Priming the Pump at Durban

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

Another year, another COP, another step closer to the brink. It must seem to the casual observer that the UN climate negotiations are an exercise designed explicitly to create gridlock and failure. Judging by many of the blogs, comments and tweets I’ve been reading since bleary-eyed delegates stumbled out of the Durban ICC on Sunday, the most recent episode has provoked some strong but mixed reactions: politicians claiming a triumph of multilateralism, NGOs decrying the lack of progress on issues of substance. Both views hold some merit. As someone who was present in Durban for the regulation fortnight – but missed the 36 hours of injury-time – I’d like to weigh in with my personal reflections.

Before that, a confession: I’ve always had a ‘thing’ for prime numbers. I find their indivisibility immensely satisfying, suggestive of an eternal significance which shows up in unexpected places. For instance, I could never quite put my finger on why the game of rugby is such a dire spectacle, until I realised: there are 15 players on each side! The prime numbered 11-a-side codes of football and cricket are self-evidently superior. In a similar vein, when a football club wins five European Cups (as my Liverpool did in 2005) it gets to keep the trophy in perpetuity and UEFA commissions a new one, to be tossed around cheaply among subsequent winners of the tournament… until that magical prime number is reached once more.

Back to climate change. A brief review of previous UNFCCC COPs reveals a curious pattern in which significant moments of progress are marked by prime numbers. At COP3 in Kyoto, negotiators hammered out the eponymous Protocol, which to date remains the only legally-binding international climate treaty ever brokered (although as I write this, news filters through that Canada has withdrawn due to its failure to meet commitments – a bit like skiving off your final exams the day before because you didn’t show up at any lectures). In Marrakech, COP7 reached an agreement on how to implement the Kyoto Protocol among 193 of the 194 signatories of the UNFCCC, the sole absentee being the nation that is by far the largest historic contributor of GHGs to the atmosphere. Montreal’s climate summit in 2005 was significant for being the first meeting of the Parties to Kyoto, namely COP11/MOP1 – two prime numbers in one conference! Two years later, in another prime double-header, it was at COP13/CMP3 in Bali where the intransigent US was famously shamed by Papua New Guinea’s Kevin Conrad, who issued the challenge to either lead, or “get out of the way”. The US backed down, opening the way for the Bali Roadmap that was intended to deliver a “Kyoto 2” in Copenhagen.

I won’t lay the blame for COP15’s failure to deliver entirely at the door of composite numbering. At least the signature text of the summit went as far as to declare – for the first time at a UNFCCC conference – what was meant by the Convention’s ultimate objective to “avoid dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”. By introducing the 2°C threshold – with deep emissions cuts guided by science and on the basis of equity – the Copenhagen Accord (PDF) was not entirely useless, setting the tone for the Cancun Agreements issued at the low-key COP16. As for the rest of the even-numbered COPs, they were undoubtedly necessary staging posts on the way to the prime events, but honestly, who remembers what happened at COP14 in Poznan? Anyone? How about COP12 in Nairobi? Like the World Cup group stages, there’d be no knock-out phase without them, but barring the occasional seven-goal thriller they’re generally pretty tedious affairs.

So what of COP17? Despite hosts South Africa receiving widespread and deserved praise for saving the talks from total collapse, many have correctly asserted that the Durban Platform contains nothing of substance that helps steer the world from its catastrophic business-as-usual 4°C trajectory. No international legal framework has been agreed (yet), national voluntary pledges made in the wake of Copenhagen have not been tightened, business leaders may still claim paralysis owing to a lack of regulatory certainty. On the flip side, the most complex political negotiations ever attempted remain intact, with all 194 Parties – including the world’s largest absolute emitter, the world’s fastest growing emitter, the world’s largest per capita emitter, and the world’s largest historical emitter – committed to negotiating by 2015 a legally-binding deal to cut emissions that will enter into force by 2020. Perhaps it will take the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report (PDF), due towards the end of 2014, to provide the fresh impetus to the negotiations.

Meanwhile, national governments continue to enact domestic laws to penalise GHG emissions, irrespective of the perceived failure of the international negotiations. The UK’s landmark Climate Change Act set the ball rolling in 2008, but now even carbon-intensive emerging economies like South Africa are on the verge of introducing carbon taxes, hot on the heels of Australia’s recent legislation. From a business perspective, surely the drums are now beating loud enough for companies to start planning for success rather than failure in humanity’s collective efforts to address climate change. If we think mitigation for 2°C is expensive and complex, just wait until we start adapting for 4°C. As one observer wrote in the aftermath of Durban, “It’s not a choice between a climate change deal and economic development; it’s really a choice of both or neither.”

Durban may not have been the emphatic breakthrough that most of us wished for, but I’m convinced future historians will judge it to have been an historic COP: the one at which the pump was primed.

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.  

