Is the Paris Climate Agreement a Turning Point ?

The COP21 just ended in Paris with a bold and historic agreement signed by 184 countries. Some experts commenting on the text have presented the agreement as a turning point. Is this the case?

Prior to the start of the conference most countries submitted their voluntary Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) to the UN secretariat to show their determination to contribute to reducing the impacts of climate change. An analysis of the INDCs’ cumulative impacts suggests that they come far from aligning with the mandate to keep the Earth warming much below 2ºC by 2100 to limit climate risks. Together, they would lead to a 2.7 – 3ºC warming, an inacceptable number from the scientists’ and the most vulnerable countries’ perspective. The agreement signed on December 12, 2015 doesn’t offer any alternative trajectory to get the world to possibly 1.5ºC, the ambitious target mentioned throughout the document. How can we then state that the Paris agreement is a turning point for humanity and the planet? It is probably by looking outside the agenda for solutions presented in the agreement that emission reductions will be found in the years to come, This is in particular true prior to the reevaluation of the INDCs, reevaluation not planned until 2020. More specifically, it is what happened during COP21 in presentations, discussions and press briefings, and also outside the Le Bourget venue that gives credence to the idea that this agreement might represent a turning point.

The first strong suggestion comes from the renewable energy “revolution” underway that will be expanded by initiatives announced at COP. In 2014, renewable energy investments have been higher than all fossil fuels investments taken together and this both worldwide and in developing countries. Projections made a few years ago in wind and solar energy have been exceeded several times in the recent years and in different countries (e.g., US, China) and the cost is now on a dramatic down curve, particularly for solar, with values as low as 0.387/KWh in Texas. As for the future, it is really bright. A new Goldman Sachs study indicates that much extra energy will be added to the world’s energy economy from solar photovoltaic and on shore wind in the period 2016 -2020. The increment would be as large as all the energy supplies put together from natural gas (mostly “fracked” gas) between 2010 and 2015! But what provides the impetus for the turning point are the several ambitious initiatives unveiled at COP21. For instance, the International Solar Alliance, a coalition of 100 countries led by India that proposes to expand solar energy development around the world, with a focus on the poor and highly populated sun-rich regions. This will mobilize $1 trillion in solar investment and complement India’s own goal to produce 100 GW of solar energy by 2022. The US pledged to double its support for renewable energy R&D to $800M while France announced $2B for the development of renewable energy in Africa.

A second source of emission reduction will be coming from the cities and regions whose mayors and representatives met in Paris and pledged to reduce their overall emissions associated with consumption, develop resilience and increase the share of renewable by 50% by 2050. Large reductions can be expected if they have access to financing.

There are also the multiple financial pledges that are hard to tally without getting into the details of what is already given in the form of aids to some countries. Nevertheless they are significant – of the order of $B80 – and some are noteworthy by their amount. For instance, the international coalition of billionaires, including Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Alibaba’s Jack Ma, and African Rainbow Minerals’ Patrice Motsepe has pledged to channel money cash into clean energy alongside 20 governments, towards clean energy innovation: solar, energy storage, and efficiency.

The strong presence of the financial investment and business sectors was especially remarkable. They came with new engagements and a surprising demand for a carbon price. The conference attendees were mostly those with responsibilities for climate in their respective institutions, the implications being that the COP climate objectives may not have yet registered in much of the market. But there was definitely a strong interest in conveying the message to the larger market that it is time to take climate change seriously and factor it into long-term financial forecasts. Several speakers mentioned the idea of a 2ºC stress test for fossil fuel companies. That is an analysis of the company’s situation under the constraints of a limit of 2ºC temperature increase and the resulting possibility of unusable (stranded) coal, oil and gas assets because of too high prices. Such stress tests are now beginning. Those are particularly important to retirement fund managers whose portfolios represent long-term investments commensurate with the time scale of climate change. And any mistake in their investment can have catastrophic consequences on retirees’ benefits. Perhaps the most surprising turn in relation to the possibility of a couple trillion dollars of stranded assets – as suggested by the carbon tracker group-, is the growing movement for fossil fuel divestment. It was announced at COP21 there is now more than $3B in funds that envision divesting their portfolios from fossil fuels in the near term.

And finally, a high point of this COP21 was the world’s mobilization of civil society. This took many aspects but was characterized by NGOs working together to organize marches and a “People’s summit” and achieved major successes prior to COP21: convincing President Obama to cancel the Keystone pipeline, pressuring Shell to stop its Arctic drilling operations. At COP21 they organized the Mock trial of Exxon Mobile for climate crimes. They vowed to continue pressuring their states in the coming years to ensure that important elements of the agreement are adhered to, including transparency and the ratcheting of INDCs. But they promised to fight against voluntary misinterpretation of fuzzy document wording that could till the future towards solutions like geoengineering and away from a 100% renewable energy future.

 The ultimate measures of success and possibly the reality of the agreement being a turning point will depend on the perspective taken. From a financial perspective, success will be achieved if the agreement sends a clear signal to global financial investors that they should move money away from fossil fuels and toward clean-energy sources such as wind and solar power. And if the trillion of dollars that can be available flow rapidly to the renewable energy sector, we’ll be able to declare that it was a turning point. From a civil society’s perspective success will be linked to the existence of climate justice for different categories of people, indigenous people, poor people, women or future generations. But, in my perspective, we can declare it a success as through this agreement we have started writing a new chapter. Some cultures consider that the Earth is on loan for future generations. We can now, at least temporarily, reassure the world that all together we will mitigate our effects and offer the generations to come a better Earth.



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Historic Paris climate pact reached – experts react

As an author of this publication, I am taking the liberty to repost this article under the Creative Commons Attribution NoDerivatives licence.

Job done: COP21 president Laurent Fabius. Reuters/Stephane Mahe

After two weeks of negotiations in Paris, the world’s nations have reached a global deal to tackle climate change. The agreement commits 196 countries to help limit global warming to “well below 2℃ above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5℃”.

