Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The geopolitics of climate change: Are scenarios the least worst option?

by Gerald Singh

Perhaps the most insidious consequences of climate change will be the unequal distribution of its impacts around the globe.

The consequences of climate change are truly global in scope, but some areas of the world will be more heavily impacted than others. Small island nations are at significant risk from rising sea levels and many tropical nations face futures of increased aridity or increased frequency of extreme weather events. Countries with temperate climates are expected to weather less extreme impacts, and in some cases benefit (parts of North America and the UK may have better agricultural conditions with increased moisture and increased temperature). The sinister irony is that this effectively means that the less developed nations will face the brunt of climate change impacts while already well-off will do comparatively better.

The prediction that developing countries will be the hardest hit has further implications. These countries are the ones that will need to adapt the most to climate change adaptation but the least able to adapt technologically. How does a country like Kiribati cope with an ocean that might rise above the elevation of the island itself? How does sub-Saharan Africa, which already experiences high mortality from malaria, cope with greater malarial threat with the increase in mosquito populations projected with climate change? Surely these differential environmental, economic, and health impacts to people around the world add an additional ethical dimension to considering climate change impacts, but less obvious and more worrisome are the potential geopolitical implications of these different regional effects.

The responses to such effects could be severe. The Pentagon has released a report concocting scenarios that could result from climate change. The scenarios are extreme: shut down of the Gulf Stream, agricultural failure in China, and mass migration of people fleeing extreme events. The proposed human response to climate change is equally alarming: increased tensions over land and resources, and greater potential for international wars. Some of the scenarios explored in this report have little scientific support (shut down of the Gulf Stream) or are purely speculative (Germany becoming a nuclear power), but similar studies have come out in purely academic circles. In an article published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States of America (a highly esteemed journal), Shuaizhang Feng and his colleagues model illegal immigration from Mexico into the United States as a consequence of climate change.

Scenarios and the Baggage They Bring

The study on Mexican climate migrants was heavily criticised for the assumptions it made as well as its focus. Roger Pielke Jr., a political scientist and commentator on science in policy, was particularly critical, stating:
To use this paper as a prediction of anything would be a mistake. It is a tentative sensitivity study of the effects of one variable on another, where the relationship between the two is itself questionable but more importantly, dependent upon many other far more important factors.
As Pielke states, the paper developed a reputation for being “silly science” and could easily fuel xenophobic nationalism and racism.

This raises the interesting question of what is the value of scenario studies. The future is inherently unpredictable, and there are entire books dedicated to the failures of humanity’s best and brightest when it comes to predicting the future. The problem is further compounded by the idea that our own predictions influence how we act in the future.

But where would that leave us? If we rid ourselves of the tools that scenario analysis gives us (regardless of how poor they might be), what can we do?

The problem with dismissing scenario analysis is that any study pertinent to the future is a scenario. The IPCC results that form the foundation of so much research into climate change are themselves scenarios. Should these likewise be scuttled? Are there some scenarios that are worthy of our attention and some that are not? The answer, I think, is to understand what use different types of scenarios do have. Accurate prediction can only reasonably be argued in situations with well-understood processes and where unknowns don’t play a big part. Studies where uncertainties can be incredibly important are most useful at demonstrating the importance of individual variables with everything else constant (in a ceteris paribus sense, such as the IPCC scenarios, or as argued by Michael Oppenheimer for the value of modeling Mexican climate migrants), or at least demonstrating a worst-case scenario (fitting the old adage to “plan for the worst, hope for the best”, as demonstrated by the Pentagon report). Roger Pielke was right about the study on climate migrants: it should not be viewed as a predictive study. Can it be informative in a ceteris paribus sense?

Perhaps, but the problem with any sort of scenario analysis is that the scenarios we devise are hostage to our assumptions. We may treat the Mexican migrant study as a ceteris paribus study, or even as a worst-case scenario to be ready for, but it is entirely dependent on the assumption that migration will be the response to climate change. As Diana Liverman (pdf) points out, “environmental change and pollution [is] as much a reason for cooperation as conflict” and there is "little evidence to link environmental change to conflict and migration". The potential inadvertent repercussions of this type of scenario analysis, such as preparing for increased illegal immigration, may divert attention and resources away from issues that really need to be dealt with.

