Dear Fossil Fuel, I want a divorce!

This blog first appeared on the Mail & Guardian Thought Leader website

Dear Fossil Fuel,

There is no easy way to do this, so I’ll just say it: I want a divorce!

Writing this letter is very painful for me, but the contents will not come as a great surprise to you. Our relationship has been wondrous at times, with ups and downs like every marriage. But you’ve been abusive for too long and pushed me to the limit. It’s taken decades of counselling to build up the courage to leave you, but after 300 years together I’ve decided it is time I grew up and faced the future as a responsible adult.

Let me start by saying: I don’t think you ever had evil intentions at heart. Your character flaws are in your basic chemistry, and that’s not your fault. You’ve had a difficult life, unloved by all except me. Your parents – Sun and Earth – were ashamed of you. Having conceived and given birth to you by accident millions of years ago, they locked you away in the cupboard under the stairs, out of sight and out of mind. So full you were of harmful chemicals, they probably felt they had no choice, to give their other offspring the best possible chance to thrive.

But once I released you from your geological tomb, how you made up for lost time with your fiery character! We achieved things together that I could not have imagined before we met. Side by side, we reshaped the landscape; we built great cities and connected them with infrastructure that spanned continents; we fought and won epic wars (admit it, you were often the cause of them!); we created a vast empire that left no corner of the globe untouched. Put simply, we lived tens of thousands of lifetimes in three short centuries. I owe virtually all of my success to you, which is why I write these words with such a heavy heart.

My parents were uneasy about our union from the early days. Oh, they could see how much fun we were having together – how your intensity captivated me! – but they worried that our relationship was growing at the expense of everything else in my life. It’s easy to see it now: I was becoming dependent on you, even addicted, blind to the damages we wrought, losing sight of what was important. Because of you I lost all respect for my mother, Nature.

With you egging me on, I became lazy and conceited. I didn’t stop to worry how I was growing, only that I grew. And I grew! As time passed, I hardly noticed how overweight I had become. No, morbidly obese! I’d developed this habit of consuming unnecessary stuff in vast quantities, more wants than needs. So wasteful of mother’s inheritance – much of it gone, forever – such regret … gradually I lost all interest in my appearance, as together we created such waste! I’ll admit, at the time it was childishly good fun, but I realise now, as I spend more and more of my energy cleaning up your mess, it must stop!

Frequently – and this is my greatest shame – I also lost sight of my duty to take care of my father, Society, who has long struggled with episodes of ill-health. On the surface he appeared OK, but underneath the neglect was evident, as his recent violent outbursts testify. (In fact, I would be surprised if our relationship were not the direct cause of much his sickness, though I know you will protest your innocence!) Of course, I would not even exist were it not for mother and father. I’m determined to make up for lost time and place their needs first and foremost from now on.

I know what you’re going to say: “I can change!” I’ve heard it so many times. Yes, I know you’ve become more efficient over the years, and tried to clean up your act. But everything is relative – you too have grown so much larger (OK, it’s partly my fault) that all your efforts to improve yourself have been trumped! And you’ve become so risky lately. You used to be dependable, easy-going – I liked the sense of security that you gave me. But over the last 30 or 40 years you’ve become so volatile and unreliable. I can see the writing on the wall: you probably are going to change, but not for the better! It’s only a matter of time before you blow up again, and set me back another few years. I just can’t take it any more.

And now for my confession: I’ve met someone else. He’s not as powerful as you – not at the moment – but he’s got some really interesting ideas how we can develop together in totally different ways. He’s very smart, not all brute force like you – he thinks you’re incredibly primitive, and I’m coming to realise he’s probably right! He doesn’t smell (oh, your awful smells!), never leaves any mess lying around, refuses to draw us into debt (he doesn’t know the meaning of the word!) and he gets the job done so much more efficiently than you ever did. Granted, he’s not always there by my side (he travels the world), but he has a wonderful network of like-minded friends that are always hugely supportive.

