Turning Trash into Cash

When Dr. Somthai started his waste recycling business in 1974, with 1,000 Thai Baht (30 US Dollars) and an old pickup truck, no one took him seriously. He literally became the laughingstock of Phitsanulok, a city of 800,000 located 400km north of Bangkok. But look who is laughing now. Over the last four decades, Dr. Somthai built his recycling business into a global empire with over 700 branches in Thailand and around the world, including Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Japan and even the United States. Not only has his Wongpanit Group become a major global player, his vision and charismatic personality have made him a leading international figure in terms of environmental stewardship, as a social entrepreneur, and, as a savvy, uncompromising and innovative business leader.

Waste is Gold

IMG_0215Waste management is a growing challenge in Thailand. A problem that only becomes more daunting as population grows and becomes more affluent. When waste was only organic it was easy to manage. But today, plastics, metals and toxics accumulate in landfills, overwhelm expensive and polluting incinerators, and threaten to contaminate water resources. Dr. Somthai offers a solution that diverts waste from landfills, incinerators and the environment, creates local employment and provides valuable commodities to industry at prices that help improve their competitiveness. By turning waste into resource, he transforms a problem into an opportunity for the environment and for society.

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Gold & platinum rings from recycled electronics

“There is no waste on this planet, only misplaced resources”, he says. “When looking at landfills most people see trash. I see valuable assets waiting to be mined! Recovering metals, plastics and other assets from landfills is much more efficient then mining the Earth for ores or oil. Reusing aluminum from scrap saves 95% of the energy needed to mine aluminum in the first place. The leverage is extraordinary!”

In his flagship ISO 14001 certified (since 2001) Phitsanulok plant, Dr. Somthai employs 250 people and can process 500 tons of trash every day. He buys waste from industry, landfills and individuals through 50 collection points scattered across the city. The waste is weighed, the purchase price determined based on the going rates and the payment is made immediately in cash.

IMG_1312He even has a catalog with 220 categories of items with prices for many categories of trash to encourage recycling.

A Global Market for Commodities

IMG_1265The prices of metals, plastics and all other commodities depend on global markets that Dr. Somthai monitors continuously. He prominently displays the daily prices for key commodities at the entrance of the center.

His four decades in the trade have helped hone his instinct for where the prices are heading. Akin to a professional commodities trader in London or Geneva, he takes positions, stocking up when he expects prices to go up or liquidating his stocks when prices are heading south. The recent drop in the price of oil had a negative impact on most products. This is why diversification is so important. His ability to recycle various kinds of waste helps spread his risk across a wide range of commodities. By adjusting his purchase price when markets are down he can always offer competitive prices to his customers while maintaining sustainable margins, whatever the market conditions.

Highly Skilled Labor

This labor-intensive trade is particularly well suited for developing countries with high unemployment and low wages. In Thailand it represents a significant source of income for the poorest of the poor. It is estimated that in the urban areas of Asia and Latin America up to 2% of the population depends on waste picking for their livelihood.

08_wongpanich_front05It would be a mistake however to think that this labor force is unskilled. Waste pickers are highly competent at identifying wastes with potential for recovery. The added value comes from sorting, cleaning, processing and organizing the transport of the waste in volumes that will make them commercially attractive for the domestic or international markets.

Take plastic for example. There are hundreds of plastic types. Each category must be identified, segregated by kind and color. Any impurities must be removed before processing (sorting, cleaning and chopping into flakes) so that the end product can have value. Any label on bottles of caps of a different plastic must be removed. Plastics must also be sorted according to their density (high HD or low LD) and their color. Each worker specializes in a particular type of material. Any turnover is problematic because training takes a long time and is expensive. Clearly, this is no project for amateurs.

Product Design

IMG_1267Manufacturers of packaging also cause significant problems when they fail to properly design their products. Many fast moving consumer goods have labels that are glued – this makes them difficult (sometimes impossible) to remove. But responsible companies are taking notice. Pepsi-Cola in Thailand has partnered with Wongpanit and agreed to pay an extra Baht for each kilo of recycled plastic but also to design its bottles to make them easy to recycle. Many manufacturers, despite their eco-labels and thick CSR reports fail to do this, which hampers recycling efforts and leads to overflowing landfills and incinerators. Dr. Somthai encourages these companies to follow the lead of Pepsi-Cola and the authorities to establish standards.

