Reflections on COP-16 and the Outlook for Colleges and Universities

January 7, 2011

By Michael Jay Walsh, Ph.D. Candidate and Member of Cornell University’s COP-16 Delegation

(This article appears in the January, 2011 issue of The ACUPCC Implementer)

The Sixteenth Conference of the Parties (COP-16) could have been a eulogy for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The failure to obtain a long-term legally binding agreement at COP-15 in Copenhagen substantially lowered expectations that a deal to manage global greenhouse gas emissions could be worked out by the UNFCCC. However the 2010 Conference closed on a high note with consensus being achieved on several important agreements, in forestry, financing and technology transfer.


UNCF and Second Nature hosted a side event at COP-16 on the ACUPCC as a framework for advancing sustainability

At the onset of the conference, tensions were elevated as numerous countries expressed misgivings about the backroom process that lead to COP-15’s political, yet non-official, Copenhagen Accord. Trying to alleviate these concerns, the President of COP-16, Mexican Minster of Foreign Affairs Patricia Espinosa, continuously pledged transparency as agreements were drafted.

Such efforts to placate the convention attendees were drowned out on the conference’s opening day when Japan vociferously stated that it would not agree to an extension of the Kyoto Protocol, with Canada and Australia following suit. Whether or not to extend the first agreement to reduce emissions past the 2012 sunset has been a looming issue since the failure in Copenhagen to obtain a long-term, legally binding replacement for it.

The Protocol holds 37 developed “Annex 1” countries, including Japan and Canada, to emission reductions. With key players, including the United States, China, and many rapidly developing economies unbound by the Protocol, the emissions of the Kyoto Protocol’s Annex 1 countries are becoming a smaller fraction of global greenhouse gas output than when Kyoto was adopted. The protests were not unexpected, but even though its demise is likely, the question of extending Kyoto has been kicked down the road to COP-17.

With the question of long-term reductions deferred, the negotiations focused on the low hanging fruit. UNFCCC Secretary Christina Figueres consistently called for compromise from all parties to obtain the necessary consensus on the items facing the Convention. As the UNFCCC operates on a consensus decision-making model, such agreements are inherently difficult to obtain in body with nearly 200 votes. By the close of the Conference on December 10 the efforts to promote transparency and compromise were fruitful with the Convention adopting several substantial agreements.

For months preceding the conference, forest protection was branded as one of the big issues facing the COP. A Reduced Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) program was established to provide incentives for the protection of tropical forests in poor countries. This issue almost derailed consensus as Bolivia objected to market-based mechanisms in the REDD plan. In response, President Espinosa established a bold precedent for the Convention stating that “consensus does not mean unanimity.”

Another area of much anticipated progress was the defining of standard practices for measurement reporting and verification (MRV) of carbon emissions, reductions, and offsets. Such a mechanism establishes a procedure for adequate carbon accounting that would be necessary under any agreement that caps emissions.

For the first time, the UNFCCC took a step toward what that cap would be by adopting the recommendations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to hold global average temperature increase at 2 degrees Celsius. In line with this goal, the Cancun agreements codified a set of national emission reduction goals that were voluntarily embraced though the Copenhagen Accord last year.

The agreements also established a Green Climate Fund to be managed on an interim basis by the World Bank. The fund, set to start in 2020, will distribute $100 billion annually from developed countries to assist developing countries with mitigation and adaptation.

Groundwork was also laid for the transfer of mitigation and adaptation technologies to developing countries. The Agreements set a framework for a Climate Technology Center and Network that will facilitate the deployment of renewable energy sources and other technologies.

Looking ahead

Even with these advancements, the goal to adopt a long term, legally binding emissions reduction agreement still remains unfinished. The conference succeeded because it took on the problems that it could easily solve in the current political and economic environment. However, with the Kyoto Protocol expiring in 2012 there will be more pressure at COP17 Durban, South Africa to find a replacement.

The UNFCCC did demonstrate its ability to create agreements around the minor issues in Cancun. Some observers, however, question if it is the most effective mechanism to craft legally binding agreements, suggesting that bilateral talks or economic and trade forums may be more effective in crafting national mitigation targets.

