Saturday, January 8, 2011

Cool food, cool fuel, cool climate


Appropriate technology is all about finding low-impact, small-footprint ways to meet our needs, while supporting the ecological niche we are mere parts of. Whether you are watching TV, vacuuming your house, getting ice cream from the freezer, or riding your electric scooter, you could be removing carbon from air and ocean and replacing it into soil and forest at the same time. How? Appropriate technology.

Here is an example: say your electricity came not from a dirty coal-steam plant but from algae that grew in a wetland cell that treated the effluent from your kitchen and bathroom? Suppose that once you had wrung out the algae mat for its rich gardening nutrients, you separated the oils from the biomass and refined those into fuel for your car. Then you took the leftover biomass and fed it to a pyrolyzing stove, which cooked your meals, heated your house, made your electricity, and left you not with ash but biochar — recalcitrant carbon ready to enrich your garden for the next 1000 years, staying out of the atmosphere all the while. Cool food, cool fuel, cool waste treatment, cool climate.

Painting the choice as a harsh dichotomy between your current standard of living and something resembling that of a prisoner on Devil’s Island is a blown meme. Stick a fork in that. Its done.

The future will be one of more conscientious design: more food with net carbon and fertility soil gains; warmth, light, mobility and other energy services based on solar income, not distilled dinosaurs. Elegance of multidimensional solution, not cascading fixes requiring greater additional fixes.

“Cool food” cooperatives have emerged in Japan to reinvigorate the rural economy and restore the neglected satoyama marginal areas between farm and wilderness. Now satoyama bamboo is being harvested for biochar, the biochar returned to the farms for soil health and carbon credits, and the produce sold as carbon-negative “cool food.”

In 2009, the first “cool” cabbage was processed into slaw by a supermarket chain, sold at a premium price and it sold out. Cool Slaw and other carbon negative products may represent a new way to revive rural economies by redeeming ecological services.

Cool food is healthy, wholesome, nourishing food that puts more carbon into the soil than is removed in the process of growing it. It thus moves carbon from sky and oceans to soils, plants, animals and people. By making cool food, using biochar, aquaculture, agroforestry and carbon farming, that revolution is now in our grasp.

This is the future, and it is one that is both hopeful and delicious.

For our lifetime we have been tinkering with what has been called “technology transfer.” Those words have a conflicting meaning in the climate negotiations context, so we prefer “appropriate technology” as a better description, although “sustainable development” also works.

Note: “sustainable development” in a business-as-usual economic growth context is an oxymoron. In a degrowth context, sustainable development implies meeting the needs of society in renewable, regenerative and responsible ways.

After the Cancún climate talks concluded, we went to work with our Mexican partners who are attempting to graft some of these concepts into existing villages not far from Cancún. While we have been employing the standard Transition Towns methodology, we find that what is often needed as a predicate is a good grasp of permaculture design. Permaculture seems to be indispensable for anyone trying to bring about broadscale collapse-proofing, especially in a limited-finance setting.

We are giving a permaculture trainings every weekend in January and February in Spanish, and then a full permaculture design course in English at the Maya Mountain Research Farm in San Pedro Columbia, Belize, March 5-13, 2011. While these courses are going on in México and Belize, Jude Hobbs and Andrew Millison will be back at the Ecovillage Training Center in Tennessee, preparing another generation of instructors to provide similar trainings all over the world. They are our “butterflies.”

We have come to see permaculture as an essential building block because it brings about a shift in awareness in those who study it. Permaculture is about designing cultivated ecosystems to meet your needs, and about cultivating people to be part of ecosystems instead of their agents of destruction.

When we first starting giving these courses two decades ago, we would notice a phenomenon where by about the fourth or fifth day of a 2-week course people starting having emotional breakdowns and we would have to pause the class and rebuild tattered egos. You might call this the chrysalis phase in butterfly morphology.

We get that less these days, either because people now are generally emotionally overwrought to begin with, or because we have modified our pedagogy to make the transformation easier to assimilate. One of the things we have learned is to pay more attention to set and setting.

We typically typically teach within established ecovillages, but the setting in Belize is difficult to match anywhere else we’ve been. From Punta Gorda, the capital of Toledo District, you ascend toward the pyramid ruin of Lubaantun, near San Pedro Colombia. This was a Late Classic Mayan ceremonial and commerce center where the famous crystal skull was found by the teenage daughter of archaeologist F.A. Mitchell-Hedges in 1926.

From San Pedro you go up the Columbia Branch of the Rio Grande in a cedar dug-out poled by a dory man. The site is 2 miles (1 hour) up river at a shallow bend with tall stands of bamboo on the starboard shore.

The river’s source is a massive spring that bursts from the ground a quarter mile up from that bamboo bend. The Source emerges from a vast underground river system that drains the 100,000 acre Columbia River Forest Reserve, a uniquely pristine natural area of broadleaf tropical forest, sanctuary to howler monkeys, jaguars, monarch butterflies and birds of paradise. The Reserve continues rising up the slopes of the Maya Mountains until they spill over into Guatemala. The landscape is strongly karsified, riddled with caves and some of the largest cenotes in the country (one is 800 feet deep and 1/4 mile wide). Shallow caverns of quartz-rich rocks provide breeding habitats for many animal populations.

Christopher Nesbitt decided to buy a piece of land on the river back in 1988. After leaving Antioch College at 19 he took a job in Belize as a caretaker then worked for Green & Blacks at Toledo Cacao Growers Association. His job was to manage an extension program that would help smallholders develop strategies of agroforestry that would favor both biodiversity and cacao production. During this period he also worked for Plenty Belize doing solar power installations and as a trainer for Peace Corps volunteers in the region.

Everything Chris learned about cacao, agroforestry, solar power, and self-finance he put into his farm. On one occasion as we walked the farm, he paused in the shade of a large avocado he planted in 1989. “More avocados than can be eaten by one family,” he said, pointing upwards. The same is true of his mangoes. He plans to start a piggery and goat shed and feed the pigs and goats the surplus fruit. He wants to use their manure to make methane for his kitchen. He has built a tank and pond aquaculture system, although most of the fish in his kitchen still come from the river or the Caribbean Sea.

