martes, 19 de julio de 2011

Ideas for a lower emissions future - and a question to Mexicans.

Today I was unable to secure a vehicle to collect the geographical coordinates of the new water tap stands that will change the lives of around 5,000 individuals in this southwestern location of rural Uganda. I am trying to analyze the number of households that will be positively impacted by this new water infrastructure scheme. On average households were spending between 2 and 4 hours per day collecting the precious water in 20 liter jerry-cans for cooking, drinking and cleaning purposes. Women are usually the ones that do the work, girls and boys also spend hours just fetching water. Imagine the economic/wellbeing impact of reducing this time to 20 minutes... The inauguration was so important that a large commitive including Jeffrey Sachs, the Ugandan minister of water and the Ugandan minister of health were present to do the honors. Of course the CEO of the company that donated the pipes was also there, and the press! 

The impact on the livelihoods of the people is being measured with surveys and suffer from self-reporting bias. I am trying to change this by using distance analysis with my GIS tools. 

So as I failed to advance the data collection, I read in the news about the 2011 drought in Somalia and Kenya. UNICEF is already considering that 500,000 people might die from starvation. This is a lot (Haiti and the Asian Tsunami accounted each for ~250,000 deaths and are the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history). After 1 year in Columbia University I have learned that attributing the drought to climate change is not politically correct, I know... But, if the past 9 years have been among the 10 hottest years in history, there is probably some links, don't you think? 

The World Bank published a video in you tube today, the legend reads: Almost 70 of the world's sharpest minds on climate change got together at the World Bank in Washingtonin July 2011 to find ways to best support the exploding demand from countries for a low-carbon future.

The sky in the center of Mexico city.
The reddish tone is due to the
pollution that floats in the city.
Ten years ago this was an impossible shot.
Popocateptl seen from the west of the city.
Iztaccihuatl and Popocateptl.
The two lovers in a beautiful sunset.
Separated by urbanization.
To my great enjoyment I found some of the thinkers that have been influential to my line of thought in the past years. Sir Nicholas Stern and his cost-benefit report suggesting that investing 1% of global GDP today is better than waiting 20 years to act and having to invest 20% of global GDP at that time (crude simplification of what he actually says but I have limited access to internet and can't give the exact numbers right now - Don't let perfection be the enemy of perfection). But to my greatest surprise among these sharpest minds are two mexicans. Mario Molina our Nobel Prize, who helped us stop the destruction of the ozone layer (He actually received the Nobel as an American citizen). Nonetheless he invested the money in the creation of a think tank based in Mexico to help solve Mexican issues. He is the main responsible for cleaning Mexico City air in the past 20 years. Also our very own Minister of the Environment Rafael Elvira Quezada giving his views on the need of policy to solve the climatic (I say environmental - Ocean Acidification, Loss of Biodiversity and Desertification are also fundamental problems of our generation) crisis. I am proud of Mexico involvement in the Climate arena, of course our vulnerability to climate change is one of the highest in the world.

So what are these ideas? Is there anything new? A brief summary of what struck me:

We desperately need to turn on the "bulb".
Ideas anyone?
1- We understand that we need a new industrial revolution that will cost a lot. 
2- The direction of this new industrial revolution is in the green technology arena and energy efficiency.
3- We need to mainstream this agenda, talking green, clean and eco only reaches the 15% of the population that are already actors of change. the 15% that will resist the change will resist it anyway (the skeptics). To achieve change we need to reach the big chunk in the middle. Engaging this chunk will be critical for green growth.
4- We need new technology but also new diplomacy, we need research and development, we need financial capital and framework policy.
5- Smart Policy is key, vehicle fuel efficiency is a good example, we have the technology, it is cost effective. But car makers will not make the change unless regulation accelerates the uptake of these new technologies.
6- Political Support at the highest level, Mexico has put Climate Change as an issue of National Security.  7- People invest in education even if it won't pay for decades, so this is a proof that there is a willingness to pay for a better future. 
8- Voluntary changes will not be enough.
9- We need to become more productive in the use of our natural resources.
10- We need leaders that look in the eyes of they grandchildren and do the right thing for them.
11- It is not cheap but it is not expensive (1.3% of global GDP)
12- We don't know everything but we know enough.

Seeds of change?
My spanish friend from SIPA always says the following after I finish my intense monologues on the problems of the world: "So, what do we do?". I am still thinking of the answer. As a computer engineer who loves making maps, growing lettuces on rooftops and thinking of the best policies to make the change needed towards the green economy, the planetary society and the paradigm of sustainable development, I am still looking for the answer. (Again sustainable development is not an empty concept: it is the process of improving the livelihoods of all humans, ensuring that everyone has the minimum necessary to live in dignity, in a way that preserves the ecosystem services for infinite future generations ). 

