At an event in Brussels earlier this week the EU Commission shared some initial thinking with business and NGOs on the consultation they have launched with regards the EU international position on climate change as we head towards COP 21 in France in 2015 where a deal is targeted for agreement. Although the EU remains very open to input on the shape of their position, it was clear to me reading the consultation document and listening to the presenter in Brussels that they are putting enormous emphasis on ambition – largely in the form of the size of national pledges.
In one sense this is hardly surprising given the world is a long way from anything that looks like a 2°C pathway, but it feels like it is becoming a distraction in itself, taking the emphasis away from the much more difficult job of putting in place the various tools and practices that might actually give us some chance of getting on a pathway that leads to some real reductions. The EU focus, like the international one, is divided into two parts, increasing global ambition to 2020 and post 2020 goals and targets.
The discussion reminded me of one I had about a decade ago with a senior policy maker in a Kyoto Annex 1 government. At that time the country had just ratified a pretty ambitious target under the Kyoto Protocol, considerably more than economically comparable countries. The government was trying to come to terms with the task of meeting the target, but the perceived difficulty of meeting the target was becoming a major distraction in itself. The conversation went something like this:
GM (government policy maker): The target is very difficult to meet.
Me: Agreed, but perhaps that shouldn’t be your primary consideration.
GM: It has to be, we have a target.
Me: Yes, but perhaps you should focus on getting a carbon price embedded in the economy first, then use that to start to drive change.
GM: But will we meet the target?
Me: You may not, but you would leave a legacy of an economy with emissions management up and running, the required capacity building done and emissions at least moving in the right direction. At the end of the day if you don’t meet the target, at least you will have made a good attempt.
GM: Yes, I understand. But what about the target?
Although this country has seen considerable regional activity (bound only by their own targets, developed as part of their policy making), the national government has struggled to this day with a target it felt somewhat helpless about. Early paralysis was almost certainly a contributing factor.
The current international discussion over a 2°C pathway is now at a similar stage and the EU appears to have fallen victim to this sort of thinking. Building a position on the need for more national ambition to meet the target, may well be a self defeating strategy. Rather, what is needed is a clear focus on two primary objectives;
- Getting a carbon price into the global energy economy.
- Getting CCS up and running and ready for rapid commercial deployment.
These are very specific climate objectives so play in to what the UNFCCC should be able to deliver, although they will also need to be supported by strong growth in other energy technologies, such as solar, nuclear, geothermal and the like (which shouldn’t necessarily be the objective of the UNFCCC at all). This also carves out a different role for UNFCCC, one which is related to pragmatic implementation of the tools and practices related to mitigation, rather than trying to create a frenzy of activity around targets and enhanced ambition.
Ambition will always be important, but without some clear ideas as to the pathways available, it becomes a rather empty and pointless discussion.
Ambition should never be first. (“If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.”, Louis Carroll paraphrase) Goal should always be first. (“You’ve got to be careful, if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might end up someplace else.”, Yogi Berra, American philosopher)
The climate negotiations frequently remind me of Alice’s conversation with the cat; and Alice’s urgent desire to get “somewhere”. They also remind me of the Unique Leadership Axiom: In a crisis for which there is no plan, action is the only plan.
I realize that the actual goal, a global vegan commune of dramatically reduced population run by some subset of the tinpot despots represented on the UN General Assembly, cannot be publicly acknowledged. However, some numerical emissions reduction goal which could be scientifically justified, measured and verified would be a reasonable start. It might be more productive than blundering around for another 35 years without one.
Great analogy Ed. Having attended many COPs, “Adventures in Wonderland” feels like a very appropriate label.
I don’t think Louis Carroll was attempting to write a script for international negotiations, or even a plot outline.
I also don’t believe Ayn Rand or George Orwell intended their work to be taken as policy guidance documents.
However, in a world in which “non-fiction” books are becoming progressively more fictional, I guess it is not surprising to see “fiction” taken as reality either.
I continue to look for the “pony” amidst the manure.
At least there is a consensus in the climate science, right? Or is it just a pipe dream as well?
Given as climate sensitivity to CO2 has been recalculated to around 2 degrees per doubling (using IPCC AR4 figures) – seems the 2°C pathway is moot.
“Job done” as you say is somewhat of an over statement, as are the comments from those that warn of “world ending calamities” if we don’t change the energy system by tomorrow morning. It’s going to be a long time before we all know the full reality of what is going on, but in the meantime I think we need to be cognisant of the fact that if we change the composition of trace gasses in the atmosphere, it is not without its consequences. They do play an important role.
Don’t talk about trace gasses. You are interested only in CO2. This is because it has commercial value for Shell. What is the pace the climate is warming by? You don’t care. What is the reason for climate change? You don’t care. What are the externalities of this change? You don’t care. The key thing is that there is an potential for climate to warm by 2degC and you don’t care about what CO2 concentration this might happen at. The key thing is to limit CO2 production and get carbon trading going. This will establish money transfer from consumers to CCS operators. I have nothing against this transfer as long as consumers get something back for their money. In this case it should be better climate. Or at least not worsening one. Of course you can’t guarantee that. Very likely outcome is that consumers end up paying for something which is of no value for them or even will be detrimental to their well being. Who cares? You or Shell? I don’t think so. You spend all you time lobbying with politicians and developing your business model.
This is a ridiculous argument. I am sure the oil and gas industry would much rather a world in which there was no necessity for CCS – after all, the return from doing it will be a utility rate at best, but probably less. Our drilling and reservoir engineering resources could be put to much better use finding more oil an gas, rather than having to think about CCS. But we live in a world where the need to do CCS is a reality, even if that reality is just a political one at the moment. The Gorgon project in Australia is a good example – CCS is a requirement for the project.
David, I can see that you genuinely believe that CO2 is hurting the Earth. That’s fine. But, I’m surprised you don’t realise that Shell is in a business of profit generation. One example – it focuses on gas. Coal (and nuclear) is the biggest enemy of it. Fortunately, you can defeat coal with carbon tax or regulations. But, Shell doesn’t want to stop there. With CCS technology (which Shell acquired long time ago) and with carbon trading you get potentially >$1trillion/year carbon market. All you need to do is to implement carbon trading and put binding limits on CO2. This is your job. You might be naive to believe that you will save the Earth but you can hardly not to see that Shell will generate a lot of profit on this. As I said, I have no problem with Shell making money. The problem lies in the fact that the money has to be taken from the consumers using regulation implemented with help of a sloppy science. This is a race against the time. Not to save the planet but to implement irreversible changes to the international regulation before people realise that CO2 effect on the climate is much less than they are being told. This could be a repeat of solar business fiasco in much bigger scale. Profit of few on expense of many.