Monday, July 17, 2017

A Brief History of Al Gore's Climate Missions to Australia
Marc Hudson, University of Manchester

Al Gore has been visiting Australia this week – partly because he has a new film to promote, but also because he and Australian climate policy have had a surprisingly long entanglement.

Given that this year is likely to be a bloody one as far as climate policy goes, don’t be surprised if he’s back again before 2017 is out.

Gore has a long and honourable record on climate change, although ironically his weakest period on climate coincided with the peak of his political power, as US Vice President.

As he says in his 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth, he was first alerted to climate change by Roger Revelle, who can justly be called the (American) father of climate science. On becoming a Congressman, Gore was part of the move by Democrats to sustain momentum on climate policy that had stalled with the arrival of Ronald Reagan as President.

Gore organised Congressional hearings in 1981, and 1982 (NASA climatologist James Hansen’s first congressional testimony).

Even back then, the familiar political narrative around climate change had already formed, as journalism academic David Sachsman recalls:
The CBS Evening News for March 25, 1982, included a two minute and 50 second story by David Culhane on the greenhouse effect. Chemist Melvin Calvin raised the threat of global warming, Representative Al Gore called for further research, and James Kane of the Energy Department said there was no need for haste.
This report from the following year tells a similar tale, noting the political difficulty of solving the climate problem:

A youthful Gore in 1983.

By the time of the seminal Villach conference of October 1985, Gore was a Senator, and helped to organise the first Senate hearings since 1979. Gore’s colleague, Republican Senator David Durenberger remarked that “grappling with this problem [of climate change] is going to be just about as easy as nailing Jello to the wall”.

The following year, as Joshua Howe notes in his excellent book on the politics and science of climate change, Behind the Curve (2014), the then Senator Joe Biden introduced an initiative mandating that the president commission an executive-level task force to devise a strategy for responding to global warming – a strategy the president was meant to deliver to Congress within one year.

Gore scored another political victory on May 8, 1989, when Hansen testified that George H. W. Bush’s administration had ordered him to change the conclusions in written testimony regarding the seriousness of global warming

From Vice President to movie star

However, as Vice President to Bill Clinton, Gore disappointed environmentalists. An energy tax was defeated by industry lobbyists in 1993, and the Clinton administration (perhaps wisely) opted not to try and pass the Kyoto Protocol through a defiant Senate.

After leaving the West Wing he embraced Hollywood, where his budding movie career attracted derision in some quarters, despite the hefty policy achievements earlier in Gore’s career.

Besides an Inconvenient Truth (see here for an account of its impact in Australia), Gore “starred” in another movie, the 1990 philosophy-based talkie Mindwalk, starring Sam Waterston as Senator Jack Edwards, a thinly veiled version of Gore.

Former Australian industry minister Ian Macfarlane certainly considered Gore more entertainer than policymaker when speculating on his reasons for visiting in 2006:
Well, Al Gore’s here to sell tickets to a movie, and no one can begrudge him that. It’s just entertainment, and really that’s all it is.

Gore and Australia

Gore has been on these shores many times. During his May 2003 visit Gore urged the then Prime Minister John Howard to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. He met with the then New South Wales Premier Bob Carr, and also with former Liberal leader and current climate hawk John Hewson. He spoke at an event co-hosted by the Business Council of Australia to advocate sustainable development.

After a controversial visit in 2005, Gore visited twice in 2006. As Joan Staples notes in her PhD, he teamed up with the Australian Conservation Foundation to launch his Climate Project:
Having reached out to the wider NGO sector, to doctors, unions, and the corporate sector, this initiative then moved ACF’s efforts towards influencing individual citizens. Gore’s organisation aimed to harness the power of mass mobilisation by expanding the message of his film An Inconvenient Truth.
Gore returned in 2007 and spoke at a A$1,000-a-plate event on the Sustainability and Cleantech Investment Market, with Carr introducing him while clutching a copy of Gore’s 1992 book Earth in the Balance.

He had his share of Australian critics too. On a frosty morning in July 2009 Gore’s launch speech of the Safe Climate Australia initiative attracted around 30 members of the newly formed Climate Sceptics Party, who handed out leaflets and wore t-shirts bearing their slogan: “Carbon Really Ain’t Pollution – CRAP”.

Gore also offered an opinion on Kevin Rudd’s proposed climate legislation:
It’s not what I would have written, I would have written it as a stronger bill, but I’m realistic about what can be accomplished in the political system as it is.
Gore seems to have (wisely) eschewed direct involvement during the tumultuous Julia Gillard years, but pitched in in October 2013 when the new Prime Minister Tony Abbott refused to link bushfires with climate change.

The Palmer moment

Perhaps the most bizarre, rub-my-eyes-did-that-just-happen moment came in June 2014, when Gore stood alongside Clive Palmer in a deal to save some of Gillard’s carbon policy package from Tony Abbott’s axe.

In July 2015, with the Paris climate conference approaching, Gore visited on a whistlestop tour that included meetings with senior business figures (BHP, National Australia Bank, Qantas, and Victorian state government ministers) to try and build momentum ahead of the crucial summit.

Looking into the crystal ball

Despite his Nobel Prize shared with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, not everyone is a fan, with Canadian journalism academic Chris Russill arguing that Gore’s approach “narrows our understanding of climate change discourse”.

And just because some climate sceptics think he’s a very naughty boy – and can change the weather by his mere presence – that doesn’t mean he’s the messiah.

Ultimately, we all need to find new and better ways of exerting more sustained pressure, not only on policymakers but also other institutions and norm-makers in our society, to change the trajectory we’re currently on.

The ConversationGore will keep banging on about climate change. He will turn up to give speeches, and will be both praised and derided. What matters is not what he does the same, but what we all do differently.

Marc Hudson, PhD Candidate, Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Friday, July 14, 2017

How Did Australia Get This Stupid About Clean Energy?

