Eye on Earth Summit Wrap

December 19, 2011


This blog article has been produced for Eye on Earth Summit 2011 by SciDev.Net Conference Service, which maintains all editorial independence.

Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre/ Flickr

The Arab world has always been renowned for two of humanity’s greatest qualities — modesty and hospitality. At the Eye on Earth Summit, in Abu Dhabi (12–15 December), these two qualities have been present in abundance.

Modesty, in the gentle urging of UN nation states to come together to share environmental data through the Eye in Earth Declaration, announced on 15 December, and now being taken forward to Rio+20 summit; and hospitality in that the world’s environmental data should be hosted on an open source internet platform — data available for all to use to help understand the state of the planet and planetary resources and to help predict future scenarios of sustainability or environmental disaster.

Almost every session at the summit brought together existing data sets. Marton–Lefavre, director general IUCN, Sylvia Earle, oceanographer, explorer, CEO Mission Blue, and Jane Goodall, Founder of the Jane Goodall Institute, talked of the shocking status of biodiversity and eco-system decline on both land and sea.

Mathis Wackernagel, president of Global Footprint Network talked about declining global resources and the impacts on the world economy, and Najib Saab, a publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Al-Bia Wal-Tanmia (Environment & Development) talked about the state of water resources in the Middle East and public access to information.

But, a loud statement came from many of the sessions at the summit on our current knowledge of environmental data and protesting our lack of action by governments in light of it, eloquently expressed by Sylvia Earle: “I can forgive ignorance but not with our eyes wide open … the science is new, and the policy hasn’t been done yet.”

If the UN nation states do decide to share environmental data, as urged by the summit, then we will eventually begin to fill in the gaps in unknown global information on biological and physical resources and of earth systems, but will we do anything about avoiding the potentially disastrous scenarios of the future? And who will police the use and misuse of this evidence and the predicted scenarios that result?

Calls for a World Environment Organisation (WEO) that can administer, have oversight over and mitigate environmental impacts of world trade are on the Agenda for Rio+20. The evidence is clear we are at the ‘turning point’, what governments decide today will impact on humanity’s long term future. Another theme that came through at the summit was that of environmental data and the role of global business, in particular Google’s and Microsoft’s involvement in the environmental data revolution. As Ed Parson from Google stated: “From the earliest days of Google Earth back in 2005 we have been very interested in making environmental information more accessible which is what is behind Eye on Earth.” Over one billion people have downloaded Google Earth, so that now people can even access environmental information in their bedrooms. Likewise, Stephen Emmott from Microsoft talked about their development of new tools to analyse and enable action in relation to huge existing data sets.

One wonders whether caution needs to be considered in relation to business and access to global environmental datasets. When I talked about the conference with a fellow passenger on my way home from the conference, he pointed out if big business can access the data, they may also be able to abuse it. He pointed out that we might give industrial fishing companies access to where the global hotspots for marine biodiversity are, or pharmaceutical companies access to important but critically endangered species — indeed business could continue to take Sterns “business as usual approach” once the global data is available. One wonders whether global business needs a declaration of responsible action for sustainability, similar to that being devised by the International Council of Mining and Metal.

Tracy Irvine

Educational soap operas over the phone

December 18, 2011


This blog article has been produced for Eye on Earth Summit 2011 by SciDev.Net Conference Service, which maintains all editorial independence.

How a small communication gadget called the mobile phone can transform the way we do things and change our lifestyles continues to amaze. So many things have already been done with it but new innovations make its uses appear inexhaustible.

One example is an interactive audio soap opera aimed at teaching households how to separate waste, which is now being piloted in Kenya. The programme listened to using ordinary phones (no need for the hightech smart ones) was one of the fascinating ideas presented during the Eye on Earth Summit in Abu Dhabi.

By dialing a tollfree number, you can listen to and experience the consequences of people’s own decisions regarding waste disposal. The service is based on a GSM network connection and does not require data transmission.

Simple text content and quizzes give background knowledge to the interactive stories of people throughout the community. They are also used for communicating and exchanging opportunities, according to Morton Saulo, communications officer for the National Environment Management Authority, Kenya, which is championing the project.

The whole concept is that changing attitudes requires education, and that is what the project aims to achieve. From household projects, it will move onto targeting larger groups. The hardest part will be getting policymakers at the national level involved, which would help to make effective decisions on waste management. And this way, this tiny gadget can really prove its worth.

Ochieng’ Ogodo

Conference resolves to push for data access at Rio+20

December 16, 2011

[Abu Dhabi] A conference pushing for greater access to environmental and societal data ended in Abu Dhabi today (15 December) with a Declaration recognising that every individual should have appropriate access to information on the environment held by public authorities.

The declaration drawn up by governments and civil society organisations from around the world at the four day Eye on Earth Summit will form part of the input to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCED) to be held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in June 2012.

Read the full story on SciDev.Net

What’s a Wonderbag if you can’t track its wonder?

December 16, 2011


This blog article has been produced for Eye on Earth Summit 2011 by SciDev.Net Conference Service, which maintains all editorial independence.

