Lip Service

September 24, 2009

The sun has set on the 2009 Summit on Climate Change at the U.N HQ in New York. Despite the media getting its knickers in a twist, the summit faithfully followed the ‘set menu’ pattern of previous climate summits. Kids pleading to ‘save the planet’, green celebrities stating ‘time is running out’  and world leaders reading out ‘what needs to be done’ speeches. Oh yes, the emissions generated by flying everyone to the summit were offset by funding a tidy little project in poverty land. The awards for the outstanding performers of the Summit go to…

1. The most confusing statement: Barack Obama, President of the United States

“Unease is no excuse for inaction. And we must not allow the perfect to become the enemy of progress”

2. The most feel-good but highly unlikey statement: Hu Jintao, President of China

“China stands ready to join hands with all countries to build an even better future for the generations to come”

3. The most honest: Swedish Prime Minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt

“We are only 76 days from the Copenhagen meeting- but the negotations are going far too slow and they are still lacking real progress. We are close to a deadlock.”

4. The most funny without intending to be: French President, Nicolas Sarkozy

“Considering how complex this negotiation is, a new summit before Copenhagen is needed”

5. The most heart-breaking: President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives

“We at the Maldives desperately want to believe that one day our words will have an effect, and so we continue to shout them even though, deep down, we know that you are not really listening”

Dirty debt

September 9, 2009

With the climate change summit not far away in December in Copenhagen there is a perceptible buzz about possible outcomes and consequences. While few countries are keen to accept tough emission targets, nobody wants to be labelled as the spoilsport who sabotaged the ‘deal that could save the planet’. However, there are disturbing signs of ‘scapegoat hunting’ and ‘excuse exploration’ even before delegates have booked their flight tickets for the summit. One such example is placing all the onus on developing countries as deal makers or breakers. Media and think tanks in developed countries (that are responsible for the great majority of past as well as current CO2 emissions) are increasingly trying to shine the spotlight on developing countries to divert attention from their own unwillingness to adopt tough emission cuts or clear mid-term targets. As a result, even developing countries that have shown an interest in embracing a low carbon development strategy are feeling like the schoolkid who is being bullied for his lunch money.

The situation with developing countries is this; They will not accept binding emission reductions until the carbon inequity issues are addressed first. Developed countries have to pay developing countries for;

1. Reducing their legitmate share of the historically available carbon space from 1800 to present day.

2. Currently consuming more than their fair share of the carbon space.

3. The consequences of extreme weather events like floods and droughts that can be scientifically attributed to human-induced climate change.

4. Climate change adaptation infrastructure like flood defenses, relocation of displaced people, crop technology, etc.

Not to mention the tranfer of technology for renewable power generation that had been promised but nor delivered since the Kyoto protocol.

Martin Khor of the South Centre estimates that the total bill will amount to $ 23 trillion. This may seem like a fantasy number but let us not forget that bailout package for failed banks financed by the U.S Governments alone is expected to add up to $ 23.7 trillion by this year. Even if we take into account that climate change was acknowledged formally only in 1992 and write off the historical carbon debt (1800-1992), we are still left with a bill of $ 3.9 trillion according to Fraser Durham of Carbon Sense. He also states that this amount is roughly equal to the monetary debt of all developing countries. And this just begins to takes care of the carbon equity issue. It does not however magically make the CO2 emissions from developed countries disappear (only realistic emission reduction targets, regular verification and strict penalties can do that). What it does is make the climate change negotiations a more level playing field.

The G8 summit in Italy showcased a real sense of urgency to tackle climate change. There was a call for “strict and reasonable guidelines on GHG emissions” and a “revised framework to ensure that promises were kept”. Clean energy commitments with international cooperation and joint research  for improving efficiency of exisiting renewable energy options was promoted. Energy efficiency with subsidies and labelling for green tech were advocated. Unfortunately, this high level of commitment, cooperation and foresight was not voiced by political representatives of the G8 countries but by their 16 year old youth representatives who convened the J8 (Junior 8 ) summit in Rome.