Under the agreement:

  • Countries will pursue their self-determined emissions targets from 2020 onwards.
  • The national targets will be reviewed and strengthened every five years.
  • Global emissions should peak “as soon as possible”.
  • By the second half of this century, greenhouse gas emissions should be balanced out by processes that remove them from the air.
  • Developed nations will contribute at least US$100 billion a year from 2020 to help poorer nations deal with climate change.

Below, our experts react to the agreement:

Robyn Eckersley, Professor of Political Science, University of Melbourne

The signature achievement of the Paris Agreement is a much bolder temperature target than expected: a ceiling of 2℃ warming, plus the pursuit of the safer target of 1.5℃.

Yet the parties have formally acknowledged that the 185 national pledges submitted thus far for the post-2020 period are well short of what is required to prevent dangerous climate change. The success of the Paris Agreement will therefore turn on how quickly the parties are able to ratchet up their ambition over time.

The good news is that the parties have agreed to relatively short, five-yearly cycles of nationally determined contributions. They have also agreed that each successive contribution shall be a progression beyond the previous one and reflect each party’s highest possible ambition.

The bad news is that there is no requirement that the parties must review and upgrade their existing pledges before 2030, although they may voluntarily choose to do so at any time.

On a worst-case scenario, we could see no ratcheting up of pledges over the next 15 years, just like we have seen no shift in the Copenhagen 2020 pledges made in early 2010. This would require much more heroic efforts in subsequent cycles and make it much harder to reduce the risks of dangerous warming.

However, the worst-case scenario is unlikely. There will be a facilitative dialogue in 2019 to take stock of collective effort, and we can expect some parties to upgrade their existing pledge.

In 2020, parties are required to communicate their next round of contributions for the post-2025 and 2030 periods. Parties are also urged to formulate long-term emission reduction strategies. This will exert further pressure on parties to lift their horizons and their game.

Together these various provisions provide a clear signal for everyone, but especially the business community: there is only one direction for emissions to go, and that is down, and the faster the better.

Clive Hamilton, Professor of Public Ethics, Centre For Applied Philosophy & Public Ethics, Charles Stuart University

Twenty-three years after signing the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the nations of the world have at last decided to act on it. The Paris Agreement will mark a turning point in so many ways and represents a victory that would have seemed impossible even one or two years ago.

We knew coming into the conference that the global emissions pathway embodied in the agreement would fall well short of what the science tells us is needed to avoid dangerous climate change. We remain on track for an Earth that will be three or so degrees warmer – a world that must be avoided at all costs.

Before they came to Paris, countries had made their pledges for the next 10-15 years and they were not up for negotiation. So what was always at stake in Paris was how far the outcome would go to reflect new realities, consolidate progress and, critically, define a mechanism for much deeper emission cuts over the next decade or two.

Assessed in these terms, the Paris Agreement is as good as could be hoped for. Two or three years ago the inclusion of an ambition to “pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5℃” would have been unthinkable.

While the Agreement does not acknowledge the severely constrained carbon budget, the commitment to global peaking of emissions “as soon as possible … and rapid reductions thereafter” reflects a new urgency.

And the redrawing of the developed/developing country map, and the significant shift away from the trench warfare of previous climate summits, marks a new road for future commitments.

The decisive question now is how powerfully the Paris Agreement will signal to those outside national governments, including business, that the world has entered a new era. Because it is what they do over the next few years that will determine how deep the next round of emission cuts can be. All the indications are that Paris will send a very strong signal indeed.

Peter Christoff, Associate Professor, School of Geography, University of Melbourne

2015 is set to be the hottest year ever recorded. Appropriately, the Paris Agreement contains the strongest temperature goal of any international climate deal so far. Its aims – to strengthen global action to hold warming well below 2℃ and encourage efforts to limit warming to 1.5℃ – frame and drive the Agreement’s ambition.

Robust reference to 1.5℃ was strongly contested and opposed by Saudi Arabia, China, India and some other developing countries as an impediment to their development.

By contrast, the United States and the European Union joined a broad “coalition of high ambition” championed by the small island states, and enthusiastically sought tougher phrasing.

Some are sceptical about why they did so. To quote one negotiator: “The inclusion of these targets merely recognizes the desperate need of climate-vulnerable states, buys their support, weakens their resistance on other issues, and helps split the developing state bloc.”

Such cynicism misses the point. The new goal is not empty symbolism. It is still achievable and has beneficial real-world implications. It ramps up urgency, strengthens expectations for rapid mitigation by governments and the private sector, and intensifies pressure for funding transfers to the developing world. (The Agreement also calls for a new IPCC report in 2018 to look at 1.5℃ and associated mitigation pathways.)

Such cynicism misses the point. The new goal is not empty symbolism. It is still achievable and has beneficial real-world implications. It ramps up urgency, strengthens expectations for rapid mitigation by governments and the private sector, and intensifies pressure for funding transfers to the developing world. (The Agreement also calls for a new IPCC report in 2018 to look at 1.5℃ and associated mitigation pathways.)

Inevitably, many provisions in the final text remain insufficient. For example, the deal acknowledges the emissions gap between the currently inadequate national climate pledges and its goal but does not press for the full implementation of even these pledges nor require their strengthening before 2025. It seeks a balance of emissions and removals of greenhouse gases “in the second half of this century” yet it merely calls for global emissions to peak “as soon as possible”. Its climate finance clauses are dilatory and enhanced contributions to the Green Climate Fund will not be required before 2025.

These limitations must be overcome if we are to meet this historic Agreement’s aim of “significantly reducing the risks and impacts of climate change”.

Climate adaptation

Jessica Hellmann, Director, Institute on the Environment, University of Minnesota

The Paris Agreement largely focuses on the adoption of national pledges towards greenhouse gas mitigation, but it has quite a lot to say about the importance and demand for adaptation.

