March 26, 2010

State Of The Planet 2010: Climate Change

State of the Planet 2010: Climate Change

On March 25, I attended the State of the Planet conference held by The Earth Institute at Columbia University. The forum was a global event, using an HD webcast to connect panel speakers from New York, New Delhi, Beijing, Nairobi, Monaco, London, and Mexico City. I had never been to such a diverse and interesting conference that wasn’t an ethnic event. The speakers included plenty of current and former UN officials, royalty from Monaco and the Netherlands, CEO’s of several major corporations, and a slew of professors and experts from regional universities. Although many issues and topics were discussed, in my opinion the two most pressing and important debates were on reducing climate change and alleviating poverty in Africa using “green” technologies.

The climate change discussion focused primarily on what it would take to complete the deal known as the Copenhagen Accord, which was agreed upon at the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen, Denmark. The NYC panel of speakers included Prof. Wallace S. Broecker & Prof. Mark Cane of Columbia University and Johan Rockstrom of the Stockholm Environment Institute. Some of the strongest points made during their discussion were how:

- Nations failed at coming together in a collective effort to curve climate change
- For the first time, climate change has become a more political debate than a scientific one
- Part of our solution needs to be capturing and storing CO2, but governments and commercial industry won’t support it. (Even though it costs mere 10’s of millions)
- A restructuring of the national power grid is necessary
• Stated by Prof. Mark Cane
- There can be no clear agreement without the endorsement of China

Immediately following those statements, the host (Riz Khan of Al-Jazeera English) connected us live to Beijing, China where James Miles of The Economist was moderating the Chinese panel. Jiang Kejun of the Energy Research Institute, Prof. Qi Ye of Tsinghua University, Xiao Geng of the Brookings Institution, and Prof. Xu Jintao of Peking University were in attendance. They had quite a lot to say about China’s influence on the rest of the world when it comes to climate change, including how:

- China had no carbon emissions problems until 200 years ago
- China will NOT peak before the United States in carbon emissions
- There is a 5-year target for making concrete policies that will help reduce the amount of carbon emissions in China by 40% in 2025
- The G-20 summit may be a better forum for international climate change discussion, rather than the UN
- There is a major need for civil action by the Chinese public for policy change to happen quicker
- NGO’s (non-governmental organizations) are doing the best in educating the public
- Current form of democracy is not effective, there needs to be a new global structure instead
- Global communication is a must, and they are glad to see President Barack Obama doing a lot to encourage this

Heading back to NYC, the experts were able to offer some quick assessments and rebuttals to the points made by the Chinese. They added:

- The rest of the world will not take action, unless the United States does first
o But Prof. Wallace S. Broecker rebutted and said since “China is going to lead the world in the future anyway, they should go first”
- The population growth of the United States is also a major problem in increasing our carbon emissions
- European Union should also show leadership and strive more more than a 30% reduction in emissions
• Stated by Johan Rockstrom

Riz Khan then turned back to the screen and introduced the panel from New Delhi, India. Simon Cox of The Economist was moderating a panel which included Nitin Desai the former UN Secretary-General of Economic & Social Affairs, Devin Narang of the Freeplay Group, Jyoti Parikh of Integrated Research and Action for Development (IRADe), Jagbir Singh who is CTO of Bhari Airtel Mobility Networks, and Leena Srivastava of The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI). These panelists seemed to have a more practical view of what the problems are that prevent the eradication of negative climate change. Some of their points were:

- There is a crisis of trust in both the scientific field and within the UN
- Technology needs to be developed locally and cost effectively for these solutions to work (ex. India & Africa can’t afford United States’ technology) • Stated by Devin Narang
- National governments need to impose mandates in their own countries, instead of focusing on international reguation • Stated by Nitin Desai
- We need a mandatory base year to set an international standard, because many countries have gotten a free ride in not paying any regulation standards fees (ex. United States has added more than 1 billion lbs. of carbon into the atmosphere since 1990) • Stated by Jyoti Parikh
- Developing countries like India, collectively, will be responsible for 20% of all carbon emissions in the near future
- India and China are working closely together, since there are many of the same environmental problems effecting both countries
- Solar and wind technologies are viable options, now that new regulations have recently been put into effect. There is a HUGE market since there is significant amounts of sunlight in India

After thanking the panel and moderator in New Delhi, Riz Khan brought the discussion back to NYC in order to get some final statements from our panel. They concluded:

- Africa could be the most sustainable continent on the planet in the future, but costs and development need to be better managed in order for this to happen
- New technology will bring new problems, but as long as they are better than the old problems then we’ve made progress • Stated by Prof. Mark Cane
- Alternate energy is key. Costs need to be brought down in producing solar energy, since it’s the easiest to harness
- Nuclear energy will see a resurgence in the United States, but we need hundreds of new power plants and we haven’t built one new one yet
- Scientific experts should no longer pitch the problems to the public, because no one cares to listen. Instead, more marketing experts need to be involved since it only takes tragedies for people to notice any problems.
- Social media (internet) will be more powerful than current media (TV, radio) in it’s effectiveness to spread the message
- It is surprising that many faith communities are not voicing an opinion loud enough. Seeing as people are destroying “God’s creation”

Wrapping up the discussion on climate change was HSH Prince Albert II of Monaco. He was broadcast live to speak on the viability of the development and production of electric vehicles in Monaco. Prince Albert II assured the global community that a major shift is underway in his country and if Monaco could do it then major countries should also follow suit.
The entire discussion was a fascinating back and forth between so many influential people in the political, scientific, and technological fields. I feel that after hearing such a lively and comprehensive discussion, many of the people in the audience felt quite reassured that although there are severe problems facing our environment, we are on the right track to save the state of our planet. Things just need to happen faster and the people at the forefront of the debate are all for encouraging this.

- Steve Tyson Jr.

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