The Five Stages of Climate Change Denial

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

On July 29th I attended yet another “Global Summit on Sustainability”, this time jointly hosted by the UK-based World Council for Corporate Governance (WCFCG) and the Indian Institute of Directors (IOD) at the National Liberal Club in London.  Our very own co-founder John Elkington adroitly side-stepped the kind of technology failure that would torpedo a lesser public speaker by discarding his prepared speech and instead delivering a riveting keynote off-the-cuff.  It culminated in the warning that inter-generational equity is becoming an increasingly significant sustainability driver, with a potentially explosive sense of outrage rising among young people, directed toward the baby boomer generation judged to have acted so irresponsibly with their legacy.

John was followed by Lord Anthony Giddens, Emeritus Professor at the LSE and author of the excellent book The Politics of Climate Change.  Whereas John had emphasized the systemic nature of the challenges we face – The Sustainability Survey which we conducted with GlobeScan in 2009 highlighted twelve separate (but related) threats deemed by global sustainability experts to be “urgent” – Giddens zeroed in on what he called the defining issues of the 21st century: climate change and energy security.

Climate change is different from the other urgent threats (like water shortages, poverty, biodiversity loss, food security, economic instability, etc.) in that it is a cumulative phenomenon that cannot easily be reversed.  The Earth’s climate system may change – indeed, may have already changed – irrevocably, while we are mostly too busy to notice.  Furthermore, climate change is historically unique because, as Giddens stated, no other civilisation in world history has been remotely this close to “changing the very nature of nature”.

According to Giddens, June 2010 was the 304th consecutive month in which the global surface temperature exceeded the 20th century average, as evidenced in The Met Office graphs.  Still, incredibly, we hear loud dissenting voices.  But the nature of the dissent is definitely changing, and here I offer what we might call the 5 stages of climate change denial – please feel free to challenge or build upon these.  I do believe it’s essential to identify where people stand in the debate, in order to know on which level to engage.  Also, watch carefully as those with powerful vested interests – hell-bent on obfuscation and delayed action – flit effortlessly from one stage of denial to another (often apparently without realising the internal inconsistency in their arguments):

1) Climate change isn’t happening

This point of view has all but completely disappeared in the face of an overwhelming body of scientific evidence to the contrary.  These are the “flat Earthers” of the climate change debate, and it can be difficult to know whether to feel anger or extreme sympathy towards them.

2) Climate change is happening, but it’s part of the Earth’s natural cycles

Harder for the layman to refute when presented with the largely obvious fact that our home planet has cycled through several ice ages over the millenia, but a huge body of scientific evidence points to a human signature in the types of changes we are currently experiencing.

3) Climate change is happening, it may well be due to human activity, but it’s generally beneficial

“So what if sub-Saharan Africa fries and Bangladesh goes under?  The frozen wastes of Siberia will become the new bread-basket of the world!”  It’s incredible to think that otherwise reasonable people are advocating a planetary-scale experiment – with human civilisation at the centre – in which we would knowingly create conditions that have not existed since hundreds of thousands of years before homo sapiens first walked the Earth.  (Modern humans are understood to have appeared around 150,000-200,000 years ago, while atmospheric GHG concentrations are now higher than at any time in the last 800,000 years.)

4) Climate change is happening, it’s probably due to human activity, but it’s not going to be as bad as the computer models suggest

This is a relatively new one, and it’s quite sophisticated because it is really difficult to refute.  The basic argument is that computer-based projections of the climate sensitivity to growing GHG concentrations have been over-stated, and that we can continue to dig stuff out of the ground and set it on fire with impunity.  This point of view was expressed by Pat Michaels in last week’s Financial Times.

5) Climate change is happening, it is caused by human activity, it’s a really bad thing, but there’s very little we can do about it and there are lots of other bad things we should attack first

Bjoern Lomborg has virtually trade-marked this position.  It’s very clever because it casts those who would advocate for monumental efforts to embrace a truly sustainable model of human development as well-meaning but ultimately misguided.  However, it falls over because unless we do successfully tackle climate change, the future of human civilisation as we know it hangs in the balance, and an unimaginably difficult existence awaits billions.

Two degrees is too much

To avoid many of the worst consequences of climate change, the increase in global average surface temperature must remain below 2°C compared with the pre-industrial era.  Measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions commensurate with this overarching ambition must be guided by the best available science.  Here I explain why I continue to advocate the 2°C threshold for avoiding dangerous climate change, why I don’t embrace a “ppm” target, and what 2°C means for policy makers and the business community.  This article first appeared on the website of think tank and strategy consultancy SustainAbility

Credible climate change policies and business strategies are driven by the primary objective of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – ratified by 192 countries, including the US and China – as well as being informed by the scientific assessments of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the authoritative voice on the causes, impacts, and mitigation of climate change.  

Article 2 of the UNFCCC states as its ultimate objective: “to stabilise GHG concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”  The problem is that the UNFCCC never went so far as to define what “dangerous” meant, and this omission has been a bone of contention ever since.  However, through different means, several researchers have arrived at the figure of 2° Celsius, referring to the maximum acceptable increase in the Earth’s average surface temperature versus the pre industrial era.  

The 2°C threshold has since become the de facto limit advocated by most civil society organisations concerned with climate change, as well as several scientific advisory bodies.  In the mid 1990s it was also adopted by the European Union as official policy and therefore, by extension, by the heads of government of the EU Member States.

