Posts Tagged COP17

Science sidelined at Durban Bryan Walker Dec 14

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An image that has lingered with me from all the reports of the Durban conference was the Democracy Now interview with a somewhat disconsolate Rajendra Pachauri, the IPCC chair. He was at Durban to represent the science, a rather thankless task since he detected very little interest in what the science has to say.

’I’d like to see the science driving some of the discussions and the decisions that are taken. I’m sorry I don’t see much evidence of that right now.’

He pictured the delegations being confronted with the scientific reality every day and how that might affect the progress of their negotiations.

’[There’s a] complete absence of discussion on the scientific evidence that we have available   I would like to see each day of the discussions starting with a very clear presentation on where we are going, what it’s going to mean to different parts of the world and what are the options available to us by which at very little cost and in some cases negative cost we can bring about a reduction in emissions   I would like to see an hour, hour and a half, every day being devoted to this particular subject   I think then the movement towards a decision would be far more vigorous, it would be based on reality and not focusing on narrow and short-term political issues.’

Nothing remotely like that happened of course, and Pachauri vented his exasperation:

’Actually, to be honest, nobody over here is listening to the science.’

One can understand his verdict. It won’t have been true of everyone present, but the negotiations hardly displayed a widespread awareness of the scientific reality.

Pachauri was robust in his defence of the trustworthiness of the IPCC reports and asserted the need for emissions to peak no later than 2015 if we hope to limit the temperature rise to 2 degrees or thereabouts. Delaying that peak to 2020 means a much larger cost to the reduction process.

This is certainly no time to be soft-pedalling the scientific message, or allowing the policy makers and negotiators to escape exposure to its full force. In which context I thought I’d draw attention to a recent release by NASA’s earth science news team on James Hansen’s new research into Earth’s paleoclimate history. He warned at a press briefing at the American Geophysical Union last week that a warming of 2 degrees would be sufficient to lead to drastic changes, such as significant ice sheet loss in Greenland and Antarctica.

Hot Topic readers will be familiar with Hansen’s concerns, but the new NASA statement is a particularly good summary for the lay person of the paleoclimate evidence underlying what he has to say about sea level rise. It’s well worth reading in full, but I’ll pull out a few of its major points here.

In studying cores drilled from both ice sheets and deep ocean sediments, Hansen found that global mean temperatures during the Eemian period, which began about 130,000 years ago and lasted about 15,000 years, were less than 1 degree Celsius warmer than today. If temperatures were to rise 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial times, global mean temperature would far exceed that of the Eemian, when sea level was four to six metres higher than today.

“The paleoclimate record reveals a more sensitive climate than thought, even as of a few years ago. Limiting human-caused warming to 2 degrees is not sufficient,” Hansen said. “It would be a prescription for disaster.”

Two degrees Celsius of warming would make Earth much warmer than during the Eemian, and would move Earth closer to Pliocene-like conditions, when sea level was in the range of 25 meters higher than today, Hansen said. In using Earth’s climate history to learn more about the level of sensitivity that governs our planet’s response to warming today, Hansen said the paleoclimate record suggests that every degree Celsius of global temperature rise will ultimately equate to 20 meters of sea level rise. However, that sea level increase due to ice sheet loss would be expected to occur over centuries, and large uncertainties remain in predicting how that ice loss would unfold.

It won’t be a linear process. GRACE satellite data relating to Greenland and West Antarctica has not been accumulating long enough to confirm the rate of acceleration of ice loss possibly occurring, but it is not inconsistent with multiple metres of sea level rise by 2100.

“We don’t have a substantial cushion between today’s climate and dangerous warming,” Hansen said. “Earth is poised to experience strong amplifying feedbacks in response to moderate additional global warming.”

Hansen acknowledges that using paleoclimate evidence to predict precisely how climate might change over much shorter periods than natural timescales is difficult, but he notes that the Earth system is already showing signs of responding, even in the case of slow feedbacks such as ice sheet changes.

Also, the vastly more rapid rate at which carbon dioxide is being released today by comparison with the slow increases from natural causes in the past adds to the difficulty of predicting how quickly the Earth will respond.

“Humans have overwhelmed the natural, slow changes that occur on geologic timescales,” Hansen said.

These warnings from Hansen relate to sea level rise, one of the most ominous prospects. There is equal reason to be concerned over a range of likely impacts which the science has detected, some of which are kicking in already. But it’s not apparent that the world’s political leadership is jointly capable of taking on board the enormity of what climate change means for humanity. The determination to press on with the continued exploration and exploitation of fossil fuels seems virtually unquestioned in the corridors of power of most countries.

