Science just published an article on a possible explanation for why the climate is warming at a slower rate than expected. You can read a nice summary from the Economist here.

The amount of water in the stratosphere has been decreasing (albeit by about only one part per million) which affects the amount of infrared radiation absorbed and emitted back down into the troposphere. This could be slowing the rate of Earth’s warming by up to 25%.

Courtesy of Fred

This could be a good thing, but we can’t really know because we don’t know why less water vapor is entering the stratosphere. It could (surprise, surprise) be due to rising greenhouse gas levels. What we can be sure of is that the climate is fickle. A seemingly straightforward process or causal connection can be disrupted once a ‘tipping point’ is reached. That’s what is so troubling about emitting high levels of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere… while it may not continue to cause ‘warming’ everywhere, it will certainly impact climate stability. Uncertainty is the biggest threat.


A couple weeks ago UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) secretariat Yvo de Boer held a press conference in Bonn to discuss the outcome at Copenhagen. Watch it here. It’s not too long and he has some interesting things to say about the UN in general. He also gets a little testy when people ask him about the organization of COP15…

His main points, from the notes of his talk:

1) [COP15] raised climate change to the highest level of  government, which ultimately is the only level at which it can be resolved
2) The Copenhagen Accord reflects a political consensus on the long-term, global response to climate change
3) Negotiations away from the cameras brought an almost full set of decisions to implement rapid climate action near to completion.

You might note that point (3) relates to my previous post: there may be trade-offs between media transparency and efficacy of negotiations. How do we address this?

Of particular interest is that January 31 2010 (this past Sunday) was the deadline for all the countries at COP15 to indicate whether or not they want to be ‘associated’ with the Copenhagen Accord and to submit their emission reduction pledges (big surprise: not all countries met the deadline).  The pledges are to be included as an appendix to the Accord, making it “a living document” in the words of Yvo de Boer. The pledges aren’t legally binding of course.  It’s indicative of the Accord’s teeth that the strongest hold it can have over any country is an ‘association.’

You can check out which countries are associating with the Accord and their emissions pledges here, in a fun table with intuitive graphics. I particularly like the China graphic for ‘Type of Reduction’…

A lot of blame has been thrown around post-COP15 with regard to which country obstructed real progress from being made in the negotiations. Some say the BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India, China) block’s refusal to consider any deviation from Kyoto was most detrimental, others argue the US’s fly-by-night back-door negotiation strategy was the most contemptible.  Or was it China who singehandedly prevented the signing of a legally binding global agreement?

Though we can’t know for sure, the real culprit may have been in every negotiating room throughout the conference: the press.

No one can deny that China and other BASIC countries were utilizing all the political weight they could muster during those two weeks in December. It was difficult to predict that the UNFCCC would provide such a platform for displaying geopolitical power, especially when the globe was there to tackle such a grave issue. I guess the lesson learned is to never underestimate the opportunism of a country trying to claw its way to hegemony.

But the question stands: is there a way to frame the negotiation process such that individual countries are given less incentive to grandstand, sidetrack and filibuster for the sake of communicating their ability to do so? Perhaps the answer lies in taking away their ability to communicate with anyone (their public, the public of competing hegemonic powers…) except other negotiators, in other words, getting the media broadcasters out of the building.

Of course the appropriateness of this suggestion depends on the actual incentives for countries like China to grandstand during a COP.  But common sense says when one is given the chance to communicate with the entire world and one has something to say, messages may come out that are not necessarily conducive to addressing the topic at hand (i.e. climate change). A negotiator most likely wouldn’t use the same language when speaking in front of a room full of lay/press people as she would if the room were filled only with other negotiating delegates.

Are we willing to kick out the press to see what might happen to the efficiency of the negotiating process? Maybe just for a trial period? Should civil society still be allowed to observe on the condition they don’t BLOG about anything?

What do we have most to fear from not knowing exactly what is going on inside the conference building until the negotiations are over? Are we simply concerned about the precedent this would set for transparency?

I’m interested to see what people think of this idea.

A Feed-in WHAT?!

Want something to work on that promotes the use of renewable energy so that the US has something to show at COP16?  A renewable energy policy that began in the United States (Jimmy Carter: 1978), was popularized by Germany, is slowly (ever so slowly) making its way back to its maker—the “feed-in tariff” or FiT.  (A tariff? could be dangerous. Well, make sure you read paragraph 4)   Gainesville, FL adopted a FiT in March 2009 and has experienced huge gains in solar installations. There are a few other FiTs in Vermont and California too. That’s great, but what is a FiT anyway?

The Sunshine State!

Using sources of renewable energy (eg. solar, wind) is currently more expensive than traditional sources (eg. coal). Unless purchasing renewable energy is incentivised, the prohibitive high prices of renewables may mean that these clean energy technologies never take off, where economies of scale can allow renewable energy to reach grid parity (ie. same price as traditional energy sources). Basically, a FiT requires that utilities pay above market prices for energy produced from renewable sources and this is guaranteed for a set amount of time. The extra cost is distributed among the consumers where (in Germany) they may pay ~ 3% more on their electricity bill.  So once you install solar panels, which are likely to be subsidized, the utilities will pay you for the electricity you produce!

