Archive for December, 2010

Signs for 2011

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Electric car infrastructure has been appearing in London over the last 12 months, with charging stations now in several inner-city locations and in the car park of at least one major shopping mall. One particular enticement, besides the electricity, is free parking, something many Londoners would kill for.

It wasn’t until just before Christmas that I actually spotted a car using one of the charging poles. Today, not far from Shell Centre I saw a second one. Perhaps it’s a sign for 2011 as a number of manufacturers expect to have electric cars on the showroom floor.

Happy New Year to the readers of this blog.

Climate change: The rise of an issue

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As time rushes by it is too easy to forget how long some things have been around for or how they have developed over time. This is certainly true of energy and technology, where changes can take decades. The first nuclear reactor was built at the University of Chicago and achieved criticality on 2nd December 1942. At one point it was envisaged that “nuclear power would be too cheap to meter” yet today it still only  makes up 14% of global electricity and just over 6% of global energy production. In a post this time last year I talked about the rate at which mainstream energy technologies develop, with 25 years being a typical time to achieve 1% of global market share. Similarly, the internet seems all pervasive today compared to nearly nothing in 1995, but the formative years of the technology extend back to the early 1970s and the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

We might think that the climate change issue is something that belongs to the decade just passed, but in fact it has distant roots as well. In recent days Google has released a powerful tool (http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/) which enables word and phrase search across the millions of pages of text it has digitized over the last few years. The use of a particular word or phrase can then be viewed as a function of time. For example, searching on the phrase “greenhouse effect” shows that it started being mentioned in the literature as early as the 1930s, peaking in the 1990’s – probably overtaken by phrases such as “climate change”.

 

On “climate change” and “global warming”, early mentions begin in the 1970s with growth in the subject exploding in the 1990s. The latter phrase has been eclipsed by the former in recent years. But the much hyped “global cooling” discussion of the 1980s barely rates a mention when compared with the current climate warming discussion.

Similarly, interest in energy technologies has grown over time, although not all in the same way. “Nuclear power” peaked in 1982 for example. “Clean energy” saw an initial rush of interest after the first oil shock in the 1970s but has regained favour in recent years, along with “renewable energy”. Just taking off in the last decade although with roots going back into the 1980s is CCS in various forms.

 

  

“Energy crisis” shows a sharp peak in 1978, but more recently has been overtaken by “energy security”. However, “climate change” races ahead. If you put that phrase on the energy security / crisis chart below it completely overshadows both, with current interest being nearly three times the “crisis” peak of 1977. “Cap and trade” (not shown) doesn’t show up until 1992 but is rising rapidly in the literature – similarly with “UNFCCC”.

 

Interestingly, “climate skeptic”, “climate change skeptic” and “climate change denial” didn’t even register.

Cancun: A reason for optimism?

Looking at a set of newspaper headlines earlier this week one might get the impression that nobody was quite sure whether progress had been made in Cancun or if it was another UN standoff. At least in the media clippings I had, the sense of achievement ranged from “Cancun Agreements put 193 nations on track to deal with climate change” through “Climate talks end with modest deal on emissions” to “Climate deal decades away as dysfunctional US delays cap”.

Certainly the various texts that were adopted, thanks to the diplomacy skill of the Mexican hosts, have moved the debate forward and opened up a number of new work streams. The next twelve months could see proposals for new market mechanisms, the design of a future structure to support technology transfer and the creation of a measurement, reporting and verification framework for emission reduction activities. But all of this is peripheral to the core issue of emission reduction targets, timetables and responsibility. In that regard the various texts are non specific and the issue has been largely deferred. So should we just be pessimistic about what is to come?

Much of what has been agreed has found its way out of the Copenhagen Accord and into the formal Convention by way of the AWG-LCA work stream. Importantly, the Cancun LCA Agreement, mirroring the 2009 Accord, does call for a reduction in worldwide greenhouse gas emissions so as to hold the increase in global average temperature below 2˚C and that parties should take urgent action to do this. There is even mention that 1.5˚C might be considered. But while both the Cancun LCA and KP texts urge, request and encourage both Annex I and non-Annex I parties to make reductions in pursuit of the temperature goal, neither attempt to clarify what is actually needed. This leaves the same problem going into Durban in twelve months time as was faced by delegates arriving in Cancun, i.e. what happens to the compliance based Kyoto Protocol which can only function with national targets?  Further, if it is not agreed how can there be a cooperative action agreement which in effect assumes (at least from the perspective of many developing countries) that most developed countries are covered under the Kyoto Protocol?