A Social Enterprise that is Part of the Community

schoolbankIn addition to providing local jobs and protecting the environment, Dr. Somthai values the importance of being a constructive force in the local community. Believing that the current generation is largely lost, he concentrates his time on young people, the leaders of tomorrow. He provides training in schools and once a week buys waste from the students,  providing them with an income while teaching them the economic value that can be found in waste. Similarly, he works with local monasteries that donate waste that he processes and donates money to fund scholarships for young people to be able to attend University.

A Global Perspective

11Delegations from around the world constantly visit Wongpanit. On the morning of our Swiss delegation visit there was also group from Japan, where Wangpanit already has two franchises. They wanted to meet the visionary man who started this business two decades before the first Rio conference, at a time when few people took environmental matters seriously. But today still, many believe that environmental stewardship is expensive and uncompetitive. Dr. Somthai has been disproving this myth for the last 40 years. Showing that the linear consumption model of extract-consume-dispose is outdated and that more circular models of consumption are needed. By turning waste into gold, Dr. Somthai provides the economic and social rationale for the creation of  zero-waste economy. A message that has come of age.

The Geneva delegation for the Swiss visit to Wongpanit was organized by the Honorary Consul to Thailand, Mr. Armand Jost, founder and president of S3Bi, a Geneva-based enterprise focused on assisting professionals in their career transition and its directors, Mark Giannelli, who is writing a thesis on “Waste Management in Developing Countries” at the Universities of St-Gall and Business School Lausanne (BSL). His Excellency, Ambassador Chalermpol Thanchitt from the Royal Thai Embassy in Bern (Switzerland) accompanied the delegation, as well as Dr. Gilles Bernard, Founder and CEO of Charity Consulting in Jumpol, Thailand, who is planning to develop such a project to create employment in the North of the country. My heartfelt thanks to Armand Jost and S3Bi for making my participation possible  and to our hosts, Dr. Somthai Wongcharoen, Wimonrat Santadvatana and the entire team at Wongpanit for welcoming us so generously. 

 

A Sticky Problem: Chewing Gum and the Environment

By CustomMade, for the original article click here.

Whether it’s being used as a mid-day breath refresher or on the playground to see who can blow the biggest bubble—chewing gum is a daily habit for many people. But what happens when you’re done chewing it? 80–90% of chewing gum is not disposed of properly and it’s the second most common form of litter after cigarette butts.

Chewing gum is made from polymers which are synthetic plastics that do not biodegrade. When it’s tossed on the sidewalk, there it sits until it’s removed which can be a costly, time consuming process. Littered gum can also make it’s way into the food chain. It has been found in fish where it can accumulate toxins over time. Sustainable chewing gums have been produced. These gums are natural, biodegradable substances. Cities are also implementing gum receptacles to cut down on waste. In a six month period these trash cans cut down on littered gum by 72%. Next time you get ready to toss your gum, consider aiming for a trash can instead of the side walk.

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The End of a Great Ripoff! Fund Transfers Made Cheaper

Financial intermediaries charge up to 12% to transfer funds internationally. Most of these transactions are from migrants wanting to send money home. At last, there is a solution that will dramatically reduce these costs and put an end to the free ride of financial institutions on the backs of migrant workers.  Original Polish version of article in Forbes PolandBritish_Pounds_Wide

Polish migrants working abroad sent over $7.6 billion home during 2011 (World Bank), providing an important source of income to their families for whom this often represents a critical lifeline for survival. Unfortunately, financial intermediaries take advantage of the opacity of this market and the lack of sophistication of their customers to impose exorbitant fees to send these funds internationally. According to the World Bank, the costs of a typical transfer of £120 from the United Kingdom to Poland ranged from 7.6% to 10.4% through Western Union and Money Gram (during the last Quarter of 2014). Even worse, commercial banks charge the highest fees on money transfers, on average 11.75%, often hidden within exchange rates to make their services seem cheaper than they are. This leads most migrants to wrongly believe that bank transfers are the cheapest way to send money. With around $ 1.3 billion transferred from the UK to Poland in 2011, the amount of money withheld by such agents is enormous.

