkaline today than they were before the industrial revolution. The consequences of this are very significant and worrying on a number of fronts. Less alkaline water reduces the availability in seawater of carbonate minerals such as calcite and aragonite. These minerals are important in the formation of corals, shellfish, marine plankton and fish skeletons. The physiology, development and even survival of these creatures are thereby threatened.

During my years in the Philippines, I enjoyed regularly snorkeling in coral reefs. I also became aware of the importance of corals for marine life and the people who fished the reefs. Over the years, I began to learn something about the extraordinary biological diversity in coral reefs. Studies have shown that that at least one quarter of the biodiversity of the oceans are found in coral reefs. Because of their wealth in species, coral reefs they are often referred to as the rainforests of the ocean.

They are very important for humans also. It is estimated that world-wide, 500 million people depend on corals reefs for coastal protection, food, tourism and other forms of income. Economists estimate that reefs and their products are worth between US$30 and $172 billion per annum. In Hawaii alone, for example, the tourism generated by the coral reefs brings in US $364 million per annum.

This is all under threat from ocean acidification. Since 1990, skeletal growth on the Great Barrier Reef off the east coast of Australia, was down by 14%. This is the largest stunted growth level in the past 400 years. In an increasingly acidic ocean, coral reefs will decline and may even become extinct. It is estimated that 4,000 species of fish depend on coral reefs. Reefs are marine nurseries, providing food, shelter and a safe haven from predators. The dwindling corals are already impacting on a number of species of fish, leading to the extinction of some species.



Pteropods are tiny swimming sea snails which are abundant in the oceans. There are often thousands of individual snails per cubic metre. They are an important element in the marine food chain as they form the diet of zooplankton, salmon, herring, and baleen whales. The question is, will they thrive in increasingly acidic oceans, because their calcium carbonate shells may not develop properly. Some predict that as early as 2050, pteropods may be unable to form shells which would threaten their own survival and the species which depend on them.

Other species will benefit from higher levels of carbon dioxide in the oceans. The problem is that these species are currently seen as nuisance or weedy species. Top of the list are jellyfish. Scientists are not clear yet whether the increased prevalence of jellyfish is as a direct result of ocean acidification. Jellyfish blooms could have a disastrous impact on other species and on the oceans in general. They also will impact on tourism, as no one likes to be stung by a jellyfish while swimming in the ocean.

If the oceans become more acidic there will be a serious decline in biodiversity, and thereby affecting a whole raft of species, including humankind as the oceans are less able to supply us with food. Reducing GHG gas emissions, especially CO2 is not just important in tackling climate change, it is also necessary if we want to protect the fruitfulness of our oceans on which we all depend.



Hoegh-Gudberg, O., et al. (2007), “Coral reefs under rapid climate change and ocean acidification”, Science, 318 (5857); 1737-1742.

Doney, S., Fabry, V. Feely, R., Kleypas, J. (2009), “Ocean Acidification: The Other CO2 Problem”, Annual Review of Marine Science, 1:169-92.

Orr, J.C., et al. (2005), “Anthropogenic ocean acidification over the twenty-first century and the impact on calcifying organisms”, Nature, 437:681-686.

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The U.S. and Climate Change, 2009-2010

December 5, 2010 1 comment

This post has been contributed by Seán McDonagh SSC, who writes from Cancún.

During most of the Presidency of George W Bush, the administration was either promoting climate skeptics or hindering global consensus and action on climate change. The election of Barack Obama, appeared to introduce a new era in the U.S.  approach to climate  change, because the president himself both knew what was involved scientifically and seemed willing to do something about it.  By mid 2009, the U.S. appeared to be moving towards ambitious climate change policies with the passage of a comprehensive climate change bill in the U.S. House of Representatives.

From Hope to Despair

Then, in December 2009, expectations were high that Copenhagen would complete the Bali Road Map and develop an ambitious, legally binding treaty to reduce green house gas emissions (GHG) and thus tackle climate change. Trust between the Parties to both the UN Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol broke down in Copenhagen when the Danish Presidency seemed to abandon the multi-lateral negotiation process in favour of cobbling together an Accord which was negotiated by a select handful of countries. The Copenhagen Accord did at least acknowledge that climate change is the greatest challenge facing humankind, and that steps must be taken so that the mean global temperature will not rise above 2 degrees Celsius. But there were no binding emission targets, timelines or sanctions. All that was asked of the Parties is that they make voluntary pledges to limit greenhouse emissions. A recent study by The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) entitled The Emissions Gap Report makes it very clear that current pledges would not reach the target of 2 degrees Celsius set by the Accord.[1]

By mid-2010, the momentum to enact climate legislation in the U.S. Congress had passed, partly because of the economic crisis, the intransigence of the Republican Party, some wavering Democrats from coal mining states, scientific disinformation and a well funded opposition. Though the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill had passed through the House in June 2009, the chances of a similar bill passing the Senate was thwarted by the death of two key Democratic Senators, a major oil spill in the Gulf and implacable opposition from Republicans. In July 2010, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that he was not bringing his the bill to the Senate floor.

