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From the Executive Director: Climate change and the developing world

January 6, 2010

During the week of Dec. 14, IRIS’s executive director Del Christensen traveled to Copenhagen, Denmark, to attend the United Nations Climate Change Conference. Here are his thoughts on the conference:

The United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 15) in Copenhagen is now history. The conference left many disappointed for numerous reasons.

Members of nongovernment organizations (NGOs), including their own United Nations Association, were kept waiting in line for hours outside in the cold Denmark winter. I was one of those UNA delegates waiting to get into the Bella Center.

Having received notification before traveling to Copenhagen that our credentials had been approved and we would only need to pick up those credentials to begin attending the conference, I was shocked to find myself waiting in line for more than 4 hours on the first day of my arrival, only to be turned away as they closed the doors to additional NGO representatives.

The second day, we came earlier and waited in line (once again, outside in the snow) for 6 ½ hours before finally making it inside the center. After another 1 ½ hours waiting in lines inside, we finally received our credentials and were informed that this was the only day we would be able to attend the conference. We made the most of the few remaining hours of the day, but you can imagine our dismay.

Thousands of people wait in line to get inside the Copenhagen Climate Conference.

By noon the next day, the total passes to NGO representatives was down to 300 total from the thousands that were there to take part in this important moment in history.

International NGOs play a critical role in the frontline implementation of changes in global policies. To exclude this important sector sent a clear message to many that COP15 was not going to be the strong follow-up to the Kyoto Protocol that the world was hoping for.

Solutions place focus on emerging, developing countries

Despite the disappointment, I do feel there were two important take-home messages from this conference.

The first point is that four countries found themselves for the first time on center stage. China, India, Brazil and South Africa have been known for some time to be growing sources of carbon dioxide emissions, but they also collectively represent a growing economic force on the world stage.

These four countries form what is now called the BASIC group. The rest of the world will not be able to craft a future agreement on climate change without these four countries playing a key role. The resulting Copenhagen Accord officially recognized the importance of those four countries and will forever include them in the negotiating table from this point forward.

The second important, yet less obvious message, is that just as with the BASIC group of countries, we need to work with other developing countries to make certain we don’t continue to make the same mistakes of relying solely on fossil fuels to power these countries.

One and a half billion people in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa still live without power. Looking both from a logistical standpoint in rural areas as well as a global standpoint, developing countries are the perfect place to implement smart-grid and distributed generation systems. These systems using many small power generating facilities using renewable energy rather than one central power supply makes better use of all renewable resources and a more stable and secure energy future for these countries.

The road ahead is a critical one.  We all need to get beyond the political wrangling and see the opportunities to help developing countries accelerate their transition to efficient and renewable energy.

Let’s learn from our own mistakes and help these countries start off their energy development on the right foot. One that will be sustainable, more reliable and bring economic, social and environmental benefits to these nations. COP 15 may not have resulted in the end-all agreement, but it is pointing the entire world in an important direction.

More about the author

Christensen is the Executive Director of IRIS Inc., and has been involved with IRIS programs since 2002. He has led groups to Armenia, Georgia, Tanzania and Nigeria.

He is a past president of the Iowa Renewable Energy Association and still serves on the advisory board of that organization. Christensen also is the current president of the Ames Chapter of the United Nations Association.

A graduate of Iowa State University in Aquatic Ecology, he has also worked as an environmental consultant with local, state and international environmental groups. Prior to working with IRIS, Christensen was involved in the development, review and/or pilot testing of more than 10 different educational curricula and programs.

In addition to his work with IRIS, Christensen has also helped to develop several Rotary International World Service projects in West Africa and serves on the Iowa-Yamanashi Sister State Committee.

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