Colombia blazes a trail for smaller nations to fight global warming

Studies show that tackling short-lived climate pollutants -- such as soot and methane -- results in sooner-rather-than-later benefits for a given region. So although the issue of climate change may not be a top priority for most developing countries, economic, social and health co-benefits might help build a case for reducing these pollutants.

Colombia, where preliminary studies show that rethinking garbage disposal might actually be good business, is one country that's interested.

In collaboration with the Center for Clean Air Policy (CCAP), a Washington, D.C., nonprofit think tank focusing on climate and air quality issues, and Environment Canada, the nation's weather and environmental protection agency, Colombia is developing a project to divert some of its trash from landfills to waste treatment facilities.

According to CCAP President Ned Helme, the idea behind the project is to reduce methane emissions from the country's landfills while spurring sustainable development across the waste management sector. The center presented its preliminary feasibility results at the 2013 Global Methane Expo in Vancouver, British Columbia, in March.

Developing countries' contribution to global warming -- in terms of CO2 emissions -- is small compared with that of developed countries. But given current garbage disposal methods in many of them, emerging economies have established themselves as one of the main sources of landfill methane in the world.

The methane management project in Colombia is an example of a new line of climate actions called "nationally appropriate mitigation actions," or NAMAs. The idea is to tailor greenhouse gas reduction initiatives to fit each country's development interests and needs in a single package. In other words, it includes other incentives -- economic, political and social -- aside from environmental ones to lure countries into action.

The approach has been developed by climate treaty negotiators to break a long-standing deadlock where developing countries insisted that industrial nations had to go first in taking action to mitigate the impacts of climate change. The NAMA is a way to allow each country to do what it can based on the resources it has to join the cause.

Probing the benefits of garbage


Globally, landfills are the third largest man-made source of methane, accounting for 12 percent of estimated global methane emissions in 2010, according to data from U.S. EPA. Although methane is emitted into the atmosphere in smaller quantities than CO2 -- and has a life span of about 12 years -- its ability to trap heat and warm the atmosphere is more than 20 times that of CO2.

In many ways, Colombia is already ahead of the game. In 2002, the Colombian government enacted a decree prohibiting open dumping -- simply piling up trash in available areas -- and set the ground rules for the use of landfills. So unlike most developing countries, where open dumping continues to be the main way to dispose of trash, more than 93 percent of all municipal solid waste in Colombia is trucked to proper landfills.

"The country has already done what many countries are still trying to do," Helme said. "Now the question is, can we go to the next step?"

According to rough emissions reduction estimates by CCAP, for a country like Colombia, diverting a sixth of solid waste from landfills and treating it -- using it for recycling, composting and refuse-derived fuel (RDF) -- could lead to a 16 percent reduction in total (direct and indirect) greenhouse gas emissions from the national waste sector.

So far, work has focused on conducting different sector studies -- from determining the best waste treatment technologies, to regulation and financing mechanisms -- to develop policy recommendations that would help create the necessary incentives for the NAMA to work.

In that sense, the project could not have come at a better time.

"The formulation of these nationally appropriate mitigation actions have coincided with the modification of the decree that regulates the public sanitation service and the tariff charged for the service," said Diana Rodriguez, climate change adviser at the Ministry of the Environment and Sustainable Development of Colombia, who's been working closely with CCAP in the design of the methane reduction program.

Seizing the opportunity, CCAP and Colombia's environment ministry representatives have been working with the Potable Water and Basic Sanitation Regulation Commission -- in charge of the modifications -- to design a strong policy environment to back up the NAMA.

Finding jobs for the 'pickers'

The environmental advantages of Colombia's NAMA are clear: less trash, less pollution, reduced methane emissions. Economically, however, the project has faced some unusual barriers.

One of the components of the NAMA includes capturing methane and using it to generate electricity. For most countries, biogas generation alone can be incentive enough -- it's cleaner and, usually, much cheaper -- but this is not the case for Colombia.

Colombia already enjoys fairly cheap electricity prices, so paying big bucks for a technology people don't really need can be hard to sell, Rodriguez said. It's not even that appealing from the mitigation perspective, considering 67 percent of Colombia's power comes from "clean" hydroelectric generation, she added.

This is where the NAMA strategy gets crafty.

"Right now we are looking into the possibility of using that biogas not to feed the electric grid, but perhaps using it directly as fuel for transportation," Rodriguez said. "Fuel is very expensive here, so it would be competitive, and it would also lead to fewer greenhouse gas emissions."

Using gas to fuel vehicles is not new in Colombia. According to Rodriguez, many taxis have been adapted to run on natural gas instead of gasoline to save money. With the technology already available, it would be a matter of adapting the vehicles to run on a different type of gas.

"There are many ways to make technological changes. Not only bringing in new technology, but also adapting the ones we already have," she said.

The NAMA also gives the government wiggle room to work in additional social perks.

One of the most common drawbacks of RDF projects is their negative impact on informal recycling sectors. Using waste as biomass to power cement kilns tends to leave out the people whose livelihood is selling scrap materials.

In 2009, Colombia's constitutional court ordered that "pickers" -- people who go to landfills to pick out garbage and sell it to recyclers -- were to be included in any development plans that could jeopardize their livelihoods, which made designing the NAMA that much more interesting, Helme said.

"We're basically trying to build that into this program so that [pickers] will become workers in recycling facilities," he said.

Exploring the finances

Solving social problems along with environmental problems is a big deal for countries like Colombia.

NAMAs "are about what I need as a country, what other benefits in terms of sustainable development will I get. It's not just about reducing greenhouse gases," Rodriguez said. "It's a practical way to look at climate change mitigation in developing countries."

A government official in Colombia once told Helme that, although he was in favor of reducing emissions, the political reality in Colombia required investing in projects that would produce visible benefits during the administration's term. He suggested that if Helme wanted to pitch a mitigation program, he should pick one that included social and development benefits, Helme recalled.

"NAMAs include more benefits the country cares about," Helme said, which makes them more politically sustainable than other programs.

Banking on the program's potential sustainability, the next step is to get the funding to jump-start a pilot in the city of Cali and, later, in other cities in Colombia.

Last week, representatives of CCAP and Colombia's ministry of the environment met with banks and private companies to begin to work out the finances.

"You sort of tailor your strategy to the country and what makes sense for them, and then you develop your financial mechanism based on how sophisticated the financial folks are," Helme said.

The next order of business will be to take the preliminary results to Copenhagen, Denmark, for the Global NAMA Financing Summit in May.

Helme is positive they will get the necessary funding to get things rolling. His faith rests on the belief that NAMAs offer a better, more inclusive way for emerging economies to tackle the climate issue.

"It's a different way of doing climate change, but it's one that will last," Helme said.

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