Climate change: What to do in Bali? Avoid rearranging the deckchairs

Soon the international climate policy will meet under the UN’s framework convention on climate change in Bali where representative’s of the world’s nations will attempt to forge an effective international strategy to succeed the Kyoto protocol when it expires in 2012. There has been a lot of thinking in recent years on what form this agreement should take, and strong statements from the world’s scientific community that the world requires immediate reductions in CO2 emissions. The head of the IPCC, Rajendra Pachauri, said “If there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late. What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment.”

British social scientists Gwyn Prins and Steve Rayner recently wrote a commentary in Nature Time to ditch Kyoto (Oct 25 2007)

The Kyoto Protocol is a symbolically important expression of governments’ concern about climate change. But as an instrument for achieving emissions reductions, it has failed. It has produced no demonstrable reductions in emissions or even in anticipated emissions growth. And it pays no more than token attention to the needs of societies to adapt to existing climate change. The impending United Nations Climate Change Conference being held in Bali in December — to decide international policy after 2012 — needs to radically rethink climate policy.

Influenced by three major policy initiatives of the 1980s, the Kyoto strategy is elegant but misguided. Ozone depletion, acid rain and nuclear arms control are difficult problems, but compared to climate change they are relatively simple. Ozone depletion could be prevented by controlling a small suite of artificial gases, for which technical substitutes could be found. Acid rain was mainly caused by a single activity in a single industrial sector (power generation) and nuclear arms reductions were achieved by governments agreeing to a timetable for mutually verifiable reductions in warheads. None of this applies to global warming.

In practice, Kyoto depends on the top-down creation of a global market in carbon dioxide by allowing countries to buy and sell their agreed allowances of emissions. But there is little sign of a stable global carbon price emerging in the next 5–10 years. Even if such a price were to be established, it is likely to be modest — sufficient only to stimulate efficiency gains. Without a significant increase in publicly funded research and development (R&D) for clean energy technology and changes to innovation policies, there will be considerable delay before innovation catches up with this modest price signal.

Sometimes the best line of attack is not head-on. Indirect measures can deliver much more: these range from informational instruments, such as labelling of consumer products; market instruments, such as emissions trading; and market stimuli, such as procurement programmes for clean technologies; to a few command-and-control mechanisms, such as technology standards. The benefit of this approach is that it focuses on what governments, firms and households actually do to reduce their emissions, in contrast to the directive target setting that has characterized international discussions since the late 1980s.

Because no one can know beforehand the exact consequences of any portfolio of policy measures, with a bottom-up approach, governments would focus on navigation, on maintaining course and momentum towards the goal of fundamental technological change, rather than on compliance with precise targets for emissions reductions. The flexibility of this inelegant approach would allow early mitigation efforts to serve as policy experiments from which lessons could be learned about what works, when and where. Thus cooperation, competition and control could all be brought to bear on the problem.

Does the Kyoto bandwagon have too much political momentum? We hope not. It will take courage for a policy community that has invested much in boosting Kyoto to radically rethink climate policy and adopt a bottom-up ‘social learning’ approach. But finding a face-saving way to do so is imperative. Not least, this is because today there is strong public support for climate action; but continued policy failure ‘spun’ as a story of success could lead to public withdrawal of trust and consent for action, whatever form it takes.

Nature has a follow-up discussion on this commentary on their climate blog ClimateFeedback.

A recent issue of Nature (15 November 2007) includes a letter from German climate scientist and policy advisor John Schellnhuber in which he responds. In Kyoto: no time to rearrange deckchairs on the Titaniche writes:

Gwyn Prins and Steve Rayner … manage to be perfectly right and utterly wrong at the same time. Their criticism of the bureaucratic Kyoto Protocol is justified on many crucial points (although they don’t mention that the physical impact of the protocol on the climate system would be negligible even if it worked). The novelty of this summary of well-known deficiencies in the treaty is that the list comes from independent European scientists rather than White House mandarins. Is there anything substantially new beyond that provocation?

