The International Alliance of Waste Pickers is a union of waste picker organizations representing more than 460,000 workers across 34 countries
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April 08, 2010

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Here is an update on what GAIA has been up to and other developments in the world of waste and climate policy over the last three months.

Since the Copenhagen meeting ended without the hoped-for climate treaty, there has not only been a loss of momentum, but real confusion around the process. The US push to create a “Copenhagen Accord” has significantly muddied the waters: on the one hand, it was not adopted by the Conference of the Parties (COP), which is the legal treaty body, and so is essentially an independent, parallel process; on the other hand, it is structured around the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) as an institution. This leads to considerable confusion: for example, it is unclear whether the recently-convened High-Level Advisory Group on finance is accountable to the UN process or to the US-led Copenhagen Accord. Opinions vary widely, but my own analysis is that the Accord itself is not legally significant. What’s important is that it signals US frustration with the UN process, and a willingness to undermine that process in order to produce an agreement that it wants. This will probably result from one-on-one negotiations with China and a handful of other major emitters, sidelining most of the world’s countries.

In this poisoned atmosphere, Bolivia has stepped up as a significant player for the first time: frustrated with US intransigence, and seeing the need to create a counterweight to US pressure, it has called a “World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth” in Cochabamba for April. This has attained the status of a semi-official meeting, with the participation of more than 50 official government delegations and the support of the UN. But it will primarily be an opportunity for popular movements and civil society to take the initiative in crafting solutions to climate change. We are planning to have a wastepickers & allies delegation there, and have secured our own side event, plus participation in a second (on finance).

Nevertheless, the official UNFCCC process continues to move forward. The next intersessional negotiation will be in Bonn at the beginning of June, and plans are being laid for COP 16 to take place in December in Cancun, Mexico. However, because of the lack of progress, there is increasing talk of reaching an agreement only at the end of 2011, when COP 17 will take place in South Africa. That, of course, implies the loss of two more precious years in the face of crisis.

Realizing that action cannot wait for a global agreement that is far from certain, and that such action requires money, there is significant movement forward on the question of finance. Various proposals have been floated for a climate fund: one from the G-77, one from the Copenhagen Accord, one from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and others. All of these proposals vary from each other, not only in the details, but in some fundamental questions: where will the money come from? Who will control how it is spent? Will it be provided as loans or grants or a combination? Will it finance adaptation, mitigation, or both? It is hard to predict where this will end up, but at least there is movement, and an opportunity to influence that movement, which we continue to try to do.

In the meantime, the existing Adaptation Fund (which is badly under-funded) has taken a precedent-setting step: it has approved the first national entity to directly receive funds. This means that the country (in this case, Senegal) can directly access funds without going through the World Bank or another development agency. If this works, it will create a precedent for direct access for the (hopefully) larger climate fund that will follow. Direct access is essential to ensuring that wastepickers actually receive climate funds.

There’s also been a lot of activity at the CDM, the carbon credit mechanism. The latest meeting of the Executive Board just ended, and apparently the recyclers’ interventions in Copenhagen were an extremely hot topic of conversation. Unfortunately, they do not seem to have addressed the problem of incinerators and landfill gas competing with wastepickers. However, they did approve a new, small-scale methodology for recycling plastics, with the comment, “this should make the wastepickers happy.” This methodology was proposed by the World Bank, with the collaboration of Coordinación Ecológica Area Metropolitana Sociedad del Estado (CEAMSE — the government waste management agency in Buenos Aires). The methodology encompasses only two forms of plastic, HDPE and LDPE, but the Bank has stated that it intends to include other materials as well. The project proposed is to build 8 material recycling facilities for 8 CEAMSE-sponsored wastepicker cooperatives around Buenos Aires. At the moment, it is difficult to anticipate exactly what effect this will have – the amounts seem fairly small and it will take several years for cash to actually flow. On the other hand, if this does become a source of significant funds, there exists the danger that well-capitalized businesses will step in and compete with wastepickers for the carbon credits.

In the meantime, the CDM is struggling to stay relevant. Without a global agreement under the UNFCCC, the CDM will cease to exist in 2012, and the carbon credits will become meaningless. The failure to reach an agreement in Copenhagen, combined with a scandal about re-selling used credits, has resulted in two sharp drops in the value of carbon credits. Of course, this could be reversed with a decision in Cancun, or if the US approves a cap-and-trade law that creates a large market for carbon credits. But at the moment, neither of these seems very likely.

