Category Archives: Climate Change

The Indonesia-Norway REDD+ Partnership

“Thank God for the Norwegians”, a Jakarta-based environmental aid official said to me in March 2011, in awe of the game-changing impact that Norway’s billion-dollar International Climate and Forest Initiative was having on the Indonesian forest conservation scene. Ten months earlier, the Indonesia-Norway REDD+ Partnership had been signed into being through a Letter of Intent (LoI) between the two governments. Suddenly, it seemed, a new ending had been written for the story of Indonesia’s forests, after decades of frustration, inaction, corruption, deforestation and carbon emissions, otherwise known as ‘business as usual’. President Yudhoyono was fully engaged, keen young and forceful older Indonesians were assigned to reform the old system, while the provinces were falling over each other to cooperate. It was a good time to lead the first review of the Indonesia-Norway REDD+ Partnership [1].

Indonesian forests and peatlands have long been degraded by demand for forest products and plantation land, with the pressures made worse by a changing climate and the fire-proneness of damaged and desiccated ecosystems. It was always going to be a challenge to reduce emissions from land use here, or to increase security of biodiversity, natural ecosystems and traditional ways of life, all of them vital to reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD)+. But in 2009, the country’s leadership realised the scale of Indonesia’s contribution to climate change, and its vulnerability to the consequences. With Norway keen to support tropical REDD+, it wasn’t long before they began to talk, and the result was the LoI in which Indonesia agreed to attempt forestry reforms and Norway promised up to a billion dollars to enable and reward success. The LoI envisioned three phases: (1) for establishing institutions and capacity, (2) for transforming forest management and governance, and (3) for delivering verified emission reductions. None was expected to be simple or quick.

By the time I went back to lead the second review of the Partnership in 2013 [2], things were looking good. There had been rapid progress on a moratorium on new forest concessions for logging and plantations in primary forests, on national and sub-national REDD+ strategies, on a publicly-accessible database (‘One Map’) with 85 data layers, including all forests, peatlands and concessions (unprecedented in the secretive forest sector), and on establishing a ministerial-level REDD+ Agency. The latter was set up in August 2013, and became a real powerhouse of Indonesian conservation talent, thought and energy. In my career I have been privileged to visit several institutions in the full flush of their youth and enthusiasm: the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity in the Philippines, the Iwokrama International Centre for Rainforest Conservation and Development in Guyana, the National Biodiversity Institute in Costa Rica; well, Indonesia’s REDD+ Agency was like that.

It led the LoI process until early 2015, but it couldn’t last. It was becoming very effective, but it was outside the Indonesian bureaucracy and not remotely sustainable. It could have done with another year or two to consolidate some things, but the newly-elected President Widodo ordered the ministries of environment and forestry to become one Ministry of Environment and Forestry (KLHK), which would absorb the REDD+ Agency and disperse its responsibilities throughout the new institution. The challenges of merging these two very different ministries caused a severe loss of Phase 2 momentum during 2015-16. The third review of the LoI process was also delayed, and only in 2018 did I have the opportunity to understand the previous five years, and to describe the current position [3]. It turned out that although staff of the former REDD+ Agency had largely scattered, ecological events had put many of the things that they had been working on back on the national agenda. Thus, forest and peatland fires in late 2015 caused immense damage in Indonesia and led to a strong response in the forms of new and enhanced regulations, a new Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG), and increased policy priority for fire prevention, One Map, law enforcement, social forestry, and land reform. Meanwhile, the LoI had been automatically renewed at the end of 2016, while Norway continued to support its various Indonesian partners, by such means as funding the new BRG and delivering capacity-building support to KLHK and others. So the Partnership remained very much alive.

