Notes from COP18, Doha 2012

Thought 11

Adam Poole, Africanist and member of the Edge

    1st December 2012

I have arrived halfway through the process just as the tempo is about to change. The first week is for the foot soldiers to scout out the terrain and to hint at the way their respective countries would like to see things unfold.
Starting tomorrow ministers begin to arrive and wriggle room gets explored. The feeling is nothing is going to happen quickly. Kyoto is still with us, is being reinvented from the inside and we are again preparing for another ‘Copenhagen moment’; this time in 2015. How it will be different this time around is that we now have a mechanism for when things go pear-shaped.
I am here accredited by the Danish Society of Engineers and representing Future Climate. The mission is to create a global alliance of engineering organisations.

The timing is good as the COP seems to be waking up to the idea that engineers stand on the front line when it comes to dealing with climate change, mitigation as well as adaptation.

This last point is important. Everyone knows adaptation is our bailiwick but mitigation (policy) is less obvious. However, adaptation is optimised to scale and thus you need to know the scale - engage in policy - to get the best fit. Now we have the new policy, the Technology Mechanism, conceived at Cancun and to be given birth to here, which is even more engineering.

The idea behind a global alliance of engineering organisations is to share best practice in how they each work with their national governments and then to get each country to write a national energy plan to see where the global energy double counting is occurring - where two or more countries are relying on the same stocks of uranium for instance. We are having some success. In the last 3 years we have got 23 countries on board, including America, China, India and Russia.

It looks like being a case of using DECC’s 2050 carbon calculator on a global scale, which is not so far from the mark as China has adapted it already.

We have an event on Sunday and it is anyone’s guess how many will turn up. We can’t decide whether COP18 is working to a middle-eastern working week, in which case Sunday is good, or a Western week, in which case it is bad. To increase the odds we have been sticking flyers in all the delegations’ pigeon holes and in this way came across the newly created Palestine pigeon hole. All the countries are in an alphabetical order with Palestine, looking very much like an afterthought, coming after Zimbabwe. Could this be a result of yesterday’s historic ruling on nationhood at the UN? If so, their box was empty and, with our flyer, we have a claim of perhaps being one of the first communications with the new state.

    4th December 2012

One of the issues coming from COP18 is how is Qatar to be judged? When the COP President and the former Qatari oil minister, Abdullah Bin Hamad Al Attiyah was challenged on Qatar having the highest per capita CO2 emissions he replied “We should not concentrate on the per capita [emissions]. We should concentrate on the amount from each country.”

And this is really the point at stake. We have the Kyoto Protocol, which has been running for 20 years. Under it, some countries have cut emissions and others have not. It was an agreement for a fixed period of time and we are now at the end of that period. The Copenhagen debacle was all about moving the world to a new climate change framework. That did not happen because nothing could be agreed. So now we are trying to resuscitate Kyoto by creating a second commitment period with a view to making big decisions in 2015. This COP, although it has a new policy instrument to play with, the Technology Mechanism, is about preparing the ground for the 2015 decision process and it does not look to be going anywhere quickly.

I feel the COP process can almost be described mathematically. There is a text that needs to be extended. New lines are written and then the 193 national delegations attending, the Parties, comment on the text. Their comments reflect a myriad of positions from high principle to calculations of national advantage. It is almost geometric progression. For every new line or extra comma there are multiple different lines submitted and so the text grows. The Sisyphean task of turning this back into treaty text is all consuming. How can it ever deliver?

There is an intriguing piece of game theory called the ultimatum game. It is a lab experiment where person A is given £100 and told if he/she can reach an agreement with person B on how to split the £100 person A can keep whatever share of the £100 was agreed up. However, A and B only have one attempt to reach an agreement: if they can’t agree neither gets a penny. In most cases they can’t agree. Person A, by being given all the money to begin with feels a sense of entitlement and thus commonly offers less than 50% to B. This tends to so outrage B that he/she refuses to accept the £30 or £40 or whatever being offered and both parties forfeit an opportunity.

Kyoto feels a bit like this. It divided the world into developed and developing countries, asked the developed countries to make reductions on the amount of carbon they were currently consuming rather than on any notion of what they might be entitled to and now we have effectively run out of atmosphere but with both developed and developing still with a sense of entitlement to emit. The lesson from the ultimatum game is that if you start by giving A and B £50 each it is quite easy to reach an agreement.

And meanwhile there is an utter sense of urgency. Part of what made the build up to Copenhagen (COP15) so promising was that, back then, we still talked in terms of preventing a 2°C global average temperature increase, this being the threshold beyond which the risks of a runaway climate change effect became unacceptable. Copenhagen was the point when we still thought this could be averted. We don’t seem to think that any more. Now that talk is of a 4°-6°C global average increase by 2100 or sooner (2060s) if carbon feedbacks occur and our models have not fully allowed for the effects of the thawing of the permafrost.

Edge Member Michael Pawlyn of Exploration Architecture and The Sahara Forest Project in Doha with cucumbers grown in the SFP’s pilot facility in Qatar.

Edge Member Michael Pawlyn of Exploration Architecture and The Sahara Forest Project in Doha with cucumbers grown in the SFP’s pilot facility in Qatar.

In a cheery article in New Scientist in November the point was made that the maximum wet-bulb temperatures reached anywhere on the planet do not exceed 31 °C but we should expect them to begin to increase and that we cannot survive wet-bulb temperatures of 35 °C or more for long. A 2010 study by Steven Sherwood and Matthew Huber concluded ‘that if the world warms by 7 °C, parts of the world will start to exceed this limit occasionally. Eventually, vast swathes of Africa, Australia, China, Brazil, India and the US will become uninhabitable for at least part of the year’.

I was born at the height of the Cold War and my parents told me they worried as to whether they should be bringing children into such a volatile world. As I fly back from Doha the question for me is do I share any of this with my 14-year old daughter who has elaborate and constantly revised plans for where she wants to live, the sort of house she wants and the number of children? It might be a case of saying you might want to think again about bringing children into a world facing system collapse.

Official DOHA 2012-COP18 website
Future Climate – Engineering Solutions
Sahara Forest project

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