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Our World — 29 November 2008


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Straight ahead on "Our World" … Negotiators head to Poland for the latest round of climate talks … a shift in diet can lower climate changing emissions … AIDS could be nearly eliminated with universal testing and treatment.

GRANICH: “We found that a ninety-five percent reduction incidence or new HIV cases in about ten years time after implementation of the program.”

A strategy for reducing the AIDS pandemic. Hi! I’m Rosanne Skirble sitting in for Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA’s science and technology magazine, “Our World.”


Negotiators head to Poland for the latest round of climate talks

More than ten thousand government officials, representatives from non-profit organizations and media from around the globe will gather in Poznan, Poland next week. On the agenda -- the next steps in forging an international climate agreement to succeed the Kyoto Protocol, the international treaty on climate change that expires in 2012.

The United States signed the Protocol, but failed to ratify it. Its reluctance was driven in part by concerns that China and India – with their rapidly growing economies - would not make binding commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Jonathan Pershing is climate director at the World Resources Institute and former deputy director of global change under President Clinton. He will be in Poznan as an observer. He says there are indications that China -- which has now overtaken the U.S. as the world’s leading polluter -- has begun to address the climate issue.

PERSHING: “They have called for an aggressive energy efficiency program. Under President Bush, he has said that the energy used in economic output should go down by 18 percent by 2012. Well, the Chinese have got a number that is twice that aggressive. They have a program on reforestation says that [the Chinese] are going to try to reforest a large share of [the country] in order to avoid emissions from forestry and improve the quality of life. [There are] quite a series of aggressive programs. There is an open question as to whether they will be able to meet those. While they are taking these domestic policies [seriously], they are not prepared to adopt a [reduction] target in a binding treaty internationally that would hold them to these because while they have a series of plans, they also argue that they can’t know economically how they will unfold under time and they still have low emissions on a per person basic compared to countries in the west.”

Where does that leave the United States? About 190 countries agreed last year to work out a new treaty by the end of 2009 to succeed Kyoto. What leadership role do you expect the United States to take to achieve these goals?

PERSHING: “At this particular meeting next week, the U.S. has a fairly marginal role. Most countries really are waiting for a new administration to take office and don’t really want to negotiate with the current outgoing administration. So, I think in some sense this is more of a meeting to review progress, the obligation is to have these annual sessions. The U.S. will be a partner and a party to this conversation, but I don’t expect the U.S. role here to be very significant. It will be more as a place holder.

“Then the question is what happens next? One of the things the president-elect [Obama] has indicated is that he intends to be more actively engaged in the international process, and I think that will happen in at least three ways. The first way is that the U.S. intends, according to him, to act domestically, and as a leader we have often had enormous influence. By acting ourselves we change global opinion. The second way is by formal engagement in this U.N. process. So people anticipate that the new administration as soon as it takes office be participating in these meetings. And the third way is by having aggressive bilateral diplomacy as well as diplomacy through other regional organizations. A change in policy there will also shift the dynamic.”

What about a change of policy in the U.S. Congress and what actions do you expect on Capitol Hill and how would that either help or hinder these climate negotiations?

PERSHING: “My sense is that the history of U.S. success internationally has always been predicated on domestic action. So what is interesting to me is how far along the legislative has gotten. It is a bipartisan issue. My sense is that Congress reflecting that movement across the aisle will see substantial change and now with an aggressive president moving forward from the executive branch it is likely to happen quite soon. It will be tied to the effort to remove ourselves from this financial crisis, which means big government investments and it will be tied to energy policy and how we think about energy security and how we think about the dynamics of U.S. energy supply are things that are all part of a larger picture. So we will begin to look at things like cleaner, green technologies for renewables. We will be looking at more efficient vehicles. We will be looking at change in the residences and the commercial spaces of the country to reduce the energy consumed in heating and in cooling. All of those things are part of government policy making that we ought to start seeing over the course of this year and will change how the U.S. is perceived internationally, because it is no longer a question of rhetoric where the president says, “I intend.” It’s now a question [that] we have committed through legislative action to do and that’s a big shift for the United States.”