I can’t even attempt a roundup of the recent science, but there is one issue that is of particular concern to us: biogenics. This is the term used to distinguish carbon dioxide that is emitted from formerly living matter (such as wood, paper, food waste) from the “fossil carbon,” which originated from oil, coal, natural gas, etc. As you may know, the only reason that incinerators can claim to be low-carbon sources of electricity is that they neglect to count the biogenic carbon dioxide. The rationale for not counting 1/3 to 2/3 of their emissions is that this is the protocol laid down by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for handling biomass. GAIA has been arguing for some time that this is a misinterpretation, indeed a twisting of the science: the IPCC rule exists to avoid double-counting, not to pretend that biogenic carbon has no climate impact.

At long last, we have company. A number of articles have been published in the scientific literature indicating that this accounting error will have huge implications. By not counting the emissions from burning biomass, it will encourage companies to burn more wood, thus leading to complete global deforestation in a few decades. Forest activists are now starting to take up the call to correct this accounting error – which would be a tremendous help to our campaigns as well.

The biggest news on the GAIA front is what you already know — we are going to share in the WIEGO grant to increase our work on climate and wastepickers over the next 3 years. This will allow us to hire organizers in India and Latin America, a global information coordinator, and a global policy campaigner. We’ve already hired the publications and information coordinator, Paeng Lopez, based in the Philippines, and we are looking for candidates for the other three positions. Please do help us find the best activists for these spots, since they’ll be working closely with you!

In February, we held a team meeting of all GAIA staff to bring the whole team up to speed on this fast-moving project, and to help communicate it to our membership. And of course, there’s a fair amount of administrative work to get contracts in place, etc.

In all this, we are continuing to track developments in climate policy, and intervene where we can. We have submitted critical comments to the CDM on some of its recent incinerator projects, particularly calling attention to the fact that no notice has been taken of wastepickers or their recycling, even in countries such as China, where they are prevalent. We are also submitting comments to the CDM in support of a proposed appeals procedure whereby affected communities could appeal against the support of incinerators and landfill gas projects. We are continuing to work with Alan Watson to finalize his technical critique of the CDM’s methodologies, which should give us a solid base to challenge these projects in the future. We also submitted extensive suggestions to the UN Environment Programme, which is finalizing a document on waste and climate change in developing countries. In the entire document, there was not one mention of wastepickers – a gaping hole which we hope will be fixed before publication.

In the wake of Copenhagen, there has been a lot of interest in what happened there, the role of social movements, and future strategies. So we have participated in a number of debriefs and public gatherings, both in the Philippines and the US, to talk about these issues and of course highlight the role of the wastepickers in Copenhagen and going forward. We have also used the release of the documentary film Garbage Dreams, about the Zabbaleen in Cairo, to talk about wastepickers around the world and their contributions to society (not only to stabilizing the climate!). We organized several showings of the film in the US and had the opportunity to speak to well over a thousand people about the growing, global recyclers’ movement.

The GAIA team in Manila has also been active. Along with representatives of KKPKP/AIW and the EcoWaste Coalition (a local group), they participated in a World Bank-sponsored informal waste sector conference held in Manila. After the conference, GAIA convened a meeting that included 25 local wastepickers, where Sakina shared the experience of the SWaCH Coop. They also collaborated with AIW on a global petition urging the Maharashtra government to acknowledge and support wastepickers as partners in the public waste management systems. And most recently, the team went to Smokey Mountain for a day-long immersion program in partnership with the Samahang Muling Pagkabuhay Multi-Purpose Cooperative where they sorted garbage, learned from cooperative members and also visited the old dumpsite where wastepickers recover metal and wood materials.

Last, we also coordinated a push to get some recycling-friendly scientists on the IPCC. The IPCC is the supreme global body for climate science, and its conclusions have taken scant note of recycling and the potential benefits for the climate. Hopefully, that will change, if any of our nominations are accepted.

This is a long update, and I thank you for reading to the end! Hopefully the following ones will be shorter!

All the best,