Moreover, essential parts of an agreed system for accounting, earning, receiving and managing payments for verified emission reductions could only be put in place by government, and these were now nearing completion. Better, after all the investment in mapping and monitoring, there was good evidence that the loss of Indonesian forest cover in 2017 was less than in 2016. We suggested having a look at the numbers again in early 2020, to confirm a real trend in reducing forest loss and hopefully justifying a huge party on the tenth anniversary of the LoI on 26 May 2020. But the data were good enough already, and on 16 February 2019 ministers for the two Partners announced that reduced deforestation in Indonesia had triggered the first payment for results – nearly five million tonnes of reduced emissions! [4]. This good news validates the long-term strategy of both Partners, which is based on the truth that solving complex environmental problems requires sustained effort and flexible investment, involves many stakeholders and relationships, and makes it necessary to accept that there may only be slow directional change over a long period, with fewer dramatic breakthroughs than one might like.





© Julian Caldecott

The perfectible future

It is clean-up time. The year is 2085 and the biosphere is being saved. The ‘hot storms’ that began in the first quarter of the century built understanding that nature is supreme and merciless in responding to ecological damage, that humanity was violating absolute ecological rules, and that ecological science and spiritual insight could guide us to safety if we paid attention and worked together. A ‘salvage corps’ of young people was mobilised in the 2020s to protect and restore ecological and social harmony worldwide, through hard, intelligent, cooperative work in all environments. The Zeitgeist flipped in the 2030s, and country after country began a constitutional process to declare Peace with Nature, to place ecological law above human law, and to commit to slashing and reversing GHG emissions, protecting and restoring ecosystems, and harmonising society and ecology around true sustainability.

Once the causes of imbalance and extinction had been decisively rejected by a new wave of leaders, trust grew in nature, spirit and human ingenuity to restore the biosphere. The oceans had stored a lot of energy while in the greenhouse, and sea levels are still rising, rainfall patterns remain distorted, and wild storms still pound coastal areas. But there’s a sense of hope even so. Soft engineering, new building codes, and the relocation of populations has allowed for some adaptation, and most people are now reasonably safe. As locally accountable management of ecosystems became the norm, and communities learned from one another about what to require of their leaders, these ideas came to be expressed in a host of different ways, grafted onto a range of religions and philosophies of life. The practical results were incredibly diverse, and this was the whole point of local people seeking and gaining the power to make their own choices, putting their own ecological ethics into practice in their own way.

© Julian Caldecott

Getting ready for climate change

Climate change affects everything, everywhere, but differently wherever you are. It has an overall direction because (to simplify a bit) it has one underlying cause – the trapping of extra heat from the sun on earth by human pollution.  This makes for Spring getting earlier, warm-weather wildlife in colder places, high tides getting higher, and ice melting in the poles and mountains. But in any place, like your own neighbourhood, it’s much more unpredictable.  It’s about nasty surprises coming faster and faster: a flash-flood here, a mud-slide there, grinding drought, blasts of cold, searing heat, rising food prices, malaria cases, dying trees, raging fires, choking smoke … and that’s just on Tuesdays.  The point is that as the world changes, we can’t know exactly what will happen. But we do know that we can’t engineer or buy our way out of it, not for long.  Clearly we should have been trying harder to avoid the problem ever since the 1970s and 1980s, when we knew for sure that it was a problem.  But we didn’t, and it’s now too late, and we can blame our idiot leaders for that. So is there anything useful that we can actually do now?

When we know that we are going to be attacked, but we don’t know by what or when, all we can do is to make ourselves stronger.  This also applies to getting ready for climate change.  We live within, and utterly depend upon, ecological and social systems, and it is these that we must strengthen.  Ecological systems are all the soils, fields, woodlands, parks, streams, rivers, oceans, beaches and underground waters, along with all the living things in them whether cultivated or wild, that give us our food, water, safety and sense of belonging, wonder and joy in the living world.  Ecological systems are what break down in most of the nasty surprises that come with climate change – the flash-floods, land-slides, fires, storm-surges, droughts, food shortages and new diseases.  We have often weakened these systems due to lack of care, by building things in the wrong places, cutting down too many trees, growing the wrong crops, pumping up too much ground-water for irrigation, and polluting, draining or diverting waterways.  A lot of this is local and affects local ecosystems, so we can do something about it locally, mainly by paying attention to the ways of nature – studying and thinking about ecology, and acting accordingly by teaching others, planting things, understanding what’s going on, and campaigning against the things that other people do which threaten us.  Since everywhere is a local ecosystem, these are obvious ways to become stronger.