After taking a Permaculture Design Course in 1991, Chris dug swales across his hillsides and added a number of ground hugging plants and vines to keep the soils shaded and protected from erosion. For him, cacao was the keystone plant in the system, and there was good reason that the Maya placed a high social value on it, beyond its health and nutritional qualities. The scientific name Theobroma means “food of the gods.”

This is where we choose to teach permaculture. The place is its own best instructor.

You could live quite comfortably on the breadnuts, avocados, corn, bananas, coffee, fish, beans and all the rest. You could drink from the river, although Chris harvests water for the kitchen from a spring farther uphill. If you glance around his open-air kitchen, you’ll see purchased cans and jars containing items like powered milk, granulated sugar, olive oil, foreign teas, iodized salt and baking soda. These are all part of a Western diet but not indispensable here. Successive civilizations did just fine without them.

Most of the rain in Southern Belize falls in July and August — hurricane season — and tapers off to December. They get 100 to 160 inches in that period, although climate change is making it less predictable. The Research Farm has been known to get abrupt heavy rains in late February or June, so Chris has learned to hold the design course in March, when the dry season has established itself, the river is lower and tamer for dory traffic, and the trails are more easily negotiated.

We are hosting introductory permaculture trainings outside Cancún through January, in Spanish, but for those interested in getting the whole design methodology at one location, in English, we direct you to our course in Belize. If you want to eat local organic food, sleep in dorms powered entirely by renewable energy, and bathe in a sparkling pure river, please contact Chris or visit his web site.

The transition work we are doing in México is especially urgent because, in our humble opinion, it will not be China or Al Quada that brings down the Death Star, but México. It was just 4 years ago that the president of México’s state owned oil company, Pemex, told a press conference that México would exhaust its oil reserves in six years. Since then, its largest field, Cantarell, has plummeted from 2.9 million barrels per day to just 464,000. It had been providing 40% of the Mexican government’s revenues and México had been the second largest source of oil flowing into the United States. Now Pemex is $40 billion in debt and México’s export spigot is squeeking shu
What will happen when México can no longer afford to buy expensive gasoline from Houston’s refinery row because it cannot send any more crude oil North? To quote Colin Campbell, describing peak oil generally,

“Initially it will be denied. There will be much lying and obfuscation. Then prices will rise and demand will fall. The rich will outbid the poor for available supplies. The system will initially appear to rebalance. The dash for gas will become more frenzied. People will realize nuclear power stations take up to ten years to build. People will also realize wind, waves, solar and other renewables are all pretty marginal and take a lot of energy to construct. There will be a dash for more fuel-efficient vehicles and equipment. The poor will not be able to afford the investment or the fuel. Exploration and exploitation of oil and gas will become completely frenzied. More and more countries will decide to reserve oil and later gas supplies for their own people. Air quality will be ignored as coal production and consumption expand once more. Once the decline really gets under way, liquids production will fall relentlessly by five percent per year. Energy prices will rise remorselessly. Inflation will become endemic. Resource conflicts will break out.”

To that we can add trade union and tax protests, student riots, food shortages, government debt defaults, currency devaluations, market crashes, local service terminations, and wide unemployment, homelessness and civil chaos. If this is beginning to sound familiar, it is not coincidental. We are not talking about México. This is what is happening to the United States.

But there is another way and it involves butterflies.

After the past 2-week flurry of posts we’ll be taking a brief hiatus now. Your homework assignment is to read The Biochar Solution. 

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Cancún Butterfly

Combating climate change is the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced, and we don’t yet know whether tipping points have already been passed that will make it impossible to reverse its trajectory. Regardless of whether the challenge has now become insurmountable — that it has become a dilemma rather than a problem — we can say for certain that the choice of inaction is still suicidal. If there is a glimmering of hope that we might pull out of our descent towards catastrophe and extinction, we are compelled by our survival instinct to act.

Critics, ourselves included, like to sneer at changing light-bulbs, but when light-bulb-changing reaches millions of homes and businesses, that strategy takes giant coal plants off line. What became clear in our years of research into The Biochar Solution, it is that each one of us has a much larger effect on global climate than most of us imagine.

One day in the winter of 1961, exactly 50 years ago, Edward Lorenz was working on an ancient 8-bit computer at MIT trying to understand weather patterns. When he arrived at work that morning, he decided to take a shortcut on his simulation and rather than start from the beginning of the run, he typed in the numbers from a previous point. He walked down the hall for his morning coffee and left the dot matrix printer to re-plot the graph. As he sipped his coffee, a new branch of mathematics, chaos theory, was born.

When Lorenz walked back to his office and looked at the printout, what he saw was something odd. Instead of the same weather pattern as before, the computer had created something new. The repeat pattern started at the same point and followed the previous pattern closely for a short time, but then began to diverge. It continued to diverge until all resemblance to the original sequence disappeared. Lorenz could have assumed something was wrong with his computer, or his program, but he guessed, correctly, that he had stumbled upon something more profound.

Lorenz’s diverging pattern was caused by the significant difference between the six-decimal numbers used by his computer (ie.:.506127) and the rounded-off three-decimal numbers appearing on the printout from which he had re-keyed (ie.:.506). When he typed in the shorter number, he could assume that one part in ten thousand, or a million, would be inconsequential. After all, in numbers referring to windspeed, one part in ten thousand represents only an imperceptible puff of wind, not an entire weather system. But as the difference propagated itself in equation after equation, the entire weather of the earth changed. Lorenz named the phenomenon the “butterfly effect” — because it now seemed that a butterfly stirring the springtime air in Peking could transform the course of summer storms in New York.

Lorenz reasoned that sensitivity to initial conditions was no accident, but is necessary to all natural systems. The influence of small perturbations is what endows larger patterns with such rich variety. It is what gives weather its unpredictability.

There are four parts of the carbon cycle (or the N cycle or the K cycle, whatever you want to look at). Earth (both living topsoil and deep geological reservoirs, including fossil sunlight), Air (the atmosphere), Fire (life in all its forms), and Water (especially the oceans). Labile carbon cycles through these four reservoirs on periods as short as 12 to 15 years on average, but longer for deep earth and oceans. Recalcitrant carbon (biochar or terra preta) cycles through on millennial time scales. Any labile carbon that can be diverted to the recalcitrant cycle can starve the atmosphere and oceans of carbon in the near term -- decades to centuries.