The Agreement emphasises the need for communication and collaboration among countries toward achieving adaptation, particularly in the developing world where the impacts of climate change will be felt most strongly and who have limited structures in place to adjust to those impacts. It calls for methods to assess adaptation needs by countries leading to recommendations for adoption in future negotiations; it directs all agencies to include climate change resilience in its development aid; and it calls for continued implementation of national adaptation plans.

The Agreement further recognises that climate change will cause loss and damage to countries around the world, but it does not allow for financial compensation for those losses. Adaptation assistance from developed countries, therefore, follows not from formal responsibility but from a desire to assist developing countries. This is a subtle but important distinction with potential implications for the amount and source of money from wealthier to poorer countries. In an effort to grow developed countries’ financial commitments, however, the agreement calls for a minimum investment of US$100 billion a year by 2020 towards both mitigation and adaptation for developing countries.

That adaptation is such a recognised component of the agreement is a step in the right direction, yet the Agreement shows how much remains unknown about the extent of adaptation needed, its best practices, and how to ensure its public and private financing. While exciting to have an agreement in hand that commits to fundamental principles, much remains to be done.

Emissions reductions

Catherine Gautier-Downes, Professor Emerita of Geography, University of California, Santa Barbara

What does this agreement mean in terms of world emissions by mid-century? Clearly, the climate pledges made by more than 180 countries do not align with the mandate to limit Earth’s warming to 1.5℃ by 2100 to limit climate risks. They would lead to 2.7 or 3℃. The agreement offers no alternative trajectory to get the world to 1.5ºC.

It is probably outside the agenda for solutions that emission reductions will be found, through:

  1. the renewable energy “revolution” underway with 2015 investments in renewable higher than in fossil fuels in the world and in the developing countries and, in the future, illustrated by the International Solar Alliance to expand solar development to 100 terawatts;
  2. The pledge by 700 mayors to reduce emissions from consumption and increase the share of renewable by 50% by 2050;
  3. the multiple financial pledges that come to nearly US$80 billion;
  4. the financial and business sectors’ new engagement and demand for a carbon price, including the growing movement for fossil fuel divestment;
  5. the world’s mobilization of civil society with nongovernmental organisations working together to achieve successes like the abandonment of the Keystone XL oil pipeline and vowing to continue pressuring their states in the years to come.

Drastically cutting emissions in the near term is crucial but not enough without “negative” emissions. Opportunities for negative emissions in the building or forest sectors, for instance, must be central research topics in the coming years. This COP is a historic moment that represents a global power shift and puts the world on the path to the fully carbon neutral and climate-resilient world our children and grandchildren deserve.

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Climate Change may affect us All in the Long-term: Fate of Stranded Fossil Fuel Assets

Representatives from the finance world have come to the Paris conference in unusually large numbers. While representing diverse groups, most of them have been working on some aspects of climate financial investments for many years. So, they still represent a small number compared to the size of the overall investment market. They are really dwarfed by the status quo: the market is still tied up in the incumbency, the fossil fuel industry. What are these new players at the COP telling us? How does this desire to participate and contribute tell us about the future of investments in America?

Many Americans believe that Climate Change is something that happens to the rest of the world even though the drought and fires in California are exacerbated by global warming. What we hear from the financiers is that, in the long run, these physical climate impacts might not be the main impacts that Californians will experience. And it is likely through the financial consequences of Climate Change that most American will be most affected in the future. At least this is the argument that was presented at the COP by investment specialists at the end of the first week. Unless fund managers take climate and environmental changes into account in the way they invest retirement funds, pensioners will be at risk in a 20 to 30 years time frame.

To appreciate how this might happen one must grasp the notion of stranded assets with regards to environmental and climate risks. As defined by the International Energy Agency, stranded assets are “those investments which are made but which, at some time prior to the end of their economic life (as assumed at the investment decision point), are no longer able to earn an economic return, as a result of changes in the market and regulatory environment.” This notion gained prominence about a decade ago and has since been used extensively by the Carbon Tracker Group in its analysis of what constitutes a good investment in a warming world. The financial community initially received the idea that fossil fuel investments could be stranded assets in the relatively near future with much skepticism and this is still the case to some extent, at least in the US. However, the notion was seriously discussed and used at COP 21 and even the governor of the Bank of England recognizes that stranded assets are a real possibility that has many implications.

So why is this notion of stranded assets taken seriously nowadays? Essentially, we are at a point in the understanding of the evolution of our climate and of the risks associated with doing business as usual that we know that must limit the warming to 2ºC by the end of the 21st century. In fact this maximum temperature change threshold is more likely 1.5 ºC if we want to protect the most vulnerable countries. This temperature constraint gives us what is called a carbon budget that is the maximum total emissions allowed over that period of time. The exact value of this carbon budget cannot be exactly computed because we are talking about computed probabilities of remaining below that threshold estimated with climate models. Anyway, the exact number is not terribly important and its value will be refined over time. It is the concept of carbon budget that matters.

Given a certain carbon budget, several questions can be raised. The main one is: how will we spend or, better, allocate this budget? This is like if we were given a certain money allocation for our Christmas shopping and could spend it in the way we wanted. What would we choose to spend it on? In the framework of climate change we are talking about how do we spend the world’s carbon budget till the end of the century. What fuels would we use it on? What mix of coal, oil or gas should that be? What countries should be given more priority to spend it on? For instance, will a developing country like India be able to use their coal to develop their economy to bring the level of many of their inhabitants to a higher standard of living while, in so doing, use a large portion of the world’s carbon allocation relatively inefficiently? Or will some developed countries, like the US, be able to spend a good deal of that allocation on shale oil and gas that are known to be carbon-intensive to keep their economy humming on the grounds that the US economy affects the entire world? Or shouldn’t we find the most efficient way to manage this budget? This means using the least carbon intensive fossil fuels (i.e., conventional gas and some oil) first to fuel the economy until we transition to a 100% renewable energy based world economy, as the Carbon tracker results suggest? The consequence of such an approach is that we will leave some fossil fuels in the ground and some of those left will be in the developing world, in countries that might need energy the most. Following such paths would take us into what Carbon Tracker calls the “danger zone”. That is the emission zone that would take the world to a much higher temperature than the climate can afford, if we don’t manage our carbon resources efficiently.

