Bonn/Fiji COP 23, Revisiting Paris, and the Smoking Gun…

(Originally published on Medium on December 1, 2017: https://medium.com/@LCPSoderberg/bonn-fiji-cop-23-revisiting-paris-and-the-smoking-gun-ec24f1410bf0)

Bula! Vinaka! Talanoa!

Twelve days of intense presence, meetings, and dialogue, ending for me with a deep sense of awe. My respect restored for the work of the country delegates (Parties) and their teams (working through the night until 7am on the thirteenth day), even more so for the myriad groups, initiatives, movements and organisations present at the conference telling their stories of activism, already busy being the change for a climate resilient world.

“Bula”, “Vinaka”, and “Talanoa”, a heartfelt and warmly expressed gift of language from the Fiji Islands, hosts for this COP 23: “Bula”: Welcome (also the word for “Life”), “Vinaka”: Thank you, and “Talanoa”: Let’s talk, with deep listening and respect to arrive at a consensus. These three words might be making a bigger contribution to the process than we are ready to admit. 

UNFCCC Headquarters in Bonn, welcoming delegates to COP 23

COP 23 began November 6th, on a gray rainy morning in a park along the Rhein river outside Bonn. Twelve days and that one night later, COP 23 was over. The 23rd edition of the Conference Of the Parties, called by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) adopted at the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, and created by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) from 1988, was doing what it did best, bringing 196 countries together for dialogues, negotiations, and agreements on how to tackle the impending, clear and present dangers of climate change challenges on our small and only planet Earth.

One of the “Side Events” in the “Bonn Zone”: “Addressing uncertainties in estimating GHG emissions and removals in the AFOLU sector to strengthen land management impacts” with Prof. Johannes Lehmann from Cornell University on the far right. One of the many panel presentations followed by a discussion.

It took most of the first week for me just to get a feel for the place, meeting old and new climate warriors, checking the program for interesting talks and choosing events, sometimes four or five at the same hour… Week two was a different matter, delegates poured in from all corners of the world, and from the clothing it was clear that most, if not all of the planet’s peoples were represented. It was very exciting.

That was when the real work began, collecting information, gathering knowledge, squeezing some wisdom from it all, and doing my best to put the pieces of a puzzle together.

It was on Monday of the second week that a new report from Carbon Brief was announced saying that emissions during 2017 were set to rise two percent. Furthermore, the present “Intended Nationally Determined Contribution” (INDC’s) towards emission reductions agreed during the COP 21 in Paris in 2015 were only enough to cover some 30% of what is necessary to keep the global mean temperature rise under 2 degrees Celsius, now considerably farther from the ambitious goal of 1.5 degrees. Things were not good, and not getting better, the light at the end of the tunnel suddenly seemed very far away.

How do we combine continued economic growth in a fossil fuel driven economy while reducing the emissions caused by those same fossil fuels?

We don’t. That is the basic problem. These two goals cannot co-exist, and there is only one choice… But there is more… However lofty (and unrealistic) these goals, they are flawed on several levels, unfortunately, and there are some surprises, too, both good and less good.

There is a paper written by the “Structured Expert Dialogue” (SED) group, 70 top scientists who presented this paper to the COP 21 in Paris, urging nations to act now (in 2015) to limit devastating consequences of global warming. The paper was blocked by Saudi Arabia, China, India, and Australia (and other coal and oil producing nations), thereby not allowing the document to reach the floor of the plenary for consideration (*). To quote from the paper:

“Limiting global warming to below 2 °C necessitates a radical transition (deep decarbonization now and going forward), not merely a fine tuning of current trends.”

Furthermore, the paper states:

“Significant climate impacts are already occurring at the current level of global warming and additional magnitudes of warming will only increase the risk of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts. Therefore, the ‘guardrail’ concept, which implies a warming limit that guarantees full protection from dangerous anthropogenic interference, no longer works.”

