Monday, November 30, 2009

A picture is worth a thousand words

I am in Malawi at the moment, editing very hard to get the documentary done before Copenhagen next week.

Nevertheless, I am spending today going in to Mozambique for a last bit of coverage, where a public-private partnership is trying to reforest hardwood trees, and provide an income for people from forests.

Yesterday I finished a slide show of the South African project on Spekboom, the hardy little bush that may help stop Climate Change in that area and bring in some carbon cash.

Herewith is that piece:

Friday, November 27, 2009

CBC Radio Interview

Chopping down hardwood Miombo forest on Malosa Mountain in Malawi for charcoal.

I have just returned from visiting Hestian Innovations, a company that supplies very fuel efficient cooking solutions for home and business use in Malawi, reducing forest destruction. They also are trying to clean up the emissions of the Tobacco Industry in Malawi, and use those emission reductions to make carbon credits.

Before I left for the bush, I was interviewed by Rick Macinnes-Rae at the Canadian Broadcasting about the documentary project.

Here is that interview and link, quoted directly from the CBC website:

"Africa's quest for carbon credits

Africa has always been a land of old deserts. But ominously now, it's seeing the start of new ones. And it feels like a victim of a problem it's had little part in causing.

In fact, a group of 55 African states are so fed up with the global failure to reduce carbon emissions, they're threatening to boycott the U.N.'s climate change conference in Copenhagen next month.

Africa wants to be able to sell itself as a continent of "carbon sink forests," where countries over quota on carbon emissions can buy credits, from African states that aren't.

And one of the best carbon an ugly little tree, according to Jeff Barbee.

He's a photojournalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and he's working on a documentary about Africa's forests. His work on the environment has appeared in various publications including The New York Times and Smithsonian Magazine.

Rick's discussion with Jeff..."

The link to countrywide radio program:


Saturday, November 21, 2009

Trading Africa's Trees - Lessons From Tanzania

I am sitting again at the departures lounge of Oliver Tambo International airport in Johannesburg. Still worried about my carbon footprint, watching all the jets take off. I have decided that when I find the right project, and maybe I already have, I will offset all my Carbon usage from the this project, and make it a habit from now on. I will share that process, and make suggestions, etc. I hope this project will inform you enough to make your own choices.

I am flying off to Malawi for the third part of the documentary, working with Hestian Innovations as they struggle to get certified for their Carbon offsets. They have some very active community projects that are dedicated to reducing Africa's dependence on fuel from wood.

Over the last few days I put together a short piece of the Tanzania video. My breakfast is getting cold, and I am running on four hours of sleep after a marathon editing session last night.

You can view the video right here or click it to watch it on my You Tube channel.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Positive Change in South Africa- An Environmental Success Story

I have just returned to the busy city of Johannesburg after three days in one of South Africa's most beautiful areas, the Baavianskloof in the Eastern Cape. In a model program, the South African and Dutch governments have partnered together with civil society organizations and local communities to restore the environment. This area used to be covered in sub-tropical thicket, made up mostly of the humble Spekboom tree. This tree secured water in the soil, and built up an ecosystem that supported a vast array of plants and animals. Spekboom also secures carbon in the soil, a lot of carbon. When the vegetation was stripped off the landscape by farmer's sheep and goats, the climate changed radically, forcing many to leave farming altogether. Water rushed out of valleys that used to have wetlands, and desertification set in.

A reserve, called the Baavianskloof Mega-Reserve was created out of these former farmlands, and it is from this reserve that the partners hope to rebuild the shattered ecology of the area, and bring back the water that helped make this place a World Heritage site. Farmers and local communities hope that by certifying carbon from this massive replanting scheme, money will flow back to them and revive an economy every bit as broken as the environment.

I joined one of the Working For Water teams to bring you this report from deep in the Baavianskloof.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Too Much Carbon

A remnant of ancient hardwood forest burns in Tanzania's central highlands.

Published scientists agree that climate change is happening at a greater rate than expected. This is alarming, and the latest data provides even grimmer forecasts. The US-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Earth System Research Laboratory believes that we may not see the effect of a drastic reduction in emissions for thousands of years. What that means in clear, strait-forward parlance is that there is seemingly nothing we can do stop runaway climate change. Critics of climate change policy have used this to scrap the idea of carbon trading am emissions reductions.

That would be a mistake, says Dr Susan Soloman, the author of the research. This is the woman who alerted the world to danger of the ozone hole in the ninteen eighties, which resulted in a global ban on CFCs. She feels it is entirely necessary to cut our emissions at once, as deeply as we can, because the long-term impact of our current global warming event is so serious that it will essentially affect the whole future of our species, and many that we share the planet with.

