Entries tagged with “COP”.


So, I heard a new and depressing phrase today – “the gigaton gap”.  UNEP published a technical report, just before the Cancun COP, on the gap between likely emissions under any global agreement, and our best scientific understanding of what our emissions levels need to be to prevent warming beyond 2 degrees Celsius over the next 90 years.  The findings were stunning (but sadly not all that surprising)

  • To get on a path likely to keep us at or below 2° C of warming, we would need to hold ourselves to emissions levels of  44 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (this includes all CO2 emissions, as well as emissions of other greenhouse gases normalized to CO2 by converting their impact to the amount of CO2 required to create that same impact).

Yeah, it is a huge number, so big as to be meaningless – but don’t worry about the huge number – worry about how this number stacks up the next set of numbers

  • If we just keep doing what we are doing, projections have us at 56 GtCO2e in 2020, leaving a gap of 12 GtCO2e.  That is a big, big gap.  Horrifically huge.  Hell, we have a gap equal to 21% total emissions!
  • Low ambition pledges are not that much better.  Lenient implementation of such pledges would lower emissions to around 53 GtCO2e, leaving a gap of 9 GtCO2e.

But this really gets depressing when we look at the “good” scenario:

  • Even under a best case scenario for the agreement, emissions would only drop to about 49 GtCO2e, STILL LEAVING A GAP of 5 GtCO2e.

“But 5 is much better than 12 or 9, right?” you say.  Well, it is better.  But 5 GtCO2e is approximately equal to the annual global emissions from all the world’s cars, buses and transport in 2005.  ALL OF THEM.  So 5 GtCO2e is not good news.

Summary: In Cancun, we kicked any real action down the road a year, making things harder to achieve under any circumstances.  We already knew this.  But, even under the good scenarios, we were going to come up short of what was needed – something many have long suspected, but after Copenhagen and Cancun, we now have numbers people are likely to commit to, so the analysis becomes a lot more read.  Ladies and gentlemen, ditch the global agreement – we can do this other ways.

Well, Cancun did not totally collapse . . . but the outcome was maybe worse.  What we now have is a one-year stall with very little to show for it. The targets are basically useless.  The only thing this agreement has created is an excuse to keep talking without doing anything.  As I argued the other day, we might be better off if the whole thing just collapsed, creating the space and urgency needed to really push forward the various state, city and local initiatives that seem to be the only effective measures that are moving us toward real emissions reductions and a sustainable future.  Instead, this agreement creates a counter-argument – just hang on, don’t do anything yourselves, and the countries will figure this out soon.

First, I doubt the countries will get to a place where a real, meaningful agreement could be put in place in a timely manner.  Second, as I argued in the post the other day, there is empirical evidence, via the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment’s Scenarios, to suggest that a global agreement isn’t the best way to get to a sustainable future anyway.

I know everyone working on this was well-intentioned, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions . . . and we’ve not yet taken the off-ramp.

Well, the Cancun Conference of the Parties (called COP for short) is upon us, where everyone will sit down and accomplish pretty much nothing on a global climate change agreement.  There is real concern circulating in the diplomatic world that this meeting could see the fracturing of the push for a global agreement such that it never happens – at least from this framework.  This outcome is problematic in all sorts of ways, not least of which in the chaos it will unleash in the development world, where a huge amount of money was slated to be used for adaptation to climate change under what amounted to a glorified memorandum of understanding coming out of Copenhagen.  If the whole process bites the dust, it isn’t very clear what happens to that money or the programs and projects under development to use it.

That said, if it all goes totally bad in Cancun it doesn’t mean that we are beyond creating meaningful paths toward a lower-emissions future that might be manageable.  Indeed, one might argue that the death of the global framework might be the only way forward.  States like California, and cities like New York, are now starting to implement policies and programs to cut their own emissions without a national mandate.  They are creating locally-appropriate policies that maximize environmental benefit while minimizing the local “pain” of the new policies.  This is all well and good for these cities, but what I find interesting is that there is some evidence – however loose- that this city-by-city, state-by-state approach might actually be more efficient at achieving our climate goals than a global agreement.

I was part of the Scenarios Working Group for the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment – my group was tasked with running four future scenarios for ecosystem services (the goods and processes we get from ecosystems) under different future political, economic and social conditions.  Once we got our baselines and assumptions for each scenario in place, a team of modelers ran the scenarios for various issues (temperature change, water availability, etc.) and then we attempted to link the model runs to meaningful statements about how ecosystems might fare under each scenario.

