U.N. Conference: Cancun, climate and coal

November 30, 2010 by Ken Ward Jr.

In this image released by Greenpeace on Sunday Nov. 28, 2010, a giant balloon rises next to the Chichen-Itza pyramids in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, Sunday Nov. 28, 2010. Facing another year without a global deal to curb climate change, the world’s nations will spend the next two weeks in Cancun, Mexico, during the annual conference of the 193-nation U.N. climate treaty, debating how to mobilize money to cope with what’s coming, as temperatures climb, ice melts, seas rise and the climate that nurtured man shifts in unpredictable ways. (AP Photo/Greenpeace)

A dispatch from The Associated Press set the tone for the start of the latest international climate talks in Canun, Mexico:

Frustrated at past failures, climate negotiators began a critical two-week conference Monday with a call from Mexico’s president to think beyond their nations’ borders and consider all humanity as they bargain over an agreement to fight global warming.

“The atmosphere is indifferent to the sovereignty of states,” President Felipe Calderon said in the keynote speech opening the conference in this well-guarded coastal resort.

“It would be a tragedy if our inability to see beyond our personal interests, our group or national interests makes us fail,” Calderon said in a speech to 15,000 delegates, business leaders, activists and journalists.

Three years of talks have been stymied by a sometimes acrimonious divide among industrial and developing countries about their responsibilities in fighting climate change and accepting legal limits on how much they can continue to pollute.

The Cancun conference is the first full U.N. meeting since the letdown last December of the Copenhagen summit, which brought 120 world leaders to the Danish capital in an abortive attempt to adopt an overarching accord governing emissions of made-made greenhouse gases blamed for global warming.

Instead, that summit ended with a three-page political statement, including an intention to raise $100 billion annually to help poor countries fight the effects of climate change and move toward green development that does not rely on fossil fuels.

The Guardian had an interesting piece headlined, Let’s Look Beyond Carbon:

The political reality post-Copenhagen, however, means this just isn’t going to happen. We shouldn’t give up on the idea of a binding cap on global emissions in the long term. But right now we need interim measures that countries can agree on, which will ensure we start moving in the right direction. The best must not become the enemy of the good. Dogmatically held positions should be set aside to find solutions.

It’s unlikely that countries will sign up to binding limits on carbon dioxide unless growth can be decoupled from the use of fossil fuels. One way to do that would be to introduce rules to reduce the carbon intensity of our economies first. Instead of trying to agree binding emissions caps on whole countries, negotiators could agree Emissions Performance Standards (EPS) across specific industries and sectors – placing limits on the amount of carbon emitted per unit of energy.

A natural place to start would be electricity generation. Coal-burning power stations in the UK currently emit about 900 grams of carbon dioxide (gCO2) per kilowatt hour (KWh) of electricity produced – but could be brought down to 130 gCO2/ KWh if fitted with CCS technology to capture the carbon and store it. Gas plants are cleaner at roughly 400 g per KWh, but could get as low as 60 g if CCS becomes viable. Nuclear power emissions are as low as 20g per KWh and some renewables even lower.

A giant bottle displaying a message inside it and displed by the organization Oxfam International, sits on the beach next to children playing in Cancun, Mexico, Sunday, Nov. 28, 2010.

And on Dot Earth, Andrew Revkin explains that Coal Trends Still Rule Climate Talks:

… CO2 is king in projections of warming for centuries, if not millenniums, to come. The problem, of course, is that coal combustion remains king in industrial and industrializing economies, with China’s coal plans being the dominant factor in greenhouse projections for decades to come.

No one foresees the torrid pace of growth of coal mining and burning in China in recent years as the new normal. Growth will have to slow, experts say, but not on account of CO2 emissions.

If China orders a slowing in consumption of its vast coal supplies (which looks increasingly likely, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article) it will be more to blunt the pain of an eventual peak in production than to limit emissions of CO2. The coal will be burned, in other words, just over a longer time span. And China is of course the dominant market for growing exports in coal.