We sometimes wonder why the fungi and bacteria we evolved from wanted us to be here. We can assume that when they made a decision to branch off into plant forms, they needed the stable photosynthetic process to further their exchanges and increase their scope and diversity -- anaerobic vs aerobic, for instance. Likewise, animals gave them a greater range, by pollinating and transporting easily over greater distances, and by complex guts and manures that refined their cuisine with inordinate elegance. So why humans? As we ponder this, what we've come to appreciate is that we provide disturbance. Disturbance in ecosystems increases biodiversity. That is our gift to our bacterial forebears, who still course through our bloodstreams and organs and make up some tiny fraction of our weight. We give them disturbance.

Perhaps they did not anticipate just how much disturbance we two-leggeds are capable of. Or maybe they did.

We took 500 million years of sunlight stored in carbon form and moved it from the Earth to the Air. The Air said, whoa, wait, too much for me, and passed it to Water. Every time a plow cut a field in Sumer, or a Ming dynasty farmer stuck a stick in the ground and diverted water for irrigation, carbon went from dirt to sky to ocean. Agriculture is 40% of greenhouse emissions, but that reckoning is flawed, because it mostly just accounts for the tractors, rice paddies and cow flatulence, not the off-gassing of bared soils. Land disturbance; that is what the two-leggeds do best.

There was a very excellent paper just recently published: Dull, Robert A. , Nevle, Richard J. , Woods, William I. , Bird, Dennis K. , Avnery, Shiri and Denevan, William M. 'The Columbian Encounter and the Little Ice Age: Abrupt Land Use Change, Fire, and Greenhouse Forcing', Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 01 September 2010. The implications are really important. Dull, et al, argue that the re-growth of Neotropical forests following the Columbian encounter led to terrestrial biospheric carbon sequestration on the order of 2 to 5 GtC, thereby contributing to the well-documented decrease in atmospheric C recorded in Antarctic ice cores from about 1500 through 1750 AD (or CE for Buddhists and pagans) previously ascribed to the Columbian encounter by William Ruddiman. Decoding that: When European disease and slavery swept the Americas, so much land was released, much of it with millennial build-up of fertile terra preta, that the trees and vines and rainforests that covered everything took so much carbon away from the cycle that atmospheric C plummeted and Europe literally froze. The Swedes invaded Denmark. Louis XIV put down parquet in the palace at Versailles. Hans Brinker won his silver skates on the frozen canals.

While the paper does not extend to the Medieval Maximum, from charcoal in lake bed studies it documents increased biomass burning and deforestation during agricultural and population expansion in the Neotropics from 2500 to 500 years BP, which would correspond with atmospheric carbon loading and global warming 1100 to 650 years BP. Decoding that: During the rise of the Classic Maya in the Yucatan, the Great White Cities witnessed by Orellana in the first transit of the Amazon, the vast palisade cities along the Mississippi encountered by DeSoto, and trade centers like Cahokia and Teotihuacan, so much carbon was released from forest and field that the atmosphere loaded and the northern hemisphere heated. At the same time there was desertification in N. Africa, driving the Moors into Spain.

Besides hinting at a human-Gaian umbilical far more reciprocating than imagined, what this shows is that the potential exists to return us to pre-Anthrocene concentrations of atmospheric C by reforestation and terrestrial carbon loading, assuming we are not thwarted by Jevon's Paradox and political inertia but also bring down emissions that currently exceed biospheric sequestration by 3.2 GtC/y (although to save the coral reefs, we need to also decarbonize the oceans and that means much more than 3.2 GtC/yr).

In The Biochar Solution we describe the various approaches and compare them in terms of potential for gigaton sequestration on decadal time scales. Jim Bruges does this in his book, The Biochar Debate, also. The main carbon farming advocates (Lal, Ingham, Yeomans) put the organic/holistic farming potential at 1 GtC/y. Biochar advocates (Lehmann, Larson) give a best guess of 4-10 GtC/y for biochar in all its forms. After delving into the Pioneer/Alford Forest model for mixed age/mixed species management, optimizing for ecosystem services and biodiversity but employing step harvest patch disturbance, we put the forestry component at perhaps 40 GtC/y, clearly the dominant wedge.

Recently DemocracyNow! profiled a boy from South Africa who started planting trees at age 9 and organized his classmates to plant a million trees. In our book that is the strategy we talked about: youth tree-planting competitions.

But the catch is that long before we get to 40 GtC/y, we run out of available land. And this, also, is where the versatility of biochar comes into play. We have a chapter about how we can re-green the deserts, much in the way Geoff Lawton is working in Jordan and the Middle East. The Sahara Forest. The Gobi Forest. The Sonoran Forest.

The lifestyles of the pre-Conquest Americans, during the centuries they were clearing land for their cities, likely contributed to pushing the Moors out of North Africa and into the Iberian Peninsula. It was ironic that to expel the invaders the medieval Spanish developed the tools and tactics (such as naval ships, the Andalusian horse and the cavalry charge) that then allowed them to conquer the vastly larger armies of the Americas.

How finely tuned is the human relationship to the climate? What hand might social convention among Paleolithic societies have had in creating Holocene stability? These are large questions we are only just beginning to know enough to ask. Perhaps we will be around long enough to answer them.

Next: Cool food, cool fuel, cool climate.  

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Cancún and Four Degrees

In the previous posts we looked at the Cancún Climate Summit from the trenches, where what seemed at first another impasse suddenly broke open with some astonishing and foresightful developments. Quite the opposite of another Copenhagen and more akin to what happened to the World Trade Organization when they met here many years ago, Cancún showed the power of small, rhyzomal networks to bend the arc of history.

In monasteries and convents from Bhutan to Trieste, monks and nuns gathered up their robes and booked flights to the Mayan Riviera. There they met and linked arms with backyard inventors from Guatemala, bicyclists from Nova Scotia, Amazonian Indians, climate scientists, Lapland herders, political games-theorists, bloggers, tweeters, Chinese youth, Greenpeace Warriors of the Rainbow, Mariachis, Yucatecans, the poor, and the powerful. They joined in common cause. And their voices were heard.

