Climate Change: A new Era of Global Vulnerability

2013 was the worst year ever in terms of insurance losses from extreme weather in Canada: torrential rains and flooding caused over $1.7 billion in insured damage in Alberta while flash floods in Toronto cost $940 million in payouts. But with over $5 billion of damages each, the 2001/02 coast-to-coast drought and the 1998 ice storms are the most expensive disasters in Canadian history. So extreme weather events associated with climate change are already impacting Canada and are expected to intensify in coming years. Clearly, Canada is highly exposed to the impacts of climate change and yet it ranks low in terms of vulnerability. How can this be?

Developing Countries Disproportionately Impacted

Screenshot 2014-08-11 18.40.43

When looking at climate change vulnerability we must consider not only exposure but also sensitivity and the ability to adapt to those consequences. While Canada is increasingly experiencing these impacts, like most rich and developed countries it has a high adaptive capacity that helps mitigate the outcomes. So even the most devastating events, despite their substantial impacts, have left Canada’s infrastructure largely intact. Hence, despite their climate change exposure, the overall vulnerability of Canada, the United States and Europe is low compared to the regions of extreme risk in Africa, Asia and in Central America. To illustrate, the President of Honduras said Hurricane Mitch in 1998 had set the country back 50 years in terms of economic development (1.5 million homeless – 20% of the population, 70% of the transportation and water infrastructure was damaged, etc). This is why developing countries will disproportionately feel the effects of climate change.

A New Era of Global Vulnerability


In 1800, only 3% of the world population lived in cities. The proportion is now 50% and growing – especially in developing countries. Many of the fastest growing megacities with the highest concentration of infrastructure and people are in “extreme risk” locations. A quarter of the world population lives in low elevation coastal areas that are at risk from the consequences of sea level rise. We are entering a new era of global vulnerability in terms of human lives and infrastructure.

Preparedness is Key

bigstock-emergency-preparedness-checkli-24168524Emergency preparedness is a key factor in reducing risk and mitigating against the consequences of natural hazards. Developed and developing countries must work together to reduce the exposure of the most vulnerable and help prepare for future climate impacts.


ISO, Standards & Climate Change

the-1999-NASA-Mars-Climate-OrbiterIt is hard to overstate the importance of standards. In many ways, they represent the essential ingredient that allows us to function. But famous disasters remind us that we cannot take this for granted. In 1999, NASA lost its $125 million Mars Climate Orbiter spacecraft after a 10-month, 400-million kilometer journey to Mars because some of its engineers used the metric system while the others used the imperial measurement system. As a result, when the spacecraft entered the Mars atmosphere at an altitude of 60km, instead of the 150km required, it disintegrated. The disaster cost $330 million, caused major embarrassment to NASA and a serious blow to the American space program.

IMG_0830This is why the work of the Geneva-based International Organization for Standardization (ISO) to develop and promote standards is so important and why I was pleased to learn about ISO’s growing commitment to climate change and why I am happy to join ISO’s NEXTGen Global Climate Change initiative for young professionals from around the world. This 6-week program is focused on what needs to be done, how international standards can help and how young professionals can get involved. The global kickoff took place last week (August 6, 2014) with an online Google+ Hangout that is available on YouTube for those who missed it.

While the project is forward-looking, a historical perspective on how standards can help reduce carbon emissions is useful and the success story of energy efficiency standards for household appliances is a case in point. Let’s look at refrigerators for illustration. Why? Because they are constantly on and typically represent the most energy hungry item in a home.

Between the 1950-70’s refrigerators have more then doubled in size but their energy use increased almost fivefold. How is this possible? Marketing departments wanting to increase the available inside space decided to cut down on insulation. A product “innovation” that caused skyrocketing energy consumption. Countrywide, this trend would have required 175 GW (gigawatt) of electricity today. But thanks to almost four decades of energy efficiency standards, America now needs less then 15 GW. The difference represents the equivalent of eliminating 400 large coal power plants.