But we also live in social systems.  These are made up of all those friends, neighbours, acquaintances, employers, employees, shop-keepers, teachers, council workers and everyone else with whom we have anything to do in living our lives.  Some of these are local and many others are distant, and we can only do so much to affect the distant ones – this is where government and politics and economic policies come in, and we have little power over them.  We have some power, though, and we could vote, lobby, campaign, march and otherwise join together to promote a stronger large-scale social system.  This usually means calling for a fairer and more sustainable society, through green social democracy in our cities, regions, nations and continents. But this is hard work, and it is easy to get worn down when other people keep on voting for appalling politicians or stupid causes.  But local social systems are very much within our own range of action, and we can strengthen them against climate change.

So what does this mean? The answer is residents’ associations.  Lots of them, starting with where you live.  As an example of what I mean, in 2010 a residents’ association known as HERA was set up in my neighbourhood in Bath, a town in south-western England.  This was at the initiative of two individuals, Don and Thelma Grimes, but others soon saw the advantages.  These included added impact in lobbying the city council for improved services or to deal with issues like over-hanging branches, parking permits, or road gritting in icy weather.  It was soon became clear that the council took HERA much more seriously than it took individuals, especially once we had registered and appointed officers.  We hold an open meeting every few weeks and some kind of HERA event every six months, whether a street party, or a social in a local pub or garden, which give us all an opportunity to help in planning, and to contribute food, equipment or services.  These occasions are great fun.  We also exchanged email addresses and phone numbers to create a network of people who had an interest in spreading news, like warnings about burst water pipes and burglaries, or notices of fireworks parties, funerals, planning-permission appeals, or litter collections in local parks.

In the process, vulnerable individuals were identified and the group was made aware of who would need to be checked on in the event of power cuts or extreme weather, and some funds were pooled to allow road salt to be stored in the sheds of able-bodied members against severe winter conditions on the local hill.  We also did an inventory of all the skills and services available among HERA members (of which there are many!), and the findings circulated locally. Over a few years, with almost no investment, a neighbourhood has turned from a scattering of strangers into a group that is capable of discussing risks and opportunities, acting collectively to protect and advance its own interests, and sharing information about its own capabilities. Among the topics and activities that HERA has spontaneously discussed or acted on were setting up a memorial nature reserve (for Don), rehabilitating a local park so that it earned ‘Green Flag’ recognition from government, the issue of people replacing their front gardens on a local hill with parking spaces, because of its effects on water run-off and flash-flooding downhill, and – through its membership of a city-wide federation of residents’ associations – the problem of air pollution in the city as a whole.

The key point is that my neighbourhood before HERA was weak and vulnerable to whatever nasty surprises the world held in store.  With HERA it is quite a bit stronger, and could easily grow stronger still, in response to challenges that arise, whatever they are.  All it would take for HERA to become a local ‘climate change adaptation group’, for example, would be to agree some roles and do some training.  And exactly the same can be said about any group of people anywhere, whether they cling to the slopes of high mountains, the shores of wild seas, or the fringes of harsh deserts.  The implication is that strengthening millions of small groups across the world is an effective way to build humanity’s capacity to adapt to climate change, and that anyone can start doing it, just by talking to each other.  After that, the sky’s the limit in terms of the groups networking, sharing lessons, and building the strength that we all need as dangers multiply in a changing world.

