22 December, 2009

Cold comfort in Copenhagen

The Gods were laughing at us as the Climate Change talks finished up in Copenhagen. 

The temperature kept dropping and heavy snow fell not just over Denmark, but over northern Europe and the United States. That's a pic I took of the 'Hopenhagen' globe that hosted various events just before I boarded a night-train back home to Ireland.

Oxfam described the deal as a 'Cop-out', and as a 'triumph of spin over substance'. Sure there is a mention of the need to keep world's temperature increase to under 2 degrees, and a fund of $100 billion is mentioned, but that's a goal, not a commitment.

I'm beginning to think of the Climate Change issue as being similar to the layers of an onion. The outer layer consists of the need to convince people that the world is warming. Given the amount of conspiracy theorists out there, combined with some poor academic standards from the boffins at the University of East Anglia, a lot more work is necessary to argue the science in a clear level-headed way.

The second challenge is to adopt the two degree target. Some countries, particularly the more vulnerable ones are arguing that the limit should be lower - 1.5 degrees, and the debate over the limiting the average temperature increase isn't fully resolved.

That brings us on the 'parts per million' (ppm) argument. That's a measurement of how many ppm of carbon dioxide we wish to limit emissions at. Bill McKibben from 350.org was lobbying hard for a limit of 350ppm, and we're currently at 387ppm, so that would involve significant reductions. Charles David Keeling's pioneering work at Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii showed how levels of carbon dioxide have risen rapidly over the last fifty years as illustrated in the Keeling Curve

Given that different countries have varying levels of emissions per capita the principle of 'contraction and convergence' encapsulates a sensible  approach to lowering global emissions. The more developed countries need to reduce their emissions and the developing countries should be allowed to increase emissions, ultimately resulting in the same level in all countries that would stabilise average global temperatures.

Ireland's emissions increased dramatically during the Tiger years to between eleven and seventeen tonnes per head of population depending on the source you use, highr than most other countries. That's why we set a target of reducing emissions by around 3% per year in the Programme for Government, and we're bring forward a Climate Change Bill to ensure that all branches of Government play their part in achieving this.

Government policies can help to limit emissions. We've changed the road tax regime so you pay €100 per year on a cleaner vehicle and €2000 for a high-polluter. We've also racked up the building regulations by 40% and intend to go further in a couple of years time. Home energy grants  help encourage people to upgrade their home and save money on heating and emissions. The new carbon levy at €15 per tonne will help motivate people to reduce emissions

At the heart of the onion is the way we live our lives. Government must provide carrots as well as sticks to help us change our ways. A lot of the side-events that I attended in Copenhagen were focussed on low-carbon jobs and I'm fairly confident that much of the new jobs in Ireland will come from solutions that help limit emissions in energy, agriculture, construction and transport.

The journey back from Copenhagen was a slow one. I seem to have been luck enough to have caught one of the few Eurostars that made it through from Brussels to London on Saturday, but all the trains were delayed. I met a  great guy from Nobber, Co. Meath on the night-boat on his way back from selling christmas trees in England. His last name was Gogarty and we joked about how between the sound-bites from James Gogarty a few years ago and Paul Gogarty in the last few weeks, he couldn't open his mouth without people expecting colourful language.

The Copenhagen process will continue, with another Conference of the Parties (COP16) scheduled for Mexico next December. Hopefully by then we'll have more commitments on the table from China, the United States and other pivitol countries so that meaningful action can take place to tackle the challenge of our changing climate.

18 December, 2009

Pushmi-pullyu politics

The pushmi-pullyu is a mythical animal that features in Hugh Loftus's children's stories.

It is a gazelle-unicorn cross with two heads (one of each) at opposite ends of its body. When it tries to move, both heads try to go in opposite directions. That's not unlike the negotiations at the United Nations Climate Change Conference Conference here in Copenhagen. COP15 stands for the fifteenth Conference of the Parties Parties, and the next twenty-four hours will make or break a deal.

At the Plenary this evening there were signs of optomism that may result in negotiations through the night that would push the texts along for the final work by national leaders in the morning. 

Fingers crossed.

Today I attended two sessions hosted by the Bellona Foundation, a Norwegian Environmental research body. The worhshops should have taken place in the Bella Centre, but because most NGOs haven't been able to gain access, they had moved into the basement of a cafe in central Copenhagen, which gave me a chance for a brief but enjoyable walk through the city centre where I You-Tubed a few bikes.

The first session was on clean jobs - what we used to call green jobs. The speakers from India, South Africa, India and the UK showcased a report 'Low-Carbon jobs in an Inter-Connected World' published by the Global Climate Network.

The second workshop was entitled Fair Climate: US Constituencies perspectives. Gloria Reuben (aka Jeanie Boulet of ER) gave an emotional account of her visit to the coal-mining areas of West Virginia, and spoke about the lobbying power of Big Coal. Jacqueline Patterson from Women of Color United for Climate Justice ticked all the boxes, and spoke well about issues ranging from gender vulnerability to community gardening programmes in the United States. She's just back from an eight week, fifteen state  'Road Tour and Mobilization' where she heard the views and experiences of U.S. women of color in this pivotal era of climate change.  

Jerome Ringo from the Apollo Alliance spoke in words that seemed inspired by Dr. King as he stated:

"Today must be the beginning of the answer to your grandchildren when they ask you in fifteen or twenty years time,'what did you do in Copenhagen?'"

 It loses something when written down, but he spoke beautifully, and from the heart. 

John Grant from an organisation with  brilliant name - '100 Black Men of Atlanta' spoke about empowering young people and wanting his kids to be able to see the stars in a sky free from light pollution when they grew up. The speakers were strong on rhetoric, but they were a great counter-point to the dry research and turgid negotiating texts that dominate the Conference.