I know this will come as a bombshell for you: he’s your younger sibling, Solar Flux. Sun and Earth are so proud! My parents love him, too – he’s got big plans how we can attend to their needs and make up for all my past misdemeanours. Mother wonders why I left him in the first place for you all those years ago. But as I keep reminding her, our marriage was not all bad. Some of the amazing things we accomplished have made me what I am today – without that, I couldn’t begin to imagine a successful future with Solar Flux. Thanks to you, I’ve learned so much. But I was a child when we met. I’ve grown up, come through a tricky adolescence, and now I’m ready to move on.

I realise this divorce is probably going to cost me, in the short-term financial sense. But in the long-term, I know that I will grow even stronger in this new relationship and lead a much more vibrant and meaningful life without you. No doubt, this will be one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever faced, but it is one I can no longer postpone. If I avoid this decision now, I may harm my relationship with my parents beyond repair, and I’ll regret that for the rest of my life.

Yours no longer,

The Economy

The Story of Energy (for Grown-ups)

Among the myriad challenges facing the human species in the early years of this century there is one that shows up on every political and business agenda from Pretoria to Paris, Lusaka to London, and Windhoek to Washington: how to sustain economic growth.  So dominant is this discourse that those who dare to question it can be readily dismissed as lunatics, so far outside the mainstream as to appear out of touch with reality.  Can’t they see?  We need to create jobs!  

Yet deep down we all know that our home planet – and the non-renewable resources upon which our economies are based – is finite, meaning that nothing can grow indefinitely without violating immutable laws of nature.  This is a scary thought.  So, to insulate our preferred mental models of the world from uncomfortable physical truths, we invent oxymoronic terms like “sustainable growth” that evade all attempts to assign a coherent definition.  Most worryingly, we render ourselves unable to recognise and confront a profound blind spot: the pivotal role that energy plays in the human project. 

To comprehend why we are where we are, and what it means for our future, we must first appreciate that not a cent of economic activity happens without energy being transformed from one form into another.  Through trillions of daily conversion processes – some of which happen inside our bodies as we consume food which also required energy to produce – we benefit from a range of useful services such as heating, cooling, mobility, communications, etc.  In so doing, laws of physics dictate that we must throw some energy away as waste heat; we can (and should aim to) improve the efficiency of our conversion steps, but we can never break even. 

A deeper understanding of our predicament is revealed in the workings of our pre-industrial world.  Then, as today, our economic system was based entirely on the movement of people and things.  Prior to the Industrial Revolution, however, all of that movement was driven by solar energy, whether it was harvested as food for people, feed for draught animals – then converted into motion via muscles – or wind caught in the sails of ships and windmills, or rivers turning watermills.  For simplicity, we can think of this kinetic energy sub-system as the ‘Wheel’.  It was constrained by our ‘solar income’, which is the quantity of incident sunlight we could capture (in a relatively short timeframe) and usefully deploy. 

Sure, we had for many centuries also been making good use of stored sunlight.  By burning wood, peat and coal (the last of these in miniscule quantities by today’s standards), we were able to use the liberated heat to cook our food, warm our homes, and drive an impressive host of manufacturing processes.  We can call this thermal energy sub-system ‘Fire’, and it ran on the ‘hydrocarbon battery’ – sunlight captured by plant and animal life over millions of years before being locked away in fossil fuel deposits – to which we increasingly turned as our supplies of firewood became exhausted.  But, just as today, our ability to bring the hydrocarbon battery into service was constrained by the rate at which we could move these combustible fuels from where they were found to where they were needed. 

This year marks the 300th anniversary of an event that altered the course of human history profoundly.  In 1712, Thomas Newcomen’s first steam engine became operational in the English Midlands town of Dudley.  By converting heat into motion, it united humanity’s two most important discoveries: Fire and the Wheel.  From that moment on, our scope for mobility – in the first instance, to shift water from a flooded coal mine – was no longer bound by the limits of solar income, by human and animal muscle or sailing ships. 

