Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Copenhagen Negotiations (Not!)

Coming back to the Copenhagen conference in December, I want to look the the process that the UN is increasing using to run its conferences. By UN here I am including agencies such as the IMF and the WTO (even though they have separate governing boards and conference rules).

What to me is the worrying tread is that very few countries are allowed to dictate the what the final draft document is to be. At Copenhagen only six countries negotiated the so-called "accord" (it does not make a difference who the countries are).

Let us look at the Copenhagen conference as a test case. Well over 100 countries met there as the Conference of Parties (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to work out a treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol. The secretariat of the UNFCCC is part of the UN secretariat.

Then while the members of the COP were debating, the US got together secretly with five other countries and hashed out a deal with absolutely no influence from the other 100+ delegations. This undermined the whole conference. Indeed what was the purpose of having 100 countries in the first place? The delegates were then given a chance to agree, without any discussion or even sufficient time for them to read the document.

To me worse than the fact that this happened was that the UN host simply allowed it to happen.

This method of having a tiny number of countries to do back room politics while the rest of the sit in the main hall is becoming more and more typical of how UN negotiations are being held. The supreme leader in this area is the IMF where decisions are often said to occur in the "green room". (In this article I am omitting the issues related to real or effective veto power - those are related, but separate, issues).

We need to make sure that decisions are made in the open. Negotiations between individual parties is an important part of any conference, but the determination of the final product must be done in an open forum and only after a full debate where all of the parties can participate. Simply put, when a back room deal is brought to the table it should be immediately rejected by the chair.

Why is this so much of a problem? Again, let us look at Copenhagen. The small island countries are among the most vulnerable, if not the most vulnerable, to climate change (specifically to raising sea levels). They had been very vocal in the lead up to the summit. But their views meant absolutely nothing at the summit, despite the fact that the UN claims that each country has an equal say.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Impact Assessment and the Green Economy

This last weekend they just completed the 2010 annual conference of the International Association for Impact Assessment (IAIA), a professional organization of impact assessment personnel. This year it was hosted, for the first time, by the United Nations Office in Geneva. The theme of this years conference was "Role of Impact Assessment in Transitioning to the Green Economy".

I do not have access to the presentation given, with the exception of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) Executive Director's speech, but I would like to make a few points.

While the improvement of impact assessment is an important issue, I think there are some other issues about environmental impact assessments (EIA's) that need to be addressed first.

The first issue that must be addressed is who writes the EIA. The vast majority of EIA's are done under the auspices of the company whose is proposing the project. They hire a consulting company to do the EIA. Having been a consultant before I know what happens on the inside. It goes something like this: (1) the consultant makes a recommendation based on research, modeling, etc.; (2) the company either accepts the recommendation, rejects it, or suggests changes. These are based on how the recommendations will affect their bottom line; (3) the consultant then rewrites the recommendation (or drops it) to agree with what the company says; and then (4) repeat steps 2 and 3 until the company is satisfied. The problem is obvious.

The second issue is what happens after the EIA is produced. In a large number of cases the EIA is simply ignored, the project goes ahead regardless of the impact. In many other cases the recommendations are not followed through. Often there is no review of the EIA. Sometimes the projects are not monitored to see if mitigation measures have been followed.
Compensation and displacement issues are often ignored or given unrealistic values.

Note that this even occurs with international agencies, especially the World Bank and other development banks (such as the Asian Development Bank). Often they institute environmental review after the project is approved. A good example of this is the Three Gorges Dam. Originally approved by the World Bank, they then dropped their funding of the project after considering it to be environmentally unsound. However, by then the project was already under way.

What about the use of assessment in "transitioning to the green economy"? Using impact assessment for transitioning into the green economy is definitely a important step. Only with assessment can we determine the cost of actions upon the environment and then be able to factor them into the decisions. However, the currently used method of calculating that economy must change before those assessments can have any long-range effects. With the emphasis on Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and economic growth rate, all the impact assessment is for naught. This is because these measures do not take into account the real cost in terms of environment, health, and social costs.

Finally, we need to know what we mean by the green economy. Since the UN hosted the conference, let us look at the UNEP website on their Green Economy Initiative. But in that site I find no definition of the term, instead you see constant referral to "greening the economy". Those are not the same.


