REFLECTIVE PERSONAL INSIGHTS ON COP15


7-18 Dec 2009

Noël Pallais PhD

Introduction

Much was reported by many professional journalists of the world about the two-week meeting on Climate Change held in Copenhagen in December 2009. This attempts to offer a different, closer and personal insight.

Objective

The purpose of my participation in COP15 was to enhance personal perspective on the theme of Climate Change; and thus, effectiveness in conducting training workshops (2010) for increasing the capacity of regional journalists to cover public and private responsibilities on Climate Change issues. These workshops will be aimed at journalists of Latin-American, particularly from the north of Peru.

Abstract

The meeting in Copenhagen was about the final negotiations leading up to an expected legally binding international agreement for curbing and eliminating greenhouse emissions as soon as possible, which did not materialize. Insights are here provided to the possible underlying causes behind this unexpected result, i.e., the unnecessary “transparency” stumbling block posed by US and EU on China, and the muddled figures used by the representatives of UN parties in the negotiations.

Nonetheless, thanks to the fruitful negotiations related to Climate Change initiatives, such as REDD (Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation), the global effort to save the planet is moving forward. National action plans for reducing carbon emission had already been in progress, and all developed countries, together with China and India, pledged and described their carbon emission reduction strategies in Copenhagen.

Not merely by the unprecedented presence of heads of state but more importantly by their personal engagement in the final discussions, COP15 was a solid step to veer away from our destructive fossil fuel path. Yes, COP15 failed to produce a legally binding accord. But the basis and experience was thereby obtained to solidify the Will of—nearly all—parties to prevail. There is little doubt that an international legally binding accord will be signed in Mexico 2010. But the role of the local Press will be extremely important in spurring local governments to follow through on their commitments. Moreover, as in the case of the peculiar position of Peru in COP15; a well motivated Press will be required to dissect the government’s actions.

The Regional Journalist Workshops on Climate Change in Peru (2010) should be focused on motivating the public to face up to their own responsibilities with respect to environmental degradation by discarding their common wasteful daily practices. Thereby, instilling the necessary self-righteousness in the population for widespread determined application of pressure on their elected officials for solving key regional environmental issues.

Salient reflections

There I was, a plant scientist—with no experience whatsoever in journalism—holding a most coveted press accreditation at the Bella Center in Copenhagen. This unique privilege allowed me to mingle for two weeks among the best 3500 journalists of the world. All this, while they were adamantly covering the largest meeting of heads of state ever held on the planet. By the end of the second week I was almost convinced I had become a journalist by osmosis. Needless to say, my personal enrichment was constant and I am still recounting my invaluable lessons. I am most thankful to the Soros Foundation and INTERNEWS for this experience.

The claim akin to God’s truth that COP15 was a failure is true when judged with narrow 20th Century spectacles; because there was no “legally binding” accord—to break sometime in the future. Indeed, to leave a better world for our descendants—instead of the ruins we shall if we continue our present fossil fuel energy development path—we must lift our mental anchors and cross the paramount enslaving barriers in our thinking.

The first thing I heard upon arrival to Copenhagen was that the smallest and least populated nation in the world was rising up a storm in the negotiations. After learning in Wikipedia the country of “Tuvalu” has a population of 12,177 people spread out over nine small islands, I knew COP15 would require a different looking-glass to appreciate its significance.

It was not a joke, the most populated (China) and the last populated (Tuvalu) countries in the world had to sit down to negotiate on equal footing at COP15 to resolve a key strategy issue of the accord. This alone should feed our imagination about the different sort of world we need to build in this century. At any rate, the smallest and least populated country of the world showed its heart in Copenhagen. If the fundamental naysayers would have only tried as much to make COP15 the success they hoped for…

Among the new knowledge gained at COP15, stands out the peculiar and outstanding talents of well-regarded international media reporters. Sharp mind, and good legs ready to go anywhere at any time and after getting there, ready to patiently have fun while waiting and waiting, survive and function on little sleep, awesome capacity to capture and send the headline to HQ immediately, incredible rapidity to summarize one hour in three sentences or less, soft-spoken, low-key and unpretentious; among other attributes. I was so totally inspired I even dared to ask a question.…

Next is my newly discovered and now unrivaled admiration for the Danish people. I was dumbfounded by their consistent gentle and honest warmth (and they think they are cold). Their exemplary way of life particularly with respect to energy conservation, is deign example of what the solutions entail to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. The Danish are the happiest nation in the world; behind Costa Rica, which doesn’t really count when considering the weather in Denmark and in Costa Rica. Perhaps, the relatively high suicide of the Danish is partly due to their totally incorrect self perception of being cold.