Just when you thought that the public debate around clean energy in Australia could not possibly get any worse, any dumber, or any further divorced from reality, it did.
Conservatives have been railing against renewables and carbon pricing for at least a decade. So ingrained has it become in our national psyche that it is like a State of Origin contest between energy sources and their fans. “Queenslander”, shout the league fans. “Fossil fuels” screech the incumbents.
But it plumbed further depths this week. And it got really stupid and really nasty. Conservatives in the government and the media rebooted their attacks on wind and solar energy, and extended it to battery storage and vehicle emission standards, with the Murdoch media dubbing the latter as a “carbon tax on cars.”
Craig Kelly, the chair of Coalition’s energy policy committee, said renewable energy “would kill people”, a claim happily repeated by columnist Andrew Bolt.
Resources Minister Matt Canavan urged the Queensland government to “forget about climate change”, while the LNP in Queensland will this weekend consider a motion urging Australia to quit the Paris climate deal.
Worse, the conservatives started attacking individuals. The verbal assault on chief scientist Alan Finkel was launched way back in February when it was clear he would not toe the fossil fuel line. And even after delivering what many consider a “soft option”, the conservatives rekindled their attack.
“The Finkel report is a blueprint for destruction — of the Australian economy and destruction of the Liberal Party,” Murdoch columnist Piers Akerman wrote.
Then they added another target – the new head of the Australian Energy Market Operator, Audrey Zibelman. Broadcaster Alan Jones urged that “this woman”, who he accused of being a “global warming advocate and a promoter of wind turbines”, be “run out of town”.
On the same day, writing in Quadrant magazine, Alan Moran, the former head of regulation for the Institute of Public Affairs, described Zibelman as a “refugee from Hillary Clinton’s presidential defeat.” (Actually she worked for New York governor Andrew Cuomo).
“Alan Finkel’s otherworldly prognosis is bad enough. But toss in Malcolm Turnbull’s advocacy of renewables and then add an imported American chief regulator who would have been happier working for Hillary Clinton and where are you? The simple answer: thoroughly stuffed,” Moran wrote.
These attacks on Finkel, and now Zibelman, come in groups. It begs the question, are they co-ordinated? And if so, by whom?
But really, how did Australia get this stupid? And this ugly?
South Australia’s energy minister Tom Koutsantonis thinks it’s because the conservatives, or at least the Coalition, are in the pockets of the fossil fuel lobby.
“The only thing standing in the way of lower prices, improved grid security and meeting our carbon reduction commitments is a divided federal Liberal Party that is completely beholden to the coal lobby,” Koutsantonis said on Thursday.
He may have a point, because ideology alone does not explain the absurdity and ignorance of some of the remarks made this past week.
It seems there is nothing about the clean energy economy that these people like. The conservatives and the Murdoch camp has been relentless against wind farms for years now and this week they turned its target to battery storage and solar panels.
One story focused on fires from solar panels, claiming 40 such fires occurred over the last five years in Victoria.
Context: Victoria has around 3,000 house fires a year, mostly from heaters and clothes dryers and electric blankets. Fridges cause one fire a week in London, including the recent tragedy at Grenfell Tower in North Kensington that claimed 80 lives.
The Murdoch media’s campaign against Elon Musk’s “bulldust boutique batteries” was actually kick-started by energy minister Josh Frydenberg, who made some ridiculous remarks about how a single battery could not power the whole state, or store its entire wind output.
(But it was 20 times bigger than the 5MW battery storage “virtual power plant” he was hailing earlier in the year).
No one is suggesting that this battery storage array can provide all of the state’s power needs: It is designed to help make up any energy shortfall, which occurred last year when the biggest gas plants sat idle, or when they unexpectedly tripped, and to help ride through network faults and generator failures.
And battery storage would have prevented, or at least reduced, all three major outages that occurred in South Australia since November 2015. It would certainly be smarter and quicker than the dumb, slow responding fossil fuel generator that did the wrong thing and extended the blackout on that day last November.
Battery storage is a threat to the incumbents, and their defenders, because it and other storage will make wind and solar dispatchable, will make more expensive gas peaking plant redundant, and eventually – with the addition of pumped hydro and solar thermal – allow the coal fleet to be entirely replaced.
The attack on proposed vehicle emissions standards was extraordinary. Australia has become a dumping ground for inefficient and polluting vehicles because of its absence of any such standards.
That is causing health issues and higher prices (it means more fuel consumption), but the Murdoch media had no hesitation in calling it a “carbon tax” on cars, and epithet that even Fairfax used to lead its coverage.
“Hands off our cars, warmists,” warned Andrew Bolt in the Herald Sun, echoing the extraordinary push back by conservatives against the idea of autonomous driving. “Don’t try and steal my pick-up, I’ve got a gun.”
One wonders: Do any of these people use modern technologies? Or are they still riding a horse and cart, sending telegrams and listening to the wireless, storing their beers in an ice box.
Of course, the clean energy industry doesn’t help itself – either too brow-beaten by the media or scared to offend the government. When I started writing about clean energy a decade ago, I was astonished by the circular nature of the mutual put-downs from the wind, solar, geothermal and biomass industries.
Last week, when the Murdoch media got their “scoop” on an issue well reported in RenewEconomy, the draft standards that may effectively ban lithium-ion batteries from the inside of homes, and bring a halt to the nascent household battery storage industry – a major threat to incumbent utilities.
The response from some of Australia’s leading battery storage developers? The promoters of vanadium and zinc bromine flow batteries hopped on to their soap-box and crowed about how their product was not affected.
No sense of a common purpose there. Sauve qui peux! Every man for themselves. The story of Australia’s energy industry.
Meanwhile, the fossil fuel push continues unrelenting. The Minerals Council producing yet another report claiming that “High efficiency, low emissions” coal plants could meet climate targets. To understand how preposterous that claim is, read this.
“Low emissions” is just another marketing lie. “High emissions, low efficiency” might be a more accurate description of HELE coal plants compared to the alternative smart technologies.
It is an absurd situation we find ourselves in. The public support for these new technologies is overwhelming, as it is in business (apart from those seeking to protect stranded assets), and among most politicians – even many in the Liberal Party, as NSW energy minister Don Harwin revealed late last month.
Yet here we are: Short-term policies; a patchwork of rules on energy efficiency; the worst building stock in the world; the most inefficient and polluting cars; and the world’s most expensive and dirty grid, soaring emissions, and rising temperatures.
And two years after obtaining power, prime minister Malcolm Turnbull is still defending policies he once describes as “bullshit,” too afraid to call out the nonsense spread by those keeping him in power.  

Sunday, July 2, 2017

China Now Top in Renewables

by Guillaume Pitron, Le Monde Diplomatique:

Donald Trump’s 1 June announcement of US withdrawal from the 2015 Paris climate agreement coincided with the 19th bilateral EU-China summit in Brussels, giving China’s prime minister, Li Keqiang, an opportunity to reaffirm China’s intention to implement the accord. The success of COP21 (the UN Climate Change Conference) owed much to China’s role in the negotiations.

The main hurdle in Paris was the major divergence between the group of developing countries — the G77— and the developed countries over the funding of energy transition and the division of labour to contain climate change. China’s chief negotiator, Xie Zhenhua, used China’s hybrid status as both a developing nation and an economic power to position himself as the mediator who could win the trust of all participants. He won agreement that the North’s annual contribution of $100bn to the Green Climate Fund for the South would no longer be obligatory from 2020.

But China also won acceptance for the idea of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ from the 195 signatory nations. Under this principle of international environmental law, the efforts demanded of industrialised nations will be scaled according to their economic size and historical responsibility for global warming.

The signing of the Paris agreement was considered a diplomatic success for China: its leaders had been angry that the western media blamed them for the failure of COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009 — a minimal, non-binding agreement considered a retreat from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. In Paris, China demonstrated what environmental diplomacy might look like, and since then, it has rarely missed a chance to make clear the role it intends to play, highlighting the leadership void left by the US.

China’s stance is all the more necessary since its development model now looks unsustainable; since the 1980s it has been based on an economic policy that used social and environmental dumping to gain competitive advantage over western nations. China is now the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases (28% of global CO2 emissions) and is producing alarming environmental data — 10% of its arable land is contaminated with heavy metals; 80% of underground well water is unfit to drink (1); and fewer than 1% of the 500 largest cities have air quality that meets international standards. Air pollution causes up to a million deaths a year, according to the World Health Organisation.

‘The state has grasped the urgency of the environmental problem and given a sincere undertaking to protect the environment,’ says Chloé Froissart, director of the Franco-Chinese Centre at Beijing’s Tsinghua University. In 2013 President Xi Jinping declared that an ‘ecological civilisation’ — a hazy concept whose ultimate aim is nonetheless clear — was emerging to produce a sustainable development model that reconciles robust growth with a better quality of life. The 13th five-year plan, approved in 2016, projects reducing coal consumption as part of the energy mix from 64% in 2015 to 58% in 2020, and increasing the proportion of non-fossil fuels to 15%. The government wants to reduce reliance on traditional heavy industries, which are major contributors to pollution, and strengthen its economic leadership in renewables.

