Tag Archives: climate change

Global Problem, Global Solution… Right?

One would think that if you have a global problem that there is always (and perhaps only) a global solution. But that way of looking at climate change has become naive and does not allow you to see the entire picture. So often we see states, provinces, and other subnational entities leading the charge with innovative climate policy and initiatives while the national governments sit back arguing over whether or not climate change is really even a problem. Despite the annual COPs, the UNFCCC stage for negotiations, and bilateral discussions (such as the one between US and China), national and international policies are very behind what these subnational actors have been doing for years.

I am not saying that climate change can be solved by a few states in America by creating an Emissions Trading Scheme. If only a few subnational actors make moves to combat climate change, the emissions reductions will never be large enough to solve our problem. But, what I am saying is that someone has to begin to make moves or we won’t ever see a solution. And, historically, it hasn’t been the national governments (or international agreements) that have taken the first steps towards a solution to climate change – it has been the subnational actors. To name just a few:

  • British Columbia has implemented a carbon tax in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and are a part of the Pacific Coast Collaborative Agreement with four other subnational parties.
  • California has consistently established itself as a leader in environmental protection, as it has much to lose from the effects of climate change. California has many standards and programs in place, but the most notable is likely the cap-and-trade program established by Assembly Bill 32, and recent linkage with Quebec. These linked programs just successfully held their first joint auction preceding COP20.
  • China has begun implementing pilot cap-and-trade programs in certain provinces, and if successful, might lead to a national cap-and-trade program in 2016.

As I was listening to the subnational leaders speak at the COP this week, I began to wonder why we even try so hard to get a global agreement if the implementation and practical solutions come from the local actors instead of national political leaders. But then, I realized: You can’t solve climate change alone and you can’t solve climate change in an annual conference. What needs to happen, instead of ignoring either the international or local roles in the fight against climate change, is a union between all of these subnational groups to combine their efforts on an international level to reach the same goal; essentially, working in tandem.

The international and subnational approaches to climate change should not conflict with each other but they also play different roles. The relationship between these methods should be more of a push-pull relationship and where one lacks the other leads. Subnational actors have led the charge with innovative policy solutions to climate change but they cannot fight the problem alone. For those countries who cannot be influenced by subnational groups, we also have the international community influencing how we deal with climate change. If these two approaches were to work in tandem, global climate change would be that much easier to protect ourselves against. The international agreement, then, becomes more than just an agreement between nations. An international agreement is the platform for which national and local actors can build upon to implement real effective solutions that are right for their own people.

So, you see? We need a global agreement. This is a global problem, which requires a global effort and a universal solution. Okay, let’s say we do get a solid agreement out of COP21 in Paris. This would be fantastic. But, we need to continue to look beyond the agreement: we need each and every local, indigenous, state, subnational, and national party to act or we will not be able to stand a chance against climate change. That said, I think my last post requires a title change. How about: Global Problem, Global Solution, Local Action.


Which Way Does Your Moral Compass Point? (Part II)

Sustainable Development: Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. How do we achieve this? How do we harmonize the goals of economy, society, and environment? Some would say it is impossible; that environmental protection leads to economic destruction. Others argue that economic prosperity leads to environmental catastrophe. But, what if there is a world where we can have both? Experts here at the COP say that we can have our cake and eat it too: it is possible to tackle climate change while continuing to foster economic growth. Furthermore, we cannot continue to experience economic growth without tackling climate change.

So, how does this work in practice? Several approaches have been discussed here at the COP. Experts at a side event this week discussed 3 major areas we all need to address: 1) Decarbonization of the energy system 2) Management of lands and resources and 3) Reduce unstructured urbanization and sprawl. The mechanisms proposed to tackle these issues are:

  • Resource Efficiency – We need to properly price our resources so that they don’t get used at a pace faster than they can be replenished (Yes, this includes a price on carbon). This is also known as capturing the social cost of a resource in its market value.
  • Investment in Infrastructure – The only way we are going to move away from our current energy system that is reliant on fossil fuels is if we invest in newer sources of energy and cleaner infrastructure so that we can begin deploying these systems at a large scale. This means electric vehicle charging stations, public transportation, greener city infrastructure, etc.
  • Innovation – It all seems to come down to innovation. Innovation improves the risk/reward relationship and allows for us to continue to develop economy and at the same time tackle problems like climate change. If we don’t innovate, we can’t move forward.

The overall view here at the COP is that we can still develop while mitigating and adapting to climate change. Will there be a transition period? Of course. We go through transition periods all the time, and generally (with the right intentions) what results is a better more efficient world. We have the technologies, instruments, and will-power to move forward. We just need to continue to push ahead with the ‘New Climate Economy’ Framework in mind and the contention between economy and environment will begin to dissipate. We can expect to see a lot more of this type of discussion leading into Paris and further into the future.

So, I ask you again, which way does your moral compass point? If you are having a hard time choosing or are having a hard time seeing where environment, society, and economy differ at certain intersections, then I have good news for you! You don’t have to choose between these issues. In fact, you shouldn’t choose. Economy and environment are increasingly intertwined and should be addressed together. As we have heard multiple times at the COP: Better Growth, Better Climate.

