Ever since the 2009 Copenhagen climate talks, downplaying expectations ahead of a UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP) has become somewhat of a ritual in the media and even among experts – as if everyone had sworn off being optimistic about international climate action altogether. COP 18, which starts today and will last until December 7, 2012, is no exception to the rule. Why would it, given that public mobilization is nowhere near pre-Copenhagen levels, that nearly every party is satisfied with waiting until 2015 to reach a global agreement, and that negotiations are hosted by one of the most carbon-intensive nations in the world, Qatar?

COP 18's being held in Qatar appears to many as a paradox, but it also epitomizes a deepening and broadening of the global climate conversation (Source: COP18 Official Website)

With such a disconcerting lack of political urgency, one could easily come to the conclusion that man-made climate disruption isn’t that much of an existential threat after all. But over the year that has passed since COP 17 in Durban, climate change has shown that it had little intention to wait for the discussions to end before starting to unleash its devastating effects. Scientists are hesitant to point out a causal link between climate change and a specific weather event, as they should be, but the aggregated evidence for 2012 alone is simply too strong to ignore. Just in the last few weeks, a study revealed that the most pessimistic models about the future of climate change have proven to be more accurate than the optimistic ones, while the World Bank pulled the alarm on an ever more likely “4 degrees Celsius world.”

What is especially striking about international climate decision-making is how much it’s disconnected from the scientific and natural timelines. 2015 is the year greenhouse gases emissions must peak and start declining, according to the International Energy Agency, if the world is to stay within 2 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100. Ironically, it’s also the year governments have agreed on as a target for the adoption of a global treaty “with legal force” (actual implementation would come even later, in 2020). If anything, scientific expertise is used as a pretext to further delay aggressive action. Many governments are hypocritically waiting for the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), released in 2014, to find out what we already know – climate change is happening faster and stronger than predicted, the 2 degrees Celsius objective is sliding out of reach, and the ambition-reality gap is getting dangerously large.

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Once an extreme weather event such as Hurricane Sandy is over, various estimates of damage costs start pouring in. Cost comparisons with various past catastrophes are ubiquitous in the media. But these costs are mostly of the tangible nature, such as costs incurred from physical property damages. Many intangible costs, such as loss of life and psychological impacts, are neglected in national accounting estimates.

Flooding in Haiti from Hurricane Sandy - Developing countries and low-income communities are often more at risk to the impacts of extreme weather events, yet current damage accounting does not reflect this fact. (Source: Flickr.com, User: United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti)

The result is widespread under-reporting of the range of damages caused to those populations that are most affected by extreme weather events. Historically, most extreme weather hotspots have been in low-income developing countries, where people often live in sub-standard dwellings located on marginal, low-lying plots of land, making them more vulnerable to the effects of hurricanes and floods. Even in industrialized countries, studies show that low-income groups have tended to be the most sensitive to the impacts of extreme weather events and face the slowest recovery of basic amenities and repopulation of affected areas.

To ensure environmental justice for these poor and vulnerable communities, a more accurate measure of the costs of extreme weather events is necessary.

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climate, Climate Change, cost metrics, environmental justice, extreme weather, Hurricane Sandy, true cost

The controversial Businessweek cover in the aftermath of Sandy. (Source: Bloomberg Businessweek)

For the past several years, nearly all major news outlets and most high-profile politicians in the United States have been silent on the issue of human-caused climate change. Even in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, initial reporting on the catastrophe failed to mention climate change, at least directly. But it’s clear that this attitude needs to change. Fast.

As Sandy roared toward the Northeast, the New York Times, Washington Post, and Fox News all devoted time and space to covering the effects of the storm surge. They reported on its severity, emphasized where more aid was needed, and brought into sharp relief the human dimension of a more-than-human catastrophe. Reporters brought stories of devastation and heartache to the rest of the country (and the world) and gave readers and viewers tips on how they can assist the affected and support those who, in many cases, lost everything.

Several commentators, such as New York governor Andrew Cuomo, noted that extreme weather events are becoming more common, but they failed to mention the links to climate change directly. Limited and ambiguous references to climate change—one of the most pressing issues that humanity has ever faced—has long been the state of political discourse in the United States.

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climate, Climate Change, communication, Hurricane Sandy, systemic causation, United States

By now, the heartbreaking photos of neighborhoods swept to sea and a climbing death toll have reminded us all of the immeasurable pain and tragedy our environment can incur. We think of the millions of people who continue to be affected by the storm, the tens of thousands who have lost all that they own, and the hundreds who have lost their lives.