SOUL, PASSION AND COMMITMENT

My experience in Copenhagen obliges me to provide evidence for defacing current popular wisdom about COP15. To begin with, in addition to 47,000 people of which more than 90% truly care about saving the planet, there was unique soul, passion and commitment at the Bella Center in Copenhagen.

Yes! COP15 had a unique SOUL which journalists have generally failed to dispel. No matter what all the headlines in the world have narrowly claimed about COP15, in less than five minutes of watching and listening to Desmond Tutu, Bishop of South Africa you will become convinced that COP15 had a special SOUL.

The following two short clips should also evidence that in addition to soul, COP15 also had unique PASSION and COMMITMENT

Key issues of COP15

Among the substantive key issues deserving reflection as derived from my participation are: ideology, US transparency position and China’s emission space occupation concept, the confusing basis for the COP15 negotiations, and the REDD initiative (Reduction of Emissions by Deforestation and Degradation).

IDEOLOGY

“Beware lest in the end a narrow faith capture thee, a hard, rigorous delusion!  For now everything that is narrow and fixed seduceth and tempteth thee.” (Thus Spake Zarathustra — Friedrich Nietzsche)

A personally embarrassing COP15 reflection was the concerted reliance on ideology demonstrated by a few Latin American countries (ALBA), whose presence was most felt at the Bella Center. They diligently attempted to convince the Press that Climate Change could be easily solved by eliminating capitalism and US imperialism. The glaring contradictions thereof were crude. China shares social ideology with the ALBA group; Venezuela, Cuba, Ecuador, and “Sandinista”. Yet China refused to hop along the COP15 ideology ride led by the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez.

The president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, expressed his adamant opposition to the carbon market initiative, in which China is the principal country involved. I must confess; however, I sympathised with his pause in disbelief at the carbon market solution. But China wants to end poverty and realizes this requires energy. China has plenty of cheap dirty coal and knows carbon markets are one of the solutions for reducing carbon emissions. At any rate, Climate Change has nothing to do with ideology.

US TRANSPARENCY POSITION AND CHINA’S EMISSION SPACE OCCUPATION CONCEPT

I was thrilled to witness the charm and charisma of the US Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton during her unannounced Press Conference. Hillary clearly presaged what was by then a rumor among the press; China was not going to agree to the US and EU “transparency” clause.

When you doubt your partner you insist on mechanisms to enforce transparency. Paradoxically, among the annual list of words that should be banned this year is “transparency“, because according to the Lake Superior State University contributors to this list, this word is typically used when the situation is anything but transparent.

In general, for a legally binding agreement it is easy to accept the logic behind the insistence in a clause related to transparency. But Hillary’s insistence on transparency in her Press Conference was not productive for the goal of legally binding agreement. To begin with, the United States can hardly claim to be the patron of world transparency; particularly not, after its recent invasion of Iraq. More importantly, however, the generic concept of transparency must be examined in detail—from the perspective of China and India—to understand just how it applies to the COP15 negotiations. The past is the key.

I doubt Hillary really believes—as she had the nerve to imply (see link above)—the past should play no role in Climate Change negotiations. But apparently the US did insist on this fundamental error; as per the brilliantly brief description of the world’s emission space occupation concept by Qingtai Yu, China Chief Representative in COP15. China also described a perfectly reasonable argument of principle for refusing the transparency clause, as defined by the US and EU.

The United States together with other well-developed countries are largely responsible for the about 100 ppm increase in CO2 in our atmosphere by combustion of fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution. Indeed, the relative per capita occupation by US of the atmospheric space that belongs equally to all inhabitants of the world is a pernicious new species of colonialism. Therefore, the “take it or leave it” attitude in Obama’s speech was probably a lethal blow to the slight possibility the Chinese might agree to foreign inspections of its hinterland.

