Part 2: Front Row to COP21

In this three-part series, Carol Collier, a leading authority on watershed management and policy, shares her observations, recommendations, and opinions after participating in the recent climate change conference in Paris. Check back Jan. 1 for Part 3. For Part 1, click here.

Part 2

By Carol R. Collier

Academy Senior Advisor for Watershed Management and Policy, Director of the Environmental Studies and Sustainability Program

As I reflect on my week at the climate change negotiations in Paris (COP21) earlier this month, here are some of the major issues discussed, sprinkled with my opinions. I’d really like to hear your thoughts on these.

Voluntary versus Commitment with Teeth

The Kyoto Protocol was a top-down treaty with commitments and time frame. Some countries, including the U.S., did not sign because of the firm commitments. To date, we are not meeting the requirements of the protocol.

This time they are trying a more bottom-up approach with each country preparing their individual commitments for change, known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). Some commitments are stronger than others. What is best?

James Hansen, a former lead scientist at NASA and one of the first to raise awareness about climate change, and others feel that we will not be successful unless there is a global tax on carbon or at least a global carbon cap. I understand where they are coming from, but I can’t realistically see the potential to get to such a top-down, detailed strategy at this time.

I learned a lot about negotiations while at the Delaware River Basin Commission, where we worked on developing agreements among four states and the federal government, some of the actions requiring unanimous agreement. Knowing how difficult that was, I can’t imagine getting 195 countries to agree on a treaty-like binding agreement.

So while I definitely see the need for an agreement with “teeth” and accountability, the time is not right. The best hope is for a strong agreement that doesn’t drop down to the lowest common denominator. Peer pressure also will help strengthen the strategies of the individual countries. If progress is made through some of the stronger INDCs, we may then see hope for something broader.

There is a requirement to monitor and report emissions. Even though there are no penalties described, the hope is that peer pressure will be a strong force. Remember how industrial emissions were reduced when they had to report their level of emissions for a host of pollutants through the Environmental Protection Agency’s toxics release inventory requirements?

The lack of an agreement with firm, quantified emission reductions is partly due to the U.S. situation. As The New York Times reported: “That hybrid legal structure was explicitly designed in response to the political reality in the United States. A deal that would have assigned legal requirements for countries to cut emissions at specific levels would need to go before the United States Senate for ratification. That language would have been dead on arrival…”

The Eiffel Tower decked out for the climate conference. Photo by Carol Collier
The Eiffel Tower decked out for the climate conference. Photo by Carol Collier

Follow the Money

Many of the discussions at the conference were about the need to support countries that often were not causing the climate change problems, but were taking the brunt of the impacts. These are mostly in the Southern Hemisphere, some African countries and small island nations as examples.

A big part of the negotiations was a commitment from the developed nations to provide $100 billion by 2020 to support these developing nations—money mainly needing to flow from the North to the South.

There are at least two problems. These promises have been made in the past and not fulfilled. Will this happen again?

Also there are claims that the largest emitters are still supporting fossil fuel development. Climate Action Network has reported that the ratio of fossil fuel subsidies to Green Climate Fund pledges from eight key countries is 40:1. These countries, including Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the U.K., and the U.S. provide $80 billion a year in fossil fuel production support and have only pledged a combined total of $2 billion a year to the Green Climate Fund.

If there are going be serious reductions in greenhouse gases, we need to change our economic focus toward the new green, renewable alternatives.

Global Temperature Target and Equity

The final agreement aims to keep the global temperature rise below a 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) increase above pre-industrial levels. We already have exceeded this benchmark by 1 degree C.

The agreement also recognizes the need to target a 1.5 degrees C maximum to protect the most vulnerable nations. Most of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) impact analyses have been using a 2 degrees C increase.

There are a number of problems. The IPCC has been asked to weigh in on the issue, but as a scientific body it can assess the relative impact between the 2 degrees and 1.5 degrees target, but the final decision is a political one.

Also, many say that given the current commitments and the amount of new fossil fuel generation facilities currently financed and in the pipeline, we will likely see a 2.7 degrees C increase, even with the Paris negotiations.

It also is a matter of equity. It is the most vulnerable who are most susceptible: Alaskan natives, small island nations, some African nations. They are dependent on the larger emitting nations to make a difference.

There were many discussions swirling around human rights. The phrase “loss and damage” was used, but does it equate to “liability and compensation?” There will be costly impacts of climate change in the next decades that cannot be prevented through mitigation and adaptation. Think: Super Storm Sandy, the unusual hurricanes in the Pacific, and the recent storms in India.