The emergence of the “Tea Party” complicated things further. Many of the “Tea Party” candidates, who were climate deniers, were well funded by right wing libertarians associated with the Republican Party. Some claimed that climate change was a conspiracy dreamed up to promote industry in China and India at the expense of U.S. companies. This group took votes not just from Democrats but also from moderate-leaning Republicans, several of whom lost their seat in the election.

Mid Term Elections and Climate Sceptics

The mid-term election in the United States on November 2, 2010, was not just a bad day for the Democratic Party, it also saw the election of a host of climate sceptics. This will make it much more difficult for President Obama to get an energy or climate bill through the US Congress during the next two years.

The following are some of the comments made by newly elected members of the U.S. Congress according to Kevin Kobloch, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

  • “With the possible exception of Tiger Woods, nothing has had a worse year than global warming. We have discovered that a good portion of the science used to justify “climate change” was a hoax perpetrated by leftist ideologues with an agenda.” (Todd Young, new congressperson from Indiana).
  • “I absolutely do not believe that the science of man-caused climate change is proven. Not by any stretch of the imagination. I think it’s far more likely that it’s just sunspot activity or something just in the geologic eons of time where we have changes in the climate.” (Ron Johnson, new senator from Wisconsin).
  • “I think we ought to take a look at whatever the group is that measures all this, the IPCC, they don’t even believe the crap.” (Steve Pearce, new congressperson from New Mexico).
  • “It’s a bigger issue, we need to watch ’em.  Not only because it may or may not be true, but they’re making up their facts to fit their conclusions. They’ve already caught ’em doing this.” (Rand Paul, new senator from Kentucky).
  • “There isn’t any real science to say we are altering the climate path of the earth.” (Roy Blunt, new senator from Missouri). [2]

It is important to recognize that these sceptics had formidable backing from big oil companies, the coal industry, and electric utilities. In Merchants of Death, published earlier this year by Bloomsbury, two well known U.S. academics, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, exposed how corporations and conservative foundations have funded a number of campaigns during the past 40 years. In the 1970s, despite overwhelming medical evidence linking smoking and cancer, they managed to delay anti-smoking legislation. They have also helped to block legislation curbing acid rain, ozone-layer depletion and, in the past two decades, global warming and climate change.

Robust Science

What about the science of climate change which many of these new members of Congress are dismissing? In 1999, Peter Stott, who was then head of climate modeling at the British Met Office, Myles Allen from Oxford University and a number of meteorologists published an article in the journal Nature. They based their predictions on the range of temperature change for the period between 2000 and 2040 on temperature data which had been collected in the period between 1946 and 1996.  They then drew a graph representing the range of predicted outcomes for that period with a dotted line indicating the most likely outcome. The graph predicted that there would be a 0.8 degrees rise in temperature in 2010, when compared with 1946. This is exactly what has happened. So, in that stringent test, the science has been vindicated.[3]

Nature does not heed climate skeptics

All the denial in the world will not stop the processes of Nature. The US government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that the first eight months of 2010 were as hot as the first eight months of 1998 – the warmest ever recorded. But there is a crucial difference. In 1998, there was a record El Niño – the warm phase of the natural Pacific temperature oscillation. The 2010 El Niño was smaller (an anomaly peaking at roughly 1.8C, rather than 2.5C), and brief by comparison to those of recent years. Since May the oscillation has been in its cool phase (La Niña). Even so, June, July and August this year were the second warmest on record. Unfortunately, even with such strong warnings, there are still many doubters and effective action is postponed. This, of course, is grossly immoral, because those who did least to cause the present crisis will suffer most and, furthermore, delaying action on climate change will have a deleterious impact of all future generations of humans and other creatures.

Signs of Hope

On the positive side the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported that GHG emission declined during the period 2008 – 2010.  This was a result of the economic downturn and the conversion of some coal-powered utilities to natural gas. Another positive factor was the Obama economic stimulus package (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act). This directed 18% of the total US $787 billion to climate change and energy projects. The five largest green allocations, in descending order are renewable forms of energy, energy efficiency, transit and high-speed rail, and the modernization of the power grid. This injection of capital was very important as ‘green’ energy companies were beginning to row back financially because of the recession.

On another front, the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is preparing to regulate CO2 as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act and the Supreme Court decision of 2007.  If the rules to further restrict NOx, SO2,  Mercury and acid gas come into force this will reduce an estimated 25-59 GW of highly polluting coal-powered utilities. Many fear that the Republicans, with support from the coal lobby, will do everything in their power to thwart this course of action.

States are more active

While serious movement at the Federal level is being hampered by politicians in Washington promoting corporate vested interests, there has been quite a bit of movement at State and local level. Forty one States have established greenhouse gas registers. In addition, nearly two-thirds of the states are involved in one of three regional initiatives for capping emissions. The three are the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), The Western Climate Initiative (WCI) and the Midwestern Greenhouse Gas Reduction Accord (MGGRA). While all of the three have relative modest targets, the combined scale is significant.

