Climate change has been a constant reality for many Filipinos, with impacts ranging from extreme weather events to periodic droughts and food scarcity. The most affected populations are coastal residents and rural communities that lack proper disaster preparedness.

Tacloban City after Typhoon Haiyan. Credit: The Guardian

According to the Center for Global Development, the Philippines is the world’s fourth most vulnerable country to the direct impacts of extreme weather events. Averaging 20 tropical cyclones a year, it may be the world’s most storm-exposed nation. Last November, Supertyphoon Haiyan, the most intense tropical cyclone ever recorded, claimed more than 10,000 lives, affected over 9 million people, and left over 600,000 Filipinos homeless. With both the oceans and the atmosphere warming, there is broad scientific consensus that typhoons are now increasing in strength.

Like most developing countries, the Philippines plays a minor role in global carbon emissions yet suffers an inordinately higher cost. With over a third of its population living in poverty, the country emits just 0.9 metric tons of carbon per capita, compared to the United States’ 17.6 metric tons. “We lose 5% of our economy every year to storms,” observes Philippine Climate Change Commissioner Naderev Sano. The reconstruction costs of Haiyan alone are estimated at $5.8 billion.

As the Philippines embarks on a long road to recovery, sustainability is key for post-Haiyan rebuilding. “We must build back better and more resilient communities,” says Senator Loren Legarda, chair of the Philippines’ Senate Committee on Climate Change, who was named a Regional Champion by the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. “We must prevent disasters and be prepared for the next natural hazards. This disaster also tells us about the urgent need to save and care for our environment.”

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Climate Change, emissions reductions, energy, low-carbon, philippines, renewable energy, sustainable development, Typhoon Haiyan

I arrived in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, five weeks ago. In the days prior, I had read up on this southwestern African country and its tourist sites, learned about the wildlife conservation successes it has achieved since independence in 1990, and was even reminded that this was where Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie chose to give birth to their first child. But on my first night here, I was confronted with a different side of Namibia that isn’t making as many headlines.

A typical arid landscape in the Erongo region of Namibia.

Jet-lagged and disoriented, I stumbled out of my room at 2 a.m. and ran into Johannes Gabriel, the night guard at the guesthouse where I’m staying for three months. Gabriel, an Ovambo man from the village of Okapa, told me of the drought that is gripping the nation, the worst in three decades. “Many cattle and people are dying, schools are closing because children aren’t interested in education, people are waiting on long lines for food.” While much of the world may know Namibia for tourism, wildlife conservation, and famous babies, the drought has received relatively little media exposure. Greater international attention and support will be needed if these conditions are indicative of climate challenges to come.

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Africa, Climate Change, drought, ecotourism, Namibia

During my past efforts to decipher the UN climate negotiations on this blog, I’ve said once or twice that the most important thing about the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) conferences, a.k.a. the COPs (Conference of the Parties), is not so much what they deliver – often very little – but rather the conversations they start, the incoherencies they lay bare, and the movements that emerge in their trail.

Peru is preparing to host the 20th round of UN climate talks in 2014, a crucial step on the path to a global agreement in 2015 (Source: Peruvian Government).

At the Regional Workshop organized by CliMates in Bogotá, Colombia last week, I had the chance to observe it for myself. CliMates, an international, student-led think-and-do-tank dedicated to the elaboration and implementation of innovative solutions to climate change, had put together this conference in an effort to gather young climate leaders from the LAC region, so that they could share skills, exchange climate knowledge, and elaborate together a strategy for Latin American youth involvement and influence in 2014.

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Climate Change, Climate Policy, COP 20, Copenhagen Accord, Latin America

“I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing. And that’s why today I’m announcing a new national climate action plan, and I’m here to enlist your generation’s help in keeping the United States of America a leader, a global leader in the fight against climate change.”