On a different and apocalyptic note, there is the “methane clathrate gun” or what I call the “smoking gun” (not the one on the cover of The Economist). From Albert’s “The Paris Agreement” (p. 194):

https://www.economist.com/printedition/2017-11-18

“One of the briefings I attended at Le Bourget was by the Met Office, one of England’s top climate research laboratories. Those scientists, in subdued, unemotional language, completely shredded the notion that we have another ten years or any amount of time left to keep pumping carbon into the atmosphere. They also reminded delegates the permafrost that is now melting contains more than 1400 GtC and is quite capable of putting all of that amount, more than the entire inventory of fossil emissions since the first oil wells were drilled 150 years ago, into the atmosphere in a fortnight.”

Where am I going with this? Read on, there are stars on the horizon and there is still a light, albeit rather cold, light at the end of the tunnel…

One of the feelings now in the aftermath of COP 23 is that there are so many pieces in this Climate Change puzzle, each one very well defined, scientifically, with metrics and history and projections and trends, but the pieces aren’t assembled to create a completed picture. And some, if not many pieces of the puzzle are missing. Climate Change is complex, and we can hardly expect to understand it all.

One of my comforting thoughts is the realisation that what I might know is infinitely less than what I don’t know, and by association, the probability of a solution being in what I don’t know is infinitely greater than in all the information and knowledge available to our species on this planet, at this time. This might seem to some like hoping for a white bearded man in the sky to solve our problems. It’s not, not only because there is no white bearded man in the sky, but rather because we are that white bearded man in the sky, and it’s time we wake up to that fact, grow up, and start acting like the evolved beings we are, custodians of this blue paradise planet.

Some are already living this truth, and this helped me, grateful for the presence of the many indigenous people at the COP 23. It was a deep and moving experience to meet and talk to many of these individuals, who clearly have a strong connection to Mother Earth, or PachaMama as many call her. A space has been created in the climate talks to acknowledge the wisdom of the indigenous peoples, and this goes a long way to describe the energy that thanks in part no doubt to the Fiji Islands, who were the official hosts to the COP 23. 

Marishöri Najashi Samaniego, of the Ashaninka in Peru, member of the Steering Committee of the Alliance of Guardians (www.allianceofguardians.org).

Considering the 45 years that have passed since the first Conference of the Environment in Stockholm in 1972, it seems sensible to finally look at other ways of understanding Climate Change, and the perspective of the indigenous peoples of the world, a people closely, even intricately connected to the earth will hopefully gain a greater voice. We from the “over-developed” world do well to listen, deeply. We can only hope that all these indigenous peoples are able and willing to share their knowledge and help our disconnected society re-connect to the Earth that sustains us. Many are of course, even very actively, but are we listening?

Two of the representatives of these indigenous tribes are Marishöri Najashi from the Ashaninka in Peru (photo above), and Benki (Livestream video from COP), from the same tribe on the Brazilian side of the Amazon, in the State of Acre.

Also from the depths of the Amazon comes “terra preta” or “black soil”. Biochar is something that has interested me for many years, in part because of it’s origin in Brazil, in part because of it’s characteristics. Sir Nicholas Stern, author of the government-commissioned review on climate change now known as “The Stern Review” published in 2006, mentioned at a side event at the COP 21 in Paris that there are four ways to move towards the zero or negative emission rates that will be necessary:

  • soil rehabilitation
  • reforestation
  • CO2 capturing from the air, and
  • biomass with carbon capture

Interestingly, all of these four suggested ways coincide with how we can produce and apply biochar to our soils. Biochar is something Albert (Bates), myself, and many others have a passion for, in my case after starting a reforestation project in Brazil in 2009 and meeting Albert in 2011 when he gave me another book of his: “The Biochar Solution”.

I quote from Albert Bates and “The Paris Agreement”:

“I tell government officials that I can provide more power than they need, at a tenth of the cost of oil, and I can do it from feedstocks they consider wastes, and I can use processes that net-sequester greenhouse gases at each step, with a life-cycle cost that is high in the black, low capital outlay and quick return on investment. Oh, and it arrests global warming, deepens soils, saves water, and increases biodiversity while preserving and protecting indigenous culture.”

