Monday, January 18, 2010

Edgar the Elephant in the Room and the C5

In the wake of the abject failure that was the Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen last month, I find myself observing my surroundings here in Ghana and wondering if any of the experts had observed Edgar, the big elephant in the room, while they were in Denmark.

Now, I am far from a climate change expert, when it comes to the intricacies of the negotiations. But, striving to be an informed citizen of Earth in the 21st century and watching week after week of the news coverage generated by the event, I like to think that I understand the key issues central to the debate. That being said, I welcome any and all corrections/additions/clarifications that would further enlighten myself and the good readers of this blog. From what I gather, developing countries don’t want to talk about any agreement that doesn’t involve maintaining the Kyoto Protocol. This is because the Kyoto Protocol – the old climate change agreement signed in 1997 in Kyoto, Japan – only applies to developed countries and doesn’t require any commitments or carbon abatement from developing nations. On the other side of the table are the developed countries, who won’t broach an agreement that doesn’t also rope in developing countries with legally binding requirements. Meanwhile, China continues to play both sides like a fiddle. Basically, there is a whole lot of finger pointing and no stepping up to the plate.

These are what I take to be the main points in the negotiation. I know (and hope) it is a lot more complicated than that, with some of the finer points being: what concessions to make legally binding, how to measure and enforce those commitments, etc. The summit gave lots of important people the opportunity to hear themselves talk, and after months and months of preparation, next to no progress was made. Leaders actually agreed not to let the mean global temperature rise by more than 2 degrees centigrade (about 3.6 degrees fahrenheit) from pre-industrial, which is about as asinine as agreeing that there should be 42% less wars over the next 67 years, while each country increases its military spending.

Meanwhile, Edgar the elephant was just hanging out, enjoying all of the free food and getting fatter. Edgar is the question of the capacity of developing countries to actually achieve any of the goals to which they might agree. This question was never addressed in a meaningful way. Instead, as they often do, rich countries tried to address it in the most superficial way possible: by creating a fund to throw more money at the problem. This time, they called it a fund to “help developing countries cope with the effects of climate change.” While negotiators remained fixated on who should be bound by what concessions, no one seemed to be talking about HOW developing countries would actually be able to achieve any of these said concessions. For me, having witnessed the C5© – Copenhagen Climate Change Convention Catastrophe (C5 is copywrited and comes with YMCA-style hand gestures to refer to it) – unfold from a developing country, Edgar remains the most important unaddressed issue of this entire debate.

Many of the proven interventions to mitigate and prevent climate change, like in health, involve behavior change of entire populations. And more than anything, these interventions require the political will for large-scale investments to increase public awareness hammered home over years and years. This is not a silver bullet vaccine that donors can just throw money at to buy more doses. This is condom usage. Think about how long tree huggers have been preaching about recycling in the western world. Meanwhile, the concept of recycling in Ghana is more of a myth. In many respects related to individual behaviors affecting climate change, the developing world is decades behind.

A few illustrations from a little over two months here:

- In my first week, I asked Patricia if we recycled; she just laughed. We have to pay a private waste management company to pick up our trash. That public service is almost non-existent. Most people just burn their trash in piles on the side of the road. Trash is everywhere, and Accra makes Manhattan look like Chicago (In case you missed it, that was a ZING to all you New Yorkers.).

- The first time I traveled downtown, I bought a bag of water to hydrate. (Purified water is sold in 500ml plastic bags here for about 4 cents: a really good deal. You bite off a tiny corner of the bag, tilt and squeeze.) I spent the next 7 hours looking for a trash can for the empty bag. I never found one.

- I’ve been to half a dozen conferences so far, some with over 100 participants, where they hand out an average of 20 sheets of paper per day per attendant. Not once have I encountered double-sided printing.

- The combination of terrible roads and an ever-increasing population is not a good equation for traffic in Accra. An even more important variable is car quality. Let’s just say that the average car here is a lemon, and the idea of having any sort of emissions standards in laughable. Sitting in Accra traffic with everyone’s clunker humming away and looking at the fumes slowly rising into the sky is downright depressing. I have yet to see a hybrid car. Not even the donor SUVs.

A typical vehicle on the road, spewing fumes into the air

- I saw on the local news the other day that some rural areas are running out of trees for firewood with which to cook. They interviewed one woman who had a gas stove in her house, but refused to use it in favor of burning wood. When asked why, she said because she was scared that turning it on would cause her house to explode.

- Last week I received a call from Ghana Immigration Services where they were processing my visa extension forms. They needed some more documents for my application, so I asked if I could send them in an email. “No, you need to print them out and bring them in person.” was the answer from the other end. “It takes over an hour for me to get there, so I’ll have to come tomorrow”, I said. “Are you sure there is no way I can email them to you? I have the forms on my computer, so I can get them to you right now.” “No, you need to bring hard copies.” “Do they need to be originals?” “No, photocopies are fine.” “Then why can’t I just send them to you? It’ll save me a trip, be quicker, and you can print them out there.” “No. You must bring them.” Accepting defeat, I gave up. Charles and I successfully sat in more traffic the next day, adding the completely unnecessary trip to our carbon footprint.

While these anecdotes can be amusing and comical to westerners, the serious impact they have on the world is no less real. Many of the aforementioned tidbits illustrate the behavioral nature of culturally-ingrained actions requiring change. But it is precisely these changes that take the most time. Trying to look on the brighter side, I can see several opportunities for policy initiatives. How about a government-run trash pick-up program that would create jobs while simultaneously cleaning up the country? Not every solution needs to be rocket science.

trash-filled drainage system lining a major road in Accra. Much-needed during the rainy season, these channels line most streets in Accra, and every one of them is riddled with garbage.

close-up of the same above

Outlining a climate change agreement is a means to an end, not the end in itself. Making an agreement for the agreement’s sake helps no one, especially one where developing countries have extremely limited capacity to achieve the goals set forth. The main question is not which countries or what levels, but rather HOW. Meanwhile, the U.S., China and others continue to act like children on the playground at recess after someone just fell off the slide and hurt themselves. The problem is that it’s the Planet that’s down for the count, and there is not a teacher around to regulate and figure out what happened. But that doesn’t stop the children from finger pointing. And that doesn’t help anyone notice Edgar the big elephant happily playing on the see-saw.

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