Ozone Friendly Pure Ceylon Tea: The Cup that Cheers now Saves Ozone!

Text of my article that appears in Ceylon Today newspaper, on 20 September 2012

Ozone Friendly Logo adorns Ceylon Tea packaging – photo by Nalaka Gunawardene

On 21 September 2012, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) will honour Sri Lanka for its long standing commitment to preserving the ozone layer.

At a special ceremony at Jana Kala Kendraya (Folk Art Centre) in Battaramulla, a global plaque is to be presented to the Speaker of Parliament and Minister of Environment by Marco Gonzalez, Executive Secretary of UNEP’s Ozone Secretariat.

This is one of six events worldwide to mark the 25th anniversary of the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer — the world’s most widely subscribed international law.

Since it signed and ratified the Montreal Protocol in 1989, Sri Lanka has been active on several fronts to phase out various industrial and agricultural chemicals that damage the ozone layer – a natural occurring atmospheric phenomenon that protects all life from the Sun’s ultraviolet rays.

Among the many accomplishments is introducing the world’s first ozone friendly tea. The May 2011 launch of ‘Ozone Friendly Pure Ceylon Tea’ logo highlighted a remarkable success story of a developing country complying with a global environmental treaty while also enhancing a major export industry.

The logo is already displayed by many Ceylon Tea manufacturers and distributors. It marks another value addition to the island’s best known export product, an industry worth US Dollars 1.5 billion a year.

The logo reminds Ceylon Tea drinkers worldwide that their favourite ‘cuppa’ has been produced without harming the Ozone Layer. That means our tea is growing without any Methyl Bromide on tea plantations. Instead, ozone-friendly substitutes are now used as fumigants to protect tea bushes from pest attacks, particularly the nematodes (roundworms).

The Montreal Protocol requires all Methyl Bromide use to end by 1 January 2015 (except in emergency situations and quarantine purposes). Sri Lanka got there ahead of schedule.

“Sri Lanka is renowned for its creative activities to raise public awareness on ozone layer protection. The Ozone-Friendly Ceylon Tea logo is another significant achievement of Sri Lanka,” says Atul Bagai, Senior Regional Coordinator of UNEP’s OzonAction team based in Bangkok, Thailand.

He sees multiple benefits from this branding exercise: “Considering the worldwide popularity of Ceylon Tea, this initiative will greatly contribute to the global efforts to protect the ozone layer.”

Searching for Substitutes

It took many years and involved collaboration between government agencies, private companies, scientists and the international community.

Producing Ceylon Tea — known for its distinctive and diverse range of flavours — is as much an art as it’s a science. In recent years, Sri Lanka’s tea industry has modernised manufacturing, distribution and marketing. It has also responded to rising consumer expectations and regulatory requirements in export markets.

The Sri Lanka Tea Board believes that ‘Ozone Friendly’ status could give a competitive advantage for Ceylon Tea at a time when ethically and environmentally responsible products are gaining markets around the world.

Methyl Bromide, also known as Bromo-methane, is a colourless, odourless and highly toxic gas at normal temperatures and pressures. It has been widely used in agriculture since the 1930s to fumigate the soil against weeds, harmful insects and worms. It is a versatile pesticide that works against various creatures that attack crops both in the field and at storage.

UNEP says alternatives have been identified for most Methyl Bromide applications. These include using other chemicals, as well as non-chemical measures such as solarisation, exposure to steam or hot water, and crop rotation.

The National Ozone Unit of the Ministry of Environment initiated action to phase out Methyl Bromide in tea plantations over a dozen years ago. The Tea Research Institute (TRI), working with tea plantation companies, found some environmentally friendly alternatives. The Registrar of Pesticides, the state regulator for all agro-chemicals, was also consulted.

In fact, the search for substitutes started in the mid 1990s when the Ministry of Environment alerted the TRI about on-going discussions at Montreal Protocol meetings about controlling Methyl Bromide.

Perceptive officials realised how the highly technical discussions being held in far away places could one day affect how Ceylon Tea was grown and marketed.

Dr Janaka Ratnasiri, then head of the Ministry’s Montreal Protocol Unit, recalls negotiations at Montreal Protocol meetings in the late 1990s. “We had to persuade other countries to get tea included in the list of crops eligible for research funding to eliminate Methyl Bromide. Initially only five other crops – grown mainly in the west – were on that list.”

To make matters more difficult, no other tea-growing country was using this chemical. But his ‘scientific diplomacy’ worked, and Sri Lanka’s case to add tea to the crop list was accepted.

In 1995, the TRI responded with a proposal to research for substitutes. Initial funding support came from the Norwegian aid agency NORAD. The Multilateral Fund of the Montreal Protocol, set up to assist developing countries in protecting ozone, helped continue that research and field testing.

“TRI scientists, led by Ms Sushila Vitarana, worked with meagre sums of money and came out with several recommendations for adoption by the tea plantations,” says Dr Ratnasiri.

Many Hands, One Aim

During the past few years, all Sri Lankan tea plantations – large and small – have gradually introduced substitutes to Methyl Bromide. For example, plantations owned by Sri Lanka’s Dilmah Tea, among the top five global tea brands, have switched to using Basamid-Granular for soil fumigation.

“Although the new methodology is cumbersome, our plantations have adopted it unreservedly in order to reduce the damage to ozone layer,” says Dilhan C Fernando, marketing director of Dilmah Tea.

