Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The failure of Copenhagen

I'm not intimate with the climate change negotiations, and have not reported on them or climate change except for a stint in November, but quite a few people have asked me what I thought of Copenhagen so here are my thoughts..... I'm disappointed, Copenhagen was a washout. You know that an event, or a deal, is a failure when people start redefining what success is after the event. Especially when success had been quite clearly defined to begin with as something else entirely.

We knew what we wanted: a legally binding deal over climate change, one with targets for emissions cuts and finance. Since November, the climate talks have been a car crash in slow motion. No doubt, behind the scenes, this crash has been going on for far longer. For me, the beginning of the end started on the penultimate day at the previous climate talks in Barcelona this November. It was apparent by Thursday that it was too late to get the legal deal that everyone had been aiming for over two years. I got very drunk that evening in a tapas bar that evening with environment correspondents from The Guardian, The Times, The Irish Times and The Telegraph. There was also someone from the RSPB, and a young man from Greenpeace who had travelled from the UK by train because he was ideologically opposed to travel by air. That evening, over one of many countless glasses of red wine I wondered how history would judge us, and judge this moment. I wondered whether I'd ever have to explain to my children why we couldn't agree to fix the world.

Will the next generation be laughing at us because some magic technofix solution solved the problem in a decade? Or will they be able to trace problems of climate, food and water supply and losses of biodiversity to our failure to master a global environmental problem of this kind?

In Barcelona, Yvo de Boer said that we could still get a legal deal but through a different route. First would come a political deal but a strong one with targets and commitments [sound of hollow laughter], which is then turned into a legal deal later on. In the end, five nations went into a huddle, had a group hug, took a collective bow and then went home for Christmas.
Although, lets be clear: it wasn't just hatched in the final hours. Negotiations over a political deal have been going on for some time during 2009, the only question is: how long?

If I were to guess, and this is a guess. I would suppose that the existence of a political deal had to remain secret until the UN talks were close to failure. Then the political deal could be produced like a rabbit out of the hat. Revealed too early, a political alternative suggests that some of the major players might not be quite so committed to the difficult and costly UN legal deal, when a lovely, fudgy, largely meaningless political deal is far preferable. A political agreement can be announced with great fanfare and everyone can go home with a warm feeling.

Avoided deforestation (REDD) as a climate reducing strategy, ironically, seems to be going strong--although without a commitment to cuts that Copenhagen was supposed to produce the market for carbon offsets related to forestry there is a big question of how much demand there will be for these.

If I were part of the political process, what I'd do next would be to try and put the blame squarely on the UN. Lets not blame the UN, everyone signed up for this process two years ago and to walk away with so little to show for all the effort is simply a testament to the failure of leadership by the world's largest carbon emitters.

As ever Kevin Grandia, at DeSmogBlog.com, puts it all far more pithily.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

More of the green stuff wanted


Everyone loves trees. A lot of people think that climate change could be mitigated if we cut fewer of them down and left more standing.

Over the last few years, around the edges of the struggling climate change discussions, one of few areas of agreement has been on the merits of slowing down the rates of deforestation, and the costs of doing so. The Prince's Rainforest Project has been doing some important work in crystallising discussion around the sums of money needed to kick-start interim finance. So there are high hopes that some kind of agreement can come out of Copenhagen on forestry.

Against this backdrop, the Centre for International Forestry Research, has held a series of forest discussion days at the sidelines of climate change meetings of the last few years. One at Bali, one at Poznan and one at Copenhagen. Tomorrow is Forest Day 3. I will be chairing a subplenary on Mitigation.

"2009 is possibly the most important year for forests in living memory. We are in the final stretch of the road to Copenhagen, and COP 15, where negotiators expect to finalise a post-Kyoto global climate agreement in December. To coincide with the conference, CIFOR, the Collaborative Partnership on Forests (CPF) and the Government of Denmark will host Forest Day 3. Forest Day 3 will build on the success of Forest Day 1 and 2 in helping to ensure forests are high on the agenda for future climate outcomes, and will pave the way forward in making these outcomes work beyond Copenhagen." Full Programme.

Forest Day 3 will be held on 13 December at the Radisson Blu Falconer Hotel & Conference Center, Copenhagen, Denmark.