The American challenge also remains. Republican gains in the 2010 midterm elections have reduced the already slim possibility of establishing a cap and trade mechanism to attain the voluntary targets the United States adopted as part of the Copenhagen Accord and codified in Cancun. Deputy Special Envoy for Climate Change Jonathan Pershing was vague on specifics when asked how the United States could meet its commitment without legislation, only citing the controversial tapping of shale gas as a route to American compliance.

Challenges and Opportunities for Colleges and Universities

The lack of a federal climate change policy placing a price on carbon emissions is of special concern to Colleges and Universities engaged in post-recession strategic planning. An uncertain future cost of carbon emissions places undue strain on schools that are in the beginning stages of implementing their climate action plans.

In its Climate Action Plan, Cornell University estimated that a cap and trade system would be implemented in 2015. The lack of a clear direction federally and internationally makes it difficult to financially plan carbon mitigation efforts that do not reduce fuel costs. In the absence of international or federal guidelines, colleges and universities are best suited to focus their abatement actions in areas that have relatively quick payback periods like energy efficiency. Cornell recently approved a $46 million 5-year energy efficiency plan aimed at reducing energy costs and carbon emissions.

Leaving physical plant concerns aside, there is substantial opportunity for more involvement of higher educational institutions in the UNFCCC process. The unique role of colleges and universities as teaching, research and public engagement facilities makes them key players in the drafting of an international agreement.

Higher Education is responsible for training the technicians, entrepreneurs and leaders of tomorrow. Colleges and Universities need to be engaged with the process to develop adequate courses of study that best gives its students the technical and personal skills needed to work in a carbon constrained world. Cornell’s College of Industrial and Labor Relations has been working with various Trade Union Non-governmental Organizations (TUNGOs) on issues related to establishing a “just transition” for workers to a carbon constrained economy. Such a transition will require efforts by schools, especially community colleges to expand access and their offerings.

On the research front, individual academics have been very active in the COP process, yet research needs to be combined with more applied work done by businesses and other NGOs. At a panel sponsored by the European Union on technology transfer, innovation and intellectual property, a panelist cited the significance of colleges and universities in global research and development. However, there remain substantial challenges to deploying technology developed in academic centers compared to the private sector. Additionally higher education stands to benefit from the amount of money being allocated to mitigation and adaptation funds though research and outreach grants.

Globally many colleges and universities have substantial outreach and public engagement roles. Cornell’s position as the land grant university of New York state has historically placed it as the partner of agriculture, an industry that has faces significant challenges and opportunities with climate change and carbon regulation. Universities with cooperative extension or similar units are in a strong position to assist their charges with implementing best practices for mitigation and adapting to the impacts of climate change. This is especially true for schools that have a historic tie to industries that will be impacted by a global climate change agreement, like agriculture and forestry.

Finally, colleges and universities can be living learning laboratories where new technology is designed, developed and disseminated.  Schools that take steps to mitigate their carbon footprint by utilizing their academic strength in physical plant improvements help to fulfill their research education and outreach efforts. Such action tends to also yield positive economic returns for universities. Colleges like Cornell and others who have signed on to the American College & Universities President’s Climate Commitment demonstrate leadership and engagement on a substantial global challenge. Such efforts make these schools natural partners with Municipalities and Local Governments in the UNFCCC process to develop mitigation strategies that work and are economically prudent.

The presence of institutions of higher education at the conference is strong, but with many competing advocacy groups vying for the attention of negotiators, there is room for more concerted engagement. Currently numerous research and educational institutions identify as Research and Independent Non-Governmental Organizations (RINGOs). This recognized Civil Society non-governmental coalition is highly decentralized compared its business, trade union, and municipal oriented counterparts.

In preparing for COP-17, Colleges and Universities, with linking organizations like the ACUPCC, need to develop a comprehensive strategy to further promote their interests in the UNFCCC process. The goal of doing so should not be to naval-gaze or focusing solely on colleges and universities’ efforts, but to establish higher education as partners in the process. Such action will help universities increase their profile at home and abroad, increase research opportunities and establish education as an integral part of this global effort.

Michael Jay Walsh is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of Biological & Environmental Engineering at Cornell University. He has served as a member of Cornell University’s Presidents Climate Commitment Implementation Committee and as a student-elected member of the Cornell’s Board of Trustees. He was a member of Cornell’s delegation at COP-16.

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