It was the partnership between policy makers, researchers, tea plantation companies and the development donors that enabled the Sri Lankan tea industry to wean itself from a decades-long dependence on a trusted chemical.

Janaka Gunawardana, Director of the National Ozone Unit with ozone friendly Ceylon Tea

“This is a good example of public-private partnership (PPP),” says Janaka Gunawardana, Director of the National Ozone Unit. “It was with the support from the private sector tea plantation companies that Sri Lanka was able to eliminate Methyl Bromide use. And now, we are using this environmentally responsible conduct to enhance the brand value of Ceylon Tea worldwide.”

“Public-private partnerships are very helpful in implementing international treaties such as the Montreal Protocol,” says Gunawardana. “They can be challenging at times, but we want to build up more collaborations with the private sector.”

The Tea Board aims to have all tea exports displaying the ozone friendly logo by end 2012.

“All tea grown in Sri Lanka is now 100% ozone-friendly. This is a distinction of which no other tea-producing nation can boast,” says the Tea Board website, www.pureceylontea.com.

It adds: “When you reach for a cup of Ceylon Tea, you’re not just refreshing yourself; you’re also helping refresh and renew an environmental resource critically important to all life on Earth.”

Robert Paul Lamb (1952 – 2012): The Earth’s Reporter

Robert Paul Lamb (1952 – 2012) - The Earth's Reporter

I wrote a brief blog post about the death of my colleague, mentor and one time boss Robert Lamb. His funeral is being held in London today. Here are a few more reflective thoughts about the larger implications of his work and legacy. Caution: this is not objective journalism.

Robert Paul Lamb (1952 – 2012): The Earth’s Reporter

Robert Paul Lamb (1952 – 2012) was a planetary scale story teller. He used simple words and well chosen moving images to show us how we are abusing the only habitable planet we have.

He excelled in the world’s most pervasive mass medium, television. He effectively turned the small screen into a ‘mirror’ that showed how humans are constantly living beyond our natural means…as if we have spare planets in store.

For nearly three decades, Robert Lamb reported about the Earth to people all over the Earth. He ‘zoomed in’ to far corners of the planet to get a closer look at what was going on. He regularly ‘zoomed out’ for the bigger picture. All his life he probed why, as the Brundtland Commission had memorably noted in its 1987 report, “The Earth is one but the world is not”.

In this quest, he interviewed some of the finest minds and most passionate activists on what needs to be done, and how to do it. He also showcased the work of researchers, innovators and entrepreneurs trying out solutions to our many problems of resource and energy use. He always cheered these pathfinders who are our best hopes in overcoming the current ecological and economic quagmires.

Robert’s work was not easily pigeonholeable, which confused many. He wasn’t making wildlife or natural history films, although he sometimes touched on the subject from a human interaction angle. Perhaps the best summing up of his line of work was given by Mahatma Gandhi, who, when asked for his views on Indian wildlife decades ago, replied: “Wildlife is decreasing in the jungles — but it is increasing in the towns!”

If this isn't wildlife, what is?

Robert documented life going wild with far-reaching consequences. In the spectrum of factual TV programme production, he occupied a niche best described as scientifically based environmental films: those that explore the crushing ‘ecological footprint’ modern humans are having on the rest of Nature and ecosystems.

Robert was a journalist first and last. Although he later straddled the worlds of media and development, his outlook was firmly rooted in journalism where he started his career. He had a firm grasp of scientific, economic and political realities that shaped international development.

From 1984 to 2002, he was founder director of the UK-based media charity Television Trust for the Environment (TVE) from 1984 to 2002. TVE was set up to harness the potential of television and video to raise environmental awareness and catalyse sustainable development debates in the developing world.

Heading TVE for nearly two decades, Robert commissioned, produced or co-produced dozens of documentaries on a broad range of issues and topics.

Some were straightforward ones that ‘connected the dots’ for intelligent viewers. Others investigated complex — often contentious — causes and effects of environmental degradation or social exclusion.

These efforts dovetailed on-going discussions at the time on sustainable development. The Brundtland Commission had just defined it as a pattern of economic growth that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Easier said than done in a world where many families could barely afford to think beyond their next meal while most governments chose not to see beyond the next election. Next generation thinking was rare then, as it is now. Only mavericks dare walk that path.

Besides, what exactly did that ideal mean for a subsistence farmer in Africa or a small entrepreneur in Asia? Did this long term view figure at all when politicians or bureaucrats struggled to balance their national budget or negotiate better terms of trade? How and where did women and children figure in these considerations?

Robert and his team followed the lofty intellectual debates and also tracked progress on the growing number of international treaties on specific environmental matters. They captured the essence of these through compelling moving image creations.

In doing so, this small band of individuals changed forever how environment was covered on TV. As he recalled in UNEP’s Our Planet magazine in 2000, “In the mid-1980s barely anyone had heard about the ozone layer or global warming. Natural history programming brought the wonders of plant and animal diversity into our living rooms but glossed over the complex causes of extinction.”

Robert was swimming against not one but several currents. As he wrote years later: “Television does not cope well with explaining the grey areas. Or rather it could — but the received wisdom is that it makes the viewer reach for the remote channel changer. Television prefers the black and white; the good guys versus the bad.”

He accomplished this through what I call the ‘triple-S formula’: mixing the right proportions of good Science and engaging Stories, told in Simple (but not simplistic) language.

He demystified jargon-ridden science and procedure-laden intergovernmental negotiations without losing their complexity or nuances. This is what public communication of science is all about.