The fact that no real progress has been made on this question raises the spectre of failure in Durban which then results in the real collapse of the process. But there may be signs that a different outcome could prevail. Without wanting to clutch at straws, there are three areas of interest in the Cancun texts:

  1. Both the LCA and KP documents take note of the various Annex I Parties national reduction targets which arose from the post Copenhagen process and similarly the LCA text refers to the non-Annex I Parties NAMA pledges from the same process. Although indirectly, it does at least provide some additional linkage between these separate negotiations.
  2. As noted above there is considerable effort outlined within the LCA text to establish a number of work streams aimed at identifying and defining new mechanisms, tools and practices. Paragraph 83 of that text links the development of any new market mechanisms with the existing mechanisms under the Kyoto Protocol.
  3. The LCA text invites the World Bank to serve as interim trustee of the Green Climate Fund, but subject to longer term review.

This paints the prospect of a very different way forward, but one which could have longer staying power than the entirely top down Kyoto structure. In this approach, the UNFCCC becomes the effective guardian of all the tools and practices required to manage carbon emissions under a variety of different circumstances. This includes the CDM, a Technology Mechanism and an MRV framework to name a few. It devolves the setting of targets and creation of NAMAs back to national governments but in the context of a clear science based global emissions pathway. The need to define a global 2050 target and a peak emission year is agreed in the LCA text which effectively offers a route to define that pathway (and maybe even offers the possibility of a pathway agreement at Rio+20 in 2012). Finally, it leaves the financing requirements to support all of this to the World Bank where the expertise and experience currently lies.

This is a much more devolved, less centrally managed approach and could also require new thinking on governance, but it may be more sustainable in the long term. None of this will be easy and many hurdles remain, but there is at least more room for optimism post Cancun than we all felt after Copenhagen.

Cancun: A tale of two cities

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Irrespective of the final outcome in Cancun this week, one issue that has become glaringly apparent over the last 12 days, at least as far as the international negotiations go, is that the opportunity for dialogue and interaction between government and business remains insufficient and that much more needs to happen in this space. After all, the job of managing emissions globally is going to fall broadly on the business community through the delivery of major projects and new products.

UNFCCC meetings have been going on for nearly twenty years and at least for the many that I have attended there was the feeling of one big collective action slowly moving forward. Everybody frequented the same convention centre and it was quite common to see national delegates in your hotel lift or perhaps even a familiar face from a major delegation at the next table at breakfast. There was plenty of opportunity for interaction, hence the feeling of a joint initiative where business at least had a voice. But was it all an illusion?

At this COP, the logistics of the event have severely limited the opportunity for interaction. The negotiations are taking place in a vast hotel complex in Cancun called the Moon Palace and many of the delegations are staying there as well – there are 2457 rooms. It has a campus style layout and the hotel even provides bicycles for getting around the site. At a separate location some 5+ kilometres away is the UNFCCC staging point for entry, registration, security checks and side events (presentations put on by business and civil society, ideally with members of the delegations, which serve as a learning platform for all concerned). The staging point is really only accessible by special COP buses from the hotel strip in Cancun and the only way to get in and out of the Moon Palace is by a second set of buses which link that site with the staging post (and this is also true for the delegates when they wish to leave). As such, a visit to meet a delegate or to one of the very few side events in the Moon Palace involves catching the hourly shuttle from your hotel to the staging point, going through security, catching a second bus, walking through the vast Moon Palace site to a room in a distant corner of the hotel, having the meeting or listening to the side event and then repeating the entire process, making sure that the timing is right so as not to have to wait 59 minutes at the staging point for a bus. In one well timed visit to a meeting in the Moon Palace, all that took me 4 hours 20 minutes and I didn’t even stay for the entire event having heard the presentation I was actually interested in.