Once we’d hooked ourselves up to the hydrocarbon battery, we began to mechanise our world.  Fewer draught animals were required, which liberated not only the paddocks on which they were kept, but also the large tracts of arable land which fed them.  In concert with advances in agriculture, fewer farmhands were able to produce greater quantities of food, which in turn boosted population growth.  More of us were free to swap rural for urban landscapes that were melting pots of knowledge-sharing and innovation, fostering further advances in science and medicine that allowed us to lead longer, more productive – and more consumptive – lives.  Later, steam ships and locomotives allowed us to move more things (including food) faster over greater distances, enabling ever higher levels of consumption.  For the better part of three centuries, we hardly looked back as we ascended this upward spiral, propelled by ancient solar energy released from fossil fuels. 

A crucial enhancement of the Fire/Wheel axis arrived towards the end of the 19th Century with the invention of the automobile.  If fossil fuels are the Earth’s hydrocarbon battery, then crude oil is their ultimate expression: its liquid state provides unmatched energy density and ease of transport, making oil the reference fuel for moving people and things, far superior to coal and natural gas.  Its role in underpinning our economic system cannot be overstated and it seems impossible to dislodge.  No wonder we are prepared to go to war over the stuff – we are fighting for nothing less than our ability to sustain economic growth as we know it. 

A ready supply of cheap liquid transport fuels subsequently enabled us to do all sorts of clever things, such as create globalised supply chains and just-in-time delivery systems, and we congratulate ourselves for the perceived efficiency gains that we created.  The trouble is it all unravels spectacularly when fuel becomes expensive or scarce, even fleetingly.  Keen to avoid cold-turkey convulsions on a societal scale, governments intervene by any means necessary and order is maintained.  This is precisely how South Africa ended up with the world’s single largest point source of CO2 emissions, thanks to its apartheid-era coal liquefaction programme, a response to constricted oil supplies. 

All the most prized attributes of advanced economies – proud beacons of human progress to which many developing nations aspire – are based upon the marriage of Fire and the Wheel.  That is, we achieve and maintain our pinnacle of civilisation by relentlessly digging fossil fuels out of the ground and setting them on fire in order to move people and things from place to place in motor vehicles.  High-tech, indeed!  But lurking in the dark recesses of our minds is the realisation that consuming any resource faster than its rate of formation is, by definition, unsustainable.  Fully aware that our hydrocarbon battery is draining fast and will not be re-charged in the conceivable future, that using it has a deleterious effect on the natural systems that sustain all life on Earth, and that meanwhile the economic system through which we aim to deliver societal needs is utterly dependent on it, what are we to do?  We surely can’t return to a pre-industrial existence where most people struggled on the very edge of survival.  At least, we won’t take this lying down. 

There is a glimmer of hope around which to galvanise our collective imagination.  About the time of the automotive revolution, another energy technology was born that also came to shape modern life: electricity.  Just as the steam engine created a pathway for turning heat into motion, so electricity can reverse the process.  Via electrons, we can take solar income – either directly by capturing sunlight or indirectly by harnessing wind – and transform it into every imaginable energy service of benefit to society, including the mobility which underpins all economic activity.  

Crucially, modern electrical devices – and transportation modes in particular – just happen to be supremely energy efficient, meaning that we can enjoy more services with less energy expenditure.  And electricity is unique among energy carriers because it can also convey information.  This introduces the prospect of discarding the current ‘dumb’ energy system and replacing it with one that is ‘smart’.  Since all of the energy arrives for free and its source will never expire as long as our solar system persists (if it doesn’t, human concerns will be a thing of the past!), what’s not to like?  