Globally, the World Bank estimates that migrant remittances reached $582 billion in 2014, with average fees of 7.9%. In 2008 already, alarmed by the burden of these fees, the G8 had announced its “5X5” objective to cut the cost of transfers by half – from 10% at the time to 5% in 2014. Not only are we significantly off target, but fees to send funds to Sub-Saharan Africa remain above 11%. With three-quarters of these moneys being sent to developing countries, it is estimated that missing the “5X5” target cost these countries an estimated $16 billion in 2013, more if some of the cheaper transfer options that are already available were used.

Today, a number of innovative money transfer operators like TransferWise, Azimo, CurrencyFair, WorldRemit, transferGo offer solutions to send money across the globe for as little as 0.5%. But lack of awareness and the inability to compare the various transfer options remains a problem. Seeing a business opportunity in helping migrant workers find the best money transfer option money, a group of young Swiss entrepreneurs developed http://www.TawiPay.com, a web-based platform that helps compare the fees of fund transfer providers by destination. “The “United Kingdom – Poland” was one of their first “corridors” to take advantage of the large volume of transfers from the 521,000 Poles working there” said Tawipay co-founder, Laurent Oberholzer. A new “German-Polish” corridor, representing around $1.5 billion, was launched just last week.

While the website is free for users, the service is financed by micro-commissions from the operators. The success of the startup is therefore linked to its capacity to generate large volumes of transactions. Given the potential for enormous savings offered by TawiPay platform, let’s hope that today’s fund transfer quasi-monopolies will soon be a story of the past and that we will be able to expect better transparency and lower fees from the sector.

The TawiPay Story

In 1998, after a trip to Cameroon, Francois and Pascal Briod, two young students in Lausanne (Switzerland), created an association to support a village in this African country. In the first year they sent 180 Swiss francs and were shocked by the 10%+ fees charged by Western Union to transfer the funds. Realizing that globally such fund transfers represent over 500 billions of dollars annually, the Briod brothers teamed up with Laurent Oberholzer to develop the TawiPay.com platform that helps migrant workers lower the costs of sending money abroad.

Bridging Luxury and the Environment

by Margo Koniuszewski, author of the “Bridging luxury & the environment” project
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Angelina Jolie in the Louis Vuitton Campaign (Source credit)

English version of Article published in Forbes Poland

Ten years ago, while buying lipstick at the stand of a leading luxury cosmetics brand, I asked if I could bring back the empty packaging for reuse by the company. The surprised saleslady answered, “I am sorry Madam, we do not practice such things here”. Today, premium brands like Guerlain, encourage their customers to return product packaging (empty perfume bottle, etc.), which is then transferred to special centers for sorting, recycling and recovery.

Luxury and Sustainability

Before luxury brands began to be identified with large corporations – fashion houses that spend billions on marketing – they were associated with family values, cultural heritage, precise-craftsmanship and timelessness (jewelry and watches that are passed on from generation to generation). Today, we must add the ecological and social innovation necessary to ensure a sustainable future. Customers actively support this process by demanding more responsible behaviors from their favorite brands. The global emergence of social and environmental awareness represents the most important cultural transformation of the twenty-first century – to which the luxury sector must provide leadership if their brands are to retain their prestige – an essential element in the DNA of luxury brands.

A Luxury Sector with a French Flavor

Luxury Industry revenues reached €210 billion in 2013 with French brands accounting for 25% of sales. The LVMH Group continues to lead the sector with revenues of €29 billion in 2013. Given this scale, the behavior of the industry has a major impact and through its leadership it can become a catalyst for driving aspirations of more eco-conscious lifestyles.

In 2013, the LVMH Group (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy) invested €17.3 million in environmental protection – including waste management, water recycling, soil and noise pollution reduction, and projects to support biodiversity. Investments in efficient buildings, internal training and the sponsorship of environmental initiatives are budgeted separately.

Supply chain monitoring, eco-design, energy efficient lighting, certification of business processes, ecosystems protection, materials recovery and sustainability audits are all integrated in the various brand strategies that are specific to each business sector: Wine & Spirits, Perfume & Cosmetics, Fashion & Leather Goods, Watches & Jewelry and Selective Retailing.

