Following up on the recent blog I wrote about low-lying island nations, I spent part of last week getting a more direct experience with one of these countries. The United States Institute of Peace welcomed former President of the Maldives Mohamed Nasheed for a conference on Monday, June 25th in Washington, D.C. Nasheed was ousted last February by a coup under controversial circumstances. Though he expressed regret over losing the unique stature and influence he had as head of state, Nasheed is still extremely active in the country, pushing for new democratic elections and actively promoting “The Island President”, a documentary narrating his story and seeking to cast light on his unique fight for the survival of his country and the establishment of a functioning democracy after centuries of authoritarian rule.

“Anni”, as he is better known by people of the archipelago, has not left behind his ideals in the presidential office, particularly with regard to climate change. When he touched on the topic of climate change at last week’s conference, the former President called it, as he very often does, “a very serious issue happening right now.” With an average elevation of 1.5 meters above sea level, and the world’s lowest natural peak at an astounding 2.4 meters, the archipelago is indeed at the forefront of climate disruption and sea-level rise. Attempting to shame the rest of the world into taking action to mitigate carbon emissions, in 2008 Nasheed launched an ambitious plan for carbon neutrality. The plan seemed achievable: it tapped into the archipelago’s ample wind and solar energy resources, completing the mix with biomass to meet the modest energy needs of this country of 400,000 people, which has a low reliance on electricity and (understandably) almost no cars. Even the country’s most prominent and energy-consuming economic sector, high-end tourism, started bringing itself up to speed. Nasheed’s government planned to offset aviation emissions, which make up the lion’s share of the archipelago’s carbon footprint,  by using the European Union’s Emission Trading Scheme. Finally, as “The Island President” abundantly documents, the Maldives also took the lead in making the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) a force to reckon with in international climate summits.

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climate, Climate Change, COP15, developing countries, emissions reductions, energy, energy policy, Green Technology, low-carbon, low-lying island nations, Maldives, Nasheed, renewable energy, sustainable development, sustainable prosperity, UNFCCC

With the United Nations “Rio+20” Conference fast approaching, the word “sustainable” is more present than ever – including in our own State of the World 2012 publication – sometimes to the point of excess. For low-lying island nations, however, “sustainability” is more than the mild, consensual definition of the United Nations: it is really about maintaining the environmental conditions necessary to sustain human life as we know it. Many countries, regions, and cities fear the potential consequences of runaway climate change, be it desertification, droughts, or increasingly frequent storms. What makes the cases of countries like Kiribati, Tuvalu, Micronesia, and the Maldives so unique is that their very existence as sovereign states is at stake, and some of their younger citizens might live to see that existence brought to an end – the IPCC (2007) has predicted 0.5 to 1.5 meters of sea-level rise before the century is over.

For low-lying island nations, climate change and sea-level rise are not really a matter for debate, but already a threatening feature of everyday life (Source: The

Whether that prediction turns out to be overly optimistic or gloomy is still to be determined, but low-lying island nations are not passively waiting to find out. Despite their remarkably low carbon-footprints, they are trying to lead by example when it comes to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions: while an international treaty would only, by the timeline set at the 2011 climate change negotiations in Durban, South Africa, come into force in 2020, the Maldives and Tuvalu (among others) have pledged to become carbon-neutral by that date. But these nations have understood that due to natural – as well as political – inertia, more emissions and increased sea-level rise are already locked in. This is the basic reasoning behind the islands’ adaptation policies, which are only as varied as they are extreme. For instance, though the President of Kiribati Anote Tong admitted it sounded “like something from science fiction”, the country seriously considered building offshore floating islands and higher seawalls last year, for a total cost of about US$ 3 billion – quite a challenge for a country with a GDP of US$ 200 million in 2011 (about US$ 6,000 per capita).

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Climate Change, COP15, developing countries, electricity, emissions reductions, energy, green economy, Kiribati, low-carbon, low-lying island states, Maldives, negotiations, renewable energy, renewable energy finance, sustainable development, Tuvalu, UNFCCC

In the aftermath of last year’s climate policy debacle in Copenhagen, South Korea is pointing the way to a creative new approach to solving the world’s climate problem.

