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Your move, Richard

Dancing in the Dark: The Danger of Letting Business Lead on Climate Protection

Your move, Richard

In a candid session on energy and the environment at the Clinton Global Initiative yesterday, the world’s lead climate negotiator Christiana Figueres explained why her organization, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), had made so little progress in establishing international climate protection regulations. She suggested that there were two main reasons for the climate negotiations stalemate: Tensions between developed and developing countries and–surprisingly, given that she was sharing the stage with green entrepreneur Richard Branson–businesses.

According to the Costa Rican executive director of UNFCC, business is not taking bold enough steps to reduce its carbon footprint because it’s waiting for government to move onto creating a comprehensive regulatory framework. And the governments are nervously staring at their feet because “business is not pushing us,” Figueres explained. “We have a nice little dance of you first, you first, you first…” So which partner does the head of the intergovernmental climate negotiations believe should make the next move? “Very conveniently, I think business should be taking the lead here,” she confided to the audience of corporate and nonprofit leaders. And what would private sector leadership in climate protection look like? Figures suggested the example of the mobile phone revolution, which has spread and decentralized modern communication. The first cellphone was invented in 1973 and weighed 2.5 pounds. By the end of 2010, there will be 5 billion mobile phones on the market, all of which will weigh less than 4 ounces according to her figures.

But letting business twirl governments around the dance floor has its risks. The problem with the praise heaped on the market-driven explosion of mobile phones by Figueres, Google CEO Eric Schmidt and others at the Clinton Global Initiative is that it doesn’t take account of what happens to the phones when they’ve stopped improving the poor’s access to world markets and information. Developing countries like India, China and South Africa are now faced with a flood of toxic e-waste–the hazardous remains of cell phones, computers, and other electronic devices. Mobile phones in India will generate 1,700 tonnes of e-waste this year, a figure that the UN Environment Program expects to increase 18 fold in the next decade. That is a potential human health timebomb in a country with a very informal recycling system: Poor, low caste Indian “rag pickers” rummage through garbage dumps for looking for valuable metals, like the trace amounts mixed with toxic materials in a cellphone circuit board. Even in the developed world, market-based programs manage e-waste and other threats the environment and human health are difficult to craft without the catalyst of government action.

The false promises of nuclear power may be a more useful example of what happens when businesses rush ahead while regulators sort out the details. Since the 1970s, nuclear energy has produced terrawatts of carbon-free energy, but it has also created an ever-growing stockpile of radioactive waste. In nearly every country with nuclear power plants, politicians have failed time and again to find safe, long-term storage for their deadly byproducts. The unregulated growth of e-waste has the potential to create a toxic waste problem in developing countries of nuclear proportions. If advances in distributed generation of clean energy were to make the centralized powerplants unnecessary, prompting a flurry of development in Africa and elsewhere, then perhaps Figueres’ mobile phone example might prove more fitting.

But that hopeful outcome would be more likely if the full support of governments’ research and funding capabilities were behind it. Branson’s billions pale in comparison to the trillions of dollars of investment potential the world’s governments have. Yet, “the psychodynamics right now in the negotiations are focused on the cost” of climate prevention, the UNFCCC executive director told the audience. “What are the opportunities moving into the future? That part of the conversation is not present.” Also missing is talk about the value governments get from investing billions in clean energy and emissions reductions today, to save trillions in climate mitigation costs tomorrow. Abdicating responsibility for protecting the climate to the market risks being led in the wrong direction by businesses that are necessarily more focused on their quarterly revenues than the future of the planet.

For some (grainy) video footage of the panel, check out this story from Treehugger’s Brian Merchant.

(Photo from the Clinton Global Initiative via Flickr.)

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A Conversation with Asst Sec of State for International Organization Affairs Esther Brimmer

I sat down with Dr. Esther Brimmer Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations Affairs. I met Dr. Brimmer at the Waldorf Astoria– Foggy Bottom’s Manhattan headquarters for the week.  We beamed our conversation to the Digital Media Lounge at the 92Y, where the UN Foundation’s Robb Skinner also posed a few question to the Assistant Secretary.

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Exclusive: Interview with Mary Robinson

I had the chance to sit down with Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Robinson has been a strong proponent of a human rights approach to development, and we chat about how and why human rights need to underscore development goals. “It’s good development policy”, Robinson said, explaining that using this human rights approach has showed results in many places.

The Millennium Development Goals are first and foremost focused on tangible, measurable objectives and were originally developed without a strong rights component, which Robinson said “disappointed” her. But through high-level efforts and grassroots action, human rights are now back on the agenda as a fundamental element of all the MDGs.

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Hillary Clinton’s “Clean Cookstoves” Announcement, Explained

At the Clinton Global Initiative this afternoon, Hillary Clinton explained how improving the health and welfare of millions of people in the developing world could be as simple as changing the kind of stove people use to cook dinner.

