Hiatus Until May

Categories: Uncategorized

My Free Time is Like the Ocean's Ecology... Or Something

Due to overwhelming time commitments, this blog will go on hiatus until May 14th.

Nuclear Energy: An Environmental Quandary

Categories: Green Energy

“I cannot support issuing this license as if Fukushima had never happened.”

Last week, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved the construction of what will be the first new nuclear power plant in more than 30 years – and this over the objection of its chairman.  In opposition, and invoking the nuclear accident at Fukushima, Chairman Gregory Jaczko asserted that any future construction or proposals should be carried out with the utmost attention paid to safety, particularly to avoid the problems that came to light in Japan.  As the International Atomic Energy Agency reported last year [PDF], the nuclear crisis in Fukushima was precipitated in part by 1) insufficient tsunami preparations; 2) miscommunication between the government, regulators, and plant operators.  Presumably, Jaczko’s safety concerns and demands for further oversight would delay the construction of the reactor at the Vogtle site…

Nuclear Power as an Environmentalist Solution?

…but it wouldn’t necessarily stop it entirely.  In fact, Jaczko, calling the vote “historic,” has couched his opposition primarily in terms invoking mismanagement and a concern for proper safety oversight.  At the same time, those in favour of nuclear energy have supported it on the basis of its environmental benefits.  President Obama and his administration have argued that the push for clean, low emission energy would mean “building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country.”  Low emission energy sounds really attractive right now, particularly in light of the non-stop increase in global GHG emissions (and, if you’re in Vermont right now, apparently bizarre deviations from the climatic norm).

But the Obama administration and the NRC aren’t the only agencies in favour of nuclear development!  What I find really interesting is that several environmentalists, including Mark Lynas, George Monbiot (both from the UK), and Bruno Comby from the US have echoed these claims, arguing that clean energy through nuclear power is a no-brainer.  While Lynas and other pro-nuclear greens have publicly worried that their position “would be the end of [their] reputation as an environmentalist,” they have remained steadfast in their position.

Or A Faustian Bargain?

For other greens, this is a tough sell.  Globally, most of the world’s public is opposed to nuclear power, with clear majorities in France (where most of the energy is nuclear) and Germany (which has recently announced a plan to completely phase out nuclear power by 2022).  As the Sierra Club points out, nuclear energy may be considered clean, only if you ignore 1) radioactive tailings; 2) exposure to radioactivity for workers; 3) the problem of storing radioactive material with long half-lives; amid other concerns.  So, can these concerns be weighed against what often seems like the more pressing issue of climate change and energy independence?  Is opposition against nuclear energy on environmental grounds misplaced?  Is there a way to promote greener behavior and consumption without resorting to a process that may lead to long term problems with radioactivity?

Never Trust the ‘Win-Win-Win’ Scenario

Categories: Climate Change, Green Consumerism, Green Energy, International Relations


The Solution to Global Warming

Well, I suppose it’s about time that I started blogging again.  Don’t worry; nothing environmentally bad happened between December 12 and today – or I would have caught it.  Clearly.

On Thursday, I heard an interesting report on NPR.  Climate scientists, such as Durwood Zaelke of the Institute of Governance and Sustainable Development, and Drew Shindell of NASA have suggested a new, effective way to fight climate change: instead of attempting to create treaties or institutions to deal with carbon dioxide, we should focus on reducing our global emissions of soot and methane.

Why Soot and Methane?

The rationale behind doing so sounds very seductive: 1) both these gases have a higher Global Warming Potential (GWP) than carbon dioxide per unit weight – methane is 21 times more powerful than CO2 per weight, while soot (comprised of incompletely combusted carbon, sulfur, organic carbon and other chemicals – also known as “black carbon”) has a GWP of 680; 2) as illustrated by NASA, both methane and soot are potentially harmful to human life – soot, because it exacerbates pulmonary and cardiovascular illness, and methane, as it contributes to ground-level ozone; 3) both soot (despite its carbon component) and methane have shorter atmospheric lifetimes than CO2 – one or two decades, as opposed to hundreds of years.