Need for StandardsContext is important. The 1973-74 oil-crisis saw barrels of oil go from $3 to $12 and energy efficiency became recognized as critical for energy independence and national security. California introduced the first wave of mandatory efficiency standards in 1978 and over the years, efficiency standards became the driving force for innovation and continue to do so. Initial objections by industry of rising prices and adverse economic impacts did not materialize. To the contrary, prices fell by two-thirds and industry welcomed new standard as an opportunity to market improvements and boost sales. This process of continuous improvement has helped innovation, competition and profitability while creating jobs. The new products are not only cheaper for consumers they also offer a better environmental performance which is a win-win for everyone.

As chair of the ISO Climate Change Technical Committee (ISO/TC 207/SC 7), Tom Baumann is well aware of the importance of standards to help corporations manage their greenhouse gas emissions for environmental stewardship but also to manage risk and improve business performance. This is why over 3,000 corporations and 800 institutional investors with assets under management of $92 trillion are already partnering with the Carbon Disclosure Project for their carbon footprint management. Blackberry’s Kelly Killby agrees that ISO standards have helped improve environmental and business performance. Thanks to the implementation of ISO standards, Blackberry has reduced waste to landfills by 90% in 2013 and reinvested the cost savings into other sustainability initiatives.

Climate change represents the defining challenge of our generation and will require the cooperation of all sectors of modern society: private enterprise, government and civil society. Given that it is crosscutting, it will mean that all professions will have to work together with a common sense of purpose and a shared understanding of what needs to be achieved. We know that reducing emissions is possible at the individual, organization and community levels. According to Johnathan Fung, moderator of the ISO Climate Change Group, the challenge now is how to scale-up solutions for climate change mitigation and adaptation for regional and global impact. A process in which standards will play a critical role. This will be one of the objectives of NextGen during the next six weeks.  Young professionals from around the world are most welcome to participate and contribute.

Find out more at: ISO NEXTGen, on Facebook and check out the Webinar.

More on this soon.

2014 Caux Dialogue on Land Degradation

The latest edition of the Caux Dialogue on “Land and Security” took place last week bringing together leading experts and practitioners from around the world to discuss the geopolitics of land degradation, roadblocks to progress and also the numerous success stories of restored lands and retreating deserts. The focus this year was on the scaling up of solutions.

A long History of Land Degradation

easterislandheads1Land degradation is not a new problem. Great civilizations disappeared because they damaged the soil that sustained them. The most famous story is probably that of the Easter Island settlers from Polynesia who raised 887 giant Moai statues weighing up to 80 tons! but sealed their fate by deforesting the island.

1935 Dust Storm in Texas

1935 Dust Storm in Texas

More recent examples of the devastating consequences of land degradation include the dust bowls of the 1930s in the American Midwest. A combination of plowing the prairies for agriculture and prolonged droughts caused massive dust storms on the Great Plains from Texas to Canada. The erosion of the topsoil from 30 million hectares of farmland destroyed the agricultural industry in Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma and Colorado, made 500,000 people homeless and caused the largest migration in American history. Some 3.5 million people moved out of the Plains states during that period.

A Convention to Combat Desertification

Cracked-soil-466In the 1970s and 80s, the African drylands suffered from severe droughts that caused repeated crop failures and mass starvation. African nations pressed the global community to take action ahead of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, which led to the Convention to Combat Desertification that came out of the Rio Conference along with the conventions on climate change and biodiversity. But while there is a growing awareness about the climate and biodiversity crises, land degradation receives little attention. This is surprising because land plays an important role for carbon sequestration and its degradation directly impacts biodiversity. We will not be able to resolve the climate and biodiversity crises unless we restore degraded lands.

A Global Challenge

Today 1.5 billion people in 168 countries are impacted by land degradation. Desertification is advancing around the world. But land degradation is not a fatality, it is the result of human activity:

1) Overgrazing (35%) – especially in Africa

2) Deforestation (30%) – especially in Asia and South America

3) Poor agricultural practices (28%) – particularly in North America

Overgrazing, deforestation and poor farming practices expose the soil to water and wind erosion, which leads to desertification. Meanwhile, mass irrigation practices cause the salinization of soils that can no longer sustain vegetation. In turn, the lack of soil cover increases erosion and disrupts the water cycle.

zs-5We know that healthy soils are critical for food security and that soil regeneration is a slow process. It takes 100 years on average to generate a millimeter of soil. And yet, we continue to mismanage soils and degrade lands in every region of the world and lose 12 million hectares (or 1%) of the planet’s fertile soils every year as a result.