Among other things, Andy cites a report from the Heritage Foundation, arguing that Climate Change Is Still About Chinese Coal:

In 2000, the official figure for Chinese coal production was 880 million tons. In less than a decade, it more than tripled to 2.96 billion tons for 2009. In the first quarter of this year, coal production jumped another 28 percent. China, which was a net exporter of coal as recently as 2008, was the world’s largest importer of coal in the first three quarters of this year and far more in the way of imports are on the way.

China is spending a good deal of money on “green energy” and it is constantly praised for doing so. The praise is somewhat strange: the supposed switch from “black” to “green” has done nothing at all to stop coal: production growth was faster in 2008 than 2007, despite the financial crisis, and steady in 2009 before accelerating early this year. It very well may be that the PRC now accounts for half the world’s coal use.

This is the other facet of Chinese coal policy and is just as disturbing. “It may very well be” that China accounts for half the world’s coal use because there is no longer an easy way to know. China stopped publishing coal production figures in March, possibly because it was about to cross the threshold of half of global consumption and certainly because the coal figures are embarrassing on a number of dimensions.

Interestingly, The New York Times had a piece citing Wikileaks documents that indicate:

The Obama administration leaned heavily on Saudi Arabia to associate itself with the Copenhagen Accord climate change agreement, confidential State Department memos show.

The handful of climate-related cables — among the hundreds of thousands of secret and unclassified messages released by the whistle-blower organization Wikileaks — show the United States put climate change at the center of its foreign policy relationship with the oil-producing giant in the months after last year’s blowout U.N. climate summit in Denmark.

“You have the opportunity to head off a serious clash over climate change,” James Smith, the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton as she prepared for a February visit to the kingdom.

“Saudi officials are very concerned that a climate change treaty would significantly reduce their income just as they face significant costs to diversify their economy,” Smith wrote. “The King is particularly sensitive to avoid Saudi Arabia being singled out as the bad actor, particularly on environmental issues.”

11 Responses to “U.N. Conference: Cancun, climate and coal”

  1. Charles Hendrix says:

    Have you noticed that Al Gore has decided that making alcohol for fuel really wasn’t a good idea?


    Now he admits he was just pandering to the farm vote.

    It seems to me this turnaround is worthy of an article in the Charleston Gazette. What do you think about this.

  2. Forrest Roles says:

    I believe that most of the large economy counties of the world have now accepted the present political reality that a number of countries necessary to an agreement lessening emissions sufficiently to curb global warming simply will not give up the burning of fossil fuels required for the economic growth critical to a decent life for their people and stabitity for their government. Therefore Cancun will succeed if it can get agreements in areas other than carbon caps. Examples are the sharing of green tecnology and in the resarch and development of it and the means for adapting to climate change. I do not know if the US will accept reality or waste time and effort trying to achieve a worldwide committment it will never get the Senate to ratify. Worse, it might harm the chances for realistic progress, making the perfect the enemy of the good.
    In any event, those who wish coal’s future dimmed will not be satisfied by any Cancun agreement. I hope that the efort to harm coal will not prevent useful progress there.

  3. Thomas Rodd says:

    Forrest Roles, you are spot on when you say making the perfect the enemy of the good is a terrible distraction. And I think you are basically right about what we can expect from the coming Cancun meetings on climate policy.

    But let me submit that your choice of the phrase “effort to harm coal” may be somewhat misleading.

    There is a real and vital effort going on to save human civilization — by putting in place global agreements to drastically reduce atmonspheric carbon emissions over the coming decades.

    Because coal burning (without carbon capture) is the main source of these emjissions, there are naturally efforts to create agreements that reduce and limit coal-burning that does not capture carbon.

    Those who support these efforts have no interest in “harming coal” as an end in itself. They do have an interest in not harming our children and grandchildren, by restricting the dangerous polluting emissions that current forms of coal burning produce.

    Human civilization as we know it is very likely doomed if we do not stop burning coal as we do now. Is calling for change to save civilization, then, “an effort to harm coal,” as you use the phrase? That seems a little over the top.

    Your thoughts?

