Wednesday, February 18, 2009

More Coverage of the WSF

I meant to post this link weeks ago, and now, as a good blogger, my friend has moved forward, piling other relevant stories onto his blog.

You should check those out. But if you're interested in seeing more about the forum, dig back a few weeks and he has some great commentary, photos, and video.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Climate Justice Movement

At the forum, I focused on an issue dear to my heart: climate change policy. There was a group of people promoting "Climate Justice." I was surprised to hear that this group was vehemently opposed to the Kyoto Protocol and other such market-based policies. I suppose I'm a bit out of touch with the lefties up here in my ivory tower.

They do make some valid points. Yet, the complete dismissal of carbon trading and any economic solution is, perhaps, going too far. I'd be more forgiving of their dismissal if they proposed viable alternative solutions. But the focus was on tearing down the system with little discussion on what would be put in its place.

Here is my response to the Durban Declaration on Carbon Trading:

On the point of the distribution of carbon permits, I couldn't agree with them more. Giving out permits for free is like giving away free money to companies that have polluted the most. Auctioning permits is far more equitable and generates revenues which can be used for the public good (reduce taxes, pay for healthcare, R&D for clean energy). If you are selling rights to a public good (the atmosphere), shouldn't the public get the revenues? This comes back to the polluter pays principle, which I firmly stand by.

For CDM, additionality is very difficult to prove. When I asked a few different developers of projects receiving CDM credits in India whether the projects would have been pursued without CDM credits, they seemed to be almost surprised at the naivety of such a question. Their stance was that, yes, the CDM is nice, but this project would have happened either way. This has been a widespread criticism. Yet that does not mean that all projects are "hot air." Not to mention that even if the projects are not "additional," it still amounts to a money transfer from the global north to the global south. Especially since most of the projects have been initiated from within the country, not by foreign developers. There may still be cases of some local people losing out with these projects, but I have not been convinced that these projects have had a net negative impact on the communities around them.

So yes, you are likely to lose some of the reduction that would have otherwise occurred when you allow CDM offsets. Yet, there are potential benefits generated as well, such as increased clean infrastructure, efficiency investments, and wealth transfer. Plus, while all of these certified emissions credits are not likely additional emissions reductions, some of them are. So the emissions reductions are not all lost.

As for the commodification of carbon, it is hard to sympathize with this argument. Environmental economists generally support "commodification" as an solution to the tragedy of the commons. People have very negative emotional reactions against the idea of making a natural resource or a public good a "commodity." But with the exception of the issue of pricing the poor out of access to resources, this argument does not seem to have much of an empirical basis for rejection. There are mountains of research that show these methods are unbelievably effective. I understand that people don't like the idea of putting a price on nature, but that appears to be the most effective way of saving it from destruction. I feel that continued survival of a fishery or the stabilization of our climate trumps the discomfort people may feel about a certain concept.

A lot of the problems that Climate Justice raises about carbon markets are answered by carbon taxes. I brought this up at the World Social Forum and the response was generally, "Yes, carbon taxes are better than carbon trading, but they still will not get us where we need to go because they work within the capitalist system."

So for some, it boils down to the fact that nothing but the overthrow of capitalism will save the planet. I am not saying that this is wrong. I am not saying that it is right. I just think that we need a plan B just in case that doesn't pan out.

Diversity in the environmental movement can be a virtue in this way. We don't have to agree on tactics. We should all pursue the methods that we feel will work. Through this diversity of efforts, perhaps one will emerge and generate widespread success or perhaps each will add positive incremental change.

Yet, the venom I found at the World Social Forum against carbon markets seemed a bit over the top. This particular document seems more reasonable, but I feel that they should be better informed on the issues they are discussing. I wonder how many have actually looked at the effectiveness of market policies and environmental taxes. I would be willing to bet that number is very small.

It is amazing that people with such passion on the same issue, and presumably on the same side of the issue (i.e. reduce climate change) can be so out of touch with one another's ideas. We ought to work on that.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

World Social Forum - REDD

Belem, Brazil – Day 5

Today was my first full day at the World Social Forum and I must say that little of what I have found has surprised me. All of the frustrations I was expecting, I have found. All of the interesting perspectives I was expecting, I have found. Yet this is not meant as a critique or to imply that I have not learned a great deal. The people here have given me important new perspectives—some of which may change the way I approach these topics in my future work.

When each person tells their story, it brings these issues to life. Even as I read about the impacts of climate change or globalization on the lives of indigenous people or poor communities, I tend to think, “Yes, I know it is terrible. Let’s move on to the solutions.” But then I forget what I am fighting for. I get caught up in the “wonkery” of policy and economics. Once I am enveloped in these details, I don’t think about how these macro solutions affect people’s lives on the ground.

For instance, it never dawned on me that REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation—a policy to sell carbon credits from intact forests) would have significant negative impacts on people without legal rights to their land. Large landowners who have titles to the land that indigenous and local people use could sell the carbon rights to the global market. Then these “squatters” would be banned from practicing the “slash-and-burn” agriculture that they have been doing sustainably for thousands of years. Without this source of food, they go from being self-sufficient and culturally intact to being impoverished and dependent.