Consequently, concentrating efforts on soot and methane mean you would be able to discern greater changes in atmospheric CO2e accumulation.  In fact, Shindell was lead author on a paper, published in Science Magazine, that suggests focusing on these two gases would reduce the amount of global warming from the projected rate of increase by 0.5 degrees Celsius by 2050.  This is no small potatoes, considering that the margin of increase recognized by the IPCC as tolerable for human society is a 2 degree increase over current global averages.  Finally, and I suspect this may be a more important development than anything else, combating soot and methane means you’re less likely to confront the industries – transport and energy – responsible for producing carbon dioxide.  Methane primarily comes from agriculture and landfills, particularly in less developed countries, while it is also a byproduct of coal mining.  Soot comes from biomass stoves, burning wood and dung, which again are largely used in developing countries.

So, What’s the Problem?

Not surprisingly, this idea – treating climate change by focusing on patterns of behavior that are not connected to vested industrial interests – has received a lot of vocal support, including among conservative researchers.  “So rather than focusing only on carbon dioxide emissions, where we have to make a tradeoff with energy prices, this strategy focuses on ‘win-win-win’ pathways,” says Jonathan Foley of the University of Minnesota.  ”This is an important study that deserves serious consideration by policy makers as well as scientists,” says John D. Graham, former OMB head under the Bush administration.

Obviously, the proposals advanced by Shindell and his co-authors, if funded, would provide immeasurable benefits.  Reduce cardiovascular illness among lower income, biomass stove-using populations; reduce ground-level ozone; mitigate short-term climate change.  But, I worry that the attempt to focus on other gases may present a moral hazard, if policymakers and the public lose sight of the main problem, which remains carbon dioxide.  While soot and methane are comparatively speaking, short term problems, ‘solving’ them as issues without dealing with the main driver of climate change will only postpone severe climatic problems.  Recall that carbon dioxide lasts for about 100 years in the atmosphere.  The catastrophic implications of global warming would thus be postponed until well after our natural lifetimes, but what about afterwards?  Surely we have a moral obligation to consider future generations.

Moreover, there is something deeply unsettling about a policy approach that has implications for future obligations on lower income populations, or developing countries, while treating carbon dioxide emissions in the developed world as a fait accompli.  Zaelke, who worked on the UNFCCC, said this in regards to the new study: ”I mean, it’s like picking a fight with the biggest bully in the schoolyard.  You know, you get your lunch money stolen, you get your pants pulled down, and you get sent home humiliated. We’ve made about that much progress with CO2.”  That same article goes on to say: “ Few governments have been willing to endanger development with limits on CO2.”

First, that last sentence is misleading.  The entire EU bloc has been more than willing to restrict CO2 emissions, quite sharply, and has done so even in the face of a global recession.  Rather, a few (but key) governments (you know who they are from following Durban, I imagine) have refused to address CO2, leaving us all with the bag.  Second, if we want to characterize CO2 as a bully, I would hope that we as a global society will eventually generate the courage and determination to confront that bully, rather than acquiescing each and every time.

I’m Dreaming of a Green Christmas

Categories: Conservation, Green Consumerism

Season’s Greetings!  Here’s a question I was pondering: how can you have a more environmentally friendly Christmas?*  This may be more difficult than it seems.  First, environmentalists are not generally known for their optimism, joyous spirit and good cheer – all of which are presumably necessary for holiday celebrations.  Second, Christmas represents gross consumerism and the purchase of disposable goods (particularly by the richest 20% of the world, which consumes 80% of goods and services), most of which are produced by underpaid labour across the globe – then shipped here – all of this, of course, necessitating the burning of more fossil fuels, and oh Lord, I’m doing it again.

Anyway, yes, we environmentalists aren’t always Grinches.  Here’s how we can all have a slightly greener Christmas:

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree

So, which is better for the environment: cutting down a tree, or purchasing an artificial one?  The answer is slightly more nuanced than you might think.  In fact, last year, PE Americas conducted a Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) of the most common artificial trees and the most common types of real trees to get to the bottom of this and found that the results are mixed (PDF).

In short, artificial trees are reusable, and the vast majority of them are recyclable (which may not be widely known).  However, their manufacture requires the production and use of polyvinyl chlorides (PVCs), which can lead to the emission of persistent, bio-accumulating, and toxic compounds including dioxins and PCBs.  While the risk of absorbing dioxins from your own, personal Christmas tree is low, at the point of manufacture and disposal, the risk is much higher – particularly since, as the LCA shows, much of the artificial Christmas trees are produced in China.