We are exhibiting all the symptoms of addiction, including compulsive behaviour and denial in the face of mounting evidence that we have a serious problem.  We even resort to theft in order to feed our increasingly expensive habit, either from weaker nations and communities, or from generations as yet unborn.  As civilised adults we need to confront and treat this addiction, unhook ourselves from the hydrocarbon battery, creating in its place a new economic paradigm that provides societal needs equitably within solar income constraints.  

Does this mean the end of growth, at least as the term is currently understood?  That is inevitable anyway; we cannot negotiate with hard biophysical limits.  The best we can hope for is what economists might call a ‘soft landing’.  The 21st Century project – both hugely challenging and incredibly exciting – is to create the ultimate just-in-time delivery system, powered by energy that arrives every day from the sun, not by setting fire to millions of years of ancient sunlight in the blink of an eye.  All other species on Earth manage just fine like this.  For now, we are the 0.0001% that attempt to live by rules of our own making and it is silly to imagine that we can continue as we are with impunity.  

Unstoppable Forces and Immovable Objects

“That’s my new house” – my Chinese tour guide gestured toward a row of featureless apartment blocks beneath our vantage point overlooking the river – “and that’s where I used to live.”  She showed me a photograph of a modest two-storey structure within the walls of the ancient city of Fengjie.  It presumably remains intact, albeit more than 150 metres underwater.

This stretch of the Yangtze – roughly 660km from Chongqing to Sandouping – is much less a river than a lake these days, thanks to the mind-blowing Three Gorges Dam.  My guide for the shore excursion of neighbouring Baidi Cheng – the White Emperor City, at the mouth of the still awesome Qutang Gorge – was among more than a million Chinese citizens forced to relocate prior to their homes being submerged by the rising waters.  If she was remotely bitter, it certainly didn’t show.

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Over many return visits since my two years living in Beijing from 2004, the Middle Kingdom has always left a deep impression or two.  It’s hard to grasp the scale and pace of development underway in China without experiencing it for oneself, but while still fresh – if that’s the word – from my most recent trip, I’d like to share some reflections that I hope will provide a glimpse of some of the changes in progress.

I have just returned from two weeks travelling overland in one of the country’s industrial heartlands.  Starting in Chengdu, Sichuan, the home Province of my travelling companion, we journeyed by rail to Chongqing before boarding a tourist ship that cruised down the now broad and peaceful Yangtze to Yichang, a few kilometres downstream of the infamous hydroelectric power station.

The relentless intensity of river traffic brought home that electricity generation was but one of the intended outcomes of this stunning engineering endeavour.  It may not even have been the most important one.  Previously, this was a notoriously difficult stretch of inland waterway, evoking the Symplegades – or Clashing Rocks – successfully navigated in Greek legend by Jason and the Argonauts.  Now, an endless stream of gigantic barges piled high with cargoes – notably mountains of coal – ply the becalmed waters.  Setting aside the grave environmental and social concerns related to the Three Gorges development – including landslides caused by increased physical pressure on surroundings and loss of agricultural land – one wonders about the net carbon impact of what is ostensibly a renewable energy project, given the enhanced flows of coal that have been made possible.

Countless factories and construction projects dot the river banks.  This region of China is well-known for its winter fogs, though it is easy to imagine that the precession of chimney stacks and their attendant columns of smoke – added to the sooty exhaust fumes of river traffic – contribute significantly to the dismal visibility, all the more disheartening in an area of exceptional natural beauty.  It struck me: this is what implausibly cheap consumer goods look like upstream in the supply chain, far beyond the horizon of cost-conscious consumers.  The juxtaposition of local fishermen in tiny sampans bobbing around in the slip-stream of industry lends a Dickensian flavour to the scene – A Tale of Two Rivers – and a vivid reminder, were it needed, of the inequality challenge confronting not only the developing world but many advanced economies, too.  As if to compensate for those dark satanic mills, dozens of new bridges that span the water have been designed with an aesthetical flourish rather than stolid functionality in mind.