© Julian Caldecott

The Carbon Pledge

Among the most important things in the world are the catastrophic consequences of heat being trapped by greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the air.  The melting Arctic is bringing this to a head, since when the last summer sea-ice is gone, all the trapped heat will go into water rather than ice, and climate change will spiral out of control.  Faced with this we can panic, or else we can commit ourselves to a rational determination to seek a better outcome, whatever the cost or risk.  This determination could be expressed through a global, participatory action known as the Carbon Pledge.

Hundreds of billions of tonnes of the main GHGs – carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) – must be stripped from the air, and fast.  In that critical sentence, a billion means a thousand million, a tonne is a metric tonne or 1,000 kg (almost the same as a ton), and COand CHare chemical shorthand for the combinations of elements (carbon C, oxygen O, and hydrogen H) that make up the GHG molecules.  There are other GHGs, and all can be dangerous, but carbon dioxide and methane are the ones that will kill us if we let them.

There are lots of ideas on how to get GHGs out of the air, and the best involve breaking down GHG molecules into oxygen (O2), water (H2O) and elemental carbon (C).  The carbon would be laid down as bricks buried under water or soil, where it would stay for ever.  We know that elemental carbon is stable because of coal, and because we can dig up ancient charcoal, but it does have to be kept out of contact with the air.  To make elemental carbon, though, we have to reverse the processes by which carbon was combined with oxygen and hydrogen to make GHGs and release energy in the first place.  Whether the actors were human machines or bacteria, it was the energy that was being sought and the GHGs were just exhausts. The key problem here is that some energy is needed to reverse the chemical reactions that produced the GHGs. The question is: how much?

Catalysts are molecules that reduce the amount of energy needed for bonds between atoms to be broken and re-formed, thus making chemical reactions easier to do.  We need the right catalysts to make it easy to break down GHGs.  We do not need catalysts made of gold or platinum that work only at high pressures and high temperatures.  We have those already.  What we need is cheap catalysts that work in the open air and ordinary temperatures, in every village and wind-farm on Earth.  Once we have them, we can do the simple engineering for making carbon bricks, and sort out how to buy the bricks off the people who make them, and bury the damn things.

Thus the first aim of the Carbon Pledge would be to finance international prizes, to be awarded to people who invent the right kind of catalysts.  In this way the creative power of all people can be guided to the most important challenge that has ever faced our species.  It is based on the hope that somewhere, in some university or research lab or garage or factory, licenced or unlicensed, which might be anywhere in the world, there is someone who has an answer to our immediate need.

The Carbon Pledge would offer cash for each catalyst, specify what is needed, advertise like mad, and see what comes up.  And once we have the catalysts, a crash programme to do the engineering will be needed to integrate them into useful machines. I imagine a machine like a wind-mill, that uses wind-power to suck air over the catalysts, that pounds the carbon dust into bricks, and that generates electricity as well.  That’s the easy part.

But we know that people won’t do anything, even save the world and the lives of their own grand-children, without being paid.  Or rather, without a revolutionary change in human consciousness first, it is safer to assume that they will have to be paid. Therefore, we need to be able to buy the carbon bricks – trillions of them – and to bury them properly. Therefore, we need a price for carbon that is high and stable enough to motivate people to invest time, effort and money in conserving the stuff.  So the second aim of the Carbon Pledge would be to make possible the burial of hundreds of billions of tonnes of carbon over the next 50 years.  Again, there have been lots of ideas about how fund this, but all come down to the people who use energy from burning carbon paying to make good the consequences. This is reasonable, and there is no way around it, but the means so far available are not satisfactory.

Taxing carbon is unpopular and allows richer people to burn more, and any tax effect on GHGs emissions is indirect at best.  Likewise for higher electricity prices through bills. And likewise for rationing systems that you can buy your way out of, like ‘cap and trade’.  Low ability to pay by the poor public, and low willingness to pay by the rich public, combined with a lack of fairness, transparency, and effectiveness, adds up to political paralysis and nothing useful being done.  I no longer believe that mandatory universal carbon rationing to solve these problems fairly is feasible in the available time.

