After Paris (COP 21) and Marrakesh (COP 22), COP 23, the international conference on climate, made a stop in Bonn, Germany. What was to be expected? And what do we still need to consider when faced with climate change? Suren Erkman responds.
After the COP 21 in Paris, which received a great deal of media coverage, there was the COP 22 in Marrakesh at the end of 2016, which produced less dramatic results. In November 2017, COP 23 made a stop in Bonn. What was to be expected of this event, which took place in a quasi-surrealist context between countless voices predicting the apocalypse on one side and an American president announcing his withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on the other? We asked Suren Erkman. An associate professor at the Faculty of Geosciences and Environment at UNIL since 2005, he specialises in questions of industrial ecology. He has also followed the climate issue for twenty-five years as an observer, but also from within, particularly because he worked as a consultant for the Convention on Climate Change.
What was to be expected of COP 23?
Suren Erkman: Nothing earth-shattering; it was simply a continuation of the previous COP events. We’ve just started discussing details of the implementation of the Paris Agreement.
This conference on climate change was organised in Bonn by the Fiji Islands. Is there a particular meaning to look for there?
Yes, a symbolic one. From the beginning of climate negotiations, several small island nations have joined forces to create a very efficient lobby. They’ve struck a chord that’s echoed considerably, out of all proportion to their low demographic and economic influence. Their complaint: we barely contribute to emissions, but due to the lifestyle of rich countries, our tropical paradises are going to disappear underwater! The argument struck a chord in the western imagination. But the Pacific and Caribbean islands aren’t the only ones under threat. Coastal zones, where hundreds of millions of people reside, are just as vulnerable. We don’t discuss this aspect nearly as much, but the social and economic consequences of it will be much greater.
In June 2017, American President Donald Trump confirmed the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. Is this dramatic?
This withdrawal, despite the psychological drama surrounding it, is not a catastrophe. But the decision leaves people perplexed. If President Trump had wanted to strengthen the Convention on Climate Change, he wouldn’t have gone about it differently, because he sparked a widespread movement for the climate. However, his advisors had recommended that he make a quick exit from the Convention on Climate Change. This process would have only taken a year, also entailing withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. Whereas, by denouncing the Paris Agreement, taking the waiting period into account, the procedure is markedly longer (four years), ending after Donald Trump’s current term.
Should we understand that there are other issues behind these delaying tactics?
Yes! The true issue is domestic: the idea is to recreate a favourable framework for the fossil fuel lobbies in the United States. To do this, the often very ambitious legislative policies established during President Obama’s two terms must be dismantled. Certain provisions of these pieces of legislation tie the United States to international environmental agreements. To avoid internal opposition invoking violations of their international commitments, the United States must therefore free itself of instruments such as the Paris Agreement.
At this stage, we must remember that we haven’t yet reached the era of the Paris Agreement, which we discuss every day because of President Trump…
The current situation is, indeed, a bit surreal. For over four years, we’ve lived under the regime of the Doha Amendment, which theoretically covers the 2013-2020 period, but still hasn’t come into force! Remember that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, adopted in 1992, establishes a general framework, as the name suggests. Its implementation will be made concrete by means of enforcement protocols. The first is the Kyoto Protocol, adopted during the COP3 in Japan in December 1997 (not ratified by the United States), which entered into force in 2005. This agreement provided for a ‘commitment period’ of five years, from 1 January 2008 to 31 December 2012. Within this framework, only 37 industrialised countries made moderate commitments regarding their greenhouse gas emissions. In December 2012, during the COP18 in Qatar, the countries agreed, under very difficult conditions, to extend the commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol from 1 January 2013 to 31 December 2020. For this ‘Doha Amendment’ – ‘Kyoto II’ for those in the know – to come into force, it needs to have been ratified by at least 144 states. To date, only 79 have done so. At this pace, the number of ratifications required might not be reached until after its expiration in 2020!
Why are there so many countries who haven’t ratified Kyoto II?
One side of it is that there isn’t pressure to do so, and the other side is that the results of Kyoto I are very mixed. So many states don’t see a great advantage in ratifying an instrument that’s almost stillborn.
Since 1992, when the UN equipped itself with a Framework Convention on Climate Change, have things changed much?
It has to be said that, 25 years later, the result isn’t very convincing…because the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have risen significantly. What’s wonderful, on the other hand, is the boom in renewable energies since 1992. This development isn’t solely linked to the climate or the environment. It’s also the rise of new markets. That’s how the capitalist industrial system works. But renewable energies still represent a fairly modest proportion of global energy consumption.
Following this debate leaves you with a strange feeling, because there are very alarmist messages on one side, and states that are dragging their feet on the other. Do we have a real problem with the climate?
One thing is certain: the climate is changing, as it always has done. It evolves according to a dynamic specific to the current period. In particular, the speed of the change, in comparison with the transformations documented over long periods of time. A majority of researchers working on the subject today feel that human activity plays a role in this process that cannot be ignored. But, from a scientific standpoint, the subject of the climate is far from closed. There are still key uncertainties and areas of doubt, so we shouldn’t create a dogma there. Whether or not it is partly caused by humans, climate change has effects on human societies, particularly their economy, with winners and losers.
Who are the winners?
Several countries in cold regions, such as Canada and especially Russia, which see a warming climate as an opportunity.
And who are the losers?
