Wednesday, December 7, 2011

COP 17

A new police procedural in the theme of Child 44?  I don’t blame you if the title didn’t exactly get your heart pounding.  It is, in fact, the official title of the UN conference on climate change (subtitled: Working Together - Saving Tomorrow Today) currently coming to a grinding end in Durban on the South African east coast.  Unsurprisingly, it is the heir to 16 previous conferences.  Two weeks of talking, negotiating, presenting, eating and drinking are about to end in exhaustion.  Next week the delegates who have the time can enjoy the Kwazulu-Natal beaches, hospitality and wildlife.  The top government officials will be heading home to brief their governments and lick their wounds.
What will have been achieved?  Regrettably, the answer is likely to be very little.  China, surprisingly and suddenly, agreed to support binding emission targets, but not right now and subject to universal acceptance of five conditions.  At first sight the conditions seem reasonable, but probably the devil is in the detail.  One of the aims of the meeting is to renew the Kyoto Protocol.  Yes, that’s right, to maintain what was supposed to be the first step in combating climate change.  The first commitment period is up in 2012, and even that much agreement is in doubt.  Some countries aren’t signatories and won’t commit.  Others who did are disgusted by the reality of what has happened and are talking about pulling out.

COP17 in session
On the factual side, there is bad news and not so bad news.  The bad news is that on Monday the New York Times highlighted the Global Carbon Project’s new figures which show that global carbon dioxide emissions were up 5.9% in 2010.  “Scientists with the group said the increase, a half-billion extra tons of carbon pumped into the air, was almost certainly the largest absolute jump in any year since the Industrial Revolution, and the largest percentage increase since 2003.” New York Times article.
The not so bad news came from a new climate model which, taking the recent volcanic eruptions into account, suggests that climate change won’t be as rapid as predicted by earlier models.  (Notice that that is not as rapid rather than not as bad which is how it was sometimes reported.)  One wry observation was that the new Chinese coal-fired power stations are so dirty that they are expelling significant amounts of sulfur into the atmosphere. That will actually reflect some energy and thus slow global warming. Great! Oxygen masks, anyone?

Coal power station in China
The chair of COP 17 is Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, the South African minister of international relations and cooperation.  In her opening address she called for delegates to strive for consensus, to heed the call for “climate justice”.  (I’m not quite sure what that is; the devil will be in the detail there too, I suspect.)  She has been working hard to achieve agreement, but her ready smile was looking tired by the end of last week.  Its intensity was being used to estimate the progress of the behind the scenes negotiations.
No one expects much from this conference.  Success will be keeping Kyoto limping along, perhaps pledging some Green fund money.  The reality is that the economic environment is much changed since Kyoto.  Priorities now are jobs and economic growth.  The recession did mean reduced emissions: US emissions dropped by a remarkable 7% in 2009 and the global figure was down 1.4%.  That’s why the latest figures are so disappointing.  The financial crisis offered a chance to really impact on the release of hothouse gasses – not by cutting, just by maintaining.  Obviously that’s not going to happen.

The conference has a pretty low profile despite all the high profile people involved.  President Omaba hasn’t commented.  The only headline I’ve seen here referring to the conference was: CARBON TAX WILL KILL COAL EXPORTS. 
Meanwhile Greenpeace staged assorted demonstrations which seemed to interest no one but the police.  We really have to choose between using significantly less energy or generating it in some other way.  Globally, the former doesn’t seem to be happening.  What are the alternatives for the latter?  Wind power works, but it’s very expensive.  Someone calculated that if ALL the wind in the world could be converted to usable energy using the current technology, that would provide some 10% of the world’s energy usage.  Solar electricity isn’t efficient enough, but driving turbines using solar heat may be viable.  During the day.  The harsh reality is that there is only one energy source available right now that could significantly impact the greenhouse gasses, and that is nuclear.  And since Japan, nuclear has been very out of favor.  South Africa had plans for five new plants before the awful tsunami and its aftermath caused them to be mothballed.  Germany says it wants to move away from nuclear.  Yet, progress has been made with the technology.  New plants can use “spent” fuel from older ones leading to waste products with half-lives of hundreds rather than thousands of years.  But that won’t make Greenpeace happy.
South African cartoonist Zapiro's take on COP17
A friend of mine studies the effects of climate change on large mammals in southern Africa.  I asked him when he thought a serious commitment to reversing or at least slowing climate change would happen.  He said: "When it’s taken away from governments and politicians, when business finds a way to make money out of it, or the costs of accepting it are too high." 
Don’t hold your breath for the Durban Protocol from COP 17.

Michael - Thursday


  1. The conference came up with a sound-bite that will carry the day. "Climate justice"?? How can anyone quibble with that? "Climate" is talked about in the news all the time. "Climate" change is the thing the "bleeding heart liberals" have been talking about for years. Oil and coal companies are trumpeting their concerns about "climate". "Justice" -now that's a loaded word. who can possibly be against justice? To do what is right and just is the stated purpose of all governments, or something like that.

    Global warming is nonsense. Everyone knows that climate change is cyclical unless you are one of those bleeding heart liberals who put bugs, small animals,fish, and ocean temperature before the quality of life of the people in the world's wealthiest nations.

    The damage to the nuclear reactor in Japan was God's gift to the oil companies. Only fuzzy headed academics can't see that.

    The older I get the more angry I get. We in the United States are mired in an attitude of selfishness. As long has we have what we want in the now there is no reason to think about what happens to the next generations.

  2. Michael, it's hard to find a place to begin when talking about where all this is headed.

    The US never agreed to go along with the Kyoto Protocol, but I always sort of felt its heart was in the right place. Now I'm not sure any major player has its heart (or head) focused on anything but immediate, personal political and economic pressures. For sure, public relations now trumps substance on the issue, e.g., the energy companies incessant "Kumbayah, we're all in this together" media spots, and China saying all the right things while doing everything it can to turn its cities into sets for a remake of "Pittsburgh," that 1942 John Wayne and Marlene Dietrich film rooted in the city's smokey industrial past. Not sure who will play the starring roles in the new version, but then again I'm not sure who playing a starring role in anything having to do with environmental matters these days.

    Hmm, I feel as if I'm standing in for Tim today. Hurry back, our public demands the first team ranter.