We can only hope he isn’t our average TV viewer...but are we sure?

Always look for what’s New, True and Interesting (the NTI Test), he used to tell us who followed the trail he blazed. All our efforts ultimately hinged on how we appealed to the viewer – and she held that all-powerful remote controller in hand!

Robert’s overarching advice: never underestimate your audience’s intelligence — or overestimate its interest levels.

“If we don’t engage our audiences in the first 60 to 90 seconds, they are gone,” Robert often told his producers. “Hook them – and make it worth their while to do so!”

Most people don’t carry good memories of school. When they sit down to watch TV – usually at the end of a long day – they just want something light and pleasant, and preferably not reminded of school…

Pervasive as TV was, the medium wasn’t a substitute for reading or a classroom. At best, we could only flag the highlights of an issue, and whet the appetite for viewers to go after more.

Sympathetic as he was to issues and concerns of the developing world, Robert applied the same rigorous editorial criteria on film makers based in the global South. He pointed out the latter’s sweeping generalizations, condescending elitist language or incoherent story telling. Some walked away grumbling, but realized years later that he was right…

Robert’s fast pace and no-nonsense demeanour probably won him as many admirers as detractors. Producers dreaded his piercing questions about evidence and coherence. Over time, staff got used to his sharp text editing, usually done with a thick-tipped pen.

He was most assertive in (video) edit rooms, where I have seen him in action only on a few occasions. While TV productions involve team work, editorial decisions have to be centralised. You can’t make films by committee. As series editor or executive editor, he was the master of all he surveyed. Conversely, he stood by his producers who’d done their homework.

Cooling without warming: Cool Biz for a safer future?

Image courtesy - Paradise Island Resort, Maldives

Paradise, The Maldives. 10 May 2011

I’m sitting in Paradise – and freezing. This isn’t quite what I imagined it to be.

Well, actually I’m attending a serious inter-governmental meeting being held at the Paradise Island Resort and Spa in the Maldives.

The setting is exotic enough – I’m near some of the finest beaches and bluest seas in the world. It’s a cloudy day outside, with tropical sunshine interrupted by occasional showers. We’re just a few hundred kilometres north of the Equator.

But it’s whole different world inside the meeting room. We have no windows and are visually cut off from the scenery. And the air conditioning is too strong. Even the 50 or so people inside the room don’t emit enough body heat to counter the chill spilling out from the ceiling.

Paradise (resort) isn’t alone. Across tropical Asia, our public offices, hotels and shopping malls just love to freeze us out.

This habit has a particular irony at this meeting. Convened by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), it’s discussing how to stay cool without killing the planet.

To be precise, how air conditioning and refrigeration industries can continue their business – and keep cooling people and goods – without damaging the ozone layer or warming the planet.

It’s the semi-annual meeting of government officials from across Asia who help implement the Montreal Protocol to control and phase out several dozen industrial chemicals that damage the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere.

A nitpicker in Paradise? Photo by Darryl D'Monte

Adopted in 1987 and now ratified by 196 countries, it is the world’s most successful environmental treaty. It has reversed a catastrophic loss of ozone high up in the Earth’s atmosphere, and prevented tens of thousands of cases of skin cancer and cataract.

A landmark was reached at the end of 2009, when it succeeded in totally phasing out the production and use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) — chemicals that had helped the cooling industries for decades. Now, a bigger challenge remains: removing two other widely used gases known as HCFCs and HFCs.

Both were originally promoted as substitutes for CFCs in the early days of the Protocol. HCFCs are less ozone-damaging than CFCs, while HFCs are fully ozone-safe. However, both have a high global warming potential — up to 1,700 times that of Carbon dioxide — and therefore contribute to climate change.

It was only a few years ago that scientists and officials realized that there was little point in fixing one atmospheric problem if it aggravated another. So in 2007, the Montreal Protocol countries agreed to address the climate impacts of their work.

The Montreal Protocol now encourages the countries to promote the selection of alternatives to HCFCs that minimize environmental impacts, in particular impacts on climate change.

The air conditioning and refrigeration industries are being encouraged to switch from HCFC to substitutes ahead of the global phase-out deadline of 2030. Alternatives — including natural refrigerants such as ammonia, carbon dioxide, hydrocarbons — are entering the market for many applications.

Parallel to this, consumers are being encouraged to opt for newer appliances that are both ozone-safe and climate friendly.

It takes time and effort for this message to spread and take hold. Many users — especially in the developing countries — only consider the purchase price of appliances and not necessarily the long-term energy savings or planetary benefits.

Events like the first Asian Ozone2Climate Roadshow, held in the Maldivian capital Malé from 8 to 12 May 2011, are pushing for this clarity and awareness. It’s still an uphill task: too many people have to be won over on too many appliances using a wide range of chemicals and processes.

And sitting here at my freezing corner of Paradise, I feel we should add another message: conserving energy includes a more rational and sensible use of air conditioning.

Perhaps we should promote and adopt the Japanese practice of Cool Biz.

Introduced by the Japanese Ministry of Environment in the summer of 2005, the idea behind Cool Biz was simple: ensure the thermostat in all air conditioners stayed fixed at 28 degrees Centigrade.

CoolBiz Logo

That’s not exactly a very cool temperature (and certainly no freezing), but not unbearable either.

