Climate Change: The Paris Conference
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North Coast resident, Jim Hight, gives his thoughts on the Paris Climate Conference:
Transformative ideas, exotic costumes, jaded journalists and hard-nosed dealmaking: My impressions of COP21 [The 21st year of the Conference of Parties] day one.
The first day of COP21 was overwhelming, with some 40,000 people streaming in from the Metro on shuttle buses. There were dozens of presentations and meetings that sounded either vitally important—”Building resilience now in the face of rapid climate change”—or incredibly dull—”Nordic experiences of NAMAs as building blocks for INDCs.” And no master schedule or map that I could find.I tried to attend the opening of the negotiating session, but I needed a special ticket, and those were all gone. Then I wandered into the USA meeting room to ask about seeing Obama live (the UN set up three simultaneous meeting rooms for heads of state to give their speeches), only to learn that tickets were snapped up weeks ago.
So with about 300 others, I sat in the USA pavilion to see Obama on video. His speech was passionate and eloquent, focusing on the inter-generational equity theme that is fundamental to climate change. Will we make sacrifices now so that young people and future generations will suffer less from sea level rise, droughts, flooding and freak storms? When he was done, I felt like leading a cheer.
Then, by sheer dumb luck, I stumbled into a press conference announcing the Transformative Carbon Asset Facility, a lousy name for an extremely important project. Sponsored by Germany, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland, it’s a $500 million fund to subsidize low-carbon development in poor countries. If their new approach seems to work, it will encourage other such efforts….
Then I queued up for lunch at one of dozens of onsite cafes, where I met a Brown University researcher who studies Mexico’s climate policies. He agreed to do an interview an hour later. And when we met, he brought along an expert from a Mexican NGO.
To summarize: Mexico has made commitments to stabilize the growth of its GHGs and to begin reducing them at some point. But an energy transition law that would enable more renewable power is blocked in the legislature by special interests. Also, Mexico is privatizing much of its oil and gas business, which will lead to more production—and more GHG emissions. And the country hasn’t figured out how to finance retrofits of millions of older, energy-wasting houses and apartment.
Business suits, feathers and face paint:
Despite the seriousness of the topic at hand, COP21 had the feeling of a big festival. Men and women in dark business suits mixed with indigenous people dressed in traditional garb (don’t know how they got those long pointed things through security).
People who’d known each other from past years (or decades) of negotiations had joyful reunions, posing for photos under their country banners. And people who had traveled to Paris together—like four women from University of Minnesota with whom I shared a table—talked as much about kids, weddings and office politics as they did about climate policies.
I had several random conversations, including:
A Brazilian manager of a biofuels firm said they’re still frustrated with trade barriers in the U.S., even after an import surcharge was removed several years ago. He reminded me that their sugarcane ethanol is much lower in GHGs on a full-cycle, field-to-wheel basis than our corn ethanol, and they’d like to get some more love from us for that important advantage.
I was disappointed to hear they have only one cellulosic ethanol plant operating (although other Brazilian firms may have them too).
These types of plants, which use the waste left over after sugarcane is pressed or corn is harvested, are needed in order for biofuels to become a major fuel source; otherwise, using more biofuels will make food more expensive. The biofuels industry in the U.S. has been promising cellulosic ethanol for more than a decade, with little progress. (Not entirely their fault; the low price of oil makes it harder to justify the large investments needed.)
Balancing cynicism with optimism:
Two European journalists who had attended past COPs shared their perspectives. One summed up the non-binding nature of the draft agreement like this. “It’s all going to be up to the NGOs and citizens [to pressure governments to keep their commitments], which is a bit naughty I think.”
The other had covered Africa for years and was certain that most of the money slated to go to African countries to reduce their GHGs and adapt to climate change would go to corrupt officials and connected businesspeople.
Earlier, I’d met a Zambian woman told me she came as part of a 50-person delegation. With her accent, I wasn’t sure I understood her. “Fifteen?” I asked. “No. 50.” I later met the Canadian delegation, which consisted of nine people.[Correction: It’s more than 100–not nine.]
Odd that Zambia, a poor developing country, sent so many while Canada sent so few. Perhaps this is because, as a tropical country that is highly vulnerable to climate change, Zambia has more at stake here than Canada, which is highly resilient due to its economic wealth.
My Zambian informant told me that her country is already suffering droughts, which scientists link to climate change, that cause power outages up to eight hours a day because there’s less water to produce hydropower.
Zambian forests are being whittled away by charcoal makers, so they’re very interested in making deforestation deals with developed countries under the so-called REDD framework (reduced emissions from forest degradation and deforestation). Under REDD, developed countries would pay Zambia and other tropical countries to stop destroying their forests so those forests will keep absorbing CO2. Sounds perverse, but it’s a “must-do” to slow down climate change.
My last conversation of the day happened on the train back to Paris, and it was a sobering reminder of how far the negotiators have to go to reach agreement. A Colombian expat sitting across from me told me about a presentation by the South Centre, which represents developing countries.
At that forum, a speaker from China laid out the main points of contention, which boil down to the “south” wanting the “north” to take responsibility for “200 years of carbon pollution.” The “north” has agreed to this in principle, committing to put up $100 billion a year in climate finance to help the “south” reduce their GHGs and adapt to climate change. But as my Colombian acquaintance reminded me, most of the money so far is just traditional aid rebranded as climate dollars.
So, plenty of food for thought from the first day of COP21. But for the second day, I’m going to bring my own food so I’ll have something healthier and tastier to eat than an overpriced baguette with ham and cheese.