From transparent emissions to emissions (reduction) transparency?

Image credit: Korea Green Foundation
Image credit: Korea Green Foundation

What if we could see what we’re doing?  One of the challenges of climate change as a global problem is that the underlying cause—greenhouse gas emissions—is largely invisible.  We associate “emissions” with “pollution”, which is correct in this case, but we’ve done a much better job of cleaning up the visible emissions (like the smog that blanketed Los Angeles starting in the 1950s) than we have with greenhouse gas emissions.  And part of that may be the fact that it’s not in our faces like other emissions are.  Richard Alley, a geoscientist at Penn State and an IPCC member, notes in this Marketplace story that in the 19th century we had much more visible “emissions” from our horse-based transportation system.  If our roads were being covered in waste at the pace of about an inch per year, perhaps we’d feel a greater sense of urgency about cleaning it up.

And not only can we not see it, but it doesn’t stay in one place.  Arguably Los Angeles was motivated to clean up its act because they could see the problem and it was clear that the source was local, so that local actions could help address a local problem.  Greenhouse gases, on the other hand, don’t stay local; while particulate emissions like soot are heavy enough to fall out of the atmosphere within a few hundred miles of where they are emitted, CO2 stays in the atmosphere for hundreds of years.  That means that it circles the globe in just a few weeks, and eventually mixes entirely into the global atmosphere within a year or so, which makes anyone’s local greenhouse gas emissions a global problem.

I was struck by this today when I saw the image above (in a display from the Korea Green Foundation, one of many organizations that are displaying their work here in the hall devoted to observer / NGO organizations) right after hearing President Obama call for “a strong system of transparency that gives all of us confidence that all of us are meeting our commitments.”   Transparency, in this case, would be good, since in the context of these talks it means that countries would commit to some sort of accountability about the extent to which they are meeting their commitments to reduce their emissions.  Exactly what form that takes, and how strong an obligation it will be, remains to be seen.  That will be one of the negotiating points over the next two weeks.  Let’s hope that it will indeed be strong, so that, counterintuitively, the increased transparency will help us see what we’re doing and work hard to fix it.

“No surprises.”

Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC
Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC

“No surprises.”  That was the emphatic message from Christiana Figueres this afternoon at a security briefing before the kickoff of COP21 tomorrow.  Figueres, the Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC (and also Swarthmore class of 1979), emphasized the security challenges of the conference, which tomorrow will bring together almost 150 heads of state.  She said that that is the largest number of heads of state that have ever come together anywhere, for any reason, in one day, even at other UN events.  What “no surprises” means in this context is that security will react rapidly to anything unexpected that happens anywhere in the venue.  So while she didn’t say so in so many words, I took her to be saying in part that any sort of outcry / demonstration / interjection could have negative consequences, as anything surprising would provoke an “immediate reaction” from security.

She emphasized the importance of participation from “civil society” and stressed that it would be possible for people to make their points and have their voices heard—as long as security was aware beforehand of what they planned to do.  She said that a “legally-binding agreement” that is “fair” and “transformational” is “the star that we are reaching toward,” but added, “We have to keep our eyes on the stars, but we also have to keep our feet on the ground.”  And the ground, in her metaphor, is a security atmosphere that is very tense right now.   Kevin, the head of security (at right in the photo above), repeated the “no surprises” theme, but also said to the assembled group of observer delegates, “we will work with you to achieve your goals.”

Interestingly, Figueres extended her “no surprises” theme to the negotiations, saying that the COP President will bring no surprises to the floor, and that she didn’t want any from other parties, either.  I don’t know enough about how these negotiations work to know how surprising a statement that is.  I presume that it is intended to apply to how debate occurs on the floor, rather than implying anything about flexibility (or lack thereof) in what a final agreement might look like.

COP21 Day 0: Arrival in Paris

After an overnight flight from Philadelphia (one of the emptiest flights I’ve been on in quite some time), I’m excited to be here in Paris for the start of COP21.  “COP” is the “Conference of the Parties”, in this case the parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).  U.N. member delegations from around the world are convening here in Paris this week and next to negotiate an agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  I’m here this week (along with Swarthmore College students Indiana Reid-Shaw and Dakota Pekerti) to observe the negotiations (and the many side events that go along with it – essentially a large climate change conference, with an expected attendance of 40,000 people).  We’ll be here for the week, and next week we’ll hand the baton to Professor Ayse Kaya and students Stephen O’Hanlon and Anita Desai, who will come for the final week of the negotiations.  (Swarthmore College has three “badges”, official credentials for attending the conference.  We are not parties to the negotiations, but rather are “observers”, an official designation that encompasses roughly half of those in attendance.  For a nice summary of COP, listen to this presentation by Neil Leary from Dickinson College.)

Arriving in Paris, preparations for the conference are obvious everywhere – signs in the airport, special kiosks with information, lots of helpful people in green vests to help you figure out where to go.  And today and tomorrow, free public transportation throughout the city as many major roads are closed as part of the tight security surrounding the arrival of many heads of state (including President Obama) to kick off the negotiations.

At the conference venue itself (in Le Bourget, north of Paris), I was greeted with a display of flags of the U.N. member countries:

Entrance to COP21 conference site
Entrance to COP21 conference site

Security to get into the venue was much like an airport – metal detectors, all bags x-rayed – but moved quickly due to the large number of people working.  After getting photographed for my badge, I headed into the venue.  It’s a little disorienting at first – several different pavilions, each housing different types of displays or meeting rooms.  (Just a few hours of sleep probably isn’t helping with the disorientation factor.)

One of the pavilions has displays from some (many?  most?) of the countries in attendance, all with different styles.  The U.S. looks like they are expecting to be holding group events there:

U.S. display
U.S. display

whereas Mexico’s display is more focused on showcasing impacts of climate change (there was a video display highlighting the recent hurricane that hit Mexico’s west coast, and tying it to expected increased frequency of severe weather events from climate change) as well as highlighting renewable energy projects around the country.

Mexico's display
Mexico’s display

The Gulf Cooperation Council (Persian gulf states) has one of the fancier displays – I haven’t yet looked inside to see how they are presenting their engagement with the issue of climate change.

IMG_1475

IMG_1476

Mostly things are quiet – a fair amount of set-up still going on, but not a huge number of people in attendance just yet.  I’m sure that tomorrow things will be much busier, including the press area:

COP21 press area
COP21 press area

Unfortunately, one of the big events originally scheduled for today (a large public march through Paris) was canceled in the wake of the Nov. 13 attacks.   Events inside the conference venue are continuing as planned (with the BBC even suggesting that an agreement is more likely since the attacks), but outside events in public spaces have been canceled.

Looking forward to the actual start of the conference tomorrow!