Jonathan Pershing is climate director at the World Resources Institute and former deputy director of global change under President Clinton.


President-elect Obama confirms dealing with climate change will be a priority

While President-elect Barack Obama won’t be attending the Poznan meeting, he is sending a team to represent him. During the campaign, he said that one of his priorities when he took office in January would be to open a new chapter in dealing with climate change. Lester Graham reports that last week, Obama confirmed that he will work toward that goal.

GRAHAM: In a surprise video statement that opened the Governors’ Global Climate Summit in Los Angeles, Obama said there’ll be no more denial or delay. As soon as he’s president, America will help lead toward global cooperation on climate change, starting with a federal carbon cap-and-trade program and making investments in clean energy.

Bill Kovacs with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce likes the investments idea, but cautions restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions could hurt business.

KOVACS: “You need to be very sensitive, especially in a stressed-out economy that you could end up imposing very huge costs on virtually everybody who participates in the economy.”

GRAHAM: President-elect Obama said in the video statement he’ll work with business.

OBAMA: “Any company that’s willing to invest in clean energy will have an ally in Washington.”

GRAHAM: Environmentalists applauded the statement. It’s the first on climate change since Barack Obama won the presidency. For the Environment Report, I’m Lester Graham.


A shift in diet can lower climate changing emissions

Environmentalists say that buying more locally grown produce can help slow climate change. But -- according to a study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, a shift in diet away from red meat and dairy could be even more effective.

The researchers looked at the total life-cycle of greenhouse gases emitted to produce the food consumed by an average American household.

WEBER: “Take a pork chop. This isn’t just transporting from the pig farm to the person, but transporting the feed from the corn field to the pig, transporting the fertilizer from the fertilizer manufacturer to the corn field and vice-versa going all the way back to say moving the oil from Saudi Arabia to the U.S.”

That’s Chris Weber, associate professor of environmental and civil engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, and the study’s lead author. It turns out that transportation as a whole is not the main offender. It accounts for about 11 percent of those food-related emissions, with only four percent in the final delivery stage from producer to retailer. Agricultural and production practices are responsible for almost all the rest.

Weber says methane and nitrous oxide from farm animals – in their manure - is far more polluting than the most familiar greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide.

WEBER: “These animals are producing a lot of manure which, if it is not handled correctly which more often than not in this country is true, it produces methane and nitrous oxide, which are 20 and 200 times as potent as CO2.”

Simply put, red meat is far more greenhouse gas intensive than all other foods.

WEBER: “You can have a much bigger impact by eating less grain-fed red meat and dairy in your diet than you can by eating locally.”

In fact, Weber says, a shift from beef to chicken, fish or eggs, or a vegetable based diet just one day a week would have more impact on the environment than buying all household food locally for an entire year.

WEBER: “That would reduce your total impact by about 1,000 miles [1600 kilometers] driven a year in a standard car. If the average household shifts totally away from red meat and dairy towards a vegetarian diet or one with some chicken, fish and eggs in it, then you would have the impact of 8,000 [13,000 kilometers] miles a year less.”

That’s about half of what an average American family drives each year.

Weber has taken that message to heart. He eats no red meat and prepared his vegetarian Thanksgiving dinner with locally grown produce, knowing his carbon footprint would be lighter.

WEBER: ““I haven’t actually gone and done the actual calculations of how this would compare to a traditional meal, but I am fairly confident that it would be considerably lower.”

Weber says in the next step in his research, he hopes to address the emissions impact of land use and different agricultural practices.


AIDS could be nearly eliminated with universal testing and treatment

A new study says AIDS could be nearly eliminated in a decade, if everyone was tested and drugs were prescribed as soon as a person tested positive. Although based on a theoretical model, researchers say they hope to further study the intriguing results. VOA's Jessica Berman reports.

BERMAN: The World Health Organization estimates that more than nine million people infected with the HIV virus are not being treated with antiretroviral drugs because they don't have access to the medications or they don't know they are infected with the virus that causes AIDS.