As often happens, for good or ill in the U. S., where California goes the nation follows. California adopted the Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32) in 2006.  This is a large scale demonstration project designed to combat climate change by combining emissions limits with huge investment in green energy.  Rules to limit GHG emissions will become operative on January 1, 2012.

Despite the dubbing which the Democrats received in the mid-term elections, Californians voted down Proposition 23, which was designed to suspend AB 32’s provisions until unemployment fell below 5.5%. The Republican candidate for the Governorship, Meg Whitman promised to impose a one-year moratorium on AB 32 if elected.  She was defeated by Democrat Jerry Brown, a longtime supporter of environmental initiatives, even though she spent a fortune on her election campaign. Furthermore, Proposition 32 was defeated by a large majority, despite a well-funded campaign backed by out-of-state fossil fuel interests and the “Tea Party.”

How will the U.S. behave in Cancun?

Participants, particular from the CSOs, are hoping that the U.S. doesn’t throw its weight around this week. Any effort by the Obama Administration to withhold funding from countries, which have been critical of the Copenhagen Accord will backfire. It will only annoy countries of the South and possibly derail any substantive negotiations. The main media focus on WikiLeaks documents last week was on the embarrassment felt by U.S. politicians and diplomats because of comments they had made on fellow politicians and diplomats right across the world on what they thought were secure confidential cables. But WikiLeaks cables also show the extent to which the U.S. was willing to exercise pressure on those nations which were critical of the Copenhagen Accord.[4]

Some countries feel that the U.S. will attempt to block progress at setting up a Global Climate Fund if its demands on mitigation (reducing GHG emissions) and transparency from emerging economies such as China are not met. Todd Stern issued such ultimatum at the Geneva Dialogue of Climate Funding in September.  He is on record as saying:  “We are not going to move on the Green Fund (A UNFCC controlled Climate Fund to help developing countries adapt to and mitigate climate change) and the $100 billion  (in long-term financing that the U.S. had previously promised to help mobilize ) if the issues that were central to the Copenhagen Accord, that were part of the balance of the Copenhagen Accord, including mitigation and transparency, don’t also move.”[5]

This is some of the background to the U.S. presence here at Cancun.  Like the Chinese, thus far they have not raised their voice too loudly.  A lot will be revealed this week.

In the intensity of the debate and the various dimensions of what is a complex  process, one  can easily forget the importance of what is happening here in Cancun. In a sense the world media has forgotten. Only a fraction of the media, which were at Copenhagen, is here in Cancun. In my daily internet checks of media outlets in Ireland, Britain and the U.S., I find that the Cancun Conference is getting very little coverage. But the issue hasn’t changed. Unless the international community can frame an ambitious, legally binding treaty within a year or so, the consequences for humankind, the planet and all future generations will be dire. In the past two years countries such as Ireland, Britain and the U.S. used taxpayers money to save doggy bank in the belief that they were too big to fail. But it seems that the welfare of the planet cannot garner the same kind of attention. Is there any clearer indication that our values are totally skewed in the wrong direction?

Some of the above technical data is from the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) Policy Brief distributed here at Cancun. The rest is my own gleaned from a variety of sources.

[1] The Emissions Gap Report: Are the Copenhagen Accord Pledges Sufficient to Limit Global Warming to 2 degree Celsius or 1.5 degree Celsius? November 12, 2010.

[3] Robin McKie, “A dark ideology is driving those who deny climate change,” The Observer, August 1, 2010, page 28.

[4] Damian Carrington, The Guardian, December 3, 2010. See: .

[5] Fact Sheet prepared by a number of Civil Society Organisations, The Third World Network, November 2010.

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Has Anyone Seen the USA or China?

December 5, 2010 Leave a comment

Follows a contribution by Seán McDonagh SSC at the closing of COP16’s first week.

As we reach the end of the first week on the UN Conference on Climate Change (C0P 16) in Cancun, many people are asking, why have the U.S. and China been so quiet? Of course, in the Daily Programme you will find representatives from both China and the U.S. attending various negotiation sessions, and a glance at the Earth Negotiations Bulletin shows that each day a Chinese representative has made some intervention, some of which are quite important. In the December 2, 2010, edition of the Negotiation Bulletin, China reaffirmed its “commitment to the Kyoto Protocol, a legally-binding outcome to strengthen the Convention’s implementation.”

But, thus far, there has been very little noise from either the U.S. or China. During the Presidency of George W. Bush, even though the U.S negotiators were either supporting climate skeptics or obstructing progress in every way possible, they always made themselves heard. Things have changed a little with the election of President Barack Obama. While the President is convinced of the importance of tackling climate change at a global level, getting an energy bill through the U.S. Senate has so far proved impossible. Getting Climate legislation passed will be even more difficult over the next two years with the Republicans in control of the House of Representatives.

