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In counterpoint to the constant refrain of ‘no we can’t’

Daniel Kammen, Class of 1935 Distinguished Professor of Energy | December 12, 2009

Editor’s note:  Dan Kammen reports in from Copenhagen

Week 1 at COP-15: The first week comes to a close about where one might expect

Arrival in Copenhagen airport gives one a good feeling what you will experience at the COP15 meeting.  Everything is very comfortable, from the near 24 hour coffee/tea/food/information service. But the frustration over the lack of action so far on climate protection is visible, too.   Large billboards are everywhere with a rogues gallery of world leaders who have not accomplished climate goals.  A sample, this one of Australia’s Kevin Rudd — who just suffered a climate setback at the hands of that nation’s Liberal Party is attached – it bears the caption, “I’m sorry, we could have stopped catastrophic climate change … we didn’t … Kevin Rudd”.

There are some stunning visual signs at and around the Conference Center, too.  First, of course, is the commercial wind turbine in the parking lot, and the 61 meter turbine blade that made a high profile trip across Denmark by rail to the meeting (it now sits in the parking lot).  Denmark gets 29% of its electricity from renewable energy, and 20.1% from wind.  This goes far beyond what many nay-sayers thought possible only a decade ago, and is a clear reminder of both the potential to get things done, and the constant refrain of ‘no we can’t’ that you hear to so many of the innovative new proposals that highlight what we could get done, but have not yet accomplished at a meaningful scale.

Second, the approach to the conference center highlights just how much a ton of CO2 in the atmosphere really is.   Our cars, if driven 12,000 miles/year, emit just about their own weight in CO2 each year.

poor-hungryThe metal sculptures of starving people, partially flooded by rising waters runs along the walking path that takes one up to the front entrance to the Bella Conference/COP15 venue.

There have also been some greatly exciting and uplifting events.  One in which I had the pleasure to participate as a commentator and judge was ‘’, a gathering of global youth presenting their ideas for how to jump over and past the timetable of negotiations and launch ideas that impact both greenhouse gas emissions, and the public connection to the problem.  (Take a look at the photo of the group below).  The ideas ranged from school-to-school climate partnerships that link Australian Students with those at rural East African Schools, to DVD and viral internet distributed ‘what you can do’ at home to combat global warming materials, to community efforts to make low-carbon products not only priced at or below higher carbon counterparts, but to have them as just plain better, too.  This was the high-point of the first week for me: the energy and creativity of the PlanetCall youth was fabulous, and many of ideas deserve a try.

PlanetCall-YouthAwardCeremoIn terms of tools to assist these efforts, we had long discussions after the session about two products developed in part in my Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley.  My students and I developed and manage a carbon footprint tool requested by the state of  California and a business-focused version that also examines carbon saving alternatives.

On this website anyone can check the carbon impact of their energy, transportation and other lifestyle choices.  This has generated quite a buzz because not only can one do the standard carbon analysis of home energy and transportation, but you can use it to examine the impact of alternative choices in all categories: energy; water; transportation; food; and goods and services.  This project is sponsored by the California Air Resources Board.

Second, my students and I have been working closely with the City of Berkeley, California, a number of financial groups, state legislators, and now the federal government to bring the idea of Property Assessed Clean Energy — PACE — financing to more and more communities.  PACE financing began in the Mayor’s Office in the City of Berkeley, California, with some wonderful thinking by Mayor Tom Bates and his team, and my students and I have been developing analytic tools and aspects of this since its inception:

More people stop me at the COP to ask or to congratulate us on this innovation than anything else.  An interesting outcome of this has been that I’ve now met more people from city, state, canton, and other sub-national municipalities at the Copenhagen COP than at all of the other COPs that I have attended in the past combined.  It has been an exciting flood of city energy or sustainability officers, controllers, planning board members, Mayors, and community leaders looking for how to spread this ‘zero up front cost for energy efficiency and solar’ model to their communities.  Thankfully we have a nice range of academic papers, on-line calculators, How-To guides, and other items online that an exceptional team of students (Merrian Fuller, Cathy Kunkel, Gogi Kalka) helped prepare, along with the teams from not only the City of Berkeley, but a widening group of local and federal government officials.   This idea spread fast, all the way to the Waxman Markey Climate Bill and the White House Council of Economic Advisors, but still needs more care and feeding.

OneTonCO2Inside the meeting it is quite the bustle with thousands of NGO, academic, business, and delegates running to and fro, making statements.  Some act as if this is a three-ring circus of academic conferences, but every few minutes a buzz goes around that there is yet another negotiating draft that has been circulated, and people crowd around the individuals who get advance copies, or early official copies of these documents.  The ‘Danish text’ was denounced and quickly followed by a China/G77 text, and the by a further document — all pushing different perspectives, and all floated to see what has resonance.  It feels a bit like the search for the Cabbage Patch Doll, or the Zhu Zhu Hamster Pet of the environment.

That said, the battles over climate targets and funding for developing nation mitigation, adaptation, and technology transfer, have been at times blistering.  The US and China have been vocal opponents of each others proposals — something both expected in negotiations and a bit worrying after the seeming calm and perhaps harmony of the Obama-Hu summit in Beijing just a few weeks ago.

Week two will need even more strenuous effort if any sort of financial agreements are to be reached — as the developed and developing nations are still very far apart on this issue.

Finally, everyone will have to think less about climate change as a political issue, and more about it as an environmental issue.  Nature does not speak in the language of politics, she speaks her own language, and what we have to do is to use the tools of negotiation to not only barter ideas and funds back and forth, but to develop a political dialog that listens to what the planet is telling us.  We are still a long way from that point.