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Thoughts from Poznan COP 14, Days 1 and 2

by Geoff Lye 2 December 2008

Geoff Lye is at COP 14 with Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute, but is also pursuing research interests for Blue Rubicon, SustainAbility and Volans (Geoff is a non-executive Director of Volans).

COP 14 Days 1 and 2 = 1st and 2nd December 2008

Arrival: Polish queues and Polish Qs

On the flight over, I read my last blog from Bali: it was surprisingly optimistic. By chance, I had arrived at the airport for my homeward flight at the same time – and subsequently flew on the same plane – as Yvo de Boer, the man charged with taking the UNFCCC (United Nations Convention for Climate Change) negotiations for a post Kyoto protocol to a successful conclusion by COP 15 in Copenhagen. His view at the airport was that we (he?) had succeeded in ‘getting the show on the road’; it was clear to him that the framework should be agreed by the end of this COP in Poznan, but that the detailed numbers would have to await a new US President. And here we are: a new President almost in office and the 14th Conference of the Parties in its opening days.

I was struck at the airport by my intolerance of queuing, especially so when I realised that officials were putting families with children straight to the front of my queue (nothing against families, just that nagging feeling that I chose the wrong queue again). I found further queues for security and registration on arrival at the conference hall in Poznan and began to feel that this must simply be part of the Polish legacy. My ignorance and arrogance were confirmed when I went into a local Tesco (yes, just behind McDonalds) and breezed through the checkout faster than I could pack my bag. Apologies, Poland.

Queues sorted, there remain questions on my mind as COP 14 begins:

  • How will the issues of respective and equitable obligations of developed and developing economies play out?
  • Will the issues of REDD (including avoided de-forestation and re-forestation in the post Kyoto treaty) show real advance or get bogged down in further complexity?
  • Will the polarised views on CCS (Carbon Capture & Storage) be reconciled?
  • How will the US delegation behave – ‘lame ducks’ or ‘last chance saloon’?

Sailing into a ‘climate crunch’?

Yvo de Boer was reported by Reuters yesterday as saying he would prefer a broad “ratifiable” deal with a “subsequent process of fleshing out the details”. Given the Bali conversation, I think I know what he means, but as always the devil will be in the detail. More topically, he also said that the world risked a second financial crisis if governments reacted to economic slowdown by building cheap, high-polluting coal-fired power plants that might then have to be scrapped as climate impacts hit. “What concerns me most is that the financial crisis will lead to a second set of bad investment decisions” he said, adding “I hope that the second financial crisis is not going to have its origins in bad energy loans”. As I note later, the economic downturn seems to be treated here so far as an unrelated set of events. Recent economic upheaval is surely a signal of many disruptions to come, but there is little appetite for learning about failed global risk management. Will climate disruption only drive massive and urgent responses when we are on the brink of a climate crunch? I fear no amount of investment will pull us back then.

Reflecting on the past 12 months, I wonder whether I was over-optimistic in my assessment as I flew out of Bali. I struggle to think of one positive shift in relation to climate change. To the contrary, all indicators are moving in the opposite direction to those acknowledged by all scientists, policymakers and enlightened business leaders as necessary to avoid ‘dangerous climate change’. In the opening speeches, Pachauri, the head of the IPCC even challenged whether a 2°C target was robust given that the inevitable rise in sea level this would produce from thermal warming alone would be a minimum of a third of a metre. And the new Chair of Working Group 3 started his assessment of the current position as absolutely not on track. Emissions – far from declining – have actually been increasing at a faster rate each year. Yet the political talk here is still of achieving peak emissions by 2015 – just six years away! Perhaps a global depression is our only hope.

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Dr Pachauri Head of IPCC addresses the conference opening

Chinese puzzles

The conference is run as the formal UNFCCC negotiating process with a series of ‘side events’; for those in observer roles like me, these are invariably more interesting (and, as I reported from Bali) more inspiring too. Today I chose an event organized by Institute of Development Studies which focused on China. While full of insight and data demonstrating the moral imperative that developed countries should do massively more in delivering GHG reductions, the fact which stuck in my mind was that the Emma Maersk ship delivered 45,000 tonnes of goods to the UK in time for Christmas 2007 and sailed away with thousands of tonnes of our waste – destined for China.

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The research from Tyndall and the Sussex Energy Group suggests that 23% of China’s GHG emissions are fully attributable to the goods they produce for export to developed economies. I believe it is becoming increasingly clear that our historic attribution of emissions to producers rather than to consumers is rationally and morally flawed. As David Satterthwaite of IIED puts it: ‘Consumer demand drives the production of goods and services, and therefore the emission of greenhouse gases’. The consequence, of course, is that the argument that China is the world’s biggest emitter – ahead of the US – is heavily undermined on this basis. It will be interesting to see how the US delegation handle that challenge; but the appetite for bringing new issues, however compelling, to the table here in Poznan is very low.

