Alaska’s decision to host the largest oil and gas lease sale of any US state this year is good news for the oil and gas industry, which has been pressing for more access. And while the resulting exploration and production certainly will be good for the overall economy – creating jobs and boosting activity – it is a pity that it is not against a backdrop of better news on the environmental front.
By this I mean concerted steps by the US government to reduce the use of oil as part of a larger effort to curtail carbon emissions. This issue has long disappeared from the political radar, despite being a key platform on which President Barack Obama was elected.
The gorgeous grounds of the Moon Palace resort in Cancun are chock full of people. Hurrying from one meeting room to another, sitting on the grass with laptops, queuing for soft drinks or munching on sandwiches in the shade of palm trees, taking shelter in the airconditioned lobby – the hotel can never have seen so many thousands of people at one time.
Most of these people are not residents – only the delegations themselves staying here, owing to security concerns – but participants who have travelled miles to get here each day. To get to the conference centre entrance takes half an hour to an hour from most of the hotels in Cancun, which itself is effectively a long strip of beach hotels stretching for tens of miles down the coast. Then participants have to pass security and take another half hour ride on a special shuttle bus to get to the Moon Palace, where the actual negotiations are going on. As some of the important side meetings are taking place at far distant hotels, many people seem to be spending most of their time at this conference in transit.
Forestry is one of the key areas of focus at the Cancun climate change talks, now in their second week. A programme – called REDD, for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation – that would provide poor countries with financial incentives to keep their remaining forests standing is being worked out, and has broad support.
Getting to this point has taken nearly two decades, even though keeping trees standing is by far the cheapest way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and staving off dangerous levels of global warming.
Some of the problems that have plagued the forestry talks include how to ensure that if logging is stopped in one part of a forest, it does not resume elsewhere; how to define land that has been degraded but could be restored; how to monitor the vast tracts of trees; whether and how to allow some forms of sustainable logging; and how to respect the rights of indigenous forest peoples.
The global shipping industry gives rise to more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire German economy. Yet shipping has been all but ignored in international climate change negotiations. Shipping emissions were excluded from the Kyoto protocol, and from the European Union’s emissions trading scheme.
Though the shipping industry has made some moves to monitor and reduce its emissions, these have not yet resulted in industry-wide action.
The Carbon War Room, a grouping founded by Sir Richard Branson to try to enlist businesses in the battle against climate change, is hoping to change all that.
So what is happening at Cancun?
Environment ministers and government officials from around the world are gathering in Mexico to talk about climate change, and how to tackle the problem of increasing greenhouse gas emissions.
Didn’t they do that last year?
Last year’s climate summit in Copenhagen produced a deal by which both developed and developing countries for the first time agreed to curbs on their greenhouse gas emissions, but that was not a full treaty.
Will a treaty be signed this year?
No – the Cancun meeting is a staging post on the way to a bigger meeting in South Africa next year, at which the United Nations is hoping a new pact will be signed.
For climate change activists, a new Yale study entitled Americans’ knowledge of climate change might make the heart sink. Their worst fears appear to have been met with the results showing that 52 per cent of over 2000 Americans surveyed scored below 60 per cent on the knowledge test, earning them a lowly F grade.
Sure enough, the media response was scathing. 52 per cent of Americans flunk Climate 101, said the NYT’s Green blog. Large gaps found in public understanding of climate change, said the Science Daily.
But the headlines are a little unfair, not least because the questions were technical, and aimed at testing how detailed the public’s understanding of climate issues was (so not really ‘Climate 101′ then). For example, how many people would you expect to know that water vapour is an important part of the greenhouse effect? Or that “The last 10,000 years have been unusually warm and stable, compared to the climate of the past million years.”
In the UK’s first ever annual energy statement, Chris Huhne, UK energy and climate change secretary, asked researchers, industry experts and members of the public a series of questions about the country’s energy priorities. The answers to these questions, he announced, will help form the basis of Britain’s pathway to energy security by the year 2050.
In line with David Cameron’s “Big Society” idea, the annual statement is accompanied by a “Call for evidence” and a software, essentially an excel spreadsheet, which models energy supply and demand to show alternative energy policy scenarios. The package is the government’s attempt to raise public support for the upcoming energy policy that will be announced later in the year.
But the spreadsheet currently does not contain any information on costs of any of the technologies, which is essential for the decision-making process that would shape public opinion on the subject. This crucial omission makes the tool ineffective for policy-makers and members of the public seeking to engage with Britain’s energy policy.
A week after the Muir enquiry recommended greater openness in the science of climate change, the government launched a Google Earth Map layer which shows the impact of a 4° C temperature rise in the world including food and water pressures as well links to research outputs of prominent climate change scientists. The move will be welcomed by many, as it will allow the public a new opportunity to explore the uncertainty in climate science.
The Google map layer was launched by the UK Foreign Office in collaboration with the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC).