Sunday, February 15, 2015

Unburnable Valentines

"The outer boundary of what we currently believe is feasible is still far short of what we actually must do. Moreover, between here and there, across the unknown, falls the shadow.  

   Whether you like it or don’t, the path back to the Holocene after this brief dalliance with the Anthropocene lies through that big steel and glass edifice at One United Nations Plaza. No amount of biochar and holistic management will get us back to the habitable planet we evolved on without also addressing issues like population, biodiversity, poverty, water, eliminating the twin scourge of nuclear weapons and power, Palestine, banksters, or even the Drone King’s hegemonic cyberwar ambitions. We have to bake, and then eat, the whole enchilada.

The Climate Action Network, based in Germany, reported this past week, "2015 will be a trek. One summit followed by another, ending with a steep climb to Paris."

The first peak crossed on our pilgrimage was the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action. Part 8 of the 2d session (ADP 2.8) concluded Friday in a swank resort nestled in Lake Geneva's snowcapped mountains.

The second peak was going on simultaneously in New York at the High Level Thematic Debate on "Means of Implementation for a Transformative Post-2015 Development Agenda" presided over by the President of the General Assembly and the Deputy UN Secretary General. In some ways this arcane debate is more important than the piece of paper that goes to COP-21 in Paris, because the final Convention will only address a post-2020 world and the next five years are critical. 

Peak 3 will be reached next month with delegates meeting at the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, Japan to finalize a new framework for DRR. The shadows cast by Fukushima over that location should lend perspective as delegates arrive to their penthouses with suitcases stuffed full of bottled water and MREs.

Two other summits are coming soon to New York: one about Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals and one for Development Finance Goals. As we scale these, some paths will cross. And always, in the thin air zone, there are risks of summit storms, avalanche and landslides.

In 1979 the UN hosted the first World Climate Conference. In 1988 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (#IPCC) was set up and in 1990 issued its first assessment. In 1992, at the Earth Summit in Rio, countries joined an international treaty, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (#UNFCCC), to cooperatively consider what they could do to limit climate change and cope with whatever impacts were, by then, already inevitable.

By 1995, most countries had realized that emission reduction targets in the Convention were inadequate. They launched negotiations to strengthen ambition and, two years later, adopted the Kyoto Protocol. The KP legally binds developed countries to targets and even though the United States did not ratify, it is still legally bound by its ratification of the UN Charter. The Protocol’s first commitment period started in 2008 and ended in 2012. Needless to say, the big players — US, UK, Australia, Canada — not only missed the assigned reduction target (4.7% in the case of the US), they had increased emissions by huge amounts and were trying to paper over the embarrassment by moving around dates and bringing in nutty numbers. The second commitment period began in 2013 and will end in 2020.

There are now 195 Parties to the Convention and 192 Parties to the KP. The UNFCCC secretariat organizes climate change negotiations called the Conference of the Parties (COP). COP-1 was in Berlin in 1995. COP-21 will be in Paris in December, 2015 and it is planned for that meeting to adopt a legally binding treaty to safely protect the planet from climate change. Right?

We believe that today, more than ever before, we live in a global and interdependent world. No State can stand wholly alone. We acknowledge that collective security depends on effective cooperation, in accordance with international law, against transnational threats. We recognize that current developments and circumstances require that we urgently build consensus on major threats and challenges. We commit ourselves to translating that consensus into concrete action, including addressing the root causes of those threats and challenges with resolve and determination.
— from the 2005 Heads of State UN Summit Outcome Document

The second leading delusion in our culture these days, after the wish for a something-for-nothing magic energy rescue remedy, is the idea that we can politically organize our way out of the epochal predicament of civilization that we face.
— James Howard Kunstler

In the Ol' Yodler Sausage Shop down in Lake Geneva, one can take giggling children to watch the words come through the grinder and have their appropriate brackets added, to better help delegates pick and choose only the best to take home.

11 February 2015 @ 08.20h

Option (a): Being guided by the principles of the Convention as set out in its Article 3, including that Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with historical responsibility, common but differentiated responsibilities and the provisions of Article 4 of the Convention / evolving common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities / evolving economic and emission trends which will continue post-2020, in order to progressively enhance the levels of ambition,

Option (b): In accordance with the principles of the Convention as set out in its Article 3, including in particular that Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with historical responsibility and common but differentiated responsibilities,

[Recognizing the importance of long-range efforts to transition to low-carbon economies, mindful of the global temperature goal of 2°C,]

Option (a): Also recognizing that scenarios consistent with a likely chance of holding the global average temperature increase to below 2°C relative to pre-industrial levels include substantial cuts in anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century and net emission levels near zero gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent or below in 2100,

Option (b): Also recognizing that scenarios consistent with a likely chance of holding the global average temperature increase to below 2°C or 1.5°C relative to preindustrial levels include substantial cuts in anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century and zero emissions within the second half of this century,

[Further recognizing that economy-wide emission reduction budgets provide the highest level of clarity, predictability and environmental integrity,]
[Acknowledging that carbon pricing is a key approach for cost-effectiveness of the cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions,]
[Recognizing the special characteristics of land use systems, including the importance of food security, the diversity of global land management systems, and the need to manage multiple sustainability objectives, may require particular consideration within actions under this agreement,]

etc., etc.

Negotiators for 195 countries are trying to craft specific goals, with ways and means ratcheted up or down based upon ongoing, up-to-the-minute authoritative assessments of what works and what doesn't. 

Assumptions are to be tested and mandates enforced either by market forces or government regulation, or some combination. In the conference chambers, the tensions over language merely reflect subliminal panic as what the numbers actually stand for gnaws at the reptilian brain. 

These young mid-level diplomats well know that any gap in mitigation ambition left now makes later adaptation a whole lot more expensive, well nigh impossible. Crafting language like a "public adaptation finance goal" are an attempt to bridge a neurobiological gap between hominid discount rate calculus and immediate benefit stimulation, particularly in the political arena.

For example, a "loss and damage fund" was not gaining traction amongst the criminal climate syndicate members (you know who you are) because it was punishing rich countries for historical fossil fuel use. The accused demanded waivers, a statute of repose, or blanket amnesty. The same mechanism, once reframed as re-insuring and then relocating vulnerable communities, something that by accounting logic should be given its own source of finance, has few opponents.

One option, backed by strong science, is to replace the 2°C limit threshold with 1.5°C. You could say that once we surpassed 400 parts per million CO2 in the air, 1.5 became the new 350 on the placards waved outside the building. It was harder to pimp for 350 when everyone was already breathing 400. It is easier to advocate 1.5 because unless you live in Greenland, we are still at around 1.0.

The 1.5 trajectory can only be achieved (if at all) through a rapid, nearly instantaneous, phase-out of fossil fuels and phase-in of 100% renewable energy, combined with changes to land use patterns that net sequester carbon and rebalance the potassium, phosphorus and nitrogen cycles, mainly by doing away with artificial fertilizers. Still, 1.5, or even 2.0, requires more profound change than the galley-slave delegates, straining at their oars, are revealing, or perhaps even comprehend.


Kate Sheppard, writing for Huffington Post, (Scientists Warn We're Ever-Closer To The Apocalypse) parsed the hidden meaning:
While world leaders have set a goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), the current emissions trajectory puts the world on path to more like 3 degrees to 8 degrees C (5 degrees to 15 degrees F). "It only took modest 3- to 8-degree warming to bring the world out from the frigid depths of the last ice age," said Sivan Kartha, a senior scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute specializing in climate risks. Warming on that level again, he said, raises "the specter of a future where the surface of the earth is again radically transformed."

In its most recent report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) calculated how much carbon we can emit and still keep a decent chance of limiting warming to two degrees above pre-industrial levels. This is known as a carbon budget. Two degrees is the internationally-accepted point beyond which climate change risks become unacceptably high.

As of 2010, we could release a maximum of about  1000 billion more tonnes of carbon dioxide and still have a 50:50 chance of staying below two degrees, according to the IPCC.

Today's paper compares this allowable carbon budget with scientists' best estimate of how much oil, gas and coal exist worldwide in economically recoverable form, known as "reserves".

Were we to burn all the world's known oil, gas and coal reserves, the greenhouse gases released would blow the budget for two degrees three times over, the paper finds.

The implication is that any fossil fuels that would take us over-budget will have to be left in the ground. Globally, this equates to 88 per cent of the world's known coal reserves, 52 per cent of gas and 35 per cent of oil, according to the new research.
In the "new research" cited by Sheppard, a University College London team used a complex energy system model  to investigate the fraction of "unburnable" fossil fuel reserves in 11 specific regions worldwide.
The results suggest the Middle East holds half of total global unburnable oil and gas reserves, with more than 260 billion barrels of oil and nearly 50 trillion cubic metres of gas needing to remain untouched if we're to stay within budget. This "unburnable" fraction equates to two thirds of the region's gas and 38 per cent of oil reserves. Russia accounts for another third of the world's total unburnable gas, as the map below shows.
McGlade, C & Ekins, P. (2015) The geographical distribution of fossil fuels unused when limiting global warming to 2C. Nature,

"When I was chief scientific advisor, it was my responsibility to worry about a big outcome with a low probability," Sir David King, the UK's former head scientist, and current envoy for climate change, said this week. "And, what I mean by low probability is 1%. So, when we look at a 1% probability now, we are running the risk of heading towards a 7 degrees Celsius world. And, quite frankly, we ought to worry about that. We can't discount these low risk, high impact events." 