This is relevant here because, interestingly, we had a “global orchestration” scenario that, to some extent, looks like what the world was going for with Copenhagen and Cancun.  We also had another scenario called “adapting mosaic”, which assumes decentralized control and adaptive management of environmental resources.  Neither scenario was a clear winner – each had strengths and weaknesses.  An “adapting mosaic” approach is great at managing new and emerging environmental challenges, whether from climate change or other issues.  It might also serve as the very legitimate basis of a bottom-up approach to an eventual global accord on climate change.  However, this approach risks ignoring global commons like fisheries, which often leads to the loss of that resource through overuse.  There is a real risk that inequality will go unaddressed, at least across countries and at the global scale, but at the same time economic growth will not be as robust as under other scenarios.  Global orchestration is good at maximizing income.  While I dissented from this view*, the group argued that under global orchestration a Kuznets Greening Curve would kick in (as people get wealthier, they pay more attention to the environment – thus, economic growth and consumption can result in better environmental quality), and we would have strong global coordination on everything from trade to environmental issues.  However, this approach is much more reactive, and focused on the global scale – thus it is not very good at dealing with local surprises.  In my opinion, adapting mosaic looks better, over the long run, than global coordination (especially if you factor in my concerns about the Kuznets Curve assumption).

In short, in the efforts of California and New York we are seeing the emergence of a de facto adapting mosaic as the global orchestration efforts of Cancun and Copenhagen fall by the wayside.  This actually might be a good thing.

In uncertainty, there is hope.

*the Kuznets curve rests on a key assumption – that with enough wealth, we can undo the damage we do while building wealth to the point that we start caring about the environment.  Kuznets has no answer for extinction (a huge problem at the moment), as that is gone forever.  Further, the Chinese are starting to provide an object lesson in how to blow up the Kuznets curve by damaging one’s environment so badly that the costs associated with fixing the problem become overwhelming – and those are the fixable problems.  Basically, assuming a Kuznets Greening Curve allowed those framing these scenarios to put an overly-happy face on the global orchestration scenario for political reasons – they wanted to provide support for a global effort on climate change.  A more honest reading of the data, in my opinion, would have made adapting mosaic look much better.

There is much flutter around Senate Democrats’ recent decision to give up on the Energy Bill that might have brought about a cap-and-trade system here in the US.

From the NYTimes:

Senate Democrats on Tuesday abandoned all hopes of passing even a slimmed-down energy bill before they adjourn for the summer recess, saying that they did not have sufficient votes even for legislation tailored narrowly to respond to the Gulf oil spill.

Although the majority leader, Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, sought to blame Republicans for sinking the energy measure, the reality is that Democrats are also divided over how to proceed on the issue and had long ago given up hope of a comprehensive bill to address climate change.

There will be a lot of analysis of the biophysical impact of our continuing inability to act on the twinned issues of climate change and energy in the coming days, I am sure.  But, early in the morning, I want to quickly point out the cascading disaster this will cause in the environment and development policy world.  What most people don’t understand about the Copenhagen meetings, which ended in such confusion without a clear agreement, is that most of the key actors decided that it would be best to wait and see what the US managed to pass for its own internal purposes, and then try to work to that to ensure that the US joined the next major global climate agreement (remember, we never did sign Kyoto).  Copenhagen wasn’t really a failure the way many people thought – indeed, had they plowed ahead with an agreement in absence of American climate and energy legislation, they would have set the stage for Kyoto II – where the US, once again, refused to sign on to standards that it had not already agreed to.

I have found exactly one piece of good coverage of this issue, via Lisa Friedman of ClimateWire: “Overseas Frustration Grows Over U.S. Domestic Impasse on Climate Policy”.  The article nicely captures what is truly at stake here:

“Why is it that for the last 20 years the United States is unable to have a bill on climate change? What’s happening? What’s going on? It’s very complicated to understand,” said Brice Lalonde, France’s top negotiator.

“For a lot of us, we cannot wait for the United States. We have to go on. It’s like Kyoto,; we just go on” Lalonde said, referring to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol treaty that the U.S. joined but never ratified, leaving European countries to largely carry the weight of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Added Pa Ousman Jarju, lead negotiator for the small West African nation of Gambia, “We cannot rely on the U.S., because everything the U.S. is supposed to do depends on domestic policy. So we’re not going to get anything from the U.S. in terms of tangible commitment.”

He charged that the international community is “no longer hopeful” that America, the world’s biggest historic emitter of global warming pollution, will ever pass a bill to cut emissions. That, he said, leaves the global community with two options: “Either the rest of the world continues to do what they were doing before, or the whole multilateral system will collapse.”

What we were doing before was not good enough.  I am not all that sure that the net outcome of business as usual is all that different from a complete collapse of the environmental component of the multilateral system as we understand it.  The US simply has to be on board, or this is all for naught.  UN Climate Chief Christiana Figueres put it this way:

“Whether the United States meets the pledge that it put on the Copenhagen Accord via legislation or whether it meets it via regulation is an internal domestic affair of the United States and one that they need to solve,” she said. “What is clear is that at an international level the United States needs to participate in a a meaningful way, and in a way that is commensurate with its responsibility.”

Credit to her for saying this clearly, and for suggesting that content (getting some sort of formal controls on emissions in place, whether through regulation or legislation) is a lot more important than form (insisting that everyone pass legislation to somehow bolster the legitimacy of these efforts).  Now, let’s see if the Obama Administration is willing to really use the newly-empowered EPA as a blunt object in the fight to control greenhouse gas emissions – at this point, I see no other way forward for the US.  Which means no other meaningful way forward for the rest of the world.