This policy has already achieved notable successes. Despite China’s image as polluted and polluting, it is now the world leader in green energy production, photovoltaic equipment, hydroelectric power generation and investment in wind power. It is also the largest market for cars that run on clean energy. Though China’s economy grew by 6.7% in 2016, its CO2 emissions fell by almost 1%, to 8.768m tonnes, a better performance than in Europe, where emissions remained the same while the economy grew by just 1.7% (2). China’s ambitious green transition, besides easing tensions over the public’s environmental concerns, is a response to the challenge of modernising its engines of growth and greening its international image.

Guillaume Pitron

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Why Climate Change is a Bigger Threat to Australia Than Terrorism

by Cameron Jewell, The Fifth Estate:

Climate change is set to drive political instability and conflict in the Asia-Pacific region, according to a report co-authored by ex-coal industry heavyweight Ian Dunlop, but our government has its head in the sand.

The title of the report, Disaster Alley, refers to the Asia-Pacific region – including Australia – where some of the worst impacts of climate change are due to be felt, which could lead to food and water shortages, forced migration and military conflict.

It notes a number of conflicts, including the Syrian crisis and Arab Spring, have been accelerated by climate change and extreme weather events, culminating in mass migration into Europe and growing unrest. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, 65.6 million people have already been forcibly displaced.
“Australia’s near region includes communities increasingly threatened by climate impacts and the resulting effects including dislocation and migration,” the report warns.
The authors take aim at “a failure of imagination” from political, bureaucratic and corporate leaders that has led to a failure to respond to the science on climate change, threatening citizens with “outright chaos”.
These leaders, they argue, are underplaying the high-end risks associated with climate change and also failing to recognise that the existential risk of climate change is completely different from other risk categories.
“Australian institutions are failing in their fiduciary responsibility to safeguard the people and their future wellbeing,” the report says.
“Australia is also failing as a world citizen, by downplaying the profound global impacts of climate change and shirking its responsibility to act.”
While Australia’s key partners are taking the security risks of climate change seriously, “government disinterest” has left Australia unprepared.
“The conflict and security aspects of climate change were flagged a decade ago, but have not been a significant component of public discourse in Australia in recent years,” the report says.
“Defence and security think tanks in general have not given the issue a high priority, and some have barely been in this field at all. The output from Australia’s intelligence analysts appears negligible.”
A major stumbling block has been successive defence ministers from both major political parties, with the report saying neither party “displays a deep understanding or accepts the real implications of climate change for Australians’ security”.
While government inaction is called out – and the approval of the Adani coal mine labelled “a crime against humanity” – the corporate sector is also criticised, with the ASX top 50 companies noted for having the highest embedded carbon profile of any group in the S&P Global 1200.
The report provides a number of recommendations for government:
  • Understand the risks: Establish a top-level climate and conflict taskforce in Australia to urgently examine the existential risks of climate change and develop risk-management techniques and policy-making methodologies appropriate to the challenge
  • Emergency program: Climate change now represents a global emergency, which threatens human civilisation. Build international processes that specifically recognise and formulate the practical steps necessary for a coordinated, global climate emergency response based on a sound, existential risk-management approach
  • Rapid decarbonisation: Launch an emergency-scale initiative to decarbonise the Australian economy no later than 2030 and build the capacity to draw down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere while protecting food-growing capacity
  • Finance resilience: Build more resilient communities in the most vulnerable nations by high-level financial commitments and development assistance; build a flexible capacity to support communities in likely hotspots of instability and conflict
  • Be ready: Ensure all levels of government and civil society organisations are prepared for the impacts of projected climate change. Ensure Australian Defence Force preparedness, their mission and operational resilience, and their capacity for humanitarian aid and disaster relief, is adequate across the full range of projected climate change scenarios
  • Build leadership: Establish a national leadership group outside conventional politics, drawn from across society, charged with implementing the national climate emergency program

Monday, June 19, 2017

Wind Farms are Hardly the Bird Slayers They're Made Out to Be: Here's Why

File 20170616 512 12qly6u
The potential to harm local birdlife is often used to oppose wind farm development. But research into how birds die shows wind farms should be the least of our concerns. from

Simon Chapman, University of Sydney

People who oppose wind farms often claim wind turbine blades kill large numbers of birds, often referring to them as “bird choppers”. And claims of dangers to iconic or rare birds, especially raptors, have attracted a lot of attention.

Wind turbine blades do indeed kill birds and bats, but their contribution to total bird deaths is extremely low, as these three studies show.

A 2009 study using US and European data on bird deaths estimated the number of birds killed per unit of power generated by wind, fossil fuel and nuclear power systems. It concluded:
wind farms and nuclear power stations are responsible each for between 0.3 and 0.4 fatalities per gigawatt-hour (GWh) of electricity while fossil-fuelled power stations are responsible for about 5.2 fatalities per GWh.
That’s nearly 15 times more. From this, the author estimated:
wind farms killed approximately seven thousand birds in the United States in 2006 but nuclear plants killed about 327,000 and fossil-fuelled power plants 14.5 million.
In other words, for every one bird killed by a wind turbine, nuclear and fossil fuel powered plants killed 2,118 birds.

A Spanish study involved daily inspections of the ground around 20 wind farms with 252 turbines from 2005 to 2008. It found 596 dead birds.

The turbines in the sample had been working for different times during the study period (between 11 and 34 months), with the average annual number of fatalities per turbine being just 1.33. The authors noted this was one of the highest collision rates reported in the world research literature.

Raptor collisions accounted for 36% of total bird deaths (214 deaths), most of which were griffon vultures (138 birds, 23% of total mortality). The study area was in the southernmost area of Spain near Gibraltar, which is a migratory zone for birds from Morocco into Spain.

Perhaps the most comprehensive report was published in the journal Avian Conservation and Ecology in 2013 by scientists from Canada’s Environment Canada, Wildlife Research Division.

Their report looked at causes of human-related bird deaths for all of Canada, drawing together data from many diverse sources.

The table below shows selected causes of bird death out of an annual total of 186,429,553 estimated deaths caused by human activity.

Mark Duchamp, the president of Save the Eagles International is probably the most prominent person to speak out about bird deaths at wind farms. He says:
The average per turbine comes down to 333 to 1,000 deaths annually which is a far cry from the 2-4 birds claimed by the American wind industry or the 400,000 birds a year estimated by the American Bird Conservancy for the whole of the United States, which has about twice as many turbines as Spain.
Such claims from wind farm critics generally allude to massive national conspiracies to cover up the true size of the deaths.

And in Australia?

In Australia in 2006 a proposal for a 52-turbine wind farm plan on Victoria’s south-east coast at Bald Hills (now completed) was overruled by the then federal environment minister Ian Campbell.

He cited concerns about the future of the endangered orange-bellied parrot (Neophema chrysogaster), a migratory bird said to be at risk of extinction within 50 years. The Tarwin Valley Coastal Guardians, an anti wind farm group that had been opposing the proposed development.