The staging site is a sorry place, not from the perspective of the facilities offered which are excellent, but because of the complete lack of attention being given to the legion of well meaning and pamphlet bearing NGOs manning their cubicles, all decked out with posters, video screens and other display material. Most people are simply intent on rushing through this building to get from one bus to another. Some side events are well attended but in many instances the audience is simply made up of business people and NGOs attending each others presentations. There aren’t very many pink badges (a Party) to be seen at all. This is quite a departure from previous COPs.

 Meanwhile, organisations such as IETA and WBCSD held their own events in Cancun itself. As usual the quality was high and attendance was good but pink badges were few and far between. One key appearance at the WBCSD Business Day was by Christiana Figueres, the Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, who repeated the mantra of the need for business involvement in the process but also went one step further and accused some parts of business of deliberately attempting to put a handbrake on the proceedings.

In fairness to the Mexican Government, they have made a real effort to broker a discussion between business and government on the potential shape and key elements of an international agreement. This all took place in the lead-up to COP 16 but government attendance was modest, at least in my experience. The key output was presented back to the business audience at the WBCSD Business Day.

All of this isn’t to say that there is no interaction because there clearly is. But the physical gap between government and everybody else at this COP did highlight what is in broad terms still a fairly limited dialogue between the two. They went about their business in the Moon Palace and everybody else attended a trade fair spread out across the rest of Cancun. In reality, this has always been the nature of a COP, but somehow sharing a lift with the lead negotiator for the United States or saying hello to Yvo de Boer in the coffee lounge perhaps made us all think that more was happening. More does need to happen if this process is going to work.

Revisiting the science

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At about this time last year thousands of people were standing in the snow in long lines outside the convention centre in Copenhagen where COP 15 was underway. There was great expectation in the air, but equally concern that months of unrelenting public attack on climate science was undermining the UN process, not to mention emissions mitigation policy development at national level in many countries. There had been the University of East Anglia e-mails, the IPCC Himalayan glacier error and of course a torrent of blogs, books and newspaper articles all questioning the validity of climate science. How much all this contributed to the shelving of legislation in Australia and the United States or the mixed messages that did eventually come out of that convention centre will never be known, but it almost certainly played a role. Yet for many people and scores of scientists, there is no doubt that the composition of the atmosphere is changing as a result of anthropogenic emissions and that this change is in turn leading to a rise in global temperatures and a consequent risk to long term climate and ultimately habitability.

One thing is very clear though, this subject in all its complexity and uncertainty needs to be better explained and presented to people. After all, it is “just science” and we are, like it or not, a science based culture. Why should we somehow accept that there is strong scientific evidence for something as remote as a near earth sized planet orbiting a star hundred of light years away (after all, we can’t actually see it), but refuse to acknowledge the scientific evidence that explains the changes taking place in our own atmosphere.

Roll on a year and in similar snowy weather I was able to get a brief preview of “atmosphere: exploring climate science”, a new gallery that will open in London’s Science Museum this week. The gallery has been in the planning for some two years so is not a direct response to the events leading up to COP 16, although as a member of the advisory panel which met many times as the gallery content came together, there is no doubt that we were very mindful of these events in sharing our views on the content that the staff at the museum were proposing to put on display. When we first met in 2009 I don’t think anybody imagined that the centrepiece exhibits would be an ice core from Antarctica or an original Keeling flask (below), but there they are proudly displayed for all to see in South Kensington.

The focus of the gallery is not climate change as such, but a real exploration of the composition of the atmosphere, the global carbon cycle, the greenhouse effect and the paleoclimate record. The backdrop to this is the scientific process of painstaking data collection (e.g. the Keeling flask), analysis and finally presentation of results for all to comment on, deliver opinion and reach a conclusion. It’s a beautiful gallery to visit, with subtle lighting, excellent use of video technology and the open offer to interact with the subject through an array of learning stations and fixed exhibits.

I can highly recommend a visit. If you can’t, then at least visit the website, which will feature much of the content in an on-line format.

As an aside, the Science Museum is not the only UK institution that has taken up the challenge of helping people understand this important subject. Recently the Royal Society has put together an excellent publication which seeks to explain the fundamentals behind the changes underway, rather than immediately postulate a world of floods, storms and droughts. In combination with the “atmosphere” exhibit, it offers the opportunity for people to revisit this subject and hopefully come away with a clearer view on the need for and type of response.