Patch Job

A study published earlier this year pointed to a decrease in the size of the ozone hole over the Antarctic.

This healing process indicates the success of the Montreal Protocol, the 1989 treaty intended to limit the production and use of ozone-harming chemicals.

Ratified by all United Nations Members, as well as Niue, the Cook Islands, the Holy See and the European Union, it’s been hailed as “perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date.” (Kofi Annan)

Ten Circles - magnolia leaf crotched with cotton yarn Artist: Susanna Bauer

Ten Circles – magnolia leaf crotched with cotton yarn
Artist: Susanna Bauer

It’s worth noting that the movement to reduce the production and use of gases that affect the ozone layer came long before ‘scientific consensus’ was actually reached.

Like the discussion surrounding carbon emissions and climate change, scientists who argued for a reduction in chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) production and use (mainly for refrigeration purposes and aerosol spray propellant) faced an array of opposition.

One, Two, Three Artist: Susanna Bauer

One, Two, Three
Artist: Susanna Bauer

DuPont held the patent for Freon, a CFC widely used around the world, but one which was losing profitability. The company put up aggressive arguments against any regulation of CFC production for several years – while searching for replacement alternatives.

The publication of ozone hole images in the 1980s focused public attention on the issue, just around the time DuPont felt it had found viable gas alternatives and the Freon patent had expired.

DuPont switched course, became an active supporter of CFC limitation and a strong proponent of international action. It also earned itself a reputation as a company concerned with the environmental impact of its products. (It bears mentioning that most of the alternative products also count as harmful greenhouse gases with varying levels of atmospheric toxicity.)

Common Ground (II) Artist: Susanna Bauer

Common Ground (II)
Artist: Susanna Bauer

The Montreal Protocal was the result of a rare confluence of public opinion, environmental interests and corporate action. Corporate and government reluctance to limit CFC production was otherwise similar to today’s climate change discussion.

In the end, it always seems to come down to habits, inertia and money (or lack thereof) on the one side, and an amassing of scientific proof and activism on the other.

Moon (II) Artist: Susanna Bauer

Moon (II)
Artist: Susanna Bauer

Perhaps what the Montreal Protocol really had going for it was the image of the hole in the atmosphere, a singular lens that could focus attention, fears, research and opinion.

It’s profoundly encouraging that the positive effects of an international treaty on a large-scale environmental challenge can be measured in a relatively short span of time.

Here’s hoping this visible progress can impact the usual cost-benefit conversations when it comes to climate change negotiations.

Images of the Antarctic ozone hole. If current trends continue, the hole is expected to close by 2040. Images/graphic: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/ Business Insider

Images of the Antarctic ozone hole. If current trends continue, the hole is expected to close by 2040.
Images/graphic: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/ Business Insider

 

The Proverbial Drop

The recent Warsaw Climate Change Conference ended with a couple of modest successes, the main one being that the conversation will continue between nations as to what to do about man-made impact on the climate.

An initiative to support efforts at slowing deforestation received funding to the tune of $280 million from three countries.

Developed countries couldn’t quite bring themselves to say more than they would be willing to ‘contribute’ to emission cuts, rather than ‘commit’ to them.

Mainly, the nations who use the most keep insisting that change will be slow, and expensive.

Developing countries requested the twenty developed nations which have contributed to and profited most from the fossil fuel economy to pledge funds to mitigate, adapt and readjust this economy and its effects.

Amounts requested were between $70 billion per year by 2016, or  $100 billion by 2020.

Meanwhile, an editorial piece by former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan in the New York Times today states that the developed countries currently subsidize the fossil fuel economy to the tune of $485 billion.

That’s $485 billion every single year.

Not all expensive habits are worth keeping.

So here’s hoping that even a drop in the bucket will create enough ripples to make a change.

Murmurations

A friend posted these images of ‘starlings’ in flight on his Facebook page, and I was intrigued by their beauty.

So I followed the bread crumb trail of the photographer credit, and found out an unexpected fact about these images. Finally, I came upon the photographer himself, Alain Delorme, a French artist based in Paris.

When I requested permission to post his images here, he sent me a friendly word of warning about his Murmurations series that confirmed what I had discovered on my own: The images aren’t of starlings. They are composites of plastic sacks, in the configurations of starling flocks.

The images are meant to confound, to confuse expectations, to mingle beauty and dangerous debris that can take beautiful forms.

