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Day 4 'on the ground': planning and process

Thursday was my second event-heavy day at COP23. In the morning, I attended one of the actual negotiating sessions as an observer. The session in question was a meeting of SBSTA (Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice) to discuss systematic observation and research. Though it was initially quite thrilling to be sitting in on an actual UN negotiation, it quickly became clear that this was a notably dry and slow session. One hour was nowhere near enough time to hear every country’s objections to specific language, and the entire discussion revolved around some very minor points. It’s tempting to succumb to the oft-touted anti-bureaucracy populist position and label such slow, deliberate process as a foot-dragging distraction from achieving real change. However, this is just what open, transparent, consensual decision-making between every country in the world looks like. Transparency and trust are themes of COP23, and this is how they are built. The process needs to be fastidiously documented and every country, from the US to Tuvalu, needs to be taken seriously and have their concerns heard. Otherwise this process will fail. It’s easy to get exasperated and wish for strong leadership and sweeping decisions by fiat, but those agreements will fall apart in a week. This maddening process is the best we have, and it should be cherished as an example of how serious the UNFCCC is about getting this right, not derided with populist appeals to strength and speed in decision-making. Down that path lie strange men with orange hair.

Two afternoon side-events, one on business innovations for clean energy (which was repeatedly interrupted by an insistent crow) and one on sustainable development in the chemical industry, were both interesting and provided some stunning stories of progress. One presenter explained how a distributed solar cooling system his company was deploying in Kenya was helping to tackle a problem they have with milk – that 40% of all milk produced is not consumed because it cannot be stored before going bad. Another gave a rousing presentation on the importance of good data management in increasing market confidence and thus driving down the cost of renewables and making them more competitive in India. He has helped the cost of solar power in India drop by over a third, and a breakdown of the costs has shown that this is almost entirely due to increased market confidence and thus decreased cost of debt maintenance. This is a side of renewable energy deployment that is often sadly neglected, and with catastrophic results for deployment in emerging markets.

The most promising event of my day, however, turned out to be the biggest disappointment. A 6-person panel on fossil gas issues failed, almost to a man (one contributor from the University of Uppsala was a standout) to discuss any of the key issues in gas replacement. Everyone knows we have cleaner, better ways of making electricity than by burning gas. What is not clear is how gas can be effectively replaced in the world of heating and cooking. Switching all existing gas heating and cooking appliances to electric power would not only be hugely expensive and disruptive (nobody wants to lose their gas hob), but would create a huge step-change in electricity demand that would severely disrupt our transition to smart grids and distributed generation, which are absolutely critical for a transition to renewable sources. Without a plan in place for dealing with this, the result of de-gassing will be more emissions, huge infrastructural costs, and wholesale changes to the electricity grid that will be obsolete in a few decades as renewables take over and further changes, not yet ready for full rollout, are required. No panellist addressed this, and my question on it unfortunately fell just the wrong side of the time restriction (I was next to be called at close). I had hoped to learn about how we can decarbonise the heat sector, maybe with more utilisation of hydrogen (both as a fuel produced from methane, which allows the carbon to be captured at creation, and as an energy storage and transport solution that could help the switch to smart grids) as part of an overall heat/electricity deep decarbonisation strategy, but it appeared that nobody on the panel had even considered that we use gas for other things but electricity generation. Professor Kevin Anderson’s attacks on the IPCC Working Group 3’s preparation of their future emissions scenarios (which he believes make some erroneous assumptions about CCS development), and the part they has played in what he believes in a misplaced over-investment in gas infrastructure, stood out as some really interesting research, but there was little time to discuss it in a meeting that seemed to struggle to move beyond childish swipes at the integrity and motives of policymakers and into any serious discussion of deep decarbonisation. This is the one event so far where I have come away feeling that I’d expected better from people who are supposedly serious about decarbonisation.

Ben Thomas is a doctoral student in Chemistry at the University of Reading, and one half of our on-the-ground team in Bonn.

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