Copenhagen Days 2-3 (China-US Youth Workshop, Biodiversity and Alternative Energy in the Developing World)

Thursday, December 12 (Day 2)

One of the issues with getting new, clean technology into developing countries has been the worry that giving this equipment away often leads to misuse. During a panel discussion titled, "The Development Agenda for Clean Energy and Transfer of Technologies," I asked what could be done to fund projects that provide these technologies at a minimum cost, which will ideally help these nations reach their environmental and energy goals. The answers I received indicated that creating a market for a particular machine or technology seems to help: one panelist explained that all of the costs his organization had paid out initially were eventually recovered, such that the project became profitable after a few years. He emphasized the need to enter in to an existing market or create a market for a particular good or service that will allow an individual or business owner to earn at least a little money on their investment.

As an example, another panelist offered an example where PV solar panels were installed in a village and villagers were trained about the maintenance and use of the system. To recover the cost of installing the panels, villagers were charged $3/month for electricity, a portion of which went to the people maintaining the system, helping to sustain the project over the long term.

I stuck around the U.S. Center for the next panel discussion, "Mitigating Climate Change: Capturing Carbon Underground, in Soil and in Plants." I find the idea of carbon sequestration to be potentially harmful (excuse to keep using coal and fossil fuels), or at least ineffective, but know little about the different means of capturing and storing CO2. I figured that perhaps it was time to learn something new! The session was actually hosted by the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI), including representatives from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

First, one woman explained the process and effectiveness of using ecosystem restoration to store carbon in plant life and in the soil. This is called biological or terrestrial carbon sequestration. It's actually really fascinating, can help to increase wildlife habitat and it works! (Read more about how it works here.) One thing I didn't know: Wetlands may actually have more potential to sequester carbon dioxide than typical forests.

When the woman from USGS presented the geological carbon sequestration concept, explaining that some oil and gas companies have used injection wells to pump liquid CO2 down into oil wells in order to aid with oil extraction, I was not impressed. Oil companies use energy to capture, transport and pump this CO2 (which in most cases today comes from natural deposits, not the atmosphere) to the oil wells, so that they can pump more oil and emit more GHGs. How will this possibly help us move toward carbon neutrality? Of course, other locations are being considered for storing the liquid carbon dioxide, but it is up to the USGS to determine whether formations like saltwater aquifers are safe and will actually store the CO2 permanently. I asked her if there have been any studies done to evaluate the overall effect that this technology would have on the level of GHGs in the atmosphere. She said that at this time the amount of energy needed to sequester the carbon outweighs the atmospheric CO2 reduction that could theoretically be achieved. Determining whether or not this is a worthwhile technology for emissions reductions is up to the Department of Energy, she said, but the USGS is working to determine if and where the carbon could safely and successfully be stored if geological carbon sequestration is pursued into the future.

That evening, I decided to participate in the China+US Youth Workshop, "Our Shared Future", on the University of Copenhagen campus. I was curious to see how strategies and action differed in these two giants, especially as negotiations between U.S. and Chinese governments are seen as the critical factor in the outcome of this conference.

Once we had all gotten to know each other, we broke up into small groups and began talking about our work to promote clean energy and address climate change in our native countries. It seemed that while many of the efforts in China were top-down and done in collaboration with the Chinese government, U.S. efforts were largely grassroots initiatives demanding action from political leaders, often against incredible opposition from certain industries and corporations.

We also began brainstorming ways in which we can work together, rather than in continual conflict with one another as our governments often do. Several valuable points were made, especially that cooperation between our countries will depend on increasing the mutual trust on both sides at all levels of society and government. In order to foster this trust, we entertained ideas ranging from setting up Facebook and Google groups so that we can all keep in touch and exchange information to organizing foreign exchange programs for sustainable development and social entrepreneurship in both of our countries. 

I met a female student named Yuki studying mechanical engineering (my major when I was studying at Georgia Tech) in China who expressed interest in learning more about U.S. green building technologies. This brought up another great point, which is that while our governments may refuse to share information about certain technologies with each other, we are free to exchange this information as individuals (at least to the point where we aren't violating any laws or patents). I got Yuki's contact information and am planning to send her articles and information describing some of our best sustainable building practices. Here are some photos from the event.USchinaWS

I'm way in the back to the right. Yuki is the girl with long hair and bangs near the front (center). Ben (bearded guy giving a thumbs up on the left) and Holly (girl with the scarf right next to him) both played a key role in organizing this event.

Friday, December 11 (Day 3)

The first session I attended this morning was called "Connecting Biodiversity, Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation." I was reminded of important issues to keep in mind when considering the effects of and possible solutions to climate change: while most of us know that natural ecosystems and the life forms they support will be the first ones affected by a changing climate, it was still shocking to hear that
approximately 10% of species on earth will face extinction for every 1 degree Celsius in average global temperature increase
. That's in addition to the species threatened by habitat loss and other non-climate related threats! I also learned that about 20% of human caused greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions come directly from deforestation. So the question is, how do we stop and even reverse deforestation and other forms of land degradation to prevent this release of GHGs and actually increase the earth's capacity to store carbon dioxide in plants and soil? 

The United Nations' answer to this question is a program called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (REDD), intended to fund reforestation efforts and ecosystem conservation. Learn more about REDD here. At least one of the speakers at this session emphasized that projects funded through the REDD program must carefully evaluated regarding their ecological, cultural and social impacts. Some issues have arisen due to difficulties in monitoring and quantifying the actual impact of REDD projects that have been funded in the past. It seems that in order for REDD to successfully reduce the amount of GHGs in our atmosphere, there must be improved means of estimating and evaluating the effectiveness of projects funded to sequester carbon from the air.

One speaker also suggested that any successful REDD project must have co-benefits beyond just carbon intake. For example, such a project should also support native wildlife repopulation and provide a good livelihood for nearby populations.Immediately after this session, I went to a panel discussion by Indigenous people from Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia. They discussed their experiences with the REDD program and expressed some concerns about the limitations it has. From their perspective, there should be REDD mechanisms for communities to engage in ecological management as they have in the past. They pointed out that land owned by indigenous peoples is often better managed than land owned and managed by others. They were calling for implementation of the proposed REDD-plus program, which would provide support to those who maintain forests in addition to reforestation efforts.  

My last session of the day was "Alternative Energy Programmes for the Least Developed and Developing World" in the U.S. Center. According to a Kateri Callahan, President of the Alliance to Save Energy, $170 billion invested in energy efficiency through the year 2020 could result in a reduction of as much as 50% in global energy demand. ($170 billion may sound like a lot but, to give a bit of perspective, General Electric's 2008 revenue amounted to $183 billion. We spend more than $170 billion each year on our Navy and Marine Corps in the U.S.) The savings on energy bills alone would allow the investment to be recovered within a matter of years. 

There's more, but it's 6:45am in Copenhagen, so I will let this be for now. More tomorrow.