Women Dominate Leadership Positions for UN Climate Change Negotiations

For the first time ever, women dominate the most influential positions for the UN Climate Change negotiations. This significant change in leadership comports with the Preamble of the Paris Agreement, which states, “[p]arties should when taking action to address climate change, promote and consider their respective obligations…gender equality [and] empowerment of women.”

women-power-fist-symbol-feminist-symbol-feminism1Significantly, Christiana Figueres, affectionately nicknamed the “Climate Queen” at SB44, stepped down from her six-year tenure as Executive Secretariat of the UNFCCC and welcomed Patricia Espinosa, Mexican ambassador to Berlin, as her successor. The Parties elected Sarah Baashan, a Saudi Arabian diplomat, and Jo Tyndall, a former climate ambassador from New Zealand, to serve as the first co-chairs of the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Paris Agreement (“APA”), established to develop rules and guidelines under the Paris Agreement.

UNFCCC leaders, delegates, and civil society groups maintained the dialogue on gender and climate change from the opening of the SB44 Conference  to its conclusion. Jo Tyndall concluded the APA Plenary Session by remarking on the “whirlwind couple of weeks” at SB44, during which time she and Sarah metaphorically got married, birthed the APA baby, and watched the baby take its first breaths. As she concluded the session she vowed that she and Sarah would not drop the newborn APA baby.


Adaptation Economics Reveal Insufficient Adaptation Activities

When national and local economies are faced with calculating potential climate-impacted losses, decision-makers face difficult financial-planning decisions.

6355818699_492128f721_oNature Climate Change published a study comparing adaptation responses between global megacities based on spending measures. The study found that cities varied their adaptation spendings between £15 million and £1600 million. Developed cities allocate most of their adaptation funds to energy and water, developing countries to health and agriculture.

Overall, the study concluded developing cities’ wealth, and not the amount of vulnerable individuals, drive adaptation spending. Thus, “current adaptation activities are insufficient in major population centers in developing and emerging economies.”


Clambering Up the Tower of Babel to Reach the Paris Package

babel-02-800x624Imagine a room full of delegates from 196 different countries waiting to begin a high-stake negotiation. The cacophonous sound of conversations in dozens of languages reverberates around the room. The meeting commences and then proceeds in

Delegate after delegate raises concerns and offers ideal solutions to a controversial draft text addressing the problem of climate change. Sometimes the delegates argue for half an hour over the meaning of a single word. They are all working toward the same end goal: to produce a final climate change agreement by December 11. The delegates’ overarching goal is the same, but they approach it with different blue prints. They are trying to build a solid structure using a miscellany of materials that do not always dovetail.

Coming from so many backgrounds, the delegates do not only come to the negotiation table with differing positions on issues, but also with vastly different ways of reading and interpreting language. As the delegates strive to work through substantive areas of disagreement and allow all voices to speak, one cannot help but wonder if a single, collective voice will form and sing out above the sonorities of divergence.

After a week of negotiations, the Parties agreed yesterday on a draft agreement to send to the Conference of the Parties (COP) next week. The draft is far from perfect and will require more negotiations between the Parties. It is, however, workable. Overall the Parties seemed optimistic during Saturday’s closing ADP plenary session. Speaking on behalf of the G-77 + China, South African Ambassador Nozipho Mxakato-Diseko said, “we have come a long way, but much more must be done next week to fulfill the task.” She struck an emotional and hopeful chord with the room when she quoted Nelson Mandela: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

Having seen the Parties work past linguistic, cultural, and positional differences to produce a workable text for the COP to use next week has been inspiring for me. It has shown me the importance of remaining optimistic and hopeful during times of controversy, and also of focusing on shared end-goals while trying to achieve seemingly impossible agreements. I walk away from the first week of COP21 with optimism. Although it will be difficult, I believe the Parties will be able to focus on their collective, long-term goal of curbing the global temperature increase and will reach an agreement. The top of the tower is in sight.


Agroecology at COP21

Today was Agriculture day at COP21. Various international NGOs hosted an event on agroecology,“an ecological approach to agriculture that views agricultural areas as ecosystems and is concerned with the ecological impact of agricultural practices.” Common principals of agroecology include using renewable resources, minimizing toxics, conserving resources, conserving capital, managing ecological relationships, and adjusting to local environments.

Small farmers all over the world, with the help of NGOs, are banding together to speak out against mainstream agricultural techniques–in particular, techniques that rely on heavy usage of pesticides and genetic engineering. Members of the growing agroecology movement instead favor agricultural methods thatIMG_2916 combine traditional, local knowledge with science and ecology principals. At the end of the side event, a woman farmer from Peru spoke out against mainstream agriculture techniques, linking its practices with consumerism that benefits multinational pesticide and seed companies instead of farmers. She said that GMO seeds have only two years of life, and that promotes consumerism.

