Once You UN, You Never Go Back


Under a moonlit night on Thursday night, the UNFCCC delegates, observers, and researchers crossed town from the Conference venue to the Parque Estadio Nacional in the center of Lima to mingle and enjoy a cornucopia of food, drink, and performances from native Peruvians.  In the words of our professor, Neil Leary, this was the “swankiest” party Lima has seen in the past decade.  With such a fantastic backdrop and magnificent evening, the official welcome reception for the COP welcome reception wasaonce for the history books.

The Place to Be


There were five different areas of the event, as there were in Voces por el Clima: Energy, Sustainable Cities, Oceans, Forests, and Mountains.  At each area, there was a unique buffet, open bar, and performances that focused on the specific section.  At the Energy section, there was a drum troupe performing that, midway through, pulled three of the Dickinson delegation onto the stage to salsa dance with them.

Dancing in the Moonlight

Later on in the night, there was a presentation by Christiana Figueres, the Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, and Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, the Peruvian Minister of the Environment and President of the COP, both of whom met with Dickinson students to talk to them.  There was also a live performance from a popular local Spanish rock band from Lima where Dickinson students started a dance party with delegates from Tanzania, Fiji, and Peru, to name a few.

Overall, fun was had for all, and there was consensus that it was the best night that anyone had experienced before.

Methane Emissions Controls: An Invaluable Learning Experience


Within the Mosaic courses, we focus mainly on the UNFCCC and, thus, almost exclusively on CO2 emissions.  However, in ECON-222: Environmental Economics, a group of us from the Mosaic had the opportunity to research and learn about another greenhouse gas, one that is far more potent and dangerous to climate change: methane.  CH4 is the second most prevalent greenhouse gas emitted through anthropocentric sources, has an atmospheric lifetime of twelve years, and has a one hundred-year global warming potential twenty-one times that of carbon dioxide.  So, while it only accounts for fourteen percent of total greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, it is still a critical factor in the climate change realm; unregulated at its source, and methane emissions could undermine the work that the UNFCCC facilitates on carbon-dioxide emissions.

We focused on three main sources of methane emissions (agricultural sources, the oil and natural gas industry, and landfills) and employed various tools of economic analysis that we had learned previously in the course to critically analyze various policy options and make a recommendation as to which we believe is the most effective and cost-efficient.  My main focus was on the oil and natural gas industry, which accounts 37 percent of global methane emissions.  Natural gas is seen as a transition fuel away from fossil fuels for many economies that is both cleaner and readily available; while it may be cleaner in terms of carbon-intensity, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily better for the environment, as between 80 to 90 percent of each cubic feet of natural gas is comprised of methane.  Thus, most of the emissions in the industry come from natural gas processes, which is fraught with inefficiencies and opportunities for emissions to escape into the atmosphere.  Thus, many of the major policy suggestions I evaluated in this research project focused on increasing efficiency along the natural gas supply chain.  These policies further fell under two umbrella categories under increasing efficiency, one being the retrofitting and upgrading of existing equipment along the supply chain to mitigate emissions escaping in the first place, and the second being the capture and sale of those emissions that do escape.  Policies under both umbrella categories are currently being employed, and have proven to be cost-effective in both achieving emissions reductions and increasing revenues for the industry as a whole

This project offered an exceptional opportunity to complement what I’ve learned in the Mosaic classes and to delve into the intricacies of my chosen field of study (economics) and how it relates to climate change generally.


For more information on methane emissions specifically in the US, visit the EPA website.

For more information on the methane emissions from the oil and natural gas industry and for an in-depth look at proposed emissions control policies, read through the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Leaking Profits: The U.S. Oil and Gas Industry can Reduce Pollution, Conserve Resources, and Make Money by Preventing Methane Waste report from 2012.

Both Danger and Opportunity for Sustainable Development in the Climate Crisis

A Green Economy

President John F. Kennedy once remarked that, “when written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters; one represents danger, and the other represents opportunity.”[1]  The crisis of climate change poses many threats to the current global economic status quo, especially as many nations are developing at a rapid rate of speed.  Their predecessors, the developed nations, experienced growth under the mantra of “grow fast, clean up later;”[2] this second group of nations, however, doesn’t have that same luxury due to the threats posed by climate change.  But, while it poses threats to the old economic ways and development paths already taken, there are also a plethora of opportunities presented through the climate crisis, which could carve a new development path that is more economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable.