Interest groups have regularly cited this endangered bird when trying to halt a range of developments.
These include a chemical storage facility and a boating marina. The proposed Westernport marina in Victoria happened to also be near an important wetland. But a professor in biodiversity and sustainability wrote:
the parrot copped the blame, even though it had not been seen there for 25 years.
Victoria’s planning minister at the time, Rob Hulls, described the Bald Hills decision as blatantly political, arguing the federal conservative government had been lobbied by fossil fuel interests to curtail renewable energy developments. Hulls said there had been:
some historical sightings, and also some potential foraging sites between 10 and 35 kilometres from the Bald Hills wind farm site that may or may not have been used by the orange-bellied parrot.
Perhaps the final word on this topic should go to the British Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. It built a wind turbine at its Bedfordshire headquarters to reduce its carbon emissions (and in doing so, aims to minimise species loss due to climate change). It recognised that wind power is far more beneficial to birds than it is harmful.

The ConversationSimon Chapman and Fiona Crichton’s book, Wind Turbine Syndrome: a communicated disease, will be published by Sydney University Press later this year.

Simon Chapman, Emeritus Professor in Public Health, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Monday, June 12, 2017

China Turns On the World’s Largest Floating Solar Farm

Floating on a lake over a collapsed coal mine, the power station in Anhui province can produce 40 megawatts of energy

Solar Farm
The floating solar power station in Anhui province (Sungrow)

Last week, workers switched on a solar energy plant capable of producing 40
megawatts of power, which floats on a manmade lake in China’s Anhui province
near the city of Huainan, reports Sarah Zheng at the South China Morning Post.
The array is the largest floating solar project in the world, though at the
brisk pace China is building new renewable projects it’s unlikely to hold that
title very long.

Built by the company Sungrow Power Supply, the power plant will produce enough energy to power
15,000 homes, Zheng reports. While the company has not revealed the exact size of the operation, it
produces twice as much energy as the previous holder of the largest-floating-solar-plant title, which is
located in the same area and was launched by the company Xinyi Solar in 2016.

Anhui province is a coal-rich region, and the Sungrow plant is located on a lake that was once the site of intensive mining. Heavy rains filled the area with water. As Zhen reports, the depth of the lake varies from 12 feet to 30 feet. 
So why build solar plants on top of lakes and reservoirs? Fiona Harvey at The Guardian explains that building on bodies of water, especially manmade lakes that are not ecologically sensitive, helps protect agricultural land and terrestrial ecosystems from being developed for energy use. The water also cools the electronics in the solar panels, helping them to work more efficiently, reports Alistair Boyle for The Telegraph. For similar reasons Britain built a 23,000-panel floating solar farm on the Queen Elizabeth II reservoir near Heathrow airport in 2016 to help power the Thames Water treatment plant.
The Sungrow solar farm is just one tiny piece in China’s push towards renewable energy. According to Irina Slav at Business Insider, the country recently announced it would invest $361 billion in renewable power by 2020, and by 2022 could produce 320 gigawatts of wind and solar power and 340 gigawatts of hydropower. Zheng reports that currently renewables are responsible for 11 percent of China’s energy and may reach 20 percent by 2030.
While the floating solar plant is the largest in the world, it pales in comparison to some of China's non-floating solar projects. The Longyangxia Dam Solar Park on the Tibetan plateau hosts 4 million solar panels that produce 850 megawatts of energy. Even that will soon be eclipsed by a project in the Ningxia Autonomous Region, which will have 6 million solar panels and produce 2 gigawatts of power.

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Monday, June 5, 2017

Donald Trump’s Withdrawal From the Paris Accords Is a Crime Against Humanity

Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines - 2013 (Photo: AP)
by Mark Hertsgaard, Common Dreams:

President Donald Trump confirmed his status as climate denier in chief today, guaranteeing his place in history as an enemy of both science and humanity. 

Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Accord on climate change will not stop the rest of the world from continuing to advance toward a clean-energy future. Solar, wind, batteries, and other technologies are growing tremendously fast, rewarding investors and employing far more people than the heat-trapping fuels of the past. 

Three million Americans now work in the clean-energy sector, more than the oil, gas, and coal industries combined. California Governor Jerry Brown, who heads the world’s sixth-largest economy and a hot spot of green-energy innovation, insisted that Trump’s efforts are doomed to failure. “The momentum is all the other way,” Brown said, “and I think Trump, paradoxically, is giving climate denial such a bad name that he’s actually building the very [climate action] movement that he is [purporting] to undermine.”

But no one should pretend that it does not matter when the world’s biggest economy rejects an agreement that put unprecedented international support behind ambitious climate action. By removing rules and regulations that require polluters in the United States to change their ways, Trump’s repudiation of the Paris Accord will slow progress at the very time when humanity’s survival requires faster action than ever.

“Crimes against humanity” is a phrase to use with caution, but it fits Trump’s repudiation of the Paris Accord and indeed his entire climate policy. Timothy Wirth, who as the under secretary of state in the Bill Clinton administration negotiated the Kyoto Protocol that sought to limit global warming, has said that those who deny the well-established science of climate change “ought to be tried for crimes against humanity.” 

Wirth told The Nation after Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Accord that he stood by his remark, adding that the president’s action was “a stunning moral abdication of responsibility to future generations.” To refuse to act against global warming is to condemn thousands of people to death and suffering today and millions more tomorrow. This is murder, even if Trump’s willful ignorance of climate science prevents him from seeing it. History will not be so blind.

Of course, the Paris Accord is far from perfect: Its emissions reductions are voluntary and do not go far enough, at least not yet. Nevertheless, the accord commits the world’s governments to leave behind oil, gas, and coal by mid-century—a historic shift. It commits them to limit global temperature rise to the 2 degrees Celsius that scientists say is the maximum compatible with civilization as we know it, and to aim for the 1.5 Celsius limit that poor and island nations rightfully regard as essential to their survival. Thus the accord provides citizens, activists, and the rest of civil society worldwide with a strong mandate they can use to hold governments and corporations to account.

Thanks largely to such pressure from civil society, reinforced by the growing recognition of global elites that the climate crisis is indeed dire, the Paris Accord has already accelerated real climate progress. Some of the greatest change is underway in China, which is rapidly shutting down coal plants and mines and adding solar and wind plants, notwithstanding Trump’s shameless lies at the White House about China’s supposedly doing nothing. 

Meanwhile, the leaders of China and the European Union announced that they remain committed to the Paris Accord and plan to intensify cooperation on clean energy, a huge and growing global market that US businesses will now find harder to navigate. So much for America First.

Remarkably, Trump did not deny climate science outright in his remarks in the Rose Garden. Reading from a prepared text, he refrained from repeating his favorite falsehood about climate change—that it is “a hoax” invented by the Chinese to undermine the US economy. 

Perhaps his aides have learned this much: Although fooled for decades by the disinformation campaigns funded by such polluters as ExxonMobil and voiced by Republicans in Congress, a majority of Americans now realize that climate change is real, caused by humans, and dangerous. Trump instead portrayed his withdrawal from the Paris Accord as a matter of economic fairness and patriotism, of standing up for American workers, businesses, and taxpayers who, he said, are being taken advantage of and, worst of all, laughed at by foreigners who foisted a “very unfair” deal on the hapless negotiators of the Obama administration.

This narrative could be consistent, however, only by ignoring what is now a truism within the business press and financial class: The jobs, profits and market opportunities of the future are in clean energy—not oil, gas, and coal. Indeed, two days before Trump’s announcement, the shareholders of ExxonMobil delivered a stunning rebuke to the oil giant’s management: BBy a 62 percent majority, they voted to require the company to produce annual reports on how it will remain profitable in a future when governments and science will limit oil and gas production.

