An Taisce has a few members attending CoP at various times over the next two weeks. We are bringing you a frequent series of background reports on what is (or is not) happening on the ground.

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Our seventh from Paul Price, a member of An Taisce's Climate Change Committee. Paul is a conservation carpenter with a MSc in Sustainable Development.

We really recommend you read these for the quality of Paul’s pen pictures of CoP21 as seen by a NGO participant

Report 7 #CoP21 Saturday 6 December 2015

On Saturday I learned a bit more about the negotiations but I can only add some hearsay on the state of them beyond what you can read in the media. In the unlikely event that you want something beyond that and want to launch yourself into the detail a good place to start is Note[1]. That said I’ll report the hearsay.

From what I understand Saudi Arabia and Argentina are two nations that are noted as blocking progress. Overall, the temperature limit (2ºC or 1.5ºC) is still not decided and there may not even be one. Worse, neither the associated percentage likelihood of staying under either limit nor the associated remaining carbon budget, of emissions that can ever be emitted in future, has been agreed. As of the end of Saturday, France and the French environment minister Laurant Fabius have taken over negotiations and this week sees the arrival of the environment ministers of the nations, including our ministers Alan Kelly (who doesn’t seem to understand or care much about climate change as an issue), and also Alex White (who does). So far there is nothing close to an agreed text.

Despite the pressing top down physics of the Earth system’s response to humanity’s global greenhouse gas emissions, the negotiations are now fixed on a ‘bottom-up’, near voluntary, mode of response. It is hard not to see this as perilous delay but unfortunately, where the EU seems to be on the sidelines when it could be an alliance builder for stronger action – for example with the least developed countries and small island states,.

In my understanding of the climate science, some of the calls from nations or coalitions are simply not coherent. Much as I would prefer otherwise, it is hard to see how limiting warming to a high likelihood of less than 1.5ºC is even technically possible (let alone politically or socially) simply because the required average global rate of emission cutting needed is already very high. Even limiting to a good chance of 2ºC is very difficult indeed without global action by all nations starting now.

Also, equitably limiting to 2ºC requires richer nations or regions like the EU to act sooner to cut emissions much faster than poorer developing nations, meaning starting right now. Certainly, the EU’s current declared pledge of a 40% cut in emissions by 2030 falls far short of an equitable target that would be in line with the declared ambition agreed to at the UNFCCC. Far faster cuts or far greater wealth and technology transfers are needed from richer nations like our own. But the simple fact is that neither real action nor fairness are really concerns compared to the appearance of action. Even the EU’s claim of cutting domestic emissions by an impressive sounding 23% since 1990 rings very hollow when net emissions (based on consumption) have actually fallen by only 4% and are likely to rise with increased economic activity. All that has really happened is that much high emissions industry has been exported to China and we are buying the goods back.

If we really think that is addressing a global commons problem then we are just fooling ourselves or trying to fool others. I guess that’s the big question for us to answer (quickly): just how foolish is humankind?

One of the controversial topics in the negotiations is so-called ‘loss and damage’, the idea that vulnerable peoples who are in areas most exposed to climate change (those, often in the tropics who have done least to cause the problem) will need to be supported and compensated for losses and to pay for adaptation as a result of impacts from unmitigated global warming. Such climate justice was the topic of an expert panel on Saturday. A report on the major fossil fuel companies Note [2] describes their emissions and their poor business practices, suggesting a carbon levy on all production in order to pay for the unpaid costs of their activities. Even a small levy of $2 per tonne of CO2 emitted by burning the fuel could raise $50 billion a year collected at the minehead or oil/gas well, which would go a long way to alleviating loss and damage.

Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 ($10 billion cost), the 2008-2011 Kenyan drought ($12 billion cost) and the low but continual annual damage cost and ultimate migration from of low lying Pacific islands were all identified as having partial climate change causes due to emissions. Attribution of single events may be difficult but the science is getting ever stronger to say that a certain averaged percentage of events can be authoritatively stated to be due to climate change. From this point it may not be long before courts are prepared to agree that nations or companies bear some share of legal liability.

Financial loss is not the only issue of course because many things do not have any definite financial value. The speaker from Tuvalu (an eight island nations north of Fiji) told us that the 10,000 people live highly communally on coral atolls surrounded by a huge ocean. They celebrate, sing and mourn together. The placenta from a new birth is placed in the ground and a coconut palm is planted to celebrate new life and connection to the land. Asked about what the likely loss of that culture and traditions would mean (if sea level rise continues to accelerate) “death”, he answered, “simply death”. Another speaker said, seeking to put an economic value on nature as so-called ‘ecosystem services’ is a slippery slope to thinking all nature can be valued in this way. Indeed, how do you put an economic value on the Earth surface compared with say the surface of Mars.

A panel on marine emissions was an eye opener for me. In one way shipping is a very efficient method of transport in carbon emissions per km but it is nearly 3% of global emissions – more CO₂ than Germany. Every sector must play a part in cutting emissions from now on yet those from shipping are projected to more than double by 2050 with rising trade. A strongly evidenced case was presented by the UK funded science group that shipping could cut its climate pollution but the industry has been completely obstructive even though large improvements are technically possible. One problem is that there are 39,000 deep ocean going ships and a large number of owners who often do not benefit directly from investing in better ships because operational profits are kept by the operators who lease or rent the ships. Somehow like all other sectors shipping will have to make cuts in pollution.

Coming back to the big problem of how we somehow begin to limit global warming, a panel discussed local level and possible global level solutions. In California, clean solar and wind energy plus energy efficiency initiatives are strongly implemented giving consumers the choice of renewable energy and the incentive of saving money. The trouble with this kind of scheme is that all such efforts will be wasted if we continue to extract fossil fuel carbon and burn it. Somehow the pollution must end quickly so the only option is some kind of reducing cap on emissions.

An ambitious idea was presented by Cap Global Carbon, an idea driven by the Irish group Feasta for a global ‘cap and share’ programme. Total future emissions would be capped in line with the science of a limited global carbon budget for 2ºC and this total would be annually distributed over an emissions pathway to zero net global emissions. This is key because to stop global warming at some point the pollution must end. Permits to allow carbon pollution would be auctioned and the funds would be distributed by a new institution, whether outside of within UNFCCC, on an equal per capita basis driving a large transfer of wealth from the richer nations to the poorer, at the same time as cutting emissions.

As the presenters noted, such a scheme is unlikely be taken up any time soon. Nonetheless it is very difficult indeed to see how limiting global warming can be achieved unless such a top-down scheme, based on the physical reality we face, can drive the radical level of change in our energy systems and consumption that is ever more needed as we speed over the ground between here and 2ºC. It is a deep irony for human beliefs that the only conservative path now is to act radically to cut emissions fast, while the extremist path is to carry on as we are toward a profoundly, likely catastrophically, damaged commonwealth. If our belief systems and lifestyles are not in line with the physical reality of our Earth then it is they that need to alter.


For further information, please call:
Charles Stanley-Smith, Communications, An Taisce Tel: +353 87 241 1995
email: [email protected]
An Taisce The National Trust for Ireland

Note [1] IISD Reporting Services Coverage of UNFCCC COP21
Note [2] Who pays the real costs of Big Oil, Coal and Gas?