Impact of Climate Change

Climate change exacerbates the problem. According to the UK Meteorological office, climate change contributed to the 2011 East African drought that killed 100,000 and pushed millions into starvation. This is why Monique Barbut, the new Executive Secretary of the Convention to Combat Desertification, has vowed to work closely with Christiana Figueres from the Climate Change Convention. More cooperation is expected as we approach the Lima climate change conference in December and the awaited Paris climate talks in 2015.

Land Degradation and Security

_70816628_syria_rtrWhile the Syrian crisis has been receiving a lot of press, few know that since 2006 the country has been suffering from one of the worst droughts in its history. The situation was aggravated by the misguided policies of the Assad regime that subsidized water-intensive crops (wheat and cotton) and the use of mass irrigation technologies. This resulted in disastrous crop failures with the loss of livestock and livelihoods that forced 1.5 million to migrate to cities in order to survive. This was a major factor of instability and social unrest that contributed to the Syrian crisis.

The importance of climate and environmental factors, including water and food scarcity, are often underestimated when analyzing the causes of tensions and conflicts. With the growing impacts from climate change, droughts and land degradation on water and food availability, we will have to reconsider their importance as a threat multiplier and as a significant factor in conflicts around the world.

Solutions are Available

And yet, every day innovative solutions are being deployed around the world and degraded lands are being restored – often through low-tech cost-effective solutions. Last year I reported on how Tony Rinaudo was bringing back life to trees and vegetation with a pocket-knife and how Allan Savory uses cattle to restore degraded lands. 2011 Caux participant Yacoubé Sawadogo, also known as the the “man who stopped the desert”, has re-greened areas of Northern Burkina Faso using such methods where international institutions and scientists had failed to make a difference:

This year again numerous solutions were discussed – from permaculture to water catchment with examples from coming Somalia to Sudan. But our first priority should be to stop land degradation from occurring in the first place. Avoiding damage is much easier, faster and cheaper then restoration. We urgently need to stop the misguided policies that lead to deforestation, biofuels that compete with food and carry an unfavorable footprint, and the wasteful mass-irrigation techniques for crops that are not suited for local conditions.

Massive Scaling up of Solutions


2014 Caux Panel on “Scaling Up the Solutions”

Dialogue convener Martin Frick and Ian Johnson from the Club of Rome agree that: “if land degradation and desertification are to be slowed down and reversed, we need to urgently and massively scale up the solutions”. A major obstacle remains the lack of media coverage and low public interest. Policy makers and political leaders do not fully comprehend the scale of the problem, its implications in terms of security and the urgent need for restoration. “Educating policy makers, the media and the wider public” is a top priority for Jakob Rhyner, Vice-Rector of the United Nations University and while one can find comfort in knowing that  organizations like Ramsar (Convention on Wetlands), the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the International Migration Organization, the UN Environmental Programme, IUCN and Green Cross International are working collaboratively to raise the profile of land degradation as a major threat to security, the political will to provide serious support for the large scale deployment of solutions is still missing. Even more worrying is the continuation of policies and practices that result in land degradation around the world and the powerful influence of vested interests that work to maintain the status quo. The Caux Dialogue continues to be a leading platform for constructive engagement on this issue. Let’s hope the call will be heard ahead of the Lima climate talks this December.



New Energy Law Announced in France

Segolene-Royal-invente-la-consultation-participative-pour-nommer-son-projet-de-loi-sur-la-transition-energetiqueLast week French environment and energy minister, Ségolène Royal, presented her energy law proposal to  put France on the sustainable low-carbon energy path ahead of the 2015 Paris climate talks and fulfill one of the key commitments of Francois Hollande for his presidency. The main targets of the package are to:

- reduce fossil fuel consumption by 30% by 2030 (versus 2012)

- increasing the share of renewables in the energy mix to 32% (versus 13.7% in 2012)

- reduce the share of nuclear for electricity from 75% to 50% by 2025

- reduce waste to landfills by 50% by 2025.