The current system at the core of the global economy emerged as a result of the development paths taken by the Annex-I nations, which gave very little weight to environmental costs and degradation; this economy is still the one currently installed.  Central to its philosophy and functionality is a “growth fetish” or “growth imperative”[3] that places absolute focus upon GDP and whether or not it is increasing as the main indicator for development and growth.  However, GDP doesn’t represent the full picture of economic growth, as it doesn’t indicate whether there is a fair or equitable distribution of benefits or an increasing or decreasing environmental quality.  These two factors are an inseparable part of the threats climate change poses to society, and, if not taken into account as economies grow, could lead to “a lot of people [being] poor and polluted – the worst of all possible worlds.”[4]  With uncontrolled economic growth as has been seen historically, the world and global economy will be a great departure from what is currently enjoyed, with higher social inequality, lower environmental quality, and potentially severe climate change, all of which will make sustainable development increasingly more difficult to achieve.

Without making drastic changes to the current economic system and philosophy in response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development will be out of reach for developing countries.   The effects of anthropogenic climate change will directly and negatively affect many of the essential drivers of sustainable development, namely food, water, and infrastructure, among others.[5]  These pose considerable economic threats to emerging and developing economies; it was estimated that the “total annual damage to China’s economy from environmental degradation is the equivalent of 9% of GDP…[and] bad sanitation and water pollution cost India 6% of national income,”[6] to name a few examples.  That is a crippling cost for an economy to absorb year after year, and, if perpetuated and extended, would have the potential to halt any growth that nations plan to achieve in the future.

However, there are numerous beneficial opportunities for sustainable development that arise in response to the threats posed by the climate crisis.  These opportunities must be taken in light of the new economic reality that all future growth and development must be sustainable and sensitive to its effects upon the social, environmental, and economic systems in play.  A green economy, as described above, is “characterized by substantially increased investments in economic activities…such as renewable energy, low-carbon transport, energy- and water-efficient buildings, sustainable agriculture and forest management, and sustainable fisheries.”[7]  All of these create good jobs and increase investment in local, regional, and national economies, while also establishing environmentally-friendly and sustainable infrastructure that will have impacts for its entire lifespan.  Infrastructure plays a major role in the future of the economy and the scale at which sustainable development is achieved; “about two-thirds of the $8 trillion need for infrastructure investment in Asia and the Pacific between 2010 and 2020 will be in the form of new infrastructure, which creates tremendous opportunities to design, finance, and manage more sustainable infrastructure.”[8]

This is a defining characteristic of green growth, as it, by definition and in practice, “means looking for investment-hungry projects that bring high returns in broad environmental and narrow commercial terms.”[9]  Green growth or sustainable development policies incentivize the private sector to innovate and discover even better and more sustainable methods in order to maximize their profits and market share.  In effect, this allows for economic growth to be sustained over time, while also protecting and increasing the value of the environment as an asset for future generations.  As the Stern Report declared, “tackling climate change is the pro-growth strategy for the longer term, and it can be done in a way that does not cap the aspirations for growth of rich or poor countries.”[10]


[1] Kennedy, John F.  BrainQuote.com, Xplore Inc, 2014.  http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/j/johnfkenn103820.html, accessed November 2, 2014.

[2] “Shoots, greens, and leaves.”  The Economist, June 16, 2012, accessed November 2, 2014.  http://www.economist.com/node/21556904.

[3] Speth, James Gustave. “A New American Environmentalism and the New Economy.” Lecture, Tenth Annual John H. Chafee Memorial Lecture on Science and the Environment from the National Council for Science and the Environment, Washington, DC, January 21, 2010.

[4] “Shoots, greens, and leaves,” The Economist.

