Climate Institutions COP (Conference of Parties) Weekly Climate Change Briefing

Weekly Climate Change Briefing, 16 December 2019

Climate change news, people, gossips and tech.

United Nations Climate Change COP 25 in Madrid ends without any agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions

No surprise. Ask any climate pro.

Two weeks in Madrid. The tapas were delicious and the Rioja flowed into the early mornings. Two weeks of fine amuse bouche but no deal on reducing greenhouse gas emissions at the 25th Conference of Parties (COP) of the United Nations Climate Convention. (Climate kids, click on the links to learn the basics of what the COP is and what the UN Climate Convention consist of).

European Union’s closing statement: “It is disappointing that after years of hard work […] we could not agree on […] incentives to reduce emissions… Yet there are some bridges that we just cannot cross if we are to maintain a credible position with our partners and with our citizens at home.”

A great photo by Daniel Jensen on Unsplash
No agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions yet…

Nobody budged on their positions. Nobody has in years. In plain, English, I’m summarizing the respective positions of the big players at the Conference:

Australia: We like coal. We can use creative carbon accounting to show we have reduced emissions in the past.

India, China: We’re poor and it’s the (white) rich man’s fault. He has been polluting far longer than we have, now it’s our turn.

Saudi Arabia: Oil prices are going down, we should be compensated, we are a developing country. Want some shares in Aramco? (note: Saudi GDP per capita is higher than that of most developed countries)

The US: We don’t all think like Californians do. Anyway, any deal has to go through Congress. Climate liability? Talk to our lawyer.

Humankind to Mother Earth: Hold tight, we’re kicking the can down the (now flooded) road another year.

The COP and the United Nations Climate Convention look more and more irrelevant and disconnected from reality. The European Union has agreed on its own voluntary plans for climate neutrality (See below). Worldwide, provincial and territorial governments, along with private sector firms are pledging greenhouse gas reductions. So should we care if Australia, Saudi Arabia and other coal and oil producers are on board on not? There’s always something you can do for our planet right now, just be the change yourself.

“Europe’s (minus Poland) Man on the Moon Moment”: The European Union aims to become climate neutral by 2050

The European Union’s commitment to climate neutrality by 2050 is big and bold. It means that Europe as a whole will have zero emission by 2050 and will thus no longer happily contribute to pumping tons of greenhouse gases into the planet’s atmosphere. The European Commission’s President, Ursula von der Leyen, calls it a moonshot. It won’t be easy to achieve. But if anyone has a successful track record at decoupling economic growth from greenhouse gas emissions, it is Europe.

Earlier in June, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic had opposed the move without firm commitments to subsidize their economies. This time, the remaining holdout is Poland.

Poland derives 80% of its electricity from coal. It has the dubious distinction of being the home of the World’s largest lignite power station. Lignite is a particularly dirty form of coal with low energy content. It is abundant in Poland.

Climate Finance Climate Institutions

Principles for Responsible Investments (PRI) writes to International Energy Agency (IEA) about rebadging of fossil fuel scenarios: “We urge you to do better… The IEA cannot be derelict of this responsibility”.

Punch club

On my left: the United Nations Principles of Responsible Investments (UNPRI). Founded in 2006. The UNPRI is not your average United Nations agency. In fact it’s not. It has two board members from UN organizations, but the other eleven represent some of the largest asset managers in the World. About $20 trillion worth of assets are managed by PRI members. That’s a lot of zeros. Basically, people who manage your portfolio of stocks and bonds, possibly your pension fund. It’s more like an independent guild. It doesn’t get funding from the UN, and it represents the interests of its members and ultimately yours. There is currently a big move towards ethical and responsible investing. From pension funds, down to individual investors, people are no longer comfortable putting their hard earn cash into polluting industries with questionable social and environmental practices. Investors want juicy returns on their portfolio of stocks but they are increasingly wary of the catastrophic impacts of climate change on the planet and on the companies they own. PRI members have been arguing that financial markets are underestimating the costs of climate change to businesses.