In any case, it is clear to everyone now that some fossil fuels will have to remain in the ground if the temperature increase is to be limited. Naturally, this is a hard fact to face for economies that rely mostly on fossil fuels for their survival or for those who rely on fossil fuel for their growth, at this moment in time. And this constitutes a risk for investors if their investments are not made with full knowledge of that risk. That means that fund managers have to recognize the risk and require that the companies in which they invest analyze what may happen to them when considering those stranded assets. They will have to perform some form of stress tests to assess their risk in relation to the 2ºC constraint. What will they become in that new world?

What will the consequent effect on people investing their savings in a retirement fund be? Let’s take the case of a pension fund for a category of employees like teachers or civil servants or workers in a union. In California this type of pension fund can have huge assets of the order of a couple 100s of billions in the US Union pension funds reach a few trillions of dollars. Every year the funds must pay benefits in millions of dollars to their pensioners and that is what these people count on to live. If the managers are wrong in their estimates or in their assumptions for running the workers’ money or if there is high volatility in the market, the ramifications might be severe and we’ll have to find more money for these pensions and more likely than not that that will mean tax payers money coming from the citizens. So this may affect everyone. If there is a market implosion resulting from the stranded assets, it is not just that institutions that will fall, it will also be about workers’ pensions. It is because we are dealing with such a long-term risk that climate change speaks loudly to the managers and the investors and not only those investors of state or unionized employees. This would also affect any 401-k or 403-b people have made as part of their employment and on which they count for their retirement.

So, is there something investors should do to protect themselves? That is a complicated question that will require much thinking. In a first step, however, investors should probably demand that their fund managers be aware of the issue of climate change and start thinking of its potential effect on the market in 20 or 30 years when it is time for these investors to retire.

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Sneak preview of Exxon Potential Trial for “Climate Crimes”


On Saturday Dec 5, in the Paris suburb of Montreuil, away from the COP 21 main venue in Le Bourget, a mock trial of Exxon took place. Organized by several environmental organizations, it offered, in a theatrical form, a well-scripted trial led by two rock star style environmentalists and authors Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein, in front of celebrity judges. About 250 people sympathetic to the environmental movement heard incriminatory evidence of the American energy giant’s alleged climate crimes.

The basis for this trial of the world’s largest private oil explorer are allegations based on recently uncovered papers indicating that Exxon has lied to the public about climate change since the 1970s. Investigative journalists from Inside Climate News and the Los Angele Times have recently revealed that, around that date, Exxon’s own top-notch scientists were well aware that fossil fuels were causing the warming of the Earth. The Texas based company was accused in this mock trial of having covered up their own science results that they knew were correct while actively discrediting the scientific consensus that was building at the time and has continued to become even more firm do so over the last few decades.

At the start of the mock trial, the prosecutors explained that Exxon was on trial for its potential climate crimes. “Crimes that extend beyond the pollution they are putting in our atmosphere; crimes against indigenous people; crimes against people of color; crimes against people who are already feeling impacts of climate change.”

One by one, witnesses were asked to testify. Some were citizens of countries vulnerable to devastating impacts of climate change that are already occurring, such as rising sea levels and thinning ice sheets. Others witnesses were climate scientists and energy analysts.

The witnesses’ statements were very personal, bringing to the audience first-person accounts of what they many people may have read about from the comfort of their homes and offices. The climate scientist testifying in the trial, a glaciologist working for more than a decade at monitoring the evolution of the Arctic ice conditions, admitted that hearing for the first time the testimony of a woman living in the Marshal Islands really affected him. The story of the young woman from a Sami family of reindeer herders, dressed in colorful herder clothes, was very touching. She explained how, with the warming, the reindeers were unable to migrate from their summer to their winter pastures, lakes and rivers not yet being frozen or being covered with ice too thin to allow them to cross safely, many young ones dying because they were unable to follow their mothers across the flowing river. Or how, due to the more rapid freeze-thaw cycle nowadays, a thin layer of ice builds over the snow-covered pastures and prevent the reindeers from foraging. This young woman called herself a “climate child”.

Other witnesses testified of water raging through their homes during King Tides (the normally infrequent but extreme tides that occur more often now), and their family burial grounds becoming covered with water, leading to the loss of their culture and identity.

water-overflow_islandsA Nigerian activist talked about damages done by Exxon to the inhabitants of the Niger Delta without their benefiting from the huge oil reserves being exploited. With a wink of support from Nigerian politicians, Exxon would profit while Nigerians were suffering serious health damage.

Klein devoted a series of questions to one witness to untangling the connections between Exxon (and other oil companies), climate skeptics, think tanks (such as the Competitive Enterprise and the Heartland institute) and climate-denying US government officials such as Senator Inhofe. Through her line of questioning, she demonstrated that the product being sold by this group was “doubt”, as it was in the case of the tobacco companies (as Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway have so convincingly demonstrated in their book, Merchants of Doubt). In the case of doubt about the science, the window of uncertainty has been closing rapidly, as the correctness of mainstream climate science has become more and more apparent and persuasive. It was a deliberate move by some US politicians to find ways of keeping this window of uncertainty open, and they did and still do that.

The two prosecutors, helped by a real-life lawyer with experience in this type of case, meticulously asked questions to prove that, had Exxon informed the public and not hid its scientific findings 25 years ago, the present climate impacts would have been more limited and the life of the vulnerable less affected. They also spent significant time communicating the feelings of people living in the exposed areas, their outlook on their future, their desperation and their fears.

In his closing statement, McKibben said this was an unforgivable crime, possibly one of the greatest corporate crimes ever committed on our planet. Klein concluded with: “It is Exxon’s crime that it believes money trumps life… there is no price that can be placed on the Marshall Islands, on Arctic cultures, and lives of our loved ones and what we are able to pass onto our children.”

