Some Last Thoughts: Geneva to Paris

Over the summer I learned so much about international environmental governance and while the fall semester at the Nicholas School is in full swing, I wanted to take this opportunity to reflect on how my summer internship experience in Geneva traveled back to Duke with me.

The sun was shining during my last hiking trip in the Alps before heading back to Duke

This past Columbus day weekend marked one year since I attended a training in Washington DC as one of eight student delegates chosen to represent the American Chemical Society (ACS) at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Lima, Peru last December. It was this experience that really sparked my interest in international climate and energy policy.

Standing in front of the ACS headquarters in DC for training last year

Now one year later I am once again preparing to attend the same annual UN Conference, which is going to be held in Paris, France from 29 November to 13 December! Not only will I be able to apply the knowledge that I gained in the past year, but I will also be a part of the action as the structure of a new climate agreement unfolds in Paris.

This year I am attending the COP through the Duke UN Practicum course, a unique hands-on, discussion based class offered to both first and second-year students. (You can follow our journey to the COP here!)

As many of you are aware, this year’s UN Conference, better known as the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21), is kind of a big deal for governments, businesses, environmental organizations, and civil society hoping for tangible action on climate change.

At COP21 the UN is eyeing a new, universal emissions-cutting deal to meet an international goal of keeping global temperatures from rising no higher than two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Scientists determined that the world could avoid the worst consequences of climate change if temperature rise stays below this threshold…

“The consequences could affect the full range of human needs — health, food, water and national security.  At the same time, there are solutions.” – Ban ki Moon

UN headquarters in Geneva

Trade solutions

Every student in the class has the opportunity to work with a client, and I am thrilled that my client for the conference will be ICTSD! In addition to working with ICTSD at COP21, I’ve also continued my climate and energy reporting with the BioRes Publications team remotely as a part-time consultant. As Ban ki Moon said, there are many viable solutions to climate change, and one such solution is through the use of trade-related policies.

A large part of BioRes reporting focuses on evaluating how countries are using market-based approaches to curb greenhouse gas emissions. For example, over this summer I researched and analyzed the emissions trading schemes (ETS) in the EU, China, and South Korea. The idea behind an ETS is that companies with low costs to curb emissions will sell excess credits on the carbon market, while companies with high abatement cots will use the market to purchase additional allowances to cover excess emissions. Sound like a cost-effective market solution? Check out some interesting facts below…

Some fast facts…

  • The EU ETS is currently the largest in the world, but will be eclipsed in 2017 when China transforms its regional pilot schemes into a national market
  • China has 7 pilot schemes
  • South Korea’s ETS launched in January 2015

While effective in theory, I learned through my research that there are still many complications and hurdles that must be overcome until the market is operating as efficiently as possible. Even the EU’s scheme, which is the most mature of the bunch, was amended over the summer as the government created a Market Stability Reserve (MSR) to soak up and store excess carbon allowances in an attempt to boost and stabilize the carbon price.

In addition, the potential linking of these ETSs in the future intrigues me. One benefit of linking is that it would enlarge the carbon market pool, allowing for more efficient cost-effective abatement measures by companies. However, many experts agree that these schemes must be harmonious in some key areas before this is possible, including with the level of ambition, enforcement, kinds of offset credits, etc. I recently worked with ICTSD on an article that evaluates a potential linkage between South Korea and EU. Linking is not likely to occur until post-2020 as the EU waits for other markets to mature.

Many experts support the notion that an international climate agreement could establish some common procedures and rules for countries establishing ETSs, for example around offsets, which could quicken the linking process. However, the most recent UN negotiating text released last week does not make any direct reference to the use of market mechanisms for countries to meet their emissions reduction targets.

Despite this, recent trends, as discovered by this World Bank report, point towards the use of carbon pricing mechanisms in the future as an effective tool to combat climate change.

For example, the report found that the number of implemented or planned carbon pricing schemes has almost doubled since 2012 with some 40 nations and 23 cities, states, or regions using emissions trading schemes and carbon taxes. These schemes now cover some 12 percent of annual global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and are worth approximately US$50 billion.

My last lunch this summer at ICTSD with peers from all around the world

Countdown to Paris

There are less than two months before the Paris negotiations, and there are a lot of issues to work out! (No surprise there.) After reading through the latest negotiating text, I believe that bullet point 1 under Article 3, which is for mitigation, is one of the most critical. As of now it reads…

Parties aim to reach by [X date] [a peaking of global greenhouse gas emissions][zero net greenhouse gas emissions][a[n] X per cent reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions][global low-carbon transformation][global low-emission transformation][carbon neutrality][climate neutrality].

The brackets describe all of the various options that the 196 parties to the Convention have requested, and they each have very different interpretations and levels of ambition. In my opinion the first two are the most ambitious and “climate neutrality” is the weakest phrase.

Now since ALL parties must approve the final text, this means that ambitiousness is oftentimes watered down in order to get everyone to agree.

This phrase on mitigation will dictate the pace of our global transition to clean energy and I hope that a long-term decarbonization goal will be set. I would like 2050 but based on the outcome of the G7 meeting in June it will most likely be 2100 (if decided on at all).

Paris is not going to put us under the two-degree threshold of warming, but it can and should launch the world in the right direction.

 Geneva Program

Another weekend adventure to Interlaken, Switzerland

I’ve been asked multiple times since I’ve returned back to school, “Was your participation in the Geneva Program worth the high cost of living in Switzerland?” From my personal experience, it was. I’m confident that my participation in this program will be beneficial for my future career.

I had an incredible summer where I learned more about the issues I’m interested in, networked with professionals from the UN, WTO, and international NGOs, and met a fantastic group of people. My work from the summer with ICTSD transformed into more than an internship and through the contacts I made during the Geneva Program’s courseweek I was able to contribute to a report on global biofuels with the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

In addition, as a part of the Geneva Program I felt as if I was a part of a community, where each and every student was passionate about finding solutions to some of the world’s most pressing environmental, health, and human rights problems.

Dinner in one of Geneva’s lovely parks with Fellows from the program

The application is open for Summer 2016 and if you are interested in applying for the same track that I participated in (Energy, Environment, Economics) then don’t forget to also apply for the funding being offered from the Energy Initiative! The funding from the Energy Initiative made my participation in the program possible. The Nicholas School is also offering funding for one student this year for the first time.

I hope you enjoyed reading about my experiences this summer!