The Cool Biz dress code advised office workers to starch collars “so they stand up and to wear trousers made from materials that breathe and absorb moisture”. They were encouraged to wear short-sleeved shirts without jackets or ties.

A Cool Koizumi: Leading from the front...

Then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi himself set the tone, wearing informal attire. But then, he was already known for his unorthodox style.

Clothes designers and retailers chipped in, with clothes offering greater comfort at higher temperatures.

Cool Biz changed the Japanese work environment – and fast. I remember walking into a meeting at a government office in Tokyo a few weeks after the idea had been introduced, and finding I was the most formally dressed.

The Japanese like to count things. When the first season of Cool Biz ended, they calculated the countrywide campaign to have saved at least 460,000 tons of Carbon dioxide emissions (by avoided electricity use). That’s about the same emissions from a million Japanese households for a month.

The following year, an even more aggressive Cool Biz campaign helped save an estimated 1.14 million tons of Carbon dioxide – or two and half times more than in the first year.

The idea also traveled beyond Japan. In 2006, the South Korean Ministry of Environment and the British Trade Union Congress both endorsed the idea.

This summer, the seventh since Cool Biz started, there is an added reason for the Japanese to conserve energy. As the Asahi Shimbun reported on 28 April 2011: “In what has been dubbed the ‘power-conserving biz’ campaign, many companies plan to conserve energy during the peak summer period in light of expected power shortages caused by the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.”

Meanwhile, the rest of us freeze-happy tropical Asians can evolve our own Cool Biz practices – we don’t need to wait for governments and industry to launch organized campaigns.

For a start, we – as consumers or patrons – can urge those who maintain public-access buildings to observe voluntary upper limits of cooling. Sensitive thermostats can automatically adjust air conditioner operations when temperatures rise above a pre-determined comfortable level.

It all depends on how many of us pause to think. Of course, we can also continue business as usual – and freeze ourselves today for a warmer tomorrow.

The sun sets in Paradise too - photo by Nalaka Gunawardene

Saving Biodiversity…from Evolution’s Most Dangerous Creature!

The United Nations designated 2010 as the International Year of Biodiversity (IYB). It is a celebration of biological diversity and its value for life on Earth, taking place around the world throughout the year 2010.

The 10th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 10) of the Convention on Biological Diversity is being held in Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture, Japan, from 18 to 29 October 2010.

To mark these twin events, we feature some short videos on biodiversity found online.

Official video of the International Year of Biodiversity 2010

This video, produced by our friends at dev.tv in Geneva for the CBD Secretariat, is superbly crafted and engagingly presented. It visualises the core message of IYB 2010:
Biodiversity is life
Biodiversity is our life

Biodiversity Countdown 2010 video
In the puzzle of life each element is essential. Man has the power to do good, do bad, destroy or protect. What will you do?

Nature Our Precious Web: A photo montage

The exhibition is the result of a collaboration between Geo Magazine, GTZ, Countdown 2010, the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity and the United Nations Development Programme.

And finally, here’s an example of how not to produce a video on biodiversity. This 2006 film, made for the CBD Secretariat, has a good sound track and some excellent still photos. But it’s evidently been put together by a committee of UN agency officials and/or researchers who wanted to pack everything into 5 mins. The result – a wasted opportunity.

Satinder Bindra: It’s the message, stupid (and never mind the UN branding)!

Satinder Bindra (left) and Keya Acharya

Satinder Bindra (left) and Keya Acharya at IFEJ 2009 Congress

Satinder Bindra left active journalism a couple of years ago when he joined the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) as its Director of the Division of Communications and Public Information (DCPI) based at UNEP Headquarters in Nairobi. But thank goodness he still thinks and acts like a journalist.

Satinder, whom I first met in Paris in the summer of 2008 soon after he took up the new post, gave a highly inspiring speech to the latest congress of the International Federation of Environmental Journalists (IFEJ), held at India Habitat Centre in New Delhi from 28 to 30 October 2009.

We have gone beyond the cautionary stage of climate change, and are now acting out ‘Part II’ where we have to focus on what people can do, he said. “Climate change is no longer in doubt, and if anything, the IPCC’s scenarios are turning out to be under-estimates.”

He was referring to the IFEJ congress theme, “Bridging North-South Differences in Reporting Climate Change: Journalists’ role in Reaching an Ambitious Agreement at COP15 in Copenhagen”.

Satinder sounded emphatic when he said: “We have a limited time in which to reach as many people as possible. Environment is the single biggest challenge we face in the world today, and we as journalists have a tremendous responsibility in providing the latest, accurate information to our audiences.”

He added: “There is still a debate among journalists on whether or not we should be advocates for the environment. We should not be scared to push the best science, even if we don’t choose to engage in advocacy journalism.”

Satinder mentioned the “Paris Declaration on Broadcast Media and Climate Change,” adopted by delegates at the first UNESCO Broadcast Media and Climate Change conference held in Paris on 4-5 September 2009. It resolved to “strengthen regional and international collaboration, and encourage production and dissemination of audiovisual content to give a voice to marginalized populations affected by climate change”.

Satinder, who was a familiar face on CNN as its South Asia bureau chief until 2007, acknowledged that the media landscape was evolving faster than ever before. “Thanks to the web and mobile media, our distribution modes and business models are changing. YouTube has emerged as a key platform. Viral is the name of the game.”

His message to broadcasters, in particular, was: “You may be rivals in your work, but when it comes to saving the planet, put those differences aside.”