“The burden of proof now rests squarely on this corporation to somehow prove that the documents and memos [uncovered] don’t show what prima facie, they seemed to demonstrate, namely a profound disregard for the safety of the planet and its people,” said Sarsgaard one of the judges.

“We render this verdict unanimously on 5th December of 2015, the hottest year yet measured on our Earth.”

While a group of motivated environmentalists can stage a mock trial without a defendant present, in reality the task is far more difficult. In order to build a case they must be able to demonstrate that a law has been broken. Collusion between private enterprise, dishonest scientists, shady think tanks and corrupt politicians to hold back climate action may not be enough to convict a corporation, even if slowing down climate action means that hundreds of thousands of people are affected.

Nevertheless, some are calling for the U.S. Justice Department to probe the matter under federal racketeering statutes. In any case, Exxon is already under investigation by the State of New York for lying to its shareholders, or at least not disclosing the truth about possible risks to the value of their long-term investments. If the investigation shows that Exxon made misleading statements about climate science, statements that it knew from its own in-house research were scientifically not credible, that action alone could amount to some form of fraud.

Might this mock trial be a preview of trials to come?

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Scientific education … A social experiment in the Paris subway

IMG_1771Coming back from COP 21 in Paris on Wednesday in the packed RER B – the surburban subway that takes the participants to the COP21 in Le Bourget from downtown Paris – the train stops abruptly at station Gare du Nord and a woman behind me pushes me. I fall down on the lap of a man sitting by the sliding door. “Do you want to dance?” this man asks me jokingly. An answer spits out of me : “No, thank you, I don’t like this music and furthermore I have a bulky backpack”.

Standing back up, I briefly notice a set of equations advertised on the black walls of the metro, like on the blackboard of a school. I turn towards my colleague, a climate scientist who had not noticed the equations, and tell him that it’s funny to see advertised, in the metro, the equations we use everyday when working on climate. That’s a real surprise! As the train starts moving and picks up speed, I continue looking at the walls and see more equations until we enter in a dark tunnel.


I don’t really get it. Why would the french public transportation system post such complicated equations on the normally barren walls of a metro station? What purpose would such postings have? Who decided to put such complex equations on the walls of a metro station, on the way to COP21?

I am baffled and turn toward the man who had invited me to dance and ask him what do these equations evoke in him. Do they make any sense to him and are they related to anything he knows? Has he ever seen the little symbols that represent what we call partial derivatives? “They don’t make any sense to me” he responds “and “I have no idea what they represent”. I explain to him that these equations are the basis for the simulation of climate with computer models. He politely listens.

So there and then, I decide to collect material such as photos and interviews for a short article about how the French people are being educated in the metro.

The next day I decide to go back to the Gare du Nord and take pictures of all the equations and the writings. At the extreme left of the huge platform, this unusual display of the equations of fundamental atmospheric science starts with a Japanese name: Syukuro Manabe.


Is the name of this famous meteorologist and climatologist who pioneered the use computers to simulate climate supposed to evoke curiosity that will make the metro traveler look on his cell phone for who this mysterious person Manabe is, while waiting for the train, in stead of playing games?

To get answers to my many questions, I resolve to go and ask people waiting for the next train. While most people are oblivious to the equations and concentrated on something else, their life or their music, a small group of young folks is definitely looking at and talking about them. So I get closer, introduce myself and ask them if they know to what these equations relate and whether they bring something to mind for them. None of them knows what topic they cover. But one of them responds: “They bring bad memories”. The only student who has been exposed to equations of that nature has a poor experience associated with them. After I explain that the equations have to do with the modeling of climate, his friends suggest that he is the only one among them who should realize that these equations are related to climate. Surprised, I inquire why he should. They tell me that it is because he went to La Republique last week-end to demonstrate for climate action. So science knowledge in their mind is connected with climate activism. Interesting!

As I continue interviewing the train passengers on that platform, that morning, I find little interest from them. No one rebukes me but they generally are unaware of and unmoved by the equations. One woman believes that these equations are graffitti soiling the walls. No one has an answer that would justify putting such complex equations on the walls.

Is it the time of the day and the venue that causes that lack of interest, perhaps? It is mid morning and people are hurrying up stay on schedule. This strange episode in the Paris metro reminds me of an experiment that was made in the Washington D.C. metro when a famous violin player was posted at the bottom of the stairs near at the door of a station during rush hour on a cold January morning. This player, Joshua Bell, is a star professional musician, one of the finest violonists in the world today, who draws huge crowds who pay for expensive tickets in the most famous concert halls. However, in this most unusual venue few people stopped to listen to Joshua Bell (4 in total). Only a small musically inclined 3-year old child stayed for a few minutes, apparently appreciating the magnificent music and perhaps recognizing the musician’s talent on display in this most unexpected context.

So perhaps the lack of interest, on the part of the traveling public, in this strange exhibit of equations, is just because nobody expects to see anything mathematical painted on the walls of a station in the Paris metro. Thus, I speculate that the failure to arouse the public’s curiosity might not be due entirely to the fact that this display is about climate science.

What was the intention? Was it to attract the attention of busy Parisian metro commuters? If so, it failed miserably, because from what I saw and heard, people were not interested or even not aware that the equations were there. The few who asked themselves questions didn’t seem to have the intellectual curiosity to look for an answer. In their defense, the message is very enigmatic and it wasn’t easy to find the answer anywhere on these walls. Perhaps if the rationale was to stimulate interest in the climate science behind these equations, would it have been better with words instead of mathematical symbols? There were two sets of words on these walls, in fact, but they didn’t help. The words were: “Syukuro Manabe” and “general circulation model.” Maybe this combination of words holds the key. Had the words been in French, they would have been more understandable to Parisian metro travelers, Written in English, the display might instead have been addressed to the COP21 participants. Was the intention to educate them? I somehow doubt it.