We went back to the Bella Centre and met Niamh Garvey from Trócaire (blogging here), John Sweeney from NUI Maynooth, Colin Roche from Oxfam and Pat Finnegan from Grian. Niamh talked about how a seventeen year old at the opening session last week talked about how negotiations had started in 1992, the year she was born, and that it was about time negotiations concluded.

We left for our train back across the bridge to Sweden where we're staying at around 11.30pm, leaving John Gormley and his staff from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to burn the midnight oil and prepare for his speech to the Environment Ministers' Plenary around 1 O'Clock in the morning. It had started snowing on the way back, and there were some very Christmassy looking bikes outside the railway Station in Malmo.  

Hopefully there'll be progress in the talks overnight. 

15 December, 2009

Can Copenhagen save the world?

"I can promise you a first class ticket to Heaven, but don't use it straight away"

That was Archbishop Tutu speaking earlier this morning making a plea for action on behalf of the most vulnerable countries that are being affected by climate change. He and Mary Robinson bookended an emotional session where we heard from citizens of Uganda, Bangladesh, Peru and Tuvalu discussing the challenges facing their countries.

Of course countries like Bangladesh have always had natural disasters that claimed lives, but climate change can increase storm surges in the Bay of Bengal that can swamp low-lying areas and kill tens of thousands. Low-lying nations like Tuvalu face increasing salinisation of farmland from storms and rising ocean levels. The guy with the hat on in the picture is Cayetano Huanca, a farmer from Peru. His village is prone to water shortages and hunger due to melting glacier. Mary Robinson pointed out that "300,000 died from the effects of climate last year."

They were speaking at an event hosted by Oxfam billed as the world's first international climate hearing at COP15 the United Nations Climate Change Conference here in Copenhagen. Thankfully I missed the eight hour queues in the freezing cold yesterday and got in early enough to catch the Oxfam hosted meeting.

I went on from there to a discussion of family planning and climate change, and met delegates from Ethiopia, the Maldives, Croatia and New Zealand. There was broad agreement that access to reliable family planning methods was the key to lifting many out of poverty.

After lunch I went on to a discussion on the 'Transition to a Green Growth Economy'. The panel included the Danish Minister of Economics and Business Affairs Lene Espersen, Nils Smedegaard Andersen from Maersk and Thomas Friedman, NY Times columnist. Thomas is trying to persuade Americans that green isn't a 'sissy' topic, and he appears to be succeeding. He said "I don't want it to be all about taxation and regulation, I want to encourage the engineers and innovators who'll help us tackle all of this."

There's 192 countries represented here this week, and the negociation gradually shifts from civil servants and scientists to the political players in this second week of the conference. I suspect the Copenhagen Conference won't save the world, but it will help focus attention on the necessity and the opportunities for change. From my perspective its an opportunity to explore the key issues and hear about the approaches that other countries are applying to the challenge.

13 December, 2009

Bound for Copenhagen

That's the Dún Laoghaire Greens giving me a send-off in the picture.

I'm headed for Copenhagen, and I set off on my 'slow travel' trip on Sunday lunchtime, after a coffee and a 'danish' in the Ferry Terminal in Dún Laoghaire. Tonight I'm in a hotel on the Euston Road, and tomorrow I'll travel by Eurostar to Brussels, then on to Cologne where I'll board a night-sleeper to the Danish capital, hopefully in time to hear Mary Robinson and Desmond Tutu address the United Nations Climate Change Conference. I'm also hoping to attend a session on family planning and climate change - a thorny subject, as well as workshops on planning and transportation

It'll be good to have some time to think, and to read on the journey, both of which seem to have become luxuries in the last few years.

I found my 1977 copy of Amory Lovin's "Soft Energy Paths" behind the washing machine the other night, and that's part of my reading material. I've also brought John Houghton's fourth edition of "Global Warming, the complete briefing". Herman Daly's "Beyond Growth" is also packed, along with David MacKay's "Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air". The Clerk from the Oireachtas Committee on Climate Change and Energy Security has also provided me with extensive briefing material, ranging from a Department of the Environment Heritage and Local Government summary, to the UN Review of Ireland's most recent submission, as well as the current US Senate position on Climate Change.

It's been a good week for tackling greenhouse gas emissions in Ireland. John Gormley delivered his third Carbon Budget, and published the framework for the Climate Change Bill 2010. Brian Lenihan's budget also introduced a carbon levy at €15 a tonne. That'll add around 5c to a litre of petrol. It won't change behaviour overnight, but it will send a market signal that we're beginning to take the issue seriously

The 1330 Dún Laoghaire-Holyhead ferry arrives into Holyhead just after the 1530 express train to Crewe leaves the platform. It's an annoying example of a lack of joined-up thinking, and helps explain why the sail-rail trip to London takes a similar amount of time as it did 100 years ago. Still, the trip was sociable: I ended up talking to a truck driver who was on his way back to Newport after delivering a second-hand driver unit to Holyhead for shipping to Ireland. There's great demand for them in Ireland in the last year or so, and apparently they sell for around £25,000 sterling- a bargain, or so I'm told.

The HSS ferry is scheduled to be withdrawn though from early January, and hopefully will be replaced with a decent alternative. Cheap air travel has sucked the passenger numbers off the ferries, partly because aviation has up to now been exempt from taxation. This is due to change though due to agreements hammered out at predecessors to the Copenhagen conference, so hopefully there'll shortly be a more level playing field between different types of travel that will take into account the carbon footprint. Interestingly the Arriva train down to Chester advertised its green credentials, as does the Virgin train service from there to London.

We may not get a binding political agreement in Copenhagen, but the presence of thousands of delegates (as well as protestors) shows that climate change has to be taken seriously.