Category Archives: Climate Change

Adventures in Climate Change: Go where the Gas is

It is true that I got the privilege of seeing the world when I worked with climate change emission reduction projects (see posts here, here and here), but most of this work was done at landfills. It wasn’t all exotic locations where a bunch of professionals, grassroots organisations and public servants got together for a jolly (read: conferences), but rather, it was exotic locations where hard-working people got together to hold their breaths.

The idea behind the carbon markets is that you have to stop the invisible greenhouse gases from escaping. So, first you find the gas and then you plug it, burn it, bury it – whatever works. That’s what led me to landfills. To be clear, we’re talking about the big pit where all of human’s garbage gets dumped. Where the seagulls go to party. And because that stuff includes food scraps, Aunt Jane’s dead petunias, little Jimmy’s essay on paper, used tea bags, etc – it generates gas! So the first part of the job is solved.

Part of my job was to go see these sites and nod wisely as if it was a premium landfill! An excellent landfill! With just the right mix of organic and wet material to generate maximum gas (which could then be captured or burnt). Do you know how hard it is to nod wisely when walking by decomposing animals? (By the way, you actually don’t want large animals in the landfill because they decompose too quickly and then leave nothing behind to generate more gas – fyi) The problem is that as you walk up hill (landfills are wide and tall), you exert yourself, causing you to breathe more heavily, meaning you smell worse things, causing you to walk uphill faster, causing you to breathe more heavily….you see where I’m goin’ with this?

I know waste management has come a long way and landfill technology is very advanced and the reclamation techniques do wonders for land regeneration. But whoever thought that having an agave plantation within spitting distance from the landfill wasn’t thinking about his marketing. “Liquor do rubbish” anyone? And the cafeteria should really be sited upwind from the main operations. Of course, once the land is reclaimed, it’s usually beautiful. One landfill had their own forestry nursery for baby trees (so cute) and another had a collection of native plant species they were planning to use after (why can’t I find a job where I get to see the pretty things??) and the management was justifiably proud of these efforts.

So, anyway, now that you’ve found the gas, you need to plug is or burn it and once that’s done, I get to visit again to make sure all the documentation is in place. That part of the job isn’t bad really. It’s an audit, but rather than an audit that tries to find what’s wrong in order to fix it, it’s an audit to prove something went right and you get paid. So, most people liked to see me. However, I really wish they wouldn’t keep things from me even though I’m usually the only girl on the team and they all seem to think I’m delicate (ha, ask my friends about that one!). If a decapitated head is found in the landfill, I’d really like to know about it; if terrorists generally keep an eye on public gatherings like our info sessions this is also a good thing to know; and if rabid dogs are running loose a warning is entirely appropriate. I consider these things along the same lines of information need-to-know as knowing to bring a chocolate cake when asking a government official for a signature because it is her birthday. Because our projects are always based in emerging markets, these types of quirks were often part of the landscape.

However, as I mentioned in another post, the climate change industry is a tricky one because the premise is the absence of something (like the dieting industry) that you can’t see in the first place. So, if what we’re trying to do is contain or destroy these gases, wouldn’t it make more sense to not generate them in the first place?


Adventures in Climate Change Travelling to the Dirtiest Places

Well, there’s no point in cleaning up clean places, is there?

[WARNING! the following may be distressing to some readers who think travel is pretty and exotic]

Here’s a job tip for you: In the interview, if they ask if you can travel, find out not only WHERE their projects are, but what KIND of projects are they. Example: As I am a Chinese born outside of China, I was excited at the prospect of visiting the Chinese projects and seeing the country for the first time. If they had told me I would be going to mining towns, I may not have been quite so excited.

I didn’t sign up for this job because I wanted to go to exotic Bali (that was just a perk!), but coal mines and landfills? My wardrobe consisted of black jeans, safety shoes, coats that could be rinsed off and wet wipes. Lots of wet wipes. (That should be one of my travel tips!)

Most of the Chinese towns I went to were industrial towns built up around a main mine. I remember scenes as dusty and grey. Seeing how locals lived was like learning a new language! Shops looked different – no neon signs. Towns were often only marked by the “gateway” you drove through (usually red) when you turned off the main road.

It was landfills in Africa. The African safari I went on once in Tanzania is not the same as visiting an African landfill. Same deal with Mexico – it doesn’t matter that there is an agave (for tequila) farm across the road, you won’t really notice it as you are climbing a landfill past decomposing biological matter (and I’m not even talking about the decapitated head – you think I’m kidding, don’t you?).

Africa as well – the main cities like Accra and Dakar were choking on diesel fumes and dust from the unpaved roads or markets or gathering areas by the side of the road. You do get used to it – the same as you get used to the heavy smoke from cigarettes! You either stop coughing after awhile or not!

And landfills! Here’s another tip: if you are going to work with greenhouse gas reduction projects, stay away from landfills (they smell and I still don’t know what’s on the bottom of my shoes), coal mines (ditto) and any type of agricultural waste (pig crap, chicken crap – doesn’t matter who crapped, you just don’t want to have to count it in any season except winter!).

It’s all part of the adventure. The ying to the yang. These were the trips that made life interesting; the colour commentary to the dry spreadsheets of numbers that I dealt with back at the office. These were the true adventures of the carbon warrior!