While some governments are pushing the development of renewable energy it is not at a pitch to be compared with a wartime mobilisation. To suggest that coal, oil and gas should be left where they are just as soon as we can urgently organise to do without them is to appear foolish in New Zealand and presumably in most other countries endowed with the resources. Canada’s commitment to the tar sands development, to the extent of leaving the Kyoto agreement, is a case in point.

Pachauri’s concern that the politics is not being measured against the science is fully justified. The hopes for realism may prove incapable of fulfilment. But we must continue to demand unwaveringly that politicians look up and take notice of the desperate seriousness of the scientific warnings, and condemn them when they don’t.

A mad deal in Durban Gareth Renowden Dec 11

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Let’s revisit that cold war phrase: mutually assured destruction. Fifty years ago, MAD meant that in the event of conflict the USA and USSR could and would ensure the total annihilation of the other, thus ensuring what Wikipedia rather tamely describes as “a tense but stable global peace”. Having lived through those years, the tension was notable, and in some cases inspirational.

The madness on display in Durban is of another kind, and of a different character. The destruction on offer will be (we can only hope) slower, but it is likely to be just as total — and is certainly being mutually assured. The governments of the world, by kicking the can down the road aways, have just ensured that the task of reducing emissions will be harder than it need be, and that the ultimate damage will be greater than it might have been. [Guardian]

Durban represents progress of a kind, as Climate Action Tracker’s analysis acknowledges:

As the climate talks in Durban concluded tonight with a groundbreaking establishment of the Durban Platform to negotiate a new global agreement by 2015, scientists stated that the world continues on a pathway of over 3°C warming with likely extremely severe impacts, the Climate Action Tracker said today.

The agreement in Durban to establish a new body to negotiate a global agreement (Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action) by 2015 represents a major step forward. The Climate Action Tracker scientists stated, however, that the agreement will not immediately affect the emissions outlook for 2020 and has postponed decisions on further emission reductions. They warned that catching up on this postponed action will be increasingly costly.

What is mind-boggling is that so many leaders, so many highly-skilled diplomats and negotiators, can accept the evidence being offered by our understanding of climate system, and yet so comprehensively fail to act.

History and human nature, combined with the dysfunctional nature of international relations have conspired to give us what looks like it might be the worst of all worlds: one where lip service is paid to taking action, but where the big players are excused responsibility, and any efforts made are weak and meaningless. Plus c’est la même chose.

And so as not to beg the obvious question: I am left agreeing with Joe Romm. It will take a series of undeniable climate disasters, sufficient to provide the equivalent of a wartime motivation for action, before our politicians feel empowered to take the necessary action — before the world will act appropriately. One can only hope that the damage is not costly in terms of human welfare and wellbeing, and that they happen before nature rips the reins from our hands and the Anthropocene comes to an end.

Liveblog: Durban down to the wire cindy Dec 09

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3.20 am Sunday morning

The South African Minister took key people into a “huddle” for 10 mins.

“Can the world be saved in a tea break?”  tweeted @FionaHarvey from The Guardian.

Tea Break over… so. They have agreed “to launch a process to develop a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force applicable to all parties….” to be negotiated through to 2015 and be implemented from 2020.

Meanwhile, over in the Kyoto Protocol, the EU slipped back and agreed an eight-year commitment period, which would also take that through to 2020.   It’s up to governments to decide whether they want to submit pledges under that process by May next year.

So with the atmosphere in mind, and the steady march to 3.5ºC of warming, there’s nothing much here, yet, to slow that march.  The definition of the “legal” bit of this decision could mean anything – and I can see lawyers around me in plenary already working that out.   Will it be enough to bring the big emitters on board?

Will that be enough for New Zealand to make its pledge unconditional and continue with Kyoto? Or will our government continue to point fingers at the big guys? Given the work that Tim Groser did in watering down the text overnight, I doubt it.

But right now, I’m too tired to puzzle it all out. It’s certainly nothing like the strong climate action we need.

1 am Sunday morning

The main, informal plenary has started.  Let the fireworks begin.  The Governments are now discussing the main decision, a proposal by the President, the “Establishment of an Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action.”

The text is not agreed.  Connie Hedegaard, EU Commissioner kicks it off:

“We are ready to be almost alone in a second commitment period for five years….Science tells us we are already late. Let’s try to have a legally binding protocol for the whole world by 2018.” 

Resounding and lengthy applause from the room.  Colombia joins in on behalf of the Alba Group.Also wants a legally binding Protocol.