To study the possible effect universal treatment might have on the AIDS pandemic, researchers used a computer model to project what would happen in a South African community if everyone was tested for HIV once a year and started on antiretroviral therapy immediately after a positive diagnosis, even though they appeared to be healthy.

In a study published this week in the journal The Lancet, researchers found that the rate of HIV infection would be nearly eliminated.

Reuben Granich of the World Health Organization's, or WHO's, Department of HIV/AIDS in Geneva led the study. He says investigators were surprised by the results.

GRANICH: "We found a 95 percent reduction incidence or new HIV cases in about ten years time after implementation of the program. Or another way to look at that is that by about 2050, the prevalence or the number of people living with HIV would be less than one percent."

Kevin de Cock is the WHO's HIV/AIDS program director and co-author of the study. He says the study opens the possibility of antiretroviral drugs being used to prevent HIV transmission.

DE COCK: "We know from experience from other spheres of HIV medicine and public health, like for the prevention of mother to child transmission, that these drugs reduce the amount of virus in the body and make people less infectious. So this is biologically plausible."

Although the idea of universal testing and drug therapy for people who are not yet sick is outside the bounds of current strategy, Kevin de Cock says WHO plans to convene a meeting next year to discuss the findings of the latest study.


The on-line resources of the World AIDS Campaign in our Website of the week

Monday is World AIDS Day and for our Website of the Week we head to the virtual home of the organization in charge of the annual observance - the World AIDS Campaign, which is on the web at worldaidscampaign.org.

LEPESKA: “You'll find everything from posters, postcards, media guides, we also have an international World AIDS Day calendar, information about how you can use the resources or adapt them for your local needs.”

Molly Lepeska is Communications Coordinator for the organization. She says the idea of a global event to raise awareness of the AIDS pandemic originated twenty years ago, at a 1988 World Summit of Ministers of Health. Originally, UN AIDS spearheaded the event and in 2005, the responsibility was turned over to the World AIDS Campaign.

She says the group's website supports their mission of strengthening the global campaign for universal access to AIDS treatment. An important part of that is connecting local activists in all regions of the world. So - in addition to a section on what's happening in various communities - the website offers an easy way for groups to collaborate and share ideas.

LEPESKA: “We always try to provide a place for campaigners themselves to share information about what they're doing in terms of universal access campaigning. Campaigners from different constituencies -- youth, positive networks or faith organizations -- send us materials that they use for campaigning, so people can take a look at what they've done and download the materials that they have.”

Activists can publicize their events on an on-line international calendar … and not just events for World AIDS Day. Lepeska says the campaign is a year-round effort, and the website - with its advocacy tools and program ideas - is a year-round resource.

LEPESKA: “We really push to have our themes be year-round themes, this year the theme is leadership, so what we're really trying to do is push using the theme of leadership at all mobilization events around the year, so we really just encourage campaigners to use the themes throughout the whole year in what they're doing and how they're planning events that are really important to them at a local level.”

All the resources you need to get involved in the campaign against AIDS at worldaidscampaign.org, or get the link to this and more than 200 other Websites of the Week, from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.


Activists call for ethical recycling of electronic waste

In the U-S, the fastest growing type of trash is E-waste: computers, TVs and other electronics. Because many e-waste components are toxic, many communities are striving to recycle them more responsibly. From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports:

SCHLENDER: At the Center for Hard-to-Recycle Materials in Boulder, Colorado, a young man hoists his old computer into a recycling bin.

MAN “I like to know there is a center in our town that can do this.”

SCHLENDER: He could have simply dumped his computer in the trash.

MAN “I could, but I know that's the wrong thing to do.”

MATSCH: “For a lot of people it feels weird to throw a computer monitor in your trashcan, it just doesn't feel right, and that's, that's correct. It shouldn't feel right because there's a lot of heavy metals in electronics.”