The position of China may be summarized as follows: The US refused to adhere to the principle adhered in Bali of “common [problem] but different responsibilities.”  The US has used up all of its allowable carbon emission space and is presently occupying a large part of the world’s emission space. China has been patient with the US, though; it considers the industrialization period of the US should be over. Nonetheless, China is offering without preconditions its national emission reduction targets which will be attained irrespective of COP15. Since China is not exchanging emissions reductions, inspections (“on this regard”) then should not be mandatory for China. On the other hand, China is willing to accept all transparency conditions on verification of any other aspects of the proposed legally binding agreement (such as REDD).

I agree with Hugo Chavez on this. I also think the US bears a large share of the blame for the failed COP15 binding agreement.  I believe China was earnestly looking forward to a legally binding accord at COP15, and more so than the US. A suspicious mind might even go as far as to imagine the CIA was behind the extreme importance of “transparency” in the position of the USA.

The US could and should have taken China for its word. How difficult would it really be anyway to discover later through less openly intrusive means they did not comply? After all, it’s usually much better and easier—in many ways—to catch your partner cheating when you are trusting than when you are always suspecting. And China deserves to be treated with trusting respect; instead of “dealing with China” the US must begin to “relate with China”.

In the 21st century the planet needs the biggest CO2 polluters of the world to become partners in solving our global problem. Undoubtedly, the leaders of China and US are earnestly seeking to address the issues on Climate Change. But both must cease to approach each other in their 20th century adversary role.

The US and China have different systems of government but their purpose is the same; to increase the livelihood of their populations. Communism, socialism, liberalism, neo-liberalism, market fundamentalism, democracy, etc. after all, are mere fallible gods of the 20th century. Remnants if a past Age that we must discard if we are to advance to a different more advanced Age.

Nobody has a better system of government. All social systems are fallible. The outcome of human relations depends squarely upon the motivations and values of the participants. For example, one might expect chaos from the confusing politics of Denmark, and not the most equal in income distribution and the happiest country in the world: A parliamentary, representative democratic constitutional monarchy, in which the Prime Minister is the head of a government in a multi-party system.

COP15 Negotiations and IPCC

One of the principal functions of COP15 was to avoid further rampant atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) accumulation by the burning of fossil fuels. About 200 years ago the earth’s CO2 atmospheric content was about 280 ppm; and about 380 ppm is the current CO2 content. Consequently, I was expecting COP15 negotiations would initially be narrowed to ascertaining the individual responsibility of developed nations for the about 100 ppm of excess manmade carbon; in my air.

What actually happened may also be partly to blame for the lack of a legally binding accord in Copenhagen. There were various “targets” being thrown around at COP15, and it was confusing. Though it is well-known the impact of higher temperature would be different in different regions of the world, the negotiations among parties (UN) were centered on precise numbers of associated degree temperatures. Some were insisting on 1.5°C as maximum acceptable further global warming, while others preferred 2°C. The negotiators seemed to be having a hard time handling the science, and I think it would have been easier to negotiate the general agreement on basis of atmospheric carbon content.

I was looking forward to the sessions with the IPCC, but unfortunately, I was disappointed with how they dismissed the recent clouds borne from the untimely email disclosures. Though I must admit, their strategy worked “like a charm” on the Press.

The sense of extreme urgency in reducing greenhouse gas emissions with a legally binding agreement at COP15 was due to the extremely dangerous possibility that increasing CO2 in the atmosphere above a specific level (400 ppm has been proposed) would trigger a series of unstoppable positive feedback loop events related to added large amounts of methane (greenhouse gas) released from the melting permafrost. COP15 negotiations, however, were based on “the incorrect assumption there is a known safe level for manmade temperature increases”; as Dr. John Schellnhuber from the Swedish Environmental Research Institute points out in the following video. Dr. Schellnhuber also felt the feedback loop hypothesis is a most important aspect of Climate Change but unfortunately nobody at COP15 seemed to be addressing this key issue.

REDD

From a recent preceding Climate Change meeting emerged the bold international initiative called REDD; which is principally for reducing CO2 emissions caused by deforestation and forest degradation. REDD is the most pragmatic solution to address the fast decline of rain forests discussed during COP15. Nonetheless, the intricacies of the idea clearly suggest that a considerable cadre of public-good motivated professionals will be required to make this novel (only 18 months old) initiative a veritable success.

Positive results of REDD are already self-evident in Brazil where the key issues of governance and land tenure—which are paramount preconditions for REDD—have been duly resolved. Indeed, the REDD strategy appears to be a significant step being taken in the right direction. Nonetheless, the not so simple relationship of forest conservation and reforestation with the principal emission reduction purpose of REDD was an important theme debated at COP15.

