On the first day of the Asia Pacific Carbon Week 2018, I attended a panel titled “Transport in Cities – Parties and Non-Party Stakeholders Working Together to Deliver Low Carbon Urban Mobility”. The panel was straightforward in its presentation, delivering technological solutions that have tackled urban mobility challenges. However, I found myself thinking about the core of change in the context of climate action throughout the session, something that many sessions failed to address during the APCW.
When we think about the main culprits behind climate change (I am talking sectors, not people), we think energy usage, food production, fossil fuel burning, etc. What we neglect to discuss are our everyday actions that drive the main climate change contributors. Climate action is a tough-sell because many people cannot relate to the subject matter as climate change implications take time to impact individuals directly. The lack of empathy is compounded by the call for climate action causing behavioral change. Who would want to give up the comfort of their air-conditioned homes to cut their carbon footprints down by a little? I say no way. But how would it be should policies catalyze the behavioral change? It would definitely be a different story because the population will then be motivated to make the most economic choices.
In the urban transportation context, the panel reaffirmed that good policy will make good changes. Cities hold a great density of everything – people, services, culture, economic activity, accessibility, and more. These elements that constitute a city are intrinsically linked. That is why city management is a grand task, because one policy always affects another. Some institutions and governments recognize cities as grounds (literally) for policy experiments. Take China’s pilot programs on carbon emission trading and London’s efforts in redesigning transportation corridors. None of them are guaranteed successes, but in return for risk, new policy strategies are unveiled.
Thinking in terms of the energy usage and the resulting emission in urban areas, transportation is a big driver of climate change. The transportation industry itself already produces approximately 23% of the global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from fuel combustion. Although urban greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions fluctuate depending on population, density, infrastructure and stages of development, we can link city growth to increased transportation and increased GHG emissions. A 2009 World Bank study of seventeen sample cities have shown that the increased GHG emissions are linked to increased urban transport energy use. In the Asia-Pacific region alone, urban areas are home to 60% of the world’s urban population. Estimates have projected that the region’s urban population will grow to 1 billion people, or two-thirds of the region’s population. With a growing population, the demand for transportation increases because, as panelist Ms. Talya Romano from SloCaT put it “everybody needs to be at places and everybody needs to commute”. The questions that follow the phenomenon then become these: how can we scale up transportation and do it in a way that doesn’t amplify climate change contributions?
Mr. Mohamed Mezghani, Secretary General from the International Association for Public Transport (UITP) emphasized that traditional infrastructures for car usage cannot meet the growing demand of transportation, especially since the current management cost of infrastructure is approximately 10% of a nation’s GDP. He mentioned that this problem presents an opportunity to shift the traditional system of cars and decarbonize urban transport systems. Per population head, public transportation usage emits 30 – 40% less emissions compared to car usage. He listed compact planning and transportation development as a solution, but these are low hanging fruits. The real challenge to get countries to commit to low carbon development in the long term.
The discussion continued as Ms. Dechen Tsering, Regional Director of UN Environment in Asia and the Pacific, talked about the potential of climate action that comes with decarbonizing urban transportation systems. She mentioned that regional governance should take the opportunity to engage with more private and public companies and stakeholders to achieve Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). NDCs have important 2020 emission targets, and rethinking urban transportation acts as a well-established solution. Ms. Tsering called for more political will in translating clearer action plans and having concrete goals in getting to their NDCs. She gave an example of some Southeast Asian cities having measures to address the emission of black carbon particulate matters, but fail to engage with private sectors to hold them accountable and involve them in the effort to decarbonize cities. According to Ms. Tsering, cities need to think more in order to remain the level of ambition going forward with decarbonization.
Mr. Thani Ahmed Al Zeyoudi, the Minister of Climate Change and the Environment of the UAE, shared with the crowd some of the steps that the UAE has taken in supporting long term decarbonization of urban transportation. According to Mr. Al Zeyoudi, the UAE chose to concentrate on decreasing emissions of existing vehicles on the road. For example, they have rolled out new fuel-efficient public buses that have decreased carbon footprints. In addition, fuel prices and subsidies have been adjusted to favor fuel-efficient vehicles. As a country, they have also participated in South-South technological transfers. The ministry is currently engaged in project grants worth USD $30 million in a number of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) to build capacity on climate adaptation.
