Energizing Cognitive Dissonance: The G20’s Subsidies for Fossil Fuels

IMG_2488 (1)At the opening remarks on Monday by the heads of state, 150 heads of state promised to move forward in positive ways for the climate, building on the 2009 promises to phase out fossil fuels. But those words masked innate contradictions. As Maeve McLynn from Climate Action Network–Europe said, “That can only be achieved if their own governments stop financing dirty fossil fuels, and there is really minimal movement in that direction. In fact, the main contradictions to decarbonization are the huge subsidies that governments give to fossil fuel industries.”

Indeed, at a panel on the subsidies developed countries currently offer fossil fuel companies, the G20 average for fossil fuel producers from 2013-2014 was more than $450 billion. As the panelists noted, subsides can include everything from direct government spending, to tax breaks, state-owned infrastructure, grants, loans and more. Every subsidy creates an incentive to keep producing fossil fuels, from locking in carbon risk by building infrastructure (particularly offshore oil rigs), to keeping coal mines running in the face of declining prices, to masking the risk for financial managers and creating incentives to keep investing in fossil fuels.

At the same time, the science is clear: Both the carbon we already have in the atmosphere, as well what we continue to put there, is a huge risk. As former vice-president Al Gore said today, “The climate crisis is the 800-pound gorilla running right through the middle of the world economy.”

To help the world understand this contradiction, civil society talks have focused on the gap between the remarks by 150 world leaders on Monday, all acknowledging the climate crisis and pledging to forge an agreement to meet the enormous challenges of global warming, with the actual behaviors and actions by those same governments in incentivizing fossil fuel production, elaboration and consumption.

For example, various studies have shown quite clearly that these subsidies, in some cases, are what are keeping fossil fuel production going. One example cited today was the Powder River Basin coal production, where U.S. coal subsidies accounted for 39 percent of total production. That translates into more than 2 gigatons of emissions, not an insignificant number.

Panelists from various think tanks emphasized that if developed countries truly plan to decarbonize, the dollar amounts spent on these subsidies could be easily transitioned to clean energies. As it stands, clean energy producers are currently unable to compete with fossil fuel producers, as the playing field is so structurally unequal, and fossil fuel companies are paying much lower costs of capital than they should be.

In terms of the COP talks, while the focus for G20 countries is mitigation, they also must provide for developing countries to not only mitigate, but also adapt to the impacts of climate change. In fact, the area that the G77 countries are focusing on most heavily now is adaptation, as the developing world is who primarily bears the brunt of the impacts of climate change. As I’ve mentioned previously, the chief fund to aid developing countries with not only the transition away from fossil fuels, but also mitigation and adaptation, is the Green Climate Fund. Panelists today noted the hypocrisy with which Annex I nations have failed to adequately fund the GCF, but yet the billions of dollars they pour into fossil fuel subsidies.

So I conclude my COP21 experience by circling back to how I began it: cognitive dissonance. I live in a G20/Annex I country, whose leader wants a strong climate legacy. At the same time, I live in Miami, a city on the front lines of sea level rise, which in the context of climate change is accelerating and poses a grave threat to the well-being of this community. The United States provides billions of dollars in subsidies to fossil fuel industries.

I, like so many others, struggle to reconcile these notions as I watch G20 world leaders speak of “solving” climate change, but whose own governments give away billions of dollars to the carbon-producing industries. How can this be? What will the outcome of COP21 be? The world is watching Paris.

Geography and Community

imgresGeography has a lot to do with how communities experience climate change and its impacts, and it has a lot to do with negotiating the terms of adapting to and mitigating them. I was reminded of that this morning when speaking with an attendee from the Democratic Republic of Congo. He asked about my work and what I’ve learned this week. When I mentioned my work on sea level rise, it barely registered; he was much more interested in the panel I had attended on deforestation. Disappearing forests are much more of a problem in the DRC than sea level rise. Obviously, for my own experience in South Florida, the opposite is true.