Widespread damage from Hurricane Sandy. (Source: U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Mark C. Olsen via CNET)

Sandy also tells us a lot about ourselves. From a pessimistic standpoint, it shows human failure: our failure to listen to those who understand far better than most of us do the impact of human behavior on the atmosphere, our climate system, and the ecosystems that surround us. While it is true that no singular weather event can be directly linked to human-caused global warming, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – since its establishment in 1988 arguably the most thorough and meticulous scientific undertaking in human history – has reported with increasing confidence that weather extremes will become more frequent, more widespread, and more intense with rising greenhouse gas emissions. The IPCC’s assessments, and those of many other leading scientific bodies, have led prominent commentators—among them Nobel laureates, prime ministers, presidents, secretary-generals, and even movie stars—to call out global warming as this century’s greatest threat. But Sandy demonstrates in dramatic fashion our inability to take more profound steps to tackle global challenges, despite our knowledge that we endanger ourselves if we don’t. Sandy reveals our refusal to take responsibility for our actions and our skepticism that real change (of natural systems as well as of our own behavior) is possible.

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climate, Climate Change, extreme weather, Hurricane Sandy, United States

Following up on the recent blog I wrote about low-lying island nations, I spent part of last week getting a more direct experience with one of these countries. The United States Institute of Peace welcomed former President of the Maldives Mohamed Nasheed for a conference on Monday, June 25th in Washington, D.C. Nasheed was ousted last February by a coup under controversial circumstances. Though he expressed regret over losing the unique stature and influence he had as head of state, Nasheed is still extremely active in the country, pushing for new democratic elections and actively promoting “The Island President”, a documentary narrating his story and seeking to cast light on his unique fight for the survival of his country and the establishment of a functioning democracy after centuries of authoritarian rule.

“Anni”, as he is better known by people of the archipelago, has not left behind his ideals in the presidential office, particularly with regard to climate change. When he touched on the topic of climate change at last week’s conference, the former President called it, as he very often does, “a very serious issue happening right now.” With an average elevation of 1.5 meters above sea level, and the world’s lowest natural peak at an astounding 2.4 meters, the archipelago is indeed at the forefront of climate disruption and sea-level rise. Attempting to shame the rest of the world into taking action to mitigate carbon emissions, in 2008 Nasheed launched an ambitious plan for carbon neutrality. The plan seemed achievable: it tapped into the archipelago’s ample wind and solar energy resources, completing the mix with biomass to meet the modest energy needs of this country of 400,000 people, which has a low reliance on electricity and (understandably) almost no cars. Even the country’s most prominent and energy-consuming economic sector, high-end tourism, started bringing itself up to speed. Nasheed’s government planned to offset aviation emissions, which make up the lion’s share of the archipelago’s carbon footprint,  by using the European Union’s Emission Trading Scheme. Finally, as “The Island President” abundantly documents, the Maldives also took the lead in making the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) a force to reckon with in international climate summits.

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climate, Climate Change, COP15, developing countries, emissions reductions, energy, energy policy, Green Technology, low-carbon, low-lying island nations, Maldives, Nasheed, renewable energy, sustainable development, sustainable prosperity, UNFCCC
The Kyoto Protocol (KP) still sits in troubled waters, as three of its signatory countries threaten to jump ship on its continuation beyond 2012

(Photo: The Adopt a Negotiator Project) The Kyoto Protocol (KP) still sits in troubled waters, as three of its signatory countries threaten to jump ship on its continuation beyond 2012.

Governments just finished another round of negotiations in Bonn, Germany under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. If the international climate talks are a ship, the last two weeks’ voyage saw equal parts clear sailing, stormy seas, and listless drifting, as nations advanced toward agreements on addressing ocean carbon storage and clean technology transfer, fought over the future of the Kyoto Protocol, and wasted nearly three days just trying to agree on the agenda for parts of the meeting.

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Imagine if all cars were charged with electricity from renewable energy!

Imagine if all these cars were charged with electricity from wind!

Governments on both sides of the Atlantic must make their transport sectors cleaner and more sustainable in order to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. With 1,590 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year emitted in the United States, 145 million tons in Germany, and 5,470 million tons worldwide, transportation is one of the major contributors to global warming. In relative numbers, cars, trucks, buses, planes, trains etc. generate a third of the United States’, 17 percent of Germany’s and 23 percent of the world’s total CO2 emissions.

There are multiple ways to reduce the sector’s emissions, such as encouraging people to use public transportation, convincing industry to switch from road to rail, or by making current transportation technologies and fuels less polluting. Regarding the latter, the efficiency of petroleum-based engines in cars has improved considerably, particularly in periods of high oil prices such as 1975-1987 and the last few years. However, in the future it is a new technology, electric vehicles, that is seen as the route to a low-carbon transportation system. If charged with electricity from renewable energy, these cars have the potential to make individual transportation almost carbon-free.