Two events that occurred simultaneously last week in Cancún crystallized both the challenge and the opportunity facing world leaders as they wrap up the latest round of climate negotiations.

South Korea looks to the future as well

In one room in the Cancún Messe, Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh convened a meeting to discuss “equitable access to the world’s carbon space.” Speakers from countries including China and Malaysia made a powerful case for an agreement that recognizes that most industrial countries have already used up their rightful share of the world’s carbon budget—and that all future emissions should be allocated to developing countries.

Meanwhile, just 100 meters away, South Korea hosted an event with a different tone. Led by former Korean Prime Minister Han Seung-soo and former World Bank chief economist Nicholas Stern, the event focused on South Korea’s Green Growth Initiative—a new program that is aimed at transforming the country’s economy from the resource- and carbon-intensive model that drove its development to a new one based on the efficient use of energy and resources.

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Cancun, COP-16, COP15, Copenhagen, India, south korea, UNFCCC
Photo courtesy mrfink/Flickr. A 2007 IPCC report predicted a 100-percent disappearance of Himalayan glaciers by 2035 based on faulty news reports in the Indian and British press. While glaciers such as Nepal's Taboche Peak (above) decline significantly, the IPCC cited a study that in fact estimated total extrapolar glaciation of the Earth would shrink from 500,000 to 100,000 km2 by the year 2350.

Photo courtesy mrfink/Flickr. A 2007 IPCC report predicted a 100-percent disappearance of Himalayan glaciers by 2035 based, in part, on faulty news reports in the Indian and British press. While glaciers are declining significantly, the IPCC cited a study that in fact estimated total extrapolar glaciation of the Earth would shrink from 500,000 to 100,000 km2 by the year 2350.

My feature article in the March/April edition of World Watch argues that the news media is no longer a bystander in the climate change drama that has prevented profound low-carbon progress across the industrialized world. Some journalism organizations, hampered by all-time-low revenues and large-scale layoffs, still do not understand, and are often unwilling to explain, the complexities of climate science and related policy responses. Climate change has become such a politically charged topic that many news organizations have not treated it as a scientific theory with widespread, authoritative support. Climate change deniers continue to gain media attention, even though the world is becoming hotter, faster.

In the weeks since I wrote my article, several mainstream media organizations have blown out-of-proportion inaccuracies published in past Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports. The IPCC exaggerated Himalayan glacial retreat in its 2007 report, suggesting that the inaccuracies are indeed newsworthy and that the panel must do a better job of ensuring that all reports remain accurate, transparent, and credible. But the heated attack from mostly Western media also suggests that news organizations will continue to do what it does best: create drama. In my article, I said that many media providers lack the staff expertise needed to provide context and detail in complicated climate change stories. This continues to be true, but the recent IPCC criticism also suggests that editors need to understand that larger problems—catastrophic climate change—should not be discredited in favor of academic debates about the speed of glacial retreat.

After the article went to print, I’ve since come across some encouraging efforts to explain complex climate stories. The Guardian catalogued all of their stories about “Climategate”—the escapade related to climate science e-mails stolen from a University of East Anglia server—placing the stories on an easy-to-navigate Web page that demonstrates their reporting approach and allows visitors to read about the controversy from beginning to end. The conclusion: “Climate science emails cannot destroy argument that world is warming, and humans are responsible.” It will be a pity if media audiences worldwide, as a result of recent news coverage, are less convinced that the argument is spot on. Without serious, investigative, in-depth news reports, media audiences will continue to become more ill-informed, and efforts to avoid widespread environmental damage will falter.

Climate Change, Climategate, COP15, Copenhagen, journalism, media coverage, public opinion
Dan Reicher, Nigel Jollands, Chris Flavin, Christian Kjaer, and Kelly Sims Gallagher at the Worldwatch side event at COP15 in Copenhagen.

Dan Reicher, Nigel Jollands, Chris Flavin, Christian Kjaer, and Kelly Sims Gallagher at the Worldwatch side event at COP15 in Copenhagen.

