Space-based solar plant gets go-ahead

From the NYT’s Green Inc blog: 

California regulators on Thursday went where no regulators have gone before — approving a utility contract for the nation’s first space-based solar power plant.

The 200-megawatt orbiting solar farm would convert solar energy collected in space into radio frequency waves, which would be beamed to a ground station near Fresno, Calif. The radio waves would then be transformed back into electricity and fed into the power grid.

A Southern California start-up called Solaren will loft components for the solar power plant into orbit and sell the electricity it generates to Pacific Gas and Electric, the major utility in Northern California, under a 15-year contract. The project is supposed to be turned on in 2016.

A rough guide to Copenfailure (part 2)

Yesterday I published a post looking at how the Copenhagen climate summit might fail. Today: why it might fail.  David and I have identified seven main drivers that could potentially lead to breakdown at Copenhagen – either alone or in combination with each other – as follows:

The US runs out of timeSuppose that other countries judge that Healthcare looks set to pass early in the new year, leaving the Senate clear to agree a climate bill not long afterwards. In this scenario, while a deal isn’t doable at Copenhagen, countries could still leave the summit believing prospects are good for a follow-up (a ‘bis’ in the jargon) – with no need for significant changes of approach or tactics. (Conversely, if countries think that healthcare is far from being settled, they might judge that with mid-terms looming during 2010, US assurances of domestic climate legislation are not credible – leaving Obama looking weakened.)

There isn’t enough shared awareness. In this scenario, the problem is simply that Parties weren’t frank enough with each other ahead of Copenhagen. While an ambitious deal does remain feasible, much more robust engagement is needed to bash out the fundamentals – especially between the US and China. (An alternative variant of this scenario would be that Parties’ willingness to deal becomes drowned by the sheer level of detail, so that the summit concludes with little clarity on who supports each element of an eventual deal.)

The fundamentals unravel. The US does its best to kill Kyoto. China won’t budge on targets (however fuzzy). The EU is incoherent, weak or simply unable to impose clarity. The G77 continues to slow the pace of negotiations, staging boycotts or walking out. Every time one outstanding issue seems solved, another pops up elsewhere in the text. Delegates leave Denmark unable to see even the outline of a deal.

China yet to come of age. China acts true to type as “a big power with a medium power mindset, and a small power chip on its shoulder” (the phrase is the Economist‘s). It plays to the G77 gallery, while failing either to make the UNFCCC process work for it or to take on a leadership role that could prod the US towards a deal.  Or, on a similar note…

The G77 turns toxic. The G77, which came close to an eleventh hour split at Bali, has a turbulent time at Copenhagen, with the ‘national survival’ faction and ‘economic growth’ factions at each others’ throats. Unity is maintained by lashing out at Annex 1 countries.

Blockers prevail. Saudi Arabia flies in under the radar to stop the talks reaching an endgame (the general suspicion in the climate process is that instructions from Riyadh tel negotiators to do as much as they can to undermine a deal without going so far as to be identified publicly as the cause of a failure). Or Russia plays its customary volatile role. Or Canada responds to the logic of its terrible domestic position on emissions.

But here’s the one that’s arguably most likely, and maybe most worrying:

Neither the US nor China are ready to deal seriously. The US and China could agree between themselves to settle for a low-ambition deal, maybe based on national ‘pledge-and-review’ rather than on binding targets and timetables – in the process leaving Europe and other proponents of a serious deal outflanked and on the sidelines.

More on that in the next post. But for now, here’s something to reflect on: 

According to the last IPCC report, stabilising global average warming at 2.0 – 2.4 degrees C means that CO2 concentrations must be limited to 350-400 ppm, and concentrations for all greenhouse gases at 445-490 ppm.

In fact, though, as an analysis out this morning from Climate Analytics and Ecofys shows, the emission commitments and pledges put forward by countries in the run-up to the summit put the world on track for CO2 concentrations of 650 ppm; total greenhouse gas concentrations of 800 ppm; and global warming of well over 3 degrees C.

Climate injustice

Here’s what the world looks like if country sizes were proportional to their emissions (world map scaled to fossil-fuel carbon-dioxide emissions in 2002):

UNFPA_1

And here’s what the world looks like if countries were sized commensurately with the burden of climate change impacts (world map scaled by the World Health Organization’s regional estimates of per capita mortality from late 20th century climate change):

UNFPA_2

These maps were drawn from the recently released UN Population Fund (UNFPA) ‘State of World Population 2009′ report, which focuses on the theme of women, population and climate change. While the developed countries have contributed the most to human-induced climate change up to now, people in poor countries—most dramatically in Africa—already are much more likely to die as a result of the climate change that occurred up to 2000.

The picture is significantly more skewed if we were to take account of (i) historical emissions; (ii) the unequal burden of future climate impacts.

A rough guide to Copenfailure (part 1)

With three days to go until Copenhagen begins, there’s increasing awareness that the likeliest scenario is that Copenhagen will fail to produce a robust deal on climate change.  So here at Global Dashboard, we thought we’d run a series of  posts that start us out on thinking about what comes next. If Copenhagen isn’t destined to succeed, then what are the ways in which it could fail?  Which failure scenarios leave us in better shape for success at a later date? What does success actually look like? And how can we get there from where we are now?

