Makani: The coolest thing I saw at COP21

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In the Climate Generations area, I had the chance to see a presentation by Makani, Google’s incredibly innovative wind power company. Makani was acquired by Google’s secretive ‘[x]’ R&D division in 2013, it generates wind energy using giant drone-kites, and it’s exactly as cool as it sounds.

These “energy kites” are unspooled from an ultra-strong ground tether, reaching massively higher altitudes — and thus dramatically higher wind speeds — than traditional wind turbines. When they reach these winds, the kites arc through the wind, capturing power with incredible efficiency. When the wind dies down, the kites hover down to the ground and the tether is reeled in. With their small footprint and greater ability to capture sufficiently-fast winds, Makani’s energy kites are also suitable for locations that currently find wind power difficult to implement — including, potentially, offshore applications.

Makani’s technology has potentially game-changing implications for the wind power industry. I strongly encourage everyone to watch the absolutely fascinating demonstration video of a Makani energy kite in action on YouTube.

The UN carbon market is dead. Long live the UN carbon market!

Given its struggles with ensuring and verifying real emission reductions, the Clean Development Mechanism — a mechanism allowing developed countries to partially meet their goals by financing projects in developing countries — had always been one of the most controversial aspects of the UN climate regime. There has an ongoing debate about whether the UNFCCC would double down on its existing mechanisms or scrap them in favor of a new approaches — or even multiple new approaches.

Over the final few days of the COP, the issue of carbon markets finally reared its ugly head in the negotiations — even if the COP does appear to have developed an allergy to the term itself. In the text, markets are nestled under the euphemistic term “cooperative approaches.”

As the negotiations went on, the issue grew increasingly contentious. The early November text contained four options for such “cooperative approaches” — two of which merely acknowledged their importance in a single sentence and one of which was to exclude the section entirely. By December 5th, bracketed (contested) text was inserted specifying the promotion of sustainable development in developing countries as the object of the mechanism. More of the CDM-esque language was removed, and a full second option — eschewing markets in favor of “non-market-based approaches and “technology transfer” — was also added. This option was pushed by certain anti-market parties — notably, Bolivia.

In the face of this threat, Brazil and the EU jointly announced a proposal for new text on carbon markets. This text, still leaving open the issue of whether developing countries would be the focus or not, explicitly supported the inclusion of “internationally transferred mitigation outcomes” and the establishment of a new mechanism in service of this goal — a clear (and very strong) call for carbon markets in the Paris agreement. This call was incorporated into the December 9 text, which included much of that language in a condensed form. In the last draft before the agreed copy of the agreement, carbon markets constituted the vast bulk of the bracketed text — one of the only major issues left unresolved.

And the final text is out, agreed to, and there’s a new mechanism — very, very new.

Parties shall, where engaging on a voluntary basis in cooperative approaches that involve the use of internationally transferred mitigation outcomes towards nationally determined contributions …

A mechanism to contribute to the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions and support sustainable development is hereby established under the authority and guidance of the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement for use by Parties on a voluntary basis.

Reading between the lines, this appears to be a mechanism that will allowing developing and developed countries to trade emissions reductions amongst themselves — in the manner of Joint Implementation — trading between developing countries under the current regime — but likely incorporating many of the methodologies of the CDM. The new mechanism will use a share of its proceeds to fight adaptation.

In all aspects, this seems a significant step forward — a step, perhaps, toward a global UN carbon market with a level playing field. The specific rules and bodies governing this mechanism will be established over the following years — we can only hope that it learns from the pitfalls of its predecessors.

Swag, Spectacle, & Shame at COP21

From the moment you enter, it’s hard to overlook the material excess of COP21. A series of immense, COP21-dedicated hangars — the interiors of each decorated in a style that can only be described as “IKEA does Epcot” — loom over a main thoroughfare. Inside, the countries’ pavilions occasionally border on the absurd; it is difficult, for instance, to make a case for the Indian pavilion’s massive, word-illustrating fountain, no matter how many pro-climate messages it spouts.

The immoderation on display becomes even harder to ignore when you pass the dozens — hundreds? — of more-or-less interchangeable NGO stations, each adorned with a small mountain range of documents and publications for passersby to take. Someone told me that COP21 was paper-free. That person was a liar, and “paper-free” is an inaccuracy so staggering it would make climate change deniers blush.

As an attendee, you become complicit in the materialism almost immediately: every badge-holder is greeted with an official COP21 gift bag. To their credit, this contains mostly useful objects — writing utensils, a water bottle, and so forth. But then the venue’s “reuseable” coffee cups — offered in a host of sleek, COP21-themed designs — begin to disappear. Some simply end up in recycling bins.

Most find their way into attendees’ newly-issued bags.

This is how it begins.

Despite my ostensible environmentalism, I find my eyes wandering in that most illicit of ways. One more poster couldn’t hurt, I tell myself. And I could always use another pen. After all, I’ve been working so very hard to save the planet. After a few days, my colleagues begin to put in orders with me: want a COP21 cup with a specific design? You got it. Need some stickers? A button? I’m your guy. Slowly but surely, my official COP21 bag begins to strain under the weight of environmental swag. “I used to be a sweater!” the text on the front of my bag happily proclaims. “Only God can forgive me now,” I tell the bag. As I lie down for my four hours of sleep, I ponder what I have become.

Any mail sent on-site is adorned with an exclusive COP21 stamp and postmark (a must-have for the true COP21 swag completionist). I soon realize that a single, tiny shop stationed in the middle of the thoroughfare holds a complete monopoly on postcard sales within the venue. Each day, I witness the Shop’s owner reclined in his chair, smugly surveying his kingdom. Everyone — party members, NGOs, and academics alike — makes their pilgrimage to the Shop. (By the end of the COP, only the dregs of the Parisian postcard design scene remain.) As I procure my own postcards, I realize that I am a mere pawn to this titan of COP21’s materialist underworld. My empire is but dust.

Eventually, the COP comes to a close. The Shop is dismantled, I board my plane with a shamefully overstuffed suitcase, and — most importantly, of course — the world emerges with an ambitious and far-reaching climate deal delivered by champions of restraint and sustainability. Still, musing on the culture of the thing, I find myself thinking back to one moment in particular — a high-level official, power-walking down the hall in intense conversation, turns quickly to me and gasps.

“Oh my god!” she says. “Where did you get that calendar?