Now India, the recalcitrant blocker.  Wants to keep the words ‘protocol, another legal instrument or a legal outcome” to stay in the text.  This is the problem.  These words, this text, is no different really to what was agreed in Bali in 2007.

Then comes Grenada, on behalf of the Small Island States:

“Now we’re being asked to accept something that is meaningless…If there is no legal instrument then we are relegating vulnerable economies to the whims and fancies of those who want to develop…While they develop, we die in the process.”

China joins India.  Others speak, but the US hides, is silent.  This is how they do it. Push in the back rooms and say nothing on the floor.

sigh.  The meeting will be adjourned soon, and then what?  No agreement?  Doesn’t look like anyone is going to cave any time soon.  It’s going to be a long night.

8.15 pm

For the real geeks, here are the texts for the Kyoto Protocol working group. The second one relates to the targets.

7.45 pm

Plenary has started. If you want to lose the will to live, watch it here.

Richard Black tweets:
@BBCRBlack -Very grumpy start to KP plenary #cop17 – docs not there, chairman chippy, Bolivarians loquacious. Looks like a long night

7.15 pm Saturday evening

A live blog is supposed to talk about what’s happening, as it happens, right? Well, it’s been all day and little has happened. 26 Ministers and one advisor each, ie, 52 people have been locked in a room all day, negotiating away the future of our planet.

We hear rumours, then they’re quashed. We hear talk of 2020, but of a deal to get governments to take action before then.  We hear talk of legally binding – then not. Plenary has been called and delayed four times. Now we are waiting for more text, not entirely sure what it is – will find out when they copy and distribute it.

Nasty stories of the dealings of our Minister, Tim Groser. He spent the night last night negotiating deals on the text for the LCA (Long term Cooperative Action) — the discussions over actions by developing countries and others not in the Kyoto Protocol, ie the US.  He has gone way beyond any mandate he has.  The Kyoto Protocol text this morning read as though it was written for Australia and New Zealand’s full list of excuses and loopholes that would apply to the entire world.

The dark forces of the US, China, India, Brazil, Australia and New Zealand had combined to gut the agreement of so many important pieces overnight. Over today we hear that Brazil has gotten better, as has China.

I don’t pretend to know all the pieces in play right now, but I’m going to go find out and update. Meanwhile Ministers are starting to leave. They have flights to catch. The more that leave, the less likely is a final agreement, as their negotiators won’t have the mandate to act on their behalf.

How about saving the planet, people, not your weekend?

Saturday morning, 1000 hrs Durban time

hmmm… not as good as I thought. The devil is in the detail and, given that half of the key decisions here are chaired by New Zealand, we have a massive responsibility here. I’m hearing that our Minister, Tim Groser, has played some very dirty tricks with the Kyoto Protocol text overnight.  Will update as I get more information, but it’s not looking good.

0745hrs Durban time

Woken up to a whole new day – there is new text out, that was tabled for the “Indaba” (a Zulu way of resolving conflicts by sitting a group of elders down and talking it out) Ministers’ meeting.

Just seen it – they’ve posted it on the front page of the UNFCCC website for anyone who’s interested.  NGO’s were told to go home – sleeping at the centre not permitted (sorta fair enough, I guess). Ministers left around 3 am.

The first decision (still in square brackets) would relate to:  “[Amendments and related decisions to secure a ratifiable second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol.”

It extends the Cancun agreement, which is needed to ensure that the pledges (paltry as they are) put on the table in Cancun stay in.

BUT it also suggests a new “Protocol or another legal instrument applicable all parties”  to be negotiated by “no later than 2015.”

It takes into account all the industrialised country ( Japan, Canada, Russia, NZ, Australia et al) excuses for not extending Kyoto without other big emitters. But it  also, with a Protocol, would account for China and India’s refusal to take on legally binding without an extension of Kyoto.

This is all a lot better.  2015, while still late, gives us time to take action to keep warming below 2degC – just. Only just and expensive, but still a lot more possible than 2020 which is pretty much a death warrant for vulnerable states.

Ministers meet again in a couple of hours. More as it comes. 

Update Friday night (treating this like a live blog – see below for earlier update).

New text out today, but it was greeted with a veritable storm of protest from the Small Island States, the EU and the Least Developed Countries – a combined grouping of more than 120 countries, with more coming on board to oppose.

Why? The text proposes no further action until after 2020 – and that, to the most vulnerable, is like a death warrant.   Ministers were locked in a room for several hours, took a break and about to go back into the meeting. They’re expected to carry on way into the night and through tomorrow. China, India and the US are increasingly isolated as their block and delay tactics exposed (see further down for my earlier update).

