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.


Mark Fox said...

Good analysis and very insightful - would be good to share this at the next branch meeting.

Mark Fox said...

Good analysis and very insightful - would be good to share this at the next branch meeting.