Translating the color “green” post-UNFCCC-COP21

On Earth Day 2016 — April 22, 2016 – at the United Nations in New York city, the delegates of 196 Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will be convened to a ceremony for signature of the historic Paris Agreement on climate change. This agreement was negotiated and adopted last year, on Dec. 12, 2015, at Le Bourget, France, at the conclusion of the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties (COP21).

UNFCCC – COP21 (The 21st session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) brought together 19,385 national delegates, 8338 observers, 2825 media representatives and many more visitors to the conference center (88,798 between Dec. 1 and 11). Together, the visitors and representatives of 195 nations and 1 regional economic integration organization gathered with the shared goal of responding and offering solutions to the threats of global warming and the predictable consequences of climate change on a planetary level.

As a reminder, global warming is understood as a phenomenon resulting from the accumulation of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere, in particular carbon dioxide (CO2)[US EPA]. GHGs are a consequence of burning excessive amounts of fossil fuels, such as coal, gas and oil. As a result, fossil fuels are generically termed “dirty” sources of energy because of the emissions they produce. In turn, the term “dirty energy” contrasts with “clean sources of energy”, such as wind, sun and water, which do not burn to produce emissions that accumulate in the atmosphere creating a greenhouse effect. The threats subsumed in climate change resulting from the accumulation of GHGs, are best epitomized in Al Gore’s message: An Inconvenient Truth (Gore,2006).

At COP21, the major tenets of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change included the following:

1. Holding the increase in average global temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and pursuing efforts to limit this increase to 1.5°C, which would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change [Article2 (a)]

2. Recognition of the responsibility of industrialized nations in creating the problem of global warming and climate change on a planetary level in the provisions of Article 9, calling for the scaled up support of developed countries to developing nations beyond previous obligations. In particular, a collective climate funding goal was set in the amount of USD 100 billion per year as a floor prior to 2025. More provisions for tracking and reporting were also included to ensure transparency and accountability.

3. Review of targets for reducing GHG emissions set forth in the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) with provisions to ensure that targets may only be raised. The INDCs outline each of the parties’ mitigation and adaptation plans. (Articles 6 & 7).

Additionally, in the COP21 decisions outlining adoption of the Paris Agreement, non-party-(non-nation) stakeholders are explicitly invited, welcomed and included in the fight against global warming. This means that the role played by “organizations, civil society, the private sector, financial institutions, cities and other sub-national authorities” is explicitly recognized. In particular, it is further stipulated that the President of the Conference of the parties shall appoint one champion such non-party stakeholder to serve for 1 year, with terms overlapping, for each of the yearly sessions of the Conference of Parties. Thus COP21 intensifies the Lima-Paris Action Agenda (LPAA), created at COP20 in 2014, which strives to coordinate the action of non-party stakeholders who have traditionally played a vital role in advising, supporting and implementing measures for mitigating and adapting to climate change arising from global warming.

Now, what’s with the color “green” in connection to COPs, non-party stakeholders, the UNFCCC, global warming and climate change? And what’s the issue in translation?

Beyond the UN alphabet soup of abbreviations and acronyms…the term “green” is associated and often replaces the term “clean” as in “green energy” and thus technically arises in reference to those sources of energy (sun, water and wind) that do not produce the GHG effect. In reality, the term “green” is often co-opted. The color green then includes reference to alternative biomass-based sources of energy; that is, energy derived from organic matter, such as wood, certain fast growing plants, algae, organic compounds found in municipal waste and agricultural residues [ETC group].

Co-opted indeed, because while biomass based-fuel, or biofuel, offers an alternative to fossil fuels –biofuels are effectively sourced very differently from fossil fuels – it is also true that such biofuel still has to be burned to become energy — just like fossil fuel. And when biofuel burns, it can actually release more CO2 than fossil fuels, such as jet fuel, Diesel fuel and pipeline natural gas, thus creating more GHG [ETC group, p. 74]. This is primarily due to the fact that so much more biomass is needed to achieve the same fossil fuel generated energy output.

So, while biomass- based fuel is undeniably “green” as the color of the plants from which it is sourced, it appears hardly “clean”, as in “free of GHG emissions”, or even “carbon-neutral” as in producing net zero carbon dioxide emissions, after factoring in the plants grown and their capacity to absorb whatever carbon dioxide they output. That is, even if such plant-based fuel could be co-opted in as carbon neutral, in a last ditch compromise, biomass fuel would deplete forests which are able to sink and sequester carbon emissions, at a much faster rate than it would ever be possible to replace them, and would compete with the use of land for sustainable agricultural purposes (i.e.; used for feeding people and livestock). [ETC Group, p. 74]

Thus, the color green appears polysemic in the conversations that unite nations in their bid to take responsibility for global warming. The good news is that the new Paris Agreement on climate change has heard the voices of many different stakeholders (including non-state), and the varying shades of green that they uphold and advocate. The Agreement includes multiple references to sustainable development including non-market sustainable development and the promotion of “mitigation compatible with sustainable development” [Art. 6(4) a] as well as “action to conserve and enhance, as appropriate, sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gases as referred to in Article 4, paragraph 1(d), of the Convention, including forests” [Art. 5].

The other good news is that the opportunity to unite nations for a common purpose such as the fight against climate change, affords translators a new specialization– one where the color green and its many shades will take center stage — and where we might be thrown in to translate the full chromatic spectrum.

ETC Group (2011) Earth Grab: Geopiracy, the new biomassters, and capturing climate genes. Oxford, UK: Pambazuka Press
Gore, A. (2006) An inconvenient truth. Emmaus, PA: Rodale books.

UNFCC – Key figures of COP21 at Le Bourget
UNFCCC – Adoption of the Paris agreement
US –EPA Environmental Protection agency

Written by Francoise Hermann