So let’s start with how it could go wrong.  We think there are three ways that the summit itself could fail – and two additional ways in which it could fail over the longer term. Start with what could go wrong in Copenhagen:

– First, we could see a Bali #2­in other words, talks conclude with a high level political declaration that’s spun as a breakthrough, but that actually has little more content than the Bali Action Plan that negotiators agreed in 2007. All the tough issues would be deferred to a COP15 bis follow-up conference, or indeed to COP16 in December 2010 – or for that matter to an ongoing process like the Marrakech talks that followed Kyoto to hammer out the technical ‘rule book’.

– Second, we could find ourselves facing a Bad Deal – a situation in which a headline deal (with actual numbers) is agreed, but ambition is far below what’s needed to put the world on track for average warming to stay below two degrees C.

– Third, we could end up in a Car Crash – a scenario in which the talks end in outright collapse, with or without a commitment to keep talking.

As important as how the summit itself could fail, though, is the question of what happens next. One possibility is that failure at Copenhagen leads to a breakthrough, which is then followed by smooth and successful implementation (Good Deal). But two rather less attractive scenarios are also possible:

– First, the process could become the Multilateral Zombie that we talked about in our paper (pdf) on climate institutions earlier in the year: so despite efforts to resurrect the process at a COP15 bis (or later in the process), the requisite political will never materialises, and the UNFCCC process becomes a zombie – staggering on, never quite dying – just like the Doha trade round before it.

– Alternatively, it could succumb to Death by Climatocracyin which an apparently ambitious deal fails during implementation, with inadequate attention paid to the supporting institutional infrastructure, and the deal slowly collapsing under the weight of its own complexity.

In our next posts, we’ll look at what might prompt a slide into any of these scenarios, and at what policymakers and campaigners can do about it.

But for now, one parting thought: not all failures are equal. Some outcomes boost the prospects of eventual success. Others, as discussed above, push the climate process towards semi-permanent dysfunction, an equilibrium that may only be shifted by future climate catastrophe. 

It’s time to start looking failure in the face – and asking which kind of failures could be used as the springboard for meaningful action, and how.

Find Part 2 of this series here.

The FT trashes the CDM, endorses per capita convergence

The FT’s leader on Copenhagen this morning was exactly right. First it trashed the CDM (see here for CDM-trashing here on Global Dashboard over the last two years):

The CDM inherits the UN’s suffocating bureaucracy, so smaller projects struggle to gain approval. But more important than what it keeps out is what it lets in. The criterion of “additionality” is supposed to rule out projects that would not be undertaken without CDM payments. Not only is this counterfactual approach utterly unverifiable; it is also an ideal target for gaming.

And then it suggests an approach based on a stabilisation target, a safe global emissions budget, and binding targets for all allocated on the basis of ultimate convergence to equal per capita entitlements as what we should be doing instead (ditto):

…the solution to the CDM’s problems is more carbon trading, not less. It matters little for the climate where or what activities greenhouse gas emissions come from. But it matters enormously for the cost of cutting them. That is why the best solution is a global emissions cap and tradeable national quotas (ultimately based on equal per capita amounts) coupled with a scientific mechanism for measuring national emissions.

Bravo, FT. Expect my subscription renewal forthwith.

Afghanistan: does July 2011 mean July 2011?

Yesterday, President Obama announced the U.S. would start drawing down in Afghanistan by July 2011.  Sounds pretty specific, huh?  Or maybe not.  Here are extracts from the NYT‘s (first-class) live blogging of today’s Senate hearing on the plan, starring Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates plus Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mullen:

9:55 a.m. Senator McCain sharply questions Admiral Mullen and Mr. Gates about the president’s announcement that a drawdown of troops would begin by July 2011. The senator grilled the military leaders, saying he found it contradictory that on the one hand, a decision to withdraw would depend on evaluating conditions on the ground and on the other, a withdrawal timeline was in place. “Which is it?” Mr. McCain asked, asserting “you can’t have both.”

Mr. Gates told the senator that the military would do a thorough review in December of 2010 to evaluate whether the withdrawal objective could be met. But Mr. McCain, who has derided the idea of a withdrawal timetable at this juncture, said that a specific date – without clarifying that more evaluation will be needed before withdrawing – gave the “wrong impression” to the American public, soldiers and to the enemy.

Why July 2011 anyway?

10:25 a.m. Secretary Gates interjects that the July 2011 withdrawal date was arrived at, in part, because it will then be two years since the Marines arrived in Helmand.

That feels just a bit arbitrary, doesn’t it?

12:18 p.m. About that July 2011 target date for beginning to withdraw — how does it square with the idea that the actual conditions at the time will determine what happens? Several Senators have wanted to know that. Here are some of the answers from the witnesses. Mr. Gates: “I think the president, as commander in chief, always has the option to adjust his decisions.” Admiral Mullen: “The president has choices, as the president.” Mrs. Clinton: “It is the best assessment of our military experts — as evidenced by Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen, General Petraeus, General McChrystal and others — that by July 2011, there can be the beginning of a responsible transition that will of course be based on conditions.” The real point of the target, she suggested, was to make sure that the Afghans know we don’t want to occupy their country.

This one could run and run…

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