Thursday, December 10, 2009

All politics is local

Most that have looked seriously at climate change science recognize the urgent need to deal with greenhouse gas emissions. Many governments now also seem to realize this. So why is it so difficult to come to an agreement on action? Based on the presentations by delegations in Copenhagen, the simple answer seems to be immediate self interest.

When nations were offered the opportunity to speak at yesterday's session on Clean Development Mechanisms (CDM; looking particularly at implementing low-carbon energy projects), each focused on how to steer these policies to their specific interests. Oil- rich countries advocated Carbon Capture & Storage (CCS) as the "most promising" means of CO2 reduction. Saudi Arabia started this off, and was soon supported by statements from Algeria, Qatar, Libya and Lebanon. A representative of business (the CCS lobby) was also allowed to speak about how "indispensable"CCS is to cement, chemical, oil and steel industry. Of course, their interest in CCS is that it means the world would continue to burn exported oil, and then attempt to recapture the carbon emissions and bury them underground. The feasibility and safety of this have been widely questioned. Grenada & Tuvalu (small island nations likely to suffer particularly from rising sea levels with current rates of emissions) promptly pointed out that the CDM specifically had not sanctioned this technology because of its problems.

Another bloc, particularly of African nations such as Senegal, Congo, Morocco and Nigeria, spoke in opposition to the way that CDM projects were currently awarded. They called for greater equity in the geographical distribution of these projects (such as wind and hydropower), objecting to the fact that nearly all of the projected awarded so far are in China, India and Brazil.

Kyrgyzstan, a mountainous central Asian nation, advocated lifting restrictions on hydropower so that it could better capture energy from its melting glaciers (and reduce their flooding impacts), as well as allowing redesignation of its high altitude forests (which don't store much carbon) due to their other important environmental values (such as water retention).

Of course, this is the role of government negotiators: get the best deal possible for their country. But the link between these standard local, short-term politics, and the global, long-term scope of climate change seem perilously disconnected. Bill McKibben's editorial the other day argues forcefully that politics-as-usual will be catastrophic, that the incremental approach taken by delegations at Copenhagen is painfully slow and ineffective in dealing with the deadline posed by the climate system. The old adage that 'all politics is local' is clearly in force in the negotiations so far; perhaps next week, after these initial postures are made, a global agreement may still win out.

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