Coming out of Copenhagen
"With your signatures, you write our future," Prince Charles of Wales urged the heads of state when they arrived in Copenhagen during the second week of the climate negotiations at COP-15 (annual Conference of the Parties, number 15). The first week, delegates negotiated with one another, given parameters from their capitals. Then, the leadership swept in during week two to cobble an agreement from heavily bracketed and optioned text.
They have given us a blank future so far. COP-15 was especially important because the Kyoto Protocol will expire in 2012. However, the same impasse persisted between the US and China, only this time more forcefully. A two-track negotiation process further complicated the COP process -- some delegates worked exclusively on Kyoto Protocol (KP), including numbers, mechanisms, land-use and others on Long-term Cooperative Action (LCA), including shared vision, mitigation, adaptation, finance, and technology.
Ultimately, five heads of state from the U.S., China, India, Brazil and South Africa produced a so-called Copenhagen Accord, which currently boasts no signatures. The accord limits the extent of the warming to 2 degrees Celsius and agrees on $100 billion aid to the most vulnerable countries. It does not lay out how to limit warming to 2 degrees (several estimates of current country emissions targets put us on a 3.5 degree trajectory) nor does it discuss a carbon trading/pricing scheme.
According to a Dec. 21 article in the Financial Times, the omissions create an unstable energy investment environment. European carbon prices have more than halved from their peak of 31.70EU/tonne this summer. The uncertainty also creates instability for fossil fuels. Seminole Electric announced on Dec. 18 that had canceled a planned 750-MW coal-fired plant, citing an uncertain regulatory environment. But discouraging coal in the short-term won't avoid climate-induced chaos. Governments will have to find a way to encourage clean energy.
With so much riding on the outcome at Copenhagen, the accord seems anti-climactic and confusing. Sorting out specifics will likely take until COP-16 in Mexico City, but in panels and side events at the frigid Bella Centre, I frequently heard that local actions ring loudly in the international arena.
Local governments in the U.S. have shown tremendous leadership -- even here in Connecticut. The Day reported on Friday that the State Department of Environmental Protection has begun establishing baseline, as a first step to curbing state emissions. Connecticut also participates with nine other Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), which set an emissions cap of 10 percent by 2018. Washington State has created 47,000 green jobs in three years by focusing on clean energy for economic development. New York City has greened its purchasing process and building regulations. State and local governments are more accessible to constituents, so it is heartening that there are thousands of state and local green policies, with more arising every day.
So call the mayor, our senators, our congresswoman. Tell them that you like what Connecticut is doing, but that we need more action on the energy front. Take advantage of state programs like low-interest loans for energy conservation (check out dsireusa.org for information about state programs, and how you can take advantage).
At an individual level, many efficiency measures are negative or zero-cost. These do not require a carbon price to be worthwhile investments for individuals/households, business, or governments, but do face other barriers like stigmas and the principal-agent problem (where the purchaser of energy is not the user). Innovative financing/regulation like partnerships between utilities and consumers where the consumer would pay back the cost of the efficiency measure through a portion of savings each month can help in absence of a carbon price. Even a small bit of education can go a long way. By investing a little money up front -- on light bulbs, insulation, window treatments, tires -- you can save hundreds or thousands of dollars this year. May I suggest a New Year's resolution?
Copenhagen may have disappointed the world by not changing legal, social, or financial institutions to incentivize us to change our carbon footprint. But, there is a lot we (as individuals and a community) can still do to decrease emissions that will lead to direct benefits in the process. A professor of mine, renowned behavioral economist Robert Shiller, taught that often, institutional innovation takes place during crises. Further, it often is modeled on private or local innovation. With climate change worsening at an alarming rate, we do not have time to wait for a perfect international political agreement. We may not have time to wait for an international political agreement at all.
Westporter Alexander Lieberman is a student at Yale Forestry & Environment School completing her master's of environmental management. The school sent Lieberman and some of her classmates to the Copenhagen climate negotiations earlier this month. She is personally working on the issue of technology transfer.