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December 2010 Archives

The Future of Environmental Education?

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earthducation1.jpgI have seen the future and it is "Earthducation"! (Try saying that five times fast)

After meeting with Professor Aaron Doering earlier this week all I can say is, "Wow, he really gets it."

Aaron is the founder of GoNorth! - the online adventure learning program that helped alert over 3 million school kids worldwide to environmental issues in the arctic. While GoNorth! focused primarily on cold climates, his latest project will explore environmental topics around the world.

Earthducation is series of 8 expeditions over the course of 4 years designed to create a world narrative of the dynamic intersections between education and sustainability. The first expedition took place in Greenland earlier this year. The team is now gearing up for their next expedition to Burkina Faso in Africa this January.

I think the whole idea of combining adventurous explorations with online learning is a brilliant way to bring environmental issues to life.

The Institute on the Environment recently awarded a Discovery Grant to Earthducation, and we look forward to supporting this innovative project in the future!

What Is Nature Worth?

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What is nature worth?

Well, lots. After all, nature provides the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, the habitat we live in.

But have you ever noticed how little credit we give nature for all that hard work?  We're happy to reap the rewards when it's convenient for us. But if nature gets in our way, watch out. Plans to fill wetlands, develop shoreline, or turn forests to farmland take into account the monetary value of the benefits to be gained, but they rarely fully consider the value of nature's services lost in the process.

The result: We end up having to get by without - or pay to artificially provide - services nature formerly performed for "free": purifying water or air, protecting shorelines from erosion, reducing risk of floods, and lots more.

What can we do about it? This three-minute video offers a three-step solution. Check it out. Then pass it along to your friends, your family, the people you know who make decisions about protecting nature's services - or not.

"Big Question: What Is Nature Worth?" was inspired by the Natural Capital Project, a partnership among Stanford University, The Nature Conservancy, the University of Minnesota and the World Wildlife Fund. It's the third installment of IonE's popular Big Question series.

If you like it, you can view the first two, titled "Big Question: Feast or Famine?" and "Big Question: Is Earth Past the Tipping Point?", here: http://www.youtube.com/user/UMNIonE

Youth? Excuse Me?

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BY Kendra Tillberry
University of Minnesota -Twin Cities

Friday was Youth Day at the COP 16 in Cancun. The youth movement in climate change really began last year in Copenhagen. The participants in this movement were influential in representing the fact that many of the negotiators at the conference will not be around in 2050 when the Earth will drastically be affected from climate change in all places on Earth. The youth will be alive in 2050, and it proved to be a powerful message. The message here today is starkly different but still emphasizes the urgency of a legally binding treaty. The T-shirts worn by many youth NGO members or observers say, "You have been negotiating my whole life.  You can't tell me that you need more time." 

However, critically examining the use of the term "youth" is important. NGO members advocate the use of this term as a way to empower young people and engage in these international negotiations. Another implication of this term might actually perform the opposite effect. "Youth" potentially could give the assumption of lacking a formal education or degree. Also, this term might actually hinder people from working collectively because the exact ages are now used as a requirement. This begs the question: Shouldn't youth be involved and incorporated in all NGO work, instead of simply creating youth-specific organizations? While I believe the discussion of terminology is necessary, let us not belittle the amazing accomplishments of youth in climate change organization. Here is an article from yesterday regarding youth's work at the conference: Bringing the voices of youth to COP 16 in Mexico.

I had the pleasure of interviewing a Belgian youth delegate named Brendan Coolsaet who is particularly interested in climate change and performing his research for his master's degree in the justice issues in environmental policy and the disparities between the North and the South countries. He enjoys being apart of the youth delegation because there are many people within the youth community that serve as resources for him to access.  Belgium has been helpful in pushing negotiations regarding the 30 percent mitigation target forward in the EU. The EU failed to pass more stringent regulations and kept the target at 20 percent. His message for youth around the world is to "get involved. Get active and participate in initiatives like 350.org, Sustain Us or other university initiatives to work to understand this complicated UN process and climate change, but also organize for a solution."

Seeing REDD+

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BY Peter Schmitt
German/Environmental Science, Policy, and Management
University of Minnesota - Twin Cities '11

James Cameron's recent movie Avatar took a lot of flak for its parallels with the movie Pocahontas, as well as the negative portrayal of the bad, invading humans invading a forested planet and trying to displace the native inhabitants. Evidently people thought that this "green" message was inappropriate and only wanted to see visually stunning effects. Maybe people simply did not want to address the fact that historically we have displaced native populations for our own ends. Personally, I had not given it much thought until some of the recent presentations here at COP 16. Through these presentations, though, I am gaining a new insight into the problems and struggles of indigenous peoples around the world. Their traditions and homes are being disturbed by pressures to develop industry and commercially manage forests.

REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) is among the new, promising proposals being discussed at the COP 16 conferences to avoid the loss of carbon-rich biomass from forests. REDD+ is a program aimed at establishing a value for environmental services as a means of incentivizing developing governments to protect forests using conservation practices and sustainable forest management. It has been discussed over the past few COP conferences and the details are being worked out now as to who should receive funds from the program and for what. The incentives are also beneficial to the rest of the world because protecting the forests provides more carbon sequestration, which is beneficial because carbon emissions are the leading cause of global climate change.

As great as the REDD+ program sounds in theory, though, there are a lot of concerns being raised by the indigenous peoples groups about the program. Indigenous peoples do not feel they should need the assistance of the REDD+ program because they have been sustainably managing the forests for centuries. The main concern for this group is rather the encroachment of governments on their native lands. Instead of signing on to an international treaty in which the voice of indigenous peoples is barely heard, they would rather governments simply leave them alone so that they can continue providing the same sustainable forest stewardship that they have been providing for centuries.

The concern about encroaching governments is a difficult one to balance with the REDD+ program. On the one hand, the program would likely provide the monetary benefits to allow indigenous peoples to continue their own stewardship in forests. On the other hand, though, REDD+ is turning into a program that is essentially looking to pay governments to leave their people in peace, which almost comes across as paying ransom. So though the program is great on paper, it seems like there must be a better solution to be found to protect the interests of indigenous peoples and the health of global forests. The REDD+ program may be a good foundation and the first step forward, particularly in the development of a scheme to value ecosystem services, but maybe it is more important to protect the rights and lands of indigenous peoples than simply paying off governments.

The Long and Winding Road of Climate Change

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BY Stuart Sexton
Environmental Science, Policy, and Management
University of Minnesota - Twin Cities

One thing is for sure at the climate change negotiations in Cancun: A lot of time is spent riding back a forth on buses. Taking the bus between the two meeting locations in Cancun is a lot like the official negotiations themselves. They are rather slow and repetitive, and every once in a while you have to brake for an unexpected iguana in the road, but every time you get back from where you were, the climate change agreement picture becomes a little bit clearer. 

The climate negotiations in Cancun have come a long way since the first UNFCCC conference in 1992. Much has been learned about what works and what doesn't, and we are to the point where the parties are working out the details. The negotiations in Cancun are reaching the midway point of this year's conference and it is clear that some progress is occurring, but that no binding agreement will be reached. 

Listening to the delegates negotiate over such seemingly benign details as the placement of commas and the correct definition of two very similar words underscores that it is largely about the details now.  Besides Japan saying that they will not sign a new binding agreement, most countries are pushing for the next Kyoto Protocol.  This may come next year in Durban, South Africa at COP 17. In the past, some countries have been happy with where the negotiations were at and some were not. This year, though, it seems like nobody is particularly pleased with where the negotiations are, relative to their individual interests. This may be a very good sign that a middle ground is being reached; a middle ground precariously located between 193 very vocal nations. This is so because it indicates that countries are beginning to compromise on some issues in order to get what they want on others, and so they are not particularly pleased, but not particularly displeased either.
Time will tell whether all the riding back and forth is sufficient enough for everyone on the bus to see a clear enough picture that leads to a binding agreement. There may be a few more iguanas lurking in the shadows, and even a few South African antelope too, but the end of the road may be closer than we think.

National Climate Change

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BY Peter Schmitt
German/Environmental Science, Policy, and Management
University of Minnesota - Twin Cities '11

Today I was presented with the opportunity to experience exactly what it is that I came to Cancun to find: different, positive reactions to global climate change. Certainly, I expected to hear the perspectives of different countries by attending the side events and listening to the statements made by official delegates at the negotiations, but today I was fortunate to have an opportunity to interview one of the delegates from Germany. Germany is one of the global leaders in climate change legislation, renewable energy, and climate mitigation efforts, largely thanks to a coalition government including the Green Party. For me, this interview held added merit because it allowed me to make use of my German language skills developed at the University and hear the perspectives of a place that is near to my heart and has been, during my time studying abroad, my home. 

My interview was with a delegate from the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (Bundesministerium für wirtschaftliche Zusammenarbeit und Entwicklung; BMZ), Klaus Wardenbach, and a colleague that he invited to join us, Sibyl Steuwer from the German Council for Sustainable Development (Rat für Nachhaltige Entwicklung; RNE). They agreed to video interviews and were incredibly thorough and passionate in their responses. 