Theatre  this afternoon as NGO’s “occupied” the space outside the main plenary, waving signs and chanting slogans like “Listen to the people, not the polluters,” and singing african songs.

Avaaz,, the Maldives Minister all took part, with other small island country ministers giving interviews of support from the side.   Greenpeace International head, Kumi Naidoo, a Durban local, led the chanting.  It all ended peacefully with the protestors being ejected from the meeting and their badges taken away.

"Occupy Durban" outside the main Plenary today

Privately, we heard that many delegates and others were happy with the protest, thinking it was long overdue.

More coverage over at the “Adopt a negotiator” blog and footage here 

There really isn’t much more to say right now, except a bit of gossip about the Russians, always ones to start a fight where there wasn’t one before.  The meeting had already agreed on the destination for next year’s travelling climate circus: Qatar.

But after their Ambassador (and two bodyguards) got beaten up in customs there last week, the Russians have decided to oppose now. Not entirely sure where this argument will end up, but one thing we all know: so many times over the years you think you’ve got agreement on something, then the Russians kick in.  This could be the “Russian moment” of Durban.

Update Friday lunchtime.

The last 24 hours have seen quite some UN theatrics and stand-offs.  I’ll go through it as it happened as the way it all unfolded was quite dramatic.

I got to the ICC conference yesterday morning to find that Tokelau was having a press conference. But nobody in the media really knew who Tokelau was, so I managed to find a few  to go along.  Tokelau has the ultimate in “vulnerable countries” stories, having run out of water altogether in the seven month drought they’ve had this year and I thought it made a good story. Read the rest of this entry »

The counsel of failure: Greenhouse Policy Coalition on Durban Bryan Walker Dec 03

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’There is a danger that, in trying to encourage major emitters to sign up to a new agreement or to bridge the Kyoto legal gap, New Zealand might commit itself to something short of a global deal that binds us to making economic sacrifices which are not reflective of fair burden sharing.’ So wrote David Venables, executive director of the Greenhouse Policy Coalition, in the NZ Herald this week.

I described the Greenhouse Policy Coalition in a post last year, but I’ll briefly recap. Its members come from a range of New Zealand industry and sector groups covering the aluminium, steel, forestry (including pulp and paper), coal, dairy processing and gas sectors. They include Fonterra, NZ Steel, the Coal Association, Solid Energy, NZ Aluminium Smelters Ltd and others. They are not deniers of climate change and express the cautious opinion that ’there is sufficient scientific evidence to warrant the adoption of appropriate precautionary public policy measures’. However their emphasis is strongly on policy which protects what they regard as New Zealand’s international competitiveness.

This is very apparent in Venables’ Herald opinion piece, timed to coincide with the Durban conference. Hope of an early global agreement on cutting greenhouse gas emissions has gone.  The most we can expect to see is ’incremental, year-by-year, meeting-by-meeting progress, which years in the future may see all major emitters agreeing to make cuts’.

This worries Venables, not because of what it would mean in terms of dangerous climate change, but because we in New Zealand ’face pursuing climate change policies aimed at cutting emissions in the absence of a binding international target, and proper sharing of the burden between countries, after 2012’.

He points to what he calls the ’patchy’ nature of emissions trading around the world and the likelihood that the Kyoto Protocol will become obsolete after the Durban meeting which no-one expects to provide a break-through agreement.

Some sort of political deal whereby ministers promise to do things without a legally binding framework may be possible. At best Durban might produce an agreement from the major players to discuss a binding global agreement. Even this would be a major step forward.  Meanwhile when the Kyoto first commitment period ends next year developed countries will have no binding targets for cutting emissions and there will be a legal gap in the process which could last for years.

It’s at this point that he reaches his major concern, highlighted at the beginning of this post, that New Zealand might be tempted to do more than its fair share. That would be a bad mistake because it would achieve nothing in term of reducing global emissions but would impose significant economic cost on the country.

So rein in your concern, those of you who want us to commit to more action. ’Our ETS already puts us ahead of the rest of the world in terms of incorporating a price of carbon into the economy.’

Venables may well, sadly, be right in his appraisal of where the international negotiations have reached and of how slow and incremental any future progress may prove. But the conclusion he draws for New Zealand is wrong. He appears oblivious to the magnitude of the threat posed by climate change. That threat doesn’t diminish because politicians are having difficulty facing up to it. Indeed it is increasing as we pump more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Report after report on the science, the latest from the World Meteorological Organization just a couple of days ago, makes it clear that inexorable change is under way.

