Humphrey Student Leads UMN Delegation to UN Climate Change Conference in Poland
December 5, 2018—The University of Minnesota has a delegation of 12 graduate and professional students attending the United Nations climate change conference, also called COP24, which is underway in Katowice, Poland. The Humphrey School's Jacob Herbers, a graduate researcher in the Master of Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy (MS-STEP) program, leads UMN's delegation, and is joined by eight other Humphrey School students. The students will be blogging about their experiences at the conference.
Nearly 30,000 people from all over the world are gathering in Poland to continue talks about how individual countries will limit climate change emissions as outlined in the 2015 Paris Agreement.
Herbers attended COP23 in Bonn, Germany, last year, and the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco this past September. Here is his account of the events at the San Francisco summit:
I felt very lucky and privileged to have been selected as a delegate to the 2018 Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, along with fellow UMN student Cora Sutherland. The event was mainly focused on new environmental commitments from subnational public and private entities, and issuing a corresponding call to action directed at national governments.
Delegates and speakers from around the world were present, although a major emphasis was on the “We Are Still In” movement in the US. This showed that plenty of American citizens and organizations are still committed to climate leadership even after our withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement.
The summit consisted of many distinguished speakers, panelists, musical performances, and side events. Highlights from the main plenary sessions included a talk from scientist Jane Goodall on her personal experiences witnessing the effects of climate change and pollution on tropical ecosystems, and her special musical guest Dave Matthews.
We were fortunate to be present for a very inspiring speech by actor Harrison Ford on the importance of science-based policy and protecting our forests (many trees outside the conference center featured the phrase “the forgotten solution”).
I attended several more focused breakout sessions during the 3-day event. Several panels focused on reducing emissions from the ground transportation sector, and there was a spirited debate as to whether or not the federal fuel efficiency standards’ bifurcation for trucks vs. smaller vehicles encourages or discourages automakers from manufacturing and selling more efficient vehicles.
There was also a distinct effort in multiple sessions to note the importance of reducing emissions of non-CO2 pollutants, such as methane, fluorinated gases, and black carbon. The final session I attended brought together diverse panelists to discuss how climate change has destabilized many areas of the world, resulting in more wars, famine, and refugees, which has implications for both global security and humanitarian issues.
Many organizations represented at the summit took the opportunity to announce new pledges to reduce their emissions or increase their percentage of renewable energy used. Some corporations stepped up with pledges, and rightfully received good publicity for them to set an example for other companies to follow. It's important to note, however, that most of those pledges were not legally binding, and will require strong ethical leadership to fulfill them.
In a similar vein, many state/provincial and city governments have committed to policies to decarbonize their jurisdictions. Several states, including Minnesota, joined the Powering Past Coal Alliance. Just last week, California passed new legislation requiring a 100% renewable electricity system by 2045, and conference organizer Gov. Jerry Brown also signed an executive order that strives to have the rest of the state's economy meet that same goal. He is seen as the de facto American leader on climate policy, so much so that the Chinese government sent over a team of diplomats to the summit to negotiate a 2-year collaboration with California on climate change mitigation strategies.
Those lower-level policies have great potential to influence national government policies, but some of those may require supplemental policies in order to be achieved in time. For example, Minnesota has met its renewable portfolio standard, but not its greenhouse gas emissions reduction goal set in 2007.
For all these pledges, it is important to consider whether or not renewable energy credits (RECs) used to fulfill them truly result in additional renewable generation on the grid. The pledges all together actually put the US on track to reach its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) goal set after the Paris Agreement. However, the NDCs are only about 1/3 of the emissions reductions needed to keep global warming under 2 degrees C.
The atmosphere inside the walls of the conference center was certainly that of urgency, but the atmosphere just outside was that of desperation. On the first morning of the event, hundreds of activists gathered peacefully to protest the continued practice of fossil fuel drilling and transport in California and the rest of the US. The vast majority of fossil fuels must be kept in the ground in order to keep global warming below the Paris Agreement threshold, but the US recently became the world's leading oil producer.
The other focus of the protest was on California's cap and trade policy. Activists argued that while it is one of the most ambitious state policies in the country in terms of emissions reductions, the remaining emissions and pollution will be concentrated in mostly low-income minority neighborhoods. Many inside the conference, including conference organizer Michael Bloomberg, seemed to dismiss the protesters trying to further advance climate action.
Looking ahead: After COP24 in December, countries will meet again in New York City in 2019 to announce their NDCs. The first Global Stocktake of NDCs will take place in 2020, and every 5 years thereafter. It remains to be seen whether the world commits to urgent, or desperate action on climate change mitigation.