Copy of Seal the Deal

A call to the whole planet...

Satinder is spearheading, on behalf of UNEP, the UN-wide Seal the Deal Campaign which aims to galvanize political will and public support for reaching a comprehensive global climate agreement in Copenhagen in December.

To me at least, the most important part of Satinder’s speech was when he said that he was not seeking to promote or position the UNEP or United Nations branding. His open offer to all journalists and broadcasters: “If you need to use the hundreds of UNEP films, or make use of our footage in your own work, go right ahead. We want you to make journalistic products. There’s no need or expectation to have the UN branding!”

Wow! This is such a refreshing change — and a significant departure — from most of his counterparts at the other UN agencies, who still think in very narrow, individual agency terms. They just can’t help boxing the lofty ideals of poverty reduction, disaster management, primary health care and everything else within the agenda setting and brand promotion needs of their own agencies.

I have serious concerns about this which I have shared on a number of occasions on this blog. See, for example:
May 2007: Feeding Oliver Twists of the world…and delivering UN logos with it!
August 2007: ‘Cheque-book Development’: Paying public media to deliver development agency logos
October 2007: The many lives of PI: Crisis communication and spin doctors
July 2009: Why can’t researchers just pay the media to cover their work?

In a widely reproduced op ed essay published originally on MediaChannel.org in August 2007, I wrote:

“As development organisations compete more intensely for external funding, they are increasingly adopting desperate strategies to gain higher media visibility for their names, logos and bosses.

“Communication officers in some leading development and humanitarian organisations have been reduced to publicists. When certain UN agency chiefs tour disaster or conflict zones, their spin doctors precede or follow them. Some top honchos now travel with their own ‘embedded journalists’ – all at agency expense.

“In this publicity frenzy, these agencies’ communication products are less and less on the issues they stand for or reforms they passionately advocate. Instead, the printed material, online offerings and video films have become ‘logo delivery mechanisms’.”

Let’s sincerely hope that the pragmatic and passionate Satinder Bindra will be able to shake up the communication chiefs and officers of the UN system, and finally get them to see beyond their noses and inflated egos. It’s about time somebody pointed out that vanity does not serve the best interests of international development.

See also April 2007 blog post: MDG: A message from our spin doctors?

Douglas Varchol: Secret of keeping ‘perfectly cool’ in a warming world…

Douglas Varchol (standing, extreme right) speaking at Ozone Media Roundable, 8 Oct 2009

Douglas Varchol (standing, extreme right) speaking at Ozone Media Roundable, 8 Oct 2009

With his wild hair and trendy suits, Douglas J Varchol can pass for a rock star. He is actually an accomplished independent film-maker, currently operating out of Bangkok, Thailand, covering a variety of science and environmental stories in Asia.

Last week, he participated in the Ozone Media Roundtable that TVE Asia Pacific and UNEP organised in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand. After showing his latest documentary film on ozone, titled Earth Report: Perfectly Cool, which was first broadcast on BBC World News in September 2009, he talked about his experience in making the film.

Perfectly Cool is a 22 minute film looking at the challenges faced in trying to phase out a chemical called Hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs for short), a coolant gas used in air conditioners across the developing world. As chemicals go, it’s a double hazard: this ozone depleting substance also contributes to climate change by acting as a greenhouse gas.

But non-specialist viewers watch broadcast television for good stories, not science lessons. The challenge for journalists and film makers is to ‘sugarcoat’ the technicalities by wrapping it up in human interest stories. Douglas recalled how he did this: combining imagination, hard work and luck.

First, here’s the official synopsis of the film which sums up the story:
Air conditioners are damaging the environment. One widely used coolant gas, HCFC, damages the ozone layer. With booming sales of domestic ACs around the world, the problem has grown in recent years, despite vigorous international efforts to reduce ozone depleting chemicals. Under the international agreement known as the Montreal Protocol, HCFC will be phased out worldwide by 2030. An ozone-friendly replacement gas – HFC – is now used in Europe, but that gas is a potent greenhouse gas — which means it contributes to global warming. However, an answer may be at hand. Earth Report travels to China, centre of the global AC industry, to investigate the cost of cool and meets the industry representatives working on a solution – and Sa DingDing, a musician with extreme views on air conditioners.

Watch the first 4 mins of Earth Report – Perfectly Cool

Humanising science stories is hard enough, and when the subject is something people can’t see or feel, it becomes harder. As I wrote a few days ago, the Ozone Layer – located between 10 and 50 kilometres above the Earth, and invisible to the naked eye – is not something tangible like cuddly animals or endangered plants. Moving ordinary people to care for something they can’t see or touch is tough, even if all life on Earth depends critically on it (the Ozone Layer absorbs most of the Sun’s harmful ultra-violet days).

Douglas had his work cut out for him. Throw into this mix the fact that the editorially independent film was being made pooling funds from six development agencies – each with their own agenda – and that the story was filmed in China where filming permission still involve a lot of paperwork, it’s a small miracle Perfectly Cool was completed. And as we saw, Douglas tells a good story without compromising accuracy or balance.

So did he keep perfectly cool during the making of this film, I asked. He revealed that there were moments of panic and despair, although in the end everything fell into place. While the editors at BBC World were satisfied with the film, some technical specialists consulted for the script had felt it was over-simplified.

