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Drogba and Zidane Team Up for the MDGs (Video)

A broken arm couldn’t keep soccer phenom Didier Drgoba from the pitch in Cote D’Ivoire’s opening match against Portugal. His injury also could also not keep him from teaming up with French football legend Zinadine Zidane in this Millennium Development Goals promo for the UN Development program. 

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Oil Spills Are a Grim Routine in the Niger Delta

The New York Times reminded us today that while the oil spill in the Gulf is an acute shock to Americans, oil spills have become a way of life in the Niger delta. The area has “has endured the equivalent of the Exxon Valdez spill every year for 50 years by some estimates. The oil pours out nearly every week, and some swamps are long since lifeless.” Much of the Niger delta is dead as a result.

Once, the Niger delta fed the entire coast. It was rich with shellfish, mollusks, and fish. Now, most of that is gone. Fisherman can no longer make a living, and children swim in oily swamps. Nearly 11 million gallons of oil a year have spilled into the delta’s wetlands; in comparison, the Exxon Valdez spilled 10.8 million gallons of oil.

According to The Independent in 2006, “7,000sq km of the continent’s remaining 9,000sq km of mangrove and scientists believe some 60 per cent of West Africa’s fish stocks breed in the rivers and swamps along the coast.” Think about that, and then consider that over 6,800 spills were recorded between 1976 and 2001.

It’s a gruesome lesson in the risks of unbridled oil exploration and weak government regulations. Amnesty International has a report on the Niger Delta, and they say that “Nigeria has laws and regulations that require companies to comply with internationally recognized standards of “good oil field practice”, and laws and regulations to protect the environment but these laws and regulations are poorly enforced. The government agencies responsible for enforcement are ineffective and, in some cases, compromised by conflicts of interest.” They go on to point out that oil exploration has brought little to no income to the delta region itself.

As existing oil wells age and run dry, we are going to need to drill in more and more ecologically sensitive places. The Niger delta and the Mississippi delta could just be the beginning. The world needs clean energy. As soon as humanly possible.


(photo credit: jen farr)

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Timothy Wirth, president of the UN Foundation, on energy development

In a speech delivered at the 21st Annual Energy Efficiency Forum, held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C, Tim Wirth, president of the United Nations Foundation, exhorted policy-makers and legislators to tackle the question of clean energy with great urgency. Mr. Wirth’s remarks addressed this year’s Forum theme, “Energy Efficiency: Innovative Approaches, Proven Solutions.” He spoke of the necessity to address the U.S.’s clean energy needs with pragmatism: “my belief is that we have one more chance at this now. And that chance is enormously important,” said Wirth. He noted that we should be learning from recent disasters at the Massey mines in West Virginia, and of course the environmental catastrophy in the Gulf of Mexico: “we should have learned a huge lesson: we have reached beyond our technical capacity.”

Indeed, in his remarks, Wirth extolled the virtues of investing in and promoting those technologies which pose relatively less risk, thus diminishing the possibility of unintended consequences. He urged policy-makers to learn the lessons of our experiences, and to “look at the issue of energy development through the lens of risk.” Wirth discussed the three major pressures that should drive the discussion around energy development: (1) environmental challenges and climate change, (2) national security, and (3) economic rebuilding. Using these three frameworks, policy-makers should assess an acceptable level of risk – with corresponding insurances – that we are willing to take, collectively as a nation, to move forward with safe, clean and innovative energy development.

Wirth then highlighted the five points which he hopes will be central to any legislative product on energy, and which he believes “should dominate our thinking about what [these insurances] are.” Importantly, none of the five points he discussed touched on the controversial topic of carbon pricing. Even though Wirth pointed out that “ every bit of me believes that we need a carbon pricing system,” he noted that the discussion over cap and trade and carbon pricing had been “too sullied and too compromised.” Insisting on the urgent dimension of passing legislation on energy policy as quickly as possible, Wirth explained that energy legislation cannot get wound around the axle of carbon pricing: “we can’t afford [to go through a huge war on carbon pricing] , the political system cant handle it right now.” He encouraged legislators to look at the avenues where “we can do something right away.” Wirth added that “all of this can be done now, immediately. I don’t believe that Congress will be able to leave town without doing something about energy.”