But make no mistake: Trump’s speech was climate denial with a vengeance. At this point in the climate crisis, the science is terrifyingly clear. Global emissions of heat-trapping gases must peak by 2020 if the 1.5C target is to remain feasible, by 2030 for the 2C target. Physics does not compromise; it does not do the deals so beloved by Trump. And that means that pledging to unleash America’s “abundant domestic energy” sources—by which Trump explained he meant oil, gas, and coal—will make it immensely more difficult to honor those temperature targets, even if the rest of the world continues galloping forward.

In human terms, this increase in US energy production will mean more of the killer cyclones that killed hundreds and left hundreds of thousands of people homeless in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka this week. 

It will mean more of the massive storms such as Hurricane Sandy that leveled vast parts of New York and New Jersey days before the 2012 presidential election and inspired Businessweek’s cover headline, “It’s Global Warming, Stupid!” It will mean that the extinction crisis that has already claimed countless plant and animal species will intensify, furthering impoverishing the planet both ecologically and spiritually. All of this is a crime against humanity—and against Earth.


Mark Hertsgaard (, a fellow of The Nation Institute and The Nation's environment correspondent, is the author of five books, which have been translated into sixteen languages. His next book, Living Through the Storm: How We Survive the Next 50 Years of Climate Change, is forthcoming from Houghton-Mifflin.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Trump’s Exit From Paris Climate Deal Signals End of American Century

 on 1 June 2017, Renew Economy:

By exiting the Paris climate deal, President Donald Trump is handing over global leadership to Chinese President Xi Jinping, seen here with Trump at Mar-a-Lago in January. CREDIT: AP/Alex Brandon, File
By exiting the Paris climate deal, President Donald Trump is handing over global leadership to Chinese President Xi Jinping, seen here with Trump at Mar-a-Lago in January. Credit: AP/Alex Brandon, File
President Donald Trump’s stunning words and actions to our European allies this week — culminating in reports that he will exit the historic Paris climate agreement — signal the end of the American Century.
Rather than strive to maintain the United States’ position as the leader of the free world, a role we have assigned to ourselves for decades, Trump is content with America the villain — the greedy and myopic country that killed humanity’s last, best hope of avoiding catastrophic climate change. Also, by abandoning clean energy, which is the one new sector capable of actually creating millions of high wage American jobs, Trump is officially handing the economic reins over to Europe and China.
Samantha Power, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations in the Obama administration, echoed that sentiment on Twitter Wednesday morning.
“America is responsible, to herself as well as to history, for the world environment in which she lives,” wrote publisher Henry Luce in a famous February 17, 1941 Life magazine editorial, “The American Century.”
Luce was writing about America’s obligation to end its isolationism and enter World War II. But he had a broader purpose, to discuss a “fundamental issue which faces America as it faces no other nation,” an issue “deeper even than the immediate issue of war.”
That issue was whether America would assume the mantle of global leader. Luce explained that throughout our history, “this continent teemed with manifold projects and magnificent purposes. Above them all… was the triumphal purpose of freedom. It is in this spirit that all of us are called, each to his own measure of capacity, and each in the widest horizon of his vision, to create the first great American Century.”
In words that still ring true today, Luce described what would happen if America met the challenge and took a global leadership role — and what would happen if we retreated into isolationism:
If America meets it correctly, then, despite hosts of dangers and difficulties, we can look forward and move forward to a future worthy of men, with peace in our hearts. If we dodge the issue, we shall flounder for ten or 20 or 30 bitter years in a chartless and meaningless series of disasters.
And so the U.S. finds itself at the same crossroads today. After a disastrous European trip in which Trump offended many world leaders, refused to endorse our commitment to defend our NATO allies, and persuaded Germany that we aren’t a reliable partner, a decision to exit the Paris climate deal would be the last straw, a blunder of historical import.
By torpedoing the unanimous agreement among more than 190 nations aimed at sparing humanity decades, if not centuries, of misery, Trump will destroy America’s “soft power,” our ability to achieve outcomes we desire in other global negotiations.
Trump will be destroying the global influence that was at the core of Luce’s definition of the American Century: “to accept wholeheartedly our duty and our opportunity as the most powerful and vital nation in the world and in consequence to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit.”
Ironically, by gutting domestic climate action and clean energy investment, Trump will also weaken the U.S. economically; other countries, particularly China, have indicated they intend to seize on the vast wealth and high paying jobs that come with leadership in clean energy and climate solutions, which will be a $50 trillion-plus market in the coming decades.
China has already announced its intention to be the economic leader and global hero on climate change. Indeed, one leading Australian financial columnist called Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January “the moment China’s president claimed global leadership on trade and climate in the vacuum of America’s advertised withdrawal.”
The official China Daily wrote in a commentary at the time, “ready or not, China has become the de facto world leader seeking to maintain an open global economy and battle climate change.” It called China “the one major power with a global outlook.”
Unless Trump is replaced in 2020 by a president committed to domestic and global climate action, he will have free reign to fully thwart the world’s last plausible realistic chance to avoid disaster. America, the richest country and biggest cumulative carbon polluter, will inevitably be blamed for the ever worsening weather extremes, sea level rise, ocean acidification, and climate conflicts here and abroad.
Luce truly described the future Trump is creating for us with remarkable prescience: “We shall flounder for 10 or 20 or 30 bitter years in a chartless and meaningless series of disasters.”

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The World’s Vanishing Glaciers Put Millions at Risk

By Tim Radford / Climate News Network

    Glaciers are at risk even among the high Himalayan peaks of the Karakoram range in Pakistan. (Guilhem Vellut / Flickr)

In the next 25 years, more than half of all of Switzerland’s small glaciers will disappear, and Canada could lose 70% of the volume of its frozen rivers by 2100.

Some of the 37 glaciers in Glacier National Park, Montana, have been reduced by 85%, and of the 37, only 26 remain large enough to warrant the classification of glacier - that is, they have enough mass to flow.

And in high Asia, where 800 million people are at least partly dependent on summer meltwater, there are worries.

Hamish Pritchard, a glaciologist at the British Antarctic Survey, reports in Nature journal that the summer meltwater from the glaciers in the Himalayas, the Hindu Kush, Karakoram, Pamir and other mountain ranges altogether delivers enough for the basic needs of 136 million people.

During droughts, meltwater is the principal source for the upper Indus and Aral river basins, and any glacial water loss would increase the risk of social instability, conflict, and sudden, uncontrolled migrations of population.

According to Dr Pritchard, in total, the glaciers of high-mountain Asia send 23 cubic kilometres of water downstream each summer. Without these glaciers, summer monthly water inputs in an average year would be down by 38% in the upper Indus basin, and by up to 58% in drought conditions.

In the upper Aral basin, lost summer water inputs would frequently reach 100%. Glacial loss would be bad news for the people of Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

All the more reason, says Twila Moon, postdoctoral research associate at the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre in Boulder, Colorado, to systematically monitor the condition of the world’s glaciers and to maintain data.

She argues in Science journal that although glacier melt contributes to sea level rise, it may be even more important to work out when society will start to experience the coastal flooding that could displace millions.

And only careful assessment of the scale of glacier loss worldwide - including in Greenland and the Antarctic - could provide planners with the information they need.

