Wednesday, December 30, 2009

TANSTAAFL is Danish for "no deal": What we got out of Copenhagen.

By Dave Rochlin - originally posted on

Have you ever thought about what it would be like if we lived on the moon? On such a barren and lifeless rock, many of the things we take for granted - air, water, trees - would be imported and manufactured goods. Instead of exploiting them, we would almost certainly be paying for them. In his science fiction classic The Moon is Harsh Mistress, Robert Heinlein has a term for this: TANSTAAFL. It stands stand for There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. In his lunar cities of the future, even air is paid for.

Life mirrors art.

The most definitive message out of the UN's two-week three-ring circus in Copenhagen is that if we want these things, we're going to have to pay for them. But unfortunately, our institutions have been operating as if they are free for a long time. The value of trees as air scrubbers, carbon holders, and fresh water producers has never been factored into the cost of cutting them down, or a fair price to save them. The ecological impact of extracting and burning coal and oil is seldom considered as part of their true cost as an energy source. The environmental cost of garbage, beef, cars, bottled water, and a million other man-made items is not reflected in what we pay to consume them.

The concept of doing so is called natural capitalism. It's not socialism or tree hugging, it is simply seeing the world's economy as connected to the larger economy of natural resources and ecosystem services that sustain us, and placing appropriate value on the ecological commons. Another way to look at it is as achieving "sustainable resource use"; a lifecycle based perspective on growth, production, and consumption. As long as we are tethered to this one tiny planet, it is the only long term model that will work.

So what good came out of Copenhagen? Acknowledgment of TANSTAAFL - that there ain't a free lunch. While no binding agreements were signed, there was explicit consensus reached ("The Copenhagen Accord") that the current carbon and methane intensive model of global capitalism has a cost, and that it's time to make a payment. Representatives from virtually every UN member country including the US, China, India, Brazil, and the EU members agreed that we need to come up with financial models to save rainforests, invest in cleaner renewable energy sources, consume less, and think holistically about how we achieve growth, wealth creation and a future world that is sustainable and socially just.

The bickering is all about who is going to pay for it, and of course the countries with the biggest wallets and the biggest bills are calling the shots. Did anyone really expect the Maldives to successfully set the agenda?

So while progress towards a binding solution to climate change was limited, at least the problem is now framed, and that's something positive we can take out of what otherwise would be considered a complete fiasco.

Unlike the moon, the earth is a generous and forgiving mistress. But the era of the free lunch is over.

You can download the Copenhagen Accord at this link (courtesy of the Washington Post.)

Photo copyright / CC BY-SA 2.0

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Cap and dividend would put consumers in charge. Can we handle it?

By Dave Rochlin - originally posted on

While the climate talks in Copenhagen ended with the world wondering if the US will commit to emissions targets, I have been wondering how we will deliver on the reduction promises made in Copenhagen. Apparently Senator Maria Cantwell has been thinking about this as well.

Cap and Trade? As I wrote earlier this year, a poorly designed cap and trade scheme could lead to market manipulation and speculation in carbon credits and pollution permits that transfers much of the money to Wall Street type firms. And giving away virtually all of the the permits (as has been proposed) won't increase the cost of energy, and so won't motivate changes in underlying demand.

A carbon tax? Well it certainly factors the cost of climate change into all the stuff we consume, which will change behavior, but trusting the government to spend the money wisely on investing in new energy policies (rather than pork) and keeping the economy on track requires a large leap of faith, whether you believe in big government or not.

So I was intrigued to see that Senator Cantwell just unveiled an alternate climate bill for the US called the CLEAR (Carbon Limits and Energy for America's Renewal) act, which would create emissions caps but give the proceeds of tradeable emissions rights to consumers, in the form of a rebate. One hand taketh away, but the other hand giveth right back. Now why didn't anyone think of that sooner?

As the Wall Street journal reported:

"2,000-3,000 of the nation's largest emitters would be able to buy and sell emission credits auctioned by the government, with credit values rising as mandated greenhouse gas levels fall. Seventy-five percent of auction revenues would be recycled into monthly tax-free checks to the public to help pay for rising energy costs. (Cantwell) estimates between 2012 and 2030, for the average family, those checks could average $1,100 a year for a total of around $21,000 for the period."

The AARP said that "The CLEAR Act offers a simple, straightforward approach for reducing carbon emissions in a manner that will mitigate energy cost increases and minimize administrative costs for consumers."

Grist called it "a heartbreaking work of staggering genius" (although while they gave it an A for intention, they gave it only a C for execution.)

Without question, the current version of the proposed CLEAR act is far too brief...and of course the devil is in the details. But this direction seems to tackle the problem while overcoming concerns that trouble legislators on both sides of the aisle.

I personally love the idea that the average consumer can decide which steps to take with their rebate checks, whether it is to caulk, buy a new car, add solar panels, or support fair trade offset projects that help small farmers in Mexico or Uganda.

But I suppose one of my biggest fears is that consumers will take this check and buy more gas (or just subsidize their fuel purchases), acquire more stuff, or take trips to Disneyland....and then complain that "Everything is more expensive." Future versions of the bill may have to address this potential fatal flaw. Giving money to taxpayers has usually been characterized as a stimulus designed to get us to buy and consume more. Will this be different? "Cap and dividend" puts the people back in charge. But can they handle it? Let us now what you think in the poll question below.

In any case, I am sure we'll be hearing more about CLEAR in the upcoming weeks. You can read up on it on Senator Cantwell's website.

