Addressing Environmental Issues with Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollutants’ Helena Molin Valdes

August 15, 2014

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re so honored to have with us today Helena Molin Valdes. She’s from Paris, France. She’s the Head of the Secretariat of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short Lived Climate Pollutants. Welcome to Green is Good, Helena. HELENA MOLIN VALDES: Hi. Great to be with you today. JOHN SHEGERIAN: It’s wonderful, and thank you for taking the time across the world to come on our show today. We’re so honored to have you on and before we get talking about all the important work you’re doing at the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, Helena, I would love you to share your story and your biography first with our listeners and how you even came to this very important organization and the very important position you have as Head of the Secretariat. HELENA MOLIN VALDES: Well, my background is as an architect and urban planner or working in urban context. I’m originally from Sweden. I moved out from Sweden maybe 30 years ago, went to Latin America, worked for many, many years in different countries, and also, my long history has been in a field that is often referred to as disaster risk management, disaster risk reduction and resilience building of communities and in that context, I worked a lot with climate and extreme climate events and how to deal with these with practical solutions and also working on environmental issues and I worked a lot with different communities and different expert groups and scientists but also planners and city officials and government officials and that brought me close to where I’m working now, which is related to climate and clean air quality, something that is also causing many extreme events actually if you think about it and I’ve been here in Paris working on this particular project since July last year and I really, really like it because I can see that we can do a big impact in people’s lives. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Before we get talking about all the important work at the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, can you please explain what it is, what kind of partnership it is, how many countries belong to it so our listeners fully understand how big this organization and how important this organization really is? HELENA MOLIN VALDES: Well, we are a coalition and it’s climate and clean air so we are really focusing our efforts on two big, big things that are very connected. One is air quality and clean air and the other is climate, including our efforts to curb global warming to diminish climate change so this is the focus of the coalition. It was started off only two years ago with six countries and the United Nations Environmental Program as a big concern of how to be able to work on these two issues in a combined effort focusing on action, on very practical things to do to reduce air pollution and at the same time improve climate and among the six countries that started this was of course, the United States with Hillary Clinton who took these very strong to her heart but also, Sweden, Canada, Mexico, Ghana, and Bangladesh and this was in February, 2012 and since then, we have grown to more than 90 partners. Countries, roughly half of them are. International organizations including many of the development banks, The World Bank, the International European Bank, etcetera, and also NGOs, non-governmental organizations, especially those concerned with clean air, climate, and also cities. We have the C40, for example, which is the combination of many mega cities in the world concerned with climate. We have other city networks that work with us as well and we have increasingly some NGOs as well that are working on these issues. Altogether, 90 partners, 91 to be exact, and half of them are countries. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You have a big organization and you have an important role to manage here so this is very important stuff. For our listeners who want to learn more about Helena and her colleagues’ great important work and what they’re doing and how to get involved, please go to www.unep.org/ccac. I’m on your site right now. It is a beautiful site and there’s a lot of information there and I want to get to it. Let’s talk a little bit about short-term climate pollutants. That’s not something I hear or read about a lot. What do you mean? When you say that and when you’re trying to tackle the problem of short-term climate pollutants, Helena, what do you mean by that? HELENA MOLIN VALDES: We started off a little bit in the context of climate change, which as you know, is a long term process caused mainly by carbon dioxide, which has hundreds of years in the atmosphere before the full impact of the global warming can be achieved. At the same there is many not so long lived, actually short lived, only for a few days, a few weeks, a few years in some occasions or a few decades, gases or air pollutants such as black carbon, for example, from cars, from vehicles, from diesel fumes. There is many different components there that are 1) toxic or harmful to health and at the same time, harmful to climate, warming the globe and these gases are quite a few but the ones that we have focused on are, as I mentioned, black carbon, which I mentioned. It’s black. It comes out of diesel and combustion, basically, not fully realized so there are many things that link to transportation, burning of wood and biomass, burning of agriculture, brick kilns. When you see these big black fumes coming out of any burning, that’s black carbon and that is very, very harmful to health but at the same time, it’s very climate forcing. It’s warming the atmosphere a lot and by improving some of these sources of the pollutants, you can have an immediate effect. That’s why we say short lived and near term because it’s immediate. You see the results within weeks, months, or years and so it’s black carbon. It’s something called methane that comes out of oil and gas production, leakage. It comes out of solid waste. It comes out of agriculture, manure, livestock, rice paddies, etcetera, and the third big gas that we are working on is the hydrofluorocarbons, which is HFCs, which is used for cooling and refrigeration and air conditioning, which is very, very potent greenhouse gas and because many, many countries and people around the world now are getting more access to (which they should) refrigeration and air conditioning, this is exponential in the future how this can be used so we’re working on finding alternatives and promoting the use of alternative gases to cooling that will not be harmful for the climate so these are the three big things we’re working on and that’s why it’s called short lived climate pollutants. It’s only living in the air for a short while from days to years to decades and it has an immediate improvement so basically, if you clean up your fleet of diesel fumes, within weeks you will have results in the air quality and you’ll be seeing it in your cities or where you live and this is, of course, something that’s mainly felt in an urban context where you have many people together and the production of these things coming together in a dense area. JOHN SHEGERIAN: We were talking at the top of the show how big your coalition is and, like you said, it’s 91 countries now and so many organizations and why have so many countries gotten involved so quickly and why has the growth been so fast in just a short couple of years? Is it because this is the most critical issue when it comes to climate and clean air and climate change, these short-term climate pollutants? What is your mindset with regards to why your organization has grown so fast with so many countries from around the world? HELENA MOLIN VALDES: Well, when we deal with climate change, this is important to stress. The most important thing to do that the whole world should be working on a carbon low economy, let’s say. We should really work on carbon dioxide to be eliminated or reduced because that’s the only way in the long run over hundreds of years in the future that