That the glaciers are going is a given. Careful studies over many years suggest that some of Greenland’s glaciers are accelerating on their way to the sea. There have also been alarming losses reported from Bolivia, and even in Canada.

Reports from the high mountains of Asia have been incomplete, but there is enough evidence to suggest that perhaps half of all the ice could be gone in the next 30 years.

Dr Moon says: “The evidence is overwhelming - Earth is losing its ice. Much of this loss is irreversible and the result of human-caused climate change. Unless substantial climate response action is taken, and the trend of global temperature rise is reversed, we will continue to see Miami streets swallowed by sea, and glacier freshwater reservoirs melt into mud".

“And we can expect this pattern to continue for decades, centuries, and indeed millennia. As scientists, we must make this reality clear and help to ensure that action is taken to minimise impacts globally.”

Thursday, May 18, 2017

This South Pacific Island of Rubbish Shows Why We Need to Quit Our Plastic Habit

Jennifer Lavers, University of Tasmania

A remote South Pacific island has the highest density of plastic debris reported anywhere on the planet, our new study has found.

Our study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, estimated that more than 17 tonnes of plastic debris has washed up on Henderson Island, with more than 3,570 new pieces of litter arriving every day on one beach alone.

Our study probably actually underestimates the extent of plastic pollution on Henderson Island, as we were only able to sample pieces bigger than two millimetres down to a depth of 10 centimetres. We also could not sample along cliffs. Jennifer Lavers, Author provided

It is estimated that there are nearly 38 million pieces of plastic on the island, which is near the centre of the South Pacific Gyre ocean current.

Henderson Island, marked here by the red pin, is in the UK’s Pitcairn Islands territory and is more than 5,000 kilometres from the nearest major population centre. That shows plastic pollution ends up everywhere, even in the most remote parts of the world. Google Maps

A 2014 paper published in the journal PLOS One used data from surface water all over the world. The researchers estimated that there are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic in the top 10 centimetres of the world’s oceans.

Plastics pose a major threat to seabirds and other animals, and most don’t ever break down – they just break up. Every piece of petrochemical-derived plastic ever made still exists on the planet.

Jennifer Lavers, Research Scientist, Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Monday, May 8, 2017

How Scientists and Indigenous Groups Can Team Up to Protect Forests and Climate


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It was still morning when Javier Mateo-Vega arrived at the village meeting hall in Ipeti, Panama this past February. But the air was already hot and heavy, and the mood was tense.
The indigenous Emberá townspeople were taking advantage of Mateo-Vega's late arrival to air grievances. A man in the back complained about new houses that the government was building—sterile, zinc-roofed concrete shacks that were quickly wiping out the town’s traditional wood-and-thatched-palm huts. Others cursed the colonos—non-indigenous farmers and ranchers who were invading the community’s land from other parts of Panama. The village chiefs struggled to keep order.
Mateo-Vega, an ecologist with the Smithsonian's Tropical Research Institute, frowned with worry. The conflicts were worse than he had ever seen here. As he joined the gathering, a few men seemed to shift uncomfortably or look away, a strange occurrence in a village where he had worked for almost a decade—and where he was used to a warmer welcome. “You’re seeing the unraveling of a community,” he told me. 
The people of Ipeti (pronounced ee-pet-TEE) were at a crossroads. The Emberá have long lived in the forests of eastern Panama. They know these forests inside and out: They walk, hunt and fish in them; they harvest fruit and nuts from them; they cut trees for fuel wood and building materials. But ever since a group of Emberá migrated west and founded Ipeti a few decades ago, they have grappled with outside threats to their forest-based livelihoods.
Now they were facing an existential question: Would they hold on to their traditions, or head full-speed into modernity?  
Mateo-Vega hoped to help the villagers turn things around. He had driven three hours east from Panama City to lead a land-use planning workshop for this 700-person community. He knew the workshop wouldn't solve all of the townspeople's problems. But he believed he could help them in one concrete way: by giving them data they needed to make strategic decisions to protect their forests in the coming decades. 
On paper, the work was intended to conserve tropical forests, crucial yet increasingly vulnerable bastions in the fight against global climate change. But Mateo-Vega and his colleagues also hoped it would also do something arguably just as important: empower indigenous communities to take charge of their environmental future, and even reclaim their identity as forest people. 
“Imagine it’s 2055, and you’re in an airplane flying over your territory,” he said, as he took the floor before a group of around 50 community members. Women in brightly colored traditional skirts sat on folding chairs on one side of the pavilion; men in worn jeans, T-shirts and baseball caps sat or stood around the other. “What would you see?”
No response. That wasn't entirely surprising: The townspeople had been arguing for two hours, and it was hot. Plus, with more immediate problems facing them, 2055 felt abstract and far-off. 
Behind Mateo-Vega, community leaders held two large maps that he had brought, based on data that community members had provided in a workshop the previous summer. One depicted a dystopian future in which Ipeti’s forests are almost all cleared for farmland. The other rendered a brighter outlook, in which the community was able to bring the forest back.
“This is your dream,” he said, pointing to the second map. 
Still nothing. Mateo-Vega paced the concrete floor in his Teva sandals, khaki field pants, purple polo shirt and Smithsonian ID badge. Even after years of working here, he was an obvious outsider: a tall, muscular, light-skinned Costa Rican with short, slicked-back hair.  
He tried a different tactic: “What are the Emberá without their forests?”
For a few seconds, the crowd was uncomfortably silent. Then one young man yelled out, “Nothing! Without our forests, we’re not Emberá!”
Mateo-Vega's face relaxed. Now they were starting to make progress.

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In Ipeti, Panama, Sara Omi (left), Cándido Mezúa (center) and Mateo-Vega explore potential futures for the Emberá's forests. (Gabriel Popkin)

To say that the history of scientists working in indigenous territories is fraught would be an understatement. Look through the literature and you'll find stories of researchers setting their own agendas, collecting and publishing data without consent, and failing to include community members as collaborators or coauthors on studies. 
“The dominant narrative is that indigenous people are not co-thinkers,” says Kim TallBear, an anthropologist at the University of Alberta who has studied scientist-indigenous relations.
In the context of this troubled history, Mateo-Vega's work could be the beginnings of a counter-narrative. In 2008, he began working in Ipeti as the director of a project to build communities’ forest restoration capacity. In 2012 he joined the research group of Catherine Potvin, an ecologist with the Smithsonian Institution and McGill University in Montreal who has paved the way for more collaborative research with the Emberá.
Over the years, Mateo-Vega says he and the people of Ipeti have come to consider each other adopted family. As he walks down the town’s main street, the villagers give him hugs and high-fives, and show off hand-carved wooden animals and hand-woven baskets. They ask about his wife, an American whom he lives with in Panama City, and his 12-year-old son, who lives in Costa Rica. “I would come here even if I wasn’t doing research,” Mateo-Vega says.
Such relationships have laid the foundation for a collaboration with the Emberá that goes longer and deeper than almost any other scientist-indigenous community partnership anywhere. In return, Mateo-Vega has gained unprecedented access to nearly unstudied forests—and, perhaps more importantly, to the Emberá themselves. They have opened their homes to him, mediated with community elders and helped design and carry out complex research projects. 
"You have to break bread with them, walk their forests with them, stay in their houses, play with their children and go to their funerals,” he says. “If you don’t like doing this stuff, you’re not going to do well here.”
Mateo-Vega wants to change how science is done, but he's also hoping to do more. He aims to help bring indigenous communities into a climate change conversation that they have mostly watched from the margins. As the world’s governments, conservation organizations and indigenous communities struggle to protect forests and fight climate change, Mateo-Vega hopes to build a powerful model for others to follow.