Renewables Pay

Renewables Pay

In Germany, this incentive is designed to taper off to promote more efficient and greater production of renewables. The added cost per German household in 2007 was 3-4 Euros per month, or approximately 1 latte, as reported in the National Journal. Neville Williams, author of “Chasing the Sun: Solar Adventures around the World” (I recommend this to anyone interested in the potential impact that renewables can have in developing countries), comments on both the FiT adoption in Florida and Germany’s added costs to the consumer. He says the added costs in Florida is much cheaper than building new power plants for the needed energy.

For what it represents, the name “feed-in tariff” is quite misleading and may actually be one of the main reasons why it has not succeeded in the US thus far. Using the word “tariff” is big no-no for politicians. The original German term is “Einspeiseverguetung” Einspeise (feed-in, from “ein” and “speisen”) Verguetung (compensation, fee or payment). Basically, it is “compensation” for you (the producer) “feed(ing)-in” the renewable energy you produce to the grid. Wherever this policy is implemented, renewable installations take off! Germany has the solar isolation (amount of sunlight hitting the earth) equivalent to Alaska and they still accounted for almost half of all solar installations worldwide in 2007.

The U.S. can do Better

The U.S. can do Better

Think this is a great idea? It can be. There are some logistical/technical problems associated “tying into the grid” such as how to balance production using variable (coal) and intermittent (wind, solar, etc) power sources to meet demand.  This has produced some headaches.  For example, I was told that one really windy day a while back, wind turbines produced so much extra electricity in Germany that a coal-fired power plant had to be shut down for a while.  All RE had to be purchased and to prevent excess electricity from being wasted the plant had to go offline.  Cool right?  Well, it is very difficult to stop and start a coal-fired power plant.  Imagine having to synchronize something like this with more RE in the mix.  That’s where careful planning, redesigning the grid and scientific breakthroughs in energy storage come in…what are you waiting for? Get to work!

We’ve been discussing the results of Copenhagen pretty generously on this blog. The most gracious analysis I’ve seen insists that COP15 was a necessary step forward. We haven’t looked at why some consider it a ‘disaster.’ The following is a synopsis of the more pessimistic views of Copenhagen.

First, the organization of the conference was extremely poor.

  • logistics: too many people allowed in the event (this is in direct contradiction to civil society’s complaint that not enough NGO representatives were given access!! You can’t please everyone [in the world, literally] all the time)
  • Too many side events (i.e. distractions- these were the 100s of presentations, with topics ranging from clean energy to REDD to maritime emissions etc. etc., going on in designated ‘side event’ rooms throughout the entire conference)
  • Too much back-patting, not enough negotiating (likely due to side events and over-attendance of organizations)
  • To quote someone who has been to his fair share of UN events but who shall remain nameless, “I have never seen such bad, bad management of a negotiating process.”

Too many people! Look at all those people!

Political problems

  • lack of information flow to all country delegates and unclear communication of positions (when several country delegate teams were asked, “What exactly does China want?” they couldn’t come up with an answer… this doesn’t necessarily mean they weren’t paying attention, but rather that certain countries were being very opaque in expressing their demands)
  • Little foresight that China would use this opportunity to grandstand and no attempt to head this off by framing the negotiations in a way that would minimize it (let’s devote a post entirely to this, shall we? More on whether or not it is possible to frame international negotiations in such a way that political positioning is discouraged or eliminated)

Lack of guidance from the UN

  • country leaders not given a political mandate to come up with a given agreement (not enough guidance for such a huge number of negotiators)
  • apparently the Danish prime minister was very unprofessional upon taking over the role of COP15 president in the second week (I’ll have to look a bit more into this, does anyone else know the story?)
  • Going back to various countries being opaque: we need at least one entity to push negotiators to communicate exactly what they want.  Where was the UN leadership here?

The UNFCCC process in general

  • Exclusivity abounds: most low- and middle-income countries feel the Copenhagen Accord was drafted and pushed through by a few select rich/politically influential countries (especially the US) and are angry about not being included in the most important parts of these top level negotiations (especially when their populations are most at risk of displacement, drought, famine, flooding, disease due to climate change)
  • Trying to regulate too many gases at once (why not start with regulating one or two of the most abundant greenhouse gases instead of every single one?)
  • More importantly, trying to get all countries in the world to come to a single agreement (see Earth Day vs. Earth Race post below)– process is too cumbersome and ineffective if our goal is to reduce emissions

Do you have a complaint I’ve missed here? Comment about it! As you’re probably aware, environmentalists love to complain, but we can’t do it all alone! If you have suggestions for solutions you can comment on that too (why not?).

