Diplomacy in Climate Talks No Match For New Energy Alliances

coal

On November 29 representatives from 190 countries will be in Cancun, Mexico for the 16th Conference of the Parties under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Late last week, following a two-day Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate in Washington, the Obama administration’s chief climate negotiator told reporters not to expect too much.

“I would describe myself right now as neither an optimist nor a pessimist,” said Todd Stern, the State Department’s special envoy on climate, adding that there won’t be any “enormous leaps forward” in Cancun but “real and concrete steps” can be made.

Exactly what those could be has not come into focus, though Stern and other negotiators also noted that unless something tangible occurs at the Cancun meeting the credibility of the UN process will weaken. “The process can’t continually stalemate and remain the locus of activity,” Stern said.

A year ago, of course, global anticipation of a diplomatic breakthrough was high enough to attract the American president, the Chinese premier, and over 100 other heads of state to the Copenhagen climate summit. More than 125,000 people from all over the world marched for climate action on a cold and sunny Saturday afternoon. Thousands of journalists and producers filed reports from a crowded media room at the Bella Center, itself so full that security forces limited access.

Yet what was clear in Copenhagen, just as it was plain in the two other international climate conferences I’ve attended — in Barcelona in 2009 and in Tianjin last month — is this: The very same governments that produced a near stalemate on a climate treaty are simultaneously supporting global alliances of powerful energy companies to develop and consume the planet’s remaining reserves of fossil fuels. Let’s just put it this way. The executives of those companies are perfectly content with the grudging pace of climate negotiations.

China, for instance, has gained international renown for the speed at which it’s developed an alternative fuels manufacturing and power-generating sector. But the bigger money in China, and the alliances formed to make it, involve carbon-emitting coal, oil, and natural gas produced in and outside the fastest growing energy consumer on earth.

Royal Dutch Shell, for instance, is collaborating with CNPC, the Chinese National Petroleum Corp., to develop big new natural gas reserves in the deep shales below Sichuan province in a project aided by the U.S. Department of Energy. Sasol, the big South African oil company, is negotiating to build a huge refinery in Ningxia province to turn coal into liquid fuels. The world’s engineering firms are lining up to help China turn a proposal into an actual project to build a 2,000-mile long pipeline from the Bohai Sea inland to desperately dry Xinjiang province to provide coal mines with process water and power plants with cooling water.

Though China has announced its commitment to produce 15 percent of its electricity from renewable alternatives by 2020, up from seven percent this year, roughly 70 percent will still come from the 3.5 billion to 4.5 billion tons of coal it is expected to consume annually by the end of the decade. China’s oil and gas consumption also is climbing rapidly.

That’s why here in North America, China is joining India and Korea on a fossil fuel buying spree. China and Korea have big stakes in oil production from Canada’s tar sands, where they have joined American. European, and Canadian companies in spending $15 billion annually. The Wall Street Journal last week reported that Coal India Ltd., a state-controlled entity, is talking to Peabody Energy and Massey Energy Company to buy American mines.

Grist last week reported that “Reliance Industries of India bought a $3.4 billion stake in three U.S. shale gas companies earlier this year. In March, India’s Essar Group acquired Trinity Coal for $600 million; the company has active mines in Kentucky and West Virginia.”

Grist also noted that the China National Offshore Oil Corporation Ltd. agreed in October to pay up to $2.16 billion for a 33.3 percent stake in Oklahoma-based Chesapeake Energy’s interest in the Eagle Ford deep shale natural gas play. Chesapeake’s chairman, Aubrey McClendon, is an important contributor to Oklahoma Republican Senator James Inhofe, one of Capitol Hill’s most ardent opponents of climate action.

In short, the Cancun climate summit reflects two opposing theaters of action. In one, climate negotiators are getting tangled up in the soft lines of national distrust and diplomatic nuance. In the other, their governments and domestic energy companies are busier than ever drilling, mining, processing, and producing the dirty power that perpetuates the fossil fuel era. Somehow, climate advocates have to find a way to help the negotiators find a path to agreement while convincing the world of the emergency the fossil fuel industry is determined to make worse.

— Keith Schneider

Amid Turbulence A Path For Climate Action

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Maybe things aren’t as dismaying as we thought a week ago. Or just a little less in the dismay department.