Maybe the scientists involved intended to imitate the very successful street art that is found on walls everywhere in Paris and in other cities? That’s a way of making work, or art, or science, visible to many. COP21 is an internationally famous event devoted to negotiating solutions to the existential threat of climate change. Such a prominent focal point can be seen as an opportunity to explore a wide variety of initiatives over a short period of time. Many artists had the opportunity to make art especially for this event and to have it exposed in various venues. A similar painting of an equation by Liam Gillick at the Istanbul Modern Museum of Art can be seen by a ferry ride on the Bosphorus.


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Four climate scientists talk about Nuclear Energy in Paris

Thursday at their press conference on nuclear energy at COP 21, well-known climate scientists Drs. Jim Hansen (formerly NASA, now Columbia University), Ken Caldeira (Stanford University), Kerry Emanuel (MIT) and Tom Wigley (Adelaide University), presented and discussed what they called their stark (energy) challenge.

The presentations of their proposal were short (as their position had been submitted in a media alert prior to the conference) and overall unconvincing. It is clear that there is an “increasing urgency of fully decarbonizing the world economy”. But they didn’t show persuasively, in my view, that “renewables alone cannot realistically meet the goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees C, and that a major expansion of nuclear power is essential to avoid dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system this century”. They didn’t demonstrate why huge financial resources and few decades should be devoted to developing the fourth generation (light-water) nuclear reactors, as they are recommending, while we know time is of the essence in solving the climate problem and funding essential to bringing to market already available (renewable) technologies.

With little technical information about the new nuclear technology they are advocating, much of the press conference was a rhetorical exercise against renewable energy. They mentioned the technical problems of intermittency and lack of adequate storage capacity. However, they failed to indicate that when solar, wind and water are combined the intermittency issue is essentially eliminated. Also, much research has been happening on the storage side so that new solutions are gaining ground.

Their analysis of the work of Mark Jacobson from Stanford was the most troubling aspect of this press conference because of its lack of scientific backing. Mark is the long-term recognized expert in the assessment of renewable capabilities to replace fossil fuels. He has published in the reviewed literature how it would be technically feasible to scale up renewables to 80% of the global energy mix by 2030 and 100% by 2050.  Kerry Emanuel, a world leading expert in tropical cyclones, differed from Jacobson’s point of view, arguing that “the numbers don’t up add unless you put nuclear power in the mix”, suggesting that he had done the computations; he had done the math.  Ken Caldeira had a similar view position. While he would like to see the world powered by renewable by mid century, he doesn’t believe it to be possible. It is, however, Tom Wigley who was the most critical without substantiation with: [Jacobson’s work] “is seriously flawed in many areas”.

Ken Caldeira started from a moderate position, recalling that many years ago he used to demonstrate against nuclear power and had even been arrested for it. Despite this, he presented the best articulated support for nuclear energy. After indicating that the magnitude of the problem is so huge that we can’t leave any technology out of the discussion, he argued that we must have a technology-neutral, level playing field in energy with an appropriate regulatory environment and appropriate cost competitive market. He emphasized the point made on several occasions by the group that we must not leave any technology off the table. And in his view, only one technology can bring energy when the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing and that is nuclear energy. Then he started bringing up astonishing arguments against renewables. First, answering a question he stated that renewable doesn’t mean good. He went on noting that we want technologies that have a small environmental footprint. But many renewables have large footprints. As we want to leave room for nature, we must make our technology as compact as we can.  The deployment of renewables like solar panels or wind turbines covers a lot of real estate. As a journalist called him on his apparent anti-renewable position, he fervently denied it.

Jim Hansen, the person we all respect for taking an early position in the fight for climate when few voices were being heard about 25 years ago and for all his leadership over time through various actions, also strongly advocated for nuclear energy. Jim arrived in the venue very confidently like a new kind of rock star, followed by a horde of journalists, surrounded by several TV camerapersons. At the outset of his talk, he presented the climate risks he knows so well, going on to a little story about his grand son’s emotions about the changing climate. When asked by a journalist from South Africa about the significant CO2 emissions associated with the production of nuclear power through its life cycle, he responded that nuclear energy had essentially no carbon footprint. Clearly prepared for that question, he (and others later) quoted the number (15 g/kWh) included in the last IPCC report. But, according to Jacobson (NPR on point interview, Dec 3), this is a number provided by the nuclear industry and disavowed by two scientific reports since. Some climate scientists and many young activists support Jim’s climate fight and all, like him, are concerned about the life of their grandchildren if we don’t address the climate problem. However, they do not necessarily champion his position about nuclear energy.

How will the climate community react to this press conference advocating nuclear energy in the name of solving the climate problem in such an important venue? These four scientists might have been at COP21 as citizens. In fact, they were not invited to talk in the main official conference venue in the “blue zone”. Nevertheless, they took advantage of their position as experts in their field to express their ideas and position about nuclear energy in front of many cameras and microphones. So, in the end, they could be seen as representing a community of their peers. Only a few peers were in the audience listening.   Jim mentioned talking with some of them, but no serious statistics are available on the prevalent position of climate scientists. A couple journalists tried to argument with the presenters through questions but were harshly rebutted.

Many important concerns about nuclear energy (e.g., waste, accidents, dismantlement costs) were not addressed in this press conference. Well researched and documented arguments against the position presented here have been published in the scientific literature.  A point that can be made here is that when having a press conference led by four climate scientists, there might be an assumption that they represent a constituency of peers. One could argue that this might have been the overall intention of the group. Otherwise, Jim Hansen could easily have come alone since he has enough notoriety to bring a crowd to listen to him.

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COP21 Opening Statements – A framework full of expectations

Both French President Francois Hollande and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon made extremely fervent opening speeches in support for the COP21. The two speeches stressed the leaders’ high expectations from the representatives of the more than 150 nations gathered in Paris. A new and surprising objective was suggested by Hollande: to bring the maximum temperature increase by the end of the century limit down to 1.5ºC from the 2ºC central to this conference. This extremely ambitious objective, an audacious bet in fact, has been echoed by the developing countries. In the developed world, only environmentalists were mentioning that low number, prior to this meeting. What that would mean in terms of emissions is not entirely clear except what is known from model results. A complete elimination of fossil fuels usage would bring the temperature to 1.3º by the end of the century. So a 1.5ºC objective would correspond to a dramatic reduction of emissions (more than 90%) very soon, essentially now.