Any scenario based around societal responses will be influenced by assumptions of human nature. Even in studies of climate change the debate between Hobbes and Rousseau lives on: are humans basically noble and kind, or brutish and cruel? When faced with climate change, will nations act aggressively over ever-scarcer resource pools (the Hobbesian view) or cooperate for mutual benefit (Rousseau’s view)? Many scenarios in climate change assume a Hobbesian view, but if Liverman is right, a common threat may just lead to cooperation. The stresses that climate change will impose on many nations under may help foster international cooperation in cutting GHG emissions and adapting to climate change impacts (though we may already be too late to avoid harmful climate changes). A third option is that responses are not so general: (for instance) the response of a nation could depend on their international power. A small nation vulnerable to climate change with little political power may vie for international cooperation, but an international superpower like China may aggressively acquire land and resources if climate change affects China’s ability to feed itself. All three may also occur concurrently.

With all of the uncertainty surrounding the scenarios used to study and plan for climate change, some people may be tempted to argue that planning based on scenarios is useless and not worth the risks. The problem is that not planning itself has consequences, and will by nature favour the status quo, which is something that we hope to avoid. The trick (as I’ve suggested above) is determining how and under what conditions specific scenarios are useful.

Monday, April 11, 2011

REDD: Can we see the forest for the trees?

Currently, CO2 emissions from deforestation are estimated to make up approximately 20% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Under the UNFCCC framework, the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries Programme (REDD+) proposes to aid developing countries in building capacity to reduce emissions through the reduction of deforestation as well as forest degradation. It appears that REDD+ is one of the only significant initiatives that emerged from Copenhagen to reduce global CO2 emissions. This blog post raises some criticism regarding REDD+, but also serves to remind that the bigger challenges in reducing emissions lay closer to home than in distant forests.

At first glance, the REDD+ framework seems to hold great promise; upon closer inspection, however, the list of barriers to REDD’s success is long. Most criticisms of REDD+ are focused on the details of the Programme’s framework and challenges for its implementation. However, while getting lost in the details of what REDD+ weaknesses are, such as lack of long-term funding mechanisms or the limited capacity of developed countries to implement REDD+, developed countries fail to take serious measures to change our consumerist lifestyles and thereby reduce emissions. In a way, by promoting REDD+, we are trying to encourage a green economy to developing countries while promoting economic growth, indulging in consumerism, and emitting horrendous amounts of greenhouse gas emissions at home. We preach to developing countries what we do not even practice ourselves.

Under REDD+, developed countries will pay developing countries to leave their forests standing. The amount of money paid is based on the quantity of carbon successfully sequestered; yet, neither a long-term funding method, nor capacity for measuring and enforcement are in place. If REDD+ is meant to reduce emissions by a certain amount, and countries will be paid based on success, a monitoring framework and capacity of the developing countries are key to the program. Not only do many governments lack the capacity to implement REDD+ (pdf) and for monitoring deforestation, many of them are also considered to be highly corrupt.

Hence, to ensure that the REDD+ goals are met, nationwide monitoring, including reporting accuracy and verification, is crucial to keep track of changes in forest cover and potential leakage. In Indonesia, for instance, substantial rates of illegal logging pose a challenge to REDD+ (pdf).

Likely the largest challenge for the success of REDD+ is the absence of a long-term funding mechanism of the program. The REDD+ financing mechanism remains unresolved. The REDD+ Programme proposes an elaborate framework to set up the process, but there seems to be a lack of long-term funding to follow through and to secure forest resources from logging for timber as well as from competing land-uses. Although there seems to be funding to get a select few projects off the ground, REDD+ can only be called successful if the forest actually remains standing. Two options have been proposed; the first being the creation of a fund into which developed countries pay. This funding method might finance the initial start-up of the Programme, but would unlikely function as a long-term funding mechanism.