[5] United Nations and Asian Development Bank.  Green Growth, Resources, and Resilience: Environmental Sustainability in Asia and the Pacific.  Accessed 9 October 2014.  http://www.unep.org/dewa/Portals/67/pdf/G2R2_web.pdf.

[6] “Shoots, greens, and leaves,” The Economist.

[7] United Nations and Asian Development Bank, Green Growth, Resources, and Resilience: Environmental Sustainability in Asia and the Pacific. xv.

[8] United Nations and Asian Development Bank, Green Growth, Resources, and Resilience: Environmental Sustainability in Asia and the Pacific. xviii.

[9] “Shoots, greens, and leaves,” The Economist.

[10] Stern, Nicholas, “The Stern Review on the Economic Effects of Climate Change,” Population and Development Review 32 (2006): ii, accessed November 2, 2014, doi: 10.1111/j.1728-4457.2006.00153.x.

Discounting the Future


Many of the possible effects that climate change poses have a temporal component to them: they will be realized and compounded over time.  Thus, the actions and inactions of today’s generation will have significant effects on those that come afterwards.  This compounding effect has a fair amount of consensus among environmental economists; however, there is not consensus on how much we should take those future effects into account during current decision-making processes for policies that might effect climate change.  This disagreement revolves around the discount rate, defined by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as the “rate at which society as a whole is willing to trade off present for future benefits.”  Because investment is inherently productive (that is to say, money is interest-bearing), resources on hand today are more valuable than resources available later; the difference in the values placed upon money today and in the future is where the disagreement lies.  

Take, for example, a future benefit of $1000 to be accrued in ten years: how much would I need to put in the bank now in order to have that $1000 at the end of the decade?  At a discount rate of 5%, it would be $613.90; at a discount rate of 8%, it would be lower, at $463.20.  Thus, the higher discount rate signals that society is more focused on present benefits than future benefits.

Let’s look at this in the context of climate change.  As a society, how much are we willing to spend now in order to protect the climate system from further “dangerous anthropogenic interference,” as is the UNFCCC’s stated objective, and to avoid future costs and damages?  At a lower discount rate, we place a higher value upon the maintenance of the climate system and pay a higher premium now in order to protect future generations.  At a higher discount rate, we place a higher value upon the current energy consumption patterns and are not willing to pay as high of a premium.

In Environmental Economics, my “wild-card” elective course for the Mosaic this semester, we discussed the argument that a near-zero discount rate is the most appropriate response to the effects of climate change.  We need to take aggressive action now and invest as much in climate mitigation and adaptation as possible in order to stay below the 2 degree Celsius threshold put forward by the UNFCCC.  If we do not do so, the costs borne upon future generations will be greater, as will the damages and level of disruption to our lifestyle that will occur from climatic change.  A discount that is higher than zero or near-zero could jeopardize the 2 degree threshold, undercut the international negotiations of the UNFCCC, and threaten the generations that will come after us.

The Best of Both Worlds for 2015

eiffel tower paris

After negotiations floundered at COP15 in Copenhagen to produce a broad-based and aggressive agreement to succeed the Kyoto Protocol, the Durban Platform was created to direct and motivate such an agreement for COP21 in Paris next year. It called for an “agreed outcome with legal force” that falls within the UNFCCC’s framework and principles. David Bodansky stated that, in order for an international agreement to succeed, it has to include three criteria (stringency, participation, and compliance), and outlined possible approaches that could stem from the work of the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP), either a top-down or bottom-up approach. From the information and framings provided by Bodansky, neither option is adequate as a viable solution by itself; rather, a mixed-track approach, which hybridizes both aforementioned approaches, would maximize the criteria and would provide a solid foundation for an international agreement to take effect after 2020.

The top-down approach, which could be seen as a continuation and expansion of what was seen in the Kyoto Protocol, places the main focus of climate governance and negotiations upon the international regime of the UNFCCC and other such institutions. These negotiations would focus upon an overarching emissions reductions target and how to delegate it among the Parties, and would present a take-it-or-leave-it type of agreement; nations would have to agree to the agreement as a whole, and would be legally bound to it and the prescribed actions within it. This, however, scares many nations within the UNFCCC, especially those key to any effective agreement (e.g. the United States, China, India, etc.) and could either jeopardize participation because it’s too stringent or stringency because countries would only sign on to an agreement that was not as aggressive as it could have and/or should have been. While it has produced success in the Kyoto Protocol, there are also hindrances inherently built into the approach that limit its effectiveness.