Francois Hollande started his presentation by stating that it was in the name of Climate Justice that he was talking. Climate Justice is a new word for a head of state in the developed world. Prior to this meeting it was heard in the mouth of either civil society representatives or by representatives of the developing countries.

President Hollande listed three main objectives for this COP21. Among them he mentioned the design of a credible trajectory to achieve the 2ºC and even 1.5ºC, with a regular evaluation of progress every five years. He emphasized the need to come up with a universal agreement that offers a response that will bring nations together, even as there is differentiation of actions among countries according to their means. He insisted that no territory should be left alone to face climate change and presented himself as a spokesperson for the nations that are at risk of disappearing, like small island nations. It is clear that everyone must play a role. The developed countries must assume their responsibility, the emerging countries must accelerate their energy transition and the developing countries must be accompanied in their adaptation to climate change. And very importantly, resources must be freed and assurance given on the origin and accessibility of these funding sources.

Hollande enjoined all societies to start acting now. In the last few years, the situation has changed he said and this is the key for success of the present climate challenge. Many actors are ready to modify their behavior. It is possible, now, to progressively introduce a price for carbon and start a discussion on the damages inflicted to the planet.  But to solve the climate crisis good intentions are not enough. It is a profound mutation that is needed. We can no longer consider nature as an inexhaustible reservoir of resources. This transformation is not only a moral imperative; it is also a worldwide opportunity.

Hollande ended his speech with: “What is at stake here is peace”.

Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon started his speech by making it clear that this is a special political moment and a moment that may not come again. He sees four criteria for success:

1) The durability of the agreement: durability is important as it would send a clear signal to markets that the low-emissions transformation of the global economy is inevitable, beneficial and already under way.

2) The dynamics of the agreement: The agreement must be able to accommodate changes in the global economy and not have to be continually renegotiated. Differentiation can and should be applied in a varied manner across the many elements of the agreement, in a way that does not undermine the integrity of the collective effort. The agreement must strike a balance between the leadership role of developed countries and the increasing responsibility of developing countries, in line with their capabilities and respective levels of development.

3) The solidarity the agreement embodies with the poor and most vulnerable. It must ensure sufficient and balanced adaptation and mitigation support for developing countries.

4) The credibility: Currently submitted intended emission limitations must be the floor, not the ceiling, for future efforts.

Talking to the delegates he also stated: “this is a pivotal moment for the future of your countries, your people and our common home. You can no longer delay. The transition has begun.  Enlightened investors and innovative businesses are striving to create a climate-friendly economy.  But they need your help in accelerating this essential shift.”

Ban Ki-Moon also recognized the influence of the civil society noting that the peoples of the world are also on the move.  They have taken to the streets, in cities and towns across the world, in a mass mobilization for change.

These two speeches gave a tone of urgency and responsibility to all parties to these negotiations. Let’s hope that the negotiators will follow such strong suggestions by these two leaders and that these are not only words people want to hear.


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The Sun that connects us all

The international solar alliance – an initiative proposed jointly by India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and by French President, Francois Hollande – was presented on the first day of the COP21 (November 30) to show its importance.

The idea of a global solar energy alliance represents an ambitious program and essentially comes down to a demand for the necessary financing.

President Hollande introduced the initiative involving an alliance of countries that are the most capable of developing the potential of solar energy. The goal is to ensure a transfer of technology from the developed to the developing countries and to develop the financial mechanisms to transfer the technology.

In Hollande’s words: “We can no longer accept the paradox that the countries that have the highest potential in solar energy only represent a small share of solar energy production.” And these countries have the majority of world population, a large proportion of whom has no access to electricity. How can we address these inequalities and ensure development?

“It is through technology and development that we will succeed,” he stated. “It is through climate justice that we can to do it.” It is not only for the Asian continent but also for entire African continent. France is taking advantage of this conference to announce that it will offer financing to share its technology so that Africa can access energy and electricity through solar.

So here, climate justice is about bringing down costs to facilitate this mutation.

And this requires a change of paradigm.

Indeed, if we look at all the promised national contributions to reduce greenhouse gases, there will be more than $1,200 million of investment by 2030. So we need to ensure that part of these investments go to solar energy. For that we need to have common political approaches or, at least, a harmonization of methods or technologies.

Bringing down costs is possible. It is a matter of political will and coordination. For instance, in India bulk buying of low-consumption lamps has helped reduce prices by a factor of 10 in a few months. If we took this approach and could develop technology that could be disseminated to million and millions of inhabitants on the planet, effects of scale would lower prices.

To start this process what is needed is an initial funding.

While Hollande thinks this can only come from states and therefore from public financing, it is also possible to imagine that private actors might be willing to invest in such an initiative.

Then it is imperative to transfer that technology to developing countries so that they can have the lowest prices for using renewable energy.

Thus, this solar alliance is the alliance of countries and other actors who want to take the opportunity to use this abundant and free resource, the sun, and allow the multiplication of installations and the creation of an increasing demand.

This alliance is a partnership between countries but also a partnership between states and private actors such as equipment makers, energy specialists, financiers, and also researchers of the world. It is also an alliance of citizens who exchange applications and technologies, because solar energy is a collaborative energy.

In President Hollande’s perspective, coal, gas and oil are energies of yesterday, and less and less the energies of today. Tomorrow’s wealth will come from new energies that will be developed everywhere in the world, especially solar energy.

In conclusion Hollande stated: “What we are demonstrating here with this alliance is the power of the future Paris accord. This initiative gives it meaning: it shares technology and mobilizes financing. It is an example of what our conference is: a conference aimed at reducing greenhouse gases, ensuring sustainability, reducing inequalities and particularly providing well-being to the population of the entire planet.”