I mentioned to a colleague in a call to the UK the key points from the China presentations and she immediately emailed me an amazing chart (see below) from Capital Link showing the collapse in sea trade between August and November of this year. If I read it correctly, shipping freight demand has fallen off a cliff – an ominous indicator for all economies, but especially so for the Chinese.

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Tuesday: BINGO! And some basic but complex science

I have decided to join the BINGO daily 9am briefing and review. If you are not familiar with the COP (Conference of the Parties) acronyms, read my Bali blogs. BINGO is the Business NGO group (BUNGO, surely?). It is organized each year by a band of International Chambers of Commerce executives and members. Given my accreditation through Environmental Change Institute (ECI) at Oxford, I am technically a RINGO (Research and Independent NGOs) and feel happy to be so defined, though JOHN or PAUL would be even better. Incidentally, each day’s BINGO meeting takes place in the Wild Sheep room (absolutely true – do the organizers know something?).

Tuesday’s BINGO meeting reviewed the opening day. The ICC team had a somewhat different take from mine, with a sense that the speeches by the Polish and Dutch PMs were positive and motivating rather than, as I had felt, predictable and uninspiring. It is true that they each made the case that the economic downturn should not distract or delay, and that the Polish PM Donald Tusk called for ‘climate solidarity’ in the spirit of the movement which broke Soviet totalitarianism. Whatever the views of the morning session, it was agreed by all that the positive mood evaporated later in the day as the process reverted to type, and narrow, vested interest emerged again.

At an event later in the day – which was a summary and update of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s 2007 report by contributing authors – I was reminded of the recurring feeling I experienced at Bali. Namely, that in the same place and in the same event there appear to be so many parallel universes. The UN’s formal process is bogged down in short sighted and often self-serving politics while the side events show so clearly and passionately what needs to be done and what can be done – if only the global political will could be found.

I spoke to one of the IPCC authors (Diana Ürge-Vorsatz) after the event. She had highlighted the massive opportunities to reduce GHGs in the building sector. In particular, she noted that about 30% of the global GHG reductions we need to achieve by 2030 can be delivered through improving new and existing building stock – all with positive economic returns (in other words, more will be saved than is spent). She shared examples which were not in the report including the retro fit of a Hungarian apartment block where savings of over 90% of annual space heating (see http://solanova.eu/) have been achieved. I asked her why the IPCC’s compelling environmental and economic arguments were failing to deliver substantive policy or market driven responses. She declared herself a pessimist on climate but felt that really positive policy developments were in hand and would deliver. I suggested that, in spite of my innate optimism, the theoretical possibility offered in the report is in practice wishful thinking given the lack of political will. This Diana was almost as impressive as ECI’s own Diana (Liverman), but, reader, where would you place your money?

I also spoke to Ralph Sims, another lead IPCC scientist and author, on the significance of stabilising at 450 ppm of CO2 as opposed to CO2e (the IPCC’s reference standard); I raised this in light of views of some experts in Oxford that while the current level of CO2e is approximately 50 ppm higher than CO2, non-CO2 activities in the atmosphere include not only additional GHGs which will tend to accelerate warming, but also other pollutants including aerosols and particulates from smoke which have a roughly equal cooling effect. He agreed with the Oxford assessment, but pointed out that the intent to drive down the emissions of the cooling pollutants actually exposed us progressively more over time to the additional warming potential of the non-CO2 GHGs.

Now that I finally understand this point, I am reassured in the position I have taken with business clients that while the ‘headspace’ left for us to achieve stabilisation from a warming point of view looks superficially the same in additional ppm – whether we set CO2 or CO2e as the 450 ppm target – we could only justify this if we support sustaining or increasing the levels of non GHG pollutants. Surely not a sustainable option! In his talk, Ralph Sims also highlighted that stabilising at 450 ppm of CO2e carries a 50% chance of overshooting the 2°C which is more or less universally set as the point beyond which we are at risk of dangerous climate change. He closed his speech with ‘We have the technologies, but we do not have the time.’ The (science) lesson endeth here.

Best climate for climate talks?

I bumped into Yvo de Boer (UNFCCC General Secretary) a number of times in Bali and found him extremely approachable. So when I spotted him at the Reception hosted Monday night by the Polish Environment Minister for all COP participants, I broke into his small group only to get a very quick cold shoulder. What I had not realised was that he and the Environment Minister were being briefed on the speeches they were about to give to the thousands in the room. Backed off with tail between legs.

Polish hospitality

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I got a similarly brusque response, however, from an old client and COP acquaintance this morning; he looked very grey and very harassed. I began to wonder if weather plays a part in these COP processes. In Bali, Yvo was sporting a Balinese floral collarless shirt – but in Poznan a suit and tie. There is definitely a grey feel here which cannot be helpful in lifting the parties’ spirits when they need it. I hope I’m wrong, but maybe COP 15 should have been booked into a sunnier clime?

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