The most interesting point for me from these interviews came while I was speaking with Ms. Steuwer. She had a unique role at the conference as somebody who works for a council that does not really do business on an international scale. She came to COP 16 as a member of the German delegation to observe and gain a feeling for the international mood or sentiment related to sustainability. What was interesting, though, was that she seemed unconcerned about whether an agreement was reached or not. This is not to say that she did not care, but rather that Germany will be moving forward with environmental and sustainability initiatives regardless of a binding international agreement. Germany has already dedicated itself to a mission of sustainable development, foreign aid for sustainable projects, and combating world hunger. This mission is part of a decade-long mission to promote global sustainability that began with the 2001 foundation of the council for sustainability. Its members, who Ms. Steuwer works for, were all selected by Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel, to represent a diverse set of interests and backgrounds to combine for comprehensive environmental and sustainability legislation. 

The interviews today gave me an interesting perspective of what the world could be like if we moved beyond a basic acceptance of whether global climate change is happening or not.  Where we are still bickering in the United States about the realities of climate change, countries like Germany have moved on to the next level of policy implementation and long-term strategies. I do not mean to say that Germany is perfect, but I found it inspiring talking with Mr. Wardenbach and Ms. Steuwer about the steps that are being taken in Germany and the calm, collected approach that was being taken with the COP 16 negotiations. It is paramount that international legislation comes about from these COP meetings, be it COP 16 or COP 17 or some other future meeting. It is, however, reassuring to know that in the interim of developing global climate policy, national climate policy has already taken important steps forward and will continue to move forward.  I still wonder, though, why can't we follow Germany's example?

China's News Coverage of COP16

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BY Katherine Kwong
University of Minnesota - Twin Cities

China is a key player in the climate change negotiations taking place at COP 16 in Cancun due to its status as the world's largest emitter of carbon dioxide. Their news coverage of the events is thus of great interest, since it represents how most people in China perceive the talks and the issues surrounding them.

In general, China's news coverage of the event has focused around a few key themes:

The weak position of the United States at the COP 16 talks. Many news stories have focused on the U.S.'s midterm elections and the likely inability of the U.S. to push through a domestic bill for climate change. They have also discussed what they describe as "growing international pressure" for the U.S. to take responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions. This dovetails with China's official position that the United States and other developed countries should take responsibility for most greenhouse gas emissions rather than forcing developing countries to do so. Many news stories emphasize the historic responsibility of developed countries and express hope that they will "contribute fairly" and "show sincerity."

Progress China is making on greenhouse gas emissions. China has had some success in decreasing their greenhouse gas emissions and in altering their laws about energy consumption and production. Many news reports promote these changes by the government heavily, holding them up as a sign that China, unlike the United States, is actively working on the issue.

China's desire for these talks to be productive. Many news articles express hope that these talks will make progress on specific issues that China is interested. Most emphasize China's willingness to contribute to any agreement, portraying other countries (i.e., developed countries) as roadblocks to getting an agreement done.

South America, Central America, Mexico

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BY Megan Schmitz
University of Minnesota - Twin Cities

Coverage within South and Central America and Mexico is more than I had expected. As I skimmed through YouTube, I found several commercials regarding "green" tips being played in Mexico, and also several Mexican newspapers had headlines regarding the Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. I also saw that there was a conference held in Mexico City, Mexico before the conference started, so somewhere other than Cancun was also getting traffic due to climate change talks.

Mexico's president, Felipe Calderon Hinojosa, has made statements about climate change in support of a plan that battles climate change with a binding legal agreement, though Mexican authorities then warned that there will be no binding agreement at COP16. The most coverage and excitement seems to be coming from Mexico, though South American and Central American leaders are present and will be supporting action to combat climate change. Mexico has the largest wind farm in Latin America, and financial plans are underway already to support production of clean energy. Mexico, South and Central America all "feel the effects" of climate change and are in support of a change and will support change.

 As far as coverage, Mexico seems to be the only country to go as far as making commercials. One factor to consider is much of Central and South America is impoverished and the people there may not have exposure to media.

MPR Interviews U of M Student on COP16

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Minnesota Public Radio interviewed U of M student and COP16 observer Andy Pearson about his take on the climate change talks in Cancun, Mexico, this week.

Dine and Dash?

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cop16 attendees2.jpgBY Peter Schmitt
German/Environmental Science, Policy, and Management
University of Minnesota - Twin Cities '11

This may sound familiar for some of you: you find yourself at the end of a fine dinner, sitting across the table from a wonderfully charming, polite, and visually appealing man or woman. After you share a sweet dessert, gazing into one another's eyes, the first pivotal moment of the evening comes: the bill. You both take a quick glance at the black leather sleeve placed on the table without making any sudden move. Who is going to pay? Showing historic chivalry, should the man reach for the bill? Or should the woman assert her independence and pick up the tab? Maybe, since it's a first date, you should go Dutch? Perhaps your wallet is more of a paperweight than a means of paying and it is time for an unseemly dine-and-dash? You take another long look across the table. What now?

This problem is one of the cornerstones of the negotiations here in Cancun at the COP 16 Global Climate Change meetings. Almost every country has made a hopeful, well-rehearsed opening statement pledging their country to continued cooperation with the climate negotiations. Apart from these hopeful opening words, though, these statements have related to who will be responsible for the bill that is incurred by working to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Will there be a per capita approach? Egalitarian? Per-ton payments?