Ah, I do know that feeling! When I made a film on ozone in 2006 (Return of the Ozone Layer: Are We There Yet?) it took us 18 months to finish, and went through endless revisions. The UN system seems to just love making films by committee…

With his film, Douglas faced additional hurdles. For example, he takes us inside the Gree company‘s factory producing air conditioners. In 2004, Gree became the largest AC manufacturer in the world, but they had never before allowed television cameras inside their plant. That took lots of time and effort to set up.

Sometimes, things not going according to plans actually helps. When on location, Douglas serendipitously came across elements that were not in the original story treatment but enhanced the human interest: for example, a modern day wedding where the new couple gifted reusable chop sticks to all their guests. That was good environmental conduct – but then they headed off to choose air conditioners for their new apartment…

Douglas Varchol (extreme right) makes a point during Ozone Media Roundtable

Douglas Varchol (extreme right) makes a point during Ozone Media Roundtable

Douglas paid a tribute to his Chinese researcher Lihong Shi and crew, without whose local knowledge and contacts he couldn’t have made the film.

In the end, Douglas pulls it off. Despite its seemingly esoteric and complex subject, Perfectly Cool is perfectly watchable — and not just for science buffs like myself.

Douglas, who once worked with Wired Science making science programmes for American PBS, said he set out to make a film on HCFCs that even his mom (a high school teacher) could understand. I can’t speak for her, but those of us who watched it in Chiang Mai were enthralled.

Tata Young: Singing up a storm for the Ozone Layer

Tata Young - photo by Nirmal Ghosh

Tata Young - photo by Nirmal Ghosh

“Tata Young sings up a storm for Ozone Layer.”

That was a headline in the Bangkok Post newspaper on 8 October 2009, while I was in Thailand for the Ozone Media Roundtable. My friends at the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) were ecstatic.

Tata Young, 28, is a Thai-American singer, model and actress who is one of the best known performers in Thailand, with a growing following across Southeast Asia. Last week, she was among the performers at the “What on Earth!” concert in Bangkok, part of the EU Green Days event to coincide with the latest round of negotiations of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, UN-FCCC.

Tata is the latest Asian entertainment celebrity to join the climate bandwagon. Inside the UN Convention Centre in Bangkok, the climate negotiations were making slow progress. Environmental activists and campaigners were trying every trick in their books to speed things up — but governments bickered over selfish interests even as the planet heated up.

Tata’s newest album, Ready for Love, has its cover printed on recycled paper and sports a sticker that says “Protect the Ozone Layer”. Her interest in campaigning for ozone was sparked when she donated her time filming an ozone related public service announcement for UNEP last year.

The PSA is one of four that UNEP’s ozone team in Asia produced in 2008 as part of their public awareness campaign. They all draw attention to an important date that is drawing close: by or before 1 January 2010, all consumption and production of chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, one of the main destroyers of the ozone layer would be phased out in all countries of the world. That is a significant achievement under the Montreal Protocol that nations of the world adopted in 1987 to save the endangered ozone layer.

The PSAs started screening in movie theatres in the Philippines earlier this year, to be followed by Thailand and other countries in the region.

Watch Tata Young’s ozone PSA for UNEP:

In June this year, talking to journalist Nirmal Ghosh, Tata Young said: “It’s important that people are aware of the little things you can do to protect our world, are aware (of ozone) and know what’s going on, especially because unlike garbage and other types of pollution, you can’t see the ozone layer.”

Read the full text on Nirmal’s blog: More Than Just Hot Air, 4 June 2009

Tata is now singing and speaking for the ozone layer on her own steam. Unlike some other UN agencies, UNEP does not have a formal goodwill ambassador programme. But she has de facto become one.

Full credit to her for this choice. After all, the Ozone Layer – located between 10 and 50 kilometres above the Earth, and invisible to the naked eye – is not something tangible like cuddly animals or endangered plants. Moving ordinary people to care for something they can’t see or touch is that much harder, even if all life on Earth depends critically on it (the Ozone Layer absorbs most of the Sun’s harmful ultra-violet days).

Tata used to hit the headlines in Thailand for some songs which were considered a little too ‘hot’ for the conservative guardians of culture. But looking at the less-than-glacial pace kept by climate change talks in Bangkok, perhaps activists should roll out Tata Young to turn on the heat…

Ozone: Once and Future Story? A tale of two images…

A tale of two iconic images...

A tale of two iconic images...

I am in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, conducting the Ozone Media Roundtable, a high level event to engage Asian media professionals on the nexus between ozone depletion and climate change. The meeting, held on 8 – 9 October 2009, is organised jointly by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and TVE Asia Pacific for invited senior journalists and broadcasters from the Asia Pacific region.

The past 22 years of implementing the Montreal Protocol, adopted in 1987, hold many relevant lessons and experiences for countries currently trying to negotiate a new multilateral environmental arrangement to succeed the Kyoto Protocol of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, UN-FCCC. These insights could be particularly helpful for the inter-governmental negotiations leading to, and during, the 15th conference of parties (COP15) of UN-FCCC in Copenhagen in December 2009.

TVE Asia Pacific and UNEP convened the roundtable meeting in Chiang Mai to explore the ozone/climate nexus from a communications perspective. We brought together a small group of senior journalists and broadcasters who have been covering ozone and/or climate issues. We also invited a few ozone and climate technical experts to discuss the close links between ozone layer protection and climate change mitigation.

I work with moving images, but I also know the power of still images — especially when they are highly symbolic. Looking for a good visual link between ozone depletion and climate change, I came up with two images of our planet, seen in different ways that represent the two global environmental challenges.