I will not get into the long-winded details of all the arguments for and against climate change or the reduction in greenhouse gases like carbon. The science is sound, and to me it is simply a foregone conclusion that humanity has increased carbon emissions and cut down our forests, eliminating the massive carbon sinks that regulated our carbon system. I have seen it in person.

If we look at the knock-on effects of carbon mitigating legislation, it means more forests, less pollution, happier people, development for the underdeveloped countries, cleaner cars, and an attempt to make those who have profited from pollution to make financial and social amends. As far as the downside of carbon mitigation, the nay-sayers point out that it costs money. That may or may not be true, depending on who you talk to.

The work I have done so far, in Tanzania and Mozambique has exposed some serious problems in getting Clean Development Mechanism (CDM- remember?) accreditation for carbon sequestration projects in Africa. But it must be pointed out that even the most jaded project developers, who have no hope of getting their carbon credits accredited, have agreed that Carbon Trading is a good thing, and that it should definitely be included in the next generation of the Kyoto Protocol.

Across the board, from well-financed securities traders to farmers who have been planting their own forests in Tanzania, everyone agrees that its a great idea, but the entry-level investments need to be lowered and the whole process needs to be streamlined so more people can enter the market. That is something the negotiators in Copenhagen should well take heed of. There is a groundswell of interest in becoming part of the carbon economy, now people just need the financial tools to get involved.

A farmer I know near Johannesburg generates power from a river system, and sells it back to the power grid in South Africa, which is running on coal. So by using his relatively clean energy to supply the nation, he is cutting down on coal emmisions. By the spirit of carbon trading, he has carbon to "sell". But he can't because as I mentioned in earlier entries, he is too small, the process of accrediation too labyrinthine.

So why is this imporant? Because we simply have to cut our emissions, according to the latest work, and any way we can do that better, faster and more directly, the better off our descendents will be. So how much is too much? or just enough?

There is global movement right now called This group has rallied around a paper produced by Dr. James Hansen of NASA (of Al Gore's hockey-stick fame). This paper says that at the moment we are sitting at about 370 Parts Per Million (ppm) of atmostpheric carbon dioxide. We need to reduce that to about 350 ppm as soon as possible to prevent runaway climate change.

So yes, we are further descending into acronym hell, which, if you are a good study and have been reading all the posts, would have you understand the following sentence completely.

NOAA and NASA all agree that the CDM at COP15 must be further developed to reduce our CO2 emissions to around 350 ppm.

If you didnt follow that, dont worry. I am not a very good study either. In laymens terms:

We have to stop throwing pollution into the air, and the very smart people in white coats who are not known for being alarmist are rasing the alarm that we are not doing it fast enough, and have to do much better.

The good news is that we can.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Carbon Trading 101

A Hardwood Forest in Mozambique in danger of being cut down by loggers.

Its important to understand the very basic basics of Carbon Trading. It is not complicated. Lets say I am a big stinky polluting utility company. I throw out thousands of tons of carbon and other noxious greenhouse gasses like methane every day. You are a forest, and you suck up carbon emissions like mine. Essentially I pay you to suck. The emissions. That I produce. This is the essesnce of the system.

That makes me carbon neutral, I pay your forest to stand and suck the carbon I produce in excess of a proscribed amount (like the proposed United States' Cap and Trade system). That makes me carbon neutral, but it also stops you from cutting down your carbon sucking forest. I think its pretty strait-forward. But sadly the Kyoto Protocol was not made to support standing forests. The Kyoto protocol was made to prevent a nasty polluting company from doing more damage.

So its relatively easy to get carbon credits for say, stopping pollution by putting on scrubbers to my smokestack (then I can sell Carbon too!) but very very hard to get credits by keeping or planting a standing forest. So Carbon Trading as most people see it today is not working. The rules are so convoluted that it is impossible (or almost) for a forestry project to get certified.

The Kyoto protocol allows for polluters to get carbon credits for cleaning up their act, it does not make much allowance for forests that actually remove the carbon from the air to get Carbon Credits. The numbers say everything. Only two….yes that’s right, only two whole forestry projects in all of Africa have gotten certified to sell carbon credits. More than two hundred have attempted or applied. One of them is the Green Resources project in Tanzania.

