Lies, damned lies and brutal storms

By Cindy Baxter 30/11/2011

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.