On the other hand, the Cancun architecture was born in response to the top-down approach taken with the Kyoto Protocol and advocated a bottom-up approach that placed national governments as the vanguards against the effects of climate change. Rather than having the international regime dictate what each country must do, this alternative approach empowers each nation to decide their best way to individually take action in mitigation and adaptation, which builds national buy-in and ownership of the country’s efforts. However, this produces an incentive for a nation to understate their capacity to mitigate/adapt or produce conservative and non-aggressive targets, thus imperiling the ultimate purpose of the UNFCCC to stem warming to two degrees Celsius.

As explained above, both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses, but neither fully maximizes the three criteria that are key to a successful international agreement. Together, however, a viable middle ground could be reached that synthesizes the strengths of both approaches and that fulfills the stringency, participation, and compliance criteria. The bottom-up portion of a mixed-track approach allows countries to make commitments in areas that are both most effective and within its capacity to achieve, producing what Bodansky called a “variable geometry.” It provides enough freedom in action that each nation may find and take the course of action that works best for them, without imposing a one-size-fits-all solution that is unrealistic and incongruent with the political, economic, and developmental realities of a particular nation. Also, it satisfies the voluntary “pledge and renew” actions most nations are now interested in, as flexibility is the new mantra, so to say, of climate negotiations post-Kyoto; participation would be maximized with these types of actions rather than legally-binding commitments because most nations are not willing to take that step, as seen in the Kyoto Protocol. Within this flexible structure, the top-down portion provides enough incentive and enforcement/oversight to motivate aggressive and directed action, essential if the UNFCCC is going to keep warming below the two degree target. Through oversight and recommendations, the international regime can make sure that nations aren’t shirking their “common but differentiated responsibilities” while still motivating each nation to find the best solution that fits within that responsibility and capacity.

An aggressive and broad-based agreement is absolutely essential in order to meet the two degree target set by the UNFCCC at its conception in 1992. The best way to achieve this is not through a single mechanism or approach, or through a small group of nations; a wide array of options and avenues for action is necessary in order to gain the participation of a wide base of countries. Finding the colloquial sweet spot where an agreement is stringent enough to be effective at taking action and meeting the two degree target but not too stringent that there is insufficient participation. Therein lies the challenge for the UNFCCC and its individual member-states, but, with the best of both worlds, success is within our grasp.


David Bodansky, “The Durban Platform: Issues and Options for a 2015 Agreement,” Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (2012): 1-11.

“Preamble,” United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, accessed October 7th, 2014.  http://unfccc.int/essential_background/convention/background/items/1353.php.

On James Balog’s Rose-Walters Lecture

fe dbdecd orig

On the night of September 23rd, famed nature photographer and documentarian James Balog gave the lecture for this year’s Rose-Walters Prize for Global Environmental Activism to a packed auditorium in ATS. However, only the first segment of his presentation was truly a lecture by definition; the second segment was spoken word over a slideshow of his stunning photography stills, an interesting twist and medium for presenting his message of empowerment and determination in the face of a changing climate and a changing world. But, before that, he ran through a presentation (truncated from his normal spiel) that explained what his project, the Extreme Ice Survey, did and is still doing, and showing the fruits of their labor: time-lapse videos of extreme glacial retreat over less than a decade in time, a severe rate of deflation and diminishment in the extremely long geologic time series. It was stunning to see something that had been born, created, crafted and polished over millions of years disappear so quickly during my lifetime and due to human activity. Such a stark visualization of climate change is rare in normal day-to-day life, and yet is extremely important for everyone on this earth to experience and embody.

