Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Methane Releases in the Arctic

So when I was in Copenhagen, I was watching the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) science on a sphere at the US pavilion. I saw a video made by Alaskan researcher Katey Walter from University of Alaska at Fairbanks. It shows methane bubbling out of a lake, and then how they returned there in the winter and lit the methane release on fire. They laugh in the video because they almost blew themselves up, but this is not a laughing matter.

The breakdown of methane hydrates or clathrates, as they are known to science, that are embedded in the arctic tundra and sea floor is something that many climatologists said may happen later this century. Methane is 27 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon. There is a large but unknown amount of methane entrained in the permafrost, but estimates are that there is enough to drastically warm our entire planet.

These crystals "melt" as warming occurs in the arctic circle. Massive methane plumes erupt into the arctic ocean in the summer months, but what is scary is that Katey Walter and her team are finding that they are even melting in the arctic winter. As this methane erupts into our atmosphere much sooner than models have predicted there is an almost apocalyptic fear that "run-away" climate change may occur sooner. Much sooner, with all the sea level rise it implies.

Here is another video from Alaska and yet another from Siberia.

China - The Great Spoiler?

Mark Lynas gives us an inside view of the Copenhagen Talks that the world should take notice of. It is supported by much of what I have heard in the last few days from delegates and people from the South African negotiating team. Governments are naturally quiet about these problems, afraid to anger the new superpower further, but for any Copenhagen watchers who care, read it and take note.

Read his story here.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Copenhagen in Pictures 2

This is probably the only place my images of Copenhagen will be seen, I thought to share the best of them. There were so many journalists and photographers in the city that at one point in the demonstrations when the police were laying into the crowd with batons, they had to stop. In front of them the only people within striking distance were photographers and camera-people. So hundreds of thousands of images are out there, getting shelved into the archives of thousands of computers. I thought these few images should be seen before suffering a similar fate. Click the photo to get a better view.

My images are for sale. They are 350 Dollars for an A3 print, for the first five prints from the 15 copy print run. After number five is sold, they go up by 20% per print. I only ever print 15 of any image. The cost includes shipping anywhere. Bigger prints can be negotiated. A small gallery can be seen here. Feel free to search Google images under my name here. Many more are out there you can choose from. Any picture you find can be bought directly from me.

The Polar Bear attacks the film-maker after he produced too much carbon making his documentary about Trading Trees in Africa. The bear backed off after eliciting a promise to take all that carbon out of the air. It could have been ugly.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) created this bronze sculpture of a Polar Bear in a city square in Copenhagen. They encased the sculpture in ice, which melted throughout the conference. A young girl collects snow from the side of the bear.

The Metro in Copenhagen has a view forward strait down the tunnels, seen through the reflection in the glass here. The train also uses less energy by building every stop at the top of a small hill.

Getting all patched up after a run-in with the police in Copenhagen.

The power of the internet unleashed in Copenhagen: A journalist "tweets" (using the application Twitter) so people around the world know exactly what is happening at the conference. Or at least know a little.

A Buddhist monk works at his computer in between the talks at the Bella Center where the conference was taking place.

A homeless man on the train in Copenhagen.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

No Viable Offspring, But Many Chance Encounters

The Korean vegetarians were a lighthearted group welcoming delegates to the Convention, but in the heavy handed police tactics later in the week, they all but disappeared.

A brief bird-like gathering of seasonal reproduction has produced no viable offspring. Like migrating bird species, journalists, climate campaigners and governments all gathered together for an orgy of chatter and Scandinavian food, and have now dispersed back to their respective countries.

The back-chatter from pundits and agents provocateurs has not diminished. I hate being right when I am pessimistic, but there was never a feeling that a deal was imminent in Copenhagen. After reading through the drafts that were created at the conference, there is no deal, on anything.

I would be happy to invite all readers to look through the draft documents put forward by the working groups and the languge of the "agreement". They can all be found on the UNFCCC webpage.

If anything good can be said of the talks and and event, it is that politicians seem to be taking the issue seriously, even if they cannot seem to agree on virtually anything.

If you would like a recap, its best to go read Andrew Revkin's and rest the New York Times' coverage of the event. After looking through many sites and newspapers I think the NYT really did great work and should be applauded for taking this conference very seriously and working hard to make the chaos somehow understandable.

There was another piece of outstanding reporting that must be mentioned. In the midst of the beginning of the high-level talks on Wednesday, the London-based Timesonline (by the Times of London newspaper) put out a story within hours of it happening which is a triumph for on-the-ground reporting. I was there and think the reporter did an excellent job of making the "fog of war" a little easier to see through.