Photo copyright: / CC BY 2.0

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Throwing Tuvalu Under the Bus...and Under the Sea

By Dave Rochlin - originally posted on

With hundreds of countries at the negotiating table, finding a solution in Copenhagen that works for everyone is pretty hard to imagine. China wants growth and voluntary targets, India wants the West to take more responsibility, Nigeria wants compensation for lost oil revenues, while the US simply wants a pragmatic deal that keeps the economy rolling. Developing countries want help modernizing and payments for maintaining ecosystems. And Europe is focusing on keeping us below 450 PPM of CO2 and the the magic 2 degree Celsius figure.

So when a smaller country like Tuvalu walks out of the meetings in protest, what should be done? Tuvalu consists of a scattered group of low lying atolls. The highest elevation is only 15 ft above sea level, which gives Tuvalu the second-lowest maximum elevation of any country. For them, a rise of more than 1.5C (rolling back to 350 PPM) is not negotiable at Copenhagen. Anything more, and they (like the Maldives) expect to be under water.

Both Tavalu and The Maldives are part of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), a group of the smallest and most vulnerable countries at the conference. Their "1.5 C or nothing" position is supported by many of the developing nations, and even more NGOs, who have been rallying around the magic number "350" for quite a while.

The problem is that getting back down to 350 seems to be nearly impossible. As I wrote recently, what's on the table from the major emitters isn't even enough to keep us below the 450 target.

For you data-geeks, a couple of simulation tools have been developed to show how far off the current proposals are and what it would take to get to the 350 number. One estimate is that it will also take at least an additional $10 Trillion dollars over the next 20 years, a price tag that just won't cut it. Trying to negotiate this sort of behavioral and financial change is like putting the mice in council.

So what next? Without compromise, the bigger world players won't sign on. With compromise, many of the Small Island States can't sign on.

Is there such a thing as "acceptable losses" when it comes to a climate deal? Do we need to focus on triage and minimizing the damage, or refuse to compromise when it comes to climate refugees? I think we are being offered a Hobson's Choice: a lot is at stake, and a deal needs to get done. These are certainly tough decisions to make - what do you think?

Photo copyright / CC BY 2.0

Saturday, December 12, 2009

40,548 Reasons Why We May Not Get a Climate Agreement That Works

By Dave Rochlin - originally posted on

Picture a fleet of 100,000 cars, idling for 2 straight weeks in the middle of Copenhagen. That's the estimated greenhouse gas emissions impact of The UN's Climate conference (aka COP-15), which starts today. 40,548 tons of CO2 to be exactly inexact.

I, like many of us, consider a global agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions to be crucial to averting the massive humanitarian and ecological crisis that looms in our future. We simply can't keep cutting down trees, burning fossil fuels, and consuming mindlessly. We already consume 1.4 times more than the earth can sustain, and if everyone consumed like Americans, we would need 5.4 earths.

But the irony of the Copenhagen conference is that while delegates will be meeting to discuss measurement, compliance, reduced emissions, and dramatic change in our fossil fuel consumption, the carbon footprint of the conference itself highlights why COP-15's goals are elusive at best, and at worst potentially unreachable:

Token gestures vs real change

According the UN, "the main objective of the organisers is to minimise greenhouse gas emissions as far as possible", and the UN is happy to promote the 20% reduction in energy use at the conference center and elimination of bottled water and gift bags. While this is a good start, research by ClimatePath reveals that 90% or more of the impact of meeting and events is driven by travel related emissions. There are simply too many people traveling too far by airplane, and no real plan by the UN to reduce this. Bravo for including Cisco conferencing, but this is being promoted as a way to include interested parties that are unable to travel to COP-15, not as a serious alternative to in-person attendance. If travel is considered a non-reducible emission source for the conference, then our delegates should recognize that it might be considered a non-reducible area for the rest of us as well.

Measurement challenges
COP-15's footprint estimate was "based on the calculations from the Poznan Conference in December 2008 (COP-14) and extrapolated for 15,000 participants." Accurate measurement and reporting is a foundation issue, and allocating emissions targets is a key to a successful agreement. I can tell you with almost 100% certainty that this 'Guestimate' is low. There will be thousands, and perhaps tens of thousands of additional "non official" attendees, and this does not count the millions participating in protests, rallies, and other events around the world as a part of the process. If we can't get accurate estimates from a 12 day conference, then can we really expect an accurate inventory from India, a country of over 1 Billion people?

My emissions are more important than your emissions
I mentioned in a previous blog that even some of the NGOs that are most active and engaged on the issue of climate change are jetsetting multiple writers to Denmark. A friend of mine who works for a large enviro-NGO is going to Copenhagen simply because she could get cheap tickets and the time off - and she is not alone. Whether to blog, because this is seen as "Copen-stock", or because a delegate's presence is 'vital', the idea that "living light" is a concept that applies to others is a sentiment that is pervasive not just at the talks, but around the globe, and stands in the way of a meaningful agreement.

Offsetting is the elephant in the room
Kudos to the UN for mitigating the emissions of the conference. How are they doing it? The will be offsetting, by replacing outdated brick kilns in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Quite interesting, considering that role of this type of mitigation is expected to be a hot topic at the conference. Most of the Western world has offshored manufacturing and agriculture, yet for many reasons the idea of doing this for carbon reduction and capture seems to be more problematic. I strongly support offsetting, particularly in support of projects which simultaneously improve lives.

What's at stake in the next two weeks is huge, but this all feels a bit like the US senate debating the high quality of US health care, while enjoying their own cushy plan.

Every hotel room in Copenhagen should contain a copy of the Aesop's fable The Mice in Council. We need to ask delegates "Who will bell the cat?", or--as the updated version from one of my favorite childhood cartoons (below) put it--we'll be left wondering why "After all was said and done, more was said than done."

Photo of traffic in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Copyright: / CC BY-SA 2.0