Friday, November 30, 2012

The lowdown on COP18 in Doha

The 18th edition of the UN climate summit is rolling along. This meeting, more I suspect that any of the last 17, is being greeted in North America with a cynical or indifferent shrug. For most of the public, there's a Groundhog Day vibe to these meetings. As Jo-Ann Roberts, host of CBC-Radio's All Points West said during our interview earlier this week, it seems like each year we have a meeting, we disagree about the same things, and lament afterwards that more was not accomplished.

With that in mind, I thought it is worth reviewing just what is up for debate in Doha. The summit, as I see it, is being dominated by three key issues:

1. Renewing the Kyoto Protocol

That's right, Kyoto is still around. Those involved - the European countries, New Zealand [ED - Robin Johnson reminded me New Zealand pulled out of the renewal negotiations], etc. - are trying to reach an agreement on a "second commitment period" which would set further greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions targets up until 2020. The membership has dwindled; Canada, which withdrew from Kyoto entirely just before the deadline for doing, Japan and Russia, have refused to participate in the second commitment period. Between the countries dropping out, and the rise of other large emitters, the "new" Kyoto will cover countries representing a small fraction (~15%) rather than the majority (~2/3rds) of the world's emissions.

The big stumbling block is accounting for the "hot air" permits. A number of eastern European countries in which greenhouse gas emissions dropped precipitously after the breakup of the Soviet Union, have been able to sell emission credits to countries who have not met their Kyoto targets. It looks as though several countries will have extra emissions credits once the first commitment period comes to an official end this year. Naturally, they'd like to carry the credits over to the second commitment period. Doing so, however, would compromise the new targets being discussed; with few big emitters participating in round two, the remaining non-eastern European countries would be able to meet the otherwise ambitious reduction targets with small actual changes in emissions.

2. Slow march to a universal emissions agreement

In Cancun and Durban, the world very loosely agreed to work on a long-term emissions reduction agreement, that would involve all major emitters. The plan is supposed to be in place by 2015, and go into effect in 2020, when the smaller budget sequel to Kyoto wraps up. No specific progress on that agreement is expected in Doha, though the meeting could conceivable create some momentum. This aspect of the Doha meeting will mostly likely inspire chatter about climate negotiators waking up to I've got you babe at 6am, again and again, every day

3. Financial and technical assistance to the developing world

Over the last three summits, the developed countries agreed to mobilize $100 billion per year by 2020 to help the developing world address climate change, a subject I've discussed at length here and in other forums. One conduit for the money is the new "Green Climate Fund" (GCF), being managed by the World Bank, which is just setting up offices in Korea.

In Doha, all the country representatives will consider the report of the initial GCF board and decide on the relationship between the COP process and the GCF. It's the ugly machinery of policy. It's not glamourous, but it is important. The project documents talk about developing a "Results Management Framework". Before rolling your eyes, give this some thought. The framework will include how to do monitoring and evaluation, allocating funds based on results and developing performance measures. This stuff matters. For example, the verdict is still out on the plan to raise "fast-track financing" of $30 billion over the 2010-2 period; most major developed nations provided funds, but depending on what you count as "new" and "additional" funding, it does not add up to $30 billion, and in many cases, the money was only provided as a loan. That experience shows just how important ironing out the logistics of these programs matter: it might not garner headlines, but the grunt work on rules and regulations is critical to making sure funds are provided and used effectively.

In the end, is it all about the money?

All the management frameworks in the world won't help if the developed world does not "mobilize" - aid, matching grants, private investments, etc. - the money. The currently empty GCF is just part of the package. Though is only supposed to be one conduit of the $100 billion per year by 2020, the it is increasingly assumed to be the most important one (at least symbolically, as it is all we hear about). Yet the developed countries seriously disagree on how, when, and how much, to capitalize the GCF.

Right now, the documented recommendations for raising new funds (outside of private investments) include carbon pricing, taxing financial transactions, redirecting fossil fuel subsidies and emissions trading regimes for shipping and aviation. It is hard to see the world coming to an agreement on any of these, at least in the near term; you could argue that we're more likely to agree on an emissions reduction plan, which would have no mechanism for those reductions, that a global transaction fee going to address climate change.

Canada, which gets tarred in the media for lack of action on emissions policy, could actually end up as the inspiration leader to opponents of climate financing. After the last UN summit in Durban, Canadian Environment Minister Kent said the government would refuse to supply any money to the Green Climate Fund until all major emitters accept legally binding reduction targets. There is, as of yet, no evidence the stance has changed.