“Let’s not paddle with busted oars, we’ll get thrown right off course.”– Lucas John Monaco

My good friend Phil, who is currently studying in Shanghai and with whom I was able to spend one glorious evening in Copenhagen, hipped me to [what might be called] spin that the Chinese government is putting on what happened in Copenhagen: “Verdant Mountains Cannot Stop Water Flowing; Eastward the River Keeps on Going”

Premier Wen - Courtesy of China Daily

First of all… is Obama/US the “verdant mountain” and China is the eastward flowing river? Does anyone have insight to Chinese metaphors? And if the US is a verdant mountain… we sound much more pleasant than I imagine the Chinese government views us. But maybe I’m ignorant about how the Chinese media portrays the US.

In his important speech at the high-level segment of the conference, Premier Wen reiterated the consistent position of the Chinese government. He called on all sides to build consensus and strengthen cooperation to advance the historical process of combating climate change. Confronted by the complicated situation in and outside the Bella Center, Premier Wen was undeterred. With the strongest political will and patience, he shuttled between participating leaders and engaged them in dialogue and consultations. At the critical moment when the negotiations faced the risk of a breakdown, he personally talked to various parties and helped the conference reach the final accord with his painstaking and thoughtful efforts…

At 18:50, when leaders of the BASIC countries were doing the final review of their common position, they heard a clamor of voices outside. The door was opened and there stood President Obama. Although the scheduled time for the second China-US meeting had passed, Obama’s presence at that moment and that place still came as a surprise to the people inside.President Obama must, too, have felt a bit awkward. With one foot inside the door, he smiled and asked Premier Wen whether he was early and whether he should wait outside or come in and join the discussion. Premier Wen stood up and welcomed him courteously. President Obama was apparently touched. He first walked around the room, shaking hands with everyone inside, and then sat down on President Lula’s left and across the table facing Premier Wen.

This is somewhat in contrast to how US media is portraying how things happened:

Confusion reigned. Chinese officials said Wen was at his hotel and his staff was at the airport. The same was said of top Indian officials, but nothing was clear….

Obama was unaware, however, thinking he was going to meet alone with Wen. After some confusion about who had access to the room, White House aides told the president that Wen was inside with the leaders of the three other countries, apparently working on strategy.

“Good,” Obama said as he walked through the door. “Mr. Premier, are you ready to see me?” he called out. “Are you ready?”

Inside he found startled leaders and no chair to sit in.

U.S. officials denied that Obama crashed the party, saying he simply showed up for his 7 p.m. meeting with Wen and found the others there.

Whatever the meeting’s original purpose, Obama used it to help strike an agreement on ways to verify developing nations’ reductions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases, a good U.S. ending to their talks with the Chinese.

Either way, both of these stories make me laugh. Most likely no one who wrote these stories was even in Copenhagen (though perhaps they were) but they certainly weren’t in the room where these scenes were happening. Every government is invested in putting a positive spin on how they handled COP15. It is certainly revealing, if you choose to read both news stories in full, how subtle modifications in wording and tone can change how one understands the same series of events.

One of the biggest COP15 disappointments is that the Copenhagen Accord is not legally binding. This is widely acknowledged by world leaders and has led many to conclude that the negotiations failed. Though it is not an ideal outcome, and the UNFCCC process appears to be less effective/inclusive than it could be, it does hold us over until the next COP with some important guidelines (that admittedly, were not very contentious in the first place): we need to keep the global temperature increase under 2 degrees Celsius, developed countries are more responsible for putting carbon into the air and have more resources to reduce emissions so they must have more stringent GHG reduction goals, and rich countries have to give poorer countries money to get them through the worst of climate change. Developed countries can submit their emissions reductions pledges to the UNFCCC to be included as an appendix of the Copenhagen Accord (a nice little reference section… it would be funny if it weren’t so disappointing) and developing countries can submit pledges if they want to or they can announce them later on via ‘national communications’.

What’s nice is that Obama has promised that even though the Copenhagen Accord is not legally binding, the US will push on towards our emissions reductions target. Thanks Obama (only very small tinge of sarcasm here)!!  Well, we know that not only are we capable of meeting our miserable 4% GHG emissions reductions by 2020 (from 1990 levels) but, as Alison mentions below, we can do more. We can (theoretically) become leaders in clean energy and green technology without waiting for other countries to join. This is more in line with Friedman’s ‘Earth Race’ market-based, competition-driven strategy as opposed to the consensus-driven, cumbersome UNFCCC process (US-centrically referred to by Friedman as the ‘Earth Day’ strategy).

It remains to be seen whether in actuality the US can pull ahead of other countries in the race to gain the largest share of the green market and if these kinds of efforts will result in economic benefits for the US. Will other countries with a head-start (e.g. Germany, China, Spain…) simply be able to do it better?  The bottom line is we need to invest, invest, invest public and private funds if we want to become competitive. Important players include US citizens who have worked abroad in leading clean energy countries, gaining experience in growing, competitive green markets and environmentally-conscious governments (e.g. everyone in my program, the Transatlantic Renewable Energy Fellowship!!) who bring this expertise back to the US.

International exchange on this issue is key, but also kind of goes against the whole idea of promoting competition in order to spur green economic development… I’ll leave this conundrum to another post.