Moving toward a 2.7C world, adaptation efforts will be critical in the agricultural sector. Many in the international community feel that mainstream, climate smart agriculture is the way to advance and cope with changing climate. Others, maintain that more ecologically inspired farming methods rooted in traditional methods are just as efficient if not better suited for feeding the world in the midst of climate change.


Realities of Hope: 1.5-2C Global Temperature Rise is within Striking Distance—But INDC Pledges are not Enough

CAT_thermometer_151001_300dpiSince the COP21 Opening Ceremony, various Parties have expressed a priority of curbing global temperature rise to below 2C. Many Parties, particularly LDCs and notably French President Hollande, advocate for a more ambitious 1.5C temperature increase. While the Opening Ceremony was full of hopeful statements—UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres, for example, described COP21 as a “beacon of hope for the world, lighting the way toward the betterment of humanity”—it is unclear whether the Parties will actually agree to maintaining the 2C increase, and even then what the cost will be for a less ambitious mitigation effort.

Leading up to COP21, 184 countries submitted 154 Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). These pledges account for around 94% of global greenhouse gas emissions from 2010. Yet, some sources say these pledges would be insufficient to limit warning to 2C or below. Instead, the INDCs might allow a 2.7—3.5C increase above pre-industrial levels.

The consequences of these varying temperature ranges appear to be quite devastating. Even the 2C benchmark typically considered a “safe” increase may be on the cusp of “dangerous” and “extremely” dangerous. The International Cryosphere Climate Initiative reports, “Reacting with ‘too little, too late’ may lock in the gradual but unavoidable transformation of our Earth…in a terrible legacy that may last a thousand years or more.”

Most world leaders promote a temperature limit of 1.5C. Manuel Augusto, current speaker for the LDC negotiation group and the Secretary of State for External Relations of Angola, advocates limiting global temperature rise to 1.5C.

FullSizeRender 5In Monday’s Global Environment Fund side event, former Irish president Mary Robinson discussed how various Parties up to that point had discussed climate injustice and the importance of a “people centered” approach to the Paris Package. Robinson explained that a global 2C increase actually means 4C in parts of Africa, and that 1.5C is an important part of a “people centered” agreement.

Also on Monday, 30 nations consisting of middle income, least developed and small island developing states issued a declaration expressing their desire for “full decarbonization of the world economy, 100% renewable energy by 2050, and zero emissions by mid-century in order to keep the world on track for below 1.5C warming.”

Scientists confirm that “limiting temperature rise by 1.5C is feasible;” however, “an increase of international efforts to curb greenhouse gases is imperative to keep the 1.5 degrees Celsius target achievable.” Thus, with science and political backing, it would not be impossible for Parties to agree to a 1.5C temperature increase target.



Lighting the Way for LDCs

green-plant-in-the-light-bulbIn the COP21 opening ceremonies this morning, President Obama spoke of the need to turn international progress on climate action into “an enduring framework for human progress.” Later, the Global Environment Facility hosted a session today called “Investing in Resilience—Responding to the Adaptation Needs of the Most Vulnerable.” The event concerned various countries’ participation with the Least Developed Country Fund (LDCF), goals for the future, and means of continuing support for urgent and immediate needs. Eleven developed countries pledged almost $250 million to support Least Developed Country (LDC) adaptation efforts through the LDCF. Several LDCs also spoke about their unique vulnerabilities to climate change and their specific adaptation needs.

Strikingly, in Paris, the City of Light, a delegate from Benin discussed a project in his country called a “Light for All” which will ensure every house has electricity. He elaborated on the importance of energy—“the end all and be all of development”—and of the need for international support for electrification and other energy necessary for development. Ethiopia also discussed its need of funding for energy. When asked whether LDCs voices were being heard at the COP, Manuel Augusto, current speaker for the LDC negotiation group and the Secretary of State for External Relations of Angola, said that the pledges made during the session were evidence that their voices are being heard, but not enough.

Providing LDCs the support they need to reach their adaptation and sustainable development goals is a way to form an enduring framework for human progress. Hopefully developed countries will leave on the light for LDCs to reach these goals.

Growing Pains: Are GMOs an Adaptation Solution for Growing, Hungry Populations Affected by Climate Change?

Chronic hunger plagues 805 million people worldwide. Although this is 100 million less than 10 years ago, the future of food security remains uncertain in the face of climate change. The world is growing, and so is the demand for food. The World Resources Institute projects the world will face a 69% food gap in 2050 if food production remains the same.