The African countries, Southeast Asia, all of the countries near the warmer regions, where it will become even hotter, sometimes with more droughts but also more flooding. But the question that I want to ask, somewhat provocatively, is: why aren’t humans allowed to change the climate, when we consider it completely normal that others do it?
What do you mean by ‘others’?
What we call ‘natural’ changes aren’t, in a sense, natural at all. The climate dynamic is a result of ‘disturbances’ incited by various living things. Let’s begin with the true ‘bosses’ of the biosphere, micro-organisms (bacteria, plankton, etc.), interacting with physicochemical and geological processes, such as volcanic eruptions, for example.
Still, there’s no reason for human beings to bite the hand that feeds…
Obviously, humans have every reason to ensure that we have a biosphere that can be inhabited by the greatest number of species possible, which allows us to lead an existence that merits this title. What strikes me is that there is an enormous movement around a particular aspect, which is climate change, despite numerous uncertainties, while at the same time, we’re much less preoccupied with a massive phenomenon such as the poisoning of ecosystems by chemical products like pesticides, the impacts of which have been clearly demonstrated.
But if we listen to certain climatologists, we’re close to catastrophe. Is this true?
I remain to be convinced by these catastrophic messages. Some climatologists tend to be extremely alarmist, but in general, those aren’t the people warning of the apocalypse. This is another extremely striking aspect of this case: the voices that we hear the most in the public arena are frequently those of people who are not climate experts. Often, they have no scientific training. They’ve found a cause to fight for and, above all, a lever of influence to exercise a type of power over the conscience and behaviour of others. My message here is not to throw the baby out with the bath water: it makes sense to take a certain number of measures to limit the consumption of fossil fuels and to reduce our emissions of pollutants. But that in no way means that we should feel guilty for flying on an aeroplane.
So you yourself don’t feel guilty?
Not at all. Concerned and responsible, certainly. But I’m intrigued to see people who let guilt eat away at them…
Are you a climate sceptic?
My position has nothing to do with Trump or other climate sceptics, particularly the American ones, who are defending certain economic interests. If I had to choose a label, I’d prefer ‘climate analytic’. As a climate analytic, I’ve observed that researchers with different approaches have great difficulty being published in scientific journals. There is a real scientific debate, which climate dogmatists attempt to discredit by comparing it to the unquestionably fallacious arguments of the caricatural climate sceptics such as Trump.
You’re not afraid of climate change?
It’s something to be taken seriously, of course, but panicking about it accomplishes nothing. The story of humanity is also that of its adaptation to changes in climate. This ability is one of the greatest drivers of human evolution, and continues to be so. Of course, modern economies have become more vulnerable to changes in climate due to the fact that we’ve developed gargantuan infrastructures that didn’t exist a few thousand years ago. There is therefore more risk of damage. But we’re not facing deprivation: humanity has never had such great means for adapting, taking counter-measures and liberating ourselves from a certain amount of environmental constraints.
What measures come to mind?
Today, we have great civil engineering methods – for example, if we want to protect the coasts against rising oceans. Or, to build infrastructure at a size that can resist water level rises or torrential rains. On the other hand, in the face of extreme weather events, there is a difference between the rich countries, which have the means to take such measures, and the poor countries, which do not.
You also suggest that CO2 be considered as a resource, not just as a problem.
I’ve thought so for a long time. CO2 shouldn’t be demonised, because it’s closely associated with life: it’s the result of every living activity involving oxygen. What’s been happening, for nearly two hundred years, is that humans involuntarily create a ‘gaseous mine’ by sending large quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere. Compared with the reported ambitions of the Paris Agreement, the measures for reducing greenhouse gas emissions won’t be sufficient. Combining it with other approaches could contribute to reducing the concentration of CO2 in the air. In particular, the process that consists of recovering the excess gas accumulated, either from concentrated effluents (cement plants, incinerators, refineries, steel mills, etc.) or directly from the air, is slightly more complicated. This field has been the subject of considerable research for many years, and you could say that we’re at point-blank range. From a technological perspective, we’re reaching the phase of industrial pilots.
And what do we do with these gases?
We store them away from the atmosphere. Either underground (geological sequestration), which consists of burying large quantities of it, but it’s a costly strategy, entailing certain risks. Or we store it in the economy, in the form of useful products, sometimes with great added value. The captured CO2 can be used as a raw material for manufacturing plastic polymers, construction materials, medications, new fuels, etc. The quantities of CO2 rendered useful in this manner would be fairly modest – a few hundred million tonnes per year – at least at first. But these products having economic value would help us partially finance efforts to reduce emissions.
Why don’t we do that?
First, I’ve noticed a form of psychological reticence. Considering CO2 as a resource and no longer as dangerous waste requires a sort of ‘cognitive leap’. There is also ideological reticence; some people fear that this will serve as a pretext to relax our efforts, even though that’s clearly not the case. But, in specialised contexts, particularly certain industrial sectors (energy, chemistry, metallurgy), it’s being worked on relentlessly. For example, I have come back from Dunkirk, where we are discussing large-scale CO2 development projects with the authorities of the Great Port and the Urban Community. The ArcelorMittal steel works in Dunkirk alone discards 13 million tonnes of CO2 per year, for example. The potential is therefore considerable, and for an industrial facility of this type, capturing and creating value from CO2 undoubtedly constitute a condition of its survival.