11.00 – 12.45

Falconer Room

World Agroforestry Centre

Carbon emissions from land-use change are estimated to account for one-fifth of current global carbon emissions. Reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD) has been promoted as an effective and efficient climate change mitigation option. Much of the debate has focused on the global architecture and how REDD+ can be included in a post-2012 climate agreement. Now is the time to increase the focus on national and local levels where the forests are found. The success of REDD+ in reducing emissions will depend on tackling profound market and governance failures. REDD+ policies must strengthen the institutional alignment of economic actors and the public interest, a challenge made more difficult by the complexity of the issues behind deforestation and the fact that many causes are external to the forest sector. Can this really be done? How do we introduce a transitional change instead of incremental improvements? Are global players and mechanisms up to the task? What about the resistance in countries and local communities? This subplenary will debate these controversial issues, seek answers to these questions and look to designing national REDD+ strategies that ensure climate-effective and cost-efficient reduction of carbon emissions with equitable impacts and co-benefits.

Natasha Loder, The Economist


  • Arild Angelsen, Professor, Norwegian University of Life Sciences
  • Vicky Corpuz, Executive Director and Chair, United Nations Permanent Forum for Indigenous People
  • Sara S. Kendall, Vice President of Environment, Health and Safety, Weyerhaeuser Company
  • Agus Purnomo, Head of Secretariat, National Council on Climate Change, Indonesia

Unpredictable weather: from Mojave to Copenhagen

I've just returned from Mojave, California, where I attended the unveiling of a new spaceship, and have arrived in Copenhagen for the climate change meeting.

In Mojave I was lucky enough to witness the unveiling of Virgin Galactic's new spaceship, VSS Enterprise. It was an astonishing evening, with gale force winds rocking the marquee erected to shelter the 800 people (press, VIPs, astronauts) who came to witness the event.

In June 2004, I witnessed the flight of SpaceShipOne from this very runway in Mojave, in the full heat of the desert. The event on December 7th could not have been more different. A storm had blown in over the west coast of America, and the band of low pressure seemed to have its active edge right above the Mojave high desert plateau. Throughout the day, patches of blue skies fought with rain and clouds, until the end of the evening when the storm finally moved in.

When SpaceShipTwo was finally unveiled, it arrived from out of the darkness of a stormy night. There was dry ice and lighting, but nature threw more of a display than event management ever could. Wind and fog swirled around her as she appeared from the gloom. When Holly Branson (Richard Branson's daughter) smashed a champagne bottle it shattered into thousands of glittering green pieces which were instantly whipped across the runway. Burt Rutan's (designer of SpaceShipTwo) wife said she would be one of those who would be painstakingly picking these off the runway the next day.

I had to leave the party early to write a piece for The Economist. The next morning, Richard Branson told me that the marquee had to be evacuated when they were warned that winds of 115mph were coming. Only a few minutes after the area was cleared the entire marquee, all its contents (lighting and speakers) were blown away. It is very lucky that nobody was hurt. Will Whitehorn, president of Virgin Galactic, told me afterwards that the only thing they found afterwards was the scale model of SpaceShipTwo.

A few days later and Copenhagen, by contrast, is windless. But the political weather is not too far from the gale force winds of Mojave. Walk outs, demonstrations, barbed comments from chief negotiators. What kind of climate deal will the world get from Copenhagen remains impossible to say. Even forestry, where it might be argued negotiations are more advanced and with greater agreement, the text is a mess and still a long way from being done according to insiders.

An interesting side note, one of Burt Rutan's hobbies (when he isn't designing innovative aeroplanes and spacecraft) is climate change. He thinks that the science behind anthropogenic global warming is overblown. I wish I thought he was right about this, it would make everything so much easier if climate change were a fiction. But for it to be true one would have to argue that thousands of the world's scientists, and many of the world's major scientific organisations, are involved in a conspiracy of silence.

Of course all this begs the question, should we be getting off the planet or saving it?

Friday, December 04, 2009

Award for coverage of climate change

Ilya Gridneff of AP Australia and myself have just been awarded a Bronze medal by The Prince Albert Foundation/United Nations Correspondents Association Global Prize for coverage of Climate Change.

The award was made at UNCA's 2009 awards in New York and presented by Ban Ki Moon.

The award recognises our joint work on the subject of forestry in Papua New Guinea in the context of climate change negotiations, and was written in The Economist, Associated Press, as well as within this blog.