United Nations Principles for Responsible Investments

On my right: The International Energy Agency (IEA). Founded in 1974. The IEA is an “autonomous” inter-governmental organization that is part of the World’s club of rich countries, formally known as the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Its members include the US and some of its friends (Mexico and Turkey), and the other developed countries. The IEA was created in the aftermath of the 1973 oil crisis, when planners thought it was a matter of years before we were going to run out of oil for our flying cars. Oil security is to this day the core concern of the IEA. The IEA is best known for its compendium of energy statistics, market moving oil reports and annual “Global Energy Outlook”. The Global Energy Outlook is quite the organizational and intellectual exercise as it covers long term projections of the World’s energy production, consumption, trade and investments. It’s the mothership of the agency’s glossy publications.

World Energy Outlook 2019 by International Energy Agency

The letter in plain English

My experience of UN folks is that they are usually unctuous and mellifluous (unless they are dealing with climate consultants like me). It is amusing to see the Chief Executive Officer of PRI sparing no punch in her letter to the Executive Director of the IEA. They’re on a first name basis. It’s all good, right? I bet at EIA they are in righteous outrage mode. 🥊

Basically, in plain English, this is what the letter says: “Yo, we wrote you a letter in April to get your act together about your nonsense fossil fuel scenarios. Several months later, you do nothing while planet is burning. You really suck at your job.”

Of course it’s all couched in diplomatic parlance, but unless the guy is daft (he’s very smart), he must have gotten the message louder and clearer. The IEA mainstream scenario takes the world beyond 2.7ºC of warming. 🔥

It is not the first time that the EIA has come under criticism for underestimating the potential role of renewable energy technologies in its forecasts. To be fair, I am not sure the famed Pythia of Delphi could get the detailed statistical projections right either (though she could have foreseen climate change disasters and the central role of renewable energies). I can understand the clash of culture between PRI asset managers used to quickly reacting to market changes and EIA government officials used to the more slovenly pace of oil supertankers.

A personal anecdote

About ten years ago, I got tired of sleeping in the jungle and job hopping climate change assignments from country to country. I had a near miss with the IEA: I applied for a job in Paris, where the agency is based. The first thing I noticed is how beautiful the receptionists were (they were selected female of the species, no male though). The interviews went rather well, and everybody was pleasant through and through. The job was insanely well paid with benefits galore and a cafeteria that beats anything you can get in the village. I got on well with my potential boss and in the end he confided, “You know, we have a climate change department here, but the organization doesn’t really believe in the issue.” Wa wa wee wa. I need to get a job interview with the PRI now for the sake of objectivity.

When I first started working on climate change projects, we all thought that global warming was coming at a stately pace. The world’s scientists agreed that we had fifty years or even a century to do something. But we’re not in the 1990s, today, climate change is everywhere we look. It’s time for more enlightened alternatives to fossilized thinking.

It’s nice to know that some of our pension funds are taking a better look at their investments into climate change irresponsible companies. There’s always something you can do for our planet right now, just be the change yourself.

Climate Institutions

What is the United Nations Climate Convention? (UNFCCC)

What you need to know about the UNFCCC

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is an international climate change agreement. It was adopted in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. All countries of the world have signed the Climate Convention. The objective is to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions to prevent the dangerous effects of climate change 🎯. Unfortunately, the Convention does not include any enforcement mechanism. The Climate Convention is basically a shell, a “framework”, for countries to further negotiate binding emission reductions. It’s basically toothless but it does provide an institutional set up for world leaders to haggle.

A Great Photo of Rio by Cerqueira on Unsplash
Rio de Janeiro, birthplace of the UN Climate Convention

Adopted three decades ago

1992. Rio de Janeiro. Earth Summit. The stuff of legend for your average environmentalist. Definite potential for a Hollywood “based on real facts” classic film. The Climate Convention was adopted then and there. Almost three decades ago. I don’t know how many people back then expected humankind to have been wise enough to deal with climate change by now. I think a majority of participants, except for the usual cynics.

I remember when I first learnt about the UNFCCC, I couldn’t remember whether there were two, three or even four Cs in the acronym. You won’t hear people use the acronym much. Instead they’ll refer to the “United Nations Climate Convention”, the “UN Climate Convention”, the “Climate Convention” or the “Convention”. There’s nothing much conventional about this convention, except for the lengthy mouthful acronym that doesn’t really make you want to buy the product. Yea, marketing wise they could have done better.