The real G8 leaders had nothing really new to add. All we got was a conservative Declaration that reaffirms pre existing positions. This suggests that they are; 1) leaving a lot of room for manouvering in Copenhagen or 2) think that they can get away with making any sort of commitment, however insubstantial. Some examples;

1. They agreed to a 2°C limit on temperature rise from pre-industrial levels. Too little, too late.

2. They agreed to push for an 80% reduction in GHG emissions by 2050. Not enough really. No midterm (2020) commitments though, making developing countries all the more reluctant to sign on to emissions reductions commitments around that time.

3. Recognised that halting deforestation and degradation is a vital component of emissions mitigation. Nothing new here.

4. Agreed to create a Global Partnership for clean carbon technology and doubling investment by 2015 in green tech.

5. Considered climate financing through matched funding and/or creation of a Green Fund.

350 or three hundered and fifty or CCCL. 350 BC was the year when Aristotle argued that the earth was spherical. A significant moment in human history no doubt, but not the reason why 350 is the most important number in the world. That title goes to the proportion of CO2 in the atmosphere that scientists are increasingly stating as the safe upper limit; 350 ppm (parts per million). Consider this; prior to the Industrial Revolution the proportion of CO2 in the earth’s atmosphere was believed to be 275 ppm. It was 275 ppm when old Aristotle was arguing the world was not flat in 350 B.C and during all of human history. And 275 ppm is a good number as we need some CO2 in the atmosphere to keep the earth warm enough for survival.

But things began to change in the past 200 years that mark our love affair with fossil fuels. No disrespect to fossil fuels. Madame Coal, Oil and Gas were ideal mistresses. They were easy to find, extract, transport, use and unlike their human counterparts brought no guilt. All this has changed in recent decades. Now fossil fuels are harder to find and extract as larger reserves are found in inaccessible places like under the sea and in politically unstable countries.They are now saddled with a guilt trip as well. In the 1980s we knew enough about the molecular structure of CO2 and its ability to trap heat. Scientists were beginning to realise that all the millions of tonnes CO2 being released into the atmosphere every year was bound to  have consequences. By 1995, the correlation between CO2 and temperature rise was established beyond a doubt. 15 years of climate change skepticism, vested interest lobbying and quest for double digit growth later, we are now at 387 ppm of CO2. And already we are experiencing the effects of climate change.

The decade of 1998-2007 was the warmest on record. Drought, floods, retreat of glaciers, melting of polar ice caps, coastal erosion and spread of diseases & pests are affecting us NOW at 387 ppm of CO2. It is obvious that we should be aiming for something below 350 ppm to have any chance of adapting to a changing climate. The Draft Negotiation Text for a post-2012 climate agreement does list 350 ppm as a commitment. Accordingly this translated to developed countries reducing CO2 emissions by more than 85% of 1990 levels by 2050. However, 350 ppm is only 1 of 4 options listed in the Draft for countries to negotiate on in December at Copenhagen.  The 450 ppm option is not good enough (particularly for small island countries) as we are already struggling to cope at 387 ppm. The  2 degrees celsius limit option presumes we can control the earth’s temperature like an oven (what we have control of is the amount of CO2 we emit).  The global 2 tonnes CO2 per capita could mean that the poor everywhere could be subsidising the big emitters. Thus, the only effective and equitable target is 350 ppm. Get real, get 350.