Before launching into what is essentially the gist of my documentary, and showering my poor readers with lots of acronyms and carbon-science related gobbledy-gook, I would like to de-mystify one very important term. The Clean Development Mechanism, or CDM. Learn it, know that term by heart. Repeat it three times in your head. Without this term you will be forever lost in acronym hell. Whenever you hear or read the term CDM, just think THE RULES. Within this mechanism are all the rules and jargon and simply everything to do with the current carbon-trading system. CDM is the bible of Carbon Trading. If your project is not CDM certified, then according the Kyoto Protocol, you have a limited ability to sell your carbon, no matter how good your science is, no matter that you planted five million trees this year and want people to buy your carbon, which you clearly have, if your project is not CDM certified, then you cannot sell it freely on the open market. If you have CDM certification, you have carbon to trade, if you don’t have CDM certification, you may trade in carbon but just not on the open market. I am banging on about this because it is important. It is the crux of the biscuit, as Frank Zappa famously quoted.

According to Eco-securities, one of the biggest carbon trading companies in the world, the amount of money and total carbon credits earned from CDM-certified carbon trades in Africa is a paltry 3% of the world-wide total.

So much for Carbon Trading uplifting developing countries. That number represents a total failure of the system, since that was one of it’s founding edicts, to uplift developing countries. So how did this system fail so spectacularly? How can success be hornswoggled from the jaws of defeat?

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Tanzania -Land of Trees, Sort Of

Charcoal made from Tanzania's hardwood above, and Green Resource's tree farming project in the central highlands of the country.

I am back from my week in Tanzania. I was deep in the bush and far from computers and internet connections. It is possible to do that these days but it did involve a three hour flight to Dar Es Salaam from Johannesburg, an eleven hour drive in a 4x4, then another four hours on a road barely worthy of the term. I learned a lot during my hectic fourteen-hour work days. I am producing, directing and shooting this documentary alone, so I am busy and have a lot to process, not only physically but mentally as well.

Tanzania’s environment, like much of Southern Africa’s, is in crisis. The booming cities of the region rely on bio-fuel. Not the type that we think of in the developed world, made from old frying oil or crops grown for diesel, but the old traditional kind. Charcoal. Charcoal is essentially solidified carbon. Thousands of people, perhaps hundreds of thousands, are cutting down the hardwood forests of the region and making charcoal out of them and millions of people rely on it every day, to cook, to stay warm, to live. The charcoal funnels into cities along crowded roads, stacked in bags hundreds high, each bag representing three massive hardwood trees.

The method they use, digging pits, throwing in rough logs, and letting it burn without oxygen only yields about 10% of the energy in the tree when the end-user uses it for fuel. In the process, according to experts like Ashoka fellow Alan Schwarz, hundreds of thousands of hectares of hardwood forests are disappearing every year in each country. As development takes off, which is has, that number rises. These trees are not being replaced. The cutting of forests, the burning of them into the sky and transport of what is left is having a serious impact on the region’s ability to not only contain it’s carbon, but also on the energy dead-end that such use implies. When the trees are gone, how will the people survive? What will they use for energy?

In a perfect world, the trees would be replanted, thus making a carbon-neutral closed system. But in Africa today not one government has a wide-spread tree-planting program. In Tanzania I visited a program created by Norwegian company Green Resources to help address this disparity. The program is essentially using fast-growing exotic tree species as carbon crops and local energy sources. They also make carbon-neutral charcoal for the local market out of the waste of the logging and timber operations.

A hardwood tree, depending upon it’s type, can take from twenty to sixty years to grow to maturity. There is every reason to begin the replanting of these species as soon as possible, but in the meantime Green Resources is planting thousands of hectares of species like pine and eucalyptus that mature in about ten years. They are also giving away about twenty percent of the their seedling production to local communities, so that each farmer plants a woodlot, where they can grow their own fuel and also make cash by selling the timber. It has been a huge success, and I saw woodlots all over their communities, so different from even close neighbors, who live in what amounts to little more than a desert.

By creating a bio-fuel economy based on quickly renewable species (like these fast-growing crop-like trees), rather than on cutting down and burning ancient trees, Green Resources has succeeded in slowing forest destruction and giving people some sort of alternative. That is something governments across the region should learn from. It’s a stop-gap measure, and not a replacement for the hardwood, but it is working. Many environmentalists complain that these are invasive trees that choke of water supplies, but in the high-rainfall area that Green Resources has chosen, this stop-gap solution seems to be working.

Every household in the region, not just in a few disparate communities, could plant trees, and use their own timber for their energy needs. This would preserve the remnants of the vast hardwood forests and allow locals to profit from them as valuable resources. When well- managed, the true forests can uplift communities by sustainable harvesting of the precious hardwood, selling forest products to the developed world, and of course selling the carbon credits gained by their preservation.

This last part, as I have learned in the last week, is tricky.