People-friendly Technology to Reduce Global Warming

April 8, 2008

One important area that was not discussed in this week’s Human Security learning module on climate change, but which has received much recent media attention, concerns the crucial role of technology in the struggle against global warming. More specifically, an increasing number of observers (for example, Andrew Revkin from Dot Earth ) have argued that the UNFCCC framework pays insufficient attention to the vital role that new technology will need to play to if we want to radically reduce global carbon emissions without seriously crippling our fossil fuel-dependent economies. As Jeffrey Sachs argues in the latest Scientific American issue states:

Technology policy lies at the core of the climate change challenge. Even with a cutback in wasteful energy spending, our current technologies cannot support both a decline in carbon dioxide emissions and an expanding global economy. If we try to restrain emissions without a fundamentally new set of technologies, we will end up stifling economic growth, including the development prospects for billions of people. The key is new low-carbon technology, not simply energy efficiency.

Economists often talk as though putting a price on carbon emissions—through tradable permits or a carbon tax—will be enough to deliver the needed reductions in those emissions. This is not true. Europe’s carbon-trading system may or may not have modestly reduced emissions, but it has not shown much capacity to generate large-scale research nor to develop, demonstrate and deploy breakthrough technologies. At the margin, a trading system might marginally influence the choices between coal and gas plants or provoke a bit more adoption of solar and wind power, but it will not lead to the necessary fundamental overhaul of energy systems.

With this focus on climate change technology in mind, I began wondering what insights Human Security might offer to this discussion. The general (and admittedly vague) answer might lie in the notion of Human Security advocacy for the development of demand-side technologies that would serve the millions of people in the developing world, linking environmental and developmental concerns. Yale Global Online‘s Margot Cohen writes about “a small stove with big ambitions” (the photo above is borrowed from the article) which I thought provided a potential example of what a “people centered” technology might look like.

The invention of a tiny stove in India demonstrates the link between reduced carbon emissions and improved health – and how technology can contribute to slowing climate change. Global energy giant BP is producing and marketing Oorja, which means energy in Hindu, a small pellet stove that produces substantially fewer emissions than the traditional wood-burning stoves so common throughout India. In developing the stove, BP ran models by rural consumers. A team of businesswomen based in villages sell stoves and fuel made of agricultural waste products, while also offering BP advice on promoting other energy products to rural India’s millions. The multinational corporation does not expect to earn profit on the product until 2010, and the very poor cannot afford it, but the small stove still points to a new direction. In wealthy and poor countries alike, efforts to control climate changes will require innovative and affordable alternative-energy products, combined with meticulous grassroots marketing campaigns in order to change old habits.

While I am sure there are other (and perhaps better) examples of new technologies focusing on the environmental, energy and health needs of the developing world, the “diverse portfolio of actors” involved in the development, marketing, and distribution of this product appealed to my Human Security proclivities.

Any other ideas out there on how the Human Security model might guide us in staving off climate change disaster?

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13 Responses to “People-friendly Technology to Reduce Global Warming”

  1. Alice Leppitt Says:

    I agree that new technology will need to play a role in the world’s efforts to reduce climate change, and the Oorja stove is an excellent example of a human security approach to addressing the issue.

    However, I worry when I read phrases such as ‘technology policies lie at the core of the climate change challenge’, and ideas that new technologies can address climate change without stifling economic growth. To me, this is an ecological modernization perspective incapable of addressing the root causes of climate change. Addressing climate change cannot be win-win as this approach suggests, sacrifices, in terms of growth, will have to be made. There will need to be a redistribution of resources between developed and developing nations, and the use of these resources must become sustainable. The earth at some point (or maybe it already has?) will reach carrying capacity and growth will have to stop, it cannot continue forever.