Environmental organizations such as Global Vision and Global Justice were apparently successfully in their refusal to accept the exclusion from the final document of the right’s of indigenous peoples. But apparently they were not successful in excluding the term “sustainable forest” as part of the REDD initiative. The argument is based on the fundamental position of these environmental organizations that REDD funds should not be used to promote the world’s continued dependency on paper products by providing incentives to the timber and logging industry.

The only sustainable wealth—natural forests—of many poor nations will very soon be depleted by deforestation unless something new “that actually works”—since just about everything has been attempted in vain— is put in place to protect all natural forests; and yesterday. But this will not even happen tomorrow unless we quickly discover and apply a magical formula that eliminates corruption, lack of governance, poverty, and perhaps more importantly, our ever-increasing voracious demand for wood products. After all, the latter is a significant cause of both corruption and lack of governance, which in turn, are essential ingredients of poverty.

From the REDD discussion at COP15 one might deduce the obvious: It is not to the benefit of potential REDD funding countries to even think about investing to reduce the demand for paper products, let alone to develop alternatives to paper. Forty-two per cent of the world’s industrial wood harvest goes to the production of paper, and 87 per cent of that paper is used by industrialized western nations like the United States and Canada.

Despite its pristine appearance, paper is anything but Green. The process to turn wood pulp into paper results in a number of harmful chemical by-products such as carbon monoxide, ammonia, nitrogen oxide, mercury, nitrates, methanol, benzene, chloroform, and dioxins. Certainly the public needs to be educated about their personal responsibility on earth degrading impacts caused by common wasteful practices in this vein; and solutions, such as recycling must become the norm of our Brave New World.

Should REDD funding be considered for these purposes or even for futuristic research to make the world stop its never-ending consumption of wood products? I think so. After all, if we are going to make it to the next century—if we manage to lower by 50% our present rate of world population increase—we will have to have found alternatives for the essential cause of deforestation. REDD representatives, however, seem to base their thinking strictly on the  need to consider net CO2 emission reductions, while “pragmatically” facing up to an ever-increasing population explosion with its ever-growing demand for wood products. Again, the chains of 20th thinking are making us lose focus on what needs to be done to stop destroying our planet.

Conducting general COP15 negotiations based on atmospheric carbon amounts—instead of dealing with associated temperature changes—adds difficulty to the REDD initiative. The complications are derived from figuring out and verifying all the numbers that should be accounted. Indeed, placing a high importance on atmospheric CO2 content makes sense for attempting to analyse the potential anthropomorphic effects and relative accountability of associated impacts. Quantitative aspects are imperative in any reasonable international agreement. But insisting on basing REDD acceptability to projects “solely” based on positive estimations of net carbon exchange—which seems to be REDDs irrevocable philosophy— seems misguided. Biodiversity in itself is also important.

Positions of three Latin American countries at COP15

Ecuador and Panama went to Copenhagen with the purpose of joining the effort to save the last remaining rain forests in their respective countries. Ironically, the current ideologies of these two countries are on the opposite sides (left and right, respectively) of the 20th century fence. Appropriate governance, correct motivations of public officials in these two countries is obviously similar and thus, similar benefits were obtained by these two countries from the REDD initiative at COP15. With help from Germany and Norway, Ecuador and Panama took solid steps towards protecting their biodiversity during the Copenhagen meetings. Was COP15 failure? Certainly not for Ecuador and Panama.

The minister of Environment of Peru, however, obviously went to Copenhagen because he diplomatically felt obliged to do so. Alan Garcia, the president of Peru had previously publicly declared he would not be travelling to Copenhagen because COP15 would be “blah, blah, blah.” This extra official attitude was clear when the minister of Peru when answering questions about the possibility of emulating the example of Ecuador by receiving a subsidy from REDD in exchange for precluding exploitation of oil and gas reserves in the amazon forests.  Nonetheless, the minister provided much information about ongoing environmental projects that need to be followed up, and will also aid in organizing the themes of the Workshops for journalists in Peru.

Final Reflections

I propose the central aim of the Regional Workshops to be conducted in Peru (2010) should be first centered on motivating the public in facing up to their own responsibilities with respect to environmental degradation by changing their common wasteful daily actions. And thereby, to instil the necessary self-righteousness (in the population) for their widespread determined application of pressure on elected officials to solve key regional environmental issues.