Even though Copenhagen took place at the end of the first year of the Obama administration, shrill voices were still emanating from the U.S. camp. Todd Stern, the U.S. chief negotiator told the Copenhagen meeting that he had no time for the notion of the “historic carbon debt,” which had underpinned U.S. and European affluence for the past 100 years at least. On arrival in Copenhagen he said, “Emissions are emissions. You’ve just got to do the math. If you care about the science, and we do, there is no way to solve the problem by giving the major developing countries a pass.”

This remark is aimed at China and India, since both countries have increased their emissions in recent years. China is now the largest emitter of CO2, but its per capita emissions are only one-third that of the U.S. Furthermore, historically Chinese emissions have been very low, and even now a substantial proportion of their population still lives in poverty.

Many Northern countries were critical of the role played by China, India, South Africa and Brazil in the Copenhagen debacle. Ed Miliband, the UK’s climate secretary at the time, in an article in The Guardian, accused China of hijacking the Copenhagen summit and “holding the world to ransom” in order to prevent a deal.

Whether Todd Stern understands what the notion of “common but differentiated responsibilities” means, China has unique problems combating climate change. First, as critics are quick to point out, China is now the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide. Secondly, China has surpassed Japan as the second largest economy in the world. Thirdly, China’s foreign exchange reserves, which in 2010 stand at a staggering US$2 trillion, are the highest in the world. Fourthly, China has seen rapid economic growth since the early 1980s, which lifted over 300 million people out of poverty.

In response to the above, the Chinese point out that their population is more than four times the population of the U.S. First of all, it is important to state that China’s per capita GHG emissions are a third of the U.S. Secondly, for all the economic gains of the past three decades, China is still a relatively poor country. It may come as a surprise to many that China’s per capita GDP ranks below the top 100 countries in the world. In terms of social development as judged by the 2009 Human Development Index compiled by the UN Development Programme, China is 92nd on the list. China argues that it must keep moving along the path of economic growth in order to improve the livelihoods for a further 600 million people, some of whom in 2010, live on less than a dollar a day. China claims that there is no similar level of poverty in the U.S., Europe or Japan, and that, therefore, expecting the Chinese to take the same steps today as countries, who have built their wealth on fossil fuel, is patently unfair.

Speaking during the Tianjin Climate meeting, Xie Zhenhua, China’s top negotiator said that for a county that was still developing, it was unreasonable to expect it to set limits for GHG emissions while rich nations failed to cut their emissions. He believed that it was unfair for countries with a per capita GDP of $40,000 a year to demand that a country with a mere $3,000 per annum GDP submit to a common GHG reduction regime. (1)

Furthermore, as the workshop of the world, China is subsidizing other countries’ carbon budget. Zhao Zhogxiu, head of the International School of Business and Economics, claims that that when a “Made in China” Barbie doll is shipped out, it leaves only one-tenth of its monetary value in China, but three-quarters of its carbon emission budget is picked up by China. So, in fact, the Chinese workshop is now subsidizing other countries which have allowed the manufacturing sector in their own countries to dwindle, because goods are available cheaply from China. (2)

In terms of its energy sources, China is also at a disadvantage when compared to richer countries. The energy supplies of these rich countries come from very different sources. China, on the other hand, is still very much dependent on coal. In 2008, electricity generated from coal accounted for a massive 75% of China’s power generation capacity. (3) Even though China is investing heavily in clean energy, it still expects coal to provide a significant amount of energy in the next few years. This is why it is keen to develop carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies. This process could be speeded up if wealthy countries were willing to share new technologies with China.

Still, China has quite a record in alternative energy systems. 1n 2009, China had the largest hydro-electric capacity in the world, 197 million kW. China produces 40% of the world’s photovoltaic cells totaling four million kW. 60% of the world’s solar water heating panels, totally 145 million square meters, can be found in China. Wind farms are also springing up in many places. In July 2010, 34 wind farms began operating at Shanghai East Sea Bridge Wind Farm. The facility will generate 267 million kW a year, which is the equivalent of 100,000 tonnes of coal. It supplied power to the Shanghai Expo in 2010. (4)

According to a recent report from the WorldWatch Institute, a Washington, DC-based environmental NGO, entitled, Worldwatch Report: Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency in China: Current Status and Prospects for 2020, China has become a leader in renewable energy. At a time when many countries still struggle with the aftermath of a devastating financial crisis, the Chinese government has used its strong financial position to direct tens of billions of dollars into clean energy— increasing the lead that Chinese companies have in many sectors. (5)

Since 2005, the Chinese government has elevated its energy conservation and energy efficiency efforts to basic state policy. The 11th Five-Year Plan (2006–10), set an energy-savings target of 20 percent, and the country has adopted administrative, legal, and economic measures to achieve this goal. During the first three years of the plan, China’s energy intensity— its energy consumption per unit of GDP—fell by just over 10 percent, saving 290 million tons of coal equivalent (tce) and reducing the country’s greenhouse gas emissions by 750 million tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent. This pace of energy conservation has rarely been achieved by the rest of the world. (6)

Unlike powerful vested interests in the U.S., who are either in denial or opposed to addressing climate change, China knows how vulnerable it is to severe weather events. In June 2010, floods in China killed over 175 people, displaced 800,000 people and destroyed homes and businesses in Guangdong and Fujian provinces. The damage was estimated at $1.6 billion. In the previous year, much of that area had experienced the worst drought in living memory. (7) Spreading desertification is also a major climate-related issue for China. China, furthermore, is aware that if the glaciers diminish significantly on the Himalayas or the Tibetan plateau, this will have a direct negative impact on the Yangtze and Yellow rivers which are so important to the agricultural and other needs of tens of millions of Chinese.

