Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Is the Paris Conference on Track?

As the Paris conference approaches, and extremes of weather seem to dominate the news, more eyes are turning to the climate crisis and its many proposed mitigations. But how many are drawn to the UNFCCC process itself? I for one think the challenge of harnessing 195 nations to a significant and complicated common cause is a fascinating venture in itself--quite apart from the stakes in this particular instance, which may include human survival. If you feel the same attraction to this venture, to the vagaries of global diplomacy and the UN's arcane procedures, you might want to look at this article, which offers a critique of the INDC-gathering process which lies at the heart of the Paris conference and anything it might hope to accomplish.

INDCs are the voluntary national plans, each one intended to reflect the particular or 'differentiated' capacities of individual nations, great and small. The conceptual process is that each nation will say how much it is capable of, the UNFCCC will add these promises together, and declare whether the world is on track to a palatable future, calibrated at temperature increases of no more than 2 degrees Celsius. Neat. Of course 2C may not be a safe goal. And promises may not be kept. In any case the INDCs submitted so far--representing more than half of the world's greenhouse gas emissions--don't seem to be headed towards 2C. But at least, in a cards-on-the-table moment sometime this fall, as the UNFCCC does its calculations, we'll know where we stand, globally. If the process produces meaningful results, that is.

It's at this point that Ed King's critique, posted on the RTCC website, raises a crucial question. There are so many heterogeneous ways to measure climate change and its many mitigations that the INDCs may add up to a jumble, not an answer. For starters, there seems to be no standard baseline: some measure against 1990 levels of carbon, some choose 2000, or 2005, or even 2013, depending on which denominator yields a more impressive gain (with less investment in change). Re- and de-forestation projects offer other hard-to-account variables. Intensity--i..e. energy per unit of GDP--is a different method from counting overall emissions, one that is preferred by the less developed nations, who insist on their right to grow, and thus emit, but hope to adjust the efficiency of their energy systems (with first-world assistance). Even the most basic displays of greenhouse gas production are highly variable in format.

King's point is well taken: someone, presumably the UNFCC itself, needs to standardize a methodology, and soon, in order to process the INDC information that is accumulating at its doorstep. Otherwise the conference may produce a garbage-in, garbage-out calculation that makes individual diplomats feel useful but does the rest of us little good. The UNFCCC's official meetings on this topic are scheduled for October, but of course securing the agreement of the 195 participating governments is a task that had best be going on right now. Wish them well.

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