Now, the real problem here is land rights, not forest carbon policy. But without addressing the land rights issue, adding the forest carbon policy exacerbates the consequences of the problem.

One issue that was even more puzzling to my economist-mind was that they sited increasing the economic value of the forests was a major problem. I thought this was the point. You make a standing forest more valuable than a deforested forest. Then people will keep the forests intact because it’s profitable to do so. But these critics of REDD did not see it that way. They felt that the land grab by the rich and the pricing out of the poor that could result from REDD was unacceptable.

While these are very valid issues, I feel that these critics who venomously oppose market-based policies like REDD are being somewhat disingenuous in their motives. They were self-righteous about their love of trees and the UN/REDD proponents love of money, yet they oppose these policies not because they would not promote forest conservation but because they exacerbate land ownerships problems. They create a false choice between land rights and REDD. The real choice is between making it profitable to cut down forests or making it profitable to conserve forests. How is preventing REDD going to address land ownership? It won’t. How is preventing REDD going to affect deforestation? It will allow the status quo to continue.

From the meeting, I took away three major lessons specific to REDD policy.

1)We should change the UN’s definition of “forest” to exclude tree plantations.
2)We need to explicitly recognize the rights of indigenous people to their land.
3)We need to put resources—especially legal and technical expertise—into place to help small landowners take advantage of the program.


27 Hours on a Tropical Island

Days 3 & 4 were spent on an island in the river delta. It was amazing. We spent the evening around a fire on the beach with a group of Brazilians. When we were tired from the effort of communication, we walked and watched a thunderstorm off in the distance. There were white sand beaches where, instead of seashells, we collected amazing seeds that float down from the Amazon forests. Half of the island shore is beach, half mangroves. We found gorgeous, completely deserted beaches and enjoyed the sun just a little too much—we’ve been suffering ever since.

And the quote of the trip: “We are becoming less dysfunctional by the day. We are exponentially emerging from our dysfunction.” –Laura-Alex Frye-Levine

And now, onto the Forum…


Friday, January 30, 2009

First days in Brazil

My apologies not posting sooner. This is the first time I've been able to get wifi and my usb drive died. But my current wifi location/situaion is somewhat hilarious. There is a DJ pumping what I would call "organic-hindi-techno" music about 15ft away. I hear a drum circle not so far away. The forum is over for the day and now the parties begin. I'm trying to do my homework... Seriously. But the internet is hopelessly slow. I'm giving up. Time to go explore and find a samba circle.

Belem, Brazil

So we really should have brought a phrasebook… I really should have listened more closely to my Portuguese lessons from my roommates. I really should learned something more than please and thank you.

Laura-Alex and I are staying in a home out in the suburbs of Belem with lovely people who have had few interactions with foreigners. Over breakfast, communication was nearly hopeless between our sleep deprived minds and general confusion of finding ourselves on a different continent. Then naptime. Over lunch, things improved, especially with the discovery of a yellowed and well-worn English-Portuguese dictionary. Then more naptime.

I woke up at 10pm and was a bit disappointed that I spent my first day in Brazil in bed, so I went for a walk with another guest who speaks both English and Portuguese! Hurrah, I found my savior-translator. We ended up ‘going out’ with three girls who live here and communicating was both the chore and the entertainment for the evening. (Pantomimes and learning each other’s cuss words and favorite insults…) Saturday night in the suburbs of Belem reminds me a bit of the Saturday nights in the suburbs of Kansas City. Drive around in a car full of girls, stop here and there. Get hit on by guys in cars.

Tomorrow will be more eventful…

Belem, Brazil Day 2

We just got a lecture from a worried mother hen waiting up for her chickies to come home. In Portuguese. But oh yes, I understood.

We were so worried (hand over heart)! We drove around and looked for you. What happened? Why didn’t you call? Are you hungry? We were so worried!

Her daughter stood by and interjected, Mom, stop, they don’t even understand Portuguese! She gave us a sympathetic glance.

We gave lame-ass excuses about missing the bus.

I feel terrible that we had kept up this very nice family waiting for us, worrying. Yet, I found it a bit hysterical that the “we were up worried sick” lecture is so universal that we needed no translator to catch every sentiment. Besides, it was only 11pm.

Today, we registered at the conference and purchased passes to camp nearby. The place already has the feeling of a music festival (but somewhat more chaotic and disorganized…).


Much has happened since, I believe we're on day 6... The forum has been fascinating and eye-opening and fun. I'll try to get another post up soon...

Friday, January 23, 2009

Next Destination: Brazil

I'm packing for my next adventure and thinking about what experiences it will bring. I'm attending the World Social Forum in Belem, Brazil

Now many of you may think of me as a raging liberal, but in the world I am about to enter, I fear I will be considered, by comparison, an inexcusably conservative capitalist. An economist--horror of horrors. 

As I consider these questions about capitalism, sustainability, and happiness, I want to learn what those on the fringes have to say about it, and more importantly, what they plan to do about it. 

So, over the next few days I'll be telling you about the beautiful beaches and the magical Amazon forests, but most importantly, the people, ideas, and inspiration I find at the World Social Forum.