The real success of what happened in Copenhagen may be that the dialogue is now open, but for many of us working on the front line of this topic, that dialogue is far from enough. Forests are being wiped out as I write this, carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases are spewed out into the air, and the summer thaw in Antarctica is eroding the ice-dams that keep the Antarctic's glaciers from dumping their ice into the sea. "Blah Blah Blah...Act Now!" was a constant poster favorite among protesters in Copenhagen. But at least the dialogue is on.

A part loser was the much hoped-for deal on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD) in the third world. Going into the talks, realists knew this was the only real chance of a concrete deal, but even that was not to be. Because at the end of the conference the actual deal was not ratified by the member countries, the hard work put into the REDD component could not be made into law, even though the majority of nations supported it and it was not the subject of intense disagreement. It was, rather, a victim of political football. That does not mean REDD is dead, only that it's inclusion will have come at a later date, when a deal is actually signed, hopefully in Mexico City. An excellent break-down of REDD by Steve Zwick is available here.

Things that did not go wrong:

The Kyoto Protocol
There has been much talk from the media about the fact that this was the time when a new Kyoto Protocol had to be put into place because the current system expires in 2012. That is not true. I spoke directly to Yvo De Boer, the head of the UNFCCC, and he reiterated that until another legally binding treaty is in place, the Kyoto Protocol stands, before and after 2012. So in some ways it is better to have the current system than a watered down version, which was a fear.

American Cap and Trade
The Senate legislation, stalled at the end of 2009 in the USA, still has a good chance of passing. That is because the talks in Copenhagen, though they did not end in a legally binding treaty, did emphasize (in relatively strong language) the need for member countries to put their own legislation in place. It was a known that the US could not take a leading role in the Copenhagen talks until that legislation was passed, since the administration's hands were tied both politically and financially until it was. So with the growing national and international debate on climate, and the success this week of the Democrat-led legislation on health care, it is much more likely that the American Cap and Trade legislation will pass in 2010, paving the way for a more robust, US driven carbon market.

Healthy Protest
Despite or maybe because of the heavy-handed tactics used by the police in Copenhagen, the necessity for healthy protest has never been more obvious. People around the world need to shout from the streets, from the press, from the rooftops that they will not stand for more talk, but that they want action. They need to protest with their ballot papers, in the words of one campaigner: "If these turkeys we elected will not do what we want, they will be replaced by representatives who will". Politicians around the world should take note of that. People are angry, people are ready for a decisive move that puts us on a low-carbon future.

In talks and in behavior the Brazilians came out on top. They mediated an important talk on Friday with both Clinton and Obama that is credited with saving the language of the final agreement. They have changed their behavior from the 1980s on so many issues, and though it is not well known, it was Brazilians who put forward the strongest language in the Kyoto Protocol itself. They have consistently led from the front on deforestation issues, and many of their most vocal campaigners from civil society have taken on posts in the government where they have succeeded in using their voices to change a system of land-use and development which the world should learn from.

Marina Silva, an activist who became the Environmental Minister of Brazil, addressed a group at the conference. "We must all keep up the pressure for a progressive deal on the environment. The activists must keeping fighting, the people of the earth must keep up the pressure. We will win, because we will not quit."

The globe in the center of Copenhagen, where a storm of climate controversy raged.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Report: Copenhagen

I have left the convention, and am in Madrid, en route to Colorado. I finished this report, which will give everyone some idea of what the conference was like.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Information Disconnect

Andreus Andreopolis, the Administer of Greek group Frog Boiled. He is walking from Copenhagen (he is pictured here in the busy Bela Center) to Greece to highlight Climate Change, and hopes to get a lot of people to join him on the way.

Copenhagen...I think I am finally getting my head wrapped around it, and what is just beginning to eek into my brain is this. There is a strong disconnect between what I have seen on the ground, in forests, and what I witnessed and have heard at the conference. Many of the policy makers do not have a strong understanding of the intricacy of the issues being discussed and decided. When they do have a good grasp of them they often fail to see how those issues will be implemented outside the corridors of their offices. This is not only their failure, but a failure of those of us who report on these subjects.

Last night I went to the Earth Journalism Awards. They were presented by famous BBC World journalist Lyse Doucet from prime time television, and had a Nobel Prize winner, high level ministers from the around the world and many others help hand out the gorgeous prizes in one of the most beautiful buildings in Copenhagen.

My experience in getting stories of this kind published in the mainstream press is patchy at best. Environmental journalism does not get exposure in the media. It’s looked at almost like that slightly geeky guy who says all the right things at the wrong times at a college party.

