State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


(Almost) Ten things I learned at GROCC-6

The sixth meeting of the Global Roundtable on Climate Change (GROCC) took place on February 26 and 27. Around 150 corporations, non-governmental organizations, and government groups have been meeting since 2005 to discuss the science, technology, and economic considerations required for sound public policies on climate change.

Some commenters to our posting to announce the meeting  wondered how government regulation might fare in the current economic conditions. As expected from a group this engaged in sustainable development, GROCC participants expressed guarded optimism given our moment in history:  (1) an unprecedented economic crisis; (2) a new U.S. administration; and (3) the December 2009 15th Conference of Parties (COP-15), which is thought to represent the last chance to achieve an agreement which could be approved, ratified and enter into force when the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012.

Below are (almost) ten things I learned at GROCC-6. For another take, stay tuned for an upcoming posting from Kate Brash, the Assistant Director of GROCC. And you can see the presentations here.

1. According to Jon Sohn of Climate Change Capital, three emergent crises in 2008 – food, fuel, and finance – resulted from governments failing to manage markets effectively; these crises transcend national boundaries, and thus require international cooperation. While the economy is used to cycles of boom and bust, delays in reaching stable policies regarding climate make it harder to reach a “safe” atmospheric CO2 level and bring us closer to irreversible damage.

2. Richard Seager of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory provided a perspective on irreversible change by presenting the recent Solomon et al. result that a thousand years after stabilizing atmospheric CO2 at 450 ppm, the atmosphere would still hold 40% of the anthropogenic CO2, sea level would be at least 1m higher and temperatures 1C warmer than now, and several regions of the world would be subject to severe drought conditions.

3. Some actions in the McKinsey abatement curve are assigned a negative cost because they pay for themselves over time: increasing efficiency in power plants, commercial and residential buildings, and electronics. Several panelists, including Fatih Birol from the International Energy Agency and Bill Sisson of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, noted that approximately half of emission reductions can occur through these actions.

But, will people implement them? In Sisson’s research on building efficiency, behavior had up to a threefold impact on energy use. The importance of behavior and communication were common threads throughout the meeting.

4. The commons dilemma, where “self” interest trumps common good, would lead us to believe that there is no solution. Yet international agreements are brokered, governments and corporations undertake programs to reduce emissions, individuals change their lifestyles. David Krantz from the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions explained that best interest is not limited to economic goals, but includes social goals, such as the sense of belonging to a group, the perception of status within that group, and moral and ethical frameworks. Research from Krantz and his colleagues helps us understand behavioral responses to environmental concerns.

A listening group in Uganda discussing the meaning of a climate forecast. Source: CRED.
A listening group in Uganda discussing the meaning of a climate forecast. Source: CRED.

The social goals of an individual are related to their affiliations. Berrien Moore of Climate Central presented the link between convictions and group affiliation revealed by the recent Rasmussen Poll where 59% of Democrats compared to 21% of Republicans consider climate change man-made.

Participatory processes, in which all stakeholders contribute to planning, lead to improved understanding of scientific information, more comprehensive discussion of potential solutions, and to greater energy in the subsequent implementation of solutions.

5. An important issue for the ultimate success at COP-15 is defining “appropriate mitigation actions” for China and India. Birol made the case for active engagement of non-OECD countries based on several trends. Eliminating all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from OECD countries by 2030 is not enough to put the world on a 450ppm trajectory. China has surpassed the US in total emissions, matching the average global per capita value for emissions; it is projected to exceed the EU per capita emission level by 2025. World energy demand is expected to increase by 45% by 2030, and all projected growth in demand for oil comes from non-OECD countries.

Secretary of State Clinton in Brussels. Source: COP website.
Secretary of State Clinton in Brussels talking about the roles of China and the US in the upcoming COP-15. Source: COP website.

6. Elliott Diringer from the Pew Center on Global Climate Change noted that the apparently different GHG emission targets of the EU (20% lower than 1990) and the US (Obama has called to a return to 1990 by 2020) both translate roughly to 15% below 2005 emissions, due to European industrial activity in 1990.

It was generally concluded by most speakers and participants that a final ratifiable agreement, though desirable, was unlikely because the US domestic legislation will probably not be in place in time.

7. Helen Howes of Exelon articulated the critical need for federal legislation to establish a cap-and-trade system that puts a cost on emitting GHGs and for incentives for technology innovation, including appropriate efficiency standards and support for R&D.

8. And investment decisions in the next decade are key to determine future emissions. Half of the power plants in OECD countries are over 30 years old and non-OECD demand is growing. This represents a window for action according to Birol. As Steve Fludder from Ecomagination at GE noted, new technology can decouple economic development and GHG emissions.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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