Traditional cooking methods are heavily reliant on wood and other biomass for fuel.  In turn, the widespread use of traditional cookstoves has resulted in natural resource depletion in places where wood and other fuel is already hard to come by. This means that people—mostly women—must search farther and farther to find fuel for cooking.   In refugee camps and conflict zones, the search for fuel sometimes exposes women to severe risks to their personal security.

Inefficient cookstoves also contribute to climate change through emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane, and aerosols such as black carbon.  According to the World Health Organization, exposure to smoke from traditional cookstoves and open fires is the cause of 1.9 million premature deaths annually. As Secretary Clinton  said today, this is twice the number of people who die from Malaria each year.   Women and children are most at risk.

But what if a cookstove could be introduced throughout the developing world uses less fuel, and burns the fuel it does use in the cleaner fashion? That is the idea behind the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves launched by Secretary Clinton. (Disclosure: the UN Foundation is leading this alliance.) Fuel-efficient “clean” cookstoves would save lives and release fewer toxins into the atmosphere. Increased fuel efficiency means women would not have to spend their days collecting wood, and instead focus on other more economically productive endeavors.

The Global Clean Cookstove Alliance is a group of fifteen government agencies international organizations, corporations and private philanthropies that will bring this idea to scale. This group will use its considerable clout and resources to help create a sustainable, global market for clean cookstoves. Their goal is to reach 100 million new homes by 2020.

Compared to other global development imperatives, clean cookstoves have not received much attention. But this is precisely the kind of innovation that could make a huge impact in the global fight against poverty, disease, and environmental degradation.

In previous eras technological breakthroughs have been responsible for great leaps forward in the human condition. A relatively cheap polio vaccine, for example, replaced the expensive iron lung contraptions.   It suddenly became much easier—and cheaper—to bring the fight against polio to even the most remote places on the planet.  Today, polio has been nearly wiped off the face of the earth.

The combination of investing in new technologies, then bringing successful innovations to scale, offers the most hopeful prospect for reaching the Millennium Development Goals.  These innovations can come in the most unlikely of places –  apparently, even the kitchen.

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Privatizing Climate Protection?

Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Christiana Figueres

Yesterday marked the official beginning of UN Week in New York City. This flurry of high-level diplomatic meetings will culminate in the two-day UN General Assembly, which gets under way Thursday. International leaders are using the gathering to try and kick-start the stalled climate negotiations. At the same time, innovative businesses and nonprofits are meeting around town to consider other approaches to the climate challenge. On Monday, the moods of the the dueling gatherings could not have been more different.

The first day of the Major Economies Forum on Climate and Energy was a sobering attempt by governments to lower the expectations for coordinated climate action. The two-day meeting is bringing together climate negotiators from 17 nations that are responsible for 80 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. “Clearly now the focus is on post-Cancun,” the Indian environmental minister Jairam Ramesh said, referring to the year-end climate summit in Mexico. “We recognize that there is no breakthrough possible in Cancun but let’s now try to cut our losses and see what we can do after Cancun,” Ramesh said.

Business leaders were much more upbeat about the role the private sector can play in reducing climate change. At the kick-off to the business-sponsored Climate Week NY˚C, Barbara Kux of Siemens announced that “the technology to solve our climate problem is here. We just have to use it.” What is stopping these technical solutions? Many in the private sector blamed the lack of direction from international political leaders. Investor George Soros, who last year pledged $1 billion for clean energy research, told the audience “if you leave it to the governments, not much progress” will happen.

Indeed, at the same Climate Week NY˚C event UN climate chief Christiana Figueres acknowledged the difficulty international governments have had trying to create a successor treaty for the soon-to-expire Kyoto Protocol. “I have heard in business circles that the climate change conference in Copenhagen was a disappointment because it did not yield the policy clarity that had been hoped for,” Figueres said. “Governments are frankly still working that out.”

Figueres’ comments point to what many in New York this week believe is the most hopeful way forward for climate protection: Collaboration between the public and the private sectors. Crafting comprehensive carbon emissions laws maddeningly difficult–no where more so than here in the US. But addressing the threat of climate change cannot wait for politicians to agree on all the regulatory details.

At Climate Week NY˚C and the Clinton Global Initiative, which kicked off this morning, government and business leaders are meeting to search for existing areas where they can work together to fight climate change. I will be reporting on their progress throughout the week.

(Photo from The Climate Group.)

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Interview with Dr. Helene Gayle on CARE’s $1.8 Billion Committment to the MDGs

I recently spoke with Dr. Helene Gayle, President and CEO of CARE International. CARE just announced a whopping $1.8 billion commitment to support maternal and child health in the 70 countries in which they operate. In the conversation below, Dr. Gayle explains the significance of the commitment and explains why “scaling up” is an important buzz word this week; we also discuss the role of international NGOs like Care in Pakistan flood relief efforts. Let me know what you think.
Interview with Helene Gayle, CEO of CARE International by UN Dispatch

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