My basic point is that to improve impact assessment what we really need to work on is how the assessment is used and how it fits into the "big picture". Only then can we transition to the green economy.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010


The complete inaction at Copenhagen was due to a number of factors - roadblocking by a small number of countries, total inadequate method of running the conference by the UN and Denmark, and large influence of international business (and their lackeys). The first two I will discuss in a future article, but right now I want to look at the influence of business.

What I mean is how business, and note I am referring here to Big Business and the people who support their agenda (and not small mom-and-pop shops, etc.), have unduly influenced how their governments determine what their policy is.

This was what I will call corporatocracy - the running of governments by corporation rather than by the people. I came up with that term, but then found that somebody else has already used it. She however used the term in a slightly different context (the concept that a corporation is legally the same as a person).

What I fear is that we no longer have democracy, but corporatocracy. Abraham Lincoln famously said that America was "for the people, by the people, and of the people". I think that is now "for the corporation, by the corporation, and of the corporation". And do not think that I am only talking about America -- we see this system throughout the world. It seems to be especially true in Germany, the UK, Italy, India, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Canada, Australia, and the Gulf States. And with Copenhagen it is now on the world stage.

What I am implying is that it is big business that is determining who gets elected and determines what the government policies are. They are affecting elections, legislation, executive decisions, rigging environmental impact assessments, writing favorable government reports, and determining national security.

Probably the best example is the economic crisis and its "fixes". Corporate bailouts have been happening world-wide for the last year at initially an astonishing rate. And who pays for all of this? Individuals - not the corporate community. In the US two-thirds of all corporation pay no taxes on their profits. Corporations seem to want the power, but none of the responsibilities.

Election campaigns are all about money, big money. This seems to be universal throughout the world. And where do they get the money. Yep, you guessed it - big business. What really irks me is that when business gives money to these campaigns and then says "Oh, we are not trying to influence public policy". Joke, joke. If that is true than why are they giving the money? - it makes no business-sense to give away money without getting anything in return.

And then there is the lobbying. HUGE amounts of money going into lobbying parliaments. Business groups are constantly putting pressure on national assemblies into not supporting environmental legislation because it affects their bottom lines. There may be environmental NGO's but even in countries where they are strong the amount of spending by business lobbies far outstrips the NGO's. In many other countries they may not exist, or worse, may not even be allowed to exist.

Corporations are also influencing the running of the executive branch of the government. An excellent example of this is an article in PLoS Biology that I was just reading about how the chemical industry in the US sucessfully removed the head of a EPA expert panel which was investigating the hazards of a fire retardant chemical. The EPA removed her, a known expert in the field, without any hearing or investigation.

Another example is a recent case in Thailand. Companies in a industrial estate did not do an environmental impact assessment (EIA) as required by law. A court then ordered the plants shut down. The case was brought by the local population. The response by the companies was to directly appeal to the government to continue the operation of the plants, citing that the ruling would hurt businesses and the economy. Of course, the government gave in setting up a commission to help the businesses involved. So much for government of the people.

This kind of pressure, often done secretly, is routinely done to influence bureaucratic systems. These are especially done in decisions on the environment. I have been amazed at how many projects in the world are done without EIA's even if they are required by the national laws. This even extends to development projects funded by organizations such as the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank.

And then its the use (or abuse) of the judicial system that "deep pockets" like to use. It is not uncommon for corporations to use the courts to bully people with lawsuits. At the same time when sued in the courts for illegal dumping, etc. they use their wealth to delay, interfer, and confuse legal proceedings against them. By delaying a case, they can make the plaintiffs (usually normal citzens) spend more of their little cash. And then when they get a ruling against them they get a small fine (remember that even 100 millions dollars is far less then the earnings of a multinational corporation such as Exxon gets in one day).

But the biggest use of power that big business has is the power of rhetoric. They continuely uses the mantra of free trade to oppose any restrictions, including environmental regulations. They have tried many times to influence international agencies to serve their agenda (often while at the same time influencing their own countries government to restrict imports). Much of this I have already discussed in this article.