The second suggested funding option is financing REDD+ through a carbon market. Besides the obvious fact that a global carbon market currently does not exist, financing REDD+ through such a market would expose the forests to the volatility of the carbon prizes. The carbon sequestered in the forests would be competing with potentially higher revenue crops from other land-uses, such as palm oil. If the price of carbon were to crash, palm oil plantations might replace the luscious rainforests. Governments of developing countries need secured long-term funding that is not directly tied to the volatility of the carbon market. In addition, an underlying assumption of REDD+ is that forests are more or less static systems; however, forests are complex dynamic ecosystems. For instance, the effect of increasing global temperatures on forests ecosystems and resulting implications for REDD+ seem to be unaccounted for in the Programme. If the capacity of forests to sequester carbon changes due to the changing global climate, the intended emissions reductions may not be met.

A major flaw of the REDD+ Programme is that although we are trying to reduce the source of emissions, namely deforestation, we are not addressing the driving forces of deforestation. Hence, we need to consider issues such as poverty, demand for tropical timber and forest products in developed countries, as well as plantations (i.e. palm oil). If the drivers of deforestation are not addressed, then REDD+ may not actually reduce the quantity of emissions, but could result merely in a shift in location of deforestation and consequently result in deforestation elsewhere.

We preach what we don’t practice

Under REDD+, developing countries are required to cease their environmentally destructive forestry industry. In addition, REDD+ seeks to reduce other forest destructing land-uses, such as plantations. Although there is nothing wrong with promoting a green economy for developing countries in itself, the very fact that we are unable to even practice what we are preaching to other, less well-off countries, seems morally questionable.

How can we ask developing countries to limit their growth and adhere to standards we have not set for ourselves? How can we ask developing countries, which are struggling with poverty, to limit their economic development, to turn down big money from plantations or the forestry industry, while we keep living in our beautiful and perfectly heated homes, fly to distant holiday locations, and buy tropical timber products? Norway, one of the leading developed countries promoting and financially supporting REDD, has put forward $I billion dollars toward a moratorium on Indonesia’s forests. At the same time, Norway is allegedly planning to invest US$21.7 billion in its petroleum industry. Maybe it is time to start practicing what we preach.

Monday, April 4, 2011

International Climate Policy: Let’s Get the Lipstick off the Pig

Climate change is not being effectively addressed through the UNFCCC process, which has instead evolved into a sterile talk shop, unable to overcome the resistance of those who would block meaningful action on climate change. This note looks at some historical dimensions and precursors of this failure.

The Stockholm Conference of 1972, applauded by northern environmentalists and distrusted by the world’s poorer nations –launched a global dialogue about facing environmental challenges while stimulating socio-economic development. Poor countries played a small role at Stockholm. Like so much of the process that followed, it was a remarkably one sided, neo-colonial affair dominated by the agendas of rich industrialised nations of the global north.

For almost two decades after Stockholm global politics were dominated by the final chapters of the Cold War between the US and the USSR. Yet the same 1980s that witnessed the beginning of Afghanistan’s seemingly endless turmoil also saw Norway’s Gro Brundtland head a ‘World Commission on Environment and Development’. Brundtland’s team prepared a remarkable document entitled “Our Common Future” and the expression ‘sustainable development’ symbolised their attempt to reconcile northern appetites for action on ‘shared environmental challenges’ with the ‘global south’s’ desire to improve living standards and life expectancies. Those years also saw a consensus emerge about the dangers of rising greenhouse gas emissions driving temperature increases and other climatic change in the coming century. In 1992 an agreement on climate change emerged from Rio’s ‘Earth Summit’. Many northern delegates believed it was a historic breakthrough yet the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change emerged from a miasma of double dealing and hypocrisy that we have not yet transcended. As Obama said, you can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.

I used to train international bureaucrats about environmental problems and solutions. We summarised Rio as a showdown between poorer nations demanding “Give us $125 billion a year or we shoot the panda” and northern delegates replying “Let them eat conservation”. Only the latter achieved satisfaction, with the UNFCCC and a sister treaty on Biodiversity. The others had hoped for a ‘global deal’ between rich and poor of the sort proposed by the Brundtland Commission. The actual outcome was an eloquent menu of unfulfilled dreams known as “Agenda 21”. Summarising Rio’s results, its Secretary General Maurice Strong paraphrased Churchill: “Never have the rich given so little for so much”.