    When on exchange in Vancouver, Canada, I noticed a number of Community Gardens throughout the city. I believe that these gardens are a good example of a Human Security approach to climate change, which encourages sustainable living. These gardens are a joint initiative between the City of Vancouver and non-profit societies, such as schools, youth groups and community groups. A piece of land is provided to the society to produce food and flowers for the personal use of society members. These community gardens increase the ecological biodiversity of Vancouver and provide increased understanding of local food production. To me, these gardens are an excellent example of a variety of actors working together to contribute to community development, environmental awareness, positive social interaction and community education. These gardens are sustainable initiatives, which are not a part of the profit-driven mindset that has contributed so greatly environmental degradation. http://www.city.vancouver.bc.ca/parks/parks/comgardnpolicy.htm

  2. lmcinhk Says:

    Thanks Alice. I like your example as well. That said, if one of the primary human security concerns is to achieve a more just balance between developed and developing nations, I’m not sure if localizing food production is the answer. The New Yorker’s Michael Specter had an interesting piece (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/02/25/080225fa_fact_specter) which reflect on this issue. I would be interested in hearing your views once you’ve had a chance to read it.

  3. Pretty Chan Says:

    I think the diverse portfolio of actors in this issue makes the reduction of carbon emission complicated. I wonder if “Freedom from Fear” and “Freedom from Want” could be an approach to solving this problem. This can illustrate the inseparable nature of the two schools of Human Security, too.

    As carbon emission increased, and the countries defer responsibility to the countries with large amount of carbon emission in the world, and this is not beneficial to solving the problem. From “Freedom of fear”, countries who are threatened by this environmental danger would respond by realistic and manageable approach. However, the threat now is still not causing an immediate threat such as world flooding (which is shooted in the movie, “The Day After Tomorrow”). People’s alertness to global warming in later stage would be more suitable to explain by “Freedom from fear”.

    For “Freedom from Want”, it is suitable in explaining why companies and countries endeavour to reduce carbon emissions in all ways. Because of the foreseeability of the threats such as global warming, food shortage, flooding, etc., people desires to make an effort to prevent such to happen (or to delay its occurence). For example, Wal-mart Canada changed the strategy of shipping products. ( 25th July, 2007, PR Newswire US) Other conglomerates also introduced sustainability programs and measures throughout their business.

    A “people-oriented” approach would indeed be helpful, as human security focuses environmental, energy and health needs of the developing world, the self-centred attitude of some developed countries should also be taken into account. While Commonwealth joins climate-change battle by agreeing to reduce carbon emission in their home countries (Singapore Strait, 26th November, 2007), Canada insists it will not agree to any Commonwealth resolution endorsing targets to reduced carbon emissions if it excludes developing countries such as India. Admittedly, the effectiveness of international treaties is doubtful if big polluters are not on board and there have to be some trade-offs between broad membership among countries and stringent standards.

    However, as long as countries continue with a ‘you- first’ attitude, allowing environmental priorities to be subverted by political and economic agendas, apocalyptic theories of melting polar ice caps and rising sea levels will eventually become a reality. And when future generations look back, they will blame it on our inaction.

  4. lmcinhk Says:

    Pretty —

    I agree with your general insights (and frustrations) towards the “you first” attitude held by most countries in dealing with climate change.

    That said, your use of the “freedom from fear” and “freedom from want” categories here is problematic. “Fear” and “want” are not meant to refer to two different schools of thought on global politics (or climate change) in general. These two categories refer to supporters of different pathways for implementing a human security agenda, one (fear) which argues for a narrower focus on the reduction of violence, the other (want) arguing for a broader scope of action, which would include developmental goals as well. Freedom from fear/want categories say nothing about how countries would respond to climate change. Be careful about using these categories accurately.

