Bali Conference, Day 11: Does haste make waste?

The tension between massive, immediate action and effective action...

Al Gore If I were to rank the events of my day in order of pragmatism, from greatest to least, I’d say: the biofuels roundtable, Mayor Bloomberg’s speech, a high-level technology transfer discussion, and finally Al Gore’s speech. However, ranked from most to least inspirational, you could pretty well reverse that order. To deal with climate change, I’d say both inspiration and pragmatism are required in vast quantities. But I struggle with the fact that sometimes the two seem to be in conflict.

The biofuels roundtable today provides a good example. The recent enthusiasm for biofuels on the part of the United States and Europe is driven largely by the need to lower the carbon-intensity of the transportation sector. However, now that the U.S. is knee-deep in corn ethanol, we’re asking what good that’s done us and whether we’ll truly be better off when we’re neck-deep. Similarly, as palm oil plantations change the face of Malaysian and Indonesian landscapes, we’re recognizing that biofuels produced from deforested lands offer no mitigation benefits (and could, in fact, make climate change worse) while simultaneously discovering that local communities sometimes suffer for the low-carbon fuels.

Each ill-conceived climate mitigation strategy locks in some investment and infrastructure that may obstruct subsequent effective action. To move forward with the rapid mitigation strategies that are needed, we cannot be paralyzed into inaction. But good action is at least as important as fast action.

I reckon that at least 80 percent of the human energy at this conference is directed at determining the appropriate way to act. Biofuels are one example, carbon markets are another. The private sector has leapt into carbon markets, but now many groups are questioning the climate value of their investments, not to mention the social impacts. Reducing emissions from deforestation, nuclear energy, carbon capture and storage, etc.… In all these areas, well-informed and well-intentioned people often have greatly differing views as to what is the appropriate course of action.

Mayor Bloomberg It’s all very well and good to say we must act now, but it strikes me that how to act is really the question of the hour. To be fair to Mr. Gore, in the official portion of this event the basic commitment to action is really all that is sought. And getting this macro-policy environment right will aid all subsequent measures. But as the international climate pact is sorted out over the next two years, careful weighing and testing of mitigation options will prevent us from running off in an uncoordinated and ultimately wasteful melee when the call to ACT NOW is made. Fortunately, most attendees of this conference are already committed to action and are struggling to make sure the actions we choose will address climate change effectively without hurting the vulnerable populations that this global effort is most imminently required to aid.

While Mr. Gore is unfortunately saddled with the task of dragging the laggards along, his efforts can allow not only conference-goers, but also some policymakers, to run ahead and figure out what approaches will achieve the rapid and effective changes required. Thus, while it was far less well attended than Gore’s talk, I think Mayor Bloomberg’s discussion today of the actions that New York City is taking under PlaNYC was at least as useful in moving us nearer the end game of a stable and hospitable climate.

The final Bali Mandate should be agreed to tomorrow. In my next and final post, I’ll give you a rundown of the roadmap that gets the final sign-off.