Which Way Does Your Moral Compass Point? (Part I)

We know that climate change is a problem and we have a decent understanding of how the changes will affect us. What you may not know is that the World Bank lists 137 nations (65% of all countries in the world) as “developing countries.” Furthermore, according to the United Nations, 1.4 billion people worldwide do not have access to electricity. One of the major goals of the UNFCCC is to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, as they are one of the main drivers of climate change. However, bringing cheap and affordable electricity to those without may require heavy use of fossil fuels and, in general, higher GDP (economic growth) results in increased greenhouse gas emissions. What this means is that we have a great conundrum: Developing nations need to develop and climate change is exacerbated by development.

With these statements in mind, I pose a few questions: How do we weigh the costs and benefits of solving each of these problems? Can we solve these problems simultaneously, and if so, how? Do we have to choose which problem is more important?

As with any conflict, this great conundrum comes with several different solutions (extremes and compromises) born from opposing arguments and viewpoints. In no way can I explain all of these in one post, but I can provide a brief overview of the major themes and explain what the UNFCCC is doing to address these challenges.

Common arguments for the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (and inherently fossil fuels) include: resource depletion, pollution, climate change, and preservation for future generations. These arguments all have a long-term view that focus both on human and environmental well-being. We currently know that fossil fuels can provide affordable and reliable energy, but at a major cost in the long term because fossil fuels are a major instigator of human-induced climate change.

As you would expect, there are moral arguments for inducing economic development and providing electricity to developing countries without concern for environmental impacts. These arguments are centralized around the short-term human condition. For example: Many argue that the use of fossil fuels provides reliable energy, which actually protects us from climate.

But what about the small island nations that will be under water in the near future because of the sea level rise? What about the rapid spread of diseases, like malaria, due to the warming climate? Fossil fuels can help resolve many issues but climate change issues are not among those. It is not human nature to live without some impact on the earth, however, these impacts must be minimized so that we don’t have to sacrifice long term benefits for the short term.

So, how does the UNFCCC address the role of developing nations in the midst of climate change? Simple: Sustainable Development. Except, it isn’t that simple. ‘Sustainable development’, in the broadest sense means, “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” As you can see, this language is not conducive to any real application in a climate change agreement.

For the sake of brevity, I will pause here and let you meditate on where your moral compass points in this conundrum. Next week, I will continue to expand this idea of sustainable development and what it means for developing nations and future COPs in “Which Way Does Your Moral Compass Point? (Part II)”.


Moral Compass png
‘Moral Compass’ Image Source: http://www.premcenter.org/sustainability



Clear as Mud: Ambiguity in the Midst of Climate Change

Climate change is becoming one of the biggest challenges of our generation: average global temperature is rising, ice sheets are melting, sea level is rising, and currently, there is no real solution in place to reduce greenhouse gas emissions enough to make a difference. But, what is climate change, really? And what results are we actually after with an international climate agreement? In order to answer these questions, we need to return to the basics and examine the definition of climate change.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines climate change as, “any significant change in the measures of climate lasting for an extended period of time.” The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) defines climate change as, “a change of climate which is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods.” Notice a difference in the language?

Now, imagine a world where three adjacent cities are trying to reduce vehicle accidents and all three cities use the same stop sign design at intersections. However, each city associates a different rule with the stop sign. In City A, the stop sign means that cars should immediately stop. In City B, the stop sign means that cars should slow down at the intersection. In City C, the stop sign means that cars only need to stop when the drivers have the time to wait. To further complicate the issue, City A decides that the enforcement and policing of its intersections is becoming too expensive, and is revising its stop sign rule.

Can you imagine what kind of chaos would ensue if this scenario was real? It would almost be impossible to drive through all three cities without being extremely confused about what a stop sign actually means and what you, as a driver, are supposed to do. This scenario also poses unnecessary and otherwise avoidable dangers to the drivers. The different stop sign regulations across cities hinder any sort of joint agreement or goal to decrease accidents at intersections. Even though the individualized rules are favored by each city, the resulting barriers to cross-city cooperation and effective policy creation are so great that a universal rule for stop signs would be a much better strategy to reduce accidents.

The same is true when trying to find solutions to the complex issue of climate change. The UNFCCC discusses many facets of climate change that are constantly changed and debated (and even undefined) among member states. Just to name a few: ‘Adaptation’, ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’, ‘developing nations’, and ‘climate justice’. The ambiguity relating to climate change poses major challenges when trying to develop an international agreement. For one, it is difficult to come to a consensus on a solution to a problem that isn’t clearly defined. Secondly, the language currently used in the UNFCCC is vulnerable to manipulation for the benefit of some countries over others. This means that the language is subject to corruption when used out of context, which creates loopholes in the agreements. Thirdly, the more time spent on solidifying and changing the language in the UNFCCC is less time spent on forging an actual agreement with real solutions to climate change.

I come from an economics background, so in general, I am a number-oriented person. But when I began to write this post, the first thing that came to mind was language and how it affects decision-making. My hope is that we realize how important language is in the creation of a successful international climate agreement. Numbers and targets carry little weight if the associated language is so ambiguous that it can be manipulated and tailored to specific parties and interests. This year, in Lima, we need to make hard decisions, reinforce language, and solidify definitions to be temporally, geographically, and politically robust so that we can develop a successful agreement in Paris, 2015.