The panel’s private sector representatives, Mr. Eric Grab, Vice President of the Strategic Anticipation, Innovation and Sustainable Development at Michelin, and Mr. Sun Muqian, Chairman of TAILG, highlighted some of the roles their companies have played in moving towards NDCs’ urban decarbonization goals. Mr. Grab mentioned that his department is currently working under the Transport Decarbonisation Alliance (TDA), launched as part of COP 23’s Transport Day in 2017, to accelerate the transition to an overall net-zero emission economy. Michelin’s strategy is to identify and share best practices, develop synergies between the 3Cs (country, cities and regions), and advocate for transport decarbonization in high political level discussions. Mr. Grab highlighted that his department identifies market trends and economically viable projects to invest in, focusing on bringing suitable technologies to the market. On the other hand, Mr Muqian, whose company is based in China, highlighted the role of governmental policies in catalyzing green vehicles. TAILG is a UN Environment Programme (UNEP) partner, specializing in promoting electricity powered vehicles. They are currently operating their pilot programs in eight countries, of which three are in Asia (the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam). Among the ten solutions their company has put forward, they emphasize on streamlining guidelines of green vehicle transitions on the national level and local level. With the strong support of the Chinese government behind the rise of green technology in the past decade, it is no surprise that these are the solutions TAILG is advocating for, because the centralized focus works.
Ms. Talya Romano, the Chief Operating Officer from SLoCaT, closed the panel session with a strong message on sustainable transportation as the future. She calls to attention the need for cost-effective and accessible transportation. Climate change mitigation solutions today are marketed for people who can afford them. In order to achieve climate justice for the present and future generations, everyone should be able to make the most economic choices equally. Another message that Ms. Romano shared with the crowd was about cooperation. Civil society, NGOs and Academia are the people who know what we need and what we want. If there is a continuous gap between the government, private sector, and civil society, it would be difficult to reach the NDCs before the deadline. Ms. Romano turns to the scalable solutions and projects that have been tested and proven as of today, and reaffirms that we can make urban transportation convenient and sustainable. All we need is a little more willpower to set us off in the right direction.
Can Blockchain Save the Planet?
It’s 5:15pm, Day 2 of the Asia Pacific Climate Week (APCW 2018), and my brain has already hit a critical point of information overload. In the midst of sipping on black tea and recovering from a quick social media huddle, my colleague came over, pointed to his left and mouthed one word “blockchain”.
What is that?
My curiosity peaked. After a quick skim of the program and feeling the caffeine creeping to my head, I found myself rushing to Virgo 2 (name of room) to attend a session that I knew nothing about.
The projector displayed an impressive title, “Digitising Sustainability: Blockchain for Climate Action”, with a panel of six sitting in front of the screen. Mr. Joseph Pallant, the founder and executive director of Blockchain for Climate opened the session with a concise address on how blockchain can save the planet.
Blockchain, I learned, was a digital tool we could use to “perform rigorous projects and close the loop of turning stuff into offsets”. Being distant from developments in the technology sector, I took a quick trip to the google-verse to read up on the hype behind blockchain. Having scoured through at least ten separate sites, I do see how and why blockchain could save the planet.
Blockchain is a database that is constantly updated and verified by users, in a mutual distributed network. Data is stored as blocks and the blocks are chained each other, creating an ever-growing list. The chains are a form of cryptographic measure, and each consequent block contains a timestamp and transaction data of the former block. The cryptographic hash means that network members can surveil the records, ensuring that the information shared is transparent.
Once the data in blocks have been recorded, they cannot be altered without the consent of network peers. What makes the technology reliable is its five principles – distributed database, peer-to-peer transmission, transparency with pseudonymity, irreversibility of records, and computation logic. Since its launch in 2008, blockchain technology has been used as public ledgers for cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, smart contracts, banking ledgers, and more.
According to Mr. Pierre Rousseau, Senior Strategic Advisor of Sustainable Business from BNP Paribas, the technology will revolutionize carbon trading because now the issuers, traders and brokers have access to same information, cutting out the middle man and allowing free market forces to act at full force. What the technology entails is the centralized systems like energy systems may no longer be beyond our reach. Having a blockchain market will give people a choice in their power sources. They may even sell their surplus power generated from their own roof-top solar panels.