As Worldwatch Senior Researcher Janet Sawin and William Moomaw of Tufts University lay out in Worldwatch’s latest report, Renewable Revolution: Low-Carbon Energy by 2030, technologies available today can go a long way to addressing climate change, and we don’t need to replace fossil fuels unit by unit in order to reach a low-carbon energy future. In fact, we waste an enormous amount of energy today through the conversion of fossil fuels to energy services like light, heat, and mobility. Instead, we can bypass the losses that result from fossil fuel combustion through the use of renewable resources and energy efficiency opportunities, thus meeting the same level of energy services with far less and cleaner primary energy. And pairing energy efficiency with renewable energy creates four key synergies:

  • Efficiency improvements enable us to enjoy energy services, and to expand those services, without encouraging skyrocketing demands for energy. This also makes it easier, cheaper and faster for renewables to achieve a large share of total energy production and for society to reduce energy-related emissions.
  • Thermal processes like combustion, used in fossil fuel power generation and conventional cars, have inherent inefficiencies due to physics (e.g. Carnot cycle) which can be avoided through renewable energy processes.
  • Many renewable technologies, including solar PV, are well-suited for distributed generation. Distributed generation, which produces power close to the point of demand, can minimize the amount of electricity lost in the transmission of power from power plant to user.
  • Directly using energy from the sun through passive heating and lighting allows us to bypass the entire conversion of fuel to power or heat, and reduces the overall amount of energy needed for the services desired.

Furthering the discussion on renewable energy and efficiency, Worldwatch convened a gathering of energy efficiency and renewable energy experts at an official side event at the climate negotiations in Copenhagen last month, launching the Renewable Revolution report, made possible through the generous support of the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership (REEEP).

Worldwatch President Christopher Flavin framed the discussion with the need for a transformation of the current global energy system from one that is heavily reliant on fossil fuels to one that more fully utilizes the renewable resources and efficiency opportunities available now and in the near-term. In order to face the climate challenge head-on, we must put in place policies that encourage this evolution of the energy system on a global scale.

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climate, Climate Change, COP15, Copenhagen, energy, energy efficiency, renewable energy

COP 15 attendees queue outside the Bella Center

The Copenhagen UN climate conference ended last Saturday with a weak agreement, not the groundbreaking treaty many had hoped for. Not only did Worldwatch send its biggest team ever to the Danish capital; with more than 100 heads of governments and many more parliamentarians and dignitaries, COP-15 became the largest assembly of world leaders in diplomatic history. The Copenhagen conference had been planned out for two years in many small informal and large official meetings, following the 2007 Bali Action Plan in which nations had agreed to finalize a binding agreement this December. The outcome falls far short of this original goal. Delegates only “noted” an accord (“the Copenhagen Accord”) struck by the United States, Brazil, China, India, and South Africa that has two key components: first, it sets a target of limiting global warming to a maximum of 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial times; second, it proposes $100 billion in annual aid for developing nations starting in 2020 to help them reduce emissions and adapt to climate change.

2 degrees Celsius is seen by mainstream science as a threshold for dangerous climatic changes including sea-level rise and accelerated glacier melt, as well as more intense floods, droughts, and storms. Many scientists also believe that a majority of worldwide ecosystems will struggle to adapt to a warming above that mark, and more recently have set the threshold even lower, at 1.5 degrees Celsius. The accord, however, lacks any information on how this goal of preventing “dangerous” climate change, which had already been set by the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention, would be achieved. It is generally assumed that in order to keep global warming below 2 degrees, worldwide emissions have to peak before 2020 and have to be at least halved before mid-century, but the Copenhagen accord doesn’t outline global emissions scenarios nor individual countries’ pathways towards either of these two goals. Regarding the money for developing countries, the declaration does not specify precisely where the $100 billion annual support would come from nor who would profit from it.

Accordingly, the assessment of the accord was mixed. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon praised the Copenhagen Accord as “an important beginning” and U.S. President Obama said that “for the first time in history, all of the world’s major economies have come together to accept their responsibility to take action on the threat of climate change.” Others, like German chancellor Angela Merkel, could hardly hide their disappointment. “The decision has been very difficult for me. We have done one step, we have hoped for several more,” Merkel said. Likewise, many U.S. commentators considered the deal just a small step forward, however an essential one in the domestic context. A friend of mine wrote to me that “without the accord, the Senate process would be dead. I think we can push forward domestically with the elements in the accord.”