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climate, e-cars, e-vehicles, electric vehicles, emissions reductions, energy, Germany, Green Technology, Innovation, low-carbon, renewable energy, transport, United States
Todd Stern and Xie Zhenhua

United States and China lead climate negotiators Todd Stern (left) and Xie Zhenhua sparred in separate public appearances following the Tianjin negotiations

Representatives of 194 governments met earlier this month in Tianjin, China, for another round of United Nations climate negotiations, followed in short order by several other meetings that will affect progress toward climate solutions. While the intense debate wasn’t quite at the scale of a Hollywood blockbuster, it made clear that countries must fight several key policy and political battles before they can agree to a new international climate treaty. Still, since the comparison of climate negotiations with movies has some tradition, let’s try to make some sense of what happened using film analogies.

The United States took a beating from China for its lack of progress on greenhouse gas pollution reductions, even as China came under fire only days later for currency policies that, in part, artificially lower the price of its renewable energy exports. The following week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the leading body of global climate scientists, had its turn in the spotlight, as it proposed new standards to avoid future embarrassing allegations of errors in its work, while moving forward with synthesizing humanity’s current knowledge of the threat of climate change.

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Last month, we reported on France’s new climate legislation, the Grenelle de l’Environnement. Today, the focus is on solar power. The French Ministry of Environment has just announced, for the second time this year, that the nation’s feed-in tariffs for solar photovoltaic (PV) will be modified, much to the displeasure of the solar industry.

Sarkozy's government cuts solar FIT by 12% - Flickr Creative Commons / Mike Baker

Feed-in tariffs (FITs) are a financial tool that guarantees producers of renewable energy a specified price for every megawatt-hour of power fed into the grid. They were introduced in France in 2000, and prices during the most recent phase were set by a 2006 resolution.

This year, Sarkozy’s government already has decided to reform the solar FIT twice. First, a resolution was introduced on January 12 establishing new categories and tariffs for three PV applications: built-in rooftop solar panels (58 EUR cents/kilowatt-hour in mainland France except Corsica), rooftop solar panels (42 EUR cents/kWh), and ground-based solar panels (31.4 EUR cents/kWh for those generating less than 250 kilowatt-peak). This new resolution led to a general decrease in tariffs, especially for solar industry professionals, since many of them could no longer benefit from the highest tariff. The government introduced the resolution following a dramatic increase in the number of PV projects and to keep up with decreasing production costs. The FITs were supposed to be enforced until 2012 and then phased out gradually starting in 2013 as the industry gained in competitiveness.

But the government did not settle for these new tariffs and announced on August 23 that a general cut of the tariffs by 12 percent would take effect on September 1. Only individual installations generating less than 3 kWp will still be granted the 58 EUR cents/kWh tariff, in order to “preserve employment growth in this sector,” the Ministry of Environment and the Department of the Treasury said.

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climate, Climate Policy, energy, feed-in tariffs, France, Germany, Grenelle, renewable energy, Sarkozy, solar power, Spain

By Camille Serre and Alexander Ochs

In the first part of this blog, we reported on Portugual’s excellent results in the development of renewable energy and provided insight into supportive policies that have been implemented over the last decade. Now let’s look at Portugal’s ambitious goals for the coming years.

Prime Minister Jose Socrates set ambitious renewables targets in the National Energy Strategy 2020 - Wikimedia Commons / José Goulão

It’s important to note that Portugal isn’t “going it alone.” The European Commission plays a decisive role in setting targets for each Member State via its 2009 Renewable Energy Directive. Portugal is expected to reach a 31-percent share of renewable energy in its gross final energy consumption by 2020. Also, the European Emission Trading Scheme (ETS) encourages participating countries to cut their emissions of greenhouse gases and therefore move from fossil fuels to renewables, by requiring energy producers and energy-intensive companies to meet strict carbon dioxide emissions targets and to purchase additional permits for overshooting them.

New York Times contributor Elisabeth Rosenthal, citing International Energy Agency (IEA) figures, notes that “last year, for the first time, [Portugal] became a net power exporter, sending small amounts of electricity to Spain.” Inspired by these good results, Portugal set more ambitious targets in its National Energy Strategy (ENE 2020), adopted by the Council of Ministers on April 15, 2010. The country now aims to reach a 45 percent renewables share in its electricity production by the end of the year, and a 60 percent share by 2020.

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climate, Climate Change, climate legislation, energy, energy security, Europe, European Union, Portugal, renewable energy