  4. Forrest Roles says:

    I stand by the use of that phrase because, it semms to me, that there is an effort to stop the use of coal that is not entirely rationally based. The repeated efforts to restrain coal usage in the US without any even belief that similar reductions in other countries will make the effort useful to reduce CO2 concentrations is only the most obvious example of proposed harm to coal without logical basis. The candidates in the last election were able to talk about a “war on coal” because the majority of voters see the irrationality and oppose it.
    There is irrationality on the coal side, also. It is driven by a desire to protect ecconomic interests, particularly in the US, jobs. I also believe the emerging economies wrongly accuse the estasblished ones of an effort to preserve their economic advantage. However, their opposition to the required sacrifice and its dangers is more than rational and unlikely to change.
    I do not wish to be understood as demeaning the world effort to avoid as much of the danger of global warming as is practical and politically possible. However, I do believe that there is an emotional side to the anti-coal argument which is as harmful to the legitiamate advocacy of reduced coal use as is the refusal to give any weight to the growing scientific evidence of danger from greenhouse gases is to the advocates of coal.
    Resolution is best possible by global efforts to mitigate anticipated harms and cooperate in research and development of “green” technologies. Both are possible and promising. Mandating reduction in coal usage in the US is neither.

  5. Thomas Rodd says:

    Forrest, I persoanlly understand why people are somewhat emotional about the prospect of a hellish future for their children — a future that is essentially assured, unless humanity stops burning coal as we currently do in the reasonably near future.

    As to other countries, most experts agree that it is precisely our present inability to get an emissions-reduction law in place here in the USA — like the one once advocated by John McCain — that has been to date the main obstacle to a global agreement to begin reducing carbon emissions rapidly. After all, we Americans emit so much more CO2 per capita than any other nation, even compared to Europeans, that it’s embarassing.

    What we need to do is say to other countries that “we’ll do it if you will.” Until we do that (and we will, as more data comes in on sea rise, etc.,) it appears that nothing significant is going to happen globally.

    If the situation were not so dire, the “possible and promising” steps you support (and I do, too) would be great steps forward. But the science is clear that they won’t do the trick, and that will mean catastrophe.

    I also want to recognize, with you, that lots of other issues about coal — like strip mining, water pollution, etc., employment — have gotten so mixed up with the politics of coal policy that there is a whole other emotional component to the public dialogue. This is really unfortunate and doesn’t help us make progress.

    Great discussion!

  6. Forrest Roles says:

    There are two points upon which we disagree. The first is the idea that the science of the effect of increased greenhouse gases’ concentration is as certain as you would suggest. While the danger of the sort of catastrophe you predictn in the absence of world wide action like that posed by candidate McCain warrants action, the science is simply very uncertain as to what amount of action will result in what sort of improvment. There is great uncertainty as to whether even a worldwide acceptance of reductions proposed would do much good. Moreover, I understand the UN’s panel’s analysis as requiring such a drastic cut in the use of fossil fuels as to decimate the world’s eccomy. One writer in the Economist suggested it required we all go to the energy use level of Kenya.
    Second, the very point of my first post is that the negotiators at Cancun now realize that the “we’ll do it if you will” proposal will certainly be rejected by the developing world because it needs development for a decent life. The only remaining argument supporting unilateral reductions is that it gives business a predictable future and incents private enterprise to inovations made necessary by the changes. The problem with that argument is that the pain is sure and the relief uncertain.
    Hence. proposals which might not “do the trick” are all that is realistically possible now and insisting on more, for whatever reason, only risks the benefit the possible may bring.

  7. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    Thanks for this ongoing discussion with Tom Rodd … very glad to see this kind of talk on Coal Tattoo …

    A question to clarify your points …

    You write:

    “… The idea that the science of the effect of increased greenhouse gases’ concentration is as certain as you would suggest.”

    And then go on to say:

    “… The science is simply very uncertain as to what amount of action will result in what sort of improvement.”

    These are two very different things, it seems to me … are you suggesting that the science is uncertain about the impacts of increased greenhouse gases or that the science is uncertain about what amount of reduction in emissions will result in what level of reduced impacts to our society?

    Relative to the latter point, a couple of interesting items from recent editions of the Climate Progress blog come to mind.

