Kyoto2 – is the Copenhagen conundrum solvable?

As December’s climate talks in Copenhagen draw near, the political shenanigans are rife – today the Guardian report that China and many developing nations think the developed nations are trying to sabotage reaching an agreement on the successor to Kyoto – the agreement to address climate change by cutting carbon emissions through various market and policy mechanisms. So are we at stalemate? Is there any hope of the significant policy changes needed?

I attended a talk on Thursday that was both inspiring and depressing – it was given at the RSA by Graciela Chichilnisky, one of the architects of the original Kyoto treaty. She’s an economist, and created the protocols that set up carbon trading and the clean development mechanism, which traded an astonishing $60bn in 2008, $23bn of which went into ‘clean’ projects. She was inspiring, passionate, very intelligent and experienced, and also managed to wear a bright pink suit and the biggest heels known to womankind. Excellent!

She had two core ideas to break the stalemate:

1.  Set up a financial mechanism to compensate China for hitting emission reduction targets – Kyoto ruled that no developing nation should have constraints imposed on their emissions (and therefore their economic development) unless they are compensated. She had some good ideas for how to link US and China/India with an options/insurance reciprocal scheme.

2. Shift to thinking about atmospheric carbon not just emissions. Most importantly, drive Air Capture of carbon – take it OUT of the atmosphere directly. The ideal is a solar thermal power plant in the tropics, which provides electricity, and captures carbon directly from air, and turns it into cement/carbonate rocks (a natural process, speeded up). The technology is available. Investment in this could happen via the existing CDM, but only if credit is given for ‘negative carbon’ as well as emissions reductions. This could really swing investment towards the poor African nations, who have mostly been left out so far – with only 3% of CDM investment, but huge solar power potential. With one sweep we could help drive funds into poorer nations to assist economic development AND address climate change.

But her summary cut to the heart of the stalemate – the climate change challenge is not a technical one, we have the technologies to solve it. The 2 barriers are human inability to get to grips with reality,  and our ability to establish effective global institutions to sort it out. Sigh.