James Balog

Balog’s photography shows the death of a living, breathing thing. The second part of his presentation encapsulated and revolved around this fact; the free verse poem, written by Balog himself, captured the beauty and life of the glaciers he studied and personified them to an extent that I thought was unique and extremely powerful and moving. It made the run-of-the-mill statistics like “the glaciers in Greenland have receded X miles in X years” that get thrown around in the news and in classes that focus on climate change seem much more personal and powerful; I could visualize the damage, and it made it seem like humanity, as a whole, was the big bully on the playground and was causing deeply-seeded distress and suffering in another living thing. There was no other option for me than to leave the lecture that night, and James’s residency as a whole, asking myself, “what more can I do?”

The Despair of Death


The WBCSD: Private Solutions to a Global Problem

Sustainable Business

There is not a colloquial “silver-bullet” solution that can immediately stem the impending effects of climate change; similarly, there is not a single layer on which the governance of climate change occurs.  The work to mitigate and adapt to climate change and global warming does not rest only with sovereign national governments and international institutions like the United Nations Framework for Climate Change (UNFCCC), but it also occurs across sectors and borders.  Private transnational networks are an effective avenue for executing action in the manner that businesses across the world function on both a day-to-day and strategic basis.  One stellar case study of such an effective network is the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), an international association of businesses such as General Motors, DuPont, Deutsche Bank, Coca-Cola, Sony, BP, and Shell, among others.  The Council has been at the forefront of the private sector on private greenhouse gas accounting and reporting, and initiated the discussion on the role businesses across the world can play in a future, low-carbon, sustainable economy and society.

The mission of the WBCSD is to “provide business leadership as a catalyst for change toward sustainable development, and to support the business license to operate, innovate and grow in a world increasingly shaped by sustainable development issues.”[1]  This has placed the Council as a leading figure throughout the private sector for sustainable business practices in the shadow of what the global economy may look like in the future.  The WBCSD aims to “be a leading business advocate on sustainable development, participate in policy development to create the right framework conditions for business to make an effective contribution to sustainable human progress, develop and promote the business case for sustainable development, demonstrate the business contribution to sustainable development solutions and share leading-edge practices among members, and contribute to a sustainable future for developing nations and nations in transition…[in the focus areas of] energy and climate, development, the business role, and ecosystems.”[2]  Thus, these objectives position the Council in both the information-sharing and regulation categories outlined by Bulkeley and Newell,[3] because there is a sharing and pooling of best practices and knowledge among the member companies through reports and publications, and those companies commit themselves, as members, to conduct business sustainably and within the objectives and mission of the Council.

The foundational belief that rests underneath the WBCSD’s work is that “stable and sustainable societies cannot and must not tolerate poverty among their citizens and…businesses, economies, governments, and societies must work together to ensure open and fair access to all markets and opportunities.”[4]  This is what motivates these companies to become members and to follow through on their commitments; there is a universal recognition among the companies involved that cooperation, coordination, and consideration are in the best interests of all, especially themselves, because these companies would not be able to exist in a society that is failing and crumbling due to a more volatile climate.  And this initiative has “helped create a paradigm shift in the way in which business does business”[5]  away from purely self-interested, short-sighted parameters that focus solely on dollars and cents and towards a more holistic framing of business’s role in the climate debate.  The discussion amidst the private sector has been elevated, the knowledge base has grown exponentially and has become more fluid among nations and companies, and sector-wide standards are installed and being followed because of the work that the WBCSD has done and is continuing to do around the world, and the association serves as a sterling example of a driven and effective transnational network.


[1] What-when-how. “World Business Council for Sustainable Development (Global Warming).” Accessed September 29, 2014. http://what-when-how.com/global-warming/world-business-council-for-sustainable-development-global-warming/

[2] What-when-how.

[3] Harriet Bulkeley and Peter Newell, Governing Climate Change (New York: The CUNY Graduate Center, 2010), 57.

[4] What-when-how.