Adaptation efforts will be particularly challenging due to changing precipitation patterns, warming temperatures, and extreme weather events resulting from climate change. The agriculture sector accounts for 55% of total world GHG emissions; paradoxically, it must strive to reduce GHG emissions and to increase food production simultaneously. Ideally this will be done without increasing deforestation and consequently decreasing carbon storage. To face these climate change hurdles and maintain consistent crop yields, countries will likely consider using or expanding current use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).


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GMOs are organisms that have been inserted with another organism’s genetic material to achieve new properties. The new properties for crops typically include herbicide tolerance, virus resistance, and water-uptake efficiency. The new genetic material can come from plants, animals, viruses, or bacteria. For example, in the US the majority of soybeans, corn, and cotton are GMOs with genetic material from soil bacterium, bacillus thuringiensis; the bacteria produces a protein toxic to certain insect larvae, but not to humans and animals.

In addition to the US, many countries have already taken stances on this divisive topic. Others remain undecided as they weigh the pros and cons. The US along with Argentina, Brazil, Canada, and India are leading producers of GMOs. Among countries limiting GMOs are: EU countries, requiring approval of all genetically modified products prior to distribution; Switzerland, banning GMO farming since 2005; Russia, banning all imported GMO products; and China, banning GMOs for human consumption but allowing them for livestock.

Monsanto, a producer of GM seeds and Roundup herbicide, advocates for using heat and drought resistant GM seeds to adapt to climate change impacts. Other proponents argue GMO crops can adapt more quickly to sudden weather changes than conventional breeding methods.  They also maintain that farmers can produce more with fewer resources, thus having less climate affecting impacts.

Opponents of GMOs champion alternatives like ecological agriculture and conventional breeding that, they say, are just as good if not better. They also site environmental hazards, unknown human health risks, biodiversity loss, and economic concerns as reasons to ban or at least label GMO crops.  Mark Spitznagel, professor of risk engineering at NYU School of Engineering, compares the “GMO experiment” to the US financial system before the 2008 crash, which many people believed to be “too big to fail.”  He differentiates the two explaining that there are no possible bailouts when the GMO enterprise fails, and that the consequences would be much more devastating. Genetic engineering is only 40 years old. Uncertain future consequences of using this new technology is troubling to many people who believe the risks outweigh the potential benefits.

As more countries submit their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) and consider adaptation methods to climate change, it will be interesting to see how the global dialogue surrounding GMOs develops. The agriculture sector is the largest contributor to global anthropogenic non-CO2 GHGs. The agriculture sector directly impacts climate change. Climate change directly impacts the agriculture sector. Deciding how to feed a growing, hungry planet and also curb temperature increases will be one controversial topic stemming from this paradoxical challenge.











Food Waste on the Chopping Block


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Last Wednesday, one week before the Untied Nations General Assembly meeting in New York concerning sustainable development goals, the USDA and EPA divulged a bold new goal. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy announced the nation’s first food waste reduction goal: to cut U.S. food waste in half by 2030. The federal government intends to collaborate with charitable and faith based organizations, the private sector, and state and tribal governments to work toward this cut.

Setting such an ambitious target at the federal level is a big step forward for environmental efforts, particularly those pertaining to climate change. Food waste has been on the rise for years—one study estimates a 50% increase since 1974. Currently 30-40% of food produced in the U.S. for human consumption is lost or wasted each year.


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Food waste negatively impacts the environment because water, land, energy, and labor capital resources are expended to grow, produce, and transport food that ultimately feeds no one.  Uneaten, often wholesome, food comprises the largest percentage of municipal solid waste in U.S. landfills—totaling approximately 18%. Food waste rapidly decomposes and releases methane into the atmosphere. Methane is a greenhouse gas (GHG) with 21 times more climate affecting potency than carbon dioxide. The 3rd largest source of methane is landfills.

Current federal initiatives relating to food waste reduction include the U.S. Food Waste Recovery Challenge and the EPA’s Food Waste Recovery Program. These initiatives encourage organizations and business to prevent food waste via “prevention, donation, and composting.”

Moving forward, the EPA and USDA plan to rally private sector actors to set their own reduction goals. However, the EPA and USDA will most likely also need to hone in on inefficiencies at the production, retail, and consumer levels of the food system to effect the change they seek.

Concerned legal scholars and food activists have campaigned for improving date labeling policies, permanently extending tax deductions for all businesses donating food to be repurposed, revamping the federal Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, and promulgating mandatory composting laws. Such solutions would certainly impact food waste at the consumer and retail level, where most food waste occurs.

As the December climate change negotiations near, the U.S. has an opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to national climate change mitigation efforts by working to reduce GHG emissions. Although the U.S. did not include food waste reduction as part of its submitted Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), reducing food waste could contribute to the country’s GHG mitigation pledges. Hopefully momentum will build around the problem of food waste in America and inspire progressive policies that will reflect U.S. willingness to work with other negotiating parties.