American University School of Public Affairs Presents: The #COP21 Policy Explainer

Between November 30 and December 11, 2015 policymakers from around the world will be in Paris for the 21st Conference of Parties — or the annual meeting of all countries that want to combat the effects of climate change. #COP21 is considered a crucial moment, as scientists and climate change experts predict that the policies from this conference could limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius, a threshold necessary to avoid the most dire climate forecasts.

SPA Professor Todd Eisenstadt, and Director of SPA’s Center for Environmental Policy Dan Fiorino sat down for the first ever SPA Policy Explainer to share their thoughts and expectations on #COP21.

Todd Eisenstadt and Dan Fiorino sit down for “The SPA Policy Explainer” to discuss #COP21.

What’s happening at COP21?

Todd Eisenstadt: The meeting in Paris is slated to try to finally construct a successor international agreement to the Kyoto protocol which was the agreement which governed nations voluntary reductions in their carbon dioxide emissions, some almost 20 years ago. The Kyoto protocol expired, but no successor agreement has been negotiated because the world’s governments have met under the auspices of the United Nations several times and been unable to reach concrete agreements.

Why the delay?

Eisenstadt: Part of the problem is that the developed countries like the United States and the European Union which has been leading in this area, want to cut emissions and especially coal power emissions, which are the worst and that they pollute much worse than even standard fossil fuels like oil. Countries which are presently developing like China and India argue that the US went through its pollution phase, therefore they have the right to do that too because that will give them the economic growth and the industrial base that they will need in the future. Those are good points. On the other hand we all are in this together, it is a global problem and we’re all going to suffer the consequences.

How will this summit be different?

Dan Fiorino: I think that the climate change summit this year is especially important, because the US is bringing something concrete to the table. I think the US leadership is absolutely critical and with the president has set the stringent new targets for corporate average field economy, which is field efficiency and vehicles and particularly now the US EPA just announced the final version of its clean power plant which calls for pretty substantial reductions and emissions from fossil fuel electrical generating plants by 2030. In addition, the US and China about a year ago today reached an agreement on cuts and emissions. I think that will provide a lot of push toward reaching more concrete agreements.

Will an agreement be difficult?

Eisenstadt: I teach a class where we did a simulation of the negotiations and they were unable to reach many agreements at all after ten days of trying. The diplomats are going to have a much more difficult time even than the class did. I would say that the optimism that people are finding is that if you consider the top six emitting countries in carbon dioxide — which is what creates climate change — then if the top six emitters are able to come to an agreement, that would cover about 60% of the world’s emissions.

What outcome do you predict?

Eisenstadt: So the US and China have an agreement — it’s not adequate and it is not either going to get us to the 2 degrees C lower limit of climate change, but it is a very good start and if we could get India and Russia and Japan and Germany also at the table to cut an agreement, sort of unilateral agreement among six countries rather than the UN agreement which would necessarily involve a 180 or 200 countries we may be able to achieve real progress.

What is AU School of Public Affairs contributing to the conversation?

Fiorino: With our work in American University we’re trying to identify the sweet spots, the potential for positive outcomes and how you design energy environmental and economic policy. It’s not necessarily a trade off, despite what the critics say that you can really get some economic health and other kinds of benefits from clean energy.

We know, for example that a dollar invested in renewable energy generates more jobs and a dollar invested in fossil fuel energy — we know that there’s tremendous export opportunities in the renewable energy sector and successful negotiations in Paris will just increase the interest around the world for the new energy technologies. So I think that by trying to find those sweet spots between economic and environmental and energy goals I think that SPA is trying to make a contribution to help people look at these kinds of issues.

Eisenstadt: I and a couple of colleagues here including, Dan Fiorino, the director of the Center for Environmental Policy have been studying what causes strong environmental policies among nations of the world versus what causes weak environmental policies in general including climate change. What we have found is that vulnerability to climate change and to severe weather changes affects strongly a nation’s environmental policy and another factor, which importantly affects national environmental policies is whether or not there is a substantial fossil fuel production industry in that country.

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