At the same time, if you’re concerned about emissions of GHGs, keeping an artificial tree for longer than 4 years lowers your carbon footprint more than if you bought a real tree each year – particularly if doing so requires shipping the tree for long distances.  Moreover, as agricultural products, Christmas trees often require pesticides, including Roundup and lindane, which is a persistent organic pollutant (POP).

Personally, my preference is to go for the lindane-enhanced real tree.  They smell better than the artificial ones – all piney, and delicious – and if you manage to buy local, they tend to be better than, or even with, artificial trees in terms of GHG emissions.  In addition, by avoiding the production of PVCs, real trees are less likely to contribute to dioxin production.  While lindane is incredibly toxic, dioxins may be the most problematic of the widely-used POPs.

Eat All the Food on Your Plate (but Don’t Pile it On)

No, this isn’t about the starving children in Ethiopia (and I never understood how eating all my food helped the starving children in any way – why couldn’t I just ship my casserole to them instead, huh Grandma?).  Rather, when it comes to Christmas dinner, try to eat less, but eat all of what you take.

In a 2009 study (PDF) carried out by a National Institute of Diabetes in Bethesda, Maryland (and published by the Denmark Institute of Preventive Medicine), food waste has a deleterious impact on the environment.  Wasted food means wasted water and wasted fossil fuels, both in production and disposal.  In addition, producing food we don’t eat requires the introduction and emission of GHGs, pesticides, and herbicides – in addition to agricultural runoff and other forms of pollution.  It’s bad enough that we have to do this for subsistence – it’s downright insulting when we contribute to these processes for no productive reason.  In fact, the study indicates that 1/4 of freshwater consumed in the US goes to the production of food waste, a serious problem considering the water shortages plaguing the Southwest of the USA.

Of course, the solution is not really to eat everything that has been produced on the market – hello, rising obesity rates – but rather, to eat less (but hopefully eat better food).  And eat it all!

Get Good Gifts – or Consider Charity

Get good gifts!  Try to be thoughtful, instead than buying something likely to be disposed, just to have an item under the real/artificial tree.  I personally would like to reinstate cash as an appropriate gift, but also consider donating to a charity in the name of someone as well.  Donating to charity also brings socioeconomic benefits, as well as environmental, considering all the people who are doing without in these trying economic times.

Anyway, hopefully this hasn’t been too Grinchy.  Have a happy holidays!  I leave you with one of my favourite Christmas songs of all time:

*I realize this leaves out all those who don’t celebrate Christmas; hopefully there will not be too many posts that are this parochial.

Forcing the President’s Hand on Keystone

Categories: Green Energy, Keystone XL

This Certainly Won’t Backfire…

In an interesting move, the Republican-controlled House included a measure in the latest payroll tax cut bill that requires the President to decide, within 60 days, what to do about the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline.  In short, in order to get the payroll tax cuts approved, the President would have to fast-track a decision that he had previously put off for after the election.  Yesterday, the Senate approved the bill, despite earlier prognostications that it was unlikely to do so.

As discussed earlier, some interpreted the President’s delay of the project as a positive: under increasing domestic political pressure, complaints by the EPA, and evidence that the environmental analysis of the Keystone Pipeline was compromised by vested interests, the President had announced that a more thorough analysis of the environmental implications of the project was needed.  While this would not have necessarily meant an end to the project, it at least indicated that some of the criticism was being taken seriously.  As a result, it signaled to some activists that, once the global, local, and state-level impacts were thoroughly explored, the project might have been halted permanently.

Jobs and the Pipeline?

On the other hand, cynics noted that the Obama decision to punt the final say on the Keystone Project was timed in such a way that it would have occurred after the election.  By playing his hands close to his chest and avoiding a decision now, Obama may have hoped to avoid alienating his environmentalist-progressive base, and the section of the population that sees the Pipeline as a potential source of jobs.  Now, while it is true that the jobs claims made by advocates of the Pipeline have been tremendously exaggerated (and increasingly so!  In this video, claims have shot up from 10,000 jobs to 1,000,000 jobs), the language is still out there.  Indeed, the House passed something enticingly called the “North American Energy Security Act,” explicitly linking the pipeline to jobs in the legislative discourse, and calling for the passage of the Keystone.  I mean, who could be opposed to North American Security, right?  Hopefully not you, citizen.