This week, the UNFCCC COP 19 conference has been taking place in Warsaw, Poland. This Climate Change Conference is the world’s key forum for discussing climate change, environmental issues, progress and solutions.

A large public-private initiative was announced that would oversee programs to alleviate deforestation and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, with funding pledged by Norway, the United Kingdom and (to a much smaller extent) the United States.

Good news, a lovely formation of proposals that take flight.

The initiative will be overseen by the World Bank, which demands reductions in greenhouse gases while continuing to support and fund the large-scale development of coal projects around the world. The World Bank track record on projects that succeed at both economic and environmental sustainability has been mixed.

(And in a nice ironic twist that did not go unnoticed by COP19 commentators, Warsaw also hosted the completely separate International Coal & Climate Summit at the same time, just down the road, and sponsored by the World Coal Association.)

Hm, maybe those aren’t starlings taking flight, after all.

For me, the level of global cooperation manifested in gatherings like the UNFCCC, however conflicted, still represents a major step forward in world governance just two generations after World War II.

Having said that, all major environmental groups staged a collective and resounding walkout of the Warsaw Climate Change Conference this week in protest against what they say is the one-sided, obstructive control of the conference by nations and groups not truly interested in climate change solutions.

According to this article on the science of starling flocks and their murmurations, their synchoronized movements “are best described with equations of ‘critical transitions’ — systems that are poised to tip, to be almost instantly and completely transformed, like metals becoming magnetized or liquid turning to gas. Each starling in a flock is connected to every other. When a flock turns in unison, it’s a phase transition.”

The Warsaw conference closes today. I’ll close with a short film of real starlings in flight, in the hope that real progress, and the positive, coordinated movement of groups and entities that are undeniably connected, will win out over something that looks like progress, but is actually something quite different.

Input and Loss

At the UNFCCC COP19 in Warsaw this week, a new programme was launched under the auspices of the World Bank: The BioCarbon Fund Initiative for Sustainable Forest Landscapes (ISFL).

The initial funding amount is set at $280 million USD. Norway has pledged up to $135 million to the initiative, Britain $120 million and the United States $25 million. The fund also hopes to attract further private and public funding.

I thought it would be an interesting exercise to use the Global Forest Change tool released this week to look at forest change in each of the contributing countries, also in relation to their contribution to this new initiative.

Forest change Norway 2000-2012. The blue and red colors indicate net forest gain and loss, respectively. The colors here are almost exclusively seen on the Swedish side of the border. Norway does not rank among the top 50 nations in terms of deforestation, Sweden ranks 13th. Image via Global Forest Change / Earth Energy Partners

Forest change Norway 2000-2012. The blue and red colors indicate net forest gain and loss, respectively. The colors here are almost exclusively seen on the Swedish side of the border. Norway does not rank among the top 50 nations in terms of deforestation, Sweden ranks 13th.
Image via Global Forest Change / Earth Engine Partners

With a goal of encouraging reduced greenhouse gas emissions from the land sector, including REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation), ISFL is intended to “help countries identify and promote climate-smart agricultural and low-carbon land-use practices in selected geographical areas where agriculture is a major cause of deforestation.”

The deforestation culprit in question is, by and large, commercial agriculture in regions including Latin America; subsistence and commercial agriculture contribute equally to an estimated two-thirds of deforestation in other areas like Africa and subtropical Asia.

The initiative sets itself the task of “adopting a landscape approach, (which) means implementing a development strategy that is climate smart, equitable, productive and profitable at scale and strives for environmental, social, and economic impact.”

Forest change in the United Kingdom 2000-2012, which is not among the top 50 nations in terms of forest loss.  Image via Global Forest Change / Earth Energy Partners

Forest change in the United Kingdom 2000-2012, which is not among the top 50 nations in terms of forest loss.
Image via Global Forest Change / Earth Energy Partners

Measures include “protecting forests, restoring degraded lands, enhancing agricultural productivity, and improving livelihoods and local environments.”

According to this Reuters article, one of the key problems faced by initiatives seeking to reduce deforestation is that “parties are focusing all their energy arguing about the politics of who governs REDD+ finance, when the real issue is a lack of demand.”

This is according to Matt Leggett, head of policy at forest think-tank Global Canopy Programme, who also stated that “the program must create demand for nearly 1.5 billion tones of carbon dioxide equivalent to cut deforestation by half, but current projects are only set to cut emissions by 160 million tones.”