Without Nature there is No Business

Luxury brands are now building their core image around caring for society and the environment. Wanting to preserve their beauty and appeal, they must (as many already do) provide a persuasive narrative for their contribution to alleviate social and environmental concerns. Global warming, deforestation, resource scarcity, pollution of air, water and soil, endangered species and environmental degradation disturb the favorable conditions that have allowed the industry to develop and thrive. As LVMH Group CEO Bernard Arnault says, “LVMH owes a lot to nature”. And the business case for sustainability is made even more compelling because “green solutions” benefits extend beyond image building, they can also improve the bottom line through efficiency and cost reductions.

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In the production of Belvedere vodka, a brand of Polish descent, distillery Polmos Zyrardów has converted its power generation from oil to natural gas and improved its energy efficiency through a heat recovery system. The energy generated is now used in the production re-heating process. With these solutions, carbon emissions were reduced by 36 percent or 2 thousand tons, the equivalent to the consumption of 850 thousand liters of gasoline, like removing 900 cars from Polish roads. In 2012, LVMH launched a program to optimize energy consumption using LEDs in its boutiques, using technology from Philips Lighting amongst others – reducing the Louis Vuitton Maison power consumption by 50% since 1995. In addition to lower power bills, the shops have better possibilities in terms of “play of light” to showcase products.

Companies also benefit from recycling. LVMH created its CEDRE platform (Centre Environnemental de Déconditionnement et Recyclage Ecologique) to optimize the recovery and processing of waste generated in the production, distribution and recycling of its product packaging but also the waste from various events (exhibits, fashion shows, etc.). In 2013, it recovered around 1,600 tons of glass, paper, wood, metal and plastic.

The Hennessy Maison has been modernizing its vehicle fleet – more then 20 percent of its cars are now green (electric and hybrids). Charging stations have been installed at the factories and employees received eco-driving lessons, which helped reduce fuel consumption, accidents and maintenance costs. At Sephora, a fleet of electric trucks serves distribution centers located in French city centers, reducing costs and urban pollution.

Eco-marketing

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Veuve Clicquot Champagne casing made of potato starch and paper

The best strategy in terms of image and brand building in the luxury sector remains environmentally and socially responsible marketing. It is difficult to conceive a more compelling example for the imagination of wealthy eco-consumers then the fully biodegradable isothermal Veuve Clicquot champagne casing that is entirely made of potato starch and paper. Meanwhile, emotions-based cosmetics Maison Guerlain, engaged its brand in the protection of bees – the essential pollinators that are critical to healthy ecosystems. Through its Orchidarium research platform, Guerlain also supports the restoration of tropical forests – the natural habitat where orchids grow – passing along essential know-how to organizations that are involved in the collection of these flowers. Hennessy is also engaged in the protection of woodlands. The timber used for the production of cognac barrels comes from sustainably managed forests that are certified by FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) and PEFC (Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification).

guerlain

Guerlain – Celebrating 160 years of Commitment to Bees

Promoting advances in science is also important for Belvedere. Since 2005, it has worked with Lodz University of Technology to develop research programs in biotechnology and to help attract the best graduates.

Luxury ethics

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Bvlgari: Certified Responsible Jewelry Council label

Human rights stewardship is also important. Especially given the growing awareness of the social costs associated with precious metal and stone mining in the Third World. Responsible jewelry manufacturers became particularly vigilant in this area for fear of being associated with “blood diamonds”. Since 2005, Bvlgari has obtained the Certified Responsible Jewelry Council (RJC) label, certifying the implementation of responsible ethical, social and environmental practices in its supply chain. Since 2012, Louis Vuitton is also RJC certified.

Louis Vuitton also developed stringent  environmental audits of its supply chain.  There is also the implementation of ISO14001 with environmental assessment for transporters and warehouses.

LVMH works to reduce environmental impacts by designing quality products that are long-lasting and easy to repair. The durability and longevity of luxury goods contrasts with the planned obsolescence that is incorporated in fast moving consumer products.

Given the development of modern science, technology, and an awakening global consciousness, we realize that we can (and must) avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. Luxury brands enjoy global recognition and prestige, and we aspire to be associated with them. Aspirations are a critical element. If we want a better life and for meaningful leadership to come from the luxury sector, we better pay attention to what we buy and invest ourselves in asking the right questions. This is best path towards setting a new standard of sustainability for the industry and beyond.