Wonderbag  — a simple, old-fashioned cooking solution — was well-placed among the many hi-tech, futuristic exhibitors at the Eye on Earth Summit in Abu Dhabi (12-15 December) this week.

Wonderbags are bulbous cloth bags designed to retain heat for slow, off-stove cooking. By shifting away from traditional fossil fuel consumption, Wonderbags seek to improve livelihoods, reduce carbon emissions, and alleviate the financial and health burdens on poor communities. Over 150,000 of them were distributed across South Africa in 2011, saving an estimated 50,000 tonnes of carbon emissions.

Just this week, Microsoft and the company Wonderbag launched ‘FoodWatch’ to track the bag’s distribution, and its environmental and health impacts using Microsoft’s mapping technology and cloud services.

One map overlays the World Bank’s data feed on global malnourishment against the distribution of each Wonderbag. “We will be able to see the timelapse over years of what Wonderbag’s impact has been,” said Kate Krukiel, the UN’s Global Technology Strategist at Microsoft. “There may not be any impact, but being able to easily overlay multiple data points, we can see the impact and correlations between Wonderbags and whatever food element we are looking at in the developing world.”

Claudio Toth, senior director of communications at Microsoft, told SciDev.Net, that the company met the Wonderbag initiative at COP17 in Durban.

“We went to the townships and saw on the ground that people love this, it is really changing how they are eating and cooking.”

“Women can now go out and do other things, they traditionally have been in the kitchen,” said Toth.

Krukiel added: “They couldn’t leave the house because the stove was on, but now they can start the stove before they go to bed for things like dried beans or cava that have a very long cooking time, put it in the Wonderbag, and in the morning you’ve got food pretty much for the day.”

The bags also help to feed children before they go to school, “because a lot of times the cooking took so long they wouldn’t have had time,” said Krukiel.

If this was not enough, Wonderbags also provide new entrepreneurial opportunities, allowing women to save time on cooking and selling food.

“I was sceptical at first, but then I cooked cauliflower in my bag and it tasted very good. It wasn’t overcooked,” says Ludo de Bock, a senior director at Microsoft.

Wonderbag has even caught the eye of United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), who have invited the company and Microsoft to attend the governing council meeting — the world gathering of environmental ministers — at UNEP headquarters in Nairobi in February next year.

“We want to showcase the way that high-tech and low-tech can, in combination, provide inspiring examples of sustainable development,” said Nick Nuttall, UNEP’s spokesperson.

Wonderbag has been chosen as part of the first UN Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) project in South Africa.

Wonderbag has ambitious plans: in the next five years it aims to be used in 5 million South African homes helping 21 million people eat better and saving around US$1.35 billion in fuel and 8 million tonnes of carbon.

There’s only one way to find out whether this will actually be achieved — follow FoodWatch.

Smriti Mallapaty

Why city resilience will be an issue at Rio+20

December 15, 2011

[Abu Dhabi] Once, the word of the moment was sustainability, and within years sustainable development became a widely-used to concept. Now, the popular term is “resilience”, and the resilience of cities to environmental and social pressures is seen as a major issue for governments and peoples around the world.

This concept underlay many of the events at the Eye on Earth Summit in Abu Dhabi (12-15 December), culminating in a panel discussion, “Innovative Cities: Designing for Resiliency and Change”, in which the role of technology, green building and access to information were highlighted.

Read the full story on SciDev.Net

Floating out of flood disasters

December 15, 2011


This blog article has been produced for Eye on Earth Summit 2011 by SciDev.Net Conference Service, which maintains all editorial independence.

In his speech at the Eye on Earth summit this week (12–15 December), former US president Bill Clinton highlighted how houses on stilts promoted by the movie star Brad Pitt can help prepare for natural disasters.

If hurricanes like Katrina was to hit areas where these houses are built, most of them would withstand the flooding, he said.

“For me, prevention is a very important part of disaster preparation and response,” he said.

Some of the amphibious houses of New Orleans also inspired an ambitious architectural project on so called ‘lift houses,’ which built its first pilot houses in Bangladesh last year. The idea is that when the floods hit, the houses would simply lift up on stilts and float until the floods subdue. Another similar idea, ‘tsunami safe(r) house’ originated from MIT’s Senseable City Lab following the devastating 2004 tsunami and was later implemented in Sri Lanka. In this case the houses were designed to suffer minimal damage in the floods.

The Bill Clinton Foundation was involved in post-disaster relief efforts, such as after the Haiti earthquake, which fits with one of the key themes of the summit  disaster management.

But just how much better planning  based on greater access to environmental and societal data  may help cut losses varies from disasters to disaster, he said. Better early warning systems can help, but disasters such as last year’s earthquake in Haiti should also prompt everybody to look at their building standards.

“We are now rebuilding all the houses with hurricane and earthquake resistant buildings, and we’re trying to make them more energy efficient and more energy independent so if there is another natural disaster that paralyses the grid, they would still be able to light their homes at nights so the children can study and parents can work, or do whatever they want to do.”