Some governments have tried to create markets within which carbon that has been certified as ‘conserved’ can be traded. The aim is for the market to define a price that can then be used to justify investment in decarbonisation (renewable energy, energy efficiency, forest ecosystem protection or restoration, etc.). But it has proved impossible to ensure a price for conserved carbon that is high and stable enough to make the investments attractive.  Markets cannot do this alone because speculation undermines predictability, and governments are too fractious to form a universal agreement.  We tried all this, and it doesn’t work.

The other way forward lies in deliberate price creation, driven not by what speculators are willing to risk, but by what the living world needs if we are not to go extinct. People might still become rich by saving the world, but we need to do things the right way round.  So, what’s needed is a price guarantee, backed by big enough assets that it will hold up for the entire time when the future of the living world will be decided.  Every investor needs to know for sure what a tonne of conserved carbon is going to be worth in decades, not what it was worth in this morning’s trading, whether they are going to borrow a billion or build a community wind farm.

So how to create a big enough asset base?  One way would be for some big, stable, rich governments to get together and announce their intention to buy, at a fixed date in the distant future, a large amount of certified conserved carbon at a price high enough to promote rapid worldwide decarbonisation.  I floated this idea as a ‘thought experiment’ in my 2017 book Aid Performance and Climate Change.  It would have the effect of setting a floor price for the duration of the commitment, starting immediately.  But it would also create a liability.  Not a blank cheque, since the numbers are predictable, but a public liability nonetheless.  Yet we should bear in mind: (a) that the value of conserved carbon may increase by the date set, so there’s a potential up-side as well as a known liability; (b) that governments could save up by investing in decarbonisation assets that may appreciate in value, so there are ways to manage exposure; and, most importantly (c) that if we haven’t solved the climate change problem in a few years, nothing will be of value anyway.

But foresight and leadership would be needed, and the chance of enough governments accepting this kind of liability without heavy prompting by the public is probably zero.  So we can either prompt them by building a mass movement demanding political action, or we can show the way by doing the job ourselves, and shaming them into joining in later.  In other words, we could crowd-source a stable carbon price by obtaining pledges from individuals, companies, cities, states and charities.  We could all participate in solving the climate problem, just as we all share responsibility for creating it.  Millions of people could promise to buy certified conserved carbon at a fixed price in the distant future and bequeath this debt to their heirs.  If secure and permanent records were kept, for which distributed ledger systems are now available using blockchain designs, all of these promises would become one huge asset to use in stabilising the long-term carbon price.

In this way, the price of carbon would cease to be an unknown in investment decisions, and the world’s private sector would be free to invest the trillions in decarbonisation that the World Bank says is needed for survival.  And the Carbon Pledge asset itself could be used to guarantee payments to carbon-brick manufacturers the world over. All conserved carbon would be worth the same, so companies that previously created GHGs could sell carbon bricks instead, and communities likewise.  Everyone would of course be paying for it in the end, but it would be fair and transparent, and we would all have a future.

So, the Carbon Pledge would allow two key services to be offered.  First, it would finance and organise global prizes for the cheap catalysts needed to break down GHGs into elemental carbon and harmless exhausts under open-air conditions.  And second, it would collect and record commitments to buy conserved carbon at a fixed price in the distant future.

These things must happen at the same time, and they must both succeed.  Meanwhile, we would also have to be doing whatever it takes to design and deploy technologies and financing arrangements for getting as many billions of tonnes of carbon as possible out of the air quickly and into safe storage. Start-up capital would be needed, to design and build the computer systems needed to manage fund-raising and pledges, for staff, for legal costs, and for advertising.  Good ideas on how to do all this in time to avoid catastrophe would be among the most useful thoughts that people have ever had.