We are in the final throws of the collapse of the Industrial Empire, which began at about the turn of the 20th Century and will conclude, probably with the same abruptness as experienced in the former Soviet Union, some time soon. That event is a minor blip in history, however. What drew young and old, weak and strong to Cancún was the end of history, as Bill McKibben put it, 20 years ago.

All of the international dickering and jostling for position between the world’s politicians falls against the backdrop of historically unprecedented changes that will be overtaking the climate and will radically alter the gameboard long before most newer and more effective strategies for mitigation and adaptation can evolve. Unlike in Copenhagen, where a debate about purloined emails seemed to consume the world press contingent and threw the discussions back on their heels, everyone in Cancún arrived with the same set of assumptions. Even if the UN is broken, we cannot afford many more years of worsening fires across Russia, floods in Pakistan, and blizzards in London, Paris and New York. People now get that all that, in one year, was the effect of less than a single degree of atmospheric warming, over the course of a century. What will 4 degrees change look like, they are asking, by, say, 2060?

The UK Met Office was on hand to answer such questions. All that heat is not distributed equally. It is hotter and dryer in the center of continental landmasses. It is getting warmer faster at the poles than at low latitudes. The Northern Hemisphere, which has global dimming from soot and greater heat absorption by the lower atmosphere than the Southern Hemisphere, has been slipping its jet stream track. Oceans have absorbed 22 times more heat than the atmosphere. In the water cycle, a warmer ocean evaporates more and a warmer atmosphere holds more. Hence, intensity of rainfall (and snowfall in winter) is accelerating. In the Arctic so much ice has melted there is now a near-permanent high pressure system over the North Atlantic, driving severe weather and flooding into Europe and sponging out precipitation elsewhere. The result is chaotic weather volatility.

This has enormous implications for global food production and reliable water sources for cities.
As we describe in our new book, The Biochar Solution: Carbon Farming and Climate Change, the dawn of agriculture coincided with an extraordinarily long epoch of mild climate geologists call the Holocene. Mild climate variation provided predictability and reliability of temperature and precipitation that made broadscale organized agriculture possible. Agriculture made civilization possible.

All of that is about to unravel. We are now in the Anthrocene, an epoch of human-moderated climate chaos, also called the Age of Stupid. Extreme variation is the new order of business. Our system of global agriculture, really no more than a method of transforming oil into marginally nutritious food for much of the world, is about to fail us, massively.

The Green Korea Program, for all its great ideas, is probably about 30 years too late. China’s ambitious solar power goals should have begun when Chairman Mao was still in charge. Germany may have some of the best technology development programs going, but the train may have already left the station.

One thing that was barely addressed in Cancún was the issue of lifestyle. While it is no longer taboo to talk about this, as it was just 5 years ago, no-one apart from indigenous peoples, ecovillagers and Transition Towners seems to grasp what much of it entails.

In 1966, the American economist Alfred E. Kahn described a situation where a number of decisions, individually small in size and time perspective, cumulatively result in an outcome which is not desired by anyone. Kahn called his concept “The Tyranny of Small Decisions” after watching the fate of the Ithaca passenger rail service.

For more than a century, the railway was the only reliable way to get in and out of Ithaca. It provided services regardless of conditions, in fair weather and foul, during peak seasons and off-peak seasons. The local airline and bus company skimmed the traffic when conditions were favorable, leaving the trains to fill in when conditions were difficult. The collective individual decisions made by travellers did not provide the railway with the revenue it needed to cover its incremental costs, similar to the circumstance of the U.S.’s and other postal services with the advent of Federal Express.

Later, in 1982, William Odum introduced the “Tyranny of Small Decisions on the Environment,” saying that none of us would consciously choose dirty air or water but collectively our small decisions do. Its all about lifestyle choices which seem inconsequential because of context.

Threatened and endangered species owe their predicament to series of small decisions. Polar bears, humpback whales, wolves and bald eagles suffer from the cumulative effects of single decisions to overexploit or convert their habitats.

Permafrost is now melting in Alaska. Methane clathrates are bubbling up off Norway. We may already be across a threshold where tipped forcings cascade us into a much hotter world. Even if not, we’ll need to withstand the shockwaves of our past 30 years of foot-dragging as they rattle our windows with firestorms and thunderblizzards for the next several centuries.
The hard choices are actually easy ones, which you can see if you visit your nearest ecovillage or go to an Open Café hosted by a node in the Transition Network. Lose the SUV. Get a bike. Grow a garden. Make friends with your neighbors. Disinvest in the tape worm. Follow the Popsicle Index.

And eventually, as you gain traction, mobilize the vote. Develop and protect higher levels of decision making and responsible regulations. There is a need for politicians and planners to understand large scale perspectives. High school science teachers should include large scale processes in their courses, with examples of the problems that decision making at inappropriate levels can introduce.

Cancún’s system of voluntary pledges and economic incentives for private actors is only a partial approach to the problem. It tries to use only a carrot, but sometimes a stick is also required. So far, the political will for a stick approach is not there. Activists have to align with the pro-stick people. Get used to it: at a planetary level the U.N. is the only one with that large a stick.

If there is a way to still get out of our predicament, the Cancún Agreements at least point us in that direction. Now it is up to all the participants to pick up their tools and get working.

Is it too little? Yup.

Does it lack teeth? Yup.

The Cancún Agreements are merely a prod.  They offer a way forward. The next step is yours.

Next: The Cancún Butterfly. 

Monday, January 3, 2011

Cancunhagen 3.0: The Green Climate Fund

"It was exhilarating. Intoxicating. Transcendant. Naked apes as a species had stared into the abyss and said, as newly sentient beings, with global awareness, “Whoa, dude, don’t want to go there!” or vocal-chord-vibrating grunts to that effect."

Lord Nicolas Stern
At the UN Climate Summit in Cancún, a “Green Climate Fund” was given over to the World Bank as initial trustee (to Bolivia’s horror and the United States’ relief), but that trusteeship was placed under a 3-year sunset clause. Equally horrifying to international carbon speculators was the way the UN put the trustee on a choke chain, making GCF an “operating entity” of the UNFCCC.  The document says, “The trustee shall administer the assets of the Green Climate Fund only for the purpose of, and in accordance with, the relevant decisions of the Green Climate Fund Board.” The board of directors of the fund is skewed towards those most vulnerable to climate change — those whose sense of urgency is most deeply felt. Of the 40 members of the board, 15 members represent developed countries and 25 members developing countries, with:
  • Seven members from Africa;
  • Seven members from Asia;
  • Seven members from Group of Latin American and Caribbean States;
  • Two members from small island developing States; and
  • Two members from least developed countries.
Dan Kammen
This board is empowered to replace the World Bank with a trustee of its own choosing after 2013. It is useful to remember that the World Bank itself has been evolving. Lord Nicholas Stern, the author of the UK study on the economic impacts of climate change, is now its chief economist. Former IPCC team leader and director of the UC Berkeley Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory Dan Kammen is its energy director.