Is a Fireplace Ban Justified?

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Will the fireside chat become a relic of history? Gorbachev-Reagan 1985 Fireside Talks in Geneva

While pollution alerts are sounding again in various French cities (Rennes, Nantes, Strasbourg, etc.), Environment Minister, Ségolène Royal, cancelled a controversial full ban on all fireplaces (even the most modern ones) that was expected in Paris and 435 municipalities on January 1, 2015. Following discussions with forest and wood industry professionals, the minister felt that the analysis supporting the ban was flawed, that the  law would be ineffective and that other measures should be explored.

Studies showed that fireplaces generate 25% of the fine particle pollution in the region, at par with the transportation sector. These figures are disputed by the wood industry which claims that fireplaces cause only 5% of the fine particles while 40% come from transport. But while lobbies debate, pollution limits are breached in Paris, across France and elsewhere. 7.4 million French homes use wood as their main source of heating, up from 5.9 million in 1999. In Haute Savoie (French Alps), where the prevalence of wood burning is high, pollution is a serious problem. Similarly, in Canada, the city of Montreal estimates that its 85,000+ fireplaces generate close to 50% of the fine particle pollution in the city – far more then industry or transport. Faced with these problems, authorities in Montreal and France continue to warn about the dangers of pollution peaks, promote public transport, reduce speed limits, suggest to lower heating and ask not to use the …fireplace.

Impacts on Health

Most people underestimate the impact of smoke pollution. But coming from a fireplace, a campfire or a wood-stove, smoke contains high levels of contaminants including small particles (that enter deep into lungs), carbon monoxide (CO), and other irritants with significant health consequences in neighborhoods where wood burning is popular but also indoors. Environment Canada warns about indoor pollution from fine particles that make their way throughout the house and remain long after the fire stops. The World Health Organization (WHO) considers that fireplace smoke causes cancer, headaches, eye irritation, respiratory disease and heart conditions. Particularly at risk are children, older people and anyone suffering from asthma and allergies.

camp-fireStudies have shown that even campfires cause pollution that can quickly exceed norms and be a multiple of those found in urban areas, even in zones with intensive industrial activity.

In Montreal, fireplace pollution contributes to the premature deaths of 1,500 people. In Paris, studies suggest it reduces the average life expectancy by 6 months in the region.

A Major Global Problem

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Picture: Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves

The WHO estimates that 3 billion people cook and heat their homes through open fires and simple stoves burning wood, animal dung, crop waste, and coal. More than 4 million die every year due to the indoor air pollution that can be 100 times higher then acceptable levels for small particles. More then 50% of the fatalities are children under 5 because of pneumonia caused by the high levels of soot inhaled at home.

In poor countries people suffer from indoor smoke exposure because they lack better alternatives. It is odd that in the developed world, people who can afford better technology continue to use antiquated heating methods and expose themselves and others because of ignorance. Studies show that many people find the smell of burning wood pleasant and are not aware of its dangers. Surely, the authorities bear some responsibility for this.

Technology can Help

The heating performance and pollution levels are directly linked to the type of heating device, open fireplaces being the worst performing and the latest EPA certified pellet stoves are the best. According to experts, EPA certified fireplaces can reduce small particles pollution by 94% (versus old models that generate 70 grams per hour) through higher temperatures that improve combustion which dramatically reduces residual fumes and pollution. Agreeing with industry, Ségolène Royal confirms that technology can make major difference and should be deployed. She she prefers incentives to bans, like the €1,000 the Haute-Savoie region gives for the replacement of an open fireplace or wood-stove.

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People enjoy fireplaces – there is something primal and comforting about them – the sound of the wood crackling, the light dancing around the room. It is also comforting to know that if a storm or other event that takes out the lights and the central heating, we still have a way to cook, give some light, and can heat our homes. And wood, if managed properly, is a renewable resource. But the price to be paid for an open fireplace or for antiquated wood-stoves is too high. The best of both worlds is to use fireplace stoves, that use technology that helps eliminate particulates, improves heating performance while still providing the pleasure and security of the old fashioned fireplace.

Recommendations:

- New EPA certified stoves are 90%+ cleaner and much more efficient in terms of heating.