In the last few days, two of the prominent names in American politics and business appeared to reach consistent conclusions about governing, technology, and the warming climate.

On Friday, Karl Rove told an audience of natural gas developers in Texas that “climate is gone” as a Congressional issue. And this week, in a Rolling Stone interview, Bill Gates said it will take a breath-taking leap in innovation to meet rising global energy demand and still cut climate-changing pollution. “To have the kind of reliable energy we expect and to have it be cheaper and zero carbon,” said the Microsoft chairman, “we need to pursue every available path to achieve a really big breakthrough.”

Rove and Gates view the crisis from alternate sides of the political spectrum, of course. But in succinctly describing the problem they also indirectly set out a path for climate activism that involves much greater grassroots agitation to win elections, and higher levels of publicly-funded support for clean energy research and development.

Tactics
Both facets of that tactical strategy are within reach. In Washington, the results of the election, while damaging, also left enough sympathetic lawmakers in place to make some progress on the clean energy investment front. Democratic lawmakers intent on making a difference on climate and energy retained their chairmanships in the Senate. And of the 56 members of the Congressional Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition, just seven House and one Senate member lost their bids for reelection. “It should be clear,” said Sam Ricketts, the coalition’s executive director, “that a vote for cap and trade and ardent support for a cleaner environment were not the target of voter anger that many opposed to these policies might lead you to believe.”

In addition, the most important and telling vote for climate action in the country was the strong majority result to enforce the emissions reduction and energy efficiency goals of AB32, California’s climate law. In a game changing marriage of superior campaign financing, message development, and grassroots activism, climate advocates and clean energy venture capitalists outspent, out-organized, and soundly beat the oil industry in a crucial vote.

A New Opening
Climate activists in and outside Washington, who nearly a year ago anticipated a big diplomatic advance in Copenhagen, are justifiably worn by the reverse momentum in the 11 months since. But in the past week, my conversations around the U.S. indicate a resolve among activists to dig deeper and be prepared for a new opening.

That could come sooner than any of us think.

No matter how tightly the fossil fuel industry wraps itself around lawmakers in state capitols and on Capitol Hill, there is still the one motivating electoral factor it cannot control – the American response to rising gasoline prices. The global knife edge that describes the tightening supplies and increasing demand for oil will inevitably tip toward $4-a- gallon gas or higher, say energy industry analysts. When that happens, perhaps in the next year, climate activists need to be ready to identify the culprits who blocked the cheaper and cleaner alternatives and the jobs, prosperity, and safety they would have produced.

— Keith Schneider

Why Can’t U.S. and China Just Get Along in Tianjin? Answer Is They Are

tianjin-downtown

TIANJIN, China — On Monday, two days after the UNFCCC climate conference ended after six days of grudging negotiation, the sky above this busy city turned blue, the sun appeared for the first time in a week, and Tianjin’s angled skyline, not visible previously in the thick smog, appeared like a gleaming glass and steel mountain range.

The beautiful warm day not only brought a fresh focus to just how earnest China is in building cities of the future, it also helped to clarify the outcomes of this nation’s first global climate gathering.

From the speeding bullet train that brought participants from Beijing to this city’s spotless train station, to the state-of-the art electric buses that transported them to and from the brilliant marble and glass conference center, to the advanced coal-fired power plant and lithium ion auto batteries being built within city boundaries, China is as serious as any nation in adding clean energy and energy efficient tools to its economic development strategy.

The second big lesson of these intercessional talks is that a good portion of China’s work in the clean energy economy is occurring in close cooperation with either the American government or American companies.

Beneath Bickering, Real Progress
So while China and the United States continued the diplomatic bickering over commitments each was making to limit climate-changing emissions, and how to measure progress, the story on the street is that both nations are kind of walking hand in hand toward the same goal.

But one partner seems more ready than the other to take the lead. The big difference, made plain last week here, is that China’s leadership has developed the world’s largest markets for wind and solar power and appears committed to the clean energy enterprise. Meanwhile the staying power of the United States has been weakened by the opposition party’s conviction that climate change is a myth, and its avowed goal to roll back federal investment in solar, wind, clean car, rail, and other clean energy initiatives advanced by the Obama administration.

