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Climate Agreement or Bust?: Creating Policy

An E-IPER student shares what he saw and learned at the December COP15 climate negotiations in Copenhagen.

Climate Agreement or Bust? Michael Ovadia, a 1st year PhD student who is also pursuing an MBA at the Graduate School of Business, attended the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Copenhagen this December as a member of Stanford's 40 person delegation. Excerpts from Michael's Copenhagen journal illustrate the chaos of the negotiations and the profound influence the experience had on him personally:

December 12

  • The day was spent at the Bright Green conference, kicked off by a panel that included The princes of Denmark and Norway and The princess of Sweden, who had traveled around the Arctic documenting the early impacts of climate change. Apparently the Swedish King (and princess's father) has been concerned about climate change for the past 30 years. This explains why Sweden, a country of only 9 million, has been disproportionately influential in the climate change negotiations (COP3 was hosted in Stockholm).
  • We also heard from the Prime Minister of Denmark. Though he was motivational, I felt that he made it all sound too easy - his message was that climate change mitigation is good for growth, and hence action is a "no brainer."
  • I then wandered into an exhibit hall filled with Scandinavian, Western European, American, and Middle Eastern firms who were developing truly novel green technologies. Memorable conversations included Dong Energy/Better Place, Mazdar University, Johnson Controls, and Philips LED.

December 13

  • Today was spent away from the (in)famous Bella Center at an intimate event put on by the International Gas Union.
  • Paul Wilkinson of the American Gas Association suggested that the US climate bill will be the most significant piece of energy legislation passed in the last 50-100 years.
  • Anders Eldrup, CEO of Dong Energy, discussed how he is targeting a 21% reduction in greenhouse gases (GHGs) from 1990 levels. This involves upping wind's share of power generation from 20% to 40%, with natural gas plants used to address intermittency issues. Denmark has apparently produced half the wind turbines in place worldwide today.
  • Overall, it's clear from this conference that gas will play a critical role in our mid-term global energy future. With the advent of recent shale gas technology, it's cheap and abundant—with U.S. reserves going from 40 years to 100 years in overnight. Modest capital costs, lower GHGs than coal, and complementarity with intermittent renewables make it a key part of the mix.

December 14

  • Back at the Bella Center, Secretary Steven Chu of US Dept. of Energy co-announced the Climate REDI Program with Ministers from Italy, India, and Australia. The U.S. contribution is $85M over 5 years.
  • India is launching an "Indian IPCC." 250 research scientists will provide annual assessment on climate change for different parts of the Indian economy.
  • Though this was a U.S.-led press conference, the participants were from developed and developing nations around the world—signaling to me a clear desire by the Obama Administration to be collaborative in the negotiations.

December 15

  • Another Bella Center day. With no warning, all of the African States walked out of the discussions on Dec. 14th. I was told that this was Africa signaling that it (1) wants to be more visible and (2) won't sign an agreement without substantial compensation.
  • I learned that negotiations are particularly cumbersome and impractical because it's occurring at 3 levels: technical, ministerial, and presidential. In 15 years of COPs, there have never been so many parallel conversations. In many ways the Presidential attention is great, but it makes getting anything done a challenge.
  • A big debate ensued over whether we are targeting 2 degrees warming or 1.5 degrees warming. Apparently above 1.5 degrees, many of the island nations will ultimately cease to exist.
  • Interesting, there is little discussion of enforcement. The only "punishment" in Kyoto Protocol is that for every ton of CO2 not mitigated in the first period, you must meet that target plus an additional 30% in the next round. This weak political "stick" is unlikely to change in the future.
  • The most inspiring moment of the day for me was hearing Desmond Tutu speak. He was radiant, with a tremendous smile on his face, as he said: "It's necessary to appeal to the goodness in people to get a deal to come to fruition. You're at your best when you're compassionate and magnanimous."

Michael's Final Reflections

Overall, COP15 was a truly eye-opening event for me on levels: learning about the issues, ranging from energy to the UNFCCC process; understanding the change-making process around climate and other environmental issues; meeting the ecosystem of players world leaders involved in global negotiations; getting to know a group of Stanford peers on an intimate level; recognizing my own biases; and leaving inspired by the beautiful, smart, and sustainable cities of Denmark and Sweden.