The fund is not restricted to national tax revenues or UN dues but can employ a variety of revenue streams, with targets based on the Copenhagen Accord: $30 billion fast start to 2015, and $100 billion annually by 2020. Daniel Caperton at the Center for American Progress notes:
Formal discussions on this topic started in Cancun, where a proposal to put a price on the carbon emissions from international transport and shipping was included in early drafts. Some developed countries, including the United States, opposed this idea because of legal concerns, but it should be back on the table in South Africa.
An African delegate checks
 his Blackberry

Indeed, every single source of finance that the U.N. High Level Advisory Group on Climate Change Financing identified in their final report should be part of the negotiation in South Africa, including a financial transactions tax and revenue generated by a putting a price on carbon. Now that the Green Climate Fund has been built, it’s time to think about how to put money into it.
One of the early recipients of fund largesse will be the Climate Technology Center and Network, whose goal will be to construct a global network to match technology suppliers with technology needs. Presidente Calderon pledged that México would build one of the first nodes in this network, a Caribbean Climate and Renewable Technology Center, to rigorously test and modify the latest breakthroughs and deploy them quickly throughout Latin America.

Some of the breakthrough technologies on display in Cancún worth a trip to Wikipedia include: Barefoot College; Energia Geo Rotational; EcoTotality; Ecovative; WorldStove; Freeplay Energy; Morphosis; Solar Electric Light Fund; and some nifty oil paintings hung in on a windy balcony, rattling gently against the wall behind them, making electricity by piezoelectric current.

Another potential revenue stream are “market-based mechanisms” such as carbon capture and storage and aforestation projects using carbon credits under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). In this context, there is a small attempt to address the “hot air” issues of Kyoto by offering some special recognition of Central and Eastern European countries and by conceding there are countries at the edge between developed and developing, such as Turkey and Egypt. This also opens the door for expansion of carbon trading regimes and exchanges, and the setting of a price on carbon, often seen as the only way to avoid Jevons’ Paradox when greening energy  or other parts of the economy. There is much devil in future details to be worked out.

So, for instance, Bellona Foundation projected in 2009 that setting a price on carbon would create many wedges that would begin to drop atmospheric concentrations. Here is Bellona’s chart, on display last year in Copenhagen:

Sadly, like the IPCC’s 2007 Assessment, the Bellona Forecast failed to take account for Peak Oil. While crude oil peaked globally in 2006, substitute liquids from deep sea gas, fracking shale gas and tar sands have allowed addicts to keep getting higher, bordering on overdose, but real world EROI is about to alter that chemistry and beginning about 2011 the withdrawal tremens won’t be pretty. Here is the Bellona chart superimposed on the decline slope predicted from the most current International Energy Agency reports, with CCS (a “clean-coal” oxymoron) replaced by a best practice carbon capture (carbon farming, agroforestry, CHP-biochar, etc.), the black wedge:

From this chart it is easy to see how a less-petroleum-dominated future could also be a low-carbon and even carbon-minus future. All of those colored wedges represent economic stimuli — all have vast profit potentials.

Another good example put forward through side events was that of Germany’s climate and energy policy framework consisting of eco-taxes, feed-in tariffs, an emissions trading scheme (ETS), and other measures to drive production of renewables and increase efficiency. Germany’s ETS funds both domestic renewables projects and aid projects through its International Climate Initiative. Countries with progressive vision are starting to see a first-mover advantage in low-carbon technology regardless of climate negotiations or international carbon trading schemes.

Ultimately, the Cancún Agreements embraced the notion — from South Korea, Germany and other self-starters — that there is a solution to the climate problem that involves economic hope and opportunity. The Agreements set aside, for now, the gloomy vista painted by India, The South Center and ALBA — of deprivations, imposed sacrifice, and penalties for historic wrongs.

By 3 AM on Saturday, when the final Agreements came up for a plenary vote, Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela and most of ALBA’s opposition evaporated (the result of Calderon’s skills as a diplomat) and Bolivia was left standing on “procedural irregularities” in a final attempt to derail consensus. “Consensus does not mean giving the right of veto to one country,” said the delegate from Colombia.

“Consensus does not mean unanimity,” echoed COP President Patricia Espinoza. “We regret that Bolivia chose not to participate in the drafting of the document, but they cannot be permitted to block the will of all the other parties now… Of course I do note your opinion and I will be more than happy to make sure it is reflected in the records of the conference. And if there is no other opinion, this text is approved.” The gavel fell. The cheers erupted. Cancún was a done deal.

Humans as a species may be slow to change, and much of our genetic heritage works to slow our recognition of intangible threats, but in Cancún a big shift in our awareness could be felt. Governments that had hemmed and hawed, thrown up obstructions and excuses, and denied that any alternative to business as usual was even possible, were seen coming to grips with the existential issues of the day. Whether shocked by cascading weather events, embarassed by the Copenhagen debacle or enticed by the green economy, they stood together at the final dawn and applauded a change in direction.

It was exhilarating. Intoxicating. Transcendant. Naked apes as a species had stared into the abyss and said, as newly sentient beings, with global awareness, “Whoa, dude, don’t want to go there!” or vocal-chord-vibrating grunts to that effect, and had decided to actually do something different. Something radically different. Already science had come together with something exponentially more difficult than the moon shot and had found consensus. Now world diplomats, finally, did the same.

While a legal treaty might have been better, it more likely would have been worse. Politicians are neither scientists nor diplomats. In many ways they are an order lower on the evolutionary chain from members of the general public, who seem to be better read. No binding climate treaty is likely to pass the US Senate, which, when fully in the hands of the Democratic Party was unable to pass a weak, watered-down carbon credits bill. Even if it were ratified by enough countries to go into effect, the result could well be like Kyoto — failed efforts to meet pledges by most, and economic penalties accruing to those who performed with honor.