The next COP is set for November 2010 in Mexico City, with a likely high-level preparatory meeting mid-year on invitation of the German government. “We have a big job ahead to avoid climate change through effective emissions reduction targets, and this was not done here,” said Sergio Serra, Brazil’s climate change ambassador. Worldwatch might have to send an even bigger team to the Mexican capital.

Bali Action Plan, China, China & India, Climate Change, COP15, Copenhagen, Copenhagen Accord, emissions reductions, India, negotiations, Obama, South Africa, UNFCCC

When the heads of states were delivering their speeches late last night and early this morning, I was reminded of the most touching moment in Copenhagen, when I watched the United Nations University film Indigenous Voices on Climate Change at the National Museum of Denmark. Those were the voices that touched my heart, with compelling local stories of the global problem, outside the Bella Center. 


Copenhagen International airport is decorated with advertisements that depict some world leaders, such as Spanish President Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, in 2020, offering a belated apology for their failure to address climate change in 2009

Copenhagen International airport is decorated with advertisements that depict some world leaders, such as Spanish President Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, in 2020, offering a belated apology for their failure to address climate change in 2009

I was shocked by the harsh reality faced by the indigenous people in the documentary film. People become victims of climate change in different regions of the world. Climate patterns are no longer predictable by the locals who have lived in the same places for many generations.  Droughts are more frequent and severe.  People walk a longer distance to find their hope for life. Animals migrate to adapt to climate change, but those that cannot go far, die – not only the vulnerable cows, the resilient zebras, as well.  People who depend on animals suffer from malnutrition, after the film showed a mother and her breastfeeding her baby both die. Little girls just “feel hopeless”…  I could not help being sentimental watching the film – although the languages and cultures were foreign, the human emotions were universal.  


After the film, I had a chance to meet Marilyn Wallace, one of the indigenous characters in the film. She told me how crucial “bubu” (“land”  in her  native aborigine language) meant to her.  “Bubu” is the source of life. When “bubu” is hit hard by climate change, animals and people cannot escape from their miserable destiny.

 The losses, especially lives and species, are irreversible.  They are, however, preventable, through mitigation, adaptation, financing, technology transfer, avoided deforestation, and capacity building. Among all, mitigation is the key. The difference between adaptation and mitigation is that the losses can be reduced to none with mitigation but not so with adaptation. As Saleem Huq, Climate Change Senior Fellow at International Institute for Environment and Development, remarked, “There is a limit to adaptation.” Adaptation is less effective with more global warming. Adaptation is not a substitute of mitigation!

Dear leaders, when you put various issues on the negotiation table, please take a moment to hear the voices of the perhaps less heard, to turn their vulnerabilities into strengths. COP15 is the place to, in the words of Michael Jackson, “heal the world. Make it a better place, for you and for me, and the entire human race.” We ask for vision and action in the “construction” of the new agreement: we need “architects” who dare to dream, and “structural engineers” who are capable of transforming the dream into reality, in a practical and effective manner.

As French President Nicholas Sarkozy said, we either change track now or we suffer disaster. Indeed, this is not a symposium on global warming – this is an alert to take action.

Climate change calls for consensus among parties despite differences in priorities. Ask not what the world can do for you – ask what you can do for the world. 

The last thing you want is the poster in CPH airport, depicting some world leader’s belated apology for the catastrophic failure in 2020.

Ting Lin is a PhD candidate in civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University. Her thesis will be on ground motion selection methodology for structural analysis and building design codes. She is a member of Worldwatch’s delegation in Copenhagen. 

Climate Change, COP15, Copenhagen, indigenous people

BC-byg.-496Nearly every day at COP15 I have found myself surrounded by various government officials, clean tech CEOs, and energetic environmental youth.  Last night was a pleasant change of pace and conversation when I attended a discussion among leaders from US labor unions and environmental groups. Rather than dwell on emissions targets or parts per million CO2, this discussion dug into the values of American workers and their implications for climate action support in the US.

