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Archive for December, 2009

Whilst negotiators wrangled over long texts inside the Bella Centre in Copenhagen last week over how to adapt to climate change effects that are already locked-in and how to avoid looming environmental catastrophe, most of the rest of us in the city felt locked-out. This was firstly the result of a logistical issue, namely the complete failure of the organisers of the conference to plan for the massive increase in attendance, both from national delegations and observers. Many stood for over 10 hours without food or water in freezing conditions, only to have to blag their way in at the last moment. So most gave up trying altogether as the numbers permitted to attend per day were increasingly restricted. Then, paradoxically, for a non-Dane, it was very difficult to find out what was going on so close by. Those at home would have had better insights, as the news-stands and TV stations – all in Danish – only revealed clues of what was happening with images of celebrities, like Schwarzenegger and Obama, the titles of scare sheets lost in translation. Even the protests, police-lines and helicopters felt distant – locked-off in another part of the city, only visible if stumbled upon by chance. The rest of the city went about its business, seemingly unaware of the significance of the moment. Is this how the future of the planet will be decided? Behind closed doors, with the rest of the world watching-on with blinkered vision, mostly blind as to what it will mean for them?

Copenhagen was built up as the be-all and end-all deciding moment on climate change and the future of the planet. Much happened beforehand and in the wings that was constructive, so even the disappointment of the final agreement on the final day of the conference should be regarded in light of these other achievements. National governments and subnational governments have done a lot of work already and many will continue to do so. As Schwarzenegger put it at a Climate Group event celebrating the role of subnational governments, nothing significant is decided within the halls of power, all successful movements come from the grassroots level.

So, what was the grassroots level doing in Copenhagen? There was one day of organised protest where representatives from all elements of society – families, students.. – were present in numbers totalling about 100,000 and mostly peaceful. Otherwise, the protesting factions seemed tragically caught in the past and in a rhetoric that seemed formulaic and ineffective at best, and completely misguided at worst. At The Climate Group’s Climate Leaders’ Summit a gaggle of scruffy youth were dragged away by guards shouting ‘Our Climate in not your business’ and ‘this is what democracy looks like’… unaware I’m guessing that they were trying to disrupt a meeting of developing country and deverloped country regional governments who are working together to assist practical action on adaptation in the poorer regions of the world. Both inside and outside the Bella Centre protesters were intent on distrupting talks to allow ‘space for a real dialogue to occur’. A position of blind opposition to efforts by those who may have the power to save the planet seems a sad counterpoint by the civilian population.

But it is the civilian population that needs to be engaged in the fight against climate change. Some organisations ran clever poster campaigns, such as the one featured in the airport showing the aged faces of current leaders in 2020 sadly recognising that they could have saved the planet, but failed to do so. I would turn that back to each of us, picture each of our faces in the future – will we be able to look at ourselves and say that we did enough? Art exhibitions on climate change were numerous in the city and a welcome effort by those institutions and actors to turn their attention to the issue. While these works were often poignant and intellectually stimulating, how many of those on the streets entered into museums and had their lives changed? It’s a question for the arts that is often posed.

The resounding message from Copenhagen should be a call for each of us to climb out of our boxes. We are challenged by the limitations of our existing institutions and professions to mobilise the public. We need artists to climb out of museums, protesters to leave the march and the banner, the media to form opinion rather than exploit ignorance, and the politicians to stop opposing each other and find agreement, as in wartime. To rethink and reinvent we need to cross-pollinate, and communicate.

Premier Charest of Quebec, at a high-level roundtable of state and regional leaders – put down the challenge as a question – Do we seek to change the existing infrastructure and technology to allow people to continue their current lifestyles and quality of life or do we seek to influence what people consider acceptable as quality of life?  The answer probably lies somewhere in between. Environmental economists seem perfectly suited to address this challenge with their ability to connect the views and values of the public with the duties of public office, and the limits of our environment. Perhaps through engaging with the other professions – market researchers, artists and scientists – environmental economists can play an important role in unlocking this climate communications deadlock.

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Today marks the first day of The United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, the 15th conference of the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 15), and the 5th meeting of the parties to the Kyoto Protocol (COP/MOP 5).  Sixty heads of state including the UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, US President Barack Obama and Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao will be converging at Copenhagen this week in the hope of finalizing a follow-up framework to the Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to a sustainable level according to the latest scientific reports.  

Of particular interest to many is what part China, a developing country but also the most populous nation on Earth (1.3 billion people), will play in these agreements.  China’s vast potential for future greenhouse gas emissions makes it one of the key players of any international agreement on climate change. 

Madam Fu Ying is the current Chinese ambassador to the UK and has served as China’s ambassador to Australia and the Philippines, as well as the Director General of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs within their Department of Asian Affairs.  Madam Fu Ying’s lecture on the 2nd of December titled “Climate Change and China” was suitably timed, taking place just 5 days before the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.  The 400-seat lecture hall was filled to the brim with people hoping to learn more about China’s view on climate change mitigation and what steps they had taken or were planning to take, if any, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

Madam Fu Ying’s lecture left us anything but disappointed, filling us in on the climate change effects that had already hit China (an average temperature rise of 1.1 degrees within the last five decades and more frequent extreme weather, including a severe drought in Northern China last Spring that affected 4 million people), what polices China had already implemented and how successful they were, and what their hopes were for the Climate Change talks in Copenhagen.

During this, Madam Fu Ying reminded us of China’s status as a developing country, with 10% of its population – that is 135 million people – living on a wage of under US$1 a day.  China’s GDP per capita is $3,000.  Madam Fu Ying pointed out to us that when the UK had a similar GDP per capita it was the year 1913.

Despite this, China has voluntarily amended their Law on Energy Saving and Law on Renewable Energy to reduce carbon intensity by 20% per unit of GDP.  Madam Fu Ying showed us a table of carbon intensity reduction for the top two and the bottom two provinces in China in 2008 for reaching their reduction goal.  Beijing soared ahead with an actual reduction of 7.36% and a target of 5%, while the bottom province, Xinjiang, had reached a reduction of 3.15% (with a target of 4%).  Madam Fu Ying followed this statistic up by saying that Xinjiang was “lagging far behind and looks unlikely to meet the target and would need a lot of help”.  To me, sitting in the audience, this was amazing.  While attempting to grow their economy and increase the welfare of their citizens, they had still managed to turn their attention to reducing their carbon intensity (so much so that their worse performing province still managed to achieve a reduction of 3.15%), something the UK certainly did not have to deal with in 1913.

The last two lines of the above paragraph was a running theme in my head throughout the lecture.  It is true that China has the world’s fastest growing economy.  But it is also true that millions in China still live without running water or electricity.  While citizens and leaders of developed countries wring their hands and talk about climate change mitigation damaging the growth of their economy, China and other developing countries have already put in place aggressive policies to mitigate the carbon emissions of their growing economy, which have included closing down coal powered stations, leading to the loss of jobs.  We should be humbled by their efforts and not derisive about their refusal to cut emissions in total despite their status as a developing country.

Madam Fu Ying finished her lecture with China’s hopes for a successful international agreement on climate change in Copenhagen: 

  1. Developed countries, both those who have signed and not signed the Kyoto protocol, should undertake to achieve substantial emission reduction targets for the second commitment period under the Kyoto protocol.
  2. Financial and technological support from developed countries should be provided to developing countries to aid them in their efforts to mitigate climate change.
  3. Developing countries should also adopt mitigation measures within the framework of sustainable development and with point 2 above. 

These points sound reasonable and achievable.  Let’s hope the delegates at Copenhagen will agree.

For more information about the lecture including a podcast, video, transcript, and slides from the talk, check out the LSE page.

For more information on COP 15, check out the COP 15 – Copenhagen Website

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