Wednesday, December 7, 2011

How I coped with COP17

I was asked to represent the World Federation of Engineering Organizations at COP17. I even got a formal letter acknowledging my nomination, which would gain me admission to the holy of holies. Wow! I thought.

The reality was somewhat different. To say that the thing is barely organized chaos would be to flatter it. Yes, there is a formal COP process, and you can get caught up in a long round of meetings where such critical issues as "Can Cyprus be admitted to Annex 1 in terms of Section 19.3(a) i?" get discussed. (It was!)

But much of the juicier stuff was closed to us mere observers. There was one such meeting, an "Informal consultation on the issue of response measures" which was nominally open to observers, but when I entered the tiny, packed room, an officious, haggle-toothed witch chased me out with her broomstick. The meeting was Closed - there was a misprint in the programme.

The formal process involved perhaps 1500 of the delegates. What about the other 13 500? Well, there were official side events and unofficial side events, at all of which various groups promoted their views. One of the most valuable was an international business grouping, which reported each day on progress towards achieving a Text.

The Text is the Holy Grail, the statement made at the end of the COP. All the arm-wrestling between the Party delegates was aimed at a satisfactory Text. So the daily summary was a key event. The Press and many observers followed it faithfully. But it was hosted by business, so it took place 2km from the Conference Centre. COP is not business-friendly!

I attended quite a few of the side events. Generally, it was the converted talking to the faithful. At one, the Hadley Centre presented results showing huge increases in storm events worldwide. I enquired whether the results had appeared in the published literature, or, if not, whether the data from which the results were derived were available for independent scrutiny. My question was not answered publicly - instead, I had to approach one of the speakers to find out that the results had not been published and that the data were adapted from a publicly available data set, the adaptations to which would be made available once the paper was published. Yeah!

Another was an All-African event. There was much beating of chests over the damage being done by climate change - yet the damage was strangely familiar. So at the end I enquired whether the problem was not either lack of infrastructure or failure to maintain existing infrastructure, both of which could be fixed by engineering. It might be better to do the engineering than to hang around and wait for climate change handouts, which I personally doubted would be available any day soon. Some quarters showed much appreciation for my comments!

A really good event was hosted by the World Coal Association. Being business, it took place late in the evening and in the smallest of the side-event halls. It gave a reality that the Parties should have been hearing. The Parties were meeting to discuss ways of reducing carbon emissions. World Coal pointed out the hypocrisy of it all. During the last decade, the Parties had increased their coal consumption by more than 50%. Moreover, they were haggling about renewing the Kyoto Protocol, as if the Protocol could save the world. Yet World Coal claimed that merely decommissioning old coal-fired power stations or upgrading them to modern standards would reduce emissions by about 6%. Even if the US had signed the Protocol, and everyone had met their commitments, Kyoto would only have saved about 5% of the emissions.

The front row of this meeting was packed with the yellow tee-shirts of the Sierra Club. In discussion time, I said the dichotomy revealed by the World Coal Association deserved to be heard by a wider audience. Well done, the Sierra Club, for being present - but where were Greenpeace and Oxfam and WWF? They needed to hear this message. Yet they were burying their heads in the sands, just like the Parties, because this was a message they did not want to hear.

Afterwards I was mobbed by the Sierra Club. Could they quote me? Who was I, exactly? It transpired that the Club had held an Event on the beachfront, where they had all buried their heads in the sands in protest against the inaction of the Parties. Had I subconsciously picked up their message? Would I like to join the Club? Praise indeed!

In the end I had to decide that I could no longer be part of this farce. The world could not much longer afford to sustain so much hot air. Carbon is part of life - COPs are the way of death. I left with a huge feeling of relief, well before the hypocrisy could be reduced to a Text.

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