In any case, now the President will have to come down firmly on one side or the other in a shorter timeframe than he originally planned.  For environmental purists, this may be a good thing.  If he had intended to capture the environmental base for the election, only to abandon them by approving the project anyway, he is no longer able to do so.  For pragmatists, it’s less rosy.  If he quashes the project now, the “jobs-killing” language that emerges is sure to impact his chances for re-election.  While Obama is certainly not the Green President that environmentalists had hoped for, he is by far more environmentally friendly than anyone in the current GOP.  Either way, a decision within the 60-day timeframe will almost certainly hurt the President’s re-election chances.

Engineering Solutions

Categories: Climate Change, Corporate Behavior, Green Consumerism

ICE to see you!

Now that we know that the only thing coming out of the recent COP-17 at Durban is an agreement to agree in the future, and the Zombie Protocol, the question becomes: what are nations going to do to address climate change?  In a move straight out of a Schumacher film, Mongolia is planning to engineer ice shields to keep their capital city, Ulaanbaatar cool – particularly since Mongolia has warmed 3x faster than the rest of the world on average.

While this may or may not work (and it’s very doubtful that it will), it’s somewhat unfortunate that Mongolia, with a mere 15.6 million tons of CO2e (PDF), or 3 million tons per capita is both a tiny contributor to global warming, and particularly vulnerable to the changes already being observed worldwide.  Moreover, while climate mitigation is almost certainly something that countries should be investing in, engineering solutions to global warming is only a small and potentially problematic response to the emerging crisis.

Approaches like this, or other, more complex geoengineering solutions such as (seriously) space mirrors – contemplated by the UN and IPCC, no less – are flawed in that they 1)  take away attention from the root causes of the problem, by not addressing underlying consumption (indeed, they make it easier for richer societies to continue consuming, as long as they pay their way in technological solutions); 2) may cause environmental problems of their own – particularly in doing things like (again, seriously) dumping iron in the ocean; 3) in the words of David Attenborough (yes, THE David Attenborough), are “fascist” – they place too much power in the hands of rich nations.  I mean, controlling the weather is something straight out of a bad science fiction movie.  We’ll keep an eye on things, but hopefully we’ll spend more time investing in ways to cut consumption, rather than punting it down the road.  In the mean time, enjoy these chilling puns!

Durban’s Epilogue: The Zombie Protocol

Categories: Climate Change, Durban COP-17, International Relations

The End of COP-17

In a surprise turnaround, the ending of Durban’s COP-17 is actually about as positive as I could have hoped, given the state of affairs on Saturday morning.  At 6:00am yesterday, Poland’s Marcin Korolec (who took over for Chruszczow), announced that this COP has led to a “historical moment,” noting that they “adopted the Durban platform, which will us lead to legally a binding agreement, adopted by 2015, which will engage all parties, including the major economies.”  It is currently expected that the agreement negotiated in the future COP will come in to force in 2020.

Agreeing to Agree

In short, the Parties have agreed to agree (in the future).  Although almost derailed at the last minute by India, and although stopping short of creating a new binding agreement to cover between 2012 and 2020, this nevertheless marks a change in that developing countries (particularly the BASIC ones) have agreed to be bound by iterated, specific obligations.  This would not have been possible without splits in the G-77+China caused by the wavering of Brazil and South Africa on the BASIC group, and with the support for the EU’s position offered by the most climatically vulnerable poor countries among AOSIS and the Least Developed Countries.  While there is still no guarantee that a relatively binary North-South split will not derail the future negotiations, it is heartening to see compromise possible between the richer and poorer nations on this pressing issue.  In the words of Connie Hedegaard: “What difference does a roadmap mean?  It marks a turn away from the 20th century, where the developed countries have to commit, and the others have to do voluntary actions.  In the future, we can have different efforts, but whatever we pledge, whatever we do, will have the same legal value…. This is very important.”

But wait!  That’s not all!  Resurrecting the Kyoto Protocol almost single-handedly, Korolec, speaking for the EU said that they “…proved that the Kyoto Protocol is alive…” (it’s alive!) by agreeing to sign on to a second commitment period starting next year.  While the KP itself (covering, at this point, only 37 countries – including the 27 EU countries – and 15 – 20% of the world’s GHG emissions) is a shell of an institution, its resurrection means 1) institutions such as the CDM, LULUCF accounting rules, and flexibility mechanisms will persist, given their dependence on iterated cuts; 2) it may serve to catalyze the conditional commitments under the Cancún Agreements.  So, Hedegaard , invoking the EU’s pusher strategy in this COP spoke very favorably about the extension of Kyoto in large part due to its function as part of a broader commitment, rather than as a stand-alone institution: “The EU strategy worked…  The strategy, saying that we will only commit to a second period – although only a few others will do it – we are ready to do it, but only if in return we get a roadmap for the future.”

