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Watching the CDM
Jamais Cascio, 13 Mar 05

cdm.gifWe've been generally enthusiastic about the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto treaty, as it is already leading to pretty large-scale investment by the signatory nations in renewable energy and greenhouse gas-reduction projects in the developing world. In principle, this can be of great benefit to both developed and developing nations, as the CDM projects give the sponsors time to bring down their own emissions while giving the recipients access to new, clean sources of energy. As with all human institutions, however, the CDM is far from perfect; critics claim that the CDM all too often funds projects that don't meet the spirit of the treaty, or pointedly ignore local conditions, even exacerbating problems in poor communities.

The Indonesia-based CDM Watch website actively monitors CDM projects to make certain that they actually benefit the developing world. They collect ongoing statistics on CDM projects, and watch closely for problems. They have a searchable database of CDM projects, as well as links to project proposals. They've also created a CDM Stakeholder's Toolkit document, describing what the CDM is, how it works, and what questions citizens should ask about CDM projects in their countries and communities; the Toolkit is available for free, and in several languages.

CDM Watch argues that some projects are counter to the purpose of the mechanism:

  • Sinks projects;
  • Large hydro projects (exceeding 10MW);
  • Hydro projects that do not meet the criteria and guidelines of the World Commission on Dams (WCD).
  • They also discourage projects which will benefit non-signatory nations. A Scorecard keeps track of which organizations, political leaders and governments have agreed to these principles. No government has yet agreed to all of these (although Germany comes close), but a growing number of EU and national political figures have accepted them.

    As this article in yesterday's Washington Post shows (also reprinted on MSNBC for those of you with website registration allergies), critics of the CDM are also calling attention to the ways in which even okay-in-principle projects can damage communities. The article cites the example of an Apartheid-era garbage dump in Durban, South Africa. Efforts to clean it up have been stymied by a CDM project to extract energy from the methane it emits.

    But Sajida Khan said the World Bank and the treaty do not recognize the realities on the ground where she lives. The Bisasar landfill was established by the apartheid regime in 1980 to get rid of waste from predominantly white neighborhoods in a community largely populated by Indians and blacks. No buffer zone protects the community, she said in a phone interview, adding that hazardous chemicals at the dump have given her cancer and caused numerous health problems in the area. The African National Congress once promised to close the dump, she said, but has not, and now South Africa will gain by keeping it open.

    It's important that the Clean Development Mechanism not become a backdoor for exploitative or long-term-damaging projects. The CDM's core idea is a good one: give the rich countries a reason beyond altruism to help the poorer nations, and give the poorer nations a boost towards renewable, sustainable energy production. Done properly, the CDM can be a terrific leapfrogging catalyst; done improperly, it can be just another source of problems. Groups like CDM Watch deserve our attention and support for helping the world keep on the right track.

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