In the hack and slash world of the current press cutbacks, it is unlikely that this will change, but even in the “old days” when there were budgets, I often, very often, had many of my friends and colleagues from various international newspapers ask me to stop suggesting environmental stories. They felt, and so did (and do) many of the editors we work with, that they are simply not hard news.

Science desks at newspapers are under-funded and often not in charge of the meager budgets they do have.

The problem with environmental reporting is that it’s expensive, it requires research, it requires skill and thorough knowledge. It requires money. So most of what is out there is like my documentary at the moment. Self produced, released through a limited niche market, and therefore not widely read or watched, and there is not a lot of it.

So the Earth Journalism Awards are an attempt by the pioneering press group Internews to raise the profile of these stories and get them out to more people. Go to the website and check some of them out, they are great. One of my favorites is Trash Is Cash by Lilian Tende. It was released on YouTube. Many of the others were web-only productions or pieces of writing. Some of the winners have not made money, and some have not even covered their costs from the projects.

There is a clear need for a much greater understanding of these very important issues in the months and years ahead.The mainstream media is still way behind in supporting and sustaining clear and relevant news on environmental issues that matter to us all. How to redress this imbalance is not easy, but it was good to see a group like Internews, who helped foster cross-border relations during the cold war, tackling the issue and working to put these environmental journalists and their very good stories in the spotlight.

Author's note:

This post was amended on December 17th, when it was pointed out by the organisers that although there were no other TV journalists (I was covering it for TV) present at the awards there were more than forty journalists there. However, after a search I have found only one article, from online portal in the press from a journalist who attended, and feel that the spirit of this post is even more relevent in light of that.

Copenhagen In Pictures

Participants gather near a cafe set up inside the Bela Center in Copenhagen to work, network and send out their reports.

Protestors outside the Bela Center. Reports say as many as a hundred thousand came to the protest. Most arrived in the darkness with children in tow and placards that read "There Is No Planet B"

An art installation outside the Bela Center in Copenhagen, representing the people who will be displaced by climate change.

Lillian Wafalme Tenda from Kenya sings after she receives the Earth Journalism Award from the BBC presenter Lyse Doucet and Italian Land and Sea Minister Stefania Prestigiacomo.

Winners of the Earth Journalism Awards gather on stage at the Danish Radio Hall.

A metro arrives at the Bela Center (in the background), where the delegates are holding the talks.

NOAA scientists from the USA explain the impacts of global warming on the oceans using an interactive globe to delegates and participants at the Conference.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Collaboration in Video

There are thousands of people lined up outside the Bela Center, where the talks are taking place. These people are not protesters, but participants who are waiting to get their pass to get in and get on with meetings and discussions.

The venue can accommodate 15,000 people, and right now there are 45,215 badges for entry that have been issued. I am inside, but whether that may be possible tomorrow I do not know. There is a plan to limit attendance a lot from Thursday, but UN personnel have admitted they had underestimated the numbers of people seeking accreditation. With many people literally out in the cold for what is now six hours, there does not seem to be a plan to deal with the problem.

Ecosystem Marketplace and I have joined forces to help bring the documentary out to the world. They have very helpfully launched it on their site. You can see the whole movie, Trading Trees in it's entirety.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Forest Day in Copenhagen

Nicholas Stern From the London School of Economics talks about sustainable forestry.

Today is forestry day. Behind me the buffet is set up, and I need it. Hours of listening to up to the minute analysis of the discussions and the future of forests have made my tummy empty and my head full. It is not an overstatement to say that here today the people I have been listening to are deciding the fate of millions of hectares of forests all over the world. There is a buzz, and a very open and clear discussion about how to incorporate forests into the carbon trading system.

The UK government says that they will put up 10 billion dollars to fund sustainable forestry practices under the new UN system that countries are putting into place here this week. The talks where those discussions are happening are called the REDD negotiations. REDD stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries. The current budget for the REDD program is 54 million dollars, so even lip service for ten billion dollars shows how seriously developed countries are taking this issue. The Minister of Environment in the UK, Hilary Benn, also made a pledge to push for the banning of any timber imports into Europe other than sustainably harvested wood.

Eduardo Braga, the Governor of Amazonas in Brazil explained how, through sustainable forest use, they had reduced the destruction of rain forest in his state (which is twice the size of France) from 100,000 square kilometers per year to 400 kilometers per year. He made am impassioned plea for the people who live in forests to be respected and involved in future projects, because without these people’s support, the projects will be doomed to failure.

Inside the REDD negotiations, which are by far some of the most important decisions being made here in Copenhagen, the head of the negotiation team, Tony Lavinda explained: “All parties all agree that respect for indigenous people’s rights must be respected, and especially women’s rights must be protected”. Women are often on the front line of forest destruction because they are the ons who collect firewood, and control this energy use in their households.