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As for the dam itself, which we reached at midnight on the third day and passed in four hours via a sequence of enormous locks, the audacity it expresses can have few equals in the world.  As an aside, en route to China I met one of the challengers for the title of “world’s most audacious construction project” when stopping in Dubai for the weekend.  On arrival, I made immediately for the top of the Burj Khalifa, at 828m and 160 stories the world’s tallest building by some considerable distance.  Appropriately enough, it features prominently in the latest Mission Impossible movie.  The eye-watering extravagance shouts engineering hubris, but it is no less beautiful for that.

In defence of Three Gorges Dam, unlike the Burj Khalifa it is hard to label it as nothing more than a vanity project.  For starters, it is devastatingly ugly.  A few key facts: (1) Mao Zedong visualised the dam in a poem penned in 1956, titled “Swimming”; (2) its 18GW of hydroelectric power capacity is roughly equivalent to nine Hoover Dams; (3) were it operating in 1994 when construction began, it would have supplied around 12% of China’s power needs – but due to explosive demand growth it today represents less than 4% and is obviously declining each year; (4) the submerged area includes 13 cities, 140 towns, 1,352 villages, 657 factories & 30,000 hectares of cultivated land.  Construction is ongoing: the latest addition to the scheme is a ship elevator into which the “smaller” vessels (typically passenger ships of up to 3,000 tons – everything is relative) will be lowered or raised the full length of the drop that separates upstream and downstream waters, thereby shortening the crossing time from four hours to thirty minutes and debottlenecking the main lock system.

Another hour downstream from the dam we disembarked at nondescript Yichang, from where a four hour white-knuckle bus ride whisked us to Wuhan, the most important city in Hubei Province.  Together with Chongqing and Nanjing, Wuhan is one of China’s so-called “Furnaces” due to the sweltering summer climate endured by its 10 million residents.  Its location at the confluence of the Yangtze and the Han rivers, dividing the city into three parts – Wuchang, Hankou, and Hanyang (hence the composite name) – brought to mind Pittsburgh, with which I later learned Wuhan is officially twinned.  From Hankou to Wuchang on the short commuter ferry, I was impressed by the dozens of electric-powered bicycles and scooters crammed on board.  A recent estimate placed China’s e-bike population at 120 million; I briefly imagined the scene were all of those zippy two-wheelers powered by noisy two-stroke petrol engines.

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Moving on from Wuhan, the world’s fastest train south to Guangzhou averages 328km/h on the 968km journey, which annihilates comparable high-speed routes elsewhere in the world.  The new Wuhan Station embarrasses many modern airports in terms of scale, passenger facilities, and physical beauty.  A comparison with airports is apposite, since the station is situated some 50km from the city centre, thereby demanding close to an hour’s taxi ride in light traffic.  This came as a surprise – and a disappointment – to a European brought up to believe that the great advantage of rail over air travel is the convenience of journeying from one urban centre to another.  Still, I retain a conviction that rail travel is vastly less stressful and more enjoyable than flying.

Guangzhou, formerly known in the West as Canton, is regarded as China’s third city after Beijing and Shanghai.  If this status gives Guangzhou an inferiority complex, you wouldn’t know it.  The city’s proximity to Shenzhen and Hong Kong – soon to be connected with yet another high-speed rail line – give it a significant competitive advantage.  A stunning array of outlandish buildings have sprung up, including a striking waterfront opera house, all serviced by a spanking new – and already insanely busy – underground metro system.  Beijing’s development received an additional kick from the 2008 Olympics, while Guangzhou experienced a similar stimulus from the 2010 Asian Games, recognised as the second largest multi-sport event after the Olympics.

On leaving China from Guangzhou’s spotless – if mildly confusing – Baiyun International Airport, my overriding impression was that, despite everything I have read and experienced previously, it remains impossible to do justice in words to the sense of sheer momentum that exudes from this vast country of nearly 1.4 billion citizens, undertaking in two or three decades a transformation for which human history offers no precedent.  The industrial development that took more than a century in the US and Europe – with only a few hundred million citizens to consider – can offer some useful pointers, but direct analogies quickly break down due to the vastly different context in which humanity finds itself today.  For one thing, when E.L. Drake struck oil in Titusville, Pennsylvania in 1859, we hadn’t the faintest idea of the full consequences of embarking on a socio-economic development trajectory underpinned by two of our most primitive discoveries: fire and the wheel.