The following are what I believe to be some solutions needed in order to return the power to the people:

1. Campaign financing. Let us limit the amount of money which candidates can spend on campaigns. Public financing should also be considered.
2. Reform the corporate tax structure.
3. Not allow any direct lobbying by companies of parliament and strictly limit the amount of lobbying which their associations (which are often masked as non-profit organizations) are allowed.
4. Avoid direct contact between corporations and civil servants.
5. Not allow civil servants and military officers from joining corporations whose businesses are related to their government jobs for a number of years (at least 5).
5. Use the European Union approach to fining corporations, where the amount they must pay is linked to their assets.
6. Reform the judicial system to prevent abuse by companies
7. Reform the international system to reduce corporate influence and increase influence of the people, especially poor people. Organizations that especially standout are the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).
8. Change the way in which UN conferences and other major international meetings are run.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Economic Growth "no longer possible"

There is an interesting article over at the BBC titled Economic growth 'cannot continue'. The article, which discusses a report by the think tank New Economics Foundation, points out that we cannot continue to push economic growth, while at the same time preventing climate change.

That is exactly what I have been trying to say for some time in many of the articles in this blog.

In the BBC article I love the quote by the man from the free-market Adam Smith Institute about the report, "It is precisely this economic growth which will lift the poor out of poverty and improve the environmental standards..."

Of course, he would say that. But is it not the unfettered growth that has gotten us into the global warming problem in the first place?

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Thoughts about the disaster of the response to Haiti

Of course, we have all heard about the disaster in Haiti. The earthquake was a tragedy, but what was more tragic was the disaster in the response to the earthquake.

Despite the spin being but on by the UN and the US, the people on the ground where not getting emergency aid. Listen to the BBC reports from Haiti, especially the first two days. The journalists are all saying that they are seeing no aid coming to the streets.

All of the experts on emergency response say that the first 24 hours are the most critical. And that is precisely where the Haiti relief effort failed.

Within the UN there is set up the Office of the Coordinator of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which is also the Emergency Relief Coordinator, which is designed to coordinate all of the relief agencies, including those from individual countries, the UN, and NGO's.

But it did not seem to work this time. I am sure what went wrong. I can see three possible explanations (or any combination of these). First, is that the United States did not allow OCHA to do their job (see next paragraph). OCHA may of also planned on relying on the UN mission in Haiti, which was severely hampered by the collapse of their building and death of many of their employees. However, that mission does not an emergency relief job. Lastly, it is possible that many organizations where so eager to get into Haiti that they bypassed OCHA. It was like a stampede through a narrow door.

The United States attitude during this operation has been absolutely horrible. It has acted as a bully. Its military went in talking to no one (the UN (especially OCHA), the Haitian government, NGO's, etc) and then said it was in charge. There are many stories of aid from humanitarian organizations (including the US Red Cross) being turned back. So the scenes we saw where gun toting soldiers, and, of course, talk about security of supplies, despite the fact of very little problems.

The root problem is that the US military's official policy is it will not take orders from anyone (which is why there are no US forces within the UN peacekeeping force). It is also interesting to note that they had a humanitarian school, which they closed down.

A related issue that also needs to be looked at here is funding for emergency relief. For other areas of UN work (including peacekeeping) each country is assessed an amount. But for humanitarian work funding is based on voluntary, each country gives what they want, if any. And the funding is mostly on a emergency-specific basis.

That in itself means that funding is unreliable, but worse is that much of what money is pledged is not actually distributed.

Future Responses

We need to have a serious change in the way that the world responses to disasters. Here are some solutions that we must consider in the future:

We need to have responders ready to go anywhere within hours of notice. There must be a realization that when a disaster occurs local responders may be incapacitated. That is especially critical in small countries or countries where the population is concentrated.

Have logistics centers set up around the world in strategic locations. These need to have supplies ready and stand-by personnel.

Increase coordination. The role of OCHA must be reinforced, legally if possible. And they must be ready to take that role - immediately and unconditionally.

The method of funding for humanitarian work must be changed. It needs to be funded on a permanent basis so the agencies need not have to go begging.

Demilitarization of the emergency as it applies to natural disaster relief.