Monday, December 05, 2011

Do not worry: rabbits, chickens and princes will save the planet

As the European economy continues its irrevocable slide back to the Middle Ages, a seemingly lesser event crept in under radar last week and set up camp in South Africa: the 17th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Mercifully abbreviated to ‘COP17’ (which fits better on a T-shirt) the conference is the latest attempt by Planet Earth to save itself by limiting greenhouse gas emissions. If you've hitherto been unaware of this event, do not be embarassed. Global attention has been elsewhere.

However, as COP17 enters its second week, there is a chance that the start of what is traditionally known as the 'higher level talks' might draw a bit more attention to the conference, which draws together over 10,000 delegates from 194 countries, and includes the world's leading climate change experts, scientists and campaigners, as well as governments.

Despite the scant coverage in the media, this year's conference represents a critical moment in the effort to agree binding global targets for greenhouse gas emissions. It has been an exhaustive process, ever since COP3 in 1994 produced the treaty named after the conference's host city - the Kyoto Protocol On Climate Change. Then, 37 nations committed themselves to reducing their emissions of the four main greenhouse gases (which include the two we're all guilty of - carbon dioxide and methane...) by 5.2%, the benchmarked "potential" for future climate warming, by 2012. However, the United States (which contributes the world's second-largest output of CO2) - along with Australia - refused to ratify the treaty on the grounds that it didn't encourage the world's poorest polluters to step up as well (the Aussies have, however, since signed their ratification. The United States still hasn't). With the Kyoto Protocol due to expire next year, all subsequent UNFCCC events have concerned themselves with continued negotiations, arguments, posturing and brave attempts to come up with a successor.

In 2004 the climate change circus pitched up on the extremely agreeable island of Bali to map out the steps to a new agreement. The following year it was the somewhat less temperate environment of Poznan in Poland. With these two events meant to, respectively, prepare the roadmap and then fill in the blanks, COP15 in Copenhagen two years ago was supposed to have presented the new global agreement. Some felt it was a slam-dunk, requiring no more than the signatures of world leaders to make it happen.

Disastrously, it didn't. Despite the high-profile presence of presidents and prime ministers, it failed to produce any kind of binding agreement, merely producing a flimsy 'look-we've-come-all-this-way-so-we-need-to-sign-something' document which paid little more than lip service to getting anything done.

Not being a particular expert on climate change, the politics surrounding it, or the diplomacy required to get governments to do something about it, I have my own theory as to why COP15 in Copenhagen failed to deliver: crap logistics. I can offer this viewpoint from personal experience.

I arrived in Copenhagen in a blizzard. The first thing I noticed was that, unlike other some places I've lived in, where the merest hint of a snowflake sends people mad and preparing for a 1000-year nuclear winter, Danes have got it down to a fine art. An airport runway that had been covered in thick snow barely half an hour before my plane landed had been cleared and was operating with all the normality of a summer's day.

That was, however, the last time that day that I encountered anything resembling efficiency. Arriving at Copenhagen's Bella Center I encountered an already lengthy queue for accreditation. Being British, I was, initially, as happy as a clam to queue stoically and politely, while scanning the peripherery for any potential bad-mannered interlopers.

Unfortunately I hadn't banked on the UN's own imported police force who were administrating the accreditation process. For five-and-a-half hours I queued ankle-deep in freezing snow, weathering wind chill of -20. Climate change and global warming were two distant concepts as I stood there, shuffling from one foot to the other, cursing (the first sign of hypothermia) for being shod in officewear and not the pelts of two wolves.
Artist impression of the rabbit

Advancing at a pace only time-lapse photography could faithfully record, and with the only comfort coming from cups of coffee handed out by the Danish Army, I watched two grown human beings dressed, respectively, as a chicken and a rabbit embroiled in a punch-up.

Artist impression of the chicken
From what I could gather - and do bear in mind that I may have been hallucinating at this point - the contretemps between the bunny and the bird appeared to be a territorial dispute over the optimum spot from which to stage their protests against global warming. The morning had taken on a profoundly surreal element at this point.

By the third hour of queuing I was entertaining irrational fears of succumbing to frostbite and, like Ranulph Fiennes, having to saw off my own toes with a tool fashioned from of a reindeer's antler. By the fifth hour I'd had enough, having been up since 4.30am for my flight to Copenhagen (yes, I know, I should have chartered a more carbon-friendly pack of sled dogs). Just as I was planning to make a break for it I noticed that ahead of me in the queue was a representation from a Native American tribe. Oh, the irony that my eyes had been watering for most of the morning.

Their skills of endurance, hewn no doubt on the high plains, we're clearly more developed than mine. Annoyed, cold and resentful from having spent a long morning standing still in the actual land of ice and snow, I hobbled off on my frost-bitten, close-to-amputation feet in search of a hotel, several cold (but not too cold) beers and an open fire-heated bar.

Reanimated by the loving toastiness of the hotel, and by the fact a colleague had provided me with the pass I should have had in the first place, I returned to the Bella Center where, several hours after I’d left it, I discovered the Indian tribe to be still just in front of me. Twin Peaks had now been uprooted and moved to a Scandinavian exhibition centre.

As it transpired, the process to get into COP15 was almost as arduous as it was for the conference to get any agreement out of it. The Prince of Wales was addressing the opening session of what is called the "high-level talks". My presence was due to the fact that my then-employer was a significant member of the Corporate Leaders Group, an organisation set up by the Prince to bring enterprises together to apply more pressure on governments to do something about climate change.

Charles was there to apply his passion for the environment by imploring the great-and-the-good assembled to, effectively, pull their fingers out and reach an agreement. "The inescapable conclusion," he told delegates, "is that a partial solution to climate change is no solution at all. Crucially, it must be embraced by the public, private and NGO sectors, as well as by local communities and indigenous people, while also encouraging individual responsibility."

While many think of Charles as either a well-meaning eccentric or a do-gooder who should stay out of politics, his ability to command the attention of a large conference chamber was impressive, and his commitment to the cause can never be faulted. Alas, the failure of COP15 to reach any kind of conclusive agreement was more the result of everyone else in Copenhagen to make a commitment.

The following year the conference took to the blisteringly warm Mexican beach resort of Cançun, better known for American college students indulging in the drunken debauchery of Spring Break. COP16 was meant to be a more low-key affair, attended by a more functional profile of delegates who, according to the roadmap, would have been tasked with outlining the implementation of whatever Copenhagen the year before had agreed. The presidents and prime ministers stayed away, leaving their experts to pick up the baton. Apart from a few token pieces of legislation, and a lot of huffing and puffing about the critical need to do something, the outcome was limp.

So, what of this year? Despite the lack of media attention, COP17 is the last-chance saloon to replace Kyoto. Whatever your view on climate change, the planet's ice caps are thinning at an alarming rate, and the seas are heating up to the extent that America's hurricane season is growing longer and more intense. These can't be random developments.

Critics of the climate change discussions say that they are hampered by too much self interest. Surely, though, self-interest should be the reason for getting an agreement. After all, London, Paris and New York won't be much fun to live in when they're under water.

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