SCHLENDER: Dan Matsch manages Boulder's Center for Hard to Recycle Materials, which welcomes not just computers but TVs, cell phones, FAX machines and more. This diverts e-waste from landfills, where heavy metals like beryllium, cadmium and lead can leach out, contaminating drinking water.

Matsch also tries to keep e-waste away from companies that ship it overseas, where the parts are often recycled under dangerous conditions.

MATSCH: “Electric cords are piled up and set on fire to burn the plastic insulation off so that they can then take the copper to a recycler, so there's a lot of people are getting very sick because we're sending them our junk in the name of recycling. Anytime you burn plastics you are creating dioxins, and that is not a good thing. It's been identified long ago as a cancer-causing agent.”

SCHLENDER: As for the leaded glass in TV and computer screens, Matsch says that when these are thrown away, they increase the risk of brain damage in people who are exposed to them. More are getting tossed these days, as Americans switch to flat screen monitors, and trade in old TVs in advance of the mandatory shift to digital TV in February.

Many consumers try to recycle their old CRTs responsibly. But according to Jim Puckett, founder of the watchdog group the Basel Action Network, 60 percent of them end up in shipping containers, in Hong Kong.

PUCKETT: “And most of those in Hong Kong are immediately smuggled into Mainland China and have gone to a village known as Guyui.”

SCHLENDER: In Guyui, unregulated e-waste recycling has made the water undrinkable, and it's laced the blood of local children with poisonous lead.

The practice is so common, even the city of Denver, Colorado, was fooled by a company that's been shipping e-waste to China instead of recycling it properly. After the company's illegal practice was disclosed in a national television documentary, Michelle Weingarten, Denver's Sustainability Director, said the city will now only work with e-waste recyclers who have signed a special promise.

WEINGARTEN: “We are making sure that any company that we partner on, will be a partner that has signed the pledge by the Basel Action Network to not ship CRTs to developing countries.”

SCHLENDER: One company that's signed the Basel Action Pledge is Boulder's Center for Hard to Recycle Materials. Each week, the drop-off center sends a huge truck loaded with computers, TVs, printers and other electronics to another signer, Denver's Guaranteed Recycling Xperts.

MILLER: “We're going to separate the lead acid batteries, the aluminum, separate the circuit boards, the plastic materials.”

SCHLENDER: John Miller is Vice President of Guaranteed Recycling. He says that his company sends wires and electric cords to a metal company that salvages the copper by either chopping the plastic into bits or burning it in incinerators that don't release dioxins. Circuit boards are shipped to a state-of-the-art facility in Belgium that recovers precious metals without releasing toxins.

As for leaded glass screens, Miller says that crews carefully remove them from monitor cases and send them to a company that melts the glass and salvages the lead for car batteries. While this isn't profitable, Miller says it is responsible.

MILLER: “The other solution for this glass, is for me not to touch it, for me to leave it in a monitor state and for me to sell it to a broker for a dollar apiece, and send it overseas, where it's going to be improperly recycled and cause environmental disasters.”

SCHLENDER: E-waste recycling programs here in Boulder and other communities across the country are local efforts to fight a global problem, but Sarah Westervelt, with the Basel Action Network, says the U-S government should also step in.

WESTERVELT: “Our government is essentially asleep at the switch and it's very, very challenging for consumers to try to figure out who is doing the right thing.”

SCHLENDER: To help these consumers, this month [11/10], the Basel Action Network announced plans for an E-Steward Certification Program, to audit and accredit electronic waste recyclers. It will take effect in 2010. In the meantime, the organization will keep pushing for a federal ban on exporting e-waste. For Our World, I'm Shelley Schlender in Boulder, Colorado.


MUSIC: “Our World” theme

Lester Graham’s story was produced with support from the Park Foundation, the George Gund Foundation, and the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation.

And that’s our program for this week. Faith Lapidus is our editor. Our technical director is Bob Doughty.

I’m Rosanne Skirble. Join us online at voanews.com/ourworld or on your radio next week with Art Chimes at this same time as we explore the latest in science and technology on “Our World.”

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