These values turn out to be very simple: People want jobs they can be proud of, that support their communities, and that provide security into the future. Members of the Blue-Green Alliance gathered in Copenhagen to remind people that the impact of climate legislation on these factors is just as important as the environmental impact – and both must be considered in concert if we are to build broad-based support for an environmentally sustainable economy.   The group also spoke to the positive global implications for an alliance between labor and environment groups.  As Jerry Hudson, Vice President of SEIU (Service Employees International Union), put it, “jobs will be affected by the way we think about the planet [so] we all have skin in this game. Labor and environmental standards are important the world over.” 

The Blue-Green Alliance stands as an important achievement in the US where regional, state, and non-governmental climate action fills the void left by an uncooperative federal government. The group hosts dialogues between its’ labor and environment member groups that include the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), SEIU, and Utility Workers Union of America (AFL-CIO) and sets joint positions on environmental issues.  The group has proposed Copenhagen outcomes that it claims would benefit workers and the environment.  The obvious points include support for clean energy and energy-efficiency technologies and support for job-transition training. Other demands are for financial support to adaptation and deforestation measures, as well as calls for  “transparency, verification and accountability” for every country’s climate mitigating actions.  The final request is extremely important for American businesses, the alliance said, so that U.S. and Canadian industries can adequately compare environmental responsibility against competitor businesses in foreign countries. These other countries have also caught on to the value of a blue-green alliance.  A European leader at last night’s discussion declared, “this is one of the American experiences we would like to import to Europe.”

The greatest value I see in joining labor and environment groups is the way in which both movements inform the other so that they are more effective in communicating their messages.  “Green jobs” are often communicated in vague terms by environmental groups.  We imagine hard-hatted workers at solar plants and wind turbine factories.  In fact, a massive variety of jobs can be turned Green.  Worldwatch writer Michael Renner has proposed a more robust definition of Green jobs:

We define green jobs as positions in agriculture, manufacturing, construction, installation, and maintenance, as well as scientific and technical, administrative, and service-related activities, that contribute substantially to preserving or restoring environmental quality. Specifically, but not exclusively, this includes jobs that help to protect and restore ecosystems and biodiversity; reduce energy, materials, and water consumption through high-efficiency and avoidance strategies; de-carbonize the economy; and minimize or altogether avoid generation of all forms of waste and pollution. But green jobs also need to be good jobs that meet longstanding demands and goals of the labor movement, i.e., adequate wages, safe working conditions, and worker rights, including the right to organize labor unions. (You can read the Worldwatch report here)

Labor groups have also helped define concrete and practical ways in which currently non-green jobs can be easily transitioned to green.  According to BGA Director Dave Foster, every job sector has reciprocal green opportunities. “Steel plants will make more wind turbine parts than car parts, the automotive industry will turn to smaller, more efficient, and fully electric vehicles, the nuclear industry will continue to play its role in generating carbon-free energy, and coal plants could potentially be converted for use with other fuel sources, although we all agree that carbon capture and sequestration technology needs additional research and funding.”

A representative from the American Federation of Teachers focused on green jobs outside of the service sector. “Training and retraining the workforce from early education to adulthood is a critical part of what our members do.”

Near-term action on climate change will surely require awareness of these opportunities and long-term action will require stronger and stronger links between labor and the environment.

Climate Change, COP15, equity, green jobs

On the question of climate change, energy producers and environmental leaders haven’t found much common ground.  Yet on December 12, in a Worldwatch-sponsored forum on “Natural Gas, Renewables, and Efficiency: Pathways to a Low Carbon Economy,” representatives from the natural gas industry, environmental non-governmental organizations, and government discussed one energy resource with which a growing number of these groups finds significant agreement: the potential for natural gas to facilitate the transition to a low-carbon economy.

The event, which Worldwatch cosponsored with the American Clean Skies Foundation and the United Nations Foundation, marks the launch of a new Worldwatch Natural Gas and Sustainable Energy Initiative.  As part of this initiative, Worldwatch will study the opportunities and challenges that the newfound abundance of U.S. and global natural gas presents.