Where does it all lead?  Whether we like it or not, China’s future is our future.  My colleague Dirk Visser at CSPL South Africa begins his excellent systems pressures overview by referring to the movie The Dark Knight, in which the Joker sums up his relationship with Batman: “This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object”.  China creates an overwhelming illusion of the proverbial unstoppable force.  Is nature – or the hard, non-negotiable biophysical limits that nature imposes on all earthly life – the immovable object?  Apparently not, yet.

Our Moon Shot

This blog first appeared on the website of think tank and consultancy SustainAbility

On Monday 5th October, I was introduced to a new and slightly disorientating experience: I attended the UK Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham.  It was disorientating for three reasons.  First, there were generous swathes of BLUE – a colour I usually associate with unpleasant football stadia – all over the place.  Second, the majority of delegates were speaking a dialect of my mother tongue that might be described as Hugh-Grantglish.  Third, as I scanned the agenda – the Conservative Party Conference agenda! – I picked out several plenary sessions and fringe events that suggested “sustainable development”.  A whole day dedicated to Green Growth.  In the UK, on the surface at least, it seems blue is the new green.

One such sustainability-related seminar that I managed to attend was titled “Keeping The Lights On: Energy in the 2010s”.  As a series of panellists fixated on our various energy supply options, I found myself wondering why we were sitting in this conference room – drenched in sunlight via a huge pyramidal glass ceiling – with all of the lights on.  Ah, but they were all energy efficient light bulbs!  During the Q&A session, I suggested that one of the better ways to safeguard the UK’s ability to keep the lights on might be knowing when to switch them off.  Or alternatively, to put the “conserve” back into Conservative, rather than Labour-ing under the fallacy that we can close the energy gap by increasing supply.  

Switching the lights off

Minister of State for Energy & Climate Change Charles Hendry presented a view of what the next decade holds in store as the UK faces the prospect of retiring several GW of nuclear and coal-fired electricity generating capacity.  His answer?  A mix of new nukes (with no government subsidy), coal/CCS and offshore wind (the UK holds 40% of Europe’s offshore wind resource, yet currently sits an embarrassing 25th out of 27 Member States in terms of percentage of energy derived from renewable sources, ahead of mighty Malta and Luxembourg).  And given the long lead times involved – particularly for nukes and coal/CCS, neither of which will make significant contributions before 2018 – we will also need to further increase our dependency on imported natural gas.  It’s not the most inspiring picture, but it’s certainly pragmatic.

If you believe, they put a man on the Moon…

But who needs pragmatism from our political leaders?  Whatever happened to vision and ambition?  During the closing plenary at the Carbon Show in London the next day, I argued that it wasn’t always like this – certainly not on 26th May 1961

I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.  No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important in the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish. 

When John F Kennedy spoke those words, he didn’t present a pragmatic proposal for how his vision might be accomplished by leveraging the power of competitive deregulated markets.  In fact, at the time you’d have been very hard-pressed to argue it was a realistic ambition.  But it was certainly inspirational, it captured the imagination of a country, and it led to arguably the greatest human achievement ever.  Why have we grown content to settle for realism, when all evidence indicates that something absolutely extraordinary needs to happen?  

Imagine a contemporary politician taking JFK’s place for that 1961 speech: “I believe that, in the long-term, this nation should probably put a man on another celestial body.  But as politicians we need to be careful not to pick winners – perhaps it’s the Moon, or maybe Mars is the right destination – the truth is we don’t know.  In any case, there’s plenty to be done in the short-term: we need to gain altitude cost-effectively, and that means we’ve got to harvest the low-hanging fruit by climbing Mount Everest.  We’re confident we can do it because some Kiwi and a Nepalese bloke managed it a few years back.”  Doesn’t it just make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck?!

