Reflections on COP21

First published on Friday, 01 January 2016

With the benefit of a few weeks to think about it, I have some thoughts to share on COP21. Some may seem a little contrarian. They are not in any particular order. Consider them musings, not well-defined arguments.

The COP21 agreement in Paris got the world over the hump. The 2015 Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, in its 21st meeting (COP21) in December 2015, opened the gate to the pathway to the salvation of the planet. It did not save the planet, nor did it open the gateway to a single path to mitigate climate change. It did what it was intended to do: open up an escape route so that humankind could bail out of the technosocial trap in which we found ourselves.


COP21 is an achievement that may go beyond history and even beyond the human species. If the agreement leads to action, effective climate mitigation will have planetary significance. It is my hope that François Hollande, Laurent Fabius, Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, and John Kerry will be seriously considered for the Nobel Prize in Peace. But this agreement must be understood to be the crucial escape from the trap, not the portal which assures a sustainable future.

Free of institutional inertia and the globalized political and economic gridlock that has been an unintended consequence of globalization due to competition, the nations of the world can move forward to find a path to sustainability, waste more time, or settle back into business as usual and sail over the brink of tolerable climate change transition and into catastrophe. Note that I write “nations”, not “peoples”. This critically important undertaking is under the control of countries and a world system that rests on national sovereignty, as it unfortunately must at this stage in human development, not on aspirations common to all peoples, the wisdom of indigenous peoples, and certainly not science.

COP21 will be followed by halting and uncertain progress, and uncertainty and time are working against us. At the time (not just in retrospect) what needed to be done was obvious a decade (or two) ago. Ironically, if our leaders, especially in North America (Bush and Cheney, and Harper) had refrained from “poleaxing” the Kyoto agreement. it may have been possible to save the oil industry they were so concerned about “protecting” from the same fate as coal is now facing: implosion, because of the growing imperative to keep carbon resources in the ground and out of the air. Now, the carbon budget has no room. This was a big mistake, Exxon.

The current terrifying, uncontrolled emission of methane from a storage formation in the Aliso Canyon (Porter Ranch area) in Southern California reminds us that things can go terribly wrong. Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, by a factor of 25 over the period of a century. This event reminds us that climate change progress can and will be set back by events that do not lend themselves to careful planning and timetables: methane release from hydrates in oceans and warming permafrost and by the horrendous fires that occur regularly in Indonesia. I doubt very much if the possibility of mitigation reversal from these events will be factored into the neat and tidy national plans for mitigation that will follow COP21.

There is now clear consensus that tree planting will no longer offset enough carbon dioxide to mitigate climate change. That does not mean that it should not be done or that reforestation does not bring other benefits, of course. However, I am beginning to hear an inappropriately negative tone in discussions of reforestation. The discussions that I have heard talk about carbon being locked up in cellulose (basically) for the life of the tree but then released when the tree falls and decays, and so reforestation is at best a short-term solution. I don’t agree. The unit of analysis is not a tree, it is a forest or wetland ecosystem. Dead wood is recycled, chewed up by molds and incorporated into other plant life and total biomass. The ecosystem is very efficient at recycling carbon, so that the potential for carbon sequestration becomes a function of total biomass, not the number of individual trees standing. This is an argument for protecting and conserving entire ecosystems and whenever possible restoring self-sustaining ecological communities, not just increasing the number of trees.

Guidance on how to manage the energy sector in a world of diminishing options and rising urgency may be coming from a very unlikely place: the most energy-dependent place in North America, Alberta. In a historically unprecedented political shift, my adopted home province of Alberta elected a new government last year that is left of center, responsible on climate change, and committed to sustainability. The incumbent New Democratic Party (often described as “socialist” but this is an exaggeration) is aggressively managing the decline of oil prices in cooperation, not overt conflict, with the energy sector (which in Alberta effectively controlled provincial politics until last year) and promoting sustainability measures. It is too early to know, but Alberta, against all odds, may well lead the way to policies, adaptations, and innovation that the world can learn from.

I don’t think that the future is necessary bleak or shadowy: no dimming the lights need follow. Conventional wisdom is that the way forward will be brutally hard and expensive. I’m not so sure. The progress toward sustainability that accompany climate change mitigation will also lead to cost savings through increased efficiency, resilience through diversification of supply and energy sources, and new investment opportunities through innovation. Experience with sustainability at the corporate level trends show that after only a few years: sustainability measures not only pay for themselves but become standard operating procedure because they work and pay off. Microeconomics may foreshadow macroeconomic progress on sustainability at a giga scale, in which progress on mitigating climate change would accelerate rapidly after the first steps because it brings other, short-term benefits that incentivize further investment and innovation. As conservation-based services, alternative and – importantly – distributed energy technologies, technological innovations, and as-yet unforeseen products and services proliferate, we may well be on the verge of an economic boom, not a bust.

Distributed energy systems tend to create more jobs in the energy sector than capital-intensive centralized systems such as electricity generation and nuclear. This is obvious with solar and wind but also a potential benefit for other scattered generating systems or local sources generating energy at the point of use. These require installation, servicing, and occasional modification, and create jobs and trading opportunities in the community, as well as the potential for greater resiliency in emergencies. Carbon capture and control technology may provide local economic opportunities in a similarly distributed fashion, both capturing carbon dioxide emitted at the source and, much less efficiently, in free-standing atmospheric extraction plants, which could be sited anywhere. (We do need to be careful that we do not create a new problem, the potential for catastrophic release of sequestered carbon dioxide.)

It is just possible – although unlikely – that climate change goals will, in the end, be met abruptly and without major structural change to our technosocial and economic system. This could occur (I am not suggesting that it will) by a deus ex machina coming in the form of fusion energy or some other currently non-obvious carbon-free solution. Investigators in Germany, France, and Switzerland are reporting impressive progress toward a viable fusion technology. (The US has been stuck for a long time.) Simply by building a fusion plant and switching over the transmission line (irony alert – it may not be quite that simple!), fusion could provide an alternative and acceptable centralized energy generator that would replace fossil-fuel power plants and could replace hydroelectric plants (allowing a new and unanticipated generation of conservation measures to restore wetlands). I think that this is very unlikely but it cannot be ruled out. Should it come in time to matter, cheap and reliable fusion energy could provide electricity over the existing distribution system, to provide hydrogen for distribution over the existing (but modified) fuel distribution system, and in effect preserve the existing infrastructure intact. That would be a shame, but it’s not likely to happen because fusion remains out of reach for now and widespread adoption of fusion energy, if it ever happens, would be highly capital-intensive.

The phrase of the moment “Never waste a good crisis” (variously attributed but apparently actually coined by a health economist, M.F. Weiner, in 1976) comes to mind. There is a lot that could be done to remake our infrastructure into a more efficient, responsive, creative, human-shaped, and even profitable artificial ecosystem, which we would perceive as a better, more individualized and gratifying world. Even if something totally unexpected were to reduce the imperative of mitigating and adapting to climate change, we would want to carry through with the momentum toward sustainability. Our focus beyond the carbon targets should be on staying on track for a habitable planet.