I carried fondly the full text in my student backpack for months until my exams. It was printed on recycled paper in black and blue and the whole Convention fitted neatly in a booklet. You can download the full text from the UNFCCC website. The text is actually totally readable. It even has some epic moments. Not a tearjerker, but there are definitely some inspirational passages.

The Ultimate Objective of the Climate Convention

The “ultimate objective of this Convention” is to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” What it means, is that countries that sign up to the Convention will together try to keep global emissions low so that we don’t all suffer from serious and dangerous climate effects like wild forest fires, melting glaciers, drying up rivers, massive typhoons and so on. You can see clearly that from that perspective (not messing up with the earth’s climate), the UN Climate Convention has not been very successful so far. 😭

Common but Differentiated Responsibilities

This is a key sticking point, and the source of endless rounds of fruitless bickering. The countries that sign up to the Climate Convention have in theory a common goal to prevent climate change. This has never been truly the case. Many countries have signed up but don’t really care about climate change.

In addition, the Convention recognizes that poorer countries are less likely to be able to do much about climate change compared to developed nations (that’s the “differentiated responsibilities” part). The Convention states that developed countries should take the lead in combating climate change.

If you are a developing country, the Convention recognizes that you have the right to develop your economy and that you won’t have the money or the capacity to reduce greenhouse gases. The problem is that there is a world of differences between the emissions of Laos and Samoa, and those of China and India. Putting small islands in the same group as large industrialized countries under the label “developing country Parties” has not been very helpful.

Remember when the Convention was adopted? Early 1990s? The World was a very different place with the large newly industrialized economies barely waking up from a long slumber. Smartphones didn’t exist and China’s factories were not churning out much.

Without China, Russia, India, Brazil committing to greenhouse gas reductions, there’s a good excuse for the US not to do anything. Without the US committing to emissions reductions, there’s a good excuse for others not do to anything. It’s a shouting match.

A Great Photo by Attentie Attentie on Unsplash
Next round of climate negotiations

Sign up to the Climate Convention, do what you want

Every existing country in the World has signed the Climate Convention. South Sudan was one of the latest signatories. Basically, the minute you establish a new country, you sign up to the UNFCCC. I suppose it doesn’t really commit you to doing much, less than a timeshare in the Tropics.

Sure, you have a grandiloquent national declaration (curt statements are also accepted), but without any enforcement mechanism, it amounts to little more than a personal pledge that you will do what you can, when you can to combat climate change. The Climate Convention is pretty much toothless 🦷.

There’s always an excuse. He polluted more than me. I am poorer than her. There was the subprime crisis. Always an excuse to postpone doing something meaningful about climate change.

Thirty years after the UN Climate Convention was signed, we’re not closer to healing our planet’s climate.

You took the bus today, that’s helpful right? 🚌 Public transport, less pollution. I’m doing what I can too, I took the bus today… There’s always something you can do for our planet right now, just be the change yourself.

Climate Diary Climate Institutions COP (Conference of Parties)

Annual Climate COP (Conference of Parties) – Should I stay or should I go?

From Santiago to Madrid

It’s that time of the year again when people working in the climate change arena converge to meet at the annual Conference of Parties (COP) of the United Nations Climate Convention (the real official name is longer, but I translate into plain English for you). From the smallest island states to the largest industrialized nations, teams of climate change negotiators, scientists, activists, journalists and eager climate change tourists start planning their trips to Santiago de Chile. Wait a minute… Scratch that! Change your flight reservations and Airbnb bookings to Madrid de España instead. Yay, we are all going to Spain…

I was looking forward to meeting up some local buddies in Chile (I’ve never been). And I had already looked up historical sites for Valparaiso, the famed “Jewel of the Pacific”. The ongoing civil protests throughout Chile led the government to cancel the COP. It doesn’t look good to see on global television people getting beaten up. The COP tends to attract a fair amount of attention on the host country. Nothing to see here, move along.