- President Barack Obama, 6/25/2013

President Obama presented his Climate Action Plan at Georgetown University yesterday. (image source: whitehouse.gov)

President Obama presented his Climate Action Plan at Georgetown University yesterday. (image source: whitehouse.gov)

Climate change policy is back on the political agenda.  In a powerful speech at Georgetown University yesterday, President Barack Obama found the right words for the scale and urgency of the climate problem. He announced a Climate Action Plan outlining a wide array of actions his administration will take to reduce harmful greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, expand renewable energy, increase energy efficiency, and strengthen America’s resilience to climate impacts. Throughout the speech, President Obama struck down critics’ claims, which have been bolstered by wealthy special interest groups, that climate protection poses a threat to the country’s economy. If implemented promptly, the plan can lead to much needed reductions of greenhouse gas emissions and re-engage the United States with other climate leaders in the international community.

However, the plan also reinforces the President’s “all-of-the-above” energy strategy, which is at odds with the necessity for swift and significant emission reductions to avoid catastrophic climate impacts. President Obama yesterday restated his pledge to reduce U.S. GHG emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 – an insufficient target given the urgency of the climate crisis and the scale of the U.S. contribution to global emissions on an absolute, historical, and per capita basis.

Perhaps the most important policy announcement in the President’s climate action plan is a memorandum directing the Environmental Protection Agency to set standards by 2015 to reduce carbon pollution from existing power plants. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency first proposed carbon standards for new power plants over a year ago that would effectively halt the construction of new coal plants without carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. Although the shale gas boom has already made it unlikely that new coal plants would be built anyway, the proposed regulation would nevertheless be an important step toward passing carbon standards for existing power plants that could accelerate the phase-out of coal power.

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carbon standard, CCS, Climate Change, Climate Policy, coal, greenhouse gas emissions, Keystone XL, nuclear power, President Obama, renewable energy, shale gas

In Berlin on Wednesday, President Obama emphasized America’s moral obligation to do more to avert a future of “more severe storms, more famine and floods, new waves of refugees, coastlines that vanish, oceans that rise.” Speaking from Washington, D.C., the top White House climate change adviser, Heather Zichal, followed this statement of intention with hints at more concrete actions, suggesting that President Obama will be implementing carbon dioxide regulations for existing power plants when he reveals his climate change strategy either on Tuesday or in the upcoming weeks.

President Obama, speaking in Berlin last week, reaffirmed commitment to action on climate change. (Source: Flickr user, Matthias Winkelmann)

The regulations on carbon emissions emitted by power plants, the largest individual point sources of carbon pollution in the United States, will be a conscientious step forward. However, with the carbon pollution standard for new power plants still under review, having been delayed past its original intended ruling date in April, the anticipated proposal for existing power plants will not only be even more costly and time consuming, but will likely be met with stronger resistance from Republicans, Democrats, and industries who are worried about the future of coal, slower job growth, and higher energy costs.

These power plant standards come at a time when concerns over climate change impacts are rising significantly.  In order to meet the 2°C Scenario – the official target of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to avoid serious climate change and irreversible damage – the United States would need to at least halve its current emissions (total 6.7 billion metric tons CO2 in 2011 and 5.3 billion metric tons CO2 in 2012), of which power plants accounted for 2.2 billion tons in 2011 and around a third in 2012.

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carbon standard, Climate Change, coal, emissions reductions, EPA, Germany, low-carbon, power plant, United States

So, it seems like I owe the Polish government an apology.

Last month I wrote a first blog about Poland and its future role as host of the UN climate talks, insisting on its ambiguities towards the diplomatic process and pointing out, for instance, that it had made the rather unconventional decision to host the negotiations in a football stadium.

Polish Environment Minister Marcin Korolec (pictured) has made the Polish leadership's position on the climate negotiations clear, but Polish civil society and environmental groups are optimistic that COP19 will see some successes. (Source: www.um.warszawa.pl)

Well, after a “field trip” in Warsaw, I’ve learned that the National Stadium is one of the things that the country holds dearest, and that this venue choice is actually a sign that Poland is taking its role as President of the UNFCCC 19th Conference of the Parties (COP19) quite seriously. So, please accept my deepest apologies, or as I should say, przepraszam.