But one thing I do know. It is not fair, ethically correct, recommendable or even economically efficient that tropical nations who contribute near to nothing to green house gases to pay for the excess use of energy in high and middle income countries. This is the most unfair of all negative externalities that exist today.

A urban farm in Brooklyn,
empire state in the background and that great flag!
America wake up, the world needs you!
So if a global binding agreement is not possible because of the "tour de force" between US and China is not possible, what do we do. Moving without them is like shooting ourselves in the foot (the path towards the green economy will probably slow down our economies in the short run). But not moving is like cutting both legs with a rusty machete in the long run (at least for Mexico). So if you have read this far, I would really like to hear your ideas on these matters, if you are Mexican even more (although I would certainly like to listen to other nationalities views). It is highly likely that half of our country will become a desert, we are depleting the reservoirs of fossil water that we had in the Laguna region and Sinaloa. The south will suffer from recurrent floods. It could be that we loose the southern peninsula in the long run. Hurricanes could become more frequent or more intense (and we get them from both sides).  Sounds creepy? Well add the terrible problem of violence and insecurity to the equation and you get a recipe for disaster. 
The map of the city of hope in my old apartment.

La ciudad de la esperanza by night.
We are a nation that complains, a nation of victims. But we have so much potential, we have one more chance to rise to the level of the challenge. We are still among the 15 richest economies in the world, our 2010 census show some indicators that are at the level of the developed world. We live in one of the 13 most biodiverse countries in the world. We still conserve 54% of our natural capital. We have just finished our demographic transition. We are contributing 1.5% of the global emissions (14th place). We are part of the OECD (I still don't know how we did it , but we are...). We are running out of oil. Our neighbor in the north in building a wall to keep some problems at bay. We have the most interesting election process coming in 2012. What are we going to do?

Tons que? Le entramos?
That is totally Terra Ignota... 
Que si se puede, carajo!

3 comentarios:

  1. It is vital for each and everyone of us to change our current mindset. Sounds easy but it sure isn´t. Great post my friend

  2. I truly believe we have the tools to fix the problem, however we don't have the framework that will allow us to succeed. Climate change is, in my opinion, the greatest challenge that civilization has faced and can only be fixed if governments are the central players taking action. Because climate change is the ultimate social problem (it affects food and water supply, it disrupts weather, and affects rich and poor disproportionally), we need to attack it with a framework that has social progress as its center goal. Unfortunately, all attempts at solving the problem have put the "market" first, and have used this framework to fix the problem.
    One of the beauties of the market is that it doesn't care who the actors are or what the outcomes are, therefore, it will allocate capital and resources in the most efficient way. Many times, the most "efficient" way does not translate into the most socially equitable way. Because the climate problem has social welfare at its core, markets by themselves can't, and will not, fix the problem. We need government intervention. For the past 30 years, there has been a non-stop effort to dismantle the greatest social achievements that our civilization has seen, the Welfare State (particularly in the US and the UK). The consequence of this is that in the US, but also in general across the west, the idea that governments can help achieve social progress has vanished. Today, many Americans see government as a road block and firmly believe that the important thing is to maximize your individual wealth, without really caring what happens to your neighbor. Paying taxes has become synonym with the government stealing from you. The obsession with privatization and tax cuts has lead to gated communities, crumbling infrastructure, the largest gap between rich and poor (in the US) and the loss of social cohesion. This, in my opinion, is why the climate discussions are stalled. The climate effort is of the magnitude of the reconstruction of Europe, the Manhattan project, or the space race. I truly don't think that Europe could've survived the post war years without the Marshall Plan, or that private companies would have developed the bomb during the war, or that "the market" would've been able to put a man on the moon in less than 10 years after the first space probe was launched.
    We need to revisit our priorities and our framework, and put social welfare at the center of our goals. Only then, do we have a chance at fixing the problem.

    So what do we do? I think political pressure is key. We need to let our governments know that we care about our communities, not just ourselves. We need to make sure that social welfare becomes part of the discussion again, we need to get rid of the stale an inert vocabulary that we have been using to describe our social dynamics. We need to demand government action and intervention, and let those in power know that their job is to take care of our well-being, not to maximize the profits of corporations with the hopes that these profits will trickle down to us.
    These are terrifying times, and we need to work hard. Because ~ 1C of heating and ~1m of sea-level rise are inevitable, we also need to work on adaptation.
    I know all of these are generalities, but I truly think that we need to change the general rules of the game, otherwise I don't think we stand a chance.

  3. Completely agree with you on these points. Scientists are doing their job, they are pushing into the world of uncertainty. But we cannot wait and should not wait to take action. As you say, climate change is the biggest market failure, it is the proof that the economic system we have relied on since the cold war is insufficient to produce global well-being. We need to curb population growth, reduce the gap between rich and poor and make sure that we do not trash the remaining natural capital we possess. So let's change the rules of the game...