Christiana Figueres, the UNFCCC executive secretary, considered all of these competing trends and accurately declared the Tianjin conference a step forward. Negotiators completed a draft text to submit to the annual global climate summit that begins late next month in Cancun that, she said, defines “what is doable in Cancun and what will be left after Cancun.”

In the artful language of global negotiations that means negotiators here managed to push ahead a bit to resolve issues related to forest conservation, technology transfer, and financing for developing countries that could eventually lead to a global climate agreement.

Work Party Is Global Success
In the other big global climate story, tens of thousands of citizens from over 180 countries gathered in a giant global work party on Sunday to mark the second annual international demonstration for climate action. Days before the work party, which was organized by an alliance of groups, the White House announced it was installing new solar panels on the roof, the result of a concerted campaign to do so by Bill McKibben, the writer and 350.org leader.

One of the largest demonstrations occurred in Beijing where 30,000 students from 200 Chinese universities used the Global Work Party for a national call for climate solutions, marking the biggest show of youth environmental action in China’s history, said Paul Horsman, a leader of Tcktcktck.

“How do you say ‘thank you’ 7,347 times?” asked McKibben in a message sent to supporters. “People got to work yesterday in at least that many places around the world — the planet has never seen anything quite that widespread. Or quite that beautiful.”

— Keith Schneider

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In China and the U.S., Measuring Tolerances

Bird's nest, BEIJING

A long time ago, in the mid-1980s, I wrote about New York City’s infrastructure modernization in Manhattan Inc., an upscale business magazine that no longer exists. It was a perfect gig for a writer who as a kid counted bridge overpasses on the highway during the regular family drive from suburban New York to suburban Boston to visit my grandparents. I loved watching new skyscrapers get slotted into New York City’s skyline. I was fascinated with the bulldozers and road graders at Interstate highway construction sites. In my first weeks as a New York Times reporter I spent an evening with a Port Authority construction crew assigned to upgrade the ventilation system in the Lincoln Tunnel. It was classic boy stuff.

Infrastructure, in short, is the collection of basic civic equipment – roads and highways, rail lines, reservoirs, dams, water and sewage pipes and treatment plants, transmission lines, broadband, airports, public buildings, parks and plazas  – that civilizations require to function efficiently and provide citizens a reasonable quality of life. Infrastructure is the public investments that nations make to advance their economies and provide for their citizens. Essentially, infrastructure is a measure of a nation’s vision, will to invest, and its capacity to join engineering and design in service of the public interest.

Heads of state and their aides think of infrastructure in terms of budgets and spending. But architects and engineers have a more fun phrase  –  “tolerances” – that they use to describe their work.  Tolerances are a measurement of precision — the refinements of spacing, line, angle, materials, and craftsmanship that describe the quality of design and construction. Basically tolerances define a nation’s capacity to make the investments –  and for designers, developers, and contractors the capacity to sweat the details to produce projects that last 150 years in instead of 15.

Infrastructure and Tight Tolerances
Let’s just put it this way: China knows tolerances. After spending more than two weeks in Beijing and Tianjin, it’s plainly evident that China’s drive to build its infrastructure and the nation’s rapid rise to the top of the world’s economic heaps is told in its ability to fit the pieces together to achieve state-of-the-art design tolerances.

The most exceptional example that I found on this trip, my first to China, was the Meijiang Convention and Exhibition Center, a 2.5 million-square foot marble, glass, and polished stainless steel showcase of Chinese design and construction technology. There is no comparable exhibition center in the United States, and certainly none that was constructed in eight months, as the Meijiang center was earlier this year before it opened in September. The way the interior steel trusses supported the roof 10 stories above the center floor, the close fit of the fine-grained wood walls, and polished marble floors, and the use of natural light and noise absorbing carpets made the gigantic building seem almost cozy, airy, and exceptionally comfortable. Just as impressive was the great plaza outside, as large as a military parade ground, a perfectly flat expanse of marble paving tiles so precisely fitted together that the lines between the tiles were thousands of feet long and as straight as a gun shot.beijing-train-station-

The Impossible Plaza That’s Possible
Karl Burkhart, a communications specialist with Tcktcktck, and a trained designer with a masters in architecture, also marveled at the convention center and the plaza. He told me that in the United States, such a building would take two years to plan and design with available computer programs and equipment. The speed with which China executed the Meijiang convention center indicated that Chinese architects used state-of-the-art three dimensional design programs and constructed the building as they developed the design. Moreover, he said, the great marble plaza would not even be attempted in the U.S. because even if it could be done – which he doubted – it would be so expensive that “no American architect in his right mind would even suggest it.”