Mr. Jeffery Liu, the founding partner of Xarbon Sustainability further elaborated on the importance of transparency in carbon trading. Like any market transaction, Mr. Liu explained, a unit may be double-counted and sold twice if we do not have visibility. Transaction can also be costly without the level of transparency blockchain offers because it requires due diligence and time. With cryptohash system, network peers are able to do their own due diligence. Having the right knowledge to correctly implement the system and build its infrastructure would not hurt either. For Ms. Deanna MacDonald, the CEO of BLOC, cryptocurrency in the blockchain system also offers “verified and valid assets that can be traded”, meaning that it has great liquidity.
So how does blockchain technology have a role in climate change mitigation? Now, the panel proceeded to let us in on the secret behind making climate action work – making the marriage between the UNFCCC standards and offset benefits work in our everyday lives. Turns out, mega projects are not hip anymore. All the resources and money could be better paid off when specialized and distributed to the masses.
Mr. Rousseau also mentioned that the future of climate financing will be ushered in by the support of climate action on a community level. In aggregate, small projects investors can be attracted and make a positive impact in climate action. An example would be facilitating clean energy trading between consumers. Consumers may conduct a transaction using digital assets within a market. The technology is also an improved carbon emission trading system, as mentioned before.
In China, IBM and Energy Blockchain Lab are developing a pilot platform to trade carbon assets. Blockchain technology has also improved tracking of carbon credit transactions between companies and entities, as well as their emissions. With blockchains’ level of transparency, the technology may be used as a tool for the tracking and reporting of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and even implemented as part of the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) monitoring process.
On official terms, the UN Climate Change secretariat initiated the creation of the Climate Chain Coalition (CCC) during the One Planet Summit on 12 December 2017 in Paris. The CCC aims to explore the potential of distributed ledger technology (DLT) and blockchain technology in facilitating climate action. Among the coalition’s principles and values, CCC members state their intent to align with the long-term goals of the Paris Agreement and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. The members’ charter also addresses collaboration, technology neutrality, standardization and dissemination of benefits.
However, there was no clear verbiage on supporting the mobilization green finance, especially on making the technology, incentives and solutions available to the hardest-hit communities. Sure, DLT and blockchain technology is a great way forward, but it does not provide a sustainable method to bridge the gap between the right solutions and delivering them to the right problems. However, I have to note that the panel was presented in the point of view where blockchain technology can be mobilized for offsets for mostly Annex I countries, particularly in the talk of blockchain being used in the future to monitor the International Transferred Mitigation Outcomes (ITMOs) that is listed Article 6.2 of the Paris Agreement.
That said, blockchain is still in its nascent stage and there are a number of obstacles in the way of becoming a ready solution. Ms. MacDonald mentioned that as an emerging technology, there are no real regulations on a global scale. There is also no single system to go with, and until the network has inter-operability, people will have to learn to navigate through different operating platforms. Ms. MacDonald also brought up a great point about disintermediation and avoiding, with the lack of better paraphrasing, the “crap in crap out problem”. As mentioned earlier on in the article, an advantage of blockchain technology is its ability to get rid of the middle man.
Contrary to that, Ms. MacDonald believes that the sources of offset projects are still the actors in the supply chain. The digital realm still needs to rely on eyes on the ground to source “products” and make sure that these “products” are well-integrated into the system for consumption, which brings us to the problem of capacity building. Mr. Liu adds on by saying that data can only be stored “trustlessly” when implemented properly, meaning that the system will still be imperfect because offline data still requires oracles.
For a new technology, its plans to tackle the Paris Agreement head-on seem to be ambitious – for most of the world does not have the technical knowledge and infrastructural capacity to mobilize their personal participation. When asked about actions that will generate most impact to change, Mr. Liu quips in that it is not entirely up to regulation but it is about behavioral change. He believes that the success of blockchain technology in climate action depends on how the technology is marketed.
Using the diamond as an anecdote, as long as blockchain is marketed as a premium tool that you have to be informed to access, consumers will want it. Ms. MacDonald responded by pointing to the market mechanisms to make blockchain a viable consumer case. “Money makes it happen” she stated.
As the panel wraps up, I was left thinking, was this just another promise plug? Seems like it. I was not convinced by the excessive optimism sprinkled on by the moderator’s closing remarks on blockchain bringing capital, resources, and information all together.
Combing through my notes, I came across an uncredited set of bullet points with the message from a panelist – “We need to be realistic. It’s going to take time, money, (and) dead ends. We need to go in to provide the proof. We have the responsibility to define the problem”. Perhaps that is what it takes for blockchain to be a verified solution – a little more time, money and proof.