[5] Credo Reference.  “WBCSD (World Business Council for Sustainable Development).” Accessed September 29, 2014. http://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/wileygecrg/wbcsd_world_business_council_for_sustainable_development/0?searchId=f26927c6-483d-11e4-9178-0aea1e3b2a47&result=0

The Dollars and Cents of Inaction


Earlier in September, a report was released outlining the United States’ economic risks and vulnerabilities stemming from climate change.  The report was funded and motivated by the Risky Business Project, a group of influential and monetary heavy-hitters in the US, including former New York City major Michael R. Bloomberg, former Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson, and Tom Steyer, the former Senior Managing Member of Farallon Capital Management, LLC.  The stated focuses of the report include damage to coastal property and infrastructure from rising sea levels and increased storm surge, climate-driven changes in agricultural production and energy demand, and the impact of higher temperatures on labor productivity and public health.  It provides a thorough, in-depth analysis of US climate risk and the unique possible impacts for each region (Northeast, Southeast, Midwest, Great Plains, Northwest, Southwest, Alaska, and Hawaii) and argues for policy solutions aimed at adaptations in the business, investing, and public sectors specifically.

Although not certain, the economic impacts the United States is vulnerable to from climate change are grave; billions of dollars and the underlying structures and assurances of our economic system are in peril.  The costs of inaction (and thereby the costs of action at a future time) are exponentially higher than the costs of action today, and the possible benefits and stability of our economic way of life can still be preserved.  President Obama understands this, as he outlined the work his administration has done thus far to colloquially “shore up the defenses” and adapt to these risk in a speech to the United Nations Climate Summit this past week.  The President also understands that it is in the nation’s best interests to work towards decisive action on an international scale because of the global scope of the climate dilemma, and urged other nations’ leaders convened at the Summit to do what they can within their own borders to ensure that damage across all borders and all economies is minimized.

From A Different Angle: The Photography of Sebastião Salgado

sebastiao salgado genesis

Earlier this week, famed nature photographer and documentarian James Balog was on Dickinson’s campus for a two-day residency as part of the Rose-Walters Prize he received at Commencement this past May.  His vivid pictures and time-lapse videos of glacial retreat are a stark representation of the scope and rate of global warming and climate change in our own lifetime.  While Balog approached his photography as an avenue for showing the beautiful destruction of the climate, Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado’s most recent work, Genesis, shows the inherent beauty of the world that is at peril of being disturbed or lost forever to the effects of climate change.  Deserts, ice, endangered species, beautiful designs naturally cut along a valley are a few of the subjects of Salgado’s photographs.  His work approaches the same vein as Balog’s, just from a different angle, and both angles have a story that is important for everyone to experience and internalize as we approach the climate question.  The Earth around us is a beautiful, one-of-a-kind environment that is imperative for us to cherish and protect from ourselves so that future generations may have the privilege and honor to cherish and protect it as well.  As we move forward in our work this semester at COP20 and in all future climate negotiations, it is crucial that this message not be lost upon us.

The World May Not Be Flat, But It’s Sure Growing.

population of India

Last Thursday, a group of international researchers released a report that projects a global population increase from seven billion today to eleven billion by the end of the century.  This overturns a general agreement worldwide that population would only peak at about nine billion people in 2050, which was the assumption underlying a plethora of key scientific reports on malnutrition, HIV/AIDS, demographic composition of different countries, and, most interestingly for our purposes, all previous Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports on the threats of climate change and global warming.

This burgeoning population could reach, as Simon Ross from the think tank Population Matters told the Guardian, “between 40-75% larger than today in the lifetime of many of today’s children and will still be growing.”  The implications of this on resource use and energy demand will be quite significant: more people will require more resources in order to survive, but the resources are in finite supply, so competition will increase, thus putting pressure on those at the margins who may be denied access.  With this grim prospect, we can expect to see more exaggerated poverty and strife worldwide, while aggregate resource use can be expected to increase.

This will pose a large roadblock for any future agreements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions because not only is the necessity for emissions reductions compounding over time, but so is the difficulty of achieving that aim (mainly due to the reasons I discussed above).  The momentum must be continued now and aggressive reductions  must be made now so that, moving forward, the work before us will be within our reach to achieve; if we wait any longer, that work will only get harder and harder, and further and further out of our ability to cope.


Carrington, Damian. 2014. “World population to hit 11bn in 2100 – with 70% chance of continuous rise.” The Guardian, September 18.