The EU’s first mention of the need to stay below 2°C appears in the Spring Council conclusions of 1996.  Referring to the IPCC’s Second Assessment Report (SAR) – the most recent scientific assessment at that time – the European Council introduced a link between 2°C and 550 ppm (parts per million) of CO2:

The Council believes that global average temperatures should not exceed 2 degrees above pre industrial level and that therefore concentration levels lower than 550 ppm CO2 should guide global limitation and reduction efforts.

Back in 1996, based on the contemporary science of IPCC SAR, it was believed that stabilisation of atmospheric CO2 concentrations at below 550 ppm would deliver a below 2°C outcome.  Numerous policy makers and businesses subsequently adopted 550 ppm, and many have since failed to move in step with the advancing science.

In 2003, the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU) issued a report titled “Climate Protection Strategies for the 21st Century: Kyoto and Beyond”.  In it, the link was explicitly made between temperature increase and tangible climate related impacts, such as: threats to biodiversity; food security; water scarcity; and ice sheet collapse.  The WBGU reaffirmed its earlier conviction that in order to avert dangerous climatic changes “it is essential to comply with a ‘climate guard rail’ defined by a maximum warming of 2°C relative to pre-industrial values”.  To meet this requirement, it recommended a stabilisation target of below 450 ppm CO2, accompanied by substantial reductions in other GHGs.

Two years later in 2005, an International Climate Change Taskforce (ICCT) – comprising leading scientists, public officials, and representatives of business and NGOs from both developed and developing countries – published a report titled “Meeting the Climate Challenge” which said essentially the same thing regarding the dangerous 2°C threshold, but went further than the WBGU by assigning a much stricter GHG limit of 400 ppm CO2-equivalent (CO2e).  Accounting for current levels of non-CO2 greenhouse gases, this figure amounted to roughly 350 ppm CO2.

It is now believed that even this target may be too high; the IPCC AR4 suggested that stabilisation at 400 ppm CO2e could lead to a temperature rise anywhere up to 2.5°C.

Alarmed by the lack of practical progress on climate change, civil society organisations have been cranking up the pressure on the road to COP-15 in Copenhagen.  The campaign group was established following the publication of a study by NASA climatologist James Hansen and colleagues in 2008, titled “Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?”  The report’s conclusions?  CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm CO2 – with the greatest uncertainty in the target arising from possible changes in non-CO2 effects.

The initial “350” call was more or less aligned with the recommendation of the ICCT in 2005.  However, the campaign has morphed during its relatively short lifetime to mean the more challenging 350 ppm CO2e, as the website explains: 

Climate impacts happening more quickly than anticipated have led to see the 350 ppm target not only in terms of CO2, but CO2e.  On a technical level, this becomes a more ambitious target, incorporating other greenhouse gases.  On a practical level, it signifies the same priorities has embodied all along.

To complete the picture, in July 2009 following the welcome return of the United States to constructive international dialogue, at the Major Economies Forum on Climate Change in L’Aquila, Italy, leaders of the world’s largest economies – including the EU, US, Japan, China, India, Brazil and Russia – made the following ground-breaking declaration:

We recognise the scientific view that the increase in global average temperature above pre-industrial levels ought not to exceed 2°C.

Despite falling short of calling for a long-term target for stabilisation or percentage emissions cuts, the political significance of this declaration is huge.  What is clear from the science is that to stand a reasonable chance of staying below 2°C, we will need to engineer a rapid transition to a completely decarbonised energy system by 2050, as well as reversing deforestation and cutting emissions from other land-based sources.

It is for good reasons that the 2°C principle is widely accepted by heads of State, civil society organisations, climate change scientists and policy makers.  But the threshold has not been universally accepted.  To date, we do not know of any business that has a publicly declared ambition to keep global warming below 2°C.  Then again, we are not aware of any business that has taken any public position on what represents “dangerous” climate change.

The really bad news – and perhaps an insight into why businesses are slow to embrace 2°C – is that every time we look at the science it seems the greenhouse gas stabilisation target for avoiding 2°C is lower than before: from 550 ppm CO2 in 1996, to 450 ppm CO2 in 2003, to 400 ppm CO2e in 2005, even as low as 350 ppm CO2e in 2009.

This is precisely the reason why the 2°C concept is so important to understand. “Staying below 2°C” sets the overarching level of ambition, from which we derive stabilisation targets in “parts per million” (based on the best available science), which then inform us about actionable “percentage emissions reductions” (e.g. minus 85% by 2050).  We cannot fall into the trap of conflating 2°C with a particular ppm stabilisation target – recent history has shown this to be folly.

Our atmosphere is already loaded with greenhouse gases to the tune of around 435 ppm CO2e and rising by 2-3 ppm every year, i.e. well beyond what today’s science indicates is the necessary long-term stabilisation level.  So as well as eliminating emissions from fossil fuels, we will likely need to enhance terrestrial carbon sinks – through massive reforestation programmes and advanced soil management practices – as well as considering other ways to suck CO2 out of the atmosphere if we are to stand any chance of avoiding “dangerous climate change”.