Developing countries insisted they would not participate in treaties like UNFCCC without assurance that money for such initiatives wouldn’t detract from the funds available to underwrite their development agendas. Wealthy nations reassured them and launched UNFCCC. Funding from a new ‘Global Environment Facility’ (GEF) would ensure its implementation in the poor countries.

Much enthusiasm at Rio stemmed from an appealing myth: a ‘peace dividend’ could be realised after the Cold War. Many believed the mega-billions spent on weapons would now finance schools, hospitals, water supply, sewers and so on throughout the poorer regions. Instead aid budgets were slashed in the 1990s, easy targets for deficit cutters in many of the world’s richest nations (especially North American). A few billions were found though, so the GEF could help poor countries be part of the new ‘global environmental agenda’, fighting against climate change and biodiversity loss.

Renewed geopolitical struggle in the 21st century has played a very similar role to the Cold War in stimulating new commitments of support to the world’s poor. At the same time boundaries between global ‘North’ and ‘South’ and distinctions between ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ countries are also shifting. Large ‘newly industrialised countries’ like China, Brazil and India are growing rapidly in wealth and influence. This latter shift has presented an invaluable argument to those who oppose decisive action on climate change. Cold War diplomats knew how to paralyse UN negotiations; these skills are now applied to climate change talks. Wealthy ‘rogue states’ with powerful hydrocarbon lobbies, led by the US and followed by countries like Canada, are unprepared to support decisive measures on climate change. The most expedient way to pursue their obstructionist agenda is to insist that the large developing countries with rapidly growing economies must make their own significant commitments to cutting their GHG emissions before the world’s richest can agree to do the same. It is a specious argument of a crowd pleasing barroom lawyer: ‘How can our hard pressed citizens be asked to make this kind of sacrifice when China continues to forge ahead, taking our jobs and leaving us an economic backwater with overpriced wind mills, trains and cars that can’t go far?’ China, they point out, now produces almost the same amounts of GHG as the US. Facts that hint at another perspective (pdf) are ignored. We know that most of the current build up of GHG has been generated by rich countries. We know that average North Americans continues to generate far more GHG and enjoy far higher standards of living than average Chinese, Indians or Brazilians. These facts aren’t disputed; they are simply ignored.

Controversy is easier to stir up over the predictions of climate change scientists. Here, the tactics of those who oppose decisive action on climate change are disturbingly similar to those that delayed action on tobacco for decades. Even after they stopped claiming “Nine out of ten doctors recommend Camel” North America`s cigarette makers could still pay ‘reputable scientists’ to confirm that there was no clear link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. Today’s hydrocarbon producers and supporters pay ‘reputable scientists’ to explore uncertainties about the precise future trajectory of climate change. With breathtaking sophistry they cite this uncertainty as a reason for doing little to reduce GHG emissions.

Long after scientific consensus agreed tobacco was a leading cause of cancer, the tobacco industry was able to convince millions of young women to take up smoking, concocting flattering images and assuring them “You’ve come a long ways baby”, (you now have a ‘woman’s cigarette’). Two decades later, while the UNFCCC emerged from Rio, the struggling North American automobile industry was able to convince millions of consumers to throw caution to the wind and enjoy an outdoorsy image in a gas guzzling SUV. The most immediate victims of this latest Madison Avenue coup are not likely to be the SUV owners but poor folk in distant countries increasingly exposed to capricious weather, rising sea levels, growing disease burden and so on.

The current debate within the UNFCCC process, over whether to target temperature increases of 1.5° or 2°C, does more to prevent than to promote effective action. It is so removed from the business as usual, ‘rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic’ North American response to climate change that one might be forgiven for guessing it is more of the bad faith that has characterised global dialogue on environmental issues for decades. On the one hand, most scientists confirm we are heading for dangerous climate change which is likely to most severely affect the world’s poorest citizens. On the other hand, obstructionists determined to extract maximum profits from hydrocarbons remain unchallenged by wealthy populations numbed into complacency by a cacophony of contradictory messages. Those who would delay decisive action on climate change have succeeded in rendering the UNFCCC process as ineffective as UN efforts to prevent the Rwandan genocide. One of the best ways to create an illusion of progress where there is none is to quibble over details, as in: “Shall we try to stop at 1.5 or 2.0 degrees?”