It will be interesting to see how the U.S. and China interact with each other and the other Parties during the second week of COP 16.



(1) Clifford Coonan, “Climate change talks in China generate more heat than light,” The Irish Times, October 7, 2010.

(2) Zhao Zhongxiu, “Four Obstacles to a Low-Carbon Economy,” China Today: Our Hope for Cancun, page 50.

(3) Jiao Feng, “Chinese Companies Battle Emissions,” China Today: Our Hope For Cancun, page 37.

(4) Ibid., page 38.

(5) See:

(6) Ibid.

(7) “China’s floods kill 175 and displace 800,000,” The Irish Times, June 22, 2010, page 29.


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Cancún, Europe and WikiLeaks

December 5, 2010 Leave a comment

Today, the Flemish minister for the environment, Mss Joke Schauvliege left for Cancún and COP16. As, at this moment, Belgium assumes the presidency of the EU, she will also play an important role in representing the European perspective. At the airport of Brussels, a delegation of the Climate Coalition, an umbrella for around 70 organisations, invited the minister to push forward the negotiations for a follow-up agreement on the Kyoto Protocol. Of course, in the meantime we know that precisely these negotiations seem to be blocked. The core difficulty, at political level, is probably the difficulty of multilateral agreements. In this context, it is interesting to note that already immediately after the Copenhagen COP16, at which he was not present, Herman Van Rompuy expressed in a conversation, leaked by WikiLeaks, with US ambassador in Belgium Howard Gutman that he did not expect real results from a multilateral meeting as Cancún. A summary of that conversation is available in the Euobserver. Of course, the president of the European Council is convinced of the urgency of climate change and the planetary environmental challenges, but at the same time, when looking for a political approach, he emphasizes to clarify and solidify the European position and commitment, and then to engage in bilateral negotiations, first with the USA and then with the USA and China.

After it has become clear that Japan is unwilling to pursue a re-negotiation of the Kyoto Protocol and in view of this conversation between Van Rompuy and Gutman, one may wonder whether it will be possible to design a political strategy that will lead to an urgently needed agreements on mitigation, adaptation, financial support and technological transfers.

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Some good news from Cancún

December 2, 2010 Leave a comment

Another blog entry by Seán McDonagh, SSC: progress on REDD made by Brasil in the Amazon Region.

Very often the news coming from UN Climate Change meetings is bad. Nations which should be cutting their carbon omissions are not doing so, or are using loopholes to avoid sanctions. So, a good news story is welcome.

On December 1, 2010, Brazil announced that deforestation in the country had fallen to another record low level. The reduction in Amazon deforestation, from over 27,000 km2 in 2004 to below 6,500 km2 in 2010, is the largest reduction in emissions made by any country anywhere in the world. And so Brazil, a tropical emerging economy, has done what rich, industrialized countries promised to do almost a decade ago, but have yet failed to deliver.

According to the US based Union of Concern Scientists, Brazil’s reduced deforestation emissions in five years from 2005 to 2010 amounted to 870 million tones of CO2 annually.

How does this compare with other countries? Well, the EU’s pledge of 20% reduction by 2020 corresponds to just below 850 million tones and the U.S. pledge of 17% reduction (below 2005, not 1990 as it is the case for other rich countries) is about 1,2000 million tones.

Brazil originally set a goal of reducing deforestation by 80% by 2020. However, since it has already achieved 67% reduction, the outgoing President Inacio Lula da Silva recently moved that date back to 2016. Brazilian Civil Society Organisations (CSO) here at Cancun are rightly proud of this record, but they feel that their country can do better. They are campaigning to eliminate deforestation by the year 2015. They want the incoming President-elect Dilma Dousseff to support this position.

These organizations realize that the struggle to eliminate forest destruction has been very costly. Dorothy Mae Stang, an American born Sister of Notre Dame de Namur, was brutally murdered on February 12, 2005 for opposing logging. She had previously received death threats from both loggers and large land owners. Almost one decade earlier Chico Mendes (1944 –1988), a rubber trapper, trade unionist and environmentalist, was also murdered by ranchers, who were opposed to his campaigns to protect the forest and the people of the forest.

The forces that killed these two people and hundreds of others like them are still active in Brazil. At this moment, there is a major struggle under way in the Brazilian Congress with loggers and ranchers doing everything possible to oppose the Forest Code which has contributed much to reducing deforestation.

A recent study by the Observatoria do Clima coalition has shown how the proposed amendment to the Forest Code would create loopholes that could increase emissions very substantially. If these amendments are not rejected, the Brazilian government’s record on protecting the forest and fighting climate change will be called into question.