- An open fireplace offers a very poor heating performance but generates massive indoor and outdoor pollution. It is costly, wasteful and should be phased out.

- Never burn trash, plastic, paint, or wood that was painted/treated because this releases dioxins and other toxics.

- Ideally use hardwood that is properly dry. Avoid wet and soft woods. Not only are they more polluting but they also provide significantly less heat.

- Keep the installation clean and in good working condition. Regularly sweep the chimney.

- To cities and authorities: awareness raising campaigns are needed. Financial incentives can play an important role but regulation, controls and sanctions will eventually be needed. Helping households better insulate their homes will also go a long way.

- Addressing indoor air pollution from ancient cooking and heating practices (in developing countries and elsewhere) is complex problem but solutions are available. The technology exists and can be affordable if proper financing mechanisms are implemented. Here is an example from The Gold Standard Foundation.

Related links:

Campfire Pollution

Quebec Brochure on Wood Heating

WHO Household air pollution and health

A Bright Future for Europe is Possible

As a Polish-Canadian who grew up in Montreal, I clearly see benefits for Quebec to be part of the Canadian Confederation and for Poland within a reconciled and vibrant Europe. Today, when America and China compete for influence, it is only through Europe that individual member states can still play a constructive global role.

IMG_1085Speaking in Geneva to an eclectic audience ranging from international diplomats to political affairs students at the Graduate Institute, outgoing European Commission President, José Manuel Barroso, took advantage of his newly found freedom to fire back at his critics (and those of Europe). Europe faced its share of crises over the past decade: constitutional (2005), financial, social and political, and geopolitical with the situation in Ukraine. But in opposition to his naysayers and to the “prophets of pessimism” who continue to announce the downfall of the European project, Barroso predicts that Europe will not only survive, it will grow stronger and play a growing role in global affairs.

Financial Crisis

In July 2012, at the height of the financial crunch, chief economists of European and American banks expected the exit of Greece and were split 50/50 on the survival of the Eurozone. But at the 11th hour, a political solution was found between the richest and most vulnerable members, balancing responsibility and solidarity. The Eurozone stayed united and stable. As French political economist Jean Monnet predicted, Europe will be built by meddling through crises.

lehman-colapse2-630x200To critics that claim Europe is too complacent, self-satisfied and only wants to protect its situation as the world’s premiere “retirement home” Barroso reminds that the Eurozone crisis did not originate in Europe, it was a spillover from the Lehman Brothers collapse: a “made in the USA” crisis. Something many tend to forget… But still no excuse the fragility of European Banks!

Surely, Europe confronts the same challenges as the rest of the world in terms of protectionism, unemployment, anemic growth and inequality. As elsewhere, this is fueling populist extremism and inflaming xenophobic fears. But despite the emergence of inward looking “tea-party” rhetoric in member states, Europe is in good shape. The last 10 years have tested its resilience and it has come out larger (moving from 14 to 28 member states), with better governance, while the Commission has never had so much say in European affairs. Europe also continues to be a major global player. Already much larger economically and population-wise then the United States, it remains an attractive objective for Ukraine and Turkey.

Resilient and Ambitious

By overcoming the various “stress tests” and defying conventional wisdom, Europe has shown a formidable capacity for renewal and strengthening. The Euro is stable and remains one of the two leading global currencies. This extraordinary resilience comes from Europe’s capacity for integration that is stronger then attempts for isolation and fragmentation precisely because, in a globalized world dominated by the American and Chinese heavyweights, not a single European state has the scale to matter. But a united Europe has the power to protect its interests and project its values in the world. Some member states (i.e., Germany) have realized that through Europe they can get obtain global relevance.

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher

Unfortunately, not all members understand that on their own they are too small. Americans used to call London, their partner for historical, cultural and language reasons, to find out what is happening in Europe. Now they call Berlin. The real challenge is therefore for states to commit themselves to the European project and protect their own future. Thereby lies the challenge that will decide on the future of Europe.

Continued global relevance

As questions of human survival start to take precedence over business as usual politics, a new approach capable of providing a globally cooperative response is needed. The European adventure, enlightened by two self-destructive attempts at world domination (WWI & II) provides an innovative approach for cooperation across nations and an appealing alternative to the greed of unregulated imperial liberalism.