How can we settle for competitive advantage as our major concern in the face of something so big as to threaten the survival of whole societies of human beings?  Venables invites us to ignore the larger perspective and focus on the proximate. That’s an inclination which fits very well with many of our instincts, but it doesn’t stand critical examination or moral scrutiny. Brian Fallow, the NZ Herald’s economics editor, put it well in a recent column:

At the most basic level the status quo is a gigantic exercise in free riding. There is a disconnect between where the benefits and costs of fossil fuel use fall.

Our emissions are diffused over the whole planet and accumulate in the atmosphere, a global commons.

The effect is the moral equivalent of a subsidy flowing from poor countries to rich ones and from future generations to the present.

Being on the bludger’s end of this arrangement we naturally don’t want it to end.

Venables’ competitive advantage plea is a plug for the status quo. It’s dressed up to appear reasonable by reference to the need for a fair sharing of burdens and to the economic danger of moving ahead of the pack. For good measure there’s the implication that we’re too small for our actions to have any effect on reducing global emissions anyway.

Of course arguments need to be had about sharing in the task of emissions reduction. Of course China will have to accept limits. So will the US, in some ways the most recalcitrant of the nations. If they don’t we will all, including them, suffer terrible consequences. But countries like New Zealand cannot treat this as some kind of excuse to carry on with business as usual themselves, any more than those who opposed the slave trade in the 18th and 19th centuries could engage in it themselves on the grounds that they might as well share the profit while it continued.

Further action in New Zealand to reduce emissions is in any case not necessarily inimical to the economy, as Venables appears to take for granted with his talk of economic sacrifices. There are plenty of signs that it could be positive for the country to venture a little ahead of where some other countries are prepared to go, that it is an opportunity to be grasped and profited from.

New Zealand went ahead of the pack in the 19th century in the introduction of the eight hour working day and the sky didn’t fall in. We were also early leaders in old age pension provision in 1898, and in many of the features of the welfare state which followed in the 20th century, from which our own Prime Minister benefited in his youth. Why should we shun the forefront in such a fundamental challenge as building low carbon economies?

Lies, damned lies and brutal storms cindy Nov 30

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Hot off the wires: Hot Topic’s Durban correspondent Cindy Baxter posts her first insider’s view from COP 17.

As thousands of people poured into Durban’s massive conference building yesterday morning for the start of the 17th session of climate talks, we heard news that the extraordinary storm we’d gotten soaked in on Sunday night had actually killed eight people in this very city.

It was a chilling start to the two-week talks and a stark reminder to us all as to what is at stake, just a week after the IPCC warned us that extreme weather events are going to get more frequent.

Also over the weekend weekend we saw the start of a story that is playing out in the corridors. It seems that the big developing country emitters: China, Brazil and India, have joined the US and others in saying there will be no new legally binding agreement on climate change until at least 2020.

The first day of these meetings is a marathon of PR, a dueling of statements from the world’s biggest and smallest trying to attract the attention of the press. A delay in action to 2020 would be “a betrayal not just of small island nations, many of whom would be destined for extinction, but a betrayal of all humanity,” Grenada Ambassador Dessima Williams told the meeting on behalf of AOSIS (the Alliance of Small Island States).

“There are no plausible technical, economic or legal impediments for not taking the actions required by science – we need to act now.”

I then had the pleasure of sitting through the EU and US press conferences – in retrospect a bad move in terms of my abilities to retain the will to live. They lined up against the Kyoto Protocol (too little, not enough countries, etc). They assured us they were pouring billions into funds for developing countries (when I’ve seen much bigger sums being poured into the fossil fuel industry).

But, for now, I won’t dwell on Kyoto. Because again, the US press briefing took my breath away. Jonathan Pershing, head of the US delegation, was quite something.

Nobody, he said, had even considered increasing the pledges that they made in Copenhagen and confirmed in Cancun. Everybody would be far too busy implementing those pledges all the way up to 2020 to look at how to increase them before that. Never mind that the IPCC’s fifth assessment is likely to give us even stronger warnings in 2014 than it did in ’07.

But Dr Pershing’s last comment was the best. He was asked how did he equate his statement (that the US firmly believed in climate science and that the Copenhagen pledges wouldn’t be increased until 2020) – with the IPCC’s recommendations that to keep below 2ºC of warming, the industrialized world would need to cut emissions by 25-40% by 2020 and emissions needed to peak by 2015?

Oh, he said, I was a lead author of that report (he was). And, I can tell you, there are many emissions pathways where you could keep temperature rise below 2ºC based on not really doing much else except the Copenhagen pledges until 2020.



