Copenhagen’s carbon footprint

December 6, 2009

By Stephen Murgatroyd
Troy Media

Dr. Stephen Murgatroyd
Dr. Stephen Murgatroyd

EDMONTON, AB, Dec. 6, 2009/ Troy Media/ — Twelve hundred limousines, 140 private jets, 15,000 delegates, 10,000 environmental activists and lobbyists, over 100 world leaders and 5,000 journalists are making their way to Copenhagen for the climate change summit which begins this week and ends on Dec. 17.

Leonardo DiCaprio, Daryl Hannah, Helena Christensen, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Prince Charles and, of course, that leading expert on climate change, Al Gore, will all be there. According to summit organisers, the 11-day conference, including the participants’ travel, will create a total of 41,000 tonnes of “carbon dioxide equivalent,” equal to the amount produced over the same period by the Canadian cities of Red Deer (pop. 89,891), Lethbridge (pop. 85,492) and Medicine Hat (pop. 61,080) combined.

What will the delegates be up to?

First, they are looking for binding emissions targets from all nations so that the earth does not warm above two-degrees C by the end of the century. The magic number here is a 90-per-cent cut in CO2 emissions by 2050, with an interim cut of 25 to30 per cent on 1990 levels by 2020. The US and Canada are offering a three per cent cut on 1990 levels by 2020 (disguised as a 17-per-cent cut on 2005 levels). The key to success on reaching agreement on this component will be the offers made by India, China, Brazil and the US. Right now, they are far apart.

Threat to national sovereignty

The second item on the table is the mechanism for monitoring and “policing” the commitments nations make. The UN has proposed that there be a CO2-world body which, like the IMF, polices policies and actions and can intervene in a nation’s carbon system if their international obligations are not met. Satellite data will provide the monitoring evidence the carbon body needs to act. This challenges national sovereignty and will be a contentious issue. The intervention mechanisms under discussion include such thing as an international tax on carbon, adjustable by the strength of the carbon emissions achieved by a nation; border tariffs on products based on their carbon footprint; and sanctions.

Linked to this is the desire by many to create a global carbon trading market, in which licenses to emit are purchased by companies or organizations and can then be traded, with the global price of CO2then being a mechanism for lowering CO2 emissions. In 2007 the carbon trading market was a $127-billion industry. Some analysts suggest that, by 2017, a global carbon market could be a $700 billion industry.

Unfortunately, others, including James Hanson, NASA’s leading climatologist, suggest that cap and trade is an ineffective way of reducing CO2 emissions. They argue that the only effective mechanism is a severe and progressively steep tax on CO2.

The third, and very contentious issue facing the delegates, is the demand from developing nations that they need access to a substantial economic adjustment fund to enable them to continue to stimulate economic growth while at the same time reducing their reliance on fossil fuels for energy and transport. The sums involved are between $100 billion and $1 trillion annually. Some of these funds would also be used for mitigation projects – reforestation in Brazil, ocean barriers in the small islands, crop subsidies for biodiesel in Africa. India, Brazil and several other countries have threatened to walk out of the conference if this fund is not substantial enough to meet their needs.

Paying for “past crimes”

The concern, however, is that the massive transfer of wealth from the developed world to the developing world is being defined in terms of reparations for past pollution – paying for “past crimes” against the planet. If this rhetoric begins to emerge, then the conference is in trouble. Underlying this language is a feeling on the part of some developing countries that the industrialized countries of the world created the problem and, now that the problem has “caught up” with the world, the people who are being asked to pay most are the developing nations who are seeking to lift their populations out of poverty. Only a redistribution of global wealth will mitigate this political reality, they claim. This is certainly India’s position and China often uses this argument.

The final focus for the conference is adaptation technologies. These are the technological developments which enable nations to fulfill their commitments to dramatic and game changing CO2 reductions. In particular, carbon capture technologies, new wind and solar technologies, nanotechnologies for satellite monitoring, new fuels and gasification technologies for coal are all technologies that many argue should be shared through open source and intellectual property transfer agreements. Yet most of these technologies have been developed either entirely with private capital or with some combination of public and private funds. BP, Exxon and Shell, for example, have spent very large sums on some of these technologies and will find it difficult to make them freely available to others. This too will be a difficult conversation.

There will also be a side conversation about Alberta. The oil sands are a target for environmental lobby groups. The oil sands are being used as a symbol of all that is wrong with the industrial world and many lobby organizations want them shut down. Even BC, Quebec and Ontario are currently lobbying the Government of Canada to rethink its strategy, since they see Alberta as “getting a pass” on climate change policies because of the oil sands. Heather Mallick, who writes a column for the CBC, has written that Canada is a “corrupt petro-state,” citing the oil sands as evidence. Satya Das, the Alberta journalist and author, has argued that the oil sands should become a green oil demonstration project to reduce CO2 emissions in Canada and develop new technologies for environmental mitigation. In other words, Canada should not just be an energy super-power, but a green energy super-power. Expect to see images of Fort McMurray in the next 10 days.

Focus on the how, not the targets

While some people want the summit to fail – including the sceptics and NASA’s Hansen – there appears to be a renewed optimism that something “good” will come out of it.

Whatever happens, Copenhagen will dominate the news in the next 10 days. What we should expect, especially given the size of the event, is a variety of trade off’s reflecting both the raw politics of climate change and expediency. US President Barack Obama, for example, is not able to actually commit the US to anything – the US Congress has to ratify any climate change treaty and this will be a challenge. The trade offs will focus on the governance mechanisms and the size of the reparations fund. Like Kyoto, the emissions targets will be less important than the creation of effective strategies for achieving them at the national level – Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, keeps being derided for saying this, but he is right.

But as each New Year almost everyone commits to losing weight, it’s what we do to make it happen that counts. The commitment to reduce CO2 is no different. Policy makers need to spend more time on the “how” than on the targets themselves. By doing so, they will begin to realize the scale of the challenge ahead, as well as the implications for every aspect of community and its impact on citizens.