It is unclear whether any life on earth would survive a 7 degrees celsius temperature rise. And yet, the IPCC's last assessment put our current trajectory, a 2-degree rise by mid-century, 5-degrees by 2100, at an 80% probability.

Climate change is a systemic challenge. Any agreement that does not start with a systemic response simply will not work. That is the juncture we are at, now, as we survey the peaks stretching out ahead on our trek. The fate of our species, and of life on Earth, hangs in the balance, no exaggeration required.

CAN provided this handy quiz to delegates as they departed Geneva:

Test your knowledge about the legal form of the Paris agreement. Multilateral choices possible!

1.    Does the legal form of the agreement matter?
  • a) Yes, it ensures that all Parties will fulfill their promises.
  • b) Yes, otherwise the carbon market will collapse.
  • c) Yes, as long as it’s possible to achieve it.
  • d) Yes, because it could help countries meet the objective of the climate convention.
2.    Many Parties call for a Protocol. What is a “protocol”?
  • a) An unwritten rule on how to behave, like here in Geneva or on the Internet, often referred to as ”etiquette”.
  • b) An instrument tied to and often seen as extending or deepening a treaty (see Montreal Protocol to the Ozone Treaty and other well-known protocols).
  • c) Something to expect in Paris, because we like the enforcement of the Kyoto Protocol.
  • d) Something to expect in Paris, because we like the lack of effective compliance we have now.
3.    What would “legally binding” mean for this agreement?
  • a) That it is written in such a way that everyone knows what to do and what to expect.
  • b) That if a polluter has to pay, it really has to pay.
  • c) That the word “shall” appears more times than “will”, “should”, “can” and “may” in the text.
  • d) It has provisions to ensure compliance, and is, at least in principle, judicially enforceable.
4.    Does a Party need to establish domestic climate legislation?
  • a) Of course! An agreement (see 1) requires this.
  • b) Of course! Parties refer to this in an agreement.
  • c) Of course! So civil society can sue the state to make it comply with the obligations.
  • d) No! If a Party signs and ratifies an agreement, it will always comply.

There is a story told in economics classes about 20 young people standing around in a singles bar hoping to get lucky that night. If all 10 women hit on the same guy, at most there will be 2 people satisfied at the end of the night and 18 disappointed. To maximize satisfaction and minimize disappointment, the men and women in that group need to think rationally together. They need to conspire (word origin: 1325–75; Middle English and Latin: conspīrāre; con for 'with,' spīrāre 'to breathe'; also 'with spirit').

People trade with each other because they expect to gain from the exchange. So long as a trade is voluntary and honest, it leads to a win-win outcome and all trading parties expect to benefit. However, if there are preference rankings in the group that prohibit settlement of expectations, the process reverts to winners and losers, irrational and coercive gaming, and the competition destroys more than it serves.

Whether these young UN negotiators will get over irrational expectations and coercive gaming between now and Paris in December is anyone's guess. Maybe the best place to find out is not in the fluorescent halls but in the candlelit chalets after dark.

Says CAN:

The old binary distinction between “developed” and “developing” countries is unacceptable to (ahem) developed countries. Meanwhile, developing countries will not accept a new accord without a distinction between groups of countries.

So, what to do? Ideas are flying! We have Brazil’s “concentric circles” proposal and South’s Africa’s equity reference framework. There’s also America’s rather tongue-in-cheek suggestion for a formulation in which emissions and economic indicators are used to define dynamic groups called “Annex X” and “Annex Y”. Then there’s Ethiopia with their different formulation of dynamic annexes, based on per capita GHG and GDP indicators. And just about everyone’s future features “cycles.”
Which rules should apply to which groups?

The rules of participation and responsibility are not expected to be the same for all groups. The MRV rules will differ according to groups, and so will plenty of other things.
How do we define equitable shares?

A positive cycle of increasing ambition requires an equitable regime. Grouping countries is insufficient because it won’t define national “fair shares” in the common effort to stabilize the climate system. You already know our five equity indicators: adequacy, responsibility, capability, adaptation need and development need. South Africa’s equity reference framework and India’s recent “Section K” suggestion on differentiation are not too different.

Which brings us a Valentine’s Day when it’s not just love in the air — but conspiracy. By June we will need commitment. The baby is due in December.

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