So I’ve spent the last couple of days talking with scientists about it. I even met Rajendra Pachauri, head of the IPCC and put it to him. They tell me that there are pathways where you could do the most work after 2020. But they are the ones that would see economies crashing under the weight of the massive cuts in energy that would have to happen virtually overnight in order to get under that curve.

The UNEP “Bridging the Emissions Gap” report 2011 assessed the scientific literature to look for technologically and economically feasible emissions pathways that can limit temperature to below 2ºC. In layman’s terms, I’ve now got a very broad brush idea of what some of those “many pathways” might look like.

The current pledges on the table don’t give any sort of a price signal or incentive to stop our reliance on fossil fuels and start the switch to renewable energy. The pledges are tiny, but they’re going to keep the US pretty busy for a few years (4% cut at 1990 levels by 2020). But on our way to Dr Pershing’s bright and easy 2020 world, we’d carry on building coal-fired power stations and all the other fossil-powered infrastructure that our Governments continue to subsidise. And all those other things we do that pumps CO2 into the atmosphere.

According to the IEA’s World Energy Outlook projections, by 2017, we’d be using a lot more energy and pumping out a lot more CO2. Indeed, if we want to keep below 2ºC, essentially, we’d pretty much have to stop that CO2 at source around then. We’d have used up our “carbon budget”.

So what happens then? Well, by 2020, we’ve have a whole new generation of brand new coal-fired power stations that haven’t reached the end of their economic life. Those would be the ones we’d have to turn off.

From there, if we’re really serious about this two degrees thing (and Dr Pershing keeps assuring us that the US is serious about keeping this promise), we have a couple of choices:

We could turn off the coal-fired power stations. Shut ‘em down. Our Copenhagen promises made nearly 20 years ago have meant we don’t have enough renewable capacity to swap over to. Can you imagine that? The screaming by the electricity companies? Governments breaking electricity supply contracts? A corporate lawyer’s dream.

The other option is to carry on pumping CO2 out there and start a massive takeup of technology to suck the CO2 back out and get rid of it somehow -  technology that we haven’t invented yet.

Can you imagine the US doing either of the above?  Pershing seems to think is a perfectly acceptable scenario.

There’s so much else going on here: Kyoto dead or alive? Monckton’s antics1 . But I’m still a bit stuck on what Pershing was able to say, with a perfectly straight face, to the world’s media, then say he had no time to take more questions before he walked out of the room.

More to come, especially on all things Kyoto, as I can bring myself to think about that situation even less.

  1. Details, please! Ed.

Vidal’s voyage to Durban Bryan Walker Nov 28

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How better to journey to the climate conference at Durban than through the African countries along the way which are already grappling with climate change? That’s the route John Vidal, the Guardian’s environment editor, has been following over the past ten days and reporting on in a series of articles.

He started in Egypt. The impacts of climate change are difficult to disentangle from natural coastal processes and the effects of human activities on the flow of the Nile, but an inexorably rising sea level and the increasing intensity of storms threaten increased salination of groundwater and soil as well as inundation. Extreme heat will also take its toll on city life.

Sudan was next. A Sudanese researcher reports drought and extreme flooding becoming more frequent, temperatures rising in winter, extreme — good and bad — years now more common and rainfall patterns changing. If temperatures continue to rise, as is predicted over the next 50 years, Sudan can expect more desertification, and more tension between traditionally hostile groups. The country is not well placed to adapt to changes in climate, stressed as it is by endemic poverty, ecosystem degradation, complex conflicts and limited access to markets, infrastructure and technology. In South Sudan changes in rainfall patterns threaten crops and livestock.

In Uganda Vidal visited a coffee-growing village.

 One by one, the farmers, who mostly cultivate two acres of land each, tell us what they have observed in their lifetimes. “The springs are drying up”; “we find we can only plant crops twice’; “the coffee has started behaving differently; it flowers even as it fruits”; “we have more diseases”; “we have lost 20% of our income”; “there is less water from the mountain”.

The villagers say they have no scientific understanding of why it is hotter and there is less rain, but they instinctively believe it’s because there are fewer trees, and argue that they should plant more. And they had something to say to the negotiators at Durban:

“We must start with mitigation. Our message to the world leaders and the countries meeting in South Africa is to talk less and act more”, says Januario Kamalha, a villager.

Vidal moved on to Kenya where he reports the ambitious plans to continue the legacy of Wangari Maathai in massive tree-planting projects and to build one of Africa’s biggest wind farms near Lake Turkana. He includes an extract from the environment department’s official assessment of what has happened in the past 20-30 years:

“Rainfalls have become irregular and unpredictable, when it rains [the] downpour is more intense, extreme and harsh weather is now the norm. Since the 1960s both minimum (night time) and maximum (daytime) temperatures have been warming. Rainfall has increased variability year to year, there is a general decline in the main rainfall season and drought in the long rains season is more frequent and prolonged. On the other hand, there are more rains during September to February. This suggests that the short rains are expanding into what is normally the hot and dry period of January and February.”