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Emberá women at a land use planning meeting led by Mateo-Vega in February. (Gabriel Popkin)

The story begins in the mid 1990s, when Potvin, Mateo-Vega's advisor, ventured for the first time to the Darién. She had heard that the remote, roadless Darién region in far eastern Panama—the Emberás’ homeland, and where most of the roughly 30,000 group members still live—nurtured a biologically spectacular forest, and she wanted to see it for herself. Getting there required a flight from Panama City and 14 hours in a dugout canoe.
“You’re very tired at the end. Your butt really hurts,” she says. 
Finally, she arrived at a small village of thatched-roof huts. Villagers still spoke the Emberá language and maintained traditional practices, including adorning themselves from head to toe with paint made from a native fruit called jagua. Potvin immediately knew that she wanted to work with there. But rather than set her own research agenda, she decided to ask community leaders what research projects would help them.
“These people are immensely intelligent,” says Potvin, who is short with straight blonde hair, and whose English is heavily inflected with a French Canadian accent. “They don’t need me to tell them what to do.”
She learned that the community relied on chunga, a spiny palm whose leaves the villagers wove into baskets. As the baskets became increasingly popular with tourists, overharvesting began depleting chunga from the forest. To help the communities learn how to grow the palms themselves, Potvin brought on Rogelio Cansari, an Emberá from the Darién who had received a degree in anthropology from Texas A&M University, as a graduate student.
The pair collected seeds from the few remaining chunga plants they could find, planted them in experimental plots and determined under what conditions they grow best. Then, they worked with community members to establish plantations to supply their growing basket trade.
Crucially, they also included indigenous leaders as coauthors on scientific papers. “Catherine came with the very innovative idea of giving the opportunity to indigenous people to be part of scientific knowledge,” says Cansari, who is now studying for a PhD in anthropology at the University of Copenhagen. “It’s been very helpful for my people.” The researchers translated their papers into Spanish and presented them at community meetings, so that villagers gained access to the data and learned what was being published about them in the scientific literature.
Though she is not specifically familiar with Potvin’s work, TallBear says that the ecologist’s approach goes beyond what even most collaboration-minded scientists are willing to do. “It’s not an easy thing to do. It takes time and it slows down your time to publication,” she says. “Most people who bill themselves as doing collaborative research are not going that far.” 

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Traditional thatched-roof huts and drying clothes at an Emberá community in the Darién. (Courtesy Javier Mateo-Vega)

While in Darién, Potvin heard that some Emberá had migrated out of the region and settled in Ipeti. Intrigued, she visited the town herself in 1996. She found a community that was carrying on some traditions, such as living in thatched-roof houses, but that was also assimilating into mainstream Panamanian society. Traditional body painting and music had all but disappeared, and Spanish was replacing the Emberá language. 
It wasn’t every day that a scientist from a prestigious university visited Ipeti, which at that time was a seven-hour drive from Panama City over a largely unpaved road. When Bonarge Pacheco—an Emberá and Ipeti’s chief at the time—heard that Potvin was in town, he put on his best clothes and joined her for dinner.
Despite previous experiences with scientists who had gathered data in Ipeti but never returned results, Bonarge says that he was won over by Potvin. “I perceived that she was a sincere person, and I had heard about her work elsewhere,” he says. They talked until midnight, and by the next day they had a plan to collaborate.
Many of the forests surrounding Ipeti had been cleared both by villagers and invading colonos, and were in rough shape. Villagers had trouble finding not only chunga, but also several types of palm needed to continue building their traditional houses—round, open-sided structures with air-permeable floors and thatched roofs that stay cool even in Panama’s punishing midday heat. As a result, community members were starting to build new houses using non-traditional materials like wood planks and sheet metal.
Potvin worked with the community to study and grow four species of palm: chunga, wagaragiwa and sabal. That work paid off: With palms growing and providing materials, Ipeti was able to continue their traditional house-building. The study also had wider-reaching effects. Villagers went back to playing Emberá music—which relies on flutes made from a bamboo that Potvin also helped them grow—and revived their important cultural tradition of body-painting. 
Potvin even got herself painted. Through her years of collaboration with the Emberá, she says she felt she had earned it. “I know now there are a lot of discourses about reappropriation of these things, and it’s quite controversial,” she says. “I just find it’s beautiful.”

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Catherine Potvin, right, shows a carbon map to Evelio Jiménez and community members of the Guna Comarca of Madungandi, in eastern Panama in 2013.

Around this time, high-level politicians and environmentalists began eyeing tropical forests like the Darién as part of global efforts to combat climate change. At the 2005 UN climate conference in Montreal, a program emerged for reducing carbon emissions from burning or clearing of standing forests, which accounts for 10 to 15 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. The program was christened with the acronym REDD, which stands for “reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.”
The basic idea is simple: Trees are roughly half carbon by mass, and growing trees devour and store carbon dioxide, the gas responsible for most human-caused climate change. To provide an incentive to keep forests standing, climate negotiators envisioned a carbon market through which wealthy countries responsible for most carbon emissions could pay poorer countries to protect forests. While no one thought such a scheme could prevent climate change, it seemed like a good strategy to at least slow it down.
Getting REDD+ (the ‘+’ was added in 2007 to include improved forest management) to work on the ground, however, has been anything but simple. Tropical forests grow in dozens of mostly poor countries, whose governments often lack the will or ability to protect them from the myriad threats they face: illegal logging, mining, cattle ranching, farming and more. A widely cited 2013 analysis of satellite data collected between 2000 and 2012 found that forested areas shrank in nearly every tropical country besides Brazil, often by staggeringly large amounts.
Moreover, few developing-world governments are equipped to make the systematic measurements needed to verify that additional carbon is really being sequestered. “REDD+ is frequently presented as a climate success story, partly because the idea looks so simple and appealing,” wrote economist Arild Angelsen and biologist Louis Verchot of the Center for International Forestry Research in Indonesia in 2015. But outside of Brazil, “there are few stories of substantial early progress," the authors wrote.
Then there is the fact that indigenous communities often have uneasy relationships with their national governments, and have rarely been included in discussions where the mechanics of REDD+ were developed. As a result, they are wary of carbon-focused schemes that might restrict what they can do in their forests.
This may be starting to change. At the 2015 UN climate conference in Paris, a coalition of indigenous groups and scientists released a report pointing out that more than a fifth of the world’s tropical forest carbon is in indigenous territories, and calling for stronger land rights and inclusion of indigenous people in climate negotiations. Research supports this argument: A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that recognizing the rights of indigenous people in the Peruvian Amazon has helped protect forests there.
But rarely have indigenous groups received recognition or compensation for protecting their forests. The 2015 Paris agreement mentions indigenous peoples in several places, but does not guarantee them a role in countries’ climate action plans.
“Governments are like cash machines going click, click, click, click, click—they see this green fund as a great source of new funding,” said Cándido Mezúa, an Emberá leader from the Darién and a coauthor on the 2015 report. “To really achieve the protection of forests, the only way is to recognize the rights of people in the forests and to title our lands.”