Transitions in the New Era
On the third day of the Asia Pacific Climate Week 2018, the panels gave me an insight to job transitions moving forward in climate action! While I kid around with the introduction (my professors always tell me to write with a sense of style à la Pinker but practically), the panel was refreshing in a carbon forum packed with private and pitch-heavy sessions. The panel, moderated by Al Jazeera’s Senior Correspondent Steven Chao, discussed the socioeconomic implications as countries gravitate towards low emission sustainable development.
Economics 101 on labor discussed the different categories of unemployment – cyclical, structural, technical, seasonal, regional, classical, frictional, etc. Technical and structural unemployment are inevitable as industries make necessary changes to comply with new policy standards like energy compliances, and consumer behavioral shifts. Polish High Level Champion Mr. Tomasz Chruszczow called attention to the recognition of having just workforce transitions in the Paris Agreements, as noted in the preamble, Article 4.15, as well as 1/CP.21 and 11/CP.21. The main message was to make sure employees would be able to find decent work and quality jobs as changes occur. However, at the current pace of the Paris Agreements coming into reality, just transitions have not been addressed with a conceptual framework with action plans to account for the impacts on the workforce. Mr. Chruszczow reminded the audience as from panels before, that political buy-ins will be the tipping point for just transitions to happen.
Mr. Albert Magalang, the chief of the climate change division of the Environmental Management Bureau, Philippines, elaborated on the plans for just transitions. Addressing the new green jobs act, Mr. Magalang mentioned some of its salient features, which include offering decent work and building human capital, offering incentives to expand on relevant job skills, and emphasizing on active social dialogue in work spaces. Citing a recent overhaul of open-pit mining in the Philippines, the vulnerable workers are undergoing skill-expansion training to ease into related work fields. Similarly, Ms. Alysha Bagasra from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, talked about New Zealand’s newly established Just Transitions Department. New Zealand’s government recently announced their goal to transition to a carbon-neutral economy by 2050. The Just Transitions Department will aim to ensure “no one is left behind” and that policies will be related to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). She notes that the economic transition will definitely generate new opportunities but would take away others in the short term.
Representing the civic society, Mr. Shoya Yoshida, the General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation Asia Pacific, emphasized that social dialogue will be the key in the endeavor to ensure just transitions. Approaching the issue from a community basis has its benefits, for decision makers will be able to identify the key lacks and wants from employers and employees. Mr. Yoshida also offered an interesting solution, which is to change the social culture in workplaces. In traditional Eastern Asian workspaces, there is a hierarchical arrangement of team “tasks”. “What is important is that employers recognize creativity of worker, and listen to them.” Ms Pamela Mar, Director of Supply Chain Futures and Sustainability, Fung Management, agrees with needing a change in work culture. The manufacturing industry in Asia is all about being big, cheap and efficient. Ms. Mar mentioned that the industry is undergoing large scale digitization, having seen major workshops cutting down human labor, like downsizing from 14,000 to 250 personnel in 18 months in Thailand. She looks to data as an important tool in employment transitions. “We should be using data to pinpoint and identify important issues people face when undergoing work transitions”. Former workplaces need to give workers relevant skills, so that when they leave the workforce, they still have relevant skill-set to the economy.
When moderator Mr. Chao asked who should be responsible for the just transitions, the panel gave mixed responses. Mr. Yoshida responded that companies should be held responsible for the wellbeing of their workers. He also believed that governments should plan for policy shifts that will create incentives for private companies to transition to digitization and invest in employees. Ms. Mar expressed that incentives for private companies are important but not as important as “changing the dialogue” of the workplace. Going back to the topic of Asian work culture, she stressed that the space should be collaborative enough for creative solutions to be proposed and carried out. With no communication between managers and employees, the wants and needs of both parties will not be communicated well. In the end, workers will be at loss. She also pointed out the need to have a reform in education, so that workers can come out with transferable skill-sets. Ms. Alysha chimed in that private and public sectors should start planning now, because convergence of digitization, climate policies, emission cuts, and more are happening very quickly. “We need to plan, manage and be aware of things that we do not necessarily predict to happen.” Just transitions can only happen if we start building the capacity to absorb the impacts of change today.
Written by Cai May
Edited by Arief, Varun and Renee