Two months after representatives of the world governments met for the UN Conference of Parties (COP 15) to discuss new strategies for dealing with climate change, many of the policy negotiators are left to pick up the pieces.
Nora Greenglass, a research assistant at the Woods Hole Research Center, shared her impressions as a negotiator for the UN program for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) with members of the Woods Hole Science and Technology Education Partnership (WHSTEP) last week.
From Falmouth to Copenhagen
Nora Greenglass was among 8,000 party negotiators in Copenhagen, as world governments, NGO’s, and activist groups converged on the Danish capital for COP 15.
It was not her first UN climate conference, but the first one where she had to wait for five hours in the snow with other accredited observers, just to get into the conference hall.
That’s when the observers did just what 30,000 climate change activists had been doing over the course of the 2-week conference: they protested.
“They barred civil society from entering when the heads of state were there. It was a bone of contention. This was supposed to be an open process,” she said. “Needless to say, I did not get much work done that day.”
Ms. Greenglass went to Denmark with a team of other researchers from WHRC (and other Woods Hole Consortium participants from the MBL and WHOI) to give scientific input on aspects of climate change that rarely make the headline news. Among those are the REDD initiative and the impacts of rising greenhouse gas emissions on the world’s oceans.
The UN-REDD Programme is aimed at tipping the economic balance in favour of sustainable management of forests so that their formidable economic, environmental and social goods and services benefit countries, communities and forest users while also contributing to important reductions in greenhouse gas emissions… The immediate goal is to assess whether carefully structured payment structures and capacity support can create the incentives to ensure actual, lasting, achievable, reliable and measurable emission reductions while maintaining and improving the other ecosystem services forests provide.
-the UN Collaborative Program on REDD
Reducing poverty and emissions?
The main purpose of the conference this year was to develop a “cap and trade” system for carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. With the Kyoto Protocol past its prime, the outcome of Copenhagen was meant to set a new blueprint for setting emissions reduction targets, and ways to measure progress toward those goals.
However, negotiations broke down between developing nations and some of the biggest emitters (including the BASIC countries, Brazil, South Africa, India, and China) on the terms of such a high-stakes deal.
From the point of view of the developing nations (led by Africa), the system would allow industrialized countries to keep polluting, thus endangering their chances of survival. In the case of small island nations or places where desertification threatens arable crop land, climate change is indeed a matter of life or death.
But as Ms. Greenglass pointed out, the countries that produce the lion’s share of CO2 need to act now to reduce their emissions, and need incentives to do so.
The World is Waiting for US
Despite the worldliness of the conference, Ms. Greenglass said that the elephant in the room was legislation currently stalled before the US Senate. (Last fall, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would require polluters to offset their greenhouse gas emissions, but a Senate version is not expected to pass.)
“The world is waiting for Congress, and we know where that’s going,” she said.
President Obama made an attempt to save the day, crafting an 11th-hour document known as the Copenhagen Accord, with 29 other nations (out of 194). Among other things, this non-binding document states that the US will reduce its emissions by 17% (from 2005 levels) by 2020. However, this pledge requires congressional approval– in an election year, in a recession.
A few positives did come out of Denmark in the waning days of the conference, Ms. Greenglass said.
- The REDD negotiations are nearly complete, with a “relatively prominent” place in US legislation, and a favorable view from US industry.
- In addition, the US pledged $100 billion to go towards climate adaptation measures, technology transfer, and forest protection for vulnerable countries by 2020.
- The US pledged $1 billion to help implement REDD; an additional $3.5 billion was committed by France, Norway, Australia, Japan, and the UK.
- An agreement was made on a transparent mechanism for evaluating the performance of each nation’s emissions reductions through an independent review process.
Pat Harcourt, an education specialist with WBNERR, asked how much of a role science plays in determining the outcome of policy.
Ms. Greenglass said that the specific targets, such as the 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees F) maximum for global temperature rise, are based on sound science, but overall, the negotiations are “frighteningly political.”
“We need to peak global emissions by 2020,” she told WHSTEP members.
These days, Ms. Greenglass and thousands of other science policy consultants are heading back to the drawing board in preparation for COP 16, this November, in Cancun, Mexico.
The views and opinions in the Enterprise blogs are those of the author and are not neccessarily shared by Falmouth Publishing.