Here at COP21, geographical distinctions are emphasized in every moment: what the Russians are saying, how the U.S. is arguing a point, what the agenda of the Saudis is, how the Chinese want something worded. All distinct experiences, all distinct agendas, multifaceted perspectives colliding in this event called the Conference of the Parties for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

At a panel today, “A Tale of Three Cities,” at the U.S. Center, the successes and challenges of three distinct geographies were discussed. Kotzebue, Alaska; Oakland, California; and Copenhagen, Denmark are (technically speaking) a village and two cities that could not be more different geographically and culturally, but all share a common thread. They have political leaders focused on making their spaces environmentally sustainable in the face of accelerating climate change.

In Kotzebue—which I mentioned in a previous post as an example of the impacts of climate change, such as coastal erosion, sea ice loss and food security issues—Councilwoman Maija Lukin was back to recount the ways the residents of the towns and villages came together as a group to adapt to their changing climate. Kotzebue, a town of 3,200 people that lies 60 miles north of the Arctic Circle and has an average winter temperature of negative 24 degrees Celsius, was a town facing extinction, as waves ate away at the land, the sea ice thinned as the temperature rose, and native species hunted for food disappeared with the changes. Seals, for example, a major source of iron, could no longer be hunted on the thin ice, and the local health center reported a sharp rise in dangerously high rates of anemia among the townsfolk.

In the absence of any outside assistance, the residents themselves met as tribes and community members and decided best practices for adaptation practices to allow them to continue living in Kotzebue, as well as maintaining their traditional cultural practices. For example, they employed community based management of the dwindling caribou populations, an important food source of protein for residents. So the townspeople, as a community, came together and decided that any family who needed a caribou would get one, and harvests would be managed and shared.

The main road along the beach was eroding away, not only putting in risk the homes and buildings of the town, but also affecting fish stocks by silting the nurseries. Lukin learned it would cost $45 million to build a 4,500-foot road to shore up the coast. She said she was laughed at when she went to ask legislators for $45 million for a road for 3,200 villagers in a remote part of Alaska (the high cost of building in the Arctic). Who could politically justify that expense for so few constituents?

Screen Shot 2015-12-03 at 3.48.06 PM

So once again, the community came together: Lukin said she worked to get every stakeholder in Kotzebue, including tribal members, village businesses and regional organizations, and they focused on making the road the top priority for absolutely everyone. They went to Washington, DC, and used contacts there to argue for the road. They learned about how they could get funding from different pots of funding from federal and state sources, including for dust mitigation and road rehabilitation.

“We could not afford to wait for funding,” Lukin said. “We knew we had to act now, to work together, with the understanding we all serve the same people.” The road was completed in 2009, and President Obama visited Kotzebue this year, the first sitting U.S. president to travel past the Arctic Circle, to draw attention to the impacts of climate change.

In Oakland, Mayor Libby Schaaf, detailed how Oakland went from slightly sustainable to highly sustainable, with 68 percent lower carbon emissions than the average U.S. city. Not only are they sustainable, but they’ve made a conscious effort to have these efforts help those in low-income neighborhoods first, as a means of boosting the entire city. They installed clean energy rapid bus routes from lowest income neighborhoods to the downtown job area; they required all ships coming into the large Oakland port to plug into electrical outlets instead of idling their diesel engines, helping to reduce fumes at a nearby low income neighborhood that had been suffering from high asthma hospitalization rates; and they changed regulations so that people could grow their own fruits and vegetables and sell them, if they wished. And Schaaf noted that various of these initiatives paid for themselves, such as the cost savings from installing LED lights for all street and traffic lights.

Of course, Copenhagan is well known as a sustainable city. But what is surprising is that Mayor Jorgen Abilgaard noted the financing for their green initiatives—which are on track to make the city carbon neutral by 2020—is largely private money. “For every time we use $1 in our city budget, we use $100 of private investment,” Abilgaard said. “And of that, we use $10 directly to invest in infrastructure.” He noted that partnerships with the private sector and universities was key to their success.

And so I wonder what Miami’s journey will be, as we move toward the challenges of climate change impacts in the 21st century. Based on experiences from other geographies, one thing is sure: We must come together as a community and engage all stakeholders in meaningful dialogue and public-private partnerships that result in significant action, and this must happen soon.

Images from http://kotzpdweb.tripod.com/city/shoreave.html and whitehouse.gov.

