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CU researchers, students offer ideas at climate conference

With presentations on the benefits of biochar, the importance of labor and environmental partnerships, and the potential markets for carbon sequestration, Cornell researchers brought their voices and expertise to COP 16 (the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change's 16th Conference of Parties) in Cancun, Mexico, Nov. 29-Dec. 10.

In all, Cornell's presence at the conference included 24 faculty members, research staff and student participants. The delegation was supported in part by the David R. Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future (ACSF).

Johannes Lehmann, associate professor of crop and soil sciences and a COP 16 presenter on sustainable agriculture and carbon management, said the conference helped researchers connect with government negotiators and influential NGOs.

"COP 16 is one of the very few conferences where scientists can be relevant in directly informing policy decisions at a high level," he said.

Lehmann and graduate student Thea Whitman spoke at two side events about terrestrial carbon management and the effects of using biochar, a charcoal-like material produced when organic material is heated at low temperatures, as a means of sequestering carbon and improving soil quality.

"Carbon in soils is a huge driver for the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere," Lehmann said in a Dec. 2 interview on WHCU radio. "There's much more carbon in soils than there is carbon in the atmosphere; so a small change in soil carbon makes a big change for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere."

Biochar works by drawing carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and sequestering it in the soil, he said. "Putting more carbon in soils will lead to lower CO2 in the atmosphere, and could potentially be used as a means to mitigate climate change. And that has been central -- it's one of the main topics in Cancun this year."

Negotiators have been reluctant to include agricultural carbon sequestration in discussions in the past, he said, but that is beginning to change.

On another front, Sean Sweeney, director of the ILR School's Global Labor Institute, moderated a panel discussion on the role of labor unions in promoting climate protection and the importance of uniting the labor and climate justice movements.

"This discussion is absolutely necessary at this point," Sweeney said. "Unions understand that climate protection adds up to a lot more jobs overall, but policies are needed to protect workers who risk losing jobs or income in the transition to a low-carbon economy."

The labor movement achieved one major goal at COP 16 by ensuring that the final agreement include language recognizing the interests of the labor force and workers' rights, he said; but turning that language into action will be a much bigger challenge.

Also from Cornell, Antonio Bento, associate professor of applied economics and management, presented research on the potential effects of including carbon offsets in cap and trade programs. Policymakers often reject such programs because they can come with two potential pitfalls: "leakage" (in this context, a resulting increase in emissions by firms or countries not a part of the policy), and "additionality" (a reduction in benefits when a program provides incentives for something people are already doing).

"We explicitly model these problems to answer the question 'Should carbon offsets be a part of a cap-and-trade system?'" said Benjamin Leard, a graduate student who presented research with Bento. "We presented a simulation model of the proposed United States cap-and-trade system with and without offsets and illustrated how the policymaker can account for leakage and additionality by discounting the value of offsets."

Thea Whitman, one of 18 undergraduate and graduate students supported by ACSF at the event, said student participation at the conference was vital. "It is our future that is on the negotiating table, and as key stakeholders, we need to ensure that our government acts as a climate leader," Whitman said.

Overall, she said, the conference was successful in re-establishing confidence in the process after disappointments in Copenhagen in 2009.

"That said, COP 16 was only a tiny step in the right direction," she said. "We need to take action at all levels, from individual to international, and by all means, including politics, science and social movements."

Whitman worked to spread that message by blogging and producing daily podcasts during the conference for the Canadian Youth Delegation. The podcasts were available online and broadcast on 20 radio stations in Canada.

Now back in Ithaca, Whitman is looking ahead to COP 17 in Durban, South Africa.

"We should have had a new agreement in place last year," she said. "Now we are looking to Durban's conference in 2011 as our next chance."

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Blaine Friedlander