I’ve spent weeks at a time in every state in the United States except Hawaii, and have now traveled to over 20 nations on four continents, and when it comes to the overall scope and quality of infrastructure, the U.S. remains among the global leaders. Of special note in the U.S. today is the competition among cities to build new light rail lines that join neighborhoods to each other and to downtowns.

But the current scope of infrastructure work in the recession-dragged, politically daffy U.S. pales in comparison to what China is achieving today. The other showcases of design and engineering tolerance are China’s high-speed rail lines, and the fabulous modern train stations that launch and catch the bullet trains. The distance from Beijing to Tianjin is crossed by a snow white train with blue accents that streaks at 205 miles per hour on an elevated track. Outside, the flat landscape flies by. Inside there is no quiver, no shake, no tremble, and no noise except the muffled sound of rushing air. The non-stop 90-mile trip takes 30 minutes.

In Tianjin the train launches from a crowded and spotless station that is lit naturally with sunlight pouring through a grand glass roof. In Beijing, the train arrives in an even newer station where the platforms are paved in mirror-shine marble and the waiting room, distinguished by towering blue, green, and red LED arrival and departure boards, has even more natural light from windows that line the roof. China has built 4,000 miles of high-speed rail and has 6,000 more under construction or planned.

An Era Passed For U.S.
It’s not that the United States hasn’t constructed some of the world’s iconic infrastructure. The Hoover Dam, more than 700 feet tall and built to generate power by holding back the mighty Colorado, was the highest dam in the world when it opened in 1936. The Empire State Building was, for decades, the tallest building in the world. The Golden Gate bridge spans the Pacific entrance to San Francisco Bay. The 40,000-plus mile Interstate highway network is a global envy. The great metropolitan skylines of New York, Boston, Chicago, Denver, and Los Angeles are recognizable around the world.

It’s just that the exuberance of China’s construction program, and its accompanying attention to detail and tight engineering tolerances, are emblems of a country that’s so clearly saying “It’s our time!” Meanwhile in the United States, we seem an old and tired nation, unwilling to marshal the unity of purpose that it takes to build a high-speed rail network, or great solar and wind farms, or new smart transmission grids or even the great soaring buildings that once distinguished our nation.

New construction has come to a near halt as a result of the Great Recession. And where our architects thrive, and where we’re putting our cultural resources is in new stadiums like the one in Dallas that has one of the world’s biggest TV screens, or New York where the Giants and Jets play in one sky-box extravaganza and the Yankees play in another. We’re playing games while China plays us.

China is certainly awake in the 21st century. The corridor between Beijing and the flat lands south of Tianjn is one immense construction zone. Every quarter mile, on both side of the rail line and highway, towers rise in clumps. Not one at a time, but in groups of 10 or 15. The International Energy Agency reported today that China has overtaken the United States as the world’s largest consumer of energy.  It’s another of China’s world firsts, which also include being the largest producer of climate-changing emissions, the largest car market in the world, the largest solar and wind markets, and the fastest growing industrial economy.

Within a decade China could also surpass the United States as the largest economy. It looks inevitable. The American century ended on 9/11. The soaring Chinese century, and its tight tolerances, is very clearly past the lift-off phase.

— Keith Schneider

Tianjin conference-center-with-man

In Era of Turmoil, Top of the World is Melting

Tibetan Plateau & Climate Change

Photo © Aaron Jaffe / Circle of Blue

By Keith Schneider
Circle of Blue

In January, when the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change acknowledged that it was wrong in predicting that the glaciers of the Himalayas could be gone by 2035, skeptics of global warming used the error to assert that much of climate science was a fraud.

Next month, though, the Asia Society Museum opens a month long exhibition in New York of alpine photographs by David Breashears that are the strongest visual proof ever compiled that climate scientists may have been aggressive in predicting the rate of glacial melting at the top of the world, but not by much. Circle of Blue, the premier news organization covering the global freshwater crisis, this week anticipated the exhibition with a special report on climate change and the Himalayas.