Brazilian CSOs are at the forefront in Cancun in promoting action on REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation), which will promote the protection of large sections of the forest what, at the same time, promoting the human well-being of the indigenous people and other poor forest dwellers.

But at the moment, Brazil is an example, which other countries, especially rich ones, should emulate in the drive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slow down climate change.

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Which road will Cancún take?

December 2, 2010 Leave a comment

In this new post, Sean McDonagh, SSC, comments on and analyses Japan’s position not to agree to a new Kyoto Protocol.

An announcement on the eve of the UN Conference on Climate Change at Cancun that the government of Japan will not agree to second Kyoto Protocol, but will opt instead for a “single treaty” approach, took people here by surprise. The announcement seemed strange because the Kyoto Protocol was conceived and agreed on at the Kyoto Climate Change meeting in December 1997, after a lot of hard nose negotiations.

At the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992, almost every country in the world recognised that burning fossil fuel was increasing the level of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere, which in turn was warming the planet. Even at that time, scientific bodies such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC), and many National Academies of the Sciences were warning that global warming would lead to severe weather patterns, a rise in sea-levels endangering tens of millions of people living on coast plains, and cause the extinction of vast numbers of species. Despite this clear scientific advice, the Convention members could not agree on mandatory limits to carbon emissions. The reason was that the petrochemical, automobile, steel and utility companies in the U.S. had successfully lobbied the administration of President George Bush senior to block such action.

Everyone knows that, unless mandatory limits are set for using fossil fuel which is so central to modern affluence, no one will voluntarily take the pain that such cuts will involve. So, for the next five years nothing happened on the regulatory front. Finally, at the UN Climate Change Conference at Kyoto in 1997, many countries, including the U.S., accepted legally binding commitments to lower their carbon emissions by 5.2% to 7% below their 1990 levels by 2012. It took a lot of work by environmental, development and citizens groups to achieve this first step. In fairness, the Japanese government played a pivotal role in getting the Kyoto Protocol (KP) up and running. Now, 13 years later it is signalling that it will not support any extension of the KP beyond 2010, even if it means isolating itself at the UN. This is amazing for the country that gave birth to KP. It is also a clear breach of the multilateral process pursued by the UN in the COP meetings. Japan made the announcement before the negotiations even began. At the very least, this item should have been tabled for discussion at Cancun.

So, what is going on? Many times during the past 30 years when I wanted to understand a complex issue in the justice area, I turned to the writings of Martin Khor, currently the Director of the South Centre based in Geneva. For many years he was the Director of the Third World Network based in Penang, Malaysia. Happily, I saw on the daily schedule for November 30th, 2010, that Martin was one of the speakers at an afternoon conference.

I was not disappointed. In 20 minutes Martin explained that Japan’s decision to abandon the Kyoto Protocol is linked to the unwillingness of the U.S. to enter the KP binding commitments process. Furthermore, Australia, New Zealand and Canada are also reluctant to commit to a second period of the KP. Even the EU, which promoted KP for over a decade, is now lukewarm about its commitment. This means that Norway is the only rich country ready to stand firmly behind KP. Understandably, Southern countries are annoyed that rich countries, which have historically enjoyed a high standard of living because of their use of fossil fuel, are now trying to wriggle out of legally binding commitments.

In Copenhagen the U.S. refused to enter KP process. It agreed instead to make a pledge to reduce GHG emission so that the average global temperature will not exceed 2 degrees Celsius. In a Climate Policy Brief, which Martin Khor distributed, he quotes “top scientists in a new UN Environment Programme (UNEP), which shows how disastrously off target a voluntary system will be”. “Instead of cutting their emissions by at least 25-40% below 1990 levels by 2020 as required (or below 40% as demanded by developing countries), rich countries will actually increase their emissions by 6% in a good scenario (based on upper end pledges and without the use of loopholes).”

According to the UNEP report, when the GHG emissions from developing countries are added to the figures from the above pledges, it will give rise to an average increase in global temperatures of between 2.5 to 5 degrees Celsius before 2100. This is a recipe for catastrophe.

Caritas Internationalis, which represents 165 Catholic charities from around the world, is challenging in a paper prepared for Cancun “all Parties to reaffirm their commitment to achieving a fair, legally binding deal to build on the Kyoto Protocol.”

Global climate change negotiations have reached cross roads here at Cancun. Either the Parties continue down the KP road of seeking mandatory, legally binding GHG reductions to be completed in 2012 in Durban, South Africa, or they opt for the soft option of mere pledges, which will lead to disaster.

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Protecting Forests

December 1, 2010 Leave a comment

We add another blog contribution by Seán McDonagh SSC and are also very pleased to say that he keeps a personal blog at: . Don’t hesitate to visit his blog and to leave a message. This particular blog entry concerns the very important REDD negotiations on protecting the forests.


