Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Copenhagen Accord: how COP15 became a COPout

The conclusion of the December 2009 Copenhagen climate talks--known as COP15 for the 15th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change--is perhaps best summarized by the headline in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. "President Obama salvaged a nonbinding agreement that sets neither a target for cutting emissions nor a deadline for one."

It is quite telling that what emerged as the Copenhagen Accords is seen as a meaningful deal by mainstream environmental organizations such as the League of Conservation Voters. Global warming is seen as little more than an impetus for what is being called clean energy reform, which is the continuation of economic growth powered by just about anything other than fossil fuels. So-called "clean" coal, nukes, and a handful of other techno fantasies that totally ignore the larger system they would have to exist within. Pretty much the entire two weeks in Copenhagen became an ongoing argument over the economics of how to best profit from cap and trade and offsets.

Stella Semino from Grupo de Reflexion Rural (Argentina) stated: "If these new proposals are agreed upon we will see a massive boost for crop and tree plantations alike which, in the name of `climate change mitigation', will speed up the destruction of forests and other vital ecosystems, the spread of industrial agriculture, and land-grabbing against small-farmers, indigenous peoples and forest communities. Industrial monocultures are already a major cause of climate change and their expansion will make it worse."

The Copenhagen Accord (hammered out WTO style in a back room between six countries, the US, Brazil, South Africa, India, China and Japan) stipulates that global warming must not exceed two degrees centigrade, but with no mechanisms or even guidelines as to how this might be achieved, nor does it set any actual CO2 or other GHG targets, goals, or timelines. An early analysis of the non-binding pledges that were offered showed they would lead to about a 3oC temperature rise, which would spell the end of the Amazon rainforests. While the Accord does state that overdeveloped nations should financially help those nations still trying to catch up to the levels of overconsumption, pollution, and general exploitation of life exhibited by the Global North (although not in those exact words), it provides no guidelines as to how this should be accomplished either. So, the COP15 managed to come up with a COPout. Is anyone really surprised?

The rhetoric in Copenhagen was all so phenomenally childish. The major posturing boiled down to, "I'm not going to do it unless so and so does it first. After all, we might lose a percent or two of market share." Never mind that there will be no markets on a dead planet. The final deal in Copenhagen came down to the world's largest polluters agreeing, in the analysis of Naomi Klein, to pretend that the other was doing something about global warming if the favor is reciprocated. But even that is non-binding. And poorer nations are forced to sign on the dotted line if they want any funds to help them adapt to a problem they haven't contributed to but which is affecting them the worst.

It's instructive to look at the recent historical record of global warming mitigation. Before the Kyoto Protocol, global emissions were increasing at 1.5%/yr. After Kyoto the rate of emissions increased to 3%/yr. Some countries, such as Japan, bought off their increases by investing in offsets. Some European countries decreased their national emissions by moving production and pollution to developing countries. Products were then flown back to Europe, because the fuel isn't taxed, and the even greater impact on global warming by aircraft emissions is ignored.

What we should do is leave the remaining fossil fuels in the ground. Barring common sense, climate scientist James Hansen says that fossil fuels should be simply taxed at the point of origin, either at the wellhead or mine, or at the port of entry. No exceptions, no exemptions, no loopholes.

The strategy Hansen and many economists argue for is known as fee and dividend (harder to game and almost immune to speculation) and is being advanced as an alternative to cap and trade (which is basically privatization of the atmosphere). When you take the total amount of coal, oil, and natural gas used in the US, and put a price of $115/ton on carbon, fee and dividend would generate $670 billion dollars, which is about $7,500 to $9,000 dollars per family. This could then be used for energy retrofits, efficiency improvements, and buying locally grown food when it becomes too expensive to fly it half way around the world. This would all help families adjust their lifestyles to a lower carbon footprint.

Most importantly, we must accept that the target of 350 ppm of atmospheric CO2 as the absolute safe upper limit must become the mantra for policy decisions. This is as much a moral position as it is a scientific one. Catastrophic climate destabilization is not an issue that can be compromised on. We can't say we're just going to do a little bit, but we're not going to solve the problem. Our one and only life support system is in a very real danger of passing some tipping points. Whether or not the current cycle of global warming is human caused or not (and there's really very little disagreement among reputable climate scientists that it is) at the very least it is extremely aggravated by human actions.

Perhaps the most difficult realization behind 350 is that the concept of growth in the economic and material realms must be forever cast aside. It's the first step in the realization that for true sustainability to occur we actually need to be heading back toward pre-industrial levels of about 250-275 ppm. And with a sustainable human population size, zero waste clean technologies, and shifting our production focus to quality instead of quantity this is an achievable goal without donning hair shirts and moving back to the cave.

The only real uncertainty is the time frame as we can't know which tipping points will be surpassed due to the carbon loading and ecosystem inertia from the 30 year time lag between greenhouse gas emission and biospheric effect. The climate effects currently occurring (with less than one degree C warming) are a response to the GHG emissions from 30 years ago, and we've done nothing but continuously increase those emissions over the past thirty years. In some cases we've slowed the rate of increase, but in no cases, despite the evidence of the urgency for doing so, have emissions gone negative.

So, there's our current challenge, and how our current crop of leaders are responding to it. In order to meet what is perhaps the greatest ethical, moral, and spiritual challenge of our times (because it's not a question of technology as much as its equitable distribution), I'd suggest that it's time to start making different choices.

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