I'm a professor at U Michigan and lead a course on climate change problem solving. These articles often come from and contribute to the course.
By: Dr. Ricky Rood , 4:24 AM GMT on December 02, 2011
Durban – Conference of Parties – An Ethical Problem:
This week is the start of the Conference of the Parties in Durban, South Africa. The Conference of the Parties' (COP) are the annual meetings that are part of the governing body of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Two years ago, November 2009, I was planning a trip to the Conference of the Parties in Copenhagen. Before Copenhagen there was great energy, with some notion that the Copenhagen meeting would lead to a breakthrough on international climate change agreements. Of course, that did not happen and while there was spin that the meeting was a success, most people that I know were not enthusiastic about the outcome. (The Copenhagen Accord) My take of the outcome was that there was symbolic political recognition that global warming needed to be addressed, but no substantive steps were taken to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases. Plus, the political, economic and technological realities are that we will not see international agreement on reducing emissions anytime soon. It will be much longer before there is any real reduction of emissions.
In 2010 the COP was in Cancun, Mexico. What were the results of that meeting? In my opinion, we continue to meet and that is good. There was continued recognition that we needed to curb our carbon dioxide emissions and there were voluntary commitments to do that. (Here is an All Things Considered interview with Todd Stern) The voluntary targets focused on keeping warming below 2 degrees Celsius, which is both an ambiguous and impossible goal. My dedicated readers might recall that last year in my climate change class I decided it is disingenuous to continue to talk about limiting warming to 2 degrees, and I started my students reading the papers that look at the 4 degree warmer world (see this entry).
What do I expect at the start of the COP-17? There is no doubt that the chronic economic turmoil since 2008 has deflated interest in climate change. We want economic stability, and in a growing population economic stability means economic growth. And for the most part economic growth, still, means burning more fossil fuels. With this, the Durban meeting is welcomed with record high growth of carbon dioxide concentrations – we can say that we are ahead of the curve (in Washington Post, and World Meteorological Organization Greenhouse Gas Bulletin).
Ahead of the curve is where I expect we will stay for a while. It is interesting to think about where we would be without the Kyoto Protocol and the countries which made some effort. We would likely be way ahead of the historic emissions curve. We simply do not have the alternatives in place, yet, that allow us to wean ourselves from fossil fuels.
There are, in fact, substantial resources going in the installation of renewable energy resources. According the Bloomberg New Energy Finance there are now more initial investments in renewable energy than in fossil fuel energy (Press Release and Report). Europe is the leading market for money spent on these projects, and China will take over the lead in a couple of years. With this seeming shift in our energy infrastructure, in 20 years the amount of energy produced from renewable energy will be 15.7 % of the total.
One of the reasons for the rapid increase in renewable energy is because solar panels are becoming cheap. There is a large manufacturing base, much of it in China, and this is rapidly reducing the cost of solar energy. This has set off much consternation in U.S. solar industry (interesting story on Talk of the Nation). Also as people really start to think about solar energy and move away from the naïve arguments that have driven the discussion for a decade, it becomes clear that solar can fit into the existing energy infrastructure. Solar can be placed on houses, and it can scale to large solar fields that can address peak energy capacity in Texas.
Growth – this growth in renewable energy use is hopeful, ultimately, for the climate change problem. Alternative energy takes care of part of our required economic growth. But it does not take all of the growth, and it does not displace the existing capacity for decades. Again, for the present time we, at best, aim to not get too far ahead of the historical emissions curve.
For now long trains of coal lumber along the rails from Colorado and Wyoming to Texas and the Gulf ports. Growth – we require growth for economic stability. We require growth to have an economy for growing populations. Growth – we require growth to support our investment strategies and credit-based businesses.
But back to Durban and the Conference of the Parties: There is a big issue for Durban. Back in 2009 for the meeting in Copenhagen, the big ticket item was supposed to be what would follow the Kyoto Protocol? Effectively the Kyoto Protocol runs out in 2012, and for the countries that have made the attempt to reduce CO2, there would be interest in having some standards, some policy that follows. It would provide order, stability, continuity. It is unlikely that anything global will come from Durban. The way the U.N. works, I think that it is more likely that the Conference of Parties will cease to be in their current form than there will be any sort of global policy – even as a guideline.
More and more climate change moves to an issue of ethics and opportunity. In my course ethics is always a tough issue. In the climate change problem ethics often arise in the sense that the Island Nations which are being flooded are not the ones responsible for the rising seas. More generally, the rich CO2 emitting nations are not the ones that suffer the consequences most severely.
Ethical issues, however, are far broader that this simple rich-poor tension. One of the roles of environmental policy is to represent the ethical values of society. Ultimately, climate change, the control of emissions represents the importance that we give to consumption. This became even more clear to me in a recent article on the decline of the birthrate in Brazil in National Geographic. Brazil is an example of what is practically a truism, which is that economic development is associated with the reduction of birth rates. This is part of the mantra of those who advocate economic development as a precondition for addressing climate change (for example, The Skeptical Environmentalist by Lomborg). In that National Geographic article it is stated, however, that reduction of the growth of population is to allow more consumption, more use of energy, by a smaller number of people. (Note that Bjorn Lomborg is reportedly changing his evaluation of the climate change problem in a forthcoming book - article in Guardian.)
This consumption of much by a few is, of course, consistent with our history. While we point to growing population and growing CO2 emissions, the historical increase in CO2 emissions is only associated with a relatively small part of the population. And when we think about displaced consumption, meaning that much of the manufacturing in China and the developing world is to support consumption (cheap consumption) in the developed world, there is no reason to believe that economic development leads in any direct path to addressing the climate change problem. We can rest assured that we will pursue economic development more aggressively and directly than we will pursue mitigation to climate change.
In this framing, therefore, climate change is first and foremost a problem of ethics; that is, it is a problem of consumption, equitable consumption, excess consumption. If we have an imperative to consume, and I believe that as a whole we do, then we must have renewable energy; we must have resources whose use does not deplete and degrade the world.
This frames, strongly, both our history and our future. We will have to manage the climate. We are averse to geo-engineering, but we engineer a warmer and warmer climate every day. At the forefront we need to think about how to manage our waste, because there is little evidence that we are going to stop making our waste. Therefore, we must know how to remove carbon dioxide from the air and safely place it back into to the Earth. Likewise, at the forefront is the development of adaptation strategies that, globally, include less land, more extreme weather, and displaced people. All of these things are possible, and those with the foresight and the acumen to take advantage of opportunity will benefit. The benefactors will be those who look at the knowledge and are smart about using it – not the ones that look at the knowledge and deny its existence.
Prior to the Durban meeting the WMO issued its Provisional Statement of the Climate.
Here is the sub-title of the document
2011: World’s 10th warmest year, warmest year with La Niña on record, second-lowest Arctic sea ice extent. (and the link)
Figure 1: From WMO Provisional Statement. Temperature difference (anomaly) calculated for 1961-1990 average. La Niña years are marked. La Niña years should be cooler that average based on natural variability. 2010 was the warmest La Niña year on record, and the 10th warmest year on record.
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