Mitigation, Adaptation and Sustainable Development Mechanisms at COP21: Acronyms, Actions and Akon.

IMG_2390At a panel on sea level rise in Miami last year, audience members repeatedly asked what city officials were doing to combat street flooding and other impacts of climate change overwhelming infrastructure. Panelists, including me, listed the pumps Miami Beach is installing, as well as building code changes, upgrades to flood control infrastructure on the canal systems, and other adaptation measures being implemented.

Another panelist, Sierra Club Everglades Issue Chair Jonathan Ullman, said something that resonated then and now: “Adaptation measures are important. But we can’t talk about sea level rise without talking about mitigation.”

Mitigation is indeed a central focal point of the COP21 talks, as well as a central point of contention. On a global scale, it signifies a transformation of world economies to shift away from carbon-intensive energies in order to keep the world from warming more than 2C. It also signifies trillions of dollars in costs in order to do so. An economist, Thomas Sterner from the University of Gothenburg, said yesterday on a panel on carbon markets, “We are working on carbon markets to save money. The world is facing very expensive change in its energy systems, and we need to do this in an efficient manner.”

Indeed, financial burdens for decarbonization, mitigation and adaptation strategies are an enormous contentious point at COP21. G77 countries, or the developing world, insist, rightly so, that the Annex I countries (UN parlance for developed countries, the largest historical emitters of carbon) provide financial assistance to shift the rest of the world to renewable energies. Toward this end, the Green Climate Fund was established at COP16 and is intended to support developing countries’ mitigation and adaptation programs and policies, or what is known as “climate finance.”

The UNFCCC set a goal of $100 billion a year until 2020 to fund the GCF, but where that money will actually come from—public or private sources, for example—is a very contentious issue. So far, only $10 billion has actually been pledged. The issue’s been further complicated by the fact that some members of the GCF want to use funds for fossil fuel projects. According to the AP, in March of this year, Japan funded three coal-fired electric plants in Indonesia with $1 billion they designated as climate finance.

But, in the developing world, innovations springing from previous COP agreements provide possibilities for new mitigation strategies that straddle sustainable development initiatives. Nationally Acceptable Mitigation Actions (NAMAs) are the mechanisms, in the words of COP officials, to allow developing countries to meet their carbon reduction commitments at the same time they provide for development opportunities.

Other initiatives include indigenous groups’ mitigation and adaptation efforts. A panel of representatives from indigenous actors yesterday discussed their mitigation practices, which include the use of local expert knowledge to advise best resource use and management, and various initiatives to replace or supplement high carbon agricultural practices with other employment opportunities, such as textile weaving and dyeing in Peru, or community based monitoring and information systems about forest management in Vietnam.

The Indonesia-based Sustainable Wetland Adaptation & Mitigation Program (SWAMP) works in 25 countries to conserve and protect coastal wetlands, which have huge carbon stocks. The program’s director, Dr. Daniel Murdiyarso, says the program has had success in not only maintaining ecosystems that naturally trap high rates of carbon, but also preventing that more carbon is released by deforestation and agricultural activities by doing so. SWAMP is developing interactive maps of carbon sinks and ecosystems that they hope will help officials, scientists and land use managers more effectively track, register and evaluate carbon outputs.

Gabon has 88 percent tropical rainforest cover and is the second most forested country in the world. According to the director of the Gabonese National Park Service, Dr. Lee White, strong, sustained legislation that codifies successful forestry management practices is a big factor in this success. In 2001, the parliament passed forestry laws that obliged forestry industries to adopt sustainable development practices, a success that not only reduced CO2 emissions of 350 million tons between 2000-2010, but also resulted in a 2014 Sustainable Development Law that Lee says, “sets into law every success that we’ve had.” And like the SWAMP program, the Park Service is using maps to aid mitigation attempts, looking at habitats, species, wetlands, biodiversity and carbon.

Surprisingly, Costa Rica, long applauded as an ecological jewel in Latin America, had reached a deforestation rate in the 1980s of 80 percent. Now at 50 percent, officials say they realized quickly they needed to work with the agriculture and livestock sectors to bring that figure up to where it is currently, at 50 percent, with a goal of 60 percent in the next five years. Toward that end, the country implemented a NAMA program called NAMA Café: Low Carbon Coffee, working with coffee farms to change production and processing practices and therefore lowering their carbon footprint.