A Giant Leap For Mankind?

JFK chose a different way to shape history.  He followed up his 1961 call to action with these words at Rice University in September the following year: 

We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…

According to the IPCC’s 4th Assessment Report, to stand an evens chance of staying below the critical 2°C theshold, we’ll need to engineer a zero carbon energy system by 2050, with all the interim steps this implies.  It won’t be easy and it won’t be cheap, but it’s what the science tells us is necessary if we’re to avoid the worst effects of climate change.  Are we ready to accept this challenge clear in the knowledge that it will be hard, or will we continue to postpone?  Make no mistake: decarbonising the global economy in 40 years is our Moon Shot.  Conservation >> Efficiency >> Decarbonisation, all on a scale for which history has no precedent.  

Before Apollo 11 and Niel Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind came Apollos 1 thru 10 – as mankind’s baby steps grew into confident strides – all of them laser focused on achieving the ultimate ambition.  So it is with our Moon Shot: we won’t manage this in one “giant leap”, no doubt we’ll trip along the way, but we will learn with every step we dare to take towards our zero carbon economy by 2050.  

The Blue Planet

In considering whether this daunting challenge is one we should be willing to embrace, we might pause to recall the words of astronaut Thomas Stafford – from the Apollo 10 mission that preceded Armstrong’s lunar landing by two months – as he recalled looking down on his home: 

The white twisted clouds and the endless shades of blue in the ocean make the hum of the spacecraft systems, the radio chatter, even your own breathing disappear.  There is no cold or wind or smell to tell you that you are connected to Earth.  You have an almost dispassionate platform – remote, Olympian and yet so moving that you can hardly believe how emotionally attached you are to those rough patterns shifting steadily below.

Put like that, our dear old planet sounds worth looking after, doesn’t it?  Perhaps it’s fitting that blue is the new green – we all live on a Pale Blue Dot, after all.

Ready, Steady, COP!

This blog first appeared on the website of think tank and strategy consultancy SustainAbility

I have just shaken off the biggest hangover of my entire life.  It lasted for about 9 months, triggered by spending 3.5 days living a feral existence, sleeping rough outside a Gentleman’s convenience, with no change of clothes, no shower and – as the BBC’s World Service broadcast to my mother’s chagrin – not even a toothbrush.  As the end drew near, I even caught myself foraging in bins behind the kitchen for an out-of-date pre-packaged salad (bliss!).  Juxtapose this tragic image with the likes of Sarkozy, Merkel, Zapatero and Rudd swishing past me in a melée of advisors and journalists, and you could be forgiven for assuming that my hangover was chemically-induced.  Alas, no.  It was an apparently normal reaction to the debacle that was COP 15.  

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way.

Charles Dickens, “A Tale of Two Cities”

They tried to make me go to rehab…

At Chatham House last week, I found myself in the company of numerous COP veterans girding their loins, preparing to once again contemplate the UNFCCC process.  Everyone I spoke to had also experienced the post-COP tremors, and decided – consciously or sub-consciously – in favour of maintaining their grip on sanity by taking a break from the circus.  As with everything else in life, a football analogy is never far away.  The vast majority of match-going supporters reach the end of every season thoroughly exhausted, looking forward to a well-earned rest to lick the wounds inflicted by another disappointing season.  Yet magically, as July turns to August, that familiar but inexplicable sense of optimism triumphs over common sense, and we simply can’t wait to get back on that emotional roller-coaster!

