Wednesday, December 31, 2014


Lima COP as Patchwork Quilt

After the fraught negotiations at COP 15 in Copenhagen, widely considered an abject failure I posted about a “tiny advent star,” the most modest of hopes. Today, as I sat down to draft my response to COP 20 in Lima, I read what a friend had written about the nature of working on the daunting issue of climate politics. In response to another woman's concerns for the right strategy and the most effective action, she said, “Just stick to your square in the quilt,” not knowing what the final patchwork might be. We arrive at the task of our particular square through a process of following our leadings, and paying careful attention to signs, both inner and outer, that confirm or disconfirm our path. Like the evolutionary process itself, we self-correct as we go, using the feedback process from the entire context of our work

I must confess to being one who has been caught up in strategy and effectiveness, sometimes discounting or forgetting my leadings. This has meant a series of Advents in which I have had my faith in the rebirth of Light regularly challenged by the failure of climate geopolitics. Reading my friend Mary's comment today brings me back to my own little square, leaving the grand design of solving humankind's greatest challenge ever. And today's piece of that square is simply giving an honest appraisal of what happened at Lima.

The image of a patchwork is actually a good one for the outlines of a Paris accord. Instead of a grand design, a treaty where every nation agrees to the same action, the last couple of years of patient exhausting work have led to an agreement where each nation chooses its way forward toward the goal of holding global warming to 2 degrees C. The language in the approved text is “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.” It's not a binding deal. It's all about early adopters and peer pressure. But the biggest three emitters have provided momentum, with the US, China, and the EU promising the most at this point. And they produce over 60% of current emissions. For once, the rest of the world is not pointing at the US for blocking progress.

Still missing is a commitment from the fourth largest emitter, India, which is still playing catch-up in economic development (and I can tell you from experience that it has the world's most inefficient electrical grid). Hopefully that will change by the end of March, which is when nations have agreed to present their “ante,” the initial reduction promises. Narendra Modi, the wildly popular new PM, besides being a business booster, had a something of a reputation as a green chief minister of Gujarat. We shall see.

One of the big roadblocks in negotiations thusfar has been over the climate justice argument. Poor nations argue that those who have historically created the most emissions should provide substantial assistance to developing economies as a kind of reparations payment. The rich nations have responded that the most important thing is to address current emissions, where some of the developing nations are the worst offenders, especially China, the world's biggest emitter, and India. Though the divide is still large, Lima saw a softening of these positions. $10 billion has now been committed to the Green Climate Fund (designated funds to help with both mitigation and adaptation to climate change among poor nations). Most importantly, several developing nations have now committed to this fund, including several South and Central American nations and South Korea (technically a developing nation in UNFCCC terms). This is still a small amount, considering the goal of providing $100 billion a year for these efforts worldwide. But there is now a core of countries on both sides of the divide willing to cooperate.

The biggest boost to a potential Paris accord, and to breaking through the rich-poor divide, was the joint announcement by US and Chinese leaders to reduce (US) and cap (China) carbon emissions a few weeks prior to the Lima conference. China has promised to cap its carbon emissions by 2030, and the US to reduce its emissions from 2005 levels in 2025 by 26-28%. These reductions would be primarily due to the EPA's recent decision to severely curtail coal in the mix of fuels for the US electrical grid, along with last year's mandated fuel economy increases for vehicles, including for the first time, freight trucks. As for China, it has the biggest green energy program on earth, as well as the largest build-up of nuclear power plants, which are virtually fossil-free after they are built. After a record-breaking build-up of coal-fired plants, they now promise to stop building new ones in a few years.

Looking at the global picture, the patchwork metaphor allows us to see that there is indeed a trend towards reducing CO2 emissions, a combination of regional carbon markets, commitments by individual nations, as well as hundreds of cities world-wide. The week of the People's Climate Rally, a World Bank director announced that there was a substantial surge in the world's carbon markets, now covering 25% of carbon emissions. During the Lima talks, representatives of these markets were hard at work making their interactions more efficient.

The COP process itself is adopting this approach, which means more participation, but less assurance of success. Nation-by-nation commitments due by March 31 are voluntary, as is compliance. The hope is that a regular cycle of review will provide the impetus to improve on these initial positions, an  "ex-ante" process whereby the carbon reduction stakes can be raised, driven forward by peer pressure. The potential success of a Paris accord rests squarely on how well this process works. Obviously, for any hope of even getting close to the 2 degrees C goal (which many feel is not attainable), this process will need to ramp up rapidly. 

The clerk of Quaker Earthcare Witness, my friend Roy, responded later in the day to the quilt square analogy, pointing out that the frame and backing for the global carbon reduction quilt is provided by the community. It is the group that stitches the backing and the borders of the quilt. Otherwise, you just have a bunch of squares lying around. This is the context provided by the UNFCCC process, and the whole idea of international cooperation. Many green activists, despairing over the slow progress made thusfar, have given up on the frame and backing, retiring to their own piece of the quilt. That's okay, because the whole process goes forward regardless of our individual postions. But I want to affirm the international process, flawed as it is, because it provides the frame and backing for this emergent quilt.

Will it be finished in time to accomplish the goal of halting runaway climate change? This remains improbable, but we are all working within the web, and cannot step out and see the whole picture, including the Mystery which underlies the process, the ultimate frame and backing for our effort at planetary survival. My bedrock hope is in the power of that Mystery, which supports and transcends the individual conscience and the checkered endeavors of the global community.

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