He also said research has shown that in the New Orleans area, where much of the natural vegetation forming the wetlands was cleared over the past 30 years of coastal over-development, vegetation could had cut the water speed by half and potentially cut damages casued by Katrina by a whopping 90 per cent.

Mićo Tatalović

The Arab world: ‘Scarce data in a water-scarce region’

December 15, 2011

[Abu Dhabi] Data-sharing is part of the answer to problems arising from the Arab region’s most serious challenge, water.

Water is potentially a matter of conflict and death as well as life in the Arab region, which is why it is such a sensitive subject — on the ground and in negotiations for United Nations conferences such as the Eye on Earth Summit in Abu Dhabi (12-16 December) and next year’s Rio+20 meeting in Brazil.

Read the full story on SciDev.Net

Abu Dhabi gets an atlas; Arab region to follow in 2012

December 15, 2011


This blog article has been produced for Eye on Earth Summit 2011 by SciDev.Net Conference Service, which maintains all editorial independence.

The Environment Agency Abu Dhabi (EAD) has launched the Environmental Atlas of Abu Dhabi Emirate, at the Eye on Earth summit in Abu Dhabi (12–15 December).

The 200-page full-colour Atlas highlights the natural heritage of Abu Dhabi through a narrative interwoven with stories, case studies, facts and statistics, illustrative figures, anecdotes, photographs and thematic maps.

The deputy Secretary General of EAD, Jaber Al Jaberi, said that the project is a tool to facilitate data access for  children, as “they can easily learn about Abu Dhabi’s environment”.

But insiders told SciDev.Net it was a result of the competitive spirit that exists among the emirates, which have just celebrated the 40th anniversary of their union. Not to be overshadowed by its neighbour Dubai  Abu Dhabi wanted to show the world it is a leader in  environmentalism.

The Atlas showcases the remarkable story of Abu Dhabi’s environmental heritage and highlights its profound influence on the past, present and future of human and cultural development. By informing and educating the reader, it aims to raise awareness and present a call for action to protect the environmental richness and diversity of the emirate.

The Atlas is facilitated by the Abu Dhabi Global Environmental Data Initiative (AGEDI) in partnership with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). They are now working on a similar project – The Arab Region Atlas.

The programme manager of AGEDI, Catherine Armour, said that we need these kind of atlases to provide us with data that help us to make right decisions.

Faris Sayegh, senior consultant at GPCGIS, a global network of information professionals, said: “The Arab Region Atlas is putting the spotlight on the impact of human activities in the Middle East and North Africa region, and documenting climate change impacts using current and historical satellite images, and a narrative based on extensive scientific evidence.”

The Arabic Atlas is expected to be published 2012, and it will aim to draw the attention of decision makers and the public to environmental changes, and help them in taking the right decisions.

Rehab Abd Almohsen

Q&A: Achim Steiner on expectations for Rio+20

December 15, 2011

SciDev.Net speaks to UN Environment Programme executive director Achim Steiner at the Eye on Earth Summit (12-15 December) about next year’s Rio+20.

Read the full story on SciDev.Net

Bows and arrows for a computer and an email

December 15, 2011


This blog article has been produced for Eye on Earth Summit 2011 by SciDev.Net Conference Service, which maintains all editorial independence.

In Abu Dhabi  this rich country in the Middle East  Chief Almir Surui stands out from the crowd. With his feathery hat he looks out of place, but his modern laptop and the natural way he moves among people in suits and ties or kandoras and ghutras tells another story.

Chief Almir looks older than his 36 years, maybe because he had to grow up fast: since he was 17 he has been the leader of 1,350 other Amazonian Surui people.

Back in the 1980s, Almir and his people struggled with bows and arrows for their Amazonian territory, in the southwest of Brazil, close to the Bolivian border.  Now they’re doing it with mobile phones and Google apps.

Despite his reservation getting electricity just five years ago, Almir has adapted quickly. Recently, he has found himself visiting countries like Japan, the United States, England and Denmark, as well as Abu Dhabi, where he gave a speech on December 13, at the Eye on Earth Summit.

“I am here because I believe the experience of my people can contribute in some way to building a new model of development that respects the culture of local communities and helps to rethink the economy,” he told SciDev.Net.

At the conference, he talked to business leaders, NGOs and governmental representatives about the Surui people, the significance of forest protection for them and the environmental importance of conserving indigenous reservations.

“We have to take advantage of events like this to think about real solutions for sustainable development. We can’t just discuss, we also have to do something,” he told the audience. This echoed the words of other speakers, including former US president Bill Clinton.

Almir also talked about his tribe’s current project to preserve and conserve the Surui forest territory through the sale of carbon credits.

“I believe that we have to create our future and not wait for it to come to us. That is why we protect our forest for future generations while we also take advantage of it today,” he said in his speech.

“The Surui people are managing the environment in our own way and we want other people around the world to know what we are doing, to contribute with public policies and to help making our planet sustainable.”

Daniela Hirschfield

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