This correction, sadly, does not apply to most of the other points I have made about Poland’s stance on climate and energy issues. Since my last blog, Environment Minister Martin Korolec, in recent comments to a news agency, bluntly closed the door on European climate policy-making before 2015 (the deadline year that countries have set for themselves to come up with a global, binding agreement for climate action within the UN framework). This is a notable difference with the pre-Copenhagen situation, when the European Union managed to put together the “20-20-20” package before the 2009 climate talks, as a way to lead by example and encourage other countries to step up their ambitions.

But Poland has its own ideas on how the EU should approach climate change leadership from now on. Not, of course, by interfering with sovereign domestic energy choices (ahem), but rather backing the production of electric cars, setting a target for reducing fossil fuel imports, and finally ending energy subsidies. Though these suggestions may seem like good common sense, it’s not too difficult to imagine the rationale behind them: insisting on reducing fossil fuel imports would effectively reduce the EU’s economic dependence on Russia, a country with which Poland has a long, often conflict-ridden past; while opposing clean-energy funding and carbon pricing helps protect Poland’s own coal industry development.

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Climate Change, COP19, Copenhagen, Europe, European Union, negotiations, Poland, UNFCCC

In the first two months of 2013, there were only 58 requests (according to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, UNFCCC) to register  Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) projects in the world, compared to 280 requests in January and February 2012. CDM is one of the three flexible mechanisms defined in the Kyoto Protocol that provides for emissions reduction projects with Certified Emission Reduction (CER) units, essentially credits that can be traded in emissions trading schemes. Developed countries can fulfill their commitments to reduce emissions by buying CERs from developing countries, which, in turn, achieve sustainable development by building emissions reduction projects.

The CDM provides a solution for financing low carbon projects in developing countries, as CDM projects can derive revenue from two sources: operational revenue, such as selling electricity or decomposition product, and selling the CERs from the project to Annex I (industrialized) countries under the Kyoto Protocol. For example, a wind power plant can sell its generated electricity to domestic grid companies while gaining extra income from selling CERs after achieving a certain amount of CO2 emission reductions.

However, as shown by the lack of new CDM projects, the mechanism is failing. Due to oversupply of CERs, the price for each unit is falling rapidly. Two years ago, the CER price was above €12/ton of carbon dioxide equivalent (tCO2e) (US$15.46/tCO2e). At present, it is less than €0.5/tCO2e (US$0.64/tCO2e) (See Figure 1).

China is especially hard hit as it dominates the CDM market with the largest investment of CDM projects in the world ($220 billion, or 61.8 percent of total registered CDM projects globally). These Chinese CDM projects have supplied 738 million CERs, or 61.2 percent of all 1,200 million CERs issued from 2005 to present.

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Carbon Markets, China, Climate Change, emissions reductions, emissions trading, green economy, low-carbon, sustainable development

Sometimes it looks as if the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change have bet large amounts of money against themselves on the success of climate negotiations.

"Are we done yet?” Poland has hardly been an enthusiastic actor in UNFCCC negotiations (Source: IISD.ca)

Countries are now engaged in an excruciatingly slow race to reach an agreement by 2015, which would for the first time commit both the developed and the developing world under “a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force” (ah, the beauty of UNFCCC language…), in order to meet the goal of 2 degrees warming by the end of the century, the “safe” limit that was agreed upon at the 2009 Copenhagen summit.

Given what’s at stake, and the inefficiencies inherent to the UN process, you’d think that the world’s nations would make sure that not a minute is lost in the talks. And yet, after a Qatari Presidency that left everyone with the vivid memory of conference chairman Abdullah bin Hamad al-Attiyah literally hammering out a last-minute deal, Poland has been designated to host the 19th annual Conference of the Parties (COP19) next October.

