Monday, November 30, 2015

Paris, Climate Change and The Real Challenges

The Paris Climate Change Talks are  already beginning to sound problematic. Here’s why:

1.     We cannot stop climate change. The very idea that we know enough about a complex, eco-system process in an open system and that we can stop natural + man made processes is just silly. What we may be able to do is have some modest impact on the rate at which warming occurs in some parts of the world – but the impact of pledges made so far are very modest – less than 0.05C by 2100.  Warming will continue, but at a slower rate than most alarmist suggest, since the models they are using are running very hot (they predict more warming than either has occurred or is likely to occur).

2.     There is a big difference between what activist want and what Governments will do on the CO2 file. In particular, the idea that the CO2 targets will be legally binding is a non-starter for China, US and India.  What is likely to be binding is a process for looking at what is happening – e.g. Kyoto “Light”. Activists also want an absolute commitment to emissions cuts that will keep the planet from warming less than 2C by 2100, which requires much more substantial cuts than are on the table. Some activists, especially those from island states threatened by sea level rise, wants the target to be 1.5C, which requires a 60-70% cut in CO2 emissions by 2030-2040. Not going to happen.

3.     Misinformation rules. There is a lot of “guff” spoken about renewables. For the foreseeable future (e.g. until at least 2040) fossil fuels (especially natural gas) will dominate energy and transport systems.  We will go from 82% of energy from fossil sources now to 75% by 2040 and 70% in 2050. Renewables have a long way to go before they become viable as the dominant source of energy. Also, not all renewables are good. Burning wood kills people through indoor pollution (4.3 million people a year die from such pollution). There is also misinformation about where the science of climate change is – there is not universal agreement about the way in which climate works and not universal agreement on the extent to which human generated CO2 “causes” climate variability. Much yet to understand about the science.

4.     Money is key. One key issue, lingering from Copenhagen, is the size and distribution of the funds given by rich nations (like Canada) to those “experiencing the impact of climate change” or those “damaged by climate change”. This fund is expected to be $100 billion each year from 2020. Currently, despite pledges, it is unlikely to meet this target.  Until we work out what this fund is, how it will be replenished and what nations can use it for, there will be anger and conflict in Paris. Money is also key to transitioning economies from high fossil fuel use to medium fossil fuel use (which is what is being pledged). We are already seeing this as an issue in Alberta – the costs of both converting energy systems from coal to natural gas / renewables and the compensation for coal producers, coal fired power plant owners and coal communities is not trivial.

5.     Looking as if we are doing good and doing the right thing are two different things. Groupthink requires all players to “fit it” and use the rhetoric and make commitments which are aligned with the norms of the group. This is what Paris is about. This is not the same as doing the right thing. Doing the right thing would require us to stop focusing on CO2 emissions and $100 billion but pay more attention to rethinking energy systems completely, investing in innovation and getting back to science as science as opposed to science as advocacy.  Bill Gates and his co-tech investment partners, announced today, are more aligned with doing the right thing than with looking as if you are doing good. They plan to put considerable funds into clean energy innovation and emerging technologies – a better bet than just cutting emissions.

6.     Its not the planet we are trying to save, it’s ourselves. The planet will be fine. It has been around longer than us and will be around well after us – ask the Sharks and crocodiles, both of which have been around longer than our species. What really is at stake is our ability to adapt to changing conditions and our use of the planets scarce resources. The real problem is human behaviour, our current preoccupation with wealth and goods and our lifestyles. Cutting emissions sounds like someone else’s work. Changing eating and living behaviours is all of our work. The COP process (Paris is the 21st such meeting) is not addressing the issue of what it means to be a citizen and a contributing member of a sustainable society in this and the next century. This is the issue. CO2 is a side-show.

So, we have many days of verbal haranguing to go before Paris ends in a compromise which satisfies some, but not all and will likely leave the activists angry – this is what usually happens. Whether we get to the real issues – how do we want to live together on a planet as is with 10 billion others – is not being discussed.

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