Connecting Biodiversity, Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation

By Carly Queen
Campus Ecology Organizer
National Wildlife Federation

The first session I attended this morning was called “Connecting Biodiversity, Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation.” I was reminded of important issues to keep in mind when considering the effects of and possible solutions to climate change and informed of several points that I had never heard before. While most of us know that natural ecosystems and the life forms they support will be the first ones affected by a changing climate, it was still shocking to hear that approximately 10% of species on earth will face extinction for every 1 degree Celsius in average global temperature increase. That’s in addition to the species threatened by habitat loss and other non-climate related threats! I also learned that about 20% of human caused greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions come directly from deforestation. So the question is, how do we stop and even reverse deforestation and other forms of land degradation to prevent this release of GHGs and actually increase the earth’s capacity to store carbon dioxide in plants and soil?

The United Nations’ answer to this question is a program called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (REDD), intended to fund reforestation efforts and ecosystem conservation. Learn more about REDD here. At least one of the speakers at this session emphasized that projects funded through the REDD program must carefully evaluated regarding their ecological, cultural and social impacts. Some issues have arisen due to difficulties in monitoring and quantifying the actual impact of REDD projects that have been funded in the past. It seems that in order for REDD to successfully reduce the amount of GHGs in our atmosphere, there must be improved means of estimating and evaluating the effectiveness of projects funded to sequester carbon from the air.

One speaker also suggested that any successful REDD project must have co-benefits beyond just carbon intake. For example, such a project should also support native wildlife repopulation and provide a good livelihood for nearby populations.Immediately after this session, I went to a panel discussion by Indigenous people from Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia. They discussed their experiences with the REDD program and expressed some concerns about the limitations it has. From their perspective, there should be REDD mechanisms for communities to engage in ecological management as they have in the past. They pointed out that land owned by indigenous peoples is often better managed than land owned and managed by others. They were calling for implementation of the proposed REDD-plus program, which would provide support to those who maintain forests in addition to reforestation efforts.

My last session of the day was “Alternative Energy Programmes for the Least Developed and Developing World” in the U.S. Center. According to a Kateri Callahan, President of the Alliance to Save Energy, $170 billion invested in energy efficiency through the year 2020 could result in as much as 50% reduction in global energy demand. $170 billion may sound like a lot but, to give a bit of perspective, General Electric’s 2008 revenue amounted to $183 billion. We spend more than $170 billion each year on our Navy and Marine Corps in the U.S. The savings on energy bills alone would allow the investment to be recovered within a matter of years.

The next panelist was a speaker from GE, who briefly mentioned some of the company’s efforts to export technologies to developing countries. He said that one such technology is Coal Gasification power plants. I remembered learning about this technology in school and how much added processing is needed to convert coal to syngas and then to burn it at extremely high temperatures. So I asked, “How does GE’s coal gasification technology compare to traditional coal plants, as well as renewables?  Specifically, what is the efficiency of such a plant compared to conventional coal, what are the emissions compared to conventional coal and how does the cost compare to, say, PV solar?” He answered my last question first, stating very plainly that he didn’t know what the cost of coal gasification is compared to PV solar or other renewables. I found this to be pretty incredible, since GE also produces PV solar cells and wind turbines. Regarding efficiency, he said that the coal gasification technology is roughly the same as conventional coal-burning power plants. This means that the same amount of coal would be required for either plant to produce a given amount of energy. Emissions is the only category, as far as I could tell, where the “clean” coal gasification technology wins over conventional coal (but of course not over renewables). Supposedly GE’s coal gasification plants are capable of removing CO2 before combustion, which results in a level of emissions that is approximately the same as compressed natural gas (CNG). This means typically a 50-70% reduction in emissions when compared to conventional coal. But then there’s still the cost of construction and the ongoing costs of purchasing coal to run the plant.

Switching existing coal plants to the new model is one thing; exporting them to developing countries is another, especially when citizens would most likely not be able to afford these costs? Why invest in power plants that use non-renewable sources of energy and still emit greenhouse gases, when there are numerous better options available? To find out more about this technology, visit GE’s website. Notice their use of the word ‘efficient’. More technical information about how the plants actually and theoretically work on the DOE’s website.

And now it’s 6:45am in Copenhagen…

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