Many now recognise that the only justifiable response to a threat of runaway climate change is prompt, direct action by all concerned citizens and organisations in rich nations. We need to resist the seductive delusion that the UNFCCC process is leading to improvements. Despite the great efforts of many dedicated, well meaning participants, the process has systematically failed to transcend the lies, hypocrisy and systematic inequity from which it emerged. Rather than a solution, the UNFCCC process is part of the problem, impeding rather than facilitating the urgent actions needed to mitigate the dangers of climate change. Effective pressure must be exerted first and foremost by citizens of the rogue states of North America, to ensure dramatic and rapid reductions in their countries’ GHG emissions. Only then might global negotiations proceed in an atmosphere of honesty and equity, contributing to the solution rather than exacerbating the problem.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Adaptation, Fairness and Finance

We face an extremely difficult, complex challenge in responding adequately to mitigate and adapt to climate change. One particularly thorny aspect of this challenge is how best the West can fulfill their ethical obligation to help developing countries build capacity and fund the level of response required to successfully adapt to climate change. Adaptation refers to actions that communities/individuals/ governments can take to adjust their behaviour or their surroundings to reduce their vulnerability to climate change and mitigate impacts. Some quick research (e.g. NYT) and some common sense reveals staggering inequality in the capacity of developed vs. developing countries to respond to the impacts of climate change. In this context, capacity (pdf) refers to the ability of a country to respond successfully to climate variability and change, by adjusting their behaviour, resources, and technologies. The fact that those who are at most risk from climate change have contributed the least to the problem only adds to the difficulty of the challenge. In general, the rich have both caused the problem and are the best equipped to respond, while the most vulnerable are also poor, ill-equipped to respond, and reside in many of the places that are expected to be hit the worst by climate change.

The Cancun Agreement

The latest output from the international climate negotiations, the Cancun Agreement, includes a large segment on adaptation. In particularly, this segment focuses on programmes to increase developing country capacity and measures to transfer funds from developed to developing countries to fund adaptation responses. Interestingly, and perhaps indicating a shift in focus from mitigation to adaptation, adaptation comes before mitigation in the agreement. Major milestones from the agreement, in terms of adaptation, are summarized nicely here, here and here (pdf).

The Cancun Agreement definitely takes steps forward, but still remains very vague and process-focused, and includes no commitments from developed countries to new and additional funding, and no progress on how those funds might be raised. In addition, UNFCC bureaucrats and UNFCC stakeholders must still sort out the large task of determining the institutional arrangements and linkages, the composition of the adaptation committee, terms of reference, placement of regional centres, etc. I am skeptical that the Cancun Agreement has really provided a “pathway forward” towards a successful transfer of funds from the West to the global South (see Conservation International).

The Cancun Agreement embodies the tensions regarding how developing countries. For example, section 18:

“Requests developed country Parties to provide developing country Parties, taking into account the needs of those that are particularly vulnerable, with long-term, scaled-up, predictable, new and additional finance, technology, and capacity-building, consistent with relevant provisions, to implement urgent, short-, medium- and long-term adaptation actions, plans, programmes and projects at local, national, subregional and regional levels, in and across different economic and social sectors and ecosystems”

Within this paragraph, and others within the Cancun Agreement, it is clear what developing countries are worried about. First and foremost, they are worried about climate change impacts (among many other challenges they face), they are worried that developed countries will (I would say justifiably):

  • simply re-package old funding commitments, especially aid money into adaptation funding, and
  • implement adaptation measures and funding through opaque processes that developing countries do not have adequate control over.

This last concern is particularly reflected in the serious disappointment from developing countries that the World Bank was chosen to serve as interim trustee of the Green Climate Fund (see here and here). Despite some shared concerns, it is important to remember that there is quite a lot of heterogeneity amongst developing countries in terms of their goals and negotiating positions at the COP meetings, most evidently between the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China), and AOSIS (Alliance of Small Island States).