In the 22nd Century—if we manage to survive and protect our planet during the 21st Century— COP15 will be referred to as a historical moment in which the world first tried to face a common planetary dilemma, together.

The essential function is to grow and improve as a civilization in harmony among nations into the 22nd century without destroying our planet. In human relations it is expected to find error continuously. In fact, the quest to expose social errors is essential to persist in improving our points of view. But, this cannot be the case in Science, because the scientific testing method precludes the possibility of the antithesis.

Greenhouse gases impede a portion of the energy arriving to the earth’s surface from the Sun to be reflected back and away from our atmosphere; and CO2 is undoubtedly a natural greenhouse gas. The amount of CO2 has increased within the last 200 years from about 280 to 380 ppm principally because of the fast level of industrialization based on combustion of fossil fuels in the most developed countries.

No scientist would deny there would be an expected warming effect due to a 25% increase in greenhouse gases. The scientific controversy is based on the specific significance of this anthropomorphic warming effect on average world temperatures. Some scientists also differ with respect to the peculiarity of the present warming trend when compared to past records. And the root of this controversy stems from the simple fact that temperature records before 1850 are based on estimations using indirect methods. And here is where the human influence has a bearing on the conclusions.

Indeed, we may be justified in believing the warming effect from the extra 100 ppm of CO2 (manmade) is from potentially small to catastrophic for our planet. However, the statistical model produced by IPCC with the best science available show a 90% probability that at present emission rates we are heading for the latter possibility. Which is further supported by the feedback loop hypothesis, which proposes that increases of CO2 above a certain level (too close to the present levels for comfort) would spark the release of large amounts of methane gas from melting permafrost. And I was disappointed the feedback loop hypothesis was not addressed at COP15.

Even though 90% probability is not a 100% probability, I totally agree with Bob Dylan that “We don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”. I am against the extra carbon in my atmosphere because in addition to its artificial and threatening effect on our climate, I see a direct relationship with the destruction and pollution of our planet from our reliance on fossil fuels for growth and development of our civilization. I worry that special interests in fossil fuel exploitation are taking advantage of the flaw in placing too much certainty on the precise determinant effect of higher CO2 concentrations on average global warming.

Higher CO2 in our atmosphere is a byproduct of the pollution and destruction caused to our planet. I would care less if plants became more productive in a CO2 enriched atmosphere, or if it were proved that it is better to breathe air with more carbon. It would still not be worth it because we are destroying our planet by relying on the energy obtained from fossil fuels. I see our last clean water sources being depleted and polluted and our biodiversity being fast eliminated due to our reliance on fossil fuels. How could a “1.5, 2 or 5 degrees” increase in the average global temperature in the future be more imperative than having no more clean water today?

The lack of enthusiasm displayed by world leaders from developed nations on the potential of bold concerted action in research and development of clean alternative sources of energy was surprising. I was hoping Obama would give a Kennedy-like speech at COP15. For example, he might have promised to advance the imminent arrival of Nuclear Fusion from 30 years from today, to within the next decade. I was expecting the theme of his COP15 speech would be akin to; “let us have tomorrow, NOW!” Indeed, the negotiations were held at a level that displayed little vision even about what we know will happen in about 30 years with present level of R&D investment.

In the 22nd century, if make it until then, the prevalence of energy sources will be Solar, Wind, Nuclear Fusion and Nuclear Fission. And, all nations of the world will be dealing with each other on the basis of trust and common goals. Different paths and no path will be considered as THE best path. A common understanding will be that only values and public-good motivations of the humans involved in the various paths determines the relative success or failure of whatever social endeavor humanity may embark upon.

The essential function is to grow and improve as a civilization in harmony among nations into the 22nd century without destroying our planet. The formula for the latter is quite simple: GREEN PLANET. And at COP15, all 192 countries agreed upon the urgent need to stop deforestation and to stop choking the planet with development based on fossil fuels. Now, we must all individually do our share, because in the end, we are all culprits in the destruction of our planet.

2 Responses to “REFLECTIVE PERSONAL INSIGHTS ON COP15”

  1. La síntesis me parece acertada. Es un resumen correctamente ordenado, muy profesional periodísticamente.
    “Impecable” Felicitaciones primo.

  2. I’m looking for Prof. Noel Pallais Checa, It’s coming a poetry festival…Constanza

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