PHOTO by Willy Sousa, Mexico en tus Sentidos
Without the legal form now, the route to emissions reductions becomes a private competition. Those who develop and deploy the technology first (and can stay ahead of the crashing fireball and toxic dust cloud of the American Industrial Empire) will be the big winners. Greening your economy means staying in the game. Brown loses and is ejected. This is not a bad outcome.
What the Cancún Agreements did was set up and fund the arena, hand out uniforms, and lay down some beginning rules for fair play. Durban, Seoul and later contests on the UNFCCC circuit will refine those rules after seeing them in practice. It is clear that some of the players don’t yet get this, and are still stuck in older dialectics. Too bad for them. They will be slow off the bench and will probably eat a lot of dust before they find themselves playing catch up.

Next: Cancún and Four Degrees


Sunday, January 2, 2011

Cancunhagen 2.0: Reality Strikes Back

This is the third part of our series looking back at the Cancún outcome and doing a little looking forward to what may happen in the climate change negotiations in coming years. Stick with us, because we still have several parts to consider before a fuller picture emerges.
By the end of the first week, it was apparent there were those who did not want a deal, and they would do their best to see that one would not happen. Oddly enough, the USA, Canada, Australia, and many other big polluters were not in this group. This time, that group came from the oil-rich South.

A commitment to launch the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) program was one of the few successes at Copenhagen. It led to the inaugural meeting in Oslo in May of a 58-nation group to get things moving. Half a dozen rich countries put up 4.5 billion to be spent by 2012. After 2012, REDD had hoped to be sustained by carbon trading fees and offsets, but the Waxman-Markey silk purse that passed the US House became a Kerry-Leiberman-Graham sow’s ear in the US Senate. It was cut off ignominiously. It went from pork to bacon and sizzled to a burnt crisp. Now there is a metaphor you can get your nose into.
Here’s another. Deforestation can be thought of as a ski jump. Stay with us. Countries cut down their forests as they industrialize until timber scarcity and environmental disasters force protection. Take the case of China’s forests: they used to shield Beijing from duststorms and prevent mudslides in the New Enterprise Zone, now they fall to charcoal makers, and then grow beef for export. Beijing sweeps, Shenzhen bails. That is the down-slope part. The lift begins when protected areas begin to regenerate and once more provide forest products and environmental services. REDD is an attempt to bridge the dip by offering countries financial incentives to retain forest cover. The ski jump becomes a harp.

In the debates over REDD there were rational actors (Brazil, the Africa bloc, Greenpeace, Oxfam, Green Belt Movement, NRDC, Yale, Nature Conservancy, ad nauseum) and then there were irrational actors (EcoNexus, Climate Justice, Indigenous Environmental Network, Third World Network, ALBA, ad ridiculo). In Cancún, despite getting 90% of what they wanted, the irrational actors walked out, claiming they weren’t being heard; were thrown out for unscheduled demonstrations (as with CJ and IEN); or (as for Bolivia) stayed behind and threw sand in the gears.

Responding directly to the critics, the REDD plan took up land tenure issues such as those of the landless peoples of Brazil, forest governance issues like national carbon monitoring, and promised the full and effective participation of stakeholders of mixed gender, mixed culture, indigenous peoples and local communities. It became REDD-plus. Henceforth development plans by governments, the World Bank, and other players will involve rural capacity-building, technology transfer and science-based, results-based, practical demonstrations to restore ecosystem health that can be fully measured, reported and verified.

The REDD forest carbon-protection scheme is a template for what may come later: a soils carbon-protection and restoration scheme involving a shift to organic gardening and farming, broadscale municipal composting, holistic range management, keyline injection of biochar and compost teas, and much more. Carbon could be monitored remotely from space and by on-the-ground soil samples and sapling counts. Rewards would flow to those who produce the greatest soil carbon gains. Those of us in the biochar advocacy community found the opening to be very positive.

Much has been made of the final night of reckoning for COP-16. The message of all the major NGOs on the final Friday morning of the talks was “lower your expectations.” Then we heard that no plenary meetings would take place until evening. We planned to attend a US press conference in the afternoon, but it was cancelled. The same for a UNFCCC press conference. However, COP President Patricia Espinosa temporarily stopped the negotiating on Friday afternoon and, working with UNFCCC chair Christina Figueres of Costa Rica and LCA chair Margaret Mukahanana-Sangarwe of Zimbabwe, prepared a chair’s text which made hard choices on all points of disagreement. The proposed draft was handed out at 2 pm and a three hour break was called to absorb it. In those three hours there was a noticeable uptick in the optimism level.

It was as if Tinker Bell had flown over the Moon Palace sprinkling fairy dust.

When the final evening sessions convened at 9 pm, opposition did not emerge from the United States or China. They were applauded for joining in support of the proposed text. Then Bolivian Ambassador Pablo Solon opened with an attack on almost all points of compromise. Cuba, which has recently discovered it has large offshore oil potential, added severe words for both the Mexican hosts and the texts. Venezuela and Saudi Arabia called for resumed negotiating sessions to revisit the compromises taken.

The bulk of Bolivia’s arguments were procedural. First, there was an insistence that any agreement made in Cancún would completely lock the UNFCCC into a disastrous and irreversible course. Clearly that was not the case, because the Agreements embed for the first time a review process that is meticulously scientific. If 2 degrees is found after study to be inadequate, in 3 years the target goes to 1.5 or even lower. Mention of 450 ppm in this regard is struck. The targets are now results-driven.

Bolivia argued that the document was completely insufficient to achieve its stated goal of holding temperature increase at 2 degrees because it had no stated emission targets. True, there are no stated emissions targets. Is that good or bad? Two degrees is now the relevant metric, and science on how best to achieve that has been placed in the driver’s seat. Expect many more reports like the UNEP’s “Gigatonne Gap” in coming sessions. That may serve to pressure counties to tighten up national goals. Or not.

Feeling Pressured?