Proponents say these NAMAs also include adaptation measures and represent sustainable development, as they create jobs and improve standards of living. The hip-hop artist and producer Akon, on a panel today with Favius, works on a NAMA initiative, “Akon Lights Africa” (http://akonlightingafrica.com/joining-forces-to-fight-back-climate-change/) to bring solar powered electricity to 15 African countries, with the goal of fostering sustainable development.

However, that’s not to say there are not huge challenges with climate finance. Accessing capital, both in terms of funding projects and funding the fund, is always an issue. COP21 President Laurent Favius implored developed nations to “stand by their financial commitments and increase climate finance.” Accountability also presents challenges, as monitoring, validating and registering are required components for financing but can be problematic, and developed countries have said there is a lack of transparency and accountability in funding processes.

Apart from financing and transparency, other impacts of climate change, such as sea level rise, present additional problems for sustained success of these mechanisms. For example, various species of mangroves will not be able to survive a 3-foot rise in sea levels, which is projected in the 21st century to happen regardless of mitigation efforts.

This brings us to a final point: While mitigation is key to averting many of the worst impacts of global warming, adaptation measures must absolutely be paid for and implemented. As Dr. Michael Oppenheimer from Princeton University noted during a panel on risk modeling, while mitigation is a top priority, many of the impacts of climate change “are already baked into the systems” until at least 2040. There are impacts of climate change that will happen and are unavoidable, so vulnerable regions must demand greater action on the adaptation front.

That’s certainly true for us in South Florida, a region that is already experiencing impacts of sea level rise on a daily basis, from street flooding to salt water intrusion and peat collapse. Our challenge now is to raise community awareness, by effective and sustained communication and engagement. No easy task by any means, but the global dialogue and action surrounding mitigation, adaptation and resiliency initiatives at COP21 is a hopeful light, indeed.

This post is in collaboration with the International Environmental Communication Association, the FIU Sea Level Solutions Center, and eyesontherise.org

Building resiliency in South Florida

maimi city view
Copyright 2008, Ross Cobb: 305.235.7051

In the face of rising seas and a changing climate, Miami must remake itself into an extremely climate resilient city in the 21st century. What does that mean? In its simplest forms, climate resiliency means that Miami must become a city better prepared to recover from disruptive events, such as major storms, flooding, droughts, to name a few. In more complex forms, it means preparing for what lies ahead, given sea level rise, global warming, and health impacts from climate change.

Of course, who wouldn’t think: Isn’t Miami already a climate resilient city? Haven’t we always bounced back from disruption? Although we’ve gone 10 years now without a hurricane, we have had major storms that have certainly disrupted life in South Florida: Andrew, Wilma, Camille, Katrina and Donna, just to name a few. And the city recovered.

However, as global climates continue to change, and the planet’s temperature continues to rise, scientists predict that disruptive events may become more severe or more frequent, or both.

And Miami is certainly not alone in facing this challenge. At a presentation given at the U.S. pavilion at COP21 today, the secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, Sally Jewell, and others who live climate disruption on the front lines of climate change discussed resiliency: the president of the NGO Council for the Marshall Islands and former mayor of Bikini Atoll, and a tribal environmental manager and councilwoman from Kotzebue, Alaska. As an aside, Secretary Jewell mentioned she had seen both areas in the same day, an extreme visual tour of different types of climate disruption.

Residents of these areas are experiencing climate disruption in the form of seeing their coastlines move, and are now living the challenges of food security and cultural harm.

In Alaska, the councilwoman said the sea ice is thinner than it ever has been, from a record minimum of two feet down to 12 inches this year, meaning that the residents cannot safely go out on the ice and hunt for seals or fish, two important food sources for the residents. Caribou, their primary food source, are shifting their migration patterns. With the melting of land and sea ice, the residents’ sea and bordering river coastlines are eroding, meaning their houses must either be moved or be destroyed by these forces.

