I have a confession to make - I have been flying too much. Before the year runs out, I will have been on 20 separate flights in 2018 alone! I know, I am sorry. So when the UNFCC emailed me saying I could pay for my sins by offsetting the carbon footprint of my travel to Katowice, I gladly donated to one of their projects. And when I got to the COP, they gave me a special white lanyard instead of the standard blue to commend me for my “good work”.
I got a white lanyard for paying to offset the carbon emitted during my travel to Katowice
It didn’t feel very good though, it felt too easy. To scratch my itch, I attended a discussion on CO2 mitigation in international aviation. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO, pronounced eye-cow) showcased their shiny new program for carbon offsetting, called CORSIA (Carbon Offsetting and.. never mind). The program trains member states to monitor, report, and verify (MRV) the carbon emissions and fuel consumption of every international airline operating under them.
Starting January 1, 2019, member states will be required to submit MRV data on all of their airlines and ensure that they offset the carbon emitted on routes between member states. Every year, the amount of emissions that airlines need to offset will be corrected in accordance with the growth in their air traffic. If an airline uses sustainable fuels, it will be deducted from their offset requirements.
Part of the panel presenting the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA)
Sounds great, what’s the catch? The price of a carbon offset. Paying for a ton of CO2 currently feels too easy. Would a higher carbon price discourage member states from complying with CORSIA? When I tracked her down after the talk, ICAO director Jane Hupe conceded that under CORSIA, they would simply be a buyer in the carbon market. The fair price of carbon was outside of her jurisdiction.
Now feeling like an investigative reporter, I attended the talk on the Potential of carbon pricing. Everybody agreed that a good carbon price was crucial for sustainable aviation. However Governments found it difficult to raise the carbon price because the costs would inevitably be borne by the man on the street - think higher fuel prices, think the recent protests in France. How do you get the average Joe (or Jacques) to buy into this? You make sure they see the benefits of the scheme - you don’t need an independent researcher to tell you that.
The French took to the streets to protest Macron's climate tax, the process for which was far from transparent
An independent research was then presented showing that the best way to achieve a good carbon price is to ensure that the revenue from the offsetting process visibly trickles down. Transparency is key. Protestors took to the streets in France not because they hated the content of their carbon tax, it was because they hated how it was done. The study also showed that additional emissions reductions could be achieved if the revenue from carbon offsets is recycled for additional climate change mitigation efforts; instead most countries currently use this revenue for general budget spending.
Boarding yet another flight; my footprint this year would put an elephant to shame
If you are still with me, well done! If you aren't, let me re-trace my steps:
Transparent policies and visible benefits will allow for a fair carbon price. A fair carbon price will mean CORSIA-compliant airlines will move towards becoming truly energy neutral. And sustainable aviation is crucial if we are to come close to a 1.5 degree Celsius scenario.
PS: Ironically, I started this article in Katowice, fleshed it out on the plane, and finished it at Schiphol!
They rented what looked like a spaceship to host the COP. And much like a commercial aircraft, we had to queue up and go through security to enter this spaceship! This was clearly no ordinary queue though - I don't think I have ever seen so many different nationalities, races, languages, and fancy headgears together, all annoyed in unison at being asked to take their laptops out of their bags for the scanners. This is the closest I am going to get to being inside the Olympic village.
The spaceship-like Spodek stadium in Katowice - the venue for COP 24
There wasn't too much time to gawk around because if the COP is anything, it is busy! The first event I attended was hosted by Friends of the Earth, where they launched their People Power Now! manifesto. The manifesto made a list of ten demands for a just and inclusive transition to a renewable energy economy. They raised points that I had never considered (more such instances followed) - how do we ensure that positive climate action, such as large solar fields, do not destroy arable land or lead to loss of biodiversity? How do we ensure that policies adopted for climate change prevention will not be at the cost of workers or marginalised communities? Will transfer of knowledge and technology in developing countries benefit its people, or its corporations? Salient points, not many answers.
Next up was a panel discussion on making climate action more transparent and ambitious. The Paris Agreement was made up of nationally determined contributions (NDCs) that every participating country submitted. Turns out, the voluntary nature of these NDCs meant that many of them were not really attainable, and almost all of them were conditional. The Paris Agreement also asked countries to contribute to a Green Climate Fund which was supposed to get to $100 billion, a figure we are currently woefully short of. Pieter Pauw of the German Development Institute presented that the costs to implement all the NDCs put together are already more than $100 billion - the die was loaded from the start!
Panel discussion on Making climate action more transparent and ambitious
L-R: Angel Hsu, Pieter Pauw, moderator guy, Clara Brandi, nice guy from Bangladesh, Nicklas Höhne
However, there could be a wormhole that could help us get back on track - non-state actors! Dr. Angel Hsu presented a study that showed that most of the Annex-I (read: wealthy) countries have not accounted for contributions from non-state actors (NSAs) - city councils, umbrella organisations, and private entities - in their NDCs. She contested that if these countries could leverage NSAs to pull their weight, we would be right back on track towards limiting temperature rise to only 1.5 degrees Celsius. Nicklas Höhne then showcased the findings of his survey - most countries have not found political will lacking while making stronger climate policies; what they have struggled with is securing funding and support from private actors. The irony, that he said this to a room full of diplomats and PhD students, was not lost on anyone.
With energy levels flagging and beer o'clock in sight, I dragged myself to the last discussion of the day - Public engagement with climate change. I was engaged from the get-go. Climate news is almost always perceived as bad news - probably because that's how it is often delivered, argued the panel. If we want to engage people, we need to appeal to their values; we need to have an emotional discussion on climate change.
Australia's Climate Communicators - weather reporters delivering climate change information
Stephanie Hall of the Monash University in Australia is taking a stronger stand. She has launched a project in Australia where news weather reporters dole out information about climate change, along with the daily weather. The project draws on her findings that people are more open to receiving information if it comes from a trusted, local voice - doctor, school teacher, weatherman. The science has been around for decades now and pointing to figures and numbers isn't working - it's time, she says, to think like a marketing executive would about a potential consumer.
Eat your heart out, Fox News.
Conversations surrounding climate change often veer into complicated jargon and confusing abbreviations, making it difficult to keep track of "the point". This is my four word summary of the situation:
We are in trouble.
We, as a species, are rapidly making the Earth (the only home we have ever known) a hostile place to live on. The Conference of Parties (COP) is an annual summit organised by the United Nations to discuss how we can, as a global community, find a solution to a problem that is threatening our very existence.
I wanted to originally use a picture of a polar bear standing on a shrinking iceberg with this post. But the most devastating impacts of climate change are going to be felt by you and me. And our kids.
I have got to go make my way to Katowice. In the meantime, here's a really nice summary of what's at stake at the COP24 that starts today.