Lavinda, from the Philippines, help draft part of the original Kyoto Protocol, and ended his talk with the most uplifting words heard all day: “Dealing with markets will be difficult, so the ministers will be busy deciding. But we expect a deal will be made at the minister level this week. It’s just a question of timing on when to send up the negotiations to the political level, but I am optimistic, I think we will have an agreement that is good for climate, good for finance and good for people and communities.”

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Saturday in Copenhagen

Five in the afternoon in downtown Copenhagen, billed as "Hope-nhagen".

Cold, crazy, uplifting and depressing. The climate convention is all this and more. There are dozens of presentation rooms, where anything from an almost living globe that shows the earth's changing climate to a new engine from Brazil called the Keppe Motor that promises a 70% drop in power usage for all small electrical appliances.

This is clearly where the world meets. Turbaned sheiks rub shoulders with Baltimore bureaucrats, and through it all...dare i say it? An impending sense of doom.

A deal has not been cut by the underlings that the leaders can sit down and deliberate on. Today is the make or break day. I am off in a hurry to go to the center of town for the main protest. I think I am late, but the massive police presence and the freezing cold temperatures are enough to keep people off the streets....or maybe not.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Documentary

After six weeks and far, far too many tons of carbon burnt into the atmosphere, I present the documentary in three parts.

Youtube only allows movies of less than ten minutes, which necessitates the cutting into three.

Thank you to everyone who assisted me on this project. I am still looking for places and spaces to show this film here in Copenhagen and more widely. I am also looking to sell it, or get supporters who may wish to also present it. It is shot in high definition, and I hold copyright on all the material.

Pulitzer Center Collaboration

The melting glaciers of Alaska

The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting seeks to fill a gap in media made by the collapse of the newspaper industry. In the past I have worked closely with them on many different projects, ranging from environments in conflict zones to the state of the world’s oceans, and the melting glaciers of Alaska. We have decided to join forces again for the Copenhagen Climate Conferecne, and share material and stories in hopes of it reaching a wider audience.

You can now read the subsequent stories both here and on their blog.

I am sitting in the plane writing this, somewhere high above Europe on my way from Madrid to Copenhagen.

Below the clouds are an unbroken blanket covering the earth. I have this profound feeling that this may be the last time I see the sun for a week or two, the weather in Copenhagen is rumored to be pretty shoddy.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Leaving Africa

I am back at the Africa cafe in OR Tambo airport in Johannesburg. Maybe this blog should rather be the Road to OR Tambo, but this airport is a delivery mechanism for Copenhagen, where the climate conference started today. I will be there fashionably late, on Wednesday, after a short pit-stop in Madrid. I finished burning the first copy of the DVD 35 minutes before I left home. I started in this very chair, six weeks ago, to tell a story about Carbon Trading. I knew nothing really about it, since what I thought I knew was wrong. Now I have at least some part of the facts.

The burning of Africa's forests without replanting them is dead-end energy economy. They will be gone and what then will the poorest of the poor do for fuel? I have come to think of the problem as really a microcosm of the oil economy. That oil used to be trees and bushes and flowering plants, growing throughout the earths history. The oil will be gone one day, it's traces left floating around our globe, as welcome as in-laws at a bachelor party. All that ancient sunlight, transformed into energy you can pour into a tank, now burnt into our thin little atmosphere. By helping Africa get over it's one-way road to climate and energy disaster, the world will learn a few things about what to do after peak oil.

Copenhagen is important because it's a chance to get it right, to start making some concrete decisions about how we can begin the end of anthropomorphic climate change, and acknowledge our place in the world.

It may not be possible, but that the effort is being made at all is a major accomplishment that generations of naturalists from Hippocrates to Emmerson would applaud. However, I go to Copenhagen with a heavy heart. There are always two ways or more to look at things, but from what I have seen, amongst the destruction the few bright sparks are dim indeed. However, I am often reminded of something I saw written on an MDC staffer's computer in 2002 when I was shooting in Zimbabwe for Newsweek. Theirs was a clearly very hopeless cause, yet everyone worked tirelessly, as if victory was just around the corner. I was in and out of the office a lot, always worried about secret government agents nabbing me, but i had to be there. I always felt reassured by that saying....I don't know it well enough to look it up on the internet but gist is:

"Never forget that a small group of people can change the world, indeed it's the only thing that ever has."

I have a plane to catch.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Hope In Malawi

It's the day before I leave for Copenhagen. Day before yesterday, I was out shooting pictures in the early morning of Malawi's charcoal trade. Since then I have trying to get on top of the video edit, but I wanted to take time out to share a very encouraging project from Malawi.