It may not be obvious, at first sight, why Poland hosting the climate talks seems like a step backwards. After all, the ambitions around COP19 are not to come up with a global agreement, but rather to make substantial advances on pressing issues in preparation of the Durban Platform deadline, fixed for 2015 (and a very likely French Presidency). But it helps to remember that the last COP on the road to the rather underachieving Copenhagen Conference in 2009 took place in Poznań, which could say something about the capacity of a Polish COP Presidency to pave the way for ambitious deal-making. These fears, of course, are not enough to dismiss Poland as a valuable host. What weighs heavier is that the country does have a history of blocking progress in climate negotiations, particularly at the European Union level.

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Climate Change, climate negotiations, COP19, Copenhagen, emissions reductions, Europe, European Union, low-carbon, negotiations, Poland, UNFCCC

With Chavez gone, what will become of his PetroCaribe program? Photo credit: Valter Campanato, Agencia Brasil

Among the questions arising after the death of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez is what will become of the PetroCaribe program he started in 2005 and upon which many Caribbean economies have become dependent. Since it began, PetroCaribe has become a much-needed lifeline to countries in the region that are overly reliant on fossil fuel imports to supply their energy and transportation sectors. However, it has also increased the unsustainable debt levels of these countries. What comes next is uncertain as Venezuela prepares to elect Chavez’ successor as president of Venezuela next month.

Chavez started PetroCaribe with the aim of helping neighboring countries bear the burden of oil dependence at a time when oil prices began to rise sharply. Touted on its Web site as a “shield against misery,” the program allows participating Caribbean countries to purchase Venezuelan oil under preferential conditions. At the outset, 50 percent of the payment was due within 90 days with the remainder being financed over an extended period, sometimes up to as long as 25 years. The interest charged on the balance was at 2 percent but fell to 1 percent once oil surpassed US$40 per barrel.

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Caribbean, Caribbean Sustainable Energy, Climate Change, Dominican Republic, fossil fuels, Haiti, Jamaica, Low-Carbon Development, renewable energy, south america, sustainable development, Sustainable Energy Roadmaps, Venezuela

Following the call to action and sweeping plan of attack offered by President Obama during his Second Inaugural Address last month and State of the Union this week, it is clear that he has made climate change a priority in his second term.  From outlining the need to increase renewable energy research and installations to setting an ambitious goal of improving efficiency in homes and businesses by 50 percent over the next twenty years, President Obama’s wide-reaching plan has the potential to once again make the United States a global leader in environmental action.

President Obama discusses Hurricane Sandy, an extreme weather event that has been linked with climate change, with disaster response officials. Obama has reaffirmed his intention to fight climate change in his second term (Source: The White House)

While President Obama’s renewed commitment to address climate change has raised hopes, it is important to review the successes and failures of his last four years in order to set realistic expectations for what is possible during his second term.

Early during his first term, the United Nations climate negotiations in Copenhagen presented President Obama with a major international opportunity to demonstrate how his Administration would differ from the previous eight years of the United States playing foil to international environmental cooperation during the Bush Era.  The Obama Administration did not rise to the challenge, instead offering minor concessions while continuing to push for stalling the negotiations until 2015 and beyond, effectively deferring the responsibility for an international treaty to the next Presidential term.

Domestically, Obama’s environmental track record fared somewhat better.  The Administration has advanced environmental protection by increasing vehicle mileage standards, expanding protected areas, strengthening air quality standards, and raising federal investment in clean energy to the highest levels in US history.  On the other hand, the Obama Administration failed to oversee comprehensive climate legislation, and has drawn out the decision on the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.

Of course, there are some extenuating circumstances that Obama faced in his first term that made success more difficult to achieve.  While a lack of political readiness or will to move may be to blame for the Administration’s lack of forward progress at international negotiations, domestically the Obama team’s success was tempered by a divided congress, the prolonged economic depression, and a desire to remain an appealing candidate throughout a hotly contested re-election. 

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Climate Change, Copenhagen, emissions reductions, EPA, negotiations, United States