    –LMC

  5. Sannie Au yeung Says:

    I believe that technological solutions should be an important part in our efforts to address global warming and climate change, and that environmental and developmental concerns should be and can be linked. For example, United States has started an international Methane to Markets Partnership ( methane is one of the gases that contributes to climate change). The Partnership advocates that livestock manure, which produces methane when being decomposed, be used to serve as a clean energy source, to meet energy needs of farms. I see this as an example of a human security approach, linking the developmental side ( energy demand) and environmental side ( reduction of methane production). It can be useful in China where methane produced from livestock manure contributed 10 % of China´s total greenhouse gas emission (Methane to Markets Agriculture Fact Sheet (September 2006)). Of course, this project involves substantial amount of capital investment and may not serve the needs of grassroots individuals in the poorest developing countries, but the idea itself is a good start of an approach that can potentially be another individually based approach to reduce greenhouse gases emissions. The key lies in the research and development of cost-effective, very affordable technological products that can be used in utilization of manure.
    My point here is that, while existing technologies ( in a human security approach ) can only serves as compliments to the mainstream environmental policies due to its limited effect and long maturity period( in the case of Oorja , profit return starts at 2010), if society continues to put effort in innovation and development of new technologies that serves the developing world, maybe sooner or later we can have a huge line of technologies that is truly cost effective, environmentally friendly and profitable even in the developing world.
    Apart from technological policies, another very important guide of human security approach is the call for “freedom from hazard impact” ( Hans Gunter Brauch, 2005).
    It seems that the world is still thinking that we have not reached the critical point of having disasters induced by climatic change yet. But, drawing from the experience of the South Asia tsunami, unpreparedness can bring us great devastation in face of natural disasters. The effects can be very severe among vulnerable groups. First, it is the population that has to flee their countries due to climate change. The impact can be very significant especially amongst refugee women and children, who is highly dependent and socially marginalized. Decreased yield of agricultural land, death of livestock and migration can put these groups under risk of hunger , diseases, abuse and violence. Second, it is the economies that are sensitive to climatic change, especially communities that are next to the sea. Farmers whose crops are highly sensitive to temperature change, such as farmers on paddy fields, can suffer very great loss due to sudden climate change. Example is the recent snow storm in China. Villages that are next to the sea cannot deal with rising sea level. If sea level rises by 1 meter as some suggested, these communities cannot protect themselves due to lack of preparation and lack of capital and technology to build walls along the sea side. Even in the developed world, change of climate and related disasters like storms can have serious impacts on this fragile and interdependent world.
    Therefore, human security advocates should push the world to focus more on hazards, distress migration and conflicts that may arise. Freedom from hazard impact means that we should build our capacities on early warning and indentifying vulnerabilities. We should face the reality, that different sorts of hazards – slow onset hazard as rising sea level, rapid onset hazard as flooding and other extreme situations can strike us in our unpreparedness. We should put our effort into minimizing the immediate effects, and the chain of disasters in the aftermath, such as poverty, disease, famine, and regional conflicts.

  6. Bessie Chow Says:

    With the mounting scientific evidence concerning climate changes and its impacts, it is expected that there is growing sense of urgency for stronger international and individual actions. However, as suggested by Pretty, it seems that individual are still reluctant to take immediate action so as to mitigate the effect of climate change. Internationally, the Kyoto Protocol takes effect in 2008 and its first commitment will expire after 2012. In the absence of the US and Australia’s support, the effectiveness of the international law is hindered. It is also foreseeable that the amount of reduced emission will be off set by the increasing emission from the developing countries. Therefore, it is of urgent to advance further negotiation between developed and developing countries about the post-2012 climate change agreement.

    Human security advocates have suggested that the Kyoto approach is a necessary but insufficient response to the problem of global warming. I agree with this argument because I believe that making states committed to climate change issue is difficult because they always claim that economic development should be taken into account and ranked in a higher priority. The prolonged negotiation and disagreement between the developed and developing states about who should bear a greater burden to reduce their emission seems uneasy to settle in the short run.

    In order to mitigate this mentality, I will be in line with other human security proponents that making individual as the moral and political referent for understanding and responding to this critical challenge is necessary to supplement the existing international framework.

    On one hand, many environmental groups or individuals have demanded states to reduce greenhouse gas emission for the sake of sustainable development and health of every one. On the other hand, it seems that individuals are reluctant to change only a few of their daily habits e.g. drive less ( if possible cycle more), use less air-conditioners, turn off unused electronic appliance etc to alleviate climate change impacts. Climate change is an issue that really affects every one and we can feel it right now. For example the Hong Kong Observatory has predicted that there will be no winters in HK in 20 years time. Interestingly, this warning has not touched the local community and people rebutted that we had a cold winter this year. How can we really make them take action before any great disasters happen?