A few short years ago, talk centered on a day not too far in the future when we would run out of natural gas.  The expected abundance of unconventional resources has changed that horizon and there is now discussion of 100 years or more of supply.

Vello Kuuskraa of Advanced Resources International presented information about unconventional resources, where they are known to reside, and where more work needs to be done to determine what the resource is.  While North America has abundant shale gas supplies, for example, more work needs to be done in China and India to know more precisely what is there.  Kuuskraa also noted that while there is a lot of gas worldwide, the question of developing it must be asked consistently through the lens, “at what cost?”

Senator Tim Wirth, President of the United Nations Foundation, noted that natural gas has the potential to provide a ready-to use alternative to burning CO2 intensive coal, as gas in the electricity sector, on average, is 50% less carbon intensive than coal.  

Christopher Flavin, President of Worldwatch, painted the picture of the role that natural gas can play in the transition to a low-carbon economy.  Natural gas, Flavin noted, is best viewed as a key component in a broadened fuel portfolio that includes far greater reliance on renewables and energy efficiency.  Gas can provide key baseload power as a complement to variable renewable energy if the two are married.  Flavin also pointed out that the current fleet of natural gas plants in existence in North America runs at less than 50 percent capacity, so better use of the current infrastructure is a good first step toward greater efficiency as well.

Aubrey McClendon, CEO of Chesapeake Energy, offered a broad tutorial on the extraction and use of natural gas.  McClendon pointed out that natural gas represents a 25 percent reduction in greenhouse gases in the transport sector when compared to oil.  Chesapeake is one of the leading companies developing shale gas reserves in North America.  McClendon called on the industry to voluntarily engage in transparency practices, as his company does, by listing on the company website the chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing process used for extraction.

These points, as well as discussion of the politics and policy governing use of natural gas continued through a panel discussion that included Ian Smale, Group Head of Policy and Strategy for BP, Maggie Fox, Executive Director of the Alliance for Climate Protection, Holmes Hummel, a Senior Policy Advisor with the U.S. Department of Energy, Jörg Gigler of KEMA in the Netherlands, and Jyoti Parikh from Integrated Research and Action for Development (IRADe) in India.

Discussion focused, in part, on the environmental impacts associated with extraction of conventional and unconventional natural gas resources.  Fox noted that impacts on water, air, and on communities is something to which companies and regulators alike need to pay careful attention.  Transparency and willingness to pay for necessary safeguards was the call to action.

The policies surrounding extraction and use of natural gas, and the accompanying politics that can lead or prevent good policies was a theme that ran through the afternoon.  Agreement that deployment of this resource, in the context of an expanded portfolio of energy resources, including renewables and efficiency, can help boost the glide path to a low carbon 21st century economy.

A video of the event is available online from Clean Skies TV.

Climate Change, COP15, energy, energy security, low-carbon, natural gas

US Secretary of Commerce, Gary Locke, spoke on Friday to a packed room at COP15 about the Obama administration’s perspective on creating green jobs.  Locke’s position is that the upcoming changes to our energy infrastructure “could spur one of the greatest economic opportunities of the 21st century.”  The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act included $80 billion of support for green investments and Locke believes that the private sector has the best tools to maximize the returns on governmental investment.

Perhaps the original idea for these innovations will come from a government research lab. But if history is any guide, the commercialization and real-world application of these technologies will be pioneered by private sector innovators and entrepreneurs.

That is why a preeminent goal of government energy policies needs to be making it as easy as possible for private sector people to develop new energy solutions and bring them to market.

Reduction of fossil fuel subsidies will also be an important incentive to development of renewable alternatives.  At the September G20 summit in Pittsburgh, world leaders agreed to phase out fossil fuel subsidies over the ‘medium term’.  Locke reiterated the Obama administration’s commitment to this objective and even praised Denmark for having a gasoline tax of over $5 a gallon.  He did not, however, go so far as to propose a similar levy on US motorists.

Worldwatch recently published an extensive study titled Green Jobs: Working for People and the Environment.

Climate Change, COP15, green jobs