Albert continues:

“We have already vetted all these steps we propose. They follow a simple formula that has no secrets, no privacy, no confidentiality contracts, and anyone could replicate them in whole or in part if they so desire.”

This secret that has no secrets is biochar; pyrolised organic waste, identical to charcoal in molecular structure, it’s difference lies in it’s source; organic waste residue, and it’s purpose; enriching the soil (you don’t burn this charcoal for energy, although you can also capture the heat and energy from the pyrolising process). Biochar stays in the ground for hundreds, even thousands of years, effectively sequestering carbon from the atmosphere through photosynthesis, and fixing that carbon in the form of charcoal, which becomes a five-star hotel for micro-organisms, one of the keys to a healthy soil, and a healthy planet.

When local municipal waste streams are separated into humid and dry organic waste, the dry waste becomes a resource for biochar production while the humid organic waste becomes a resource for composting. combine the two and you have a rich soil for growing food, sequestering carbon with the production of combined heat and power (CHP) in the process.

So how do we finance these projects? How do we finance the solutions for a more climate resilient society?

This was one of the main issues at the COP, and I was able to attend a few of the side events on the topic. I was privy to a presentation where some of the worlds largest funds, managing several trillion dollars, lamented the lack of projects… “The projects are too small”, “we are interested in projects for 500 million or more”… Due diligence on such a project can take years. I raised my hand, but wasn’t chosen to ask, “how about creating mechanisms to allow smaller projects access to this capital?” My answer came on another day, while listening to a presentation about the setting up of just such a mechanism, the “Mesoamerican Territorial Fund – A Contribution to Preserve Forests, Strengthen Governance and Guarantee Community Rights”, by the Mesoamerican Alliance of People and Forests. There I did ask my question, and was answered by the Minister for the Environment of one of the more successful Central American countries in mitigating Climate Change, who said (paraphrasing): “We have applied for these funds, and even been granted these funds, but then we see that the terms and conditions these funds carry are written for the countries that put up the money, that the money must be used to buy products and services from the issuing country, and very little actually makes it to the local community level, if at all.” Full stop. I cringe just writing about it. In other words, forget the money, their money. We need other ways, other mechanisms, different thinking to finance our way out of this mess.

Last but not least, Google “The Maunder Minimum” and you might come across this article on the page of The Royal Astronomical Society, that states that we may be in for a new “mini ice-age” during the 26th cycle of the sun since measuring these cycles began 172 years ago. This is contradicted by another article in ArsTechnica that calls it humbug, while adding that the actual reason for the mini ice-age are the many volcanic eruptions, in this article (Pinatubo, Eyjafjallajökull, and as I write, Agung in Bali…?). Should there be a new “mini ice-age” it might just be the lottery ticket for humanity on planet Earth. It would give us another 10 or 20 years to transition to more renewable energy and sequester enough carbon from the atmosphere to restore a balance in our fragile ecosystem. Climate deniers would no doubt jump on the opportunity to declare a mini ice age proof that Climate Change is itself a hoax. If we believed that we might just lose the last chance we get to maintain life as we know it on this blue and green planet.

Who to believe? What to believe?

What other obstacles are there for moving forward? What stands in the way of humanity saving itself from runaway feed-back loops that threaten to turn our blue and green planet into something more like Venus? There are a few, or at least different perspectives on this; personally I believe it begins with consciousness, our collective awareness to act, and reconnect to nature to define our role, as custodians and guardians of the Earth and all it’s life forms.

Mindfulness, presence, awareness, slowing down, reflecting, observing, listening… Surely these are simple enough ideas, with powerful impact. But we have to DO it. Talking, thinking, dreaming alone will not make things happen. And if we DO from a deep sense of BEING, we might even make many things happen. And it could happen very fast. Awakening is a matter of an instant.

And then we have to get to work. And keep an eye on those volcanic eruptions…

(*) Special thanks to Albert Bates for much of the background data and perspectives in this blog from his outstanding account of The Paris Agreement in the book by the same name: “The Paris Agreement” written during and after COP 21 (Paris 2015).

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