BioEnergy Outlook: Convening For The Climate

Ted Niblock

Ted Niblock
BioCycle December 2015, Vol. 56, No. 11, p. 53

This month’s 2015 Paris Climate Conference will have ended by the time the December issue of BioCycle is published. Whatever the final headlines are, there are a few points about this process to help us keep perspective. The first point is no matter what the spin ends up being, progress is slow but usually steady when it comes to these types of international structures.

The international community has been at this for a while. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was conceived (as a treaty) in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro. Over the next few years, many nations, including the U.S., ratified it. The treaty became effective in 1994. In the charming, Montessori style of the UN, this “framework” mostly provided a forum for further talking and acronym-coining.

The ratified treaty called for a Conference of the Parties (COP) every year. Sometimes these are well-known, such as Kyoto or Copenhagen, and sometimes obscure, but they occur annually. Paris is COP 21. That’s right, twenty-one.

After ratification, a department was created at the UN with the same name (UNFCCC). This department (called a “Secretariat”) has hundreds of employees and has been working, along with a parallel organization called the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), to create the tools for implementing greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions when they are agreed to. Some very useful work product has been generated, including structures for GHG inventories and something called the Clean Development Mechanism. The UNFCCC and the IPCC are also the most comprehensive and unbiased sources of scholarship and data on the growing climate change problem.

Over the years, the COP attendees have diligently hammered away at the global climate change problem, in the same way that diplomats and policy experts everywhere struggle with the thankless task of solving the nearly unsolvable (although we must believe eventually solvable) collective action problems created by a planet composed of nation states populated by humans competing for limited resources. Although their progress is slow and sometimes seems futile, this community is made up of incredibly smart and hardworking people who have committed themselves to a task which may not be completed in their lifetimes.

Collective Action Problems

In past conferences, and in true UN-conference form, participants have taken shots at low hanging fruit such as deforestation, extra-nasty chemicals such as refrigerants, setting broad goals based on temperature change, raising money to help developing nations invest in clean energy, and many other small bites. At the end of the day, however, the two primary collective action problems are the same now as at Rio.

First, developed countries are not going to reduce their emissions if they suspect that any other developed country will refuse to do so thus gaining an advantage. Second, developing nations insist that they must be compensated if they agree to limit GHG emissions in their growth phases, phases during which the developed world did no such thing. Imagine approaching the U.S. in 1948 and demanding that it grow its economy with limited reliance on the internal combustion engine, or electrify the country without coal.

The technology exists to skip the dirty phase of industrialization, but it will still be a hard sell, and currently the developing world is demanding huge payments from the developed world to make this happen, which may or may not be possible.

Occasionally, we have had moments of tepid international consensus for collective restraint, such as whaling. Something approaching a moratorium was agreed to in the 1980s, but since most of the developed world had replaced whale oil with fossil oil a hundred years previously, no one was really sticking their neck out. Even then, exceptions had to be made for a handful of indigenous peoples around the world, along with a few fully developed nations that each had some inexplicable cultural connection to hunting and eating giant sea mammals. Still, a fairly workable international system was achieved.

The example most often trotted out as proof that these international conferences work is the Montreal Protocol, which has been arguably successful, but took on a challenge several orders of magnitude smaller than global GHG emissions. The chemicals addressed were small in number, quickly replaceable without significant economic disruption, and too complicated for inflammatory public debate. (Who really knows how a refrigerator works, anyway? Not me). On the crisis side, there was a giant hole in the ozone layer, which was pretty easy to explain. Our collective roof was leaking.

Despite their differences from the challenges at Paris, however, these examples do prove the very important point that this can be done, that international consensus in the face of a problem big enough, with solutions that are economically feasible enough, is possible. Each time the UNFCCC tries to reach this consensus, climate change has become more difficult to deny and technological solutions are closer. Perhaps more importantly, each time these participants convene, more countries have industrialized enough that they are ready to transition.

Ted Niblock develops biogas projects for NewAg Development.

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