    First, http://climateprogress.org/2010/11/29/royal-society-special-issue-4-degrees-world/ :

    “One of the greatest failings of the climate science community (and the media) is not spelling out as clearly as possible the risks we face on our current emissions path, as well as the plausible worst-case scenario, which includes massive ecosystem collapse. So much of what the public and policymakers think is coming is a combination of

    1. The low end of the expected range of warming and impacts based on aggressive policies to reduce emissions (and no serious carbon-cycle feedbacks)
    2. Analyses of a few selected impacts, but not an integrated examination of multiple impacts
    3. Disinformation pushed by the anti-science, pro-pollution crowd

    In fairness, a key reason the scientific community hasn’t studied the high emissions scenarios much until recently because they never thought humanity would be so self-destructive as to ignore their warnings for so long, which has put us on the highest emissions path…”

    And second, http://climateprogress.org/2010/12/01/met-office-hadley-centre-underestimate-global-warming :

    “Claims that global warming has slowed down over the past decade were partly based on faulty data. Instead, the rate of global warming was underestimated because of a new way of measuring sea-surface temperatures, suggests a new study….

    “[Lead author John] Kennedy says the underestimation of the change in sea-surface temperature could account for up to 0.03 °C of the apparent slowdown in global temperatures. The correction could mean that 2010 will be the warmest year on record, surpassing 1998 and 2005.”

    I’m also wondering if you’ve read much about the potential impacts on our society’s economic system — the costs — of inaction on climate change.


  8. Forrest Roles says:

    I am out of the office now and do not have the Economist article with posted comments which confirmed what my earlier reading suggested to me – that there is a wide range of temperature rise and posible effects of incresed temperature posed by the scientists with no agreement as to what increase can be anticipated, or what effect each level of increase will have. Large variations arise from arguments as to whether either the emissions or their effects will be offset by natural corrections or snowball. The reverse is also true. There is an equal disagreement as to what effect specific reductions will have. I am no scientist and sometimes have trouble understanding the scientific writings I have struggled with. I do feel confortable in concluding that some scientists believe that the presnt level of emission will cause disasterous consequences without increases. No one now believes we can achieve reduced worldwide CO2 emissions.

  9. Dave Bassage says:

    Sorry to be late to the discussion, but I do have to take issue with some of Forrest’s comments.

    While it’s certainly true that there is no certainty just how soon it will get how bad, the range of predictions goes from bad to really bad. This just came out this week:

    Worst case study: global temp up 7.2F degrees by 2060s


    And while that’s certainly a ‘worst case’ prediction, it’s worth noting that in the last twenty years we’ve consistently trended towards worst case predictions.

    And as for everyone pretty much giving up on reaching reduction targets, this piece says different:

    Governments around the World are Acting to Reduce their Footprints


    It highlights significant reductions by China, India, the European Union, Brazil, Russia, Australia, and Japan – all major players in the greenhouse gas emission game.

    Frankly, it’s the US that continues to be the global foot dragger, and that’s a shame. Just yesterday I heard about Norfolk, VA, already having issues with high sea levels, with drivers having to take alternate routes to work whenever there’s a full moon or even a minor storm surge, and some homes becoming inundated. That wasn’t an issue twenty years ago, and most sea rise is yet to come.

    Unfortunately, we’re dealing with two pretty stark realities. The scientific consensus is strong that human activity is causing significant global warming. And the political will in this country to do something about it is very weak.

    Taking action needn’t wreck economies. If we simply shifted subsidies from well established fossil fuel production to accelerated clean energy research coupled with a national emphasis on energy efficiency we could make huge strides quickly. Whether through cap and trade, a carbon tax, tax credits for desired efficiency efforts, or simple shifts in accounting to take into account total energy costs and carbon footprint of buildings and transportation options rather than just looking at construction and production costs.

    When I worked at DEP, I played a role in having our new office building incorporate energy efficiency and other ‘green’ factors into its design. We almost couldn’t get it built, because Purchasing refused to include energy costs into estimate options. How silly is that? Already that building has more than covered any increase in construction costs through lower energy bills, not to mention less sick days due to the state of the art climate control system. From this point forward that building is essentially showing a ‘profit’ compared to any conventional design that we were almost forced to go with.