In the US, where the right-wing legislature has blocked all new climate initiatives (and owing to recent court decisions should remain comfortably in the service of the oil lobby for some years to come) the track for reducing carbon emissions has shifted to laws passed 40 years ago, such as the Clean Air Act. Under EPA requirements now pending, already vetted by the US Supreme Court and requiring no additional legislation, 50-67 GW, equivalent to around 20% of total US installed coal-fired capacity and 7% of the US power sector’s annual CO2 emissions, will be taken out of service between 2011 and 2015 because the older plants cannot economically meet the new standards. That number could actually go much higher, to 75% of all coal plants in the US, if the EPA gradually increases the stringency of its regulations and utilities respond by converting to (environmentally poisonous) shale gas and other fracking-awful alternatives. Republican backlash is expected to be strong, but in this case, the Congressional impasse works in favor of coal opponents.

Ironically, the Harry Reed amendments to Senate Rules now scheduled for January 5, 2011 could serve the interests of Republicans and climate change deniers by breaking the impasse and allowing a repeal of the Clean Air Act to move forward after clearing the Republican-dominated House. Campaign coffers would overflow with untold gold, frankensence and myhrr, borne by camel caravans from the East, should such a bill arise from the floor for a vote.

Making Commitments Count

The Cancún Agreements reflected serious concern for REDD leakage, the rights of indigenous peoples, the landless, local communities, and intact ecosystems and their myriad services being supplanted with monocrop GMO plantations. The document was remarkable in its scope and inclusiveness and obviously reflected attention being paid to both the science community and the NGOs. Within the Agreements are some remarkable passages on what we will need to do as a species to abate catastrophic climate change.

The Agreements call on the world’s largest emitters – China, the United States, the European Union, India, and Brazil – to commit to various targets and actions to reduce emissions by 2020. The distinction between industrial (Annex I) and developing (non-Annex I) countries is blurred. There is an abundance of politically-correct window dressing like repetitive references to “common but differentiated responsibilities,” but all the actors are brought in and placed under a uniform MRV regime, an independent panel of experts that will monitor and verify reports of emissions cuts and other actions.

The distinctions between “developed” and “developing” worlds, begun in Kyoto, were retained in the Cancún Agreements, although a mechanism was created that may allow some criteria to evolve that would allow migration between categories, as Brazil, India and China have done. More than 50 non-Annex I countries now have greater per capita income than the poorest of the Annex I countries, and given the finances of Ireland, Greece and Spain, that gap can only increase. Nonetheless, Cancún provides for emissions reductions by the “developed” world and only reductions from “business as usual” growth projections by the “developing” world. India’s point about there being 300 GtC reserve capacity in the atmosphere was therefore adopted, and the race to use that space is now on. This is a tragic flaw.

In our view, geographic borders have less significance than gross happiness indices. Cultural distinctions, while honored, matter less than built-environment harmonization with underlying ecosystem health. The only borders are ones of self-realization, which can be easily broken down by transfers of inspiration and empowerment. Oh, and a universal debt jubilee would also help. Well, while we’re at it, lets just scrap the whole Bretton Woods/Federal Reserve/IMF/WTO system and start over with community credit unions, local currencies and microfinance. But never mind, that’s just us.

The Agreements commit all major economies to greenhouse gas cuts, to launch a fund to help the most vulnerable countries, and to avoid some political landmines that could have blown up the talks, namely decisions on the future of the Kyoto Protocol or climate reparations. While many important issues were “kicked down the road,” the Agreements are structured so as to beg their gaps as important questions that must be addressed as soon as possible.

What the Agreements did not do was use mandatory language, in the style of a binding treaty. It struck an advisory tone, after the style of the Copenhagen Accord. As described by some of the law professors in the Irish government’s side event on Legal Form, this may have been the Cancún Agreements’ strength and weakness, both.

Neither the international moratorium on high seas drift nets nor the Helsinki Accord to reduce nuclear weapons are legally binding treaties but both are effective because they create a review process and pressure to conform. Cancún’s form is a strength because as an advisory agreement it does not require country-by-country ratification, which would be impossible for the US and perhaps a number of other countries. It can still foster public pressure and debate, provide social learning and stimulate domestic policy adoption, without requiring ratification.

The legal form is a weakness, as is being pointed out by many critics, because it has inherently weaker obligations, no enforcement mechanisms or penalties for violations, and less invested political capital or domestic buy-in than a legally binding treaty would have.

Had Cancún failed, the UN process itself, based on multilateralism, NGO participation, science and law, could well have ended. Attention would have shifted to the G20 or the dying Empire’s latest pet, the Major Economies Forum. Backroom deals between the large industrial economies would rule the planet until collapse overtook us all.

Instead, the UN multilateral consensus process has been reinvigorated. Transparency and inclusivity have been vindicated. Robert Stavins, Director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, observed,

“The key role played by the Mexican leadership is consistent with the notion of Mexico as one of a small number of ‘bridging states,’ which can play particularly important roles in this process because of their credibility in the two worlds that engage in divisive debates in the United Nations: the developed world and the developing world. … Mexico, along with Korea, are members of the OECD, but are also non-Annex I countries under the Kyoto Protocol. This gives Mexico — and gave Minister Espinosa — a degree of credibility across the diverse constituencies in the UNFCCC that was simply not enjoyed by Danish Prime Minister Rasmussen at COP-15 last year.”

Tomorrow: Cancunhagen 3.0: The Green Climate Fund

Friday, December 31, 2010

Cancunhagen 1.0: Revenge on the Danes

"If the average American used only as much energy per year as the average European, America would be exporting oil, not importing it. Only our insistence on clinging to the dysfunctional lifestyles of an age that is passing away keeps such an obviously constructive goal off the table." — John Michael Greer

So, in our last post we gave the starting point of the negotiations. It would take some masterful negotiator, a combination of Mohandas Gandhi and KKR’s Henry Kravis, to reach any meaningful denouement. Such a master appeared in the unlikely guise of the President of the host country.

We have never been especially fond of Felipe de Jesus Calderon Hinojosa, its true. In the course of the first two weeks of December, however, our opinion reversed. Before the Cancún Summit we saw him as a Bush toadie who ascended to power over the populist candidate and rightful president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador through a Diebold-rigged election.