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Ipeti's forests. (Gabriel Popkin)

Today, Potvin and Mateo-Vega see their work as a case study in how science could support the kind of protection Mezúa envisions. More than half of the country’s primary forests are in indigenous territories, according to an analysis by Potvin’s group. But before the UN talks, they had never had a reason to think about how much carbon their forests hold. As Cansari puts it: “Carbon is not something that indigenous people can touch.”
Potvin, who attended the climate talks as a negotiator for Panama, told her Emberá contacts about the carbon market discussions. Fearing being left out, community leaders asked her to help them measure how much carbon their forests contained. She agreed. Starting in Ipeti, she trained community members to record the diameters of trees in community-managed forest, agroforestry plots (plantings of fruit- and materials-providing trees) and cow pasture. They then used standardized equations and statistical methods to convert individual tree data into estimates of carbon stored in a given area.
They found that Ipeti’s forests contained about twice as much carbon per area as agroforestry plots, whereas the pastures, unsurprisingly, contained little carbon. Because the study was the first to quantify the carbon stored in Ipeti’s forest, it provided a crucial foundation for the community to explore getting involved in the emerging carbon market.
Equally important was the attention the study brought to Ipeti’s remaining forests, says Pacheco. At the rate Ipeti residents and colonos were clearing trees, half the remaining forest would be gone within a decade, the researchers found. Community members took note and dramatically slowed the rate at which they cleared forests for agriculture. As a result, about half their territory remains forested today—in contrast to Piriati, a neighboring Emberá community where Potvin did not work, and which eventually lost all of its forest.
“We call it the Potvin effect,” Pacheco says.

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Mateo-Vega stands at the base of a cuipo tree in the forests of Ipeti. (Gabriel Popkin)

A few years later, Potvin, Mateo-Vega and Emberá leaders began planning a forest carbon measuring campaign in the Darién, with support from the Environmental Defense Fund and the World Bank. The challenges would be much greater than in Ipeti—field teams would need to trek in equipment by foot or canoe for stays lasting weeks, and they would need protection from the guerrilla warfare in neighboring Colombia, which threatened to spill across the border. The mutual trust Potvin and Mateo-Vega had spent years building would be essential. 
Mateo-Vega hired an Emberá assistant, Lupita Omi, whom he knew from working in Ipeti, to arrange meetings with village chiefs. (The two have become so close they now call each other hermanito and hermanita—Spanish for “little brother” and “little sister”.) In 38 separate meetings, the pair explained their project’s goals and how the collected data would benefit communities. Deliberations could last up to five hours, because community members were wary of any initiative that carried even a whiff of REDD+.
“The communities really listened carefully to every word,” Omi says. “They realized it could affect their livelihoods and their territories.” In the end, every community accepted the project.
Mateo-Vega then hired and trained a crew of forest technicians from Darién and Ipeti, and plunged into the forest. They set up camp, sent hunters out after monkey or iguana for the night’s dinner, and got to work staking out square plots 100 meters (slightly longer than a football field) on a side and measuring the height and circumference of every tree larger than 50 centimeters in diameter.
The work was arduous. The heat could be brutal, and rainy season downpours turned forest soil into mud. Trails had to be cut from the dense understory with machetes, pit vipers lurked everywhere and nasty spines that grow on many plants could easily puncture boots and skin. The threat of violence was never far from the team’s thoughts, although they were never attacked. On one outing, a canoe carrying members of the security team and their ammunition capsized in a rapid, and they had to abandon the trip, even though it meant leaving two remote forest types unmeasured.
But for their efforts, Mateo-Vega and his crew got access to forests that virtually no scientists had ever studied. They discovered a tree that shattered the record for the largest in Panama. The crew’s measurements revealed that some of its forests were far more carbon-rich and replete with biological diversity than anyone had documented.
Mateo-Vega has come to believe that the underappreciated Darién—one 19th-century explorer described it as a “green hell”—deserves to be ranked among the world’s great forest regions. “In our opinion it’s the Amazon of Central America,” he says. On the last day of his last field trip, he saw a jaguar swimming across a river—a first for him in his 35 years working in the rainforest. He still dreams of going back.
In addition to collecting valuable data, Mateo-Vega’s team proved a larger point: that community members with proper training but no prior science background could take forest measurements just as well as scientists. And they could do it at a fraction of the cost. Similar success stories from collaborations elsewhere suggest REDD+ could be widely implemented and monitored directly by communities that own much of the world’s forests.
“When trained and when incentivized … they can collect as high-quality data as anybody else,” says Wayne Walker, an ecologist at the Woods Hole Research Center who led a community-based carbon measuring project in the Amazon. 
Potvin has published guidelines for such collaborative research on the McGill website. Other hints are also emerging that science may be shedding its colonial heritage. In March, the San people of South Africa issued what is thought to be the first code of research ethics put together by indigenous people in Africa. First Nations peoples of Canada and Aborigines in Australia have developed similar codes. 
Mateo-Vega and his collaborators recently added their own contribution to this growing literature, publishing their methods and results in the journal Ecosphere. Emberá communities are now prepared to collect data to support REDD+ or any other future carbon compensation scheme, they wrote.
“We worked ourselves out of a job—which was the plan,” Mateo-Vega says.
Armed with data, the Emberá communities set about figuring out the next step: how to use it. In Ipeti and Piriati, which only received formal title to their lands in 2015, the consensus was a series of land use planning workshops to map out how land use decisions would affect their forests. 
The workshops have been “an awakening” for the communities, Mateo-Vega says. He recalls one elder in Piriati crying as he realized his daughters had never seen the forest or eaten bush meat—the native game animals Emberá people have traditionally hunted. “They realize they have gotten off track,” he says.
Back at the land use meeting in Ipeti, as Mateo-Vega continued to explain the data visualized by his maps, his audience had begun to open up. Community members were reflecting on what they had lost as the forest had disappeared. “Before, we ate peccary and deer,” one man said. “Now we have to have park rangers.”
Another lamented that they were eating introduced tilapia, rather than native wacuco fish that used to thrive in streams protected by forests. “I’m Emberá; I want to live like an Emberá,” he said.
By the end of the meeting, community members were in agreement: They needed to bring back the forest. But given that farming often brings in quicker—and much-needed—profits, how exactly they would do this remained to be figured out.
After the crowd dispersed, Mateo-Vega huddled with community leaders. They were contemplating a concept they called Emberá-REDD. They would consider participating in the UN program, but on their own terms, not ones cooked up in Panama City or Washington, D.C.
Young people could be employed to measure carbon and patrol the territory to ensure colonos did not destroy their forests, one leader suggested. REDD+ would thus be not just about trees and carbon, but about jobs and education—and about food security and cultural preservation.
“We need to protect the forests for our own reasons,” said Mezúa.
The forest would come back. The communities would go back to eating bush meat and gathering medicinal plants. They would build their traditional houses again.
What about the ugly government-built houses, Mateo-Vega asked.
“Maybe they’ll be used for storage,” said Sara Omi, Lupita’s sister and head of the Emberá’s regional congress.
Mateo-Vega liked what he heard. But he and Potvin are quick to emphasize that their job is not to choose whether or not the communities ultimately accept REDD+, or make any other decision for them. Rather, it is to empower communities to make their own informed choices.
They acknowledge that this is not always the easiest or quickest or most glamorous way to do science. But it’s the right way. “It’s a partnership and a relationship of equality,” Potvin says. “I think of it as decolonization.”

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