Going back to the dinner table, developing countries are looking for historical chivalry to pay the bill, in this case meaning that the developed countries will pick up the bill because they were large contributors to historical emissions (because they ordered the shrimp cocktail and second bottle of wine, so to speak). Developed countries, on the other hand, are more interested in going Dutch to ensure that developing countries contribute in some way to the solution, even if it means issuing loans for now (economic considerations need to be made because developed countries need to save some of their money for the second date).
As you are starting to see, it is no longer just you and your date. Now, at COP 16, it is the United States and all of the 193 other countries sitting at the table. Where a small, leather sleeve held the bill before, an endless stack of bills and budgetary requests is up to the ceiling. Everybody is looking left and right, seeing who will make the move to pick up the bill. Nobody seems to want to move. A few of the bills are falling off the top of the pile and are being scooped up by the European Union, Japan, and many other nations, including the United States, but the staggering pile still largely remains. What happens next? Will somebody step up? Do we keep ordering so that the bill does not come until later? Or is this the part of the evening where people slowly start sneaking out the front door one at a time without paying? This will be an interesting scene over the next days and will be pivotal to the success of Global Climate Change legislation. "Check, please!"

U of M Students Interview Bill McKibben

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Swept Away in Freak Downpour

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BY Lindsay VanPatten and Michael Cassidy
University of Minnesota - Twin Cities

This entry adopts a European perspective on COP16, now taking place across the Atlantic from England and the Continent. One of the most important and contentious question addressed in the media is, "Will this be the end of the UN process?"  After the non-binding results of Copenhagen, the expectations for Cancun are few. As written in the U.K. paper The Guardian on Monday, "almost any progress will look like a result."

The focus has shifted from a global binding treaty to issues of adaptation, deforestation and funding programs for poor countries.  The Council of the European Union supports programs like REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), with a goal of cutting tropical deforestation 50%, from current levels, by 2020.  Recently, an article in CAN Europe revealed that the European Parliament passed a vote agreeing that greenhouse gas emissions should be reduced 30%, from 1990 levels, by 2020. This resolution will be addressed at COP 16.

Solar power advocates in Europe, such as the European Photovoltaic Industry Association (EPIA) are taking action to raise awareness of the potential benefits solar energy can have on climate change.  A website, solarcop16, covers the solar industry's progress in Cancun.  

Europe has long hid behind the United States at climate negotiation gatherings, but Europeans are beginning to become fed up and will work on their own to find a climate change solution.  A second theme found in European news is the role of the U.S, or shall we say, the lack thereof.  According to the Irish Times Environment Editor, the biggest question of COP16 is, "Can they forge an agreement without the U.S.?" We cannot play down the influence the position of the U.S. has on this discussion and in light of the past year of weather disasters.  While hope remains that the U.S. steps up this year, Europe is going to move on with or without them.

Day 1: The Bus, Mapping Forests, Early Optimism

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cop16_2.jpgBY Stuart Sexton
University of Minnesota - Twin Cities     

Well, the UNFCCC COP16 is officially underway! The first day began a bit slowly, with traffic jams induced by the security apparatus of Mexican president Felipe Calderon making his way to the conference, but all non-presidential attendees eventually made it. By early afternoon though, the conference was moving smoothly, delegates were bustling about, and presenters polished up their presentations. In a massive event such as COP16, an equivalent size venue is needed.
There are two parts to the conference: The side events are at the Cancunmesse and the main negotiations at the Moon Palace Hotel. Participants find their way between the two with a short 15-minute bus ride. 

For the side events on Monday, there were many interesting  topics to choose from. A particularily intriguing one was Japan's side event about their initiatives to work on REDD.  This program is officially called The United Nations Collaborative Program on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries. Japan is working intensively to map the entire world's forests to determine rates of deforestation and afforestation. Since deforestation accounts for approximately 20% of total greenhouse gas emissions,  Japanese satellite-generated maps will be quite valuable for managing the world's forests in a sustainable way by determining which regions deserve primary attention.

Later, after the short bus ride to the Moon Palace Hotel, official opening statements and introductory negotiations were in progress. For a post-Copenhagen climate change conference, the feeling in the air was more favorable toward real results of climate change negotiations than was presented in the media leading up to the conference. Optimism may have been aided by the Caribbean breezes keeping the delegates cool and content. The early consensus was that the majority of nations urgently want a binding comprehensive agreement.  It may not happen in this year's negotiation, but lingering hopefulness from Copenhagen has found its way to Cancun. These next two weeks will likely be filled with excitement.  Keep posted for more details!

  The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and not necessarily
  of the Institute on the Environment/University of Minnesota.


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