Transitioning from coal, setting renewable energy standards, improving regulation, engaging the natural gas industry, and phasing-in energy efficiency standards – “these are all feasible”, Wirth said, adding that this will require real leadership from the White House. Below, the details of each of the five suggestions Wirth discussed during his remarks:

1. Transitioning from coal

Wirth reminded the audience that transitioning from coal is not, and should not, be about hurting the coal industry and ancillary businesses. Amendements to the Clean Air Act of 1990 stipulated that obsolete coal-fired power plants needed to be shut down, a clause which has yet to be fully enforced. These outdated plants need to be “phased out or shut down.” In addition, he mentioned that we cannot build anymore coal-fired power plants, because “we can’t afford to do so, we know the risk is too big.”

2. Stimulating technological innovation and clean energy sources

Setting renewable energy standards will “drive wind and solar right away,” Wirth said. He explained that this type of standard had been enacted successfully at the state level in 30 U.S. states, as well as in other countries. “We know that the most important and effective way of doing that [putting wind and solar out there] is to set renewable energy standards,” he noted. In addition to these standards, tax incentives provided over a long period of time, as well as a significant research & development package need to be put in place.

3. Strengthening the regulatory system

According to Wirth, “we ought to learn from the Gulf that this is the most important part of immediate public policy.” He added that “we depend upon the regulators and a sound, thoughtful regulatory structure to protect the public interest and protect public health.” He spoke of the importance of strengthening EPA, and not letting industry lobby groups drive a legislative process that seeks to pre-empt and circumvent the agency’s role. He explained that there is too much risk associated with letting this happen, mentioning that he felt “deeply doubtful that legislation can effectively replace what could be done at EPA.”
While tens of thousands of barrels of crude oil are gushing into the Gulf every day, Wirth’s remarks regarding the need for better regulation were underpinned by a strong sense of gravitas. He spoke of the sine qua non to “strengthen and use the regulatory regime”, to think about it differently, and to use this regime to achieve our goals.

4. Harnessing natural gas as a low-carbon transition fuel

“Natural gas is the transition fuel to a clean economy,” said Wirth. He enjoined policy-makers to very carefully examine the use of natural gas. “When Waxman-Markey was written”, he noted,  “we were just beginning to understand our own reserves of natural gas.” These reserves, in the forms of shales, exist around the world, and could constitute a major source of energy for the U.S., should policy-makers take a “series of steps that can and must be taken related to an understanding of natural gas.” We must do the very best we can to understand the implications of recovering gas from these untapped reserves, and fully consider the possibilities available to us. He added that, currently, the natural gas industry is not well-organized, and that it needs to be reinforced from the outside. It should not be seen or considered in opposition to wind and solar energy – on the contrary, Wirth believes that these industries need to be allied, rather than fight each other.

5. Embracing energy efficiency
Wirth also referred to the urgent need to develop efficiency standards. “We know what to do,” he said, adding that creating these standards – similarly to renewable energy standards – is something legislators at the state level have experience with. Wirth pointed out that the development of energy standards will offer the “best immediate jobs program that exists”. “Efficiency is the first fuel,” he noted, “it has to be a major part of what we do.” The U.S. has to make a significant commitment on that front, to finance and encourage the development of these standards.

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New Study on Microbocides to Fight HIV Infection

A new microbicide study has begun in South Africa, testing a vaginal ring that releases microbicides to protect women from HIV infection. The ring is replaced once a month and requires no special effort on the part of the user or her partner. I heard Zeda Rosenberg, head of the International Partnership for Microbicides, talk about this ring at the Women Deliver conference. This is the 15th product tested by the partnership, and it’s the one that Dr. Rosenberg thinks is most likely to succeed.

If the microbicidal ring trial is successful, this will be a big deal. A once-a-month ring would allow women to protect themselves without requiring the cooperation of their partner. It would be easy to provide and easy for women to use.

I hope Dr. Rosenberg is right about the ring. We won’t know until the study completes in 2015, and there have been plenty of microbicide failures to date. So far, they have all been useless against. Except, of course, for Nonoxynol-9, which actually increased the risk of infection.