In the Marshall Islands, climate disruptions such as simultaneous sea level rise and drought are also resulting in food and freshwater security issues. For example, the council president noted, on one island, the only way to get food to the island is via cargo ship, and when the king tides come and the water is rough and high, there is no way to get supplies to the island, or anyone on or off the island. Rainwater is the major source of freshwater, which is collected at the airport. But when the king tides come, they leave the airport under 2-3 feet of water, and no way to collect and store the water.

So what can community members do about strengthening resiliency? From the U.S. federal level, Secretary Jewell said the Department is “thinking about it in everything we do.” She gave three main points:

  1. To mainstream coastal resiliency, to work to include it in every activity. Such as when landscapes are damaged, that native seeds are replanted to mitigate invasive species. Toward that end, they keep a seed bank of native species.
  2. To actively address actionable science: “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.” The Department has public sets of data that they are working with private sector innovators to leverage for general public use.
  3. Partner with communities, with the goals of mutual learning and feedback loops, and empowerment of local communities. Here, citizen science becomes particularly important, as local knowledge is so important to inform policy decisions.

IMG_2288

In Alaska, they have formed a 12-village association to deal with the food security and erosion issues. For example, they are working with multiple tribes to come up with plans to mitigate the migration change of caribou. In the Marshall Islands, they are educating the youth in the islands—including bringing some to the COP21—to help them become storytellers and innovators, thinking creatively about how to share this story and spur global action.

Those of us affiliated with the SLSC know we are all working on strategies to make South Florida more resilient. And we’re not alone, as communities across the world struggle with climate disruption.  But there’s certainly more we can do, for example in terms of community partnerships: particularly in working with groups with traditional knowledge and expertise, as well as empowering local communities. Climate change is a global issue, and it will take a global community to address it.

For more information on sea level rise impacts on the Marshall Islands, check out this recent article in the New York Times.

 

First Day of COP21 UN Climate Talks in Paris

COP21-obamaPARIS, Nov. 30–If there is strength in numbers, then the COP21 UN Climate Talks in Paris are a show of force. Indeed, at the security briefing on Sunday, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Christiana Figueres noted that this COP was breaking “every record,” from number of attendees (over 40,000 from civil society alone) to heads of state (150).

Those heads of state and their delegations are speaking today to the COP21 audience and the world, detailing their perspectives on how to approach the new agreement. Obviously, there are differences. However, common themes ran throughout the talks:

  • The need for climate justice and equality. Wealthier, developed nations have long contributed carbon to the atmosphere as populations prospered and consumption increased. Developing nations ask, why must they stop burning fossil fuels as they too seek to achieve prosperity? And, given that poorer nations have historically contributed less to greenhouse gas emissions but bear more of the ill effects of climate change, how will the developed nations help them financially to adopt mitigation and adaptation strategies? How will the common but differentiated responsibilities be structured and financed?
  • Transparency and inclusiveness in the negotiation process. COP21 President Laurent Favier emphasized that these talks made special effort to bring civil society into the discussions, and the delegations wanted to hear “all the voices.”
  • A special sense of urgency. Presidents Hollande, Obama, Merkel, Putin, Jinping, and many others each remarked to the effect that accelerating climate change was putting the very existence of human survival in question. As UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said: “This is a pivotal moment for our planet. You [the delegations] can no longer delay. The fate of the Paris agreement, the future of people and the future of planet is in your hands. We cannot afford indecision, or gradual approaches. The goal must be transformation.”
  • And finally, that transformation seemed to be, from the remarks decarbonization and a movement away of economies based on fossil fuels. Indeed, mitigation strategies were mentioned often, as the benchmark warming of 2 degrees Celsius by 2100 was invoked as a goal.

However, even limiting to 2 degrees would require vast global transformations that are lasting and legally binding. And, as President Obama noted, the benefits might not be seen in hard dollar amounts by those who must change. Rather than looking for immediate gratification, “we need to think of progress in terms of suffering averted, and the planet preserved,” he said.

And these themes must be addressed in a short time: less than two weeks. With a deadline of 6 p.m. on Dec. 11, the delegations have much work ahead of them. What will the outcome be? The world is watching Paris.