In other words, Canada is more or less arguing to hold adaptation hostage because we can't agree on mitigation. That's why experts are not joking when they say that the world might be better off if the Canadian government did not send any representatives to Doha.


Monday, November 26, 2012

Inconvenient meeting: the optics of talking climate policy in Qatar

Optics has never been the strength of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, currently happening for the 18th time in Doha, Qatar. Every meeting draws stories and editorial cartoons mocking climate change negotiators flying around the world, riding in huge inefficient cars, and staying in air-conditioned suites.

The meetings are, to an extent, an easy and sometimes unfair target. Most involved are genuinely trying to address the incredible challenge of forging international agreement on contentious issues like emissions targets and climate financing to the developing world. And I honestly do not doubt the sincerity of the hosts efforts to minimize greenhouse gas emissions from this year's conference, which are detailed on the web-site.

But... c'mon.

Whose idea was it to hold the climate meeting in the country with the highest greenhouse gas emissions per capita on the planet?  Qatar is not just winning the per capita GHG race, it is Usain Bolt. No other country is even close. The per capita emissions are 43% higher than the runner up (2008 data from CDIAC). Could there possibly be worse PR for a climate meeting?

I hope I am wrong, and this all turns into a positive message for change.


Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Open thread on "Dirty Weather"

I'm curious to hear reactions to this year's 24 Hours of Reality multimedia event Dirty Weather, happening live around the world for the next day. It's an honest effort to get people talking about climate change, but it also may rub some the wrong way, something I heard a lot from people last year.

Are you watching (or did you watch)? Is it effective? Boring? Too dramatic? Too cautionary? Or did you not even know it was happening? 

All thoughts are welcome, provided everyone is civil!


Make robots, save endagered species and help fisherman in Haiti

The latest round of Scifund Challenge began on Monday. There are lots of exciting projects this time around, from monitoring endangered species, to helping understand what's happening to Haitian inland fisheries, to making robots.

Salome Buglass, a new student with me here at UBC, is looking to raise funds to study how Tobago's coral reefs are recovering from two coral bleaching events in the past decade. Check out Scifund page for details on the project.

Here's the video:


Thursday, November 08, 2012

Storm surges, sea level and climate change

In the inevitable discussion about the relationship between climate change and Hurricane Sandy, there's been much focus on the storm surge. Hallelujah.

There are a lot of ways climate change could influence tropical cyclones. In the past, most of the public discussion had focused on warmer water temperatures driving more intense storms, based largely on research by Kerry Emanuel and others. The water temperatures are, however, just one factor.

Other important issues include how climate change may affect upper levels winds, which can 'shear' off storms; El Nino events, which itself affect upper level winds; mid-latitude pressure systems, which divert storms and affect their dissolution; patterns of ocean temperature change and hence storm generation and path; atmospheric moisture, and in turn, rainfall. All of these are complicated and uncertain. When the experts try to add it all together, the verdict is that it's hard to say just how climate change will affect tropical cyclone frequency and intensity.

The one area in which we can speak with some certainty is cyclone impacts - things like storm surges - rather than cyclone formation and frequency. There's no reasonable doubt that the global mean sea level has risen due to climate change. The rise to date is largely because of thermal expansion of sea water; water gets less dense and expands as it warms (above the maximum density, 4 deg C for freshwater). If we are wrong about that, we may as well throw every physics textbook in a bonfire, but don't let me give the first year students here any ideas. Here's the sea level data from Battery Park in New York City since 1856

The rise of almost 40 cm is not entirely due to sea level rise. As is explained clearly in this article by Chris Mooney, land subsidence, a New York legacy of the end of the last ice age, account for roughly half of the observed change. The rest is largely driven by global sea level rise. Thanks in part to climate change, the storm surge from Sandy was certainly higher than that of an identical hurricane at the identical time in the tidal cycle striking the coast 50, 100 or 150 years ago.

Now the difference noted here - 20 cm or so - is not large. Keep in mind, though, that there's a non-linear relationship between the surge height and the "run-up": how far the water runs up on to land. An increase in surge height can have a disproportionate affect on the the distance water travels inland and the erosive power. The exact relationship depends on the profile of the shoreline and the type of ground or sediment; this is evident in the stunning before and after Sandy images of the New Jersey coastline put together by NOAA (or images from the Japanese tsunami).

You might argue this is not so different from the ocean temperature argument:  if everything else is equal, the same cyclone passing over warmer water will be more intense. The problem is that, in reality, everything else is never equal. That, in effect, is the theme of my article on sea level variability in Kiribati and the video we put together, using footage I'd gathered during field trips to Kiribati, about the causes of the loss of the island of Bikeman.