Largest ever Ozone hole, Sept 2000

Largest ever Ozone hole, Sept 2000

The first image is better known, and is a colour enhanced satellite image of the Ozone Hole that was discovered in 1985 by British scientists Joesph Farman, Brian Gardiner and Jonathan Shanklin of the British Antarctic Survey. The ozone “hole” is really a reduction in concentrations of ozone high above the earth in the stratosphere. It is defined geographically as the area wherein the total ozone amount is less than 220 Dobson Units.

This discover was largely responsible for galvanising international attention and response to the threat of ozone depletion. After a series of inter-governmental meetings and negotiations, the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer was finally agreed upon on 16 September 1987 at the headquarters of the International Civil Aviation Organization in Montreal.

Temperature projection for Year 2100

Temperature projection for Year 2100

The second image is not as widely known, but represents an even greater environmental calamity that is currently unfolding: global warming and rapid changes in climate it has triggered. The image is a colour enhanced image of the Earth’s temperatures in 2100 AD (less than a century from now), as projected by the Earth Simulator — one of the world’s most powerful supercomputers — which Japanese scientists use to project the climatic disasters in next 100 years.

The system was developed in 1997 for running global climate models to evaluate the effects of global warming and problems in solid earth geophysics. It has been able to run holistic simulations of global climate in both the atmosphere and the oceans — down to a resolution of 10 km.

Between these two images, we are looking at two of the biggest environmental challenges of our times. How the climate crisis can learn valuable lessons from the ozone crisis is what we discussed at the Ozone Media Roundtable.

More about the meeting’s outcome soon.

Mekong: A river to watch as climate change impacts Asia’s water tower

Calm now, turbulent tomorrow? View of Upper Mun Reservoir on the Mekong in northern Thailand: image courtesy TVE Asia Pacific

Calm now, turbulent tomorrow? View of Upper Mun Reservoir on the Mekong in northern Thailand: image courtesy TVE Asia Pacific

The Greater Himalaya region is known as the water tower of Asia: the continent’s nine largest rivers emerging from its ice-capped mountains provide 1.5 billion people with water and 3 billion people with their food and power.

With more ice stored here than anywhere outside the Arctic and Antarctic, the region has even been called the earth’s third pole. But the ice fields of the Himalayas are melting, and at a faster pace than anywhere else on the planet.

A river that is going to be affected is the Mekong – one of Asia’s major rivers, and the twelfth longest in the world. TVE Asia Pacific has just produced a short film looking at how current and anticipated environmental changes could impact water users in the six countries of Southeast Asia which share its waters. We released it online this week, just in time for World Water Day 2009, March 22.

Mekong: Watch that River!

Along its journey of nearly 5,000 kilometres (3,000 miles), the Mekong nurtures a great deal of life in its waters – and in the wetlands, forests, towns and villages along its path. Starting in the Tibetan highlands, it flows through China’s Yunan province, and then across Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia…before entering the sea from southern Vietnam.

The Mekong River Basin is the land surrounding all the streams and rivers that flow into it. This covers a vast area roughly the size of France and Germany combined. The basin supports more than 65 million people who share Mekong waters for drinking, farming, fishing and industry. Along the way, the river also generates electricity for South East Asia’s emerging economies.

The Mekong has sustained life for thousands of years. But growing human demands are slowly building up environmental pressures on the river. A new study, commissioned by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), cautions that climate change could add to this in the coming years.

Fishing on the Tonle Sap lake in Cambodia: An 'ecological hot spot' on the Mekong

Fishing on the Tonle Sap lake in Cambodia: An 'ecological hot spot' on the Mekong

The study, carried out under a project named “Vulnerability Assessment of Freshwater Resources”, was headed by Dr Mukand Babel at the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT) in Bangkok. It probed how climate change can impact the river from the highlands to the delta….affecting the survival and prosperity of millions.

Dr Babel says on the film: “Climate change would affect…the amount of rainfall which is received. Under climate change conditions, we expect less rainfall to be observed and that would bring less flows in the river which would affect the water users in the downstream areas.”

He adds: “At the same time, the sea level rise which is an associated impact of climate change, would bring more sea water intrusion into the river systems and groundwater systems in the delta in Vietnam.”

Salt water could go upstream by 60 to 70 kilometres, degrading the land and water in the Mekong delta. This would add to pressures already coming from growing human numbers, expanding economies and disappearing forests.

So the Mekong will be affected at both ends, by different processes that are triggered by climate change.

To find out how these changes could affect the Mekong’s millions, my colleagues filmed in two
‘ecological hot spots’ in the river basin identified by the study: the Upper Mun River, a tributary of the Mekong, and the Tonlé Sap lake in Cambodia.

The UNEP-AIT study recommends Mekong river countries to improve how they manage their water and land. This needs better policies, institutions and systems.

Dr. Young-Woo Park, Regional Director, UNEP, says on the film: “Countries sharing the Mekong river…have to act together and they have to develop the policies on how to conserve and how to conserve the Mekong river and also how to properly manage the Mekong river.”

The study found the Mekong river basin ‘moderately vulnerable’ to environmental changes. There aren’t any major water shortages in this river basin as yet. For now, the Mekong is holding up despite many pressures.
But all this can change if less water is flowing down the river and the demand for water keeps growing.

That’s why we named this film ‘Mekong: Watch that River!’

UNEP’s search for God: Here’s the way forward to save the planet!