Valparaiso, a great photo by Luis Alfonso Orellana on Unsplash
I was going to Chile for the Climate COP…

While some of my eminent colleagues will be sailing to the COP, I will most likely fly economy, also known as cattle class or fight club. See, I am an independent climate change consultant, working pro-bono for local non-government organizations and for cash for private sector firms. My clients are bean counters, and rightly so. They do not tolerate the luxury of business airfare as international organizations usually demand. As a climate change mercenary, I’m used to sleeping anywhere, anytime I can, as long as it’s safe. I don’t like sleeping on the floor, I use a hammock. Business class would be more comfortable but I can sleep through several helpings of airplane food without batting an eyelid 😴 .

For my friends and colleagues in developing countries, especially the poorest nations, it will be tough to get a Schengen visa in time for Spain. The Schengen visa is basically the European Union visa. If you’re from a middle income country like Malaysia, not a  problem, no visa needed, but if you’re from Zimbabwe or Cambodia, you just may not be able to get the visa in time for the annual climate change meetup. Processing times vary from embassy to embassy but it’s usually a matter of several weeks. So a last minute venue change from Chile to Madrid blows to smithereens carefully planned travel itineraries.

Madrid, A great photo by Jorge Fernández Salas on Unsplash
But it will be Madrid instead!

Celebrities at the COP

Sometimes, you can meet celebrities at the COP. I have a selfie with Governor Terminator Schwarzenegger. And also with Vice-President Al Gore in the background (I was unceremoniously shoved aside by a UN police officer). Yea, that UN cop was a gorilla shadowing Al Gore and he just bulldozed through a crowd of us, as if he was driving a school bus through brain eating zombies. This year, I was tempted to go get a selfie with Greta, but I’m sure she’s got some bodyguards as well. There’s an overabundance of security at COP. To protect the big shots, I guess, Presidents, Ministers, Secretaries of State, Under Secretaries of State, Head of Stuff and so forth.

Don’t expect Comic-Con San Diego. Some participants do wear their national costumes, and that does add a bit of color to the event. You’ll see plenty of suits (they’re not even worn by bankers or lawyers, just international organizations and government officials). It’s not really glam either. I haven’t seen Taylor Swift at a COP yet 🎸 .

Talks, side-events and amuse bouche

In theory, if you read the press, it’s at the COP that vital super important climate change decisions that will determine the future of the planet are made. The COP is the “supreme decision making body” of the United Nations Climate Convention. Every country in the world sends a delegation. That’s a lot of countries, and a lot of people that need to agree on immediate urgent climate action. Backroom dealings between countries don’t really take place at COP. It happens year round. I never really understood why the top 20 polluters couldn’t just talk it out. Everybody knows the respective positions of the US, Europe, Japan, China and India. I don’t expect them to come up with some last minute ground breaking proposals. The COP is just the formal meeting point. It takes years for countries to agree on anything. A few days in Santiago or Madrid won’t make much of a difference. The Non-Government Organizations (NGOs), the charities and environmental not for profits, also send their people, in the hope of putting some pressure on governments to act. Most governments of the world don’t get elected, so I don’t believe they care much about a few strongly worded speeches from grassroots organizations.

There’s a lot of talk at the COP. Plenary sessions with PowerPoint presentations, side events with PowerPoint presentations (and sometimes drinks and foods after the Powerpoints). With the jet lag, some participants doze off during the talks. You get indigestion of talks and PowerPoint slides. Rarely of food. There’s never enough food or drinks, and a lot of hungry bellies. I quite like the side events. I’ve had sushi, cerviche, amuse bouche, exotic cocktails and fine wines from across the globe at side events 🍹. That’s where people get to share what they did on the ground. Real stuff. It could be anything from breeding algae that absorb greenhouse gases to distributing flood emergency kits. You get also goodie bags with promotional materials and trinkets: stickers, flash drives, solar powered LED lights, t-shirts etc. There’s a real sense of camaraderie among the rank and file crowd, the unknown climate change foot soldiers and mercenaries, and you end up hanging out after hours with old friends and new acquaintances. There is also a nagging angst that little really gets done because you cannot hope to achieve consensus among the faceless member countries. COP after hours away from the suits are the best.

It’s like in the song. Should I stay or should I go? If I go there will be trouble. And if I stay it will be double. Don’t wait for the COP to do anything about climate change. It might, but it will take a very long time. Hope springs eternal. There’s always something you can do for our planet right now, just be the change yourself. 😋