Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Eyes on Qatar

The 18th United Nations Climate Change Conference opened yesterday in Doha, with a call for action from the President of the sessions, Abdullah Bin Hamad Al-Atttiyah:

“Now more than ever, the issues at the heart of these negotiations are at the forefront of global debate and discourse. All seven billion people living on the planet share a single challenge: climate change,” Mr Al-Attiyah has said. “This is why we gather at the highest official levels in an international framework; this is our mission. If we do not make the changes we need to now, it will soon be too late. We must decide whether we let our lifestyles jeopardise our life.”

This is in response to the dire report from the World Bank regarding the impact of climate change that has already taken place. The US has refrained from being a part of the UNFCCC protocol because of its objection to being designated as Annex II country when India and China are equal carbon emitters and are not held accountable for that because of their earlier "developing country" status.

The US delegate to the conference, Jonathan Pershing offered no new sweeteners to the poor countries at the opening day, only reiterating what the United States has done to tackle global warming: investing heavily in clean energy, doubling fuel efficiency standards and reducing emissions from coal-fired power plants. Pershing also said the United States would not increase its earlier commitment of cutting emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. It is half way to that target.

"I would suggest those who don't follow what the U.S. is doing may not be informed of the scale and extent of the effort, but it's enormous," Pershing said.

Now all eyes are on the US Administration to reaffirm a core commitment made at last year's COP in  Durban for a 2 degree limit on climate change. A statement made by Todd Stern, a State Department envoy, earlier this year, appears to back off from any commitment to this hard goal. However, the EPA is poised to finalize a rule approved in March that would put severe limits on the construction of new power plants in the USA.

How else is the US participating? The Harvard Project on Climate Agreements will be conducting a significant side project at the conference. Which indicates that US leadership could possibly come from a myriad of strategies rather than a single goal commitment.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Carbon Can

The world community has a unique opportunity coming soon. Has the time arrived when global agreements are put into place that put a hard cap on the carbon emissions? Can we expect leadership from key players (i.e., the World Bank) in accomplishing the completely do-able shift to renewable and non-fossil energy? Can we actually preserve our world so that it's fit to live in by 2030? Can we change the corporate business model so that they can't simply externalize the carbon waste that's impacting the entire globe? Can these business models adjust to the long view?

As Eric Roston succinctly puts it in his Forbes article:

I bet the policy professionals and scientists who ponder climate change adaptation spend little if any time with investors and traders whose livelihoods rise or fall on the spread between company estimates and earnings. There’s a yawning chasm between how much tolerance companies and investors have for blips in performance, which is to say not much, and the large-scale threats to life and property in years and decades ahead, which as far as anybody knows could be considerable. I’d gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.

There are numerous examples of countries and regions going directly into renewable energy sources right now, and they're not waiting for some formal payback system. The profit is there already, and it increases as more businesses, governments and companies make the changeover, a synergistic effect. So there's really nothing keeping the global community from grabbing that can and opening it, since that creates so many opportunities for everyone to participate in a livelihood that pays back the earth and its climate as well as the investors. Broad-brush the numbers and work the concept.

So let's do it.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

View from Above

The recent cover of New York Magazine captured a phenomenal shot of NYC immediately after hurricane Sandy, showing lower Manhattan completely dark except for the Goldman Sachs tower. The photographer, Iwan Baan, recalled that “As I looked at the glowing Goldman Sachs tower and the bright buildings surrounding this financial icon—I saw who has the power and how problematic that is for this country.”

This event, the outsize power of which is directly a result of climate change, has brought into stark relief the immense risks and dangers of climate change and the depth of the problem of energy production and its resulting carbon emissions.The International Energy Agency, which has been publishing energy charts for years, has now taken a public position that the current energy trends are completely unsustainable and threaten planetary existence. It points out that modest reductions in production and consumption won't make much difference in the accelerating trajectory of carbon emissions. A free report on the IEA key statistics is here.

The only possible response to this by the human community is an immediate and drastic reduction in fossil fuel production and use. This is entirely achievable, but will mean that these reduction goals must be committed to on a global basis, with no "cap and trade" games that allow more carbon to be emitted than are necessary to reduce emissions to the required levels, just so the fossil fuel industry can make its money going out the door. As one can see, the difference between these reductions is found in my discussion, based on a chart from the Global Commons Institute.

As I point out, the necessary reduction curve [red curve] was the initial number more or less agreed to by proponents of the big emissions reductions, such as Bill McKibben. However, after the cap and trade business came into play, that curve [yellow curve] was put out as the "new goal", and that has now been marketed by this "Do the Math" tour that only focuses on the Keystone Pipeline, not the vast network of oil and coal production across the globe. This yellow curve includes the allowance for the cap and trade market, but that isn't sufficient to slow down climate change. It simply allows the corporations to continue to make profit by selling carbon fuels for longer and at higher levels. It thus condemns the planet to irreversible climate change and its impacts on all life, not just human needs.

The necessary response is a drastic and immediate reduction in carbon emissions [grey curve], which will have serious global economic repercussions. But if the global community can shift rapidly to a new economy that embraces sustainable values, this change can become a possibility.

This kind of change does not have Goldman Sachs in its future.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Sandy: A Lesson

Given that the immense damage inflicted by Hurricane Sandy last week on New York City's subway system was entirely foreseeable under the climate change scenarios, one has to seriously question the ability of cities and states to prepare for a future of climate change, let alone make intelligent choices about local ecosystems and energy use.

If one looks back in time to an era before the development of the colony of New Amsterdam, one would see the natural waterways and vegetation that existed as an ecosystem at the turn of the 17th century, nearly 175 years before the United States came into being as the 13 colonies. This was a living ecosystem that could weather the storms and vagaries of the weather system, as well as providing a buffer for the life on land. The natural processes have been in dynamic balance for millions of years. Then the land was built over, smothered, and the Industrial Revolution of 200 years ago began pumping out the emissions that have led to dangerous climate change, with the attendant increase in catastrophic climate events.

Human habitation has its place on the earth, but we've overrun it. This process, driven by economics of "growth" that rely on consumption of resources and expanding population, is a destructive overgrowth, much like a bacteria that kills its host. This progression can be seen on Manhattan maps that show how the marshes were built over, and the low lying areas created by this growth were then developed, destroying the natural buffers provided by the waterways and marshes.

This is the kind of uncontrolled building and development that creates massive financial and physical losses when the coastal areas are built out. Ian McHarg did a classic study in his book, "Design With Nature" that showed how the dunes along the shore are critical for the protection of the built environment set in back of the dunes away from the shore. This permaculture approach is a fundamentally necessary part of truly regenerative design for human habitation.The options for facing climate change in coastal cities boil down to relocation, building infrastructure to cope with the new planet we're on, or cutting carbon emissions drastically. It's time for cities and their councils and planners to take serious responsibility for providing for public safety in dealing with climate change.

NYC Mayor Bloomberg's qualified endorsement of Obama's record on climate change, on November 1 of this year, resulted from the impact of Sandy's destruction of the city. He spelled out the actions of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group and their efforts, and made it clear that it's time for national leadership on this issue. There's a great infographic from this group here.

This lesson will hopefully spur the adoption of principles of ecological design and instigate the adoption of the necessary global carbon limits with new urgency.

Precautionary Principle