Forest destruction is a problem throughout the region, but in a small developing country like Malawi, it is an environmental catastrophe. Malawi is one of the most deforested countries in the world, and the remaining forests and woodlands are being cut down at an alarming rate. Throughout the country timber cutting and slash and burn agriculture by local communities has been reducing former forests to marginal farmland. A year ago, thick Miombo woodland covered the area in this photo above, near Mangochi, but the relentless need for energy from communities, and a lack of other viable fuel options has seen it disappear into a field of maize.

But there may be some hope. Technology is coming to the Malawian countryside, and it’s something to sing about. On a recent Sunday in Manjanja village, a group has gotten together, to sing, to gossip, and to make Mbaula Chititezo stoves. Linda Chiwaya explains how using this technology has changed life in her village.

“This Mbaula stove helps, because when we go to the forest to collect a bundle of firewood we use it very slowly. Before, with the three stone fire, we used one bundle per week, or even for just a few days. But now with this stove, one bundle lasts for two or even three weeks”.

Hestian Innovations
, a plucky Irish company concerned about deforestation and looking for ways to get Africa involved in the carbon economy, appreciated the difficulty of Carbon Trading through forestry . They looked at the problem a different way, what if they could reduce forest destruction by using technology to reduce wood consumption, and in turn reduce CO2 emissions.

They have been partnering with local and international NGOs to distribute and monitor the use of these stoves, verifying that people are using them. They want to have at least sixty thousand of them working in the country by the middle of next year.

Tobacco is one of the main cash crops throughout Malawi. The most lucrative tobacco is cured in wood-fired kilns. The technology that Hestian Innovations is promoting reduces wood consumption in these kilns by about fifty percent. These are called rocket barns and in two years they have sold almost a thousand of them.

By selling stoves and barns through miro-loans on a massive scale, and using carbon financing to help fund part of the costs, they reduce carbon emissions and make their money through a long term monitoring system, which measures how much CO2 is not going into the atmosphere. This is important. This long-term monitoring is necessary for the certified carbon credits to be issued. It is a long-term commitment that is rare in Africa, even among aid agencies, and right now that commitment is coming from Carbon Trading.

By reducing wood consumption, reducing emissions, and in turn reducing the need to cut down forests, Hestian Innovations is a rare success story for Carbon Trading in Africa. Conor Fox from Hestian Innovations explains that they chose this route out of necessity:

“If we could get carbon credits, CERs, through the CDM system for reforesting with smallholder farmers, we would love to do it. But we know that it’s just too difficult, it’s just too complicated, so we are better off focusing on energy efficiency”.

This is the Mbaula Chititezo Stove. It's name means environmental protection.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Malawi's Forests

A waterfall fills a small forest pool, deep in an ancient African hardwood forest.

I am sitting here, editing, with thousands of ideas and images and facts in my head. With my trip into Mozambique two days ago, I have cut my time for getting this edit done a bit short, but it was worth it.

On my way back I stopped off near Mount Mulanje, just over the Mozambican border. In amongst the tee plantations on the flanks of this massive mountain, a few rare stands of ancient hardwood forest still cast their shadows. In a hidden, secret place, is a crystal pool filled by a clear small waterfall. It reminded me again why I am doing this project. Forests are worth saving, they give us water, they give us fuel, they give us a peace of mind that simply defies description. In amongst the carbon trading lingo gobbledy-gook and the convoluted logic of the various agreements and amendments, it is vital not lose site of the facts. Forests are disappearing, we are cutting them down, and we need them.

William Kamkwamba has become somewhat famous. He is the boy who built a windmill in his rural Malawian village, one that generates electricity, out of old car parts. He has appeared in many newspapers, and has put out a very good book, called The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind.

Every time I drive the airport road in Blantyre I pass William's old windmill, or one just like it at least. It reminds me to always remember what is possible, and even if you are dirt poor, have little education, and fewer prospects, you too can come up with an idea to change the world.

William has this say about deforestation on Page 77 of his very good book:

"Few people realize this, but cutting down the trees is one of the things that keeps us Malawians poor. Without the trees, the rains turn to floods and wash away the soil and all its minerals. The soil - along with loads of garbage, - runs into the Shire River, clogging up the dams with silt and trash and shutting down the turbine. Then the power plant has to stop all operations and dredge the river, which in turn causes power cuts. And because this process is so expensive, the power company has to charge extra for electricity, making it even more difficult to afford. So with no crops to sell because of drought and floods, and with no electricity because of clogged rivers and high prices, many people feed their families by cutting down trees for firewood or selling it for charcoal. It's like that."