475px-DPE.svg80 measures are proposed to put France on the green path with energy efficiency set to  play a major role. So far, so good. Energy efficiency is the best way to reduce emissions, lower costs and eliminate waste in general. Improving energy efficiency will be mandatory during building retrofits and supported by a 30% tax credit and interest free loans for up to €100,000. Buildings are responsible for 43% of the total energy used in France, about a quarter of CO2 emissions and 30% of household budgets.

015200BE04272336-c1-photo-peugeot-ion-une-electrique-au-quotidien-solution-d-avenir-ou-solution-galereThe electrification of automobiles will receive a major boost with investments to install 7 million charging stations across the country by 2030 and subsidies of up to €10,000 for the purchase of an electric car when exchanging an old diesel one. Half the vehicles purchased by the State and State-owned enterprises will have to be electric. With 19 million diesel vehicles (61% of the 38 million vehicles in France in 2013) air pollution is a major problem in cities. During the pollution peaks in March, authorities made public transport free of charge in some 30 French cities including Paris, Lyon, Grenoble and even smaller and remote locations like Boulogne-sur-Mer. The electrification of vehicles in cities, especially taxis and postal vehicles will be most welcome.

Reducing waste to landfills by 50% by 2025 through resource recovery (recycling, circular economy, etc.) to reduce energy needs and costs while reducing environmental consequences of waste. Commendable objective but are the French ready for this? In recent years we have seen a surprising level of resistance by households to measures that would help reduce household waste. There seems to be a determination for many to oppose any form of recycling. Perhaps education efforts would be worthwhile. The need for collectivities to compost their organic waste is proposed. Organic waste typically represents one-third of the waste going to landfills and their incineration is energy intensive (expensive) given that they are mostly water (80%).


Nicolas Hulot, Ambassadeur du Président pour la Planète (Photo Farouk Batiche. AFP)

Reactions to the proposal have generally been positive with the expectation that 500,000 households will be retrofitted by 2017 with significant savings on energy costs and the creation of some 100,000 jobs. The electrification of transport is expected to position  France for the future and reduce pollution from diesel vehicles. Questions have been raised however on the technicalities of financing the deployment of renewable energy and why other measures to mobility have not been proposed. Improving public transport, car sharing, biking and measures to improve fuel efficiency are  lacking.

Of course more could be done. There are many low-hanging fruits that could further help France reduce energy waste and costs and thereby improve competitiveness (and this is urgently needed). The priority remains energy efficiency and conservation. One suggestion to Ségolène Royal would be to make sure that energy efficiency measures implemented accomplish their stated objectives before paying out any tax credits. One example is the window retrofit scheme where the credit is provided as soon as windows have been replaced by ones that fulfill the new energy efficiency requirements but without making sure that they have been properly installed. As a result of poor craftsmanship many retrofits perform below expectation and the expected energy savings never materialize. Such measures are as good as throwing money out the window… but are unfortunately commonplace. More on this soon.

Celebrating The World Day to Combat Desertification


UN picture

In 1995, June 17 has been proclaimed the “World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought”. The problem of land degradation is not new. In the 1970s and 80s, African drylands suffered from severe droughts that caused repeated crop failures. This situation  led to a Global Action Plan to Combat Desertification and for a Desertification Convention that would come out of the Rio 1992 process. Of the three Rio Conventions (Climate Change, Biodiversity and Desertification), the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) is the one that receives the least attention and support. This is surprising because land degradation and desertification is one of the biggest challenges of our time. 1.5 billion people depend on degraded lands for their livelihoods and three-quarter of world’s poor are affected by land degradation which leads to tension and political instability. Soil also plays a key role in mitigating climate change while land degradation threatens biodiversity. And yet, few are aware of this.

June17To raise awareness about this problem and prepare the grounds for the “2014 Caux Dialogue on Land Security” that will take place in Caux from June 30 to July 4, a conference was organized at the Graduate Institute in Geneva on June 17 that brought together various experts for a solutions-oriented discussion around ways to combat desertification.