    Unlike issue of landmine or HIV in Africa, we cannot have an excuse like these problems are miles of away and will not influence my quality of life. Therefore, I really do not understand why individual only ask the government to regulate and set guideline for business to reduce emission while we should not be affected i.e. not taking measures to support this movement. Human security paradigm stresses that individual should be the primary referent and accordingly they should also be the first to change their mindset and behaviour, in this case, alter a few of daily habits. A single individual will not made so much difference but if we all do the same things, the impact will be great. The responsibility to protect the environment for future generation should not lies on states but should be shared by every human being.

    Also, human security proponents support that multiple actors are needed to combat the climate change issue. I would suggest that we should encourage the business sector to contribute especially when the idea of corporate social responsibility is getting popular. Like the HSBC in HK (http://www.hsbc.com.hk/1/2/cr/environment/suppliers), they have conducted a research on Climate Confidence Index, sponsoring different organizations to combating climate change and implement environmental guidelines in their operation. I think this practice should be encouraged and cooperation with commercial sector should be explored because they will become potential partners for financing research and development of affordable alternative-energy products.

  7. Alice Leppitt Says:

    Hi LMC,

    The article by Specter was interesting. I have heard parts of that debate on the relationship between food production and carbon-footprints before. Specter further highlighted how complicated the issue is.

    In terms of human security, perhaps continuing importing and exporting foods(preferably by ship, not aeroplane or trucks), instead of trying to shift entirely to localised products, would both help climate change and provide a more just balance between developed and developing nations. Importing goods, such as roses from Kenya, can be carbon-efficient and provide important investments in developing countries.

    However, for individuals, buying seasonal, local vegetables and growing your own vegetables, can be an enjoyable experience, which is also helpful to the environment.

    As Specter argues, not just one approach but ‘many approaches … will be necessary to lower our carbon emissions’ (p7). I believe that community gardens in Vancouver, managed in an environmentally aware way, can be empowering and helpful to the environment. Just as community gardens in developing nations could be. I don’t think that they will provide major answers to any big questions, but they can be positive stepping stones.

    As you can see from my rambling on a bit, I am still quite overwhelmed by the large, complicated scale that the climate change problem exists on. It really will require a local, national and primarily global response.

  8. Jeni Cheung Says:

    First I don’t quite agree we need a whole new set of low carbon technologies because we already have: solar power, wind power etc. Second, the cost and time needed for new set of technologies to be developed will be extremely high and long. I think we do have the technologies which are suitable to solving the problem. It is just that these technologies, at the moment, are not affordable enough. But we can see solar panels are becoming cheaper and cheaper. If governments are willing to devote resources or just money to curbing the problem, CO2 admission can surely be lowered. Switzerland and France have much solar technologies in place. They have Environmental Performance Index (EPI) of 95.5 and 87.8 respectively. Iceland uses its natural geo-thermal energies…

    One of the focus of human security is bottom up and people centred approach, in France, the government encourages people to use solar technologies. For firms, “France offers a 20-year feed-in tariff of €0.55 for onshore BIPV… local subsidies are available for BIPV projects…” For individuals, “France provides a tax credit covering 50 percent of the cost of solar energy equipment installed at their homes. Individuals also receive a reduction in the value-added tax on their equipment.” I think this is a very good example of involving the local firms and citizens to curb global warming together.

    Therefore, if countries like the US, who deems herself as the world leader, take measures to encourage replacement of oil energy to renewable energies like what France does, she would have set a very good example for other countries to follow. Defending national interest now surely does not help to decrease her dependency on oil which will become a serious problem for her in the future. SO why not start changing now?

    I also believe that as global warming will bring all sorts of disaster, it is very important to start taking measures which will prevent or solve those future problems, instead of only relying on renewable resources, technology and treaties. For example, if we can foresee that there will be food shortage due to climate change, then we should start using strategies that would ensure the impact of food shortage can be minimize. For instance, the government can encourage citizens to become more enviromental friendly, more energy efficient taxis, factories to replace old ones, educating citizens, becoming self-sufficient on food… Policies now can have a long lasting impact and we must not forget the importance of preparation as it is very likely that the situation will continue to worsen. In this case, people’s human security will not be affected by as much. This is the quickest way to solve these future problems.

    http://www.technologyreview.com/france/solar.aspx

  9. Sannie Says:

    I want to reply to Jeni’s comments.