© Julian Caldecott

Climate change and migration

The World Bank’s publication Groundswell: Preparing for Internal Climate Migration looks at sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America and considers how climate change will force people to move inside their own countries as their livelihoods are undermined.  It concludes that the numbers affected will be in the tens of millions in each region, and that the problem will escalate without “concerted climate and development action”.

I touched on all this in my book Aid Performance and Climate Change, writing that “climate change will inevitably cause the displacement of large numbers of people, from small islands and coastal zones mainly due to sea-level rise, salt intrusion and storm exposure, and within continental systems mainly due to drought and desertification, with flooding, disease, fire, and other hazards adding to the pressures.  Population movements may be involuntary and sudden, or voluntary and slow, but will interact with policies, plans and laws at an increasing rate.  The chaos in Europe resulting from the 2015-2016 mass arrival of desperate people displaced by conflict in south-west Asia draws attention to the need for careful contingency planning and the resourcing of adaptive measures.

“This would apply, for example, to such scenarios as the irreversible flooding of major cities, the creeping emigration of people who abandon life in water-stressed areas, and the failure of entire national economies among small-island developing states and deltaic countries.  The starting point for planning will be different in each case, depending for instance on cultural, geographic, and historical factors (which will affect how easily a group of people can be accommodated in a new setting), and whether a policed national boundary limits the movement of displaced people.  In all cases, while it is tempting to deny the problem and its causes, this response is not viable so coherent and acceptable solutions will need to be prepared for and budgeted.”

There is much here to think about for everyone, everywhere (including Europe).

© Julian Caldecott

Water and life

Water makes life on Earth possible.  It unites the living world like nothing else.  From the lunar tides, ocean currents and seasons to the molecules that build us all, it permits and regulates all life.  Embedded within this big picture, subject to the rules of ecology but often careless of them, are people.  Almost all the world’s water is salty but we live on land, where a regular supply of fresh, clean water is utterly precious. It is the single most important of the ‘on/off’ switches that are hidden under the floorboards of our lives.  But we have allowed these sources of fresh, clean water to be abused, diverted, polluted, or dried up.  Repair is possible, but only by focusing on the ways of nature and the needs of the weak. And now climate change is demolishing the very fabric of our home, making everything worse.

Water has a special structure in which its molecules, each made up of two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen, have a different charge on each side, so the molecules attract one another.  This attraction is called a hydrogen bond, and it is strong enough to join water molecules into a swarm that behaves like a supermolecule, but weak enough that the bonds continually form and break depending on how much energy there is in the system.  When there is very little energy, the molecules freeze together into ice; when there is much more, they break apart into steam.  But at middle energies, they ‘shimmer’ in a way that makes life work at the level of cellular structures and chemical metabolism.

Because water molecules are polar – each with a positive and a negative side – they can get a grip on all sorts of other molecules, so water dissolves and mixes with more things than any other liquid.  Then, the hydrogen bonds also do weird things to how water behaves under different conditions, which make life possible at the level of organisms, ecosystems, and the whole biosphere.  They allow water to absorb or lose a lot of energy before it changes from liquid to ice or steam, so blood and ocean currents carry a lot of heat.

Put these things together, multiply them by a couple of billion cubic kilometres of water, each weighing a trillion tonnes, and stir using the energy of a vast thermonuclear reactor (the Sun), and you have the main unifying theme of our living world.  But because of the hydrogen bonds, ice needs 80 times more energy to melt than liquid water does to warm up.  This alone puts water among the most important things right now, since the ice in the Arctic Ocean has been absorbing the extra heat of global warming for decades, and every summer there is less ice up there.  When it finishes melting, only a few years from now, a sudden heating of the Arctic is inevitable, along with a surge of methane and other greenhouse gases. This is what people mean when they talk about ‘tipping points’ and ‘runaway climate change’, and it could spell the end of the only living world that we have ever known.

© Julian Caldecott