One key message came out: land degradation is not a fatality. It is mainly a result of human activity including overgrazing, poor farming techniques, deforestation and it is certainly exacerbated by climate change. The erosion of top soil is already having severe impacts around the word and is accelerating. It is estimated that arable land degradation is taking place at 30 to 35 times the historical rate while 13 million hectares of forests disappear annually.

But solutions exist. Reforestation and tree-regeneration can play a key role. Not only to reduce soil erosion but to help regulate the water cycle. Over 2 billion hectares can be reforested worldwide. Better water management is critical – rainwater harvesting, water conservation and drip irrigation can play an important role.


Overgrazing is a serious problem

Overgrazing must be addressed and sustainable farming practices must be implemented – one-third of the world’s farmland has been abandoned since 1960 because it has been degraded beyond use.

More on this in July! I will be one of the speakers in Caux. Full program, details and registration: click here.

For more on solutions to land degradation: click here.

Blue Future: Protecting Water for People and the Planet Forever – Book Review

BlueFuturePublished in late 2013, Blue Future is the latest in a series that includes Blue Gold (2002) and Blue Covenant (2007) by Canadian water-activist and former UN General Assembly President advisor (2008/09) Maude Barlow. For over two decades, Maude has been working to raise awareness about the global water crisis and was a  prominent leader in the campaign to recognize access to water and sanitation as a human right that led to its adoption by the United Nations General Assembly on July 28, 2010, with the acknowledgement that access to water and sanitation are essential to the realization of all human rights.

Deepening Crisis

Despite this victory for the water justice movement, the crisis is worsening. According to UN figures some 800 million people lack access to clean water and 2.5 billion people do not have access to a toilet. By 2025, it is expected that two-thirds of the world population will be living under water stressed conditions, a situation that is exacerbated by climate change, disruptions in the water cycle and increasingly devastating extreme weather events.

In “Blue Future” Maude Barlow provides a comprehensive account of the global water situation and the way forward if we are to avert a global water catastrophe with mass starvation, large scale migration and escalating tensions and conflicts over access to water resources. Her proposed solution path is based on four pillars:

1) The implementation and fulfillment of the Human Right to Water and Sanitation represents a fundamental obligation for governments across the world to fulfill. This is not a question of charity or CSR.

2) Water resources must be protect, conserved and managed as a “common” that belongs to everyone and for the benefit of all – including future generations.

3) Water is an essential element to allow life on earth and biodiversity to flourish and is essential to ensure the health and resilience of the ecosystems. Our failure to properly manage watersheds and water resources undermines the prospects for human development and progress. Economic development policies must recognize these fundamental laws of nature.

4) Increased water stress can increase tensions, disputes and conflicts over access to scarce water resources. But they can also become a source of cooperation as communities search for solutions for sustainable ways of producing energy and food.

A Crisis of Poor Water Management

Blue Future provides an urgent call for action to address the crisis of poor water management around the world. Modern agriculture is a case in point: it is responsible for  70% to 90% of global water withdrawals for mass-irrigation that are siphoning aquifers, rivers and lakes. Water “mining” is lowering water tables and drying up rivers around the world. The drying up of the American Ogallala  aquifer would destroy $20 billion worth of annual agricultural revenue and turn the region into a giant desert. Withdrawals from rivers by large-scale farming operations reduce water flows to the point that some of the world’s largest watercourses like the Yellow River (China), the Colorado and Rio Grande (USA), or the Murray and Darling Rivers (Australia) no longer reach the sea.

Water Energy-Nexus

The book also provides an fascinating account of the water-energy nexus and the growing impact of our energy policies on water resources, including the consequences of dams for electricity production, the pollution of water from coal powered electricity production, the impact of biofuels, tar sands, fracking, nuclear energy but also from renewable energy – namely large scale solar thermal plants that use water for cooling. By far the largest impacts are caused by coal power plants and biofuels. Ironically, some of the largest coal plants are located in regions that are on the frontline of the water crisis with China accounting for 50% of world production. Biofuels not only represent a threat to food security, they also carry an unfavorable carbon footprint versus fossil fuels and a massive water footprint. Instead of being a response to climate change, corn ethanol represents a threat multiplier that contributes to soil pollution and causes greater water scarcity.