The Why and How of Financing Adaptation

Rich countries are grappling with how to help developing countries adapt to climate change for various reasons:

  • self-interest and security: to avoid climate refugees, unrest and instability in developing countries
  • ethics: it’s generally considered morally right to help those in need and it would also be appropriate if considering principles of ethics such as fairness, justice or polluter-pays, and
  • because developing countries are negotiating in the international climate talks (UNFCCC) so that they will not accept proposals for how they should reduce their greenhouse gas emissions unless they get commitments for adaptation funding.

Those more cynical might just assume that rich nations are simply creating the illusion that they will fund adaptation to placate the global South while rich nations continue to pollute the atmosphere.

Where and what type of money should finance adaptation in developed countries is the subject of much debate (pdf). Given conservative estimates that the costs of adaptation in poor countries will be $75-100 billion per year (if average temperature increases are kept below 2oC), the question remains of where that money should come from and how it should be allocated – e.g. based on need or efficiency (see World Bank). Options for where the money comes from includes revenues from: a global aviation or global finance tax, carbon taxes and/or carbon permit auctions, and the redeployment of fossil fuel subsidies (see UN High-Level Advisory Group on Climate Change Financing). Opinions tend to differ on whether the funding should be from public or private sources, and whether it should be in the form of grants or loans (see Oxfam Briefing Note).

How to Get Rich Countries to Fund Adaptation

As someone who believes that rich nations have an ethical obligation to fund adaptation in developing countries, I wonder what role citizens of rich nations have in convincing their governments to commit funding, and how they might best do that. While some polling suggests that Canadians support increased foreign aid, given limited budgets, I am skeptical of how deep that commitment is, especially when cuts to other priority areas such as education and health care are being made. Some organizations, such as the Center for American Progress in the U.S. appeal to the security and economic interests of the U.S. (e.g. helping to close the competitiveness gap with China, and avoiding climate refugees). I wonder what will be more effective – appeals to self-interest or to “doing the right” thing? I suspect a targeted messaging campaign with different messages to different groups may be most effective. We know that individuals will send money to other countries deal with what are arguably the impacts of climate change (by donating to the Red Cross etc. after disasters), but sending money in advance to help countries prepare to prevent and respond more effectively doesn’t seem to have the same appeal.

At the end of the day, a large (idealistic) part of me wonders whether a revamped international agreement that included automatic transfer mechanisms, such as Contraction and Convergence would be a better pathway forward given that it would eliminate so much of the bureaucracy, petty backroom-dealing, and lengthy, laborious negotiations. Although, getting political negotiators to agree to Contraction and Convergence would probably require lengthy and laborious negotiations, not to mention a likely necessary shift in power dynamics among the U.S., China and India.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Counting Carbon

Since the beginning of the anthropocene epoch, humans have released around 545 billion tons of carbon to the atmosphere from terrestrial and living storage reservoirs in the form of carbon dioxide (CO2). Scientists have been concerned with linkages between CO2 and climate since at least 1896, but only since 1992 has an international effort attempted to check CO2 emissions and limit the severity of anthropogenic climate changes (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, UNFCCC).

The objective of the UNFCCC is to achieve ‘stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.’ CO2 currently accounts for 77% of global greenhouse gas emissions and is the focus of most greenhouse gas emissions accounting and reduction schemes.

Reducing global CO2 emissions in an equitable, timely manner is dauntingly complex. For example, there is rich debate on market-based mechanisms included in the Kyoto Protocol to incentivize emission reductions. These plans have led to a range of projects to reduce emissions that have been greeted with both hope and skepticism. Before any type of reduction plan can be effective though, we need to quantify when, where, and how much CO2 is being emitted. The remainder of this post is focused on the current international CO2 emissions accounting framework, critiques of this system, and alternative approaches that have been developed.

Territorial Accounting

The current international UNFCCC treaty framework allocates emissions spatially according to their point of injection into the atmosphere. Here’s an outline of the accounting process:

1. Nations are grouped into Annex 1 countries and non-Annex 1 countries based primarily on the condition of national economic development.

2. Annex 1 national governments are responsible for compiling and reporting CO2 emission inventories for emissions that originate from within national borders. Non-annex 1 countries voluntarily report emissions.

3. Emissions inventories from energy, industrial processes, agriculture, and land-use/forestry changes are compiled based on methodological standards set by the IPCC.