To be sure, they haven’t signed on to a second commitment period yet, but that’s due to the need to hash out the technical details of further emissions requirements – necessary, particularly since the EU has already surpassed its requirements under the first commitment period.  You can’t just add new requirements, a fact observed by Hedegaard thus: “We have to go back and calculate the QELROs (Quantified Emissions Limitation and Reduction Objective)…  It’s not something you just do in a night or so.”  Echoing this sentiment, Korolec pointed out: “That was a political decision.  We are now sending a text to lawyers… it’s a long legal process.”  But in the end, Hedegaard emphasized the commitment of the EU to a second binding period of the KP: “We are taking a second commitment period.  That is clear.”  In short, while undoubtedly pretty far from a meaningful second commitment period, the Zombie Protocol serves a purpose.

Other Positives: the GCF

In addition, the Parties agreed to launch the Green Climate Fund in Draft Decision CP.17 (PDF).  This Fund will provide financial support for both adaptation and mitigation efforts in developing countries.  Unfortunately, although the NGO community asked for official member status for civil society groups on the Board, at present – like the UNFCCC itself – civil society groups are limited to accredited observer status.  This raises concerns about whether the provision of funds and projects will benefit vulnerable societies within recipient countries, a legitimate concern, given the objections raised about REDD+ throughout COP-17.  Observer status is no guarantee that civil society viewpoints will be taken seriously.

So, that’s it for this year’s COP.  The blog will return to covering a range of different environmental issues, domestic and global, in particular those that focus on environmental justice and racism.  Highlights for next year will include the Rio+20 conference, and various other COPs, including the Convention on Biological Diversity’s COP-11.  Hopefully, with the various scholarly links scattered throughout, this has served as a useful academic take on climate change negotiations.

Blogging Durban: The Final Day

Categories: Climate Change, Durban COP-17, International Relations

You Mean to Say These People Can't Agree on Something?

The Worst of All Possible Worlds

Well, in a turnaround that is pretty dismal, even beyond what I thought might be the case, the talks have been extended into another day, a possible sign of collapse.  So, it doesn’t look like anything is coming out of this conference, unless the delegates manage to come up with some last-minute, face-saving deal.  However, it should be noted that, the last time the Parties to the UNFCCC tried to salvage a COP at the last minute, we ended up with the Copenhagen Agreement (PDF), a three-page, vaguely stated commitment, that the Parties only “took note” of – which meant, according to then-UNFCCC Executive Secretary Yvo de Boer: “…recognizing that something is there, but not going so far as to associate yourself with it.”

It’s not clear what this means for the GCF, the one element that seemed most likely to emerge.  Nor is it necessarily the case that future COPs won’t end in meaningful commitment.  However, for the time being at least, climate change will have to be governed by an inadequate, soft-law regime.  Granted, the Parties may yet come up with something in the waning hours of the extension, and there have been no new webcasts or statements as yet (4:30pm Durban time), but that looks like the extent of it.

Blogging Durban: An Agreement Within Reach?

Categories: Climate Change, Durban COP-17, International Relations


Civil Society Activist Opposed to the Green Climate Fund

The EU: “An Agreement is Within Reach”

In a very surprising (and potentially welcome) development, some of the main Parties today are indicating that there may be some kind of legally binding regime that emerges after COP-17 after all!  Connie Hedegaard, speaking for the EU, which has proposed a “roadmap [at] the core of the negotiations,” said today that “…an agreement is within reach…  A framework that would be global, and legally binding.”

While the EU has long been a pusher group on the idea of creating a binding regime, the EU’s proposal for the “roadmap” has received some verbal support from the US, in no small part because it calls on India and China to commit to binding targets.  However, poorer nations and blocs, in particular AOSIS, the LDCs, and the African Group are also in favor of the proposal, thus fracturing the coherence of the 131 countries of the G-77 + China.  It’s not a simple poor-v-rich nation debate any more.  Indeed, last night, AOSIS, the LDCs and the EU released a common statement for greater effort and ambition, and stating that “…all parties to the UNFCCC need to commit…,” and committing to an extension of the Kyoto Protocol.

