Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Pondering Ad Dawhah

In just a few days, for the fourth year in a row, I will be joining a small delegation from Moravian College that will attend the United Nations meeting on climate change in Doha (Ad Dawhah), Qatar.  This year’s delegation includes Hilde Binford, Associate Professor from the Department of Music, Marla Bianca, a student majoring in both Chemistry and Environmental Science, and me, Diane Husic, Professor of Biological Sciences.  Marla will also be representing the American Chemical Society – one of four students from across the country to do so (see www.acs.org/climatepolicy ).  

There is a certain degree of incongruity that a conference with a major objective of reducing greenhouse gas emissions (largely from the combustion of fossil fuels) is being held in a tiny Middle Eastern/Persian Gulf country with immense wealth from fossil fuel reserves and exports.   According to CIA’s The World Factbook:[1]

Oil and gas likely have made Qatar the second highest per-capita income country - behind Liechtenstein - and the country with the lowest unemployment. Proved oil reserves in excess of 25 billion barrels should enable continued output at current levels for 57 years. Qatar's proved reserves of natural gas exceed 25 trillion cubic meters, more than 13% of the world total and third largest in the world.

The country has been ruled by the Al Thani family since the mid-1800s, is 77.5% Muslim, and has a male to female ratio of 4.15 to 1 in the 15 to 64 age range (interesting, given our all-female delegation).  A mere 1.64% of the land is arable, and dust storms are considered the main natural hazard.  Surface waters, such as lakes and rivers are nonexistent, and a significant amount of the population’s fresh water needs are met by desalination plants which produce almost 330 million gallons per day.[2]

But I digress.  For those of you that are new to following this blog, let me provide a little background about these meetings.

During the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, a number of important documents were developed as well as 3 international treaties or “conventions” including the Convention on Climate Change, the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the Convention to Combat Desertification.  The United Nations Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC, went into effect in March 1994 and today, it has been ratified by 195 countries which are referred to as Parties to the Convention.[3]  Thus, the annual meetings, which began in are referred to as the Convention of the Parties or COP for short.  The first of these (COP 1) was held in 1995 and on November 25th, COP18 will begin in Doha, Qatar.
The text in these formal U.N. documents is a bit cumbersome, but it is worth noting the main objective stated in the UNFCCC [Article 2]:

The ultimate objective of this Convention and any related legal instruments that the Conference of the Parties may adopt is to achieve, in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Convention, stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.  Such a level should be achieved within a time-frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner (emphasis added).
A key premise of the UNFCCC is that science is to be used as the basis for developing specific mitigation goals aimed at reducing the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.  But as noted in the above text, social and economic (sustainable development) considerations are also of primary importance.  The first legally binding agreement aimed at mitigation, known as the Kyoto Protocol, was crafted at COP3 in 1997.  This went into effect in 2005 and set targets for what are referred to as Annex I countries to reduce emissions of 6 main greenhouse gases (GHG) an average of 5% below 1990 levels by 2012. 

The 37 Annex I countries[4] are comprised mainly of the developed industrialized nations that have historically contributed the majority of GHG into the atmosphere.  Today, they still collectively contribute about 64% of the total annual GHG emissions.[5]  Notably, China, Brazil, and India were not included in this original list of countries obligated to set emission reduction targets.  The amount of GHG that these countries emit has risen dramatically since 1997, and their omission from the GHG emission regulations is a particular point of contention with the United States.  From the rest of the world’s perspective, however, the real point of contention is that the United States never ratified the Kyoto Protocol and remains the only major party from the UNFCCC that has failed to do so. 
Currently, there are 192 parties to the agreement, although the first commitment period of the protocol expires in December of this year.  Canada announced last year at COP17 that it will withdraw from the agreement next month, and other countries may follow.  Thus, there has been a sense of urgency at the past few COP meetings to either garner support for a continuation of the Kyoto Protocol or to develop a new legally binding agreement.  Any new accord would likely now have mitigation expectations of all parties to the UNFCCC and would attempt to set emission reduction targets that would limit global temperature rise to 2º Celsius.[6]

A second premise of the original UNFCCC was the recognition of the need for adaptation of natural and human systems to the unavoidable impacts of a warming climate.  An Adaptation Framework was developed at COP16 in Cancun[7] and, in the United States, there are a number of national agencies ranging from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to the State Department and Pentagon that are working on adaptation documents or including climate change in their strategic planning documents.  Thirteen states have climate change action plans completed (including Pennsylvania[8]) and ten others are in some stage of developing one.  
Adapt, we must.  International organizations have been meeting about climate change since the 1980s, and the first report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was published 22 years ago, yet we are still at the negotiations table and on a trajectory of increasing rates of GHG emissions globally and a projected temperature rise of at least 4º C.  Countless scientific reports tell of the changes that are already being observed in ecosystems, plant and animal behavior, and as increasingly frequent extreme weather events[9], and a myriad of other changes are now inevitable.  Earlier this week, a report from the World Bank was released entitled Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4º C Warmer World Must be Avoided.[10]  I was not surprised that such a report was published, but rather by the source.

Today, I received an email from Samwel Naikada, a Kenyan Maasai that we first met at COP15 in Copenhagen four years ago.  I will write more about Samwel in a subsequent post, but because he cannot attend the conference this year, he asked that I deliver a message in Doha on his behalf. I will start by sharing it verbatim in this post:

Climate change is now speaking for itself and it’s up to us humans to Act to mitigate, or Suffer the consequences.  [Can] we still afford to talk and talk while innocent, vulnerable, poor people are suffering?

I am curious as to what the position of the U.S. will be at COP18, fresh on the heels of President Obama’s re-election and the path of destruction of “Superstorm Sandy”.  These follow a year (2011) characterized both by record warmth and a record number extreme weather events that caused extraordinarily high economic losses.  Other countries have been waiting for leadership from the U.S. for many years now.  Frustration has been growing, and in Durban, South Africa last year, there were many accusing the industrialized Western nations of climate apartheid.  Increasingly, climate change has been in our news – mostly related to the aftermath of the storm and speculation on whether the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline for oil from tar sands will be approved.  However, I have yet to hear anything about the COP18 meeting in Doha in the U.S. media.   Stay tuned.

[1] https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/qa.html

[2] See the Solutions for Water website: http://www.solutionsforwater.org/solutions/state-of-qatar-experience-in-seawater-desalination-2.

[3] For more details on the background of the UNFCCCC, go to http://unfccc.int/essential_background/convention/items/6036.php.

[4] The list of Annex I countries can be found at http://unfccc.int/parties_and_observers/parties/annex_i/items/2774.php.

[5] See http://unfccc.int/kyoto_protocol/status_of_ratification/items/2613.php.

[6] See our relevant post from COP17 http://moraviancollegeatunfccc.blogspot.com/2011/11/mitigation-gap.html.

[8] See http://www.elibrary.dep.state.pa.us/dsweb/Get/Document-82988/7000-RE-DEP4303%20combined%20report.pdf.

[9] The IPCC this year published a special report entitled Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation; see http://www.ipcc-wg2.gov/SREX/.
[10] Available at http://climatechange.worldbank.org/sites/default/files/Turn_Down_the_heat_Why_a_4_degree_centrigrade_warmer_world_must_be_avoided.pdf.

1 comment:

  1. It's interesting, the position Qatar is in. Not only does it get the majority of its income from fossil fuels, but it seems like they have little other means for income.

    Another thought:
    It's funny in a gross way that there are so many people feeling such real injustices from climate change, yet we don't hear bout these people nor do we talk about them. You're about a billion times more likely to here about the "war on Christmas."