21 February 2011

Key Topics for the UNFCCC COP Process, part 1

Following on my last post regarding the the UNFCCC COP process, and how I think it might make better progress over time, what next?  Allow me to put on my futurist hat and make a list of topics, somewhat in chronological order but interrelated, on which I think discussion will follow in the UNFCCC process over the next several decades.  Let me state clearly that I don't think that the UNFCCC process will fall apart or disband at some point, if it takes the proper steps to move from stagnant negotiation to progressive action.  I do think that the strength and composition of the most influential players may shift over time.

So, I present here my own list of the first six of twelve key topics for the UNFCCC.  As I said before, some of these should already have left the COP process behind for more independent negotiations in order to see progress.  We will begin with the three topics already introduced and now in ongoing discussion in the UNFCCC COP meetings, and then I add three more that will likely come up in the next year or so as major topics for negotiation and action.  I will follow this list of the first six with another post on six more topics that I see entering the UNFCCC process in the longer term, beyond the next couple of years.

1. Carbon, methane and sulfur emissions are not really "dead" (as GOOD claimed for cap-and-trade markets) as the primary topic of discussion, no matter how misguided those discussions and negotiations remain, and efforts toward agreements to market and/or curb emissions on national and continental scales will continue.  Most countries will not let nearly twenty years of work, all of their effort since Rio and Kyoto, go to waste, especially as the Kyoto Protocol is due to expire at the end of 2012.  I think that few of those negotiations will bear fruit, however - if the MOP process can't solve the issues and get the US on board with a global agreement, the larger COP process will only bring more chaos to the proceedings.  It's a simple observation on national and transnational development in our era of an increasingly global and complex web of economics and trade: through the US and EU are hammering on China right now regarding emissions, twenty years ago it would have been Russia and Brazil, and ten years ago it would have been Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia.  Ten years from now it may well be India and Brazil again, and twenty years from now it could be parts of Africa.  Meanwhile, US leadership pretends that we didn't do anything in our own industrial and economic development over the past century that they shouldn't all do in the course of their own national and regional evolutions.

2. Tropical forests are next, with the process already begun on REDD, and now some evidence that REDD may need reform.  Of course, emissions and carbon issues each eventually needed reform and produced the Kyoto agreement, which has yet to make it through the stage of simple commitment, just before it is scheduled to expire.  I wrote more on the discussion of forests in that previous post, but it is important to indicate here that this is the discussion of and resolution on tropical forests, not forests in temperate regions (which I think will arise in discussion later).

3. Polar regions may temporarily preempt the discussion on forests, however.  Persistent sea ice is dwindling rapidly in the Arctic, and scientists just announced that 2010 was a new record melt season on the Greenland ice sheet.  Meanwhile, the Antarctic edges have been showing more severe glacier break-up in the southern summer over the past several years, signaled most dramatically by the collapse of the Larsen-B Ice Shelf in 2002.  Glacier calving and loss of ice cover leads to trouble in shipping lanes near both poles, a faster sea route across North America through the "Northwest Passage," and territorial claims on the Arctic seabed that are in the process of resolution.  This will be the first round of discussion (though likely several years in duration) on the world's oceans, with a focus on the physics and thermodynamics of the ocean-climate system.  We are already seeing some of this discussion emerge in the scientific literature and in efforts to raise awareness regarding those island nations that could disappear entirely, in our lifetimes, because of sea-level rise.  A discussion of polar regions might end simply by sending the issue back to the UN for evaluation against the existing Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), but some negotiation within the UNFCCC COP process will be needed to get the discussion to that point.

4. Agriculture and food security: we are about to cross the 7B global population mark on our way to at least 9B by mid-century, while the planetary agricultural and ecological carrying capacity remains significantly less.  Food security remains the foremost topic on former World Bank president Robert Zoellick's list of priorities.  It is the entire focus of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), whose reports on the interactions between water and food security and a look ahead at farming through the first half of this century, both in the context of global climate change, were recently published.  With regard to agriculture and food, there are numerous issues that must be addressed soon, in an international forum, and in the context of climate change uncertainty: migrating zones of optimal farming due to weather and climate; shifting regions of soil suitability because of nutrient depletion and salinization; the availability of adequate water supplies for irrigated crops; the personal labor associated with various crop types, in light of mass emigration to urban areas; the markets for staple grains and commodities above simple subsistence agriculture; the development of genetically modified grains and modification of the processes by which fertilizers and pesticides are made and applied; the availability and prioritization of international food aid in times of crisis and disaster.  We are dealing with all of these right now on an ad hoc basis, especially the issues of food aid, markets, and disaster recovery efforts.  What we need, however, is a shift to anticipatory planning with global participation and reach.

5. Tropical and subtropical glaciers, especially in highly mountainous regions (e.g. the Himalaya-Karakoram and Andes Ranges), are disappearing at an extraordinary rate, but what we can possibly do about that is still very much unclear.  The UN Environment Programme has released several publications on the status of mountain glaciers and their overall relation to human livelihoods and ability to adapt, though the details of glacier mechanics and processes remain difficult to understand and predict.  This is even more relevant where the glaciers feed shared water resources, as occurs in and downstream of the Himalaya Ranges in South Asia, on which I've written before as well.  Security fears, as analyzed recently by the India-based Strategic Foresight Group, have led to the tendency for countries to keep glacier surveys and other hydrological information to themselves as water resources become a strategic asset in international economic competition.  Most countries at risk of losing glaciers have approached the problem of water resource security with massive dam projects, but new projects are already testing old agreements and treaties.  Are there better ways?

6. International river basins will finally come under discussion.  Those old agreements such as the Indus Waters Treaty between India and Pakistan will require another look, as new circumstances and situations in water resources under the influences of climate change will invalidate completely the allocation bases on which bilateral agreements have been formed over the past century. UNEP estimates that there are 263 international river basins covering 45% of the Earth's land surface on the six major continents (excluding Antarctica).  The UNEP Atlas of International Freshwater Agreements lists 295 international agreements negotiated and signed since 1948.  However, the Atlas also lists 37 acute conflicts over water that have occurred over the same period, mostly related to water supply and infrastructure disputes, which generally means dam-building.  International Rivers estimates that there are more than 45,000 large dams (taller than 20 m) around the world, with more than 5,000 of them over 50 years old and in need of repair or replacement.  It is suggested that all of these are increasingly hazardous because of their design on past understanding of the hydrologic cycle, and are not built to handle the accelerated cycle that is expected with global warming.  It is estimated that 40-80M people worldwide have been displaced by their construction over time, and that another 2M residents are displaced or have their livelihoods affected every year as new dams are built.  Where dams are constructed on shared rivers, mutual concerns must be addresses adequately for all parties affected, something that we have seen less and less in such regions as the Mekong River and elsewhere in Southeast Asia.
    Oh, by the way, some of these links and reports are already on my new Timelines page, and those things are already really helpful in keeping my historical links categorized and organized!  Better that they're out there for anyone to use, rather than hidden in my own bookmarks at home...

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