An official in the environment department sums it up:

’We are vastly affected by climate change. The trends are now extreme. We are seeing adverse effects everywhere. When no crops grow, we have to seek aid. Our economy is greatly affected, so adaptation is our priority.’

In South Africa Vidal visited Ocean View near Capetown, where 75 fisherwomen each own a small 5 metre-long boat and go one mile out in the giant Atlantic swells two or three times a week to catch rock lobsters. They know that fish stocks are affected adversely by a variety of factors, including poaching and over-fishing, but they are convinced that climate change now plays a part.

“We the fisher people know what we see, and we can see changes. The lobsters are hibernating for longer, and their shells are softer and more fragile than they were. Their breeding cycles are being disrupted. The sea temperature is definitely warmer than it used to be. The seas are much rougher these days and people are scared to go out. The wind comes up bigger than before. The weather patterns seem to have changed too.”

Vidal sums his journey up in a final article.

From north to south the broad observations are remarkably similar. More floods, droughts, storms and changing seasons are being experienced: the heatwaves are getting longer and more frequent; the storms more intense; the nighttime temperatures higher; the farmers see new diseases and pests; and the growing seasons appear disrupted. On top of that, the marginal areas are turning to desert and cities are becoming unbearably hot. The peer-reviewed science is still sketchy, but it’s the best there is in a continent starved of research funds and it is consistent with the latest models done by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

But as the evidence continues to mount and the pain begins to be experienced in some of the poorer parts of the world there is little sign that the rich countries are preparing to tackle the issue seriously  at Durban or anywhere else:

… some leaders of the rich and big-emitting countries have lost interest and political momentum and want to consign the talks, like those on world trade, to a never-ending, never-achieving, low-grade, low-profile discussion to take place in backrooms without anyone listening or caring much. They may profess concern, but there is little evidence they want to act.

The 175 or more developing countries are not taking this submissively.

[They are] talking more as one, and the great illusion trick of the rich world is wearing thin. What has changed, they ask? The science of climate change is firmer than it ever was. A 2C-4C temperature rise still means that Africa fries and the polar bears die out, that Bangladesh and Egypt drown, the droughts in Latin America and Ethiopia continue to worsen, and the poorest communities and small-island states, who have the least resources to adapt, will be hurt the hardest.

Vidal is hardly optimistic. He ends with the comment that convincing the US to stop playing with the lives of the poorest or China to brake their economic rise may be too much to expect. Nevertheless he’s right to put his journalism at the service of those who are already discovering in their vulnerable lives what climate change means. Maybe the rich world will prove impervious to moral appeal. But the advocacy must continue and be reiterated again and again so that at least we cannot claim ignorance of the human effects of ever-rising greenhouse gas emissions. I often think how repetitive I feel my own writing about climate change has become as the years go by and little appears to change, at least at the political level. But there’s no escape from that repetition. The twin themes of the reality of the science and the injurious human impacts of climate change must go on being sounded until the world wakes up to what we are doing to ourselves.

We have the technology, but… Bryan Walker Sep 30

Join the conversation at Hot Topic

One word sums up the attitude of engineers towards climate change: frustration.’ That’s Colin Brown, director of engineering at the UK’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers, writing in the latest New Scientist. Political inertia combines with continuing noise from the vocal minority of sceptics to mean that we are doing woefully little to prevent the worsening of global warming.

It’s not as if we are lacking the technology:

Engineers know there is so much more that we could do. While the world’s politicians have been locked in predominantly fruitless talks, engineers have been developing the technologies we need to bring down emissions and help create a more stable future.

Wind, wave and solar power, zero-emissions transport, low-carbon buildings and energy-efficiency technologies have all been shown feasible. To be rolled out on a global scale, they are just waiting for the political will. Various models, such as the European Climate Foundation’s Roadmap 2050, show that implementing these existing technologies would bring about an 85 per cent drop in carbon emissions by 2050. The idea that we need silver-bullet technologies to be developed before the green technology revolution can happen is a myth. The revolution is waiting to begin.

The barriers to a low-carbon society are not technological but political and financial, he declares. That’s why at a London conference this month 11 national engineering institutions representing 1.2 million engineers from across the globe decided on a joint call for action to be presented at December’s COP17 climate change conference in Durban, South Africa.