REDD (reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) is shaping up to be a major topic at the UN Conference on Climate Change here in Cancun.  I wrote the article below at the Bali COP in 2007.  At that stage, I had a particular interest in REDD as I explain in the article.  Apart from the carbon sequestration dimension of REDD, I also saw in it a major potential for reforesting countries such as the Philippines which had been denuded in the 20th century.  I encouraged Catholic Development Agencies such as Caritas Internationalis, CAFOD and Trocaire to get involved in REDD.  Since Bali, I have been following other areas involved in the Convention, such as Adaptation.  But this year REDD is back again.  I am going to leave the 2007 article intact but will add a sequel, also in bold print at the end.

Bali 2007

My interest in ecology stems for my experience of working with the T’boli people in South Cotabato from 1980 to 1992. Within a few months of arriving in Lake Sebu, where the T’bolis live, I was convinced that protecting what remained of the tropical forest in the area was vital for the well being of the T’boli and also the settlers who lived in the lowlands.

Tropical deforestation has taken a huge toll on the Philippines.  When the Spaniards left the Philippines at the end of the 19th century, almost 75% of the tropical forests were still intact.  The onslaught on the forests began in earnest after World War II.  Companies (initially, foreign companies U.S., Japanese, Korean with connections with Filipino elite families) were given permission to clear-cut large tracts of forests. Legal commitments to reforest were seldom honoured, without any sanctions against the company or its owners. The tribal peoples, who lived in the areas, were never asked for permission to destroy their habitats, which they had managed for hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of years.  A few people made enormous fortunes, while the majority of the Filipinos, especially Tribal Filipinos, and the environment suffered.  Today, less than 10% of the Philippines is covered with tropical forests.  Sustainable agriculture in a tropical archipelago like the Philippines demands about 50% forest cover. Without it, soil erosion will increase dramatically and expensive irrigation systems will become useless, because the forests will not secrete water slowly into the rivers to sustain the flow during the dry season. (Extreme weather associated with climate change will worsen all these outcomes in the coming years).

The legacy of that plunder is now evident every time a typhoon causes flooding, massive landslides and terrible loss of life, especially among the poor.  Filipinos  could have managed their forests in a sustainable way and, in doing so, have secured long-term employment for hundreds of thousands of Filipino families.

What happened in the Philippines is mirrored world wide.  Between 2000 and 2005 tropical forests disappeared at approximately 10.4 million hectares each year.  These forests contain about 70% of the world’s biodiversity, and, about 60 million people, many of who are among the poorest of the poor on the planet.

A last minute reprieve for tropical forests may emerge here in discussions around the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).  The IPCC scientists reckon that 20% of greenhouse emissions globally currently come from forest destruction. So, stablizining greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere at safe levels requires significant reduction in the current rate of desforestation.

One initative which is being pursued here in Bali is called REDD. The initials stand for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation.  Apart of sequestering carbon, the REDD initiative has a number of priorites. It aims at preserving forests which contain significant levels of biodiversity, or are important for what is now called, ecosystems services (I find this term,which attempts to put a money value on everything, particularly inappropriate when referring to the living world. But it is now widely used even by some people such as Dr. Edward O Wilson, formerly of Harvard University, who has done so much through his resarch and writings to sensitize people to the overwhelming importance of protecting biodiversity).  These include water regulation, flood control and the protection of local species.

If verifiable and credible emission reductions can be generated, then the carbon markets could provide some revenue for REDD initiatives. According to Urip Hudiono writing for The Jakarta Poston November 30th ,  Indonesia could net US$2 billion in potential annual revenues from preserving the country’s forests and offering them as a carbon dioxide sink on the global carbon market.[1]

Cancun 2010

I have taken a fairly jaundiced view of carbon markets from the very beginning.  Market-based mechanisms to promote climate change were introduced into the Kyoto Protocol process by the U.S. in 1997. At that time, there was a feeling among elites across the globe that Markets, if properly structured, could do anything, and were much better instruments for promoting policies, than governmental regulations.  Light touch regulation is in vogue! Viewed from the perspective of 2010, we all know that light touch regulation was responsible for the collapse of the financial markets  in 2008.

On my way to Cancun, I picked up the current edition of The New Yorker, (November 29, 2010).  In a 10 page article entitled, What Good is Wall Street, John Cassidy wrote a searing critique of markets.  One of his main conclusions is that “much of what investment bankers do is socially worthless.”  The same critique applies to the carbon market which is growing, except that almost all it does is ecologically worthless. In fact it is worse, because it fuels an acquisitive drive and takes attention away from real, concrete efforts which will be necessary to reduce emissions.  I remember attending a lecture at Nairobi (2006) which was sponsored by an international financial services company. Afterwards a carbon trader approached me and encouraged me to invest in the carbon market if I wanted to get a real good return on my money.

Bali 2007

If a significant REDD initiative is to succeed, the financial benefits must be, at least, on a par with the current economic incentives which are driving deforestation at unprecedented rates.  Any REDD initiative must therefore address the needs of rural forest dwellers and indigenous people.  In my own experience, ownership is a crucial issue. When a community owns the land there is a huge incentive to protect it.  It is unrealistic to expect people to protect a forest for the benefit of, either people who live downstream or the global population, unless they have some level of ownership of the forest.  On a national level, if countries such as the Philippines are expected to stop deforestation and thus reduce greenhouse gas emissions, they will require additional financial support to achieve such goals.