Yes, in the sense that Prins and Rayner boldly propagate a “bottom-up ‘social learning’ ” approach to climate policy that aspires to “put public investment in energy R&D on a wartime footing”. I agree with the importance of both elements to twenty-first century climate protection, but doubt whether there is a solid causal chain linking them. Fine-scale measures and movements towards sustainability, as well as technological and institutional innovation strategies, are needed to decarbonize our industrial metabolism and to force policy-makers to face the challenges ahead. …

Time is crucial, however. It is unlikely that a bottom-up, multi-option approach alone will be able to mobilize war-level climate-protection efforts by all the major emitters (including Russia, China and India) within the one or two decades left to avert an unmanageable planetary crisis. Without a ‘global deal’ — designed for effectiveness, efficiency and fairness and providing a framework to accommodate every nation — there will be neither sufficient pressure nor appropriate orientation towards the climate solutions we desperately need. The bottom-up and top-down approaches are complementary and must be pursued interactively.

Kyoto is simply a miserable precursor of the global regime intended to deliver genuine climate stablization — and was never expected to be more. “Ditching” it now would render all the agonies involved completely meaningless after the event, denying the entire process of policy evolution the slightest chance to succeed. So, instead of rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic through social learning, let us ditch pusillanimity.

One thought on “Climate change: What to do in Bali? Avoid rearranging the deckchairs”

  1. Bali is critical for creating a new tipping point that can lead us from disaster toward healing and abundance. It all has to do what is recognized as true carbon sequestration. There is hope that reduced or avoided deforestation will receive the recognition that it truly deserves. AND, now is also the time that we can jump-start a new relationship between ecology and economy — a healing one — by focusing attention on the soil.

    Technology and economy have always driven the relationship between humans and nature. But now, with so many people, the relationship between technology and economy also holds the future of the human race and the planet. There can be much much good what we view as progress. And there can be problems terrible ones. Much depends on the positive feedback loops. Global warming means there will be more food grown in Canada and its thawing permafrost will release even more greenhouse gases.

    The question is not really about having technology or profits or progress — or not — but whether a particular techno-economic approach gives us new and larger problems or new and larger solutions? A positive feedback loop for solutions? Hmmmm, I hope that got your attention. Is such a thing possible? I believe the answer is YES and it takes the form of an ancient-future soil technology called Terra Preta do Indio (Portuguese for Indian Black Earth).

    Recent research emerging from the Amazon basin is locating large deposits of an extremely fertile and resilent soil called terra preta. It appears to be human-made, ancient indians adding charcoal to the soil to produce the result carbon dating says much of it is 2500 to 4000 years old. Terra preta soil is so productive up to 800% increased plant growth that it could have easily supported an agriculture capable of feeding millions of people living in great cities in the central Amazon basin. Hmmmm (again). This is the legend of El Dorado.

    But do we have to embrace a mythic vision, a conquistadors dream of gold? Is there some solid science involved? Might there actually be a modern soil technolgy whereby faster growing plants would draw more CO2 out of the atmosphere and the unused plant waste turned into charcoal to be returned to the soil resulting in increased crop yields, more carbon capture and long term sequestration, more food and fuel for increasing populations, and a new era of abundance. In other words, might there be a positive feedback loop for healing ourselves and the earth? A technologically and economically supported relationship for bringing human beings and nature into a mutually supportive marriage? A sustainable relationship of abundance?

    The data are not in but the soil research is being conducted and the hopes are great. But we will need more than new agricultural technology. Right now the overwhelming economic opportunities are located in creating fuel. What can incentivize devoting a portion of the charcoal that can be produced from agricultural waste to amendments for renewing the soil?


    Those who have no choice about polluting ways can fund those who have a choice but incur lost opportunities for short-term profits if they do the right thing. We can leave the blame-game and help each other. What a concept!

    Please check out the following links to discover more about this exciting possibility.

    The ABC 11 minute video about the the modern version of terra preta called Agrichar.

    Kelpie Wilsons lay persons introduction to terra preta.

    Research confirms that char added to soil boosts crop productivity.

    The BBC documentary, The Secret of El Dorado.

    Ken Salazar has introduced a bill in the US Senate that would fund research on agrichar.

    I report the story unfolding from Brazil here.

    Lou Gold
    An American in Brazil

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