Satinder Bindra

Satinder Bindra: Voice of the Planet?

“Content is king — but distribution is God!”

With these words, UNEP’s newly appointed Director of Communications and Public Information, Satinder Bindra (photo, above), engaged my attention at a meeting in Paris earlier this week.

I almost jumped up in total agreement — this is just what we’ve been saying for years, especially to those who support information, education and communication activities in UN agencies.

Unlike many career UN officials, Satinder knows what he’s talking about. He comes to UNEP with over two decades of wide and varied experience in journalism and broadcasting – the last 10 years spent as a Senior International Correspondent/South Asia Bureau Chief for CNN based in New Delhi, India.

In the hard headed and hard nosed world of international news and current affairs television, distribution and outreach can make or break any content provider. This is something that the two leading news channels BBC World and CNN International know very well — and the more recent entrant Al Jazeera English is still finding out.

Satinder’s remark, in this instance, was more to do with how to get information and analysis on sustainable development out to as many people as possible in all corners of the planet. This is part of UNEP’s core mission since its founding in 1972 — and as chief of communication and public information, Satinder now takes on this formidable challenge.

In Paris, he was listening, taking notes and talking to everyone in the small group who’d come together for the annual partner meeting of the Com Plus Alliance of Communicators for Sustainable Development.

Com+ is a “partnership of international organizations and communications professionals from diverse sectors committed to using communications to advance a vision of sustainable development that integrates its three pillars: economic, social and environmental”. TVE Asia Pacific was admitted to the partnership a few months ago.

As I’m sure Satinder realises, at stake in his new assignment is a lot more than audience ratings, market share or revenue stream of a single broadcaster. Those are important too, but not in the same league as ensuring life on Earth – in all its diversity and complexity – continues and thrives.

Satinder struck me as a practical and pragmatic journalist who wants to get the job done efficiently. We can only hope the rest of UNEP will keep up with him — or at least they don’t get too much in his way!

As he finds his way around the globally spread, multidisciplinary and sometimes heavily bureaucratic UN organisation, Satinder will come across some incongruities, cynicism and institutional inertia all of which have held UNEP back from being the dynamic global leader in our pursuit of elusive sustainable development.

At the big picture level, communication at UNEP has often been defined narrowly as institutional promotion – delivering UNEP logo to the news media of the world, or boosting the image of its executive director and other senior officials. We don’t grudge anyone enjoying their 15 minutes of fame, but a technical agency like UNEP has so much more to offer — in terms of rigorous science, multiple perspectives, wide ranging consultation and bringing diverse players to a common platform.

The Nobel Peace Prize winning Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), co-supported by UNEP and World Meteorological Organisation, is a good recent example of how solid science, communicated through the media, can inspire governments, industry and rest of society to find solutions to a major global challenge.

The 20-year success of the Montreal Protocol to save the ozone layer is another example. Again, UNEP was a key player in this accomplishment, and is still engaged in the race to phase out the use of a basket of chemicals that damage the protecting ozone layer in the upper atmosphere.

There’s a lot more good science and tons of good stories lurking inside UNEP — if only its experts know how to get these out, and if only its bean-counters won’t stand in the way.

Ironically, elsewhere in the same UNEP Paris building that we were having the Com Plus meeting, the adorable cartoon character Ozzy Ozone (below) was being holed up by excessive rules and regulations. He is one of the best known public communication products to come out of the organisation. Yet, as I wrote earlier this year, he is bottled up and kept captive by an unimaginative UN system.

Then there is the whole scandalous situation where UNEP-funded environmental films are released with needlessly excessive copyright restrictions. As I have been saying, this is the big mismatch in environment and development film-making: many films are made using donor (i.e. public or tax payer) funds, but due to the ignorance or indifference of funders, the copyrights are retained by private individuals or companies involved in the production.

In UNEP’s case, for years it has been commissioning (and sometimes funding) a London-based production company, with a charitable arm, to produce environmental films. That’s certainly a choice for UNEP if the agency feels it continues to get value for its money. But tragically, the producers jealously guard all the copyrights, releasing these only under rigid conditions to a select few.

Whatever outreach figures they might claim, these cannot match what the same films would achieve if the copyrights were not so restrictive. Freed from crushing rights, such environmental films – made with UNEP funding or blessings or both – could benefit thousands of groups engaged in awareness, advocacy, activism, education and training.

For sure, we’ve heard the arguments in favour of tight copyright regimes. Film-makers have every right to be acknowledged for their creative efforts, but public funded products must not be locked up by greedy lawyers and accountants — or even by selfish film-making charities. And millions of users around the world should be able to access such products without having to get through the eye of the copyright needle first.
July 2007 blog post: Lawyers who locked up the butterfly tree

Can Satinder Bindra overcome these hurdles that have for so long inhibited UNEP from reaching its potential? We just have to wait and see.

When he talks about distribution being God, we have to readily agree. But he will soon find some elements within UNEP – or in crony partnerships with UNEP – that stand between him and this God.

To be fair, there’s only so much that an inter-governmental agency like UNEP – beholden to its member governments – can really accomplish. That’s why it needs partners from corporate, civil society, activist and academic spheres. Some of us can easily say and do things that UNEP would, in all sincerity, like to — but cannot.

Satinder sounds like he can forge broad alliances that go beyond monopolist partnerships. Here’s wishing him every success….for everyone’s sake!

Photo courtesy UNEP Climate Neutral Network