Hope for the Future

Blue Future is ultimately a book of hope. The development of large-scale drip irrigation can reduce water needs by up to 90% and requires a fraction of the energy to operate. Ancient and highly effective solutions like rainwater harvesting can be deployed on a large scale to reduce pressure on aquifers and rivers and compares favorably to the modern practice of water mining. Local, organic and sustainable farming practices can reduce water requirements, improve food security and provide livelihoods. Most importantly Maude Barlow demonstrates that solutions are available. What is missing is the public awareness and the pressure on governments and authorities that will bring about the political will to necessary for their deployment. This story is far from over!

For more about Maude Barlow and her work see the Council for Canadians website.

Economists and the Mounting Cost of Natural Decline


We have been very slow in recognizing the true relationship between nature and the economy but economist Robert Costanza figured out that the value of the services that nature provides us (for free) are far greater then what we previously thought and even exceed the value of the global economy. In 1997, Costanza conservatively estimated that “ecosystem services” (clean water, clean air, pollination…) where worth far more then the global GDP. This realization helped dispel the myth that we need a strong economy to “afford” to protect the environment. In fact, it is the other way around. We depend on nature and so does the economy. Hence we should aim to enhance and improve the state of the natural world that sustains us.

Bees for pollination

Unfortunately, we are not moving in the right direction. Costanza just updated his 1997 study (see Global Environmental Change) and it turns out the total value of global ecosystem services fell by $20 trillion (14%) between 1997 and 2011 (from $US145 trillion to US$125 trillion a year). This compares with a 2011 global GDP of just $US75 trillion. “Nature is not just a pretty place. Nature is a big and important part of the real economy which adds to human well-being,” says Costanza. The drop was partly due to the loss of tropical forests, wetlands and coral reefs. Tropical forests declined by 642 million hectares between 1997 and 2011, while deserts had grown by 234 million hectares. (more on land degradation)

In Australia, where Robert Costanza is now based, ecosystem services were estimated to be worth around US$5 trillion ($5.4 trillion) a year, compared to GDP of around US$1.5 trillion.

We urgently need better measures of human progress to overcome the limitations of GDP and of the traditional Profit and Loss statement. Flawed indicators lead to dysfunctional and shortsighted decision-making that can undermine the natural capital we depend on. Think of the newspaper commentaries by J.P. Morgan Chase that economic activity surrounding the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico outweighed its negative impacts, timber companies saying that forests have no value until they are cut down (Fletcher Challenge in British Columbia, Canada) ignoring the impacts on soil erosion, nutrient loss, fisheries, biodiversity, etc.

NY WaterEnvironmental degradation is mainly an unintended consequence of industry and commerce activities but it does not necessarily need to be so. There are compelling examples of innovative approaches where protecting natural environments and economic considerations have been reconciled. In New York, protecting the Catskills watersheds North of the City has helped avoid $6 to $8 billion in capital investment into chemical filtration and hundreds of millions in operating costs. It turns out that watershed protection was a far better investment then chemical water treatment. Similarly in Munich, it was cheaper to subsidize organic agriculture to keep the water clean then to invest in chemical filtration. The city provides 320 million liters per day thanks to natural soil filtration. Munich has the cheapest water in Europe and also one of the cleanest – it contains 10 times less nitrates then the European norms.

The Costanza study provides policy makers with powerful arguments to protect watersheds, forests by recognizing their benefits in a way that traditional economics tends to ignore. Given the large-scale environmental degradation (see Millennium Ecosystem Report), policy makers must encourage practices that help restore and enhance natural capital while condemning destructive activities. The clock is ticking.

The report was written by scientists and economists from the Australian National University, Wageningen University in The Netherlands, the University of Denver in the United States, the University of South Australia, the University of Pittsburgh in the United States, and the University of East Anglia in Britain.