    I do think that the measures like encourging citizens to become more enviornmental friendly, and use more energy efficient vehicles – these are really important measures in reducing climte change. These policies, however, do not achieve maximum effect due to limited advocacy – and if these are push to a very large extent , I believe they can have significant impact on clmiate change.

    However, I do believe that we should continue to explore different alternatives of energy – yes we have solar energy and the like, but after all these years of development they are still not widely used – and it is not very likely in the near future that they will be widely used – maybe these energy sources do have their limited capacities.

    I have recently read a piece of news – that an engineering student in Taiwan won an international competition for developing a car engine that uses only consume water to generate energy – and that it releases water ( not CO2) , as the end product. I do think this is a very encouraging development – and I believe that it is always a way out to innovate and devlop cheap, efficient, non-polluting alternative energy sources. Of course, it can go along with the various measures and promotion of alternative energy sources we have.

  10. Ivan Kwong Says:

    I agree that new technology has a role to play in alleviating global warming. To tackle this pressing problem of the world, we have to think of innovative ways to improve situations at both demand-side and supply-side. In other words, we need to use less energy, and if we are to use it, then in a more efficient way.

    I like the idea of combining mitigation efforts with preventive measures when combating global warming. While we always focus on energy conservation, ways to reduce air pollution, new technologies to save resources etc., we have neglected the group of people who are the most vulnerable to global warming. Those people living in the developing world and beside the sea are at the front line of the battle against global warming. We cannot just sit comfortably in an air-conditioned room and be complacent on our little efforts in contributing to a green environment. We have to care about these people whose houses may be washed away by big water waves tomorrow.

    Calling for a change of our bad habits in energy wastage is of vital importance. Sometimes the culture has a crucial role to play. Apart from the very good example of “small stove” in India, there are many great green practices which we can learn from in other parts of the world. In Japan, a lot of roof gardens have been built to reduce temperature indoors, so that air-conditioning will take less energy to maintain the same temperature. Also, the Japanese chain store “Muji” has successfully established a green culture, or even a trend. These examples show that how a culture of environmental protection can be so helpful when it comes to saving the earth.

  11. Eugenia Chan Says:

    I believe that technology improvements should be a major part in tackling global warming. If we do not improve technology in terms of carbon and other greenhouse gases emissions, reduction of emissions would necessitate slowing down of economy. I think it would be more useful to discuss how we are going to provide incentive for technology improvements than throwing out examples how technology can be improved.

    1. Individual-centred approach should be adopted to include more countries and coalitions to tackle the global warming. Global warming affects the interest of all. If we continued with our state-centred approach, countries would invoke national interest and refuse to cooperate. It is apparent from the example of the US refusing to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Although as Sannie has mentioned the US is working on the reduction of methane, the plan is not binding. If bound by the target of the Protocol, I believe the US would have much more incentive in reducing its methane reduction.

    Also, we should not stick to state-centred approach include a wide range of actors. Civil groups and NGOs can advocate for increased awareness of the global warming problem. This can form a norm for more incentive to environmental-friendly innovations. Furthermore, many business organizations such as KPMG and HSBC as Bessie mentioned conducted research on carbon trade. We should make use of the concept of corporate social responsibility to encourage businesses’ committment to tackling global warming. Also, they might invest on environmental-friendly technology.

    2. It is suggested that under the Kyoto Protocol there can be carbon cap and trade. This has already been implemented in the European Union. Under the proposal, emission quota are open for 6 major greenhouse gases. Countries can buy and sell carbon quotas and they are also free to sponsor carbon reduction projects.

    According to the World Bank, the carbon trade market in 2005 has expanded by 240% compared to that in 2004. London, being the biggest market in carbon trade, has accumulated over $US 100 billion by now. This great potention of the carbon trade provides great incentives for countries as well as private companies to research on new people-friendly technologies. Also, efficiency can be enhanced in carbon reduction as comparative advantage can be better utilized under market principles.