Breashears’ work, collected by the museum in “Rivers of Ice: Vanishing Glaciers of the Greater Himalayas,” documents the rapid retreat of one of the world’s thickest and most important sheets of ice. A mountaineer, Breashears has scaled the world’s tallest mountains to take photographs of dozens of glaciers from the same perches that great photographers of the early and mid-20th century used to shoot the highest, and some of the longest glaciers in the world.

In “Rivers of Ice,” the Asia Society Museum presents Breashears’ 21st century pictures alongside those archival photographs. The message, say the museum’s curators, is unmistakable: “The comparison starkly reveals the catastrophic glacier loss sustained during the intervening years.”

The Breashears exhibition coincides with a new scientific reckoning of the pace of Himalayan melting, and the consequences to watersheds, rivers, communities and nearly 3 billion people that rely on what some scientists have come to call “the water towers of Asia.” Two years ago, Circle of Blue documented the risks to Asia’s ten major rivers–the Yellow, Yangtze, Mekong, Salween, Irrawaddy, Brahmaputra, Ganges, Indus, Amu Darya and Tarim–as well as to hundreds of lesser streams that rely for water on snow, and glacial melt from the Tibetan Plateau and its young, heaven-scraping Himalayan range.

The mistake by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world’s preeminent climate research group, has only heaped more attention on the region. Three years ago the IPCC was awarded the Nobel Prize for its work to document the causes and effects of climate change, and for predicting an ecological calamity if emissions of carbon were not controlled. But in a too-hasty assessment of conditions in the Himalayas, the IPCC predicted wrongly that the region’s glaciers would be gone within 28 years.

Though the IPCC was embarrassed by its error on glacial melting, the panel’s substantive conclusion, that “more than one-sixth of the world’s population live in glacier-or snowmelt-fed river basins and will be affected by the seasonal shifts in stream flow,” was not jeopardized.

More recent studies conclude that without sharp changes in global policy to curtail carbon emissions the Himalayan glaciers–and there are more than 40,000 of them spread across the peaks and valleys of the Tibetan Plateau–could be mostly gone by 2070. The underlying and inescapable fact reached by scientists who study ice and the Himalayas is that atmospheric conditions are changing fast and dramatically.

A year ago Ravinder Kumar Chaujar, a scientist with India’s Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, published an important paper in Current Science on the increasing temperatures, diminishing accumulation of snow, and rapid retreat of the Chorabari glacier in northern India’s Himalayan territory. Surface temperatures around the glacier since 1980, said Chaujar, have increased 0.8 degrees Centigrade (1.5 degrees Fahrenheit). Average snow accumulation, Chaujar reported, has dropped from more than 2,000 kilograms per square meter in the decades of the 20th century to just over 1,500 kilograms per meter in 2006, the lowest snowfall in the 50 years of record-keeping.

Tibetan Statue

Photo © Aaron Jaffe / Circle of Blue

Because glaciers provide regular pulses of freshwater that farmers in agricultural zones depend on in the spring and summer growing season, some agronomists worry that Asia’s already tenuous ability to feed itself could be at risk. This weekend, at the G20 economic summit in Toronto, heads of state briefly considered climate change and its effects on the global environment and food production. The leaders, in a statement that closed the two-day meeting, said the warming planet “remains top of the mind,” and that food security was an urgent global development challenge, which was being exacerbated by climate change.

“We want a comprehensive, ambitious, fair, effective, binding, post-2012 agreement involving all countries, and including the respective responsibilities of all major economies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” the leaders said.

It’s too bad that they weren’t shown David Brashear’s telling photographs, which explain why the IPCC scientists in 2007 were so pessimistic.

The blue glacial ice of such famed fields as Tibet’s Main Rongbuk Glacier below Mount Everest today are thin, black with soot, and shrinking. Climate scientists and geologists from China and India warn that the range of ice on the Tibet plateau and in the mountains could shrink by 43 percent by 2070. Between 1950 and 1980, about half of the glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau were in recession, according to a number of studies. By the first decade of the 21st century, 95 percent were retreating.

Ya Tandong, a Chinese glaciologist, recently described in a UN report the condition of Himalayan glaciers this way: “Studies indicate that by 2030 another 30 percent will disappear. By 2050, 40 percent. By the end of the century 70 percent. The full-scale glacier shrinkage in the plateau regions will eventually lead to an ecological catastrophe.”

— Keith Schneider