That’s not fog……

Lonely? Want to meet people? Work in Climate Change (Adventures – 2)

Raise your hand if you know what a climate change-r does? Is that a word? My friend, when asked what he did, used to say “I save the world, and you?” – mostly because it is easier to describe what an astrophysicist does than a climate change-person. I don’t think he says that anymore, because we’re not certain that what we did saved the world. It tried to, but the results are inconclusive.

One aspect of joining this indescrible field was meeting people. When I started, it was all on the job learning. My boss was a political scientist, my senior colleague was a biologist, and I hired an environmental scientist. The centre of the carbon markets was London at that time (we’ve since learned that the world is round) and a more rabid cosmopolitan city there never was. When I moved there to a tiny little firm, the office was filled with investment people, shark-tagging biologist, a former bar owner, traders, linguists, musicians and a lawyer. Tell me you couldn’t have fun at work with that mix!

If we weren’t discussing the latest art exhibit, we were trading travel tips or flying remote control helicopters around the room. There was lively discussion about living in London and real estate, of course. Our offsite meetings were hilarious – setting up the guys for a wax job at the spa or stealing each other’s cars or jumping into the freezing Celtic sea in underwear or trying to take compromising photos.

But they were all smart and well-travelled. If you only knew 2 languages, you were backwards (I know 1+0.75+0.10+0.05). Mostly, we all learned on the job and made things up as we went along – some worked and some didn’t, but I learned from each one. It was one of the most dynamic places I’ve ever worked. Maybe because of all our backgrounds, we approached working in a team from a more open, accepting point of view. We knew each of us was different so we made allowances and learned to deal. May you find as dynamic a work place as I did.

My Adventures in Climate Change: 1

The climate change industry is one of the only industries that is based on paying people for nothing. I’m referring to the actual carbon markets, not the science of climate change or the policy making or adaptation or mitigation or any of those activities. I was involved with the reduction of greenhouse gases and the selling of them. This career took me all over the world (see my travel blogs), but nothing was more bizarre than trying to wrap my head around explaining to my mom and dad that the industry was based on nothing – literally the absence of something.

In a nutshell, great sums of money were given to people to do lots of things that would produce nothing or specifically not produce greenhouse gas. And when they proved that they produced nothing (although I believe it was my 10th grade science class that taught me that you couldn’t prove a negative), they got the payoff. Even greater sums of money in the investment community was bet on the production of lots of nothings!

Ok, let me back up. I don’t mean to be flippant about this (well, maybe a little). It was just that we were all caught up in the entire carbon world and we spoke our own language and had our own in-jokes when really, we were able to get thousands of people to change their behaviour around the absence of something. The only other industry I could think of  like this is the weight loss industry.

Additionally, in order to prove the nothing-ness, there is a ton of documentation that has to be constructed, saved and verified. Unlike a barrel of oil or a building where you can point to it and say “yup, there it is”, you have to point to equipment and then show records and logs and calculations of when it was working and that it worked properly. This is amazingly great work for consultants (who are people too). Remember though, it is the absence of greenhouse gasses that we want.

Ten or twenty years from now, how is the world going to look back at the carbon markets? There will be some derision, for sure, a great load of cynicism, but I hope in all of that, people will realise that the mobilisation across nations, creeds, industries and governments was a defining moment. The last time that the globe got together in this magnitude was for, I daresay, a war. And, there was a lot of pain and tears in the aftermath of that, but eventually, something new and promising came out of all the collective work.

Film Review: The Island President

A lot of people may know of this documentary by now since it debuted in 2011 at TIFF. However, this was the first time I saw it and was very happy I did. First off, documentaries today aren’t what they used to be. They are definitely from a certain angle and “objectivity” is not really the main goal. So, don’t go into this hoping to get information to use in your high school paper. Go into this to hear a story; a journey of a man who was driven to act. And by acting, he changed his world, even for a little while, and tried to change ours.

If you’ve never heard of it, this is a story of how democracy came to the Maldives. How the new president thought the fight was won when he came into power only to find out that there is no point in leading a country that is disappearing and what he was going to do about it.

Some of the things the film did very well that I can personally confirm is the portrayal of the international negotiations of climate change. The long, long, frustrating hours of negotiations were captured with tired politicians continuing to discuss and discuss. The amount of work that goes into the 2 week meeting that the heads of state have every year is staggering and the film hints at that as ex-President Nasheed must talk with, convince, entreat and meet with so many other countries. And, finally, the scraps of progress that we all must be satisfied with at the end.

The film’s director spoke after the film and he said that while the film by necessity is short (less than 2 hours), he believed it was a true portrayal of ex-President Nasheed. There were no major pieces that had been edited out. So, based on that, the film portrays ex-President Nasheed as a driven, flawed human being who burns with clear vision. Tempering this is his sense of irony and humour. I wish I could quote some of the things he said, but rather than trusting my faulty memory, I will say that he had the ability to grasp the humour, even if it was black, of a situation and sum it up neatly with a bow on top.

I encourage you to see the film (comes out in the US sometime in March) if only to be entertained by the story and a terrific film, but hopefully to move your horizon so that it includes the Maldives.