It is here. The most eagerly awaited climate change draft has been revealed at last. The Draft Negotiation Text of the UNFCCC which will form the basis of the post 2012 climate negotiations was unveiled in Bonn this month and it does look promising. With a draft in hand, the UNFCCC will be hoping that the negotiations in Copenhagen will be less like  assembling a mangled Frankenstein and more like choosing the interiors of your new Prius Hybird car. The fate of final document rests on two words; Curly brackets a.k.a { } , the bread and butter of all negotiators. With {Shall} or {Should} in almost every other sentence of the draft, there is a lot to be won or lost. And the stakes are high. Some interesting developments (all in ye good olde {} of course) in the Draft are;


1. Developed countries to reduce emissions by 25-40% by 2020 and 75-95% by 2050

2. Of this 90% has to be from domestic action and only 10% from offsets.

3. Developing countries to reduce by 25% of 2000 levels by 2050.

4. Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Action (NAMA) for developing countries on a voluntary basis but this mitigation cannot be used to generate offsets for developed countries.

5. More prosperous developing countries have to have a NAMA by 2020 and be prepared to undertake actions similar to developed countries after a fixed date.

6. Sectoral commitments for developing countries (steel, power, cement industry, etc.)

REDD/Avoided deforestation

7. REDD (avoided deforestation) to be incorporated as a legitimate part of NAMA

8. Interested developing countries must draft a National REDD strategy covering readiness, demonstrative and full implementation phases along with national reference levels.

9. Separate fund for REDD activities to complement the World Forest Carbon Partnership.


10. Developed countries must fork out 0.5 to 2% of their GDP

11. Price on carbon through auction of emissions

12. Levy on air passengers

13. Levy of 2-5% from CDM projects and 2-12% from emissions trading.

14. Global levy on internation monetary transactions.

15. Monetary penalties for non-compliance to be paid into the Adaptation Fund.

Small is underwater

June 2, 2009

One motely group of tiny countries have a lot to lose if the climate talks in Copenhagen this December fail. The Association of Small Island States (AOSIS) is a grouping of 43 small island countries like Vanuatu, Maldives, Cyprus, Cuba… who are already experiencing the impacts of human-accelerated climate change while the rest of us are twiddling our thumbs about what to do about it. These islands are bound to be the first casualities of global sea level rise and for most the only adaptation choice is evacuation. Some like Tuvalu are already preparing for a full-scale evacuation to Australia or New Zealand (if they will have them that is). With the clock ticking, they watch with exasperation as the big emitters shuffle their feet over climate commitments and funding. With a mere 5% of the world’s population, these isles realised that together they would form a more effective lobby group with 20% of the U.N membership.

Indeed, they were quite effective in the early days of the climate talks despite the limited economic and political clout of its individual members. Their plight gave them the status of the ‘conscience’ of the climate negotations, a glimpse of the worst case scenario if we didn’t get our act together on time. However, the immediate need for ‘ecological effectiveness’ in climate talks that AOSIS championed was soon overshadowed by other interests affecting the big players. The developed countries and OPEC began to  lobby for ‘economic effectiveness’ as the key basis for any climate deal, where minimum damage to the economy had precedence over what was best for the environment. Climate commitments became economic commitments and countries vied with each over to jump the climate fence with the lightest commitment load, applauded by their relieved industries and consumers. Simultaneously, developing countries began lobbying for ‘social and equity effectiveness’ which translated into the oft repeated ‘common but differentiated responsibility’ slogan.

Interestingly, this trend is not new. The wildlife conservation sector faced a very similar set of divergent priorities. The initial need for ‘ecological effectiveness’ led to the creation of Protected Area Networks for in situ conservation. Within these safe havens, wildlife had priority over all else. However, poaching as a result of alienation of local people forced the conservation movement to embrace the ‘social and equitable’ model of community based conservation. Another group demanded that wildlife must ‘pay its way’ and introduced ‘sustainable’ hunting and ‘ecotourism’ for ‘economically effective’ conservation. Ultimately, what we are left with are wildlife refuges that adopt one, two or all three of these approaches in varying degrees depending on the local situation. This amalgamation of priorities took the better part of a 100 years to achieve and conservationists still argue endlessly about the relative merits of these approaches. We do not have a 100 years to create a climate deal, only a few months. For our small island friends it may already be too late.