The conference Declaration is worth looking at. Its heading says it in a nutshell:

Joint declaration on future climate engineering solutions. The world society can do it and we have the technologies.

It explains what the associations have been doing:

Eleven engineering associations from around the world are part of the project ‘Future Climate – Engineering Solutions’. The participating associations have been developing detailed national plans, analyses and technology strategies for tackling climate change. The project demonstrates how greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced substantially through the application of engineering…

The technology and the necessary means are available. It is technologically possible to achieve an average global reduction of 50-85 % by 2050.

And to get there:

A new climate deal must ensure that greenhouse gas emissions will peak before 2020, and substantial reductions will be reached by the year 2050.

Four specific recommendations follow. Governments:

  • Need to maintain flexible technology pathways. Scenarios and pathways based on technology provide ways of thinking about possible routes to sustainable futures but cannot be prescriptive solutions because circumstances change continuously over time. Recent events at Fukushima Nuclear Plant, in the Middle East (Arab Spring) and in the cost reductions of Solar PV energy have all been good illustrations of this reality. Governments should therefore maintain an ability to adjust the direction of travel in response to such developments …
  • Must include the effects of externalities in developing climate change mitigation policies. Developing national policies for tackling climate change is a difficult task involving consideration of complex inter-relationships and interactions across sectors. In undertaking this work governments often overlook the effects of externalities and fail to integrate these effectively…
  • Should help create Green jobs that are new jobs. It is important to stress that not all jobs for the green economy are new jobs, indeed many simply involve retraining and refocusing of existing jobs together with the adoption of greener technologies and practices. However, sufficient new Green Jobs are unlikely to come solely from existing industries. Support for new innovations will be critical particularly in the early market introduction phase of new product lifecycles…
  • Support energy efficiency and renewable energy. The participating organizations widely agree that energy efficiency is the best available measure that can be undertaken in the short and medium term, and that renewable energy sources is the solution for the long term. Governments must support energy efficiency across all sectors in their countries, including transportation, industry and in homes and public buildings. Incentives to build up renewable energy capacity must also be enacted now in order for technological and market development to take place that will make renewable energy commercially viable in the next decades…


Engineers call upon heads of state, ministers of climate, energy and environment and all other decision-makers, to commit to, and deliver, the ambitious emission reductions that are needed at all levels to secure a sustainable future.

I found it very encouraging to see this affirmation and urgency from the engineering world and decided to take a look at the UK Institution of Mechanical Engineers’ website. The Institution is a venerable body dating back to 1847 but obviously very much up to the mark on current issues. I was particularly interested to see their June 2011 statement on the direct extraction of CO2 from the atmosphere. This is one form of geo-engineering which has seemed to me to offer some hope of actual reduction of atmospheric levels of CO2 - something we may rather desperately feel the need of in the not too distant future.

Air capture, as it is called, can be achieved through a number of technologies, including air capture machines, enhanced weathering, and the production and burial or agricultural use of biochar.  The two mitigation possibilities offered by air capture are ‘negative emissions’ through capture and sequestration, and ‘carbon recycling’ through the capture and processing of CO2 for onward use in industrial or energy applications. Such use results in ‘closed-loop’ carbon cycles which, although making use of and emitting CO2, don’t increase the amount in the atmosphere. The statement discusses in particular the air capture machines being designed and demonstrated under Klaus Lackner and David Keith, both of whom have active air capture R&D programmes and designs based on the use of some form of chemical scrubbing to extract CO2 from air passing through the device. It appears feasible technically, but there is considerable uncertainty as to future cost levels. However they may eventually be equivalent to the estimated costs for carbon capture and storage of emissions at fossil-fuel burning plants.

Various other aspects of air capture are covered in the statement, which recommends in conclusion:

  • Government support for more detailed work on cost and feasibility.
  • The development of policy frameworks (which include market intervention) that enable the adoption of negative emissions and carbon recycling approaches to mitigation.
  • UK providing international leadership in mitigation policy and communication of the important contribution that air capture can make.

My foray into the engineering world was a welcome antidote to the bad news coming from the oil industry as they gear up for a bonanza of unconventional oil and gas. Colin Brown refers to it in his New Scientist article:

A natural gas rush driven by the development of controversial “fracking” techniques over the past decade has echoes of the oil rush that transformed Texas a century ago. The Financial Times reports that just one company, BHP Billiton, is investing as much as $79 billion in US shale gas fields — over three times the amount invested in all US renewables in a year.

And it’s not just political inertia that is allowing this to happen. As we have seen in New Zealand political encouragement is being offered to the fossil fuel industry. Brown certainly chose the right word when he spoke of frustration.

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