Forest change in the United States 2000-2012. The US ranks 3rd globally in terms of net forest loss.  Image via Global Forest Change / Earth Energy Partners

Forest change in the United States 2000-2012. The US ranks 3rd globally in terms of net forest loss. (Canada ranks 4th.)
Image via Global Forest Change / Earth Energy Partners

Larger Than Life

Limacina Helica IV Artist/Photo: Kavanagh/Bessler

Limacina Helicina IV
Artist/Photo: Kavanagh/Bessler

When one thinks of marine life, especially when it comes to endangered marine life, the mind naturally turns to the poster children of conservation: polar bears, whales, dolphins. The big guys. Maybe some of us think of our favorite fish – tuna, for example, or salmon.

Not many spare a thought for the tiny shelled pteropod Limacina. But Limacina makes up in pure grace what it lacks in cute eyes, haunting songs, bottle-nosed grins or delectability.

Limacina helicina  Photo: Alexander Semenov

Limacina helicina
Photo: Alexander Semenov

Known as sea butterflies, they make up a giant link in the food chain between plankton and larger animals. Tiny as they are, they are also a key part of the global carbonate cycle – their shells make up an estimated 12% of the carbonate flux that determines ocean acidity and helps stabilize carbon levels in the atmosphere.

A report, due to be presented at Conference of the Parties (COP 19) to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Warsaw next week states with high confidence that ocean acidification is increasing due to carbon dioxide emissions, and that this acidification will have major ramifications.

Limacina Helica V Artist/Photo: Kavanagh/Bessler

Limacina Helicina V
Artist/Photo: Kavanagh/Bessler

According to this article, “the world needs to prepare for major losses of ecosystem services” and all the benefits to human life and activity which those services provide, from food and clean air to reef protection and economic livelihoods.

The sea butterflies, seen here in sculptures by Corneila Kubler Kavanagh, are losing their shells, which are dissolving in acidic waters. Working together with ocean acidification researcher Gareth Lawson, Kavanagh created aluminium visions of Limacina that magnify the fragile creatures by 400 times their natural size of 1 cm (0.4″).

Maybe that size, combined with the UNFCC meeting, is just about big enough to focus attention on the challenge of ocean acidification.

Limacina Helica II Artist/Photo: Kavanagh/Bessler

Limacina Helicina II
Artist/Photo: Kavanagh/Bessler

International Law of the Anthropocene

I found an interesting paper recently, International Law in the Anthropocene: Responding to the Geoengineering Challenge by Karen N. Scott, Professor in Law at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. In it, she discusses the role of international environmental law in dealing with the impact humans have on the planet.

She focuses her attention on one aspect, geoengineering, defined in her paper as defined as “the intentional large-scale manipulation of the environment”. She describes geoengineering both as a part of the “climate change mitigation tool box” as well as a serious challenge to environmental protection.

She says, “The traditional distinction between humankind and nature and the characterization of the latter as something outside of, or other than, the human sphere no longer accurately reflects the relationship between humankind and the environment in the Anthropocene.”

And even if there is still some dispute over whether to call our current epoch the Anthropocene, Scott’s paper makes some intriguing arguments.

Environmental Projections Projections being what they are, this might not actually be the picture in 90 years – but that doesn’t mean we can’t act as if it might be. Source: EarthandEconomy.com via Visual.ly

In relation to using geoengineering as a tool to steer climate change, Scott says, “Geoengineering is qualitatively different from other mechanisms intended to mitigate or adapt to climate change. Geoengineering technologies and techniques are designed to lower surface temperatures or deliberately alter the carbon cycle on a global scale; all states and all peoples are likely to be affected. Image credit: andreykuzmin / 123RF Banque d'images
However, unlike emissions reductions and adaptation, which inherently require collective action in order to succeed, geoengineering technologies can potentially be deployed by a small number of states or even unilaterally by one powerful state acting in what it perceives to be the best interests of all states.”

“Without an appropriate forum to consider these options collectively, in the context of mitigation and adaptation more generally, the international community risks unleashing a twenty-first century version of the Legend of Phaethon.”

Scott proposes new measures for dealing with geoengineering within international environmental law under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

If the issues we face are global in nature (both literally and figuratively), then a global approach of this kind offers a promising framework, both for positive action and transparent regulation.

More:

Michigan Journal of International Law articleInternational Law in the Anthropocene: Responding to the Geoengineering Challenge by Karen N. Scott