Prime Minister Mody’s presentation started on a much more spiritual tone reminding us of our timeless wisdom and of ancient civilizations that have given special place to sun and for some of whom the sun is the soul of all beings, moving and not moving.

In his views the world must turn to the sun to power future development. As the developing world enables billions of people to achieve prosperity, our hope for a sustainable planet rests on a bold global initiative. In a potentially controversial statement he stated that this means that advanced countries must live in a “light carbon space” to allow developing countries to grow. And that would enable climate justice.

It is the convergence between economy, ecology and energy that should define our future. The vast majority of humanity is blessed with generous sunlight during the entire year. Yet many are also without any source of power. This is why, from his perspective, this alliance is so important. Its goal is to bring solar energy into lives and homes by making it cheaper, more reliable and easier to connect to the grid.

This goal will be achieved through collaboration in research and innovation, the sharing of knowledge and the exchange of best practices, as well as training and the building of institutions. We must work toward enlightened regulatory frameworks while promoting investment, encouraging joint ventures and developing financing mechanisms. The challenge will be to reconcile the views of these two statesmen, fostering real collaboration between truly equal partners, not just a technology transfer from one country to another.

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Women’s role in the climate solutions

African Feminists Banner at Human Chain in Paris Nov 29, 2015

African Feminists Banner at Human Chain in Paris Nov 29, 2015 (CatherineGautierDownes)

Women are often on the frontlines of the changing climate, particularly in developing countries. The impacts of climate change like drought, floods, extreme weather, incidence of disease, food and water insecurity and deforestation threaten their livelihood and their lives.

Climate change is affecting the world’s poorest countries far harder than the wealthy ones. While rich societies are better able to deal with the economic costs and health consequences of climate-driven events, poorer countries with limited infrastructure and ecosystem degradation are becoming more and more vulnerable to climate.

Climate change hits women especially hard, largely because they are over represented among the world’s poor and are thus more exposed to these dangers. Women therefore face a “double whammy” since, as climate changes, it will be harder for them to escape poverty.

Although women are forced to bear the brunt of the consequences of climate change, we don’t find many of them at the negotiating table. Few are there to voice women’s social and economic exclusion, discuss the vulnerabilities they face or hear about their innovative ideas. Yet many are already contributing to both adaptation and mitigation efforts in most parts of the world.

To leave women out of the environmental decision-making is a serious omission. This undermines the effectiveness of even the best-intentioned efforts to address climate change. The need for gender balance is becoming more evident as women are starting to show the way in addressing climate change by creating original and localized solutions to build resilient communities. The impacts of the lack of parity between men and women are appearing more and more clearly. Women leadership and representation across all sectors of climate decision-making is crucial to offer more progressive and positive outcomes.

Yet, women have remained a minority in climate negotiations so far at both the national and international level, in the global scientific body on climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and in media debates about climate. Women represented only 32% of national delegation members to the UNFCCC and only 19% of heads of delegations, in Warsaw. However, things seem to be changing in Paris and the dynamism of the few women included in the environmental decisions, like the executive secretary to the UNFCCC Christiana Figueres from Costa Rica, Laurence Tubiana from France, Mary Robinson from Ireland or Winnie Byanyima from Uganda, shows that they can make the lines move.

The mere presence of a few women at the negotiating table does not guarantee that women’s experiences and leadership will be integrated into climate change policies and protocols. Women must also be able to lead at the national and municipal levels, just as the perspectives and initiatives of civil society women must be brought to the fore. Lessons learned and the exchange of ideas are important not only across borders, but also within countries.

In Paris, the role and the plight of women and more broadly of climate justice should be front and center in this conference. This not ensured in these negotiations despite the long months, if not years, many groups and collectives have put into its preparation. In order to play the leadership role they are capable of, women need to find their place in these negotiations. But with the recent terrorist attacks and the ensuing security measures taken by the French government, they need to adjust their planned approaches to get their voices heard as part of the various civil society contributions at the COP21 venue in Le Bourget near Paris, and through public demonstrations in Paris.

A setting to express their views and get organized was offered by the Paris City Hall on Saturday November 29, where a meeting entitled: “Feminists for Climate Justice” was held. They addressed climate-related issues affecting women all over the world and discussed links between feminist and environmental fights. They concluded that there is no climate justice without feminism. The issues examined ranged from ways of producing and consuming that favor climate and women’s equality at the same time, to how economic austerity could be replaced by ecologist and feminist alternatives that support democracy. They noted that women’s rights are a necessary condition for sustainable development and that social inequalities, financial insecurity and climate change are closely connected to feminist fights.

This meeting was an excellent opportunity to prepare for the human chain demonstration that took place on Sunday 29 in Paris in lieu of the Climate March that had been cancelled.

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Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) coming short of what is needed. What else then?

Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) identifies the actions a national government intends to take under the climate deal to be agreed in Paris this coming December. Aggregated, the INDCs from all the countries form the basis of post-2020 global emissions reduction commitments that will be included in this agreement. As of Nov. 17, 164 countries out of 196 had communicated their intended contributions. This indicates that countries take the climate actions seriously. But an analysis of the submitted INDC suggests that, while representing a step towards a low carbon future, they come short of what is needed to achieve the stated objective of limiting a global temperature rise to less than 2°C. INDCSo, in order to strengthen the overall ambition of the agreement, the private sector, sub-national governments, civil society and other actors are being asked to make low-carbon, climate-resilient commitments of their own to complement these national contributions.

To answer that call, a large business coalition for climate change (400 CEOs of 65 countries) will convene at the Caring for Climate Forum to be held on Dec 7 and 8 at COP21. Concrete solutions from carbon pricing to responsible policy engagements will be discussed.  Those engagements might offer some additional emission reductions but it is already clear that more serious reductions will be needed and fast enough to significantly modify climate change and its impacts on those the most affected.


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