    3. Finally, global warming should be elevated to a security problem instead of environmental problem. The globe is becoming hotter and hotter and in 2008 the Scientiest from the breaking off of ice cap in the polar regions observe that ice melting is going faster thanw we anticipated. This threat is really imminent and would kill more lives than many other security threats in the world. As seen from the South Asia Tsunami, natual disaster brought about by global warming can be very destructive.

    By elevating the threat to security threat, we can raise awareness and can bring it to be higher level in the UN and ask for more collective efforts. This provides a more formal framework to tacklet the problem together and in turn faciliate comprehensive implementation of plans on global scale to newer technology improvements on carbon-reducing.

  12. Kenny To Says:

    After reading many supportive comments, I would like to address a pessimistic view. Is shaping the issue into a human-centered issue really helps? I doubt, at least in the context of Hong Kong.

    Besides technology and economic conflict, what immediate springs to my mind on environmental issue are the lack of awareness towards the issue, lack of alertness of the serious drawbacks and most importantly, the lack of motivation to contribute to solve the problem.

    My friend is one of the organizers of environmental groups in my hall and HKU. She always speaks these concerns to me. She always blames that only few people would like to border about the topic even in the university where students are expected to be more provident and active in serious issue not to mention the lack of concern from the general public in Hong Kong revealed from many researches. (Sorry that I do not meet her these days, I would later ask for the source of researches.)

    In my opinion, I totally concur with her. I confess that climate change is certainly “inconvenient truth”. We should face it squarely as soon as possible. However, In Hong Kong, a realistic society, people do not concern much for an issue which is remote. Even they know about it, they do not feel it. In Hong Kong, we do not face natural disasters. We are not threatened by tsunami in Srilanka, earthquakes in Japan, Tornadoes in USA, so on and so forth. Our major climate change may only be a hotter summer and a cooler winter. To ordinary citizens, this is in no way a big problem. They only need to switch on air-conditioners and wear more clothes respectively. Thus, Hong Kong people do not get alert with the problem. There is no eminent effect on them. They do not suffer directly. They may think that “Yes, it is a serious problem, but let only people of hundreds years later to suffer it and scientists must have ways to solve it.” They only concern and demonstrate for cutting the social welfare. So, they don’t even concern about it, let alone they would contribute to solve it.

    Shaping the issue into a human security problem, as we have learnt, hopes to draw attention and contribution from different levels of actors, ranging from states to individuals. However, as mentioned, it does not help so in a society which is still not affected or is only remotely affected by the climate problem like Hong Kong. Moreover, sometimes, changing the issue into a human-centered issue can bring the contribution of states when it would not be regarded as a problem in a state level. Yet, the root of the successful cases lies in the basis that the issue would really be faced if it is put in front of an individual. As a result, states, governments, which work aiming in pursuant of citizens’ interests, can hardly be expected to work actively if the citizens do not even concern it.

    Therefore, at least in Hong Kong, such a changing in describing the nature of the issue would not make any significant change so as to contribute to solve the problem. People are fundamentally unmotivated unless there is blizzard on the day after tomorrow.

    Perhaps, I should be more optimistic. Let’s follow what the article suggests that we place hope on the technology then. Yes, scientists will solve it!

  13. lmcinhk Says:

    Kenny —

    I agree that “the threat of climate change” doesn’t motivate your average person to action, especially when major lifestyle changes are involved. Yet, i do think our political leaders have the obligation to constantly warn people of the risk of inaction on these issues.

    Hong Kong faces vulnerability towards storm surges and sea-level rises (i.e. and its impact on property prices); towards food price rises (since it imports all of its food); towards the threat of environmental refugees from China; and towards jeopardized access to fresh water supplies resulting from environmental degradation in China. Hong Kong’s future depends on China and China’s vulnerability to climate change induced environmental disasters is acute.

    Experiencing Hong Kong’s worsening air quality and China’s environmental deterioration should provide some sense of urgency towards this issue. Moreover, when there are so many fledgling grassroots environmental and alternative energy projects seeking to make a difference in China, contributions from individual Hong Kongers can make have a big impact.

    — LMC


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