So it is with the UNFCCC, now heading for its 16th Conference of the Parties to be held in Cancun towards the end of this year.  We listened with renewed intensity as an impressive array of speakers and panellists from the worlds of politics, business, academia, and civil society outlined their hopes, fears, and realistic expectations for COP 16 and beyond.  And here’s the rub: if Copenhagen did nothing else, it injected a healthy dose of realism into those who yearned for a global, comprehensive, legally binding climate treaty for the post-2012 era.  Plenty of clichés were trotted out – Rome wasn’t built in a day, we lost the battle not the war, focus on the doable – but I was left with a sense that this was more than empty rhetoric: there was a tangible appetite among the Chatham House delegates to roll up sleeves and get stuck into what remains an unprecedented political, economic, social, and environmental challenge.

Sweet Sixteen?

Admittedly, the broader context for COP 16 is not good: the euphoria of Obamania has well and truly subsided and the US remains unable to enact any meaningful climate legislation – what can we expect from BRICS in response?  European governments are slashing public expenditure to a degree unseen for generations – the UK’s Department of Energy & Climate Change is under budgetary pressure despite not having been in existence when the government’s spending baseline was set.  Citizens everywhere are understandably more concerned about covering rents and mortgages than paying more for someone else to reduce their carbon footprint.

On the other side, Climategate paradoxically helped strengthen the scientific case for human-induced climate change: complacency in the field of climate science has rightly given way to the highest standards of rigour and discipline, and the outlook remains bleak.  A hard core of climate dissenters persist, but their numbers are vanishingly small.  “Natural” disasters this summer in RussiaPakistan and China – within days of one another – dominated the world’s media.  As ever, it is difficult to attribute a single extreme weather event to climate change, but the rising frequency and severity are persuasive indicators that we are on an alarming trajectory.  It is still possible to keep the rise in average temperatures below the 2°C threshold, but only just.

China continues to invest in renewable energy at a breathtaking pace.  We all know the legend of the “coal-fired power station every week”, but are we equally aware that China builds as much wind capacity each year as the entire UK?  Indications that China is already contemplating domestic CO2 cap-and-trade legislation should be an object of shame for the US, Canada, Australia, and a source of optimism for those convinced that a price on carbon is the best way to mobilise the clean energy revolution.

Success is a journey, not a destination

Realistically, then, what can be achieved in Cancun?  With last week’s Climate Change 2010 conference operating under Chatham House’s eponymous “rule”, I’m not able to attribute quotes directly to sources, but what I can do is distil what I heard into a few key deliverables against which we might judge COP 16 as a success, or failure.  

  1. Overarching need is to re-establish trust among Parties through transparency on financing, and transparency on actions/progress
  2. Agree a long-term global goal under the UNFCCC – building on the Copenhagen Accord’s 2°C threshold – and a establish a process to review progress
  3. Formalise mitigation pledges submitted in the aftermath of COP 15 and give clear direction on measures needed to realise them
  4. Put in place mechanism for measurement, reporting, and verification (MRV) of mitigation actions
  5. Agree a framework for adaptation and establish a new global finance fund to ensure oversight of financial flows
  6. Create infrastructure needed to deliver funds to the point of action on adaptation and mitigation, and establish a global registry
  7. Establish a robust framework for reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD)

Ultimately, Cancun will be judged a success according to progress in each of the above areas, and not on the delivery or otherwise of a single, comprehensive, legally-binding global treaty (or perhaps worse: the “promise” of such a treaty at South Africa’s COP 17 next year, thereby raising expectations and pressure to pre-COP 15 levels).  As for carbon markets collapsing if we don’t get a treaty in place for 1st Jan 2013, this is patent nonsense.  The EU’s emissions trading scheme (EU-ETS) is the key to carbon market continuity – it will continue in a strengthened form regardless what happens under the auspices of the UNFCCC.  

Me, I’m going to take a year off from COP attendance.  I can’t face the UN accreditation process, draconian entry procedures and secondary pass system, the fact that most non-governmental observers will be kept well away from the action, presumably to save government delegates from the awful sight of rough sleepers in the conference centre.  And anyway, we’ve got Aston Villa that week, and I think this could yet be our season.