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Talking UNIFEM and the “Gender Entity” at the UN

I thought folks might be interested in another one of my talk radio day interviews at the UN.  I sat down with Moae Doraid, deputy executive director of UNIFEM. We talk about the role of UNIFEM in the constellation of UN programs and agencies advocating for women and about a new effort underway at the UN to bring all of these gender and women-focused agencies under the same management structure. 

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UNHCR: 2009 “Worst Year” In Decades For Voluntary Repatriation

Ahead of World Refugee Day on June 20th, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) released its 2009 Global Trends report, which reviews statistics concerning “persons of concern” to the UNHCR: refugees, Internally Displaced People (IDPs), returnees, asylum-seekers and stateless persons. At a press conference in Berlin, António Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, spoke of a worrying trend in the rise of total numbers of displaced persons (from 42 million in 2008 to 43.3 million in 2009). With regards to voluntary repatriation – the process by which refugees return to their home countries once a conflict ends – Guterres said: “Conflicts that had appeared to be ending or were on the way to being resolved, such as in southern Sudan or in Iraq, are stagnating. As a result last year was not a good year for voluntary repatriation. In fact, it was the worst in twenty years.” Indeed, the Report notes that “the number of returned refugees (251,000) has continuously decreased since 2004, with 2009 being the lowest level in two decades.” 

Highlights of the 2009 Global Trends report:

  • 43.3 million people forcibly displaced (up from 42 million in 2008) – this is the highest number since the mid-nineties
  • Figures for refugees remained stable in 2009, at 15.2 million (10.4 million receiving protection or assistance from the UNHCR)
  • 27.1 million conflict-generated IDPs (from 26 million in 2008)
  • 15.6 of the 27.1 million IDPs are receiving protection or assistance from the UNHCR
  • UNHCR presented more than 128,000 refugees for resettlement consideration by States, the highest in 16 years
  • The number of refugees in a protracted situation remained high at over 5.5 million, spread across 21 countries
  • Developing countries hosted 8.3 million refugees, or 80% of the total refugee population under the protection of the UNHCR
  • Three countries hosted more than one million refugees in 2009: Pakistan (1.7 million), Iran (1.07 million) and Syria (1.05 million)
  • The two major countries of origin for refugees worldwide are Afghanistan (2.8 million) and Iraq (1.7 million)
  • The number of refugees living in urban areas outnumbered those in camps for the first time in 2007, and represents 58% of the refugee population in 2009

As with previous years, what is most astonishing is the fact that out of the total number of displaced persons across the world, only about half fall under the protection of the UNHCR. In 2009, the UNHCR was protecting 10.5 million refugees and 15.6 million IDPs – leaving 28 million displaced people worldwide who were not able to avail themselves of the protection of the UNHCR. (note: the numbers used in the UNHCR’s Global Trends report include 4.8 million Palestinian refugees, who fall under UNRWA’s specialized mandate.) In addition, the Global Trends report notes that, in 2009 “UNHCR estimated that some 12 million people were stateless, with the Office having reliable statistics for some 6.6 million of them.”

These staggering figures, however, do not reflect a failure of the UNHCR to fulfill its mandate. On the contrary, they once again demonstrate the need to overhaul the legal framework which governs the protection of refugees and displaced people.

The 1951 Refugee Convention – which is at the heart of this framework – created the UNHCR and its mandate, and has been supplemented by a 1967 additional Protocol, as well as various regional legal instruments, such as the 1969 OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, or the 1984 Cartagena Declaration. In addition to this core framework, there are several other layers of law that are meant to protect the displaced, at the national, regional and international levels. Nevertheless, these instruments are obviously failing to cover tens of millions of people displaced by conflict and violence, who are falling between the cracks.

In 2010, the UNHCR budget is reaching a record $3 billion, while the needs continue to grow. It is imperative that policy-makers strengthen the architecture that governs the protection of people uprooted by conflict. The need to find solutions to the protracted issues of displacement which affect every part of the globe is compounded by the growing realization that additional resources will need to be made available for people displaced not by war or conflict, but by environmental disasters and climate change – both of which are categories of displaced persons for which no international legal instrument currently exists. The challenge of protecting people who have lost everything is a daunting one for the international community, but it must nevertheless be tackled with great urgency.



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