    On a personal level just by comparing energy stickers when I went fridge shopping seven years ago I was able to pick a model in the size I wanted that has more than paid for itself in energy savings since then. Oh, and my seven year old Prius has 173,000 miles on it and still consistently tops 50 mpg.

    So where’s the economic harm in a national push to institute such practices? Sure, somewhere down the road we may build less coal plants or retire some old ones sooner, unless we can turn ‘clean coal’ into an economically viable reality.

    The point is, we DO need to be doing what we can to assure we minimize disruption on a warming planet this century. The debate should be over just what we can do, not whether to do it at all.

  10. Forrest Roles says:

    Mr. Bassage,
    Its good to have someone with a scientific background join a debate on science between two lawyers. Knowing my limitations, I suggest that the actions promoting efficiency of energy use and reduction in per unit of GDP of CO2 emissions by India and China, while worthy, do not mean a reduction in the burning of coal, for reasons better explained by the James Fallows article discussed in Ken’s Nov 12 post. For that reason, I stand by the suggestion that significant caps on emissions cannot be negotiated now.
    Given your personal efforts to reduce carbon emissions generated by your actvity, I repeat my earlier comment that I do not wish to demean such worthy acts. However, the fact simply is that the effect on the global problem is minimal. See: http://www.withouthotair.com/. Rather, we need to encourage the devlopment of new technologies to reduce the amount and effect of emissions from the impossible to eliminate burning of fosisil fuels.

  11. Dave Bassage says:

    You’re absolutely right, Forrest, that targets based on a percent of GDP do not shrink total emissions in growing economies, just as shrinking budget deficits don’t shrink overall debt.

    And you’re right that we won’t be eliminating fossil fuels from the energy mix, at least not any time soon. But ultimately we MUST do just that, albeit likely beyond the lifespan of you or I. We’re just not making more fossil fuels, at least not at a meaningful rate, so we can’t just keep withdrawing from the planet’s energy savings account indefinitely. We need to transition to a pay-as-you-go society from an energy perspective, accounting for all the associated costs of whatever energy we do use and not using more than what comes to the planet any given year.

    To get there means a combination of efficiencies: learning how to capture a far greater percentage of solar (and wind, tidal, ect…) energy than we do now, as well as learning how to meet our energy needs with far less energy.

    The site you referenced had a section on energy efficiency. The author was able to cut in half his energy use simply by unplugging phantom draw appliances when not in use. When I bought my home I was able to reduce electricity use to one quarter what the previous owner used by that as well as other choices that did not decrease my comfort in any way.

    We all can do the same, but few take the effort to do so. I’m confident that during this century we will, but we’re taking a lot longer to adopt that mentality than we should be, ESPECIALLY during these times of economic hardship when cutting energy costs should be a high priority for all of us.

    Just as we’re finally taking seriously the need to shrink the national debt by initially at least shrinking annual budget deficits, we need to take the same approach toward transitioning to renewables by initially shrinking our overall annual energy use while pouring research dollars into better ways to generate that energy.

    It’s ridiculous that our deep political divide has devolved into one party actually rejecting the value of science as a decision making asset in our deliberations. As I type this I’ve been listening to an NPR episode of “talk of the nation – science friday” that speaks directly to this problem.

    Included in their interviews is an outgoing conservative republican congressman from South Carolina who was once a climate skeptic but has come to understand the strong economic argument for accelerating our transition to cleaner, renewable energy options because if we don’t, China will, and will take our place as economic leaders in the world. Oh, and he also favors a carbon tax over cap and trade, a position I share. And he just lost his re-election bid, despite his strong conservative credentials, for among other things having the audacity to accept climate science.

    Also on the show were military experts sharing that they’ve saved over a billion dollars a year in Afghanistan by increasing energy efficiency, plus countless lives, as we lose an average of one killed soldier for every 24 fuel convoys in the region.

    The arguments for taking actions that will shrink our carbon footprint are diverse and strong. The arguments against taking such action are weak and misguided.

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