December 21, 2009
Der Spiegel’s editorial said “What a disaster. The climate summit in Copenhagen has failed because of the hardball politicking of the United States, China and several other countries - and because people just can't seem to fathom how catastrophic climate change will be.”
But let’s step back a minute, and consider the difficulty of obtaining a binding consensus from the leaders of 193 fractious nations, each of whom has to answer to his or her own voters, on a change so enormous that it calls for nothing less than retrofitting the entire planet for zero carbon operations within 40 years. There’s not a nation on Earth that manages to govern itself by consensus.
Can you imagine any kind of consensus agreement coming out of the USA, where very few Democrats deny the science of climate change, and very Republicans accept it?
Even if they had agreed, UN data published during the conference shows that the commitments on offer would have caused global temperatures to rise by 3°C, not the 2°C limit everyone agrees is needed, or the 1.5°C demanded by the Maldives and other vulnerable nations. And that’s bad news. The last time the world was 3°C warmer, the sea level was 25 metres higher.
So maybe it’s good news that the US, China, India, Brazil and other large nations that are responsible for 85% of the world’s carbon emissions got together and thrashed out their own agreement, without waiting for Saudi Arabia and a host of small nations to sign on. As Michael Levi points out in Slate, the 100 smallest emitters are producing less than 3% of the problem.
Ever since I started writing my new book on climate solutions I’ve also been thinking that the whole Kyoto process is steeped in the negative. It is framed in the mindset of limiting a problem, not winning a victory. If the 193 Kyoto nations were a football team, they’d all be playing defence, and losing 96-3 at half-time, with only the tiny Maldive Islands scoring 3 points for its commitment to build a 100% carbon neutral society by 2020.
If something’s broke, you’ve either have to fix it, or find a better way to design it. We’ve got to reframe the climate problem not only as reducing our emissions, complaining every tonne of the way, but also as building a zero carbon world that is so attractive and sustainable that why would we want to do otherwise? The oil’s about to hit its global production peak anyway, so the sooner we make the transition, the better.
Getting back to the football metaphor, no coach would last long who took such a negative approach. You’ve got to play offense as well as defense, and that means being able to visualize victory so clearly that it becomes a determined and resolute result long before it has been achieved - and that means visualizing a world powered and transported by 100% renewable energy, with green cities, zero waste, carbon-storing forestry, farming and ranching, and then going flat-out to score some goals.
So let’s have solar treaties, in which nations agree to aggressively ramp up the amount of solar PV that’s installed every year, driving down the price. Let’s have electric vehicle, wind energy, and bus rapid transit treaties, signaling to investors that they should press ahead and build new factories. Let’s have bicycling treaties, biochar treaties, and zero-net energy building treaties. If we depended on market forces to bring victory, Winston Churchill would have had to announce in World War II that “I’m afraid we can’t fight Hitler and his Nazis, because we’ve go to wait for the price of warships to fall.”
And while playing defense, where we’re doing such a lousy job, let’s try breaking out the various greenhouse gases instead of bundling them together, and find ways to tackle them separately. There are some aggressive players there who keep scoring touchdowns against us, and they’ve got to be targetted individually if we’re going to take them out.
This would allow us to create a specific plan to tackle black carbon, or soot, which comes from dirty diesel vehicles, traditional biofuel cooking stoves, residential coal fires, and open forest and savanna fires. It’s not a gas, so it’s not even on the Kyoto/Copenhagen table, but it’s scoring 21% of the global warming goals, and we urgently need to eliminate it. Since it only stays in the atmosphere for a few days or weeks, the response to our success would be immediate, which is precisely what we need.
We’ve also got to tackle methane, which is scoring 13% of the goals against us. Methane traps far more heat than CO2, but its life in the atmosphere is only 8.4 years, after which it breaks down into CO2 and other gases. Its official global warming potential (GWP) over 100 years is 25, but over its short life it traps 100 times more heat - and it’s the short term that’s so critical now. A deal to tackle methane would apply an urgent focus to fugitive emissions from fossil fuel extraction, livestock digestion, rice paddies, landfills, animal feedlot slurry, and open biomass burning.
And then there are the F gases, which are scoring goals against us while no-one’s even watching. The worst, HFC-134a, used in air conditioning, traps 5,000 times more heat than CO2 does over its short 14 years’ life in the atmosphere. Perfectly good CO2-based alternatives exist, so a side-deal to push it out of the game is urgently needed.
Before Copenhagen, bringing up new ideas like this would have been a troublesome distraction. But now that Copenhagen’s out of the way, and seen to have failed, we need to put everything on the table, and try to find a better approach.
There’s another new idea that concerns how we’re going to pay for the $100-$300 billion a year needed to help the world’s poorer nations deal with the impacts of climate change, and make their own journey to a zero-carbon future. Voluntary commitments won’t cut it, and a global carbon tax is unlikely to win support.
During Copenhagen, Ethiopia’s leader, Meles Zenawi, suggested raising the money by imposing new taxes on aviation and shipping, and on financial transactions (known as a "Tobin Tax"), which alone could raise up to $100bn a year. The idea has already won support from Britain, France, Brazil, and to some extent the whole European Union. The double merit of the proposal is that it can be targetted to foreign exchange and derivatives, where speculation has harmed the world’s economy so much over the past 30 years.
Copenhagen’s broken, and even if it had succeeded, with a temperature rise of 3°C it would still have guaranteed disaster, so let’s try something new.
Guy Dauncey is author of the newly released book The Climate Challenge - 101 Solutions to Global Warming (New Society Publishers, 2009). He is President of the BC Sustainable Energy Association.