4. Each nation’s emissions inventories are subject to review by an independent expert assessment.

This territorial accounting system based on political borders is inherently producer-based, i.e. responsibility for emissions depends on the emission location rather than the location of demand and consumption that drives emissions. This approach is advantageous because political borders are usually recognizable and responsibility for emissions within national borders is assigned to national governments. In a globalized economy though, CO2 emission chains from energy and material extraction, production, transportation, consumption, and disposal usually extend well beyond regional and national political boundaries. These cross-border, global connections mean the geo-political approach is not airtight; there are gaps for ‘carbon leakage,’ i.e. CO2 emissions that escape accounting.

One source of leakage is CO2 from transportation and trade that crosses international boundaries and is emitted in international oceans and airspace. Currently these emissions are put into a storage bunker that doesn’t count towards a nation’s emissions totals. This bunker is an unregulated CO2 reservoir that potentially represents a significant loophole if emissions are creatively dumped here. From year 2000 to 2008, total CO2 emissions growth reported by Annex-1 nations was 1.5%, but the storage bunker holdings grew by 24.1%.

Another source of leakage in the political-boundary-approach is due to carbon outsourcing. This occurs when production and imbedded CO2 emissions are shifted from Annex 1 countries to non-Annex 1 countries with different emissions accounting requirements. This may result in emissions reductions for the outsourcing nation but from a global climate scale perspective, CO2 emitted in one location is the same as CO2 emitted in another. On a global scale, shifting emission locations amounts to a shell game that does little to reduce total emissions.

Consumer-based approaches

Defining scale boundaries in complex, continuous systems or networks is always tricky business and boundary selection is a fundamental issue in many disciplines such as geography, biology, economics, and sociology. In terms of anthropogenic CO2 emissions, consumptive goods typically have a long, geographically diffuse chain of emissions that crosses many political borders. Where along this chain should responsibility for emissions lie? How much responsibility does the consumer of a product have for the emissions generated during that product’s lifetime?

To address these questions, alternative approaches to emissions accounting have been developed. At scales of individual products, life-cycle analysis is a method that attempts to account for all CO2 emissions embodied in the production, consumption, use, and destruction of a product. On global scales, national input-output models account for emissions embodied in global trade and consumption, though this global view comes at the expense of detail. These approaches offer a more holistic view of CO2 emissions and could be used to facilitate sharing of responsibility for emissions between producers and consumers.

When CO2 emissions are considered from these life-cycle and consumer-based perspectives, it becomes clear that individual consumers and national governments have limited power to control emissions beyond their own borders. Labeling products with a carbon footprint has been proposed as a way to empower consumers.

It also becomes clear that CO2 emissions are part of a much larger, continuous global social-economic-technologic-agricultural-environmental system. Isolating a particular component of the system can yield important findings, but nothing exists in a vacuum. Serious efforts to reduce emissions will involve deep, system-wide changes and complex decisions on whether to channel limited resources towards mitigation options or adaptation strategies are ahead.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Should targets be targets?

The Cancun agreements set a precedent by recognising the need to limit average temperature change to 2oC above pre-industrial levels in order to avoid dangerous climate change. The agreement also “recognises the need to consider... strengthening the long-term global goal on the basis of the best available scientific knowledge, including to a global average temperature rise of 1.5oC.” In light of this, we met in our first discussion group to examine the trajectories of these two temperature targets, and the effectiveness of temperature targets as compared to emotional negotiating for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Both the 2oC and 1.5oC targets have long histories within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process. The UNFCCC has aimed to prevent ‘dangerous climate change’ for a long time. The Second Assessment Report of the IPCC identified potentially serious changes resulting from an average increase in global temperatures of 2 degrees. From then on, dangerous climate change was associated with 2oC of warming. There are several reasons to question the assimilation of dangerous climate change with 2oC of warming, or in fact any specific temperature increases (for more see here, here and here). Firstly, a rise of 2oC would pose a threat to many people and places: dangerous depends a lot on the scale, or resolution (e.g. at the household or global scale?) at which one is willing to consider these effects. There is no individual number that could denote at what point changing temperatures become dangerous; 2oC and dangerous are arbitrary stipulations.