But, during the Summit, we watched slack-jawed as he opened the doors to civil society and welcomed all to attend the discussions. He held stakeholder sessions to listen to the views of science, development organizations working in the field, the media, indigenous rights groups, religious groups, and sub-governmental agencies. Everyone had access. Guayaberas replaced suits; “tú” replaced “usted” or “Excellency;” his casa was our casa.

In Copenhagen we had been forced to stand in blowing snow for hours to get daily passes only to find the doors to meeting rooms blocked by plainclothes security with earbuds and bulging armpits. In Cancún, if you jumped through a few months of hoops to get credentialed, you could observe almost any meeting, and in many of them you were offered the microphone and translator services, if you needed to speak. Contrary to the chants of the protestors, the UN did not silence civil society.

The effect this had was to bring in out-of-the-box thinking that was the only possible way to break through the numerous loggerheads.

Peter Wood of Australian National University told delegates in one meeting that the impasse boiled down to how nations deal with the free rider incentive. No-one wants to jeopardize their economy by being the first to act, or by acting alone. But, Wood said, “Some game theory mechanisms based on countries either matching each others’ commitments or subsidizing each others’ reductions have game theory solutions: fully cooperative outcomes.”

John Michael Greer has said, “If the average American used only as much energy per year as the average European, America would be exporting oil, not importing it. Only our insistence on clinging to the dysfunctional lifestyles of an age that is passing away keeps such an obviously constructive goal off the table.”

In a recent analysis published in Foreign Affairs and reviewed in Scientific American on-line, Prof. Bruce Bueno de Mesquita of NYU argues that political leaders will, by and large, act on what keeps them in power or helps them to get re-elected, not that which protects the planet. Even promising their constituents light economic pain now for understood benefits years into the future isn’t a winning formula.

“One way that it could work is to link cooperation on climate change with cooperation on other issues, such as trade,” argued Wood. “If a country introduces a carbon price, it may also want to introduce a ‘border tax adjustment’ that levies a carbon price on emissions-intensive imported goods.” That is also a strategy championed by James Hansen following a recent trip to China. According to Hansen, China may find economic advantage in going carbon-negative and could, under the rules of the WTO, impose import tariffs on countries like Australia, the US and Canada that were less environmentally responsible.

However, what game theorists failed to take into account was the latest findings in cognitive neuroscience. Not coincidentally, that is precisely the kind of knowledge that permaculturists, transition towns affiliates and the Global Ecovillage Network (GEN) brought to the discussion.

Research by behavioralists Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello indicates that toddlers as young as 18 months instinctively behave altruistically. When we contemplate violence done to others we activate the same regions in our brains that fire up when mothers gaze at their children. Caring for strangers is in-bred. When we help others, pleasure centers in our brains light up like Christmas trees. There is no self-other. We are our brothers’ keepers.

Most game theorists begin with the assumption that humans are hardwired to be aggressive and selfish, and politicians seek only self-interest. Ecovillagers and Transition Towners know from actual experience that people not only can behave well and nobly, but can take deep pleasure in doing so, a pleasure so intense it suggests that an unspoken, unmet appetite for fulfilling work and sharing community lies just below the surface of our collective angst.

Some of us even yearn for quick collapse, to get past the inevitable and back to a recognition of communitas. Civilizational collapse is not always as bad as it is made out to be. Ask the Maya.

At the Communications Forum we learned that 64% of the delegates believed the unwillingness to risk economic or political damage at home was the greatest barrier to reaching agreement. Only 20% think it is due to skepticism of the science. Of those representing industrial countries, 69% were unwilling to jeopardize continued economic growth; 59% in developing countries.

As many of the submissions from civil society made clear, however, excellent studies in various countries and regions already show profitable means to achieve 40% aggregate reductions from 1990 levels for 2020. Some groups, like Climate Action Network, Centre for Alternative Technology and European Climate Foundation, have shown how we can transition to a zero carbon economy for developed countries by 2050 or even 2030. Dubious technologies like clean coal and nuclear can be pursued by countries inviting their own financial ruin, but most will likely choose to adopt renewables targets like China’s. China’s carbon goal, without precondition of treaty or reciprocity by others, is 15% primary energy from solar/renewables by 2020 and an increase in forest cover by 150,000 square miles.

A declaration signed by 150,000 Chinese “members of the public” endorsed that national commitment, even though it recognized that cutting GHG by 40-45% of 2005 levels by 2020 would entail real changes in lifestyle options. Note however that China’s pledge is -40-45% per unit of GDP. That “per unit of GDP” rider is a significant qualifier since China’s GDP grows 8-10% annually. If the math seems a bit opaque, that is no accident.

South Korea’s Green Growth Initiative is groundbreaking in several ways: it has broad bipartisan and public support, it is being implemented with detailed and forceful legislation; and despite early opposition from energy-intensive sectors such as steel and cement, it has been embraced by mainstream industry. Firms like Hyundai and Samsung have implemented their own “green growth” strategies, including entering into new business areas such as solar energy, wind power, electric vehicles, and zero-emission factories.

Most impressive about South Korea’s initiative is the “just-do-it” philosophy that drives it. The country’s leaders are frustrated by the maddeningly slow and ideological character of the climate negotiations. They are firmly — and accurately — convinced that the global economy is no longer sustainable on its current track, and that those who choose to seize the “early mover” advantage and pioneer low-carbon, green industries will strengthen their economies and create millions of jobs. This was a repeating theme hammered in events featuring “Green Tech” displays, the CEO of WalMart and L. Hunter Lovins. We attended a Worldwatch sponsored event titled “Low-Carbon Energy Roadmaps: Insights from Those Who Are Leading the Way,” which, while pretty lame in its ambitions and case studies, showed how being green is, as a practical matter, the only financially sound option for the degrowth economic milieu.

Other good ideas, like Ross Jackson’s idea for an international carbon board or the carbon maintenance fee concept developed by Richard Douthwaite at FEASTA were also prominently mentioned at the unveiling of a cross-cutting study being tasked to the World Resources Institute by UNEP. These outside works, involving financial reforms, fee-bates, incentives and tariffs, and many other ideas, will now come into greater discussion in future COPs, as they are laid side-by-side and looked at in scientific, political and economic contexts.

That is all thanks to the open and transparent negotiations process created and stewarded by President Calderon. Danish President Rassmussen, eat your heart out.

Tomorrow: Cancunhagen 2.0: Reality Strikes Back




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