Moreover, Hedegaard is very explicitly positioning the climate change issue as one that should cross the North-South divide that has characterized climate change: “I find it significant and telling that the poorest countries of the world, the most vulnerable, they now stand together with the EU, that all parties will have to commit in the future.”  Further, she pointed out that South Africa and Brazil (half of the BASIC Countries with India and China) have, as of midnight last night, signaled to the EU that it would commit to the binding commitments implicated under the roadmap.

South Africa: the Gracious Host

In a very carefully hedged statement, the South African Minister of Environment positioned itself as active in seeking a solution on the climate change issue and the EU roadmap.  “As you know, the negotiations are still ongoing.  We are part of finding a solution that would be attractive to all delegates.  I’ll just leave it at that.”  Lord, what I wouldn’t give to be a fly on the wall of these debates.  Of course, given that the press and NGO participants are regularly excluded, that is not likely, unless I get nominated to a national delegation.  (Note to self: if academic career doesn’t work out…)

Finally, Hedegaard pointed out that the US has repeatedly said that it would be interested in a legally binding deal under the EU roadmap, provided that others (including developing countries) were bound – a statement that aligns with China’s recent statements.  Optimistic, yes?

Cautious Optimism

However, this optimism should be tempered by the fact that this regime is governed by consensus.  1) the Umbrella Group is probably going to be unhappy with an extension of the Kyoto Protocol, and 2) the other two BASIC Countries are unlikely to be happy with the binding agreements implied in the EU roadmap.  Further, reports on the text of the roadmap, which has been made available so far only to the press that is actually at COP-17, indicates that the binding targets are only going to come into play “after 2020,” when the current (non-binding) requirements of the Cancún Agreements are commonly held to expire.  This agreement could come into force in 2015 – “not an unfair deadline – four more years!” she emphasized – although the US is sending clear signals that it is not interested in establishing a timetable.

Further, alluding to the “small rooms” in which most of the discussions and decisions take place, Hedegaard made it clear (in as diplomatic manner as possible) that “those few big ones… are still not giving in” in committing to a decision in a timely pace.  While the COP is scheduled to end today, and may drag out for a few hours more, this may yet scuttle the progress that has been made over the past 2 days.

The Clock is Ticking…

In short, if you want meaningful, binding action now, your choices are: 1) the non-binding Cancún Agreements starting now; 2) an extension of the Kyoto Protocol (sans Canada, Japan, and the US) starting 2012; 3) wait until 2020 for binding cuts to take place.  This is not to say that no meaningful action will be taken, but it should be emphasized that, if we are going to cut global emissions in such a way as to prevent serious climate change (i.e., above 2 degrees C), it will have to be done through action that is more ambitious than any of the global commitments or agreements made between now and 2020.

Nor is it clear, for option 2, what extending the Kyoto Protocol would mean.  In addition to the fact that three major Annex I economies have clearly stated that they are not interested in a new period, the EU, and technically, post-Soviet states have exceeded their Kyoto requirements.  For it to be meaningful, the new Parties would have to create new targets, which would almost certainly be a profoundly politicized issue.  You can take a look at some of the options considered by the AWG-KP and AWG-LCA here (PDF – specific to the KP) and here (PDF).

In any case, no Decisions have been announced yet; it is 11:11pm Durban time – the COP-17 is scheduled to end today, and we’ll see what comes out.  I predict (hope?) 1) institutionalized GCF; 2) very watered down Kyoto Protocol, obviously sans Canada, US, Japan and BASIC country requirements.  The only question remaining is whether Parties will make a commitment to negotiating a binding regime in a future COP to come into force by 2020.  That could go anywhere at this point.

Blogging Durban: Special Edition

Categories: Climate Change, Durban COP-17, International Relations


Abigal Borah, Kicked Out LIKE A BOSS.

