Panel Discusses Implications and Potential Effects of the COP21 Climate Change Conference

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On January 20, 2016, Georgia Tech’s Center for International Strategy, Technology and Policy (CISTP) along with the Center for European and Transatlantic Studies (CETS) hosted a public panel to discuss the implications and potential effects of the COP21 climate change conference. The panel was moderated by Alasdair Young, professor in the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, and featured His Excellency Denis Barbet, consul general of France, professors Marilyn Brown and Emanuele Massetti from the Ivan Allen College School of Public Policy, Erik Johnson from the College's School of Economics, Jarrod Hayes from the Nunn School, and Kim Cobb from Georgia Tech’s School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences.

COP21 was a conference on climate change held by the United Nations in Paris from November 30 to December 12, 2015. During the conference, 195 participating countries agreed to a final universal pact, known as the Paris Agreement. The proposed agreement set a goal to limit the rise of global temperature below 2℃ for the next century.

Barbet opened the panel by describing the agreement as a cooperative commitment of transparency between all of the attending nations. Nations will have individual plans to reduce their carbon emissions which will be revised and reviewed every five years. He stressed that the goal should be to keep the rise in global temperature as low as possible, and not simply under 2℃.

Brown, whose deep expertise in climate and energy policy helped shape numerous reports for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, including one that led to the organization receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, discussed the policy implications related to reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 30 percent. Brown described the process for U.S. plans for energy efficiency, highlighting the state of Georgia and the potential of clean coal and natural gas technologies as fuels for producing energy. She discussed that the state of Georgia is currently one of over 20 states suing the Environmental Protection Agency in order to stall the enforcement of federal emissions regulations. Regardless of Georgia’s disagreement, initial state plans are due for review by September of 2016, and finalized plans should be complete by 2017 or 2018, with reduction goals needing to be met in 2022.

Cobb highlighted areas of hope and concern from the perspective of a climate scientist. Cobb began with the reality that as a collective, nations have lowered their expectations concerning climate summits due to frequent failures to achieve a consensus. However, she is concerned that the agreement may not go far enough. Climate scientists have confirmed that 2015 was the warmest year on record, and that the goal of keeping the global temperature from rising more than 2℃ may only limit the rise to 4℃. It is also problematic that the risks of a 2℃ increase are still unquantifiable and unknowable to climate scientists. Fortunately, she is optimistic about the “ratcheting mechanism,” which calls for a meeting every five years between the compliant parties to reaffirm and adjust their commitments. Cobb stated that her job has just begun as a climate scientist, and is optimistic that over the coming decades the international community will get a clearer picture of the risks, costs, and benefits of reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

Hayes discussed whether the agreement could be considered a success or a failure. Similar to Cobb, he is concerned that COP21 will not keep the global temperature from rising more than 2℃, as the agreement is not legally binding, the mechanism of compliance is non-adversarial and non-confrontational, and there is no punishment for shirking responsibilities. However, he does point out that climate change forces us to redefine our idea of success. The “ratchet mechanism” may not have true enforcement power, but by creating five year focal points for action, it generates momentum for leaders to honor their committments. The universal and transparent shared commitment rely on honor and embarrassment for non-action as enforcement devices.

Johnson asserted that an ideal solution is to increase investment in clean energy sources. If states truly believe that reducing emissions is a universal shared responsibility, then the agreement may lead to increased investment that gives certainty to new clean energy technologies. Johnson argues that these investments could positively impact economies, as well as provide validation for the agreement.

Massetti is optimistic because all of the signatory nations appear to be on the same page, with the compliant nations contributing their own plans and committing to what they believe they are capable of achieving. Conversely, Massetti believes that the enforcement mechanism (shaming for nations that fail to meet their goals) is problematic concerning allies and more powerful states, but this is an issue that will be dealt with in the future. Overall, he sees the agreement as the best possible outcome, and in the future we may begin to see more focused multilateral agreements.


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