Connie Hedegaard.And for those inclined to discount Europe as decadent and inward looking, it is worth reminding that it was Europe that convinced George Bush to organize the first G20 meeting, that launched the most ambitious trade liberalization program in history, including the investment agreement with China that is being discussed and that remains the source of 60% of the support for development in the world. In 2007 already, Europe adopted the first international climate package with 20% reductions in greenhouse gases by 2020. Now the target is a 40% reduction by 2030, which puts Europe in the pole position on climate action.

Looking Forward

In contrast to Barroso, his successor, experienced and colorful former Prime-Minister of Luxembourg, Jean-Claude Junker did not wait to speak his mind. Prior to the secret-ballot that elected him, he asked French tea-party leader Marie Le Pen not to vote for him as he does not want the support of those who reject, hate and exclude. Among his first tasks he must deal with a new eurozone crisis in Greece, mounting anti-EU sentiment in member states, create jobs across Europe and resolve the lingering confrontation with Russia (with its influence in Syria, Iran and Libya). An exciting job description indeed…

2004 Tsunami, 10 Years Later

tsunamiOn Sunday December 26, 2004, at 0h58, the worst earthquake in 40 years reached 9.3 on the Richter scale and caused the 10 meter wave of the “Boxing Day Tsunami”. The waters devastated the Indonesian province of Aceh, killing 170,000 there. Within 90 minutes they  reached the southern beaches of Thailand, killing another 5,000+. In all, some 230,000 people died.

Early Warning Signals 

systeme_dartIn 2004, there was no global monitoring and warning system that could identify the threat and alert populations of the tsunami trajectory and time of impact. Today, a global network of 60 nigh-tech buoys helps measure the size, direction and speed of tsunami waves. The time of impact and the size of the floods are predicted based on mathematical models and past experience.

Timely information is critical. In 2004, the Indian town of Madras was hit 2 hours after the quake but the authorities had not been informed because information was only shared every 4 to 5 hours. Today, 140 seismometers are present along the Indian Ocean coasts and three regional alert centers (in Indonesia, Australia and in India) are tasked with informing all relevant countries within 15 minutes. It took 12 minutes for news of the 2012 tsunami to be relayed.

There is a cost however. It is estimated that the maintenance of the system alone costs up to $100 million a year.

Education is Key

Despite the improvements in technology and communication, risks remain and human factors may be to blame. While the 2012 tsunami alert arrived in time, most of the population of Aceh (Indonesia) tried to flee by car which blocked the entire town. The town was saved and the population survived because the announced disaster did not materialize.

The population is also tired of hearing about tsunamis and often resists prevention measures – even criticizing education programs in schools and preparedness measures implemented by the authorities. Such attitudes were also present in some of the Japanese areas affected by the Fukushima tsunami – the protection walls proved insufficient. In New Orleans, people have also rebuilt their homes in zones considered at risk.

A new Era of Global Vulnerability

Tsunami_1Until 2004, we experienced half a century with no major tsunami disasters. As a result, coastal areas have seen major developments in infrastructure and population growth – particularly in Asia. In the last decade, the two important tsunamis have caused major disasters (Boxing say in 2004 and Fukushima in 2011) in the region. This is no coincidence, most earthquake activity occurs along subduction zones. Particularly along the “Pacific Ring of Fire”.

Human activity, often related to development and associated progress is partly to blame. The destruction of “mangroves” increases the vulnerability of coastal areas to tsunami waves by removing an important buffer zone.

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Picture credit: MTA

Rising sea-levels are another aggravating factor. Water levels are now 30 centimeters higher then a century ago along the New York coast. The unfortunate timing of Hurricane Sandy coinciding with a high-tide resulted in massive floods in New York and New Jersey.

Technology can certainly help but will never be sufficient to overcome the shortcomings of human nature. The 2004 Tsunami in Aceh that killed 170,000 also allowed for the reconciliation of the authorities and rebel forces in order to rebuild their community. This is the kind of cooperation necessary to overcome the global challenges that are upon humanity – climate change, poverty, inequality… Let us hope that we will not need a global disaster to start moving in that direction.

Related stories:

Why older people suffer more in environmental disasters

Climate change: A new Era of Global Vulnerability 

Town moves out of harms way