Abigail Borah: “The United States Government Does Not Speak on My Behalf”

In an inspiring display of bravery, Abigail Borah, class of 2013 of Middlebury College, spoke today against the politicization and gridlock of COP-17 of the UNFCCC. Here’s how it went down:  At the 7th meeting of the COP today, the various delegates walked through their national positions on climate change.  Two hours and twenty minutes in, the Greece Minister of Environment, George Papakonstantinou, just finished alluding darkly to the unwillingness of some Parties to commit to binding agreements, asserting that – even though Greece is in the midst of an economic crisis – such action is necessary.  The next presenter scheduled was Todd Stern, from the US Department of State.  Then, right before he could speak, this happened (skip ahead to 1:15):

While Borah was making her speech, the COP President attempted to shut her down, stating: “Thank you, can we listen to the speech?  Nobody is listening to you.”  However, this was belied by the fact that, right after she finished her speech (and Borah will now be banned from the rest of the conference), the audience of government delegates, press, and civil society representatives erupted in applause.  In response, the COP President tried to spin the situation: “Mr. Stern, this clapping is for you.  You have a very nice welcome now, so you can start.”

“I’m delighted that I have a very enthusiastic crowd here.  This is great.”

After Borah was ejected, Stern continued with his speech, reiterating comments made earlier in the week – the appropriate, and “only basis” on which climate change can move forward, is the Cancún Agreements.  Later today, in a press conference discussing environmental criticism (and mentioning Borah obliquely) Stern will repeat the idea that the US commitment to Cancún is sufficient as an approach to climate governance: “What is embedded in the Cancún Agreements is much more meaningful in terms of potential emissions reductions than what is in Kyoto; there is no contest.”

To this end, Stern cited actions such as the increase in CAFE standards, and the $90 billion invested in green energy under the Obama administration.  Further, in an attempt to burnish the US’s green credentials, Stern points out that a “leading environmentalist” – Dan Becker of the Safe Climate Campaign for the Auto Industry – described the move as “…the biggest single step that any nation has taken to cut global warming pollution.”  I covered the debate over the Cancún Agreements already, but suffice it to note that, accepting the US’ position that this would be the most appropriate basis for this current COP requires accepting that there would be no binding framework, which would 1) undermine the possibility of the conditional obligations of Cancún; 2) undermine the likelihood of extending the Clean Development Mechanism; 3) undermine the institutionalization of the Green Climate Fund, at a minimum – even though the US is vocally supportive of the GFC.  Indeed, today, Stern said that the US is committed to “promptly moving forward” on that front.

Granted, the CDM (and other flexibility mechanisms) are severely problematic – poor implementation and measurement may mean that countries receive credits for actions that were unnecessary, or double-counted.  You can see a report published today by CDM Watch on the problems of flexibility mechanisms here (PDF).  In short, loopholes currently mean that developed nations can meet their pledges primarily by “accounting tricks,” such as hot air, as indicated in the report.  Thus, being critical of the US’ position should always be tempered by the observation that binding regimes (such as the KP) are no guarantee of success.

In any case, the official US position is that 1) they have already made a proposal for a binding regime that was rejected by China; 2) the US is exercising political leadership, stating that: “It’s nonsense to suggest that what we’re doing is proposing a kind of hiatus to deal with climate change until 2020.  I’ve heard this everywhere from ministers, to press reports, to the very sincere and passionate young woman… I just wanted to be on the record saying that that’s just a mistake.  It’s not true.”

Developed and Developing Countries: AOSIS

On the point of the CDM and the Cancún Agreement, the German NGO Forum on Environment and Development presented a synthetic study (PDF) on the commitments pledged last year indicating that “…the developed countries had put smaller pledges on the table than developing countries,” at a ratio of 5:4 GtCO2e.  This is severely problematic in that this is, in their words, “far out of line of what would be considered equitable,” and exacerbates the problem of the Emissions Gap, and the likelihood of a rise in temperature above 2 degrees C.

As a Caribbean, I thought about these discussions – the inequity between the rich and the poor nations; the remaining Emissions Gap (even with the most optimistic interpretation of the Cancún Agreements); climate responsibility – all of this, as I watched the somber presentation of the AOSIS members.  ” Citing the scientific information that is widely accepted in the conference, the Minister from Grenada stated: “You think that our countries are a paradise.  It’s a paradise when you come to visit, but for us, it’s a living reality.” It’s important to remember that, while climate change (and the mitigation effects of climate change) are likely to be very costly, for too many , climate change could lead to the erasure of an entire people – already, two South Pacific Islands in the state of Kiribati have disappeared beneath the waves.  The AOSIS delegate says he thinks it’s not too late.  I hope he’s right.