Many of the NGOs here at Bali argue that REDD should have a stand alone fund, outside bodies such as the World Bank.  They are also worried that the new money might be diverting from existing aid flows such as a country’s  Official Development Assistance (ODA) programme.

REDD could deliver multiple benefits in the area of climate change, protecting biodiversity and securing a sustainable agricultural base for many countries, where food security is becoming a major issue. I am cautiously optimistic that the  ground-work for a REDDs initiative could be negotiated here in Bali.

Cancun 2010

Some of those issues discussed above are still being debated in Cancun.  The Climate Action Network (CAN) an umbrella group for many environment and development organizations of civil society, has taken a position on REDD at the beginning of the Cancun Conference.  For CAN, the primary goal of REDD must be to reduce emissions, not to contribute to a carbon market, which can easily take on a life of its own and do little to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  CAN wants all Parties in any agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and  the degradation of natural forests in developing countries with the objective of stopping deforestation completely by 2020.

Their second objective is that all Parties should collectively aim to conserve existing natural and modified natural forests by 2020. This is also in line with the recently concluded Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) in Nagoya, Japan.  More and more people are seeing that issues around climate change, water and biodiversity are all inter-linked.

CAN recognizes that these goals are contingent upon adequate, predictable and sustained finance provided in a transparent manner. Such finance could be in terms of quantified commitment. CAN points to a number of independent studies which indicate that the amount of money needed to halve emissions by 2020 would be in the region between, $15 and $35 billion by 2020.

CAN believes that some funding must be used to train people and build their capacity to manage their forests in a sustainable way.  From my own experience of reforestation in Lake Sebu, I know how important capacity building is for the success of a project.

The CAN position is also sensitive to both social and cultural factors involved in any reforestation project.  As I said in my 2007 article, my own experience is that when people enjoy ownership of a project it is much more likely to be a success in the medium and long-term.

The land tenure rights of Indigenous People must be given priority under REDD. These include their rights to land, food sovereignty, biodiversity, cultural practices and their traditional way of life.  As it is, most indigenous people are under tremendous cultural and financial pressure in the contemporary world. Tribal people and their languages are also facing extinction.  This is a great impoverishment for humankind.

As I know from experience in the Philippines, it is important that structures be put in place to avoid elite groups in a country capturing the benefits of REDD.  It was these elites (politicians and military) who benefitted from the destruction of the forests in the firsts instance.

CAN is also aware that the destruction of tropical forests is not just an issue for countries of the South. Someone in the North buys the lumber, so CAN is calling on all Parties to address the pressures which drive deforestation and degradation in the South, rather than leaving all the responsibility with Southern countries.

On the technical side CAN is suggesting that the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technical Advice (SABTA) be asked to give advice on the technical issues so that decisions on REDD can be taken next year in South Africa.

The CAN group tracking REDD reported to the daily meeting on October 30th 2010, that serious negotiations have not started on REDD issues. I will keep you posted.

Rich countries often speak about corruption and the need for good governance in developing countries. CAN is concerned about governance issues and believes that this must be met by the independent and verifiable monitoring of REDD.  The sticking point here for many countries of the South is that other interests, such as the World Bank and the General Environment Fund (GEF), would like to play a managing role in disbursing the funds.  This is not acceptable to many countries in the South because of their experience of being saddled with horrendous Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s devised by the World Bank/IMF in order to pay off their debts to First World financial institutions and countries.  The political economist Susan George pointed out in her book Debt Boomerang that, in the period from 1980s till 1992, $420 billion were transferred from poor countries to rich counties by external debt payments alone!  A classic case of the poor subsidizing the rich!!!

In my book, Greening the Church (1995), I give a number of examples of how SAPs hastened the destruction of tropical forests in Asia, Africa and Latin America in the 1980s and 1990s. Critics of the World Bank point out that it still spends more money funding fossil fuel energy projects in the South and emerging economies than it does on renewable energy.   Most Southern countries want the financing of REDD to come under the COP itself, rather than the GEF.

It is always good to hear what the other side is saying, so I visited the GEF at its stand at the Conference Centre.  One of their pamphlets The GEF incentive Mechanism for Forests: A New REDD+ Multilateral Finance Program touts GEF’s competence in financing Sustainable Forest Management.  It claims that, since its inception in 1991, the GEF has financed over 300 projects and programmes focusing on forest conservation and management in developing countries. The total GEF allocation to forest initiatives during that period amounted to more than $1.6 billion. It also helped leverage $5 billion from other sources. While the amount appear to be significant it is paltry in terms of what needs to happen in the near future if tropical forests are to protected and expanded.

[1] Urip Hudiono, “Indonesia could net US2$billion from forest conservation”, The Jakarta Post, November 30, 2007, page 13.

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