we can reduce climate change and keep the temperature livable for human beings basically so we are all working towards that objective. As we know, it takes time and we are already in crunch time for the temperature to reach bearable limits and that’s why we have a big global community working on this and all the governments are discussing how to do this in a consistent way. However, in addition to working on this long-term CO2 reductions starting now obviously, but results down the line, by working on not only this long lived and long term solutions, we can address the short lived ones, the immediate ones, with multiple benefits so we are here talking about climate, of course, and by reducing black carbon or methane or hydrofluorocarbons, indeed we can almost have the projected warming over the next few decades and that’s immense so if you talk about climate change and you’ll probably follow the many discussions around what actually happens, how long it will take, what kind of activities to do, but if you say that say that working on 10 or 20 different practical solutions, you can actually have the projected warming for the next decades and that’s what you’re doing by working on these short lived kind of pollutants, on methane, on black carbon. It’s soot actually and HFCs and that is very attractive. A few years ago, a big report came out from the organization that my secretariat is hosted by, which is the United Nations Environmental Program. They released a report which was done by many, many scientists from around the world and U.S. EPA has been very much in the forefront, among others, to do various studies on this. That said, by introducing 16 particular control measures or activities- for example, putting filters in diesel cars and improving low sulfur diesel, improving brick kilns and changing some of the kilns, using existing technology- up to 80% of all these emissions could disappear, could be eliminated and by taking these very practical measure, which are all doable, it’s all about existing technology, you would have not only, as I said, the climate benefits, but you would also have very strong health benefits; much less asthma, respiratory diseases of different nature, cardiovascular disease, cancer even, skin cancers and others, which are now also being more and more researched around and you can see the direct relationship between the air quality and what is called non-communicable diseases and premature death. Just recently, The World Health Organization released figure that tells us that almost 7 million people a year have premature death due to air pollution. It’s a huge amount of people and you have many studies in the U.S. that have looked at this health impact also so there is an increasing number of studies and research that makes the linkages to not only climate but also health and then also agriculture and crops. Many of the crops are hampered by essentially black carbon or ground level ozone, which comes from the release of these short lived gases like methane that I mentioned before so up to 50 million per year of basic crops like maize, wheat, etcetera, is being lost due to these pollutants because the process of the plant cannot fully develop because it’s hampered by the pollutants so you’re actually having a triple win. You work on reducing and improving air quality and you have happier people because it’s always nice to have fresh air to breathe. You have healthier people. You have better crops and air consistency in general. You have huge impact on global warming and the climate and at the same time, in many of these solutions that we are talking about, it also gives energy efficiency gains, which means that you save money. You save energy, which is something that we all are trying to achieve as well. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. Well, Helena, there’s two big events coming up. In September, 2014, there’s the so-called climate summit coming up in New York and I’d love to understand how your organization, The Climate and Clean Air Coalition, is going to be involved there but also, on a bigger scale, back in your hometown in Paris, back in the city that you live now, let me just say, in 2015, there’s gonna be one of the major climate negotiation sessions where leaders from around the world are coming to and we know that that’s never worked out in the last three or four sessions, that we’ve gotten a lot of talk but not a lot of action. These next two events, what do they mean to you? What do they mean to the Climate and Clean Air Coalition and what do you expect to be the results and your role in these discussions and negotiations and what do you hope comes out of them? HELENA MOLIN VALDES: Well, in the meeting you mentioned in September in New York, it’s the United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, who has called on Heads of States at the summit of the leaders of the world to come together to demonstrate not only the will, but also demonstrate what countries, companies, CEOs of companies and other civil society organizations are willing to commit to do in practical terms to reduce global warming and what we are going to do by September in our coalition, we are working on many of the initiatives that we engaged in and I can talk a little bit more about them in a while if you want. We are looking especially at three or four of those initiatives to bring to the summit with a big number of countries and companies behind committing to practical action and that we can actually calculate into a big emission reduction, which will help the climate while at the same time having all these other benefits I mentioned before and the areas that we will bring to the table is around green freight and you have in the U.S. something called the Smart Way Program, which is very, very innovative and functioning well. It’s something that we are working on expanding to the whole world and with many other countries and it’s really to work also with many other companies that do move goods around the world and how they can, through different measure in their supply chain and their logistic chain, really make it greener so green freight so we are going to bring that to the table and we are working on right now and this particular initiative is led by the United States, Canada, something called the International Council for — ICCT, can’t recall what it’s called now — ICCT, International Council on Clean Transportation, and also the organization that hosts our organization, which is UNEP, and we are working with many countries to create a global action plan where companies can trace national governments but also city officials and other civil society organizations have very clear goals in terms of achieving this green freight chain in a big, big scale, building on the green practices that already exist so that’s number one. Number two, we are working with oil and gas industry to sign up to a framework that we have developed together with big chunk of the industry to reduce methane leakage out of the production and more than 8% of the natural gas production actually is lost annually to venting and leakage and flaring and it’s lost, which means lost production and lost income, but it also means that there’s a big impact on climate. Almost 20% of all the methane in the world from human made methane emissions comes from this particular industry so working with the industry to reduce this leakage gives them, in theory, income back, but most importantly, it makes a big difference in the climate and then we’re also working on agriculture and facing down this HFC and the cooling chain so these are the initiatives. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Helena, we’re gonna have you back to talk about the success of the New York event and then we’ll have you back to talk about Paris and what’s going to be happening in Paris in 2015. We thank you for your time today and to learn more about what Helena’s doing with her colleagues at the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, please go to www.unep.org/ccac. Thank you, Helena, for being an inspiring leader on the critical issue of climate and clear air. You are truly living proof that green is good.