How will the world cover these costs, especially in developing nations? There is much concern that human rights of developing and more vulnerable countries are not adequately being addressed.

Session on river basin management. Photo by Carol Collier
Session on river basin management. Photo by Carol Collier

Sub-National Actions

This is the term used for the actions being taken by states, cities, non-governmental organizations, and the private sector. It was recognized by many, including former Vice President Al Gore, that this is where the action is. More than 7,000 cities were recognized for their proactivity, as well as states, businesses, and “civil society.”

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is now the U.N. Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Cities and Climate Change. He attended the conference and actively led the discussions on cities’ roles in mitigation and adaptation. Many meetings focused on these non-national actions, and there seemed to be a better understanding that these more localized actions are critical and need to be supported.

You never know who you'll run into at a climate conference. Collier and Al Gore.
You never know who you’ll run into at a climate conference. Collier and Al Gore.

Holistic Approaches and Environmental Integrity

How often have we gotten into environmental trouble when we don’t consider all aspects of a proposed project? It is so easy to think about a potential project that might help reduce greenhouse gasses, but may exacerbate other problems.

We need to make sure that biodiversity, ecosystem health, and social justice are considered in actions taken to mitigate climate change. There seem to be two silos when addressing climate change: mitigation (reducing greenhouse gasses) and adaptation (building resiliency and protecting systems from harm do to extreme weather and changing patterns). We should be taking a more holistic systems approach as we build our strategies.

Need for Adaptation and Use of Green Infrastructure (Natural Capital)

Most of the negotiation was about “mitigating” the problem by reducing greenhouse gasses, switching from fossil fuel base to renewables, less emitting transportation options, etc. But we also need to consider how we must “adapt” to the already changing world by planning for more intense storms, extended droughts, changing migration patterns, and other factors.

I was told that the INDCs of individual countries do include adaptation measures, especially the plans of the developing nations, and are focused on mitigation.

I would suggest that the developed nations also need to put resources toward improving resiliency and reducing risk. There could and should be a really exciting sea-change in the way we think of using the assets of our natural systems and in the design of buildings, communities, cities, and transportation systems.

In urban and suburban areas, we can use more green than grey solutions for storm water management, but we should also think about the financial goldmine we have in existing natural areas. Forests and wetlands especially provide for adaptation (risk reduction, reducing food peaks, improving water quality), as well as mitigating greenhouse gasses through carbon sequestration.

It was also recognized how detrimental the loss of forests due to clear cutting and burning is to the greenhouse gas equation.

Source: World Resources Institute, Bloomberg New Energy Finance
Source: World Resources Institute, Bloomberg New Energy Finance


Pre-2020 Actions

The agreement will not take effect until 2020 and is still contingent on at least 55 countries, accounting for 55 percent of global emissions, having ratified it. What about the next four years?

All efforts should be ramping up now. We need to push to have more attention given to mitigation and adaptation solutions in the agendas of the upcoming annual climate change conferences.

I am especially concerned because the vulnerability of water resources is given very little coverage. It is the water resources of countries that can be greatly affected and have some of the most damaging impacts, such as droughts, floods, sea level rise, reduced water quality, loss of fisheries.

Changing the Paradigm

The words “climate change” drive people to polar positions. But the science is now unequivocal. The world’s climate is changing at a quickening pace due to anthropogenic and other causes.

We do have a very significant problem facing the world, and if we don’t do something now, many lives will be lost and our natural world subject to irreversible harm. BUT, hopefully we have awoken in time!

We need to think of these times as an incredible opportunity. There are investment opportunities and profit to be made. Remember when we turned our back on polluted rivers and old rusting industrial sites? Now river-side reclaimed lands and brownfield sites are the focus of public and private investment.

We formerly sited large transportation corridors along rivers, since no one else wanted to be there (Interstate 95 in Philadelphia). Now we are relocating or covering those highways so we can gain access to those valuable lands.

The same is true in how we address the impacts of climate change. The market for renewable energy projects, energy-efficient buildings, changing modes of transportation, more livable and energy-efficient communities should increase throughout the world.

There will be a need for planners, environmental scientists, economists, architects, and engineers knowledgeable in these new approaches. As Bill Gates notes, innovative technology will drive change. Instead of thinking in terms of doom and gloom, let’s figure out how to build a new industry focused on improving our lifestyle while protecting the natural systems on which we depend.”

Read Part 3 of Carol’s experience here.

One comment

  1. Thanks for your efforts on providing a report back to the states. I especially welcomed your comments on “Holistic Approaches” and “Natural Capital”. It looks like your trip trumped ANS visit to a few projects :). I look forward to hearing more from you and working together in 2016.

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