Finally, on a more theoretical level, there is in fact an epistemological – that is, in our way of knowing the world – flaw in the logic of assigning a limit to temperature increases (see this interesting article). Although there have been great gains in Global Climate Models (GCMs) which can predict climate change, its effects and its causes, the world is still a surprising place (or in scientific terms, the world is uncertain). These GCMs only denote probabilities of limiting increasing temperatures given certain concentrations: we can never know for sure what will happen at a given concentration. More importantly, given feedbacks that exist in biophysical systems – such as melting tundra and sea ice – there is no way of knowing that we are capable of sticking to a target anyway: targets and timetables are inherently uncertain. Assigning a temperature target and expecting to get there requires being able to predict the future; perhaps putting our faith in these targets and their models is also dangerous?

Nonetheless, as an alternative to the 2oC target, the 1.5oC target was proposed by the AOSIS coalition during the Copenhagen COP. In particular, the small island state of Tuvalu spearheaded a proposal to make the Copenhagen agreements legally binding, and to restrict warming to 1.5oC. Other atoll countries, such as the Republic of Kiribati and the Maldives agreed to abandon their commitment to the 1.5oC proposal in exchange for climate change adaptation funding from the Government of Australia. Tuvalu, however, refused to ratify a treaty that did not commit to limiting global temperature increases to 1.5oC and organised a ‘walk-out’ from the negotiations. This push from Tuvalu was recognised and support by many; in particular journalists and civil-society-organisations. In Cancun some of this effort was recognised: the Accord noted that a target of 1.5oC should at least be investigated.

In the midst of formal, scientific discussions (including which temperature targets would be more appropriated) the frustrations of the Tuvaluan delegation overflowed. As well as staging a ‘walk-out’ of the negotiations, their frustrations manifested in one of the Tuvaluan negotiators weeping whilst making a statement (for more details see here). This has led some social scientists to question whether emotions might allow for unexpected and reformist opportunities and results in negotiations. The weeping in question briefly destabilised the rationality, formality and scientific focus of the meeting. This analysis raises interesting questions about the role of emotions amongst negotiators. For example: can a negotiator ever be unemotional or disinterested; which emotions are, or should be allowed and who’s; would a female weeping be treated the same as a male?

Importantly, examining emotions shines a critical light on the focus, or even obsession, of temperature targets. Whilst one may doubt the potential success of negotiating through emotions (how do you decide what is a legitimate emotion; would this lead to more or fewer positions or agreement), we also have doubts about temperature targets, some of which were mentioned above.

Temperature targets are also subject to some very basic, practical limitations. Current atmospheric concentrations of CO2 are above 390ppm. A 2oC target broadly suggests the need to stabilise these concentrations at about 450ppm with a peak between 2010 and 2015. Thus, limiting temperature increases to 2oC requires serious action, and soon (some think we have even missed this opportunity).

Yet, all these numbers (concentrations and temperature targets) are only probabilities – ‘best estimates’. In fact, accuracy is lost when temperature targets are converted from greenhouse gas concentrations. GCMs, very basically, work from GHG concentrations to forcing to temperatures (see here). Going backwards through this system, from temperatures to forcing to concentrations is difficult as the boundary conditions, or assumptions, are lost. In other words, trying to specify greenhouse gas concentration targets from temperature targets is a bit like trying to understand the characteristics of a person based on their footprints in the sand. And it is the concentration that causes the temperature increases, and which is therefore important.

But perhaps the temperature target is more of a rhetorical rather than a scientific tool. A temperature target is more visceral than a concentration target; people can relate to and comprehend temperature increases. Furthermore, as targets go, perhaps temperature is not such a bad one: after all, it’s SMART (specific, measureable, achievable, relevant and time based)!

In the end, whatever the best indicator – temperature rise, or atmospheric concentrations, or sea level rise, or people displaced – none of these indicators help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A target doesn’t force any or every specific country to commit to greenhouse gas emission reductions: it is currently non-binding. Further, targets encourage quibbling about the exact temperature we are willing to accept, rather than focusing on how we are going to get there. Our basic conclusion is this: 2oC or 1.5oC is an important distinction in outcome; but at the moment it is distracting from what is most important– we need to reduce emissions.