More than 35 student volunteers from Ecohusky, EcoHouse, and the OEP gathered at Gampel Pavilion for two basketball Green Game Days in March to educate Husky fans about recycling and
create an atmosphere buzzing with energy about the environment. Volunteers promoted recycling by engaging with fans as they entered the stadium and by standing next to trash and recycling
containers to make sure recycling was properly sorted. Additionally, by making these games carbon neutral through the purchase of offsets, we prevented a total of 8.5 metric tons of CO2 from entering the atmosphere! We would like to thank all of our volunteers who made these events possible and to especially spotlight our senior intern Caroline Anastasia, who has now been part of 10 Green Game Days!
In celebration of these events, we talked with student athletes at UConn who are passionate about the environment and appreciate the outreach that happens at events such as our Green Game Days. Here is what they had to say…
“Much like the human body, I believe what you put in and what you do to your body is eventually going to affect what comes out. The environment is an organism too. So, the things that we’re experiencing are a result of what we’ve done to the planet.
Education and knowledge are what changes everything. People are born uncivilized until they learn something or they’re influenced by something that leads them to make change for the better.”
– Carlton Steer, Senior Sociology Major, UConn Football Defensive Line
“A large majority of pollution is in our waters – oceans, rivers, lakes, ponds, etc. We’ve seen it in most of the places we’ve raced. While it may not directly affect our regatta performance, it’s a sign of a larger problem that affects all of us – if we see it here, then it’s probably worldwide, and it might be worse where people care less about the environment. It’s disheartening, it’s hard on the eyes, it’s damaging to the wildlife, and it’s why we need to keep pushing for more people to care.”
– Maxwell Miller, Sophomore Finance Major, Sailing Team President
“In order to properly advocate for the right to health for all, it is essential to equip people with the knowledge and skills to take responsible action to protect the environment. Through caring for our planet, we make the basis for just, sustainable, and equitable health outcomes possible.”
– Jen Koo, Junior Allied Health Sciences Major, Track & Field
Thank you to the student-athletes we talked to for your thoughtful reflections. Best of luck to our Husky women’s basketball team in the Final Four tonight!
This past week, UConn President Susan Herbst was part of a coalition of university presidents who took an important step toward achieving an equitable, environmentally conscious future by signing UConn on to the Second Nature’s Call to Action and Guiding Principles for Accelerating Equitable and Just Climate Solutions. Below is the statement she released explaining the role of UConn in creating a future that is healthy and safe for everyone.
As a Land Grant and Sea Grant institution, the University of Connecticut has always felt a special responsibility to set high standards and uphold strong principles on the ways in which we understand and protect our environment both locally and globally.
For these and many other reasons, we wholeheartedly endorse the imperatives articulated in Second Nature’s Call to Action and Guiding Principles for Accelerating Equitable and Just Climate Solutions, which wereannounced recently at the 2019 Higher Education Climate Leadership Summit in Tempe, Arizona.
These principles remind us that universities have not only the power to motivate change and the expertise to offer innovative solutions, but also the responsibility to ensure that those solutions are equitable and developed in collaboration with the people most impacted.
That responsibility is especially challenging when it comes to climate change because of the distance between our actions here and now, and their consequences, which are often far removed in time and space.
It’s our duty as global citizens to adjust behaviors today for carbon mitigation and resilience preparation that will primarily benefit future generations, or vulnerable populations located somewhere else around the world. To this point, Second Nature’s Guiding Principles advise us to think globally; we must continuously review and refine our campus climate action plans to ensure that our goals and strategies reflect the best available science about the effects of climate change.
As a state flagship, public research university, UConn‘s mission has always included public service. We frequently partner with state and local governments and strive to be engaged leaders in our community. Second Nature’s Guiding Principles urge us to extend this engagement to the global community. In the context of climate change, we can do this by accounting for how the long-term costs of our institutional activities might “negatively impact people and the planet, and strive to measure, internalize, and avoid these costs to the greatest extent possible.”
The first step is raising awareness about the underlying science of global warming and collectively accepting our share of responsibility for its harmful effects, which are already occurring in places far removed from our nation’s campuses. This includes subsistence farms in North Africa wiped out in recent years by historic droughts, entire coastal communities in Pacific island nations displaced by sea level rise and flooding, and essential drinking water supplies threatened by receding glaciers in the Himalayas.
Informed by this knowledge and driven by basic human decency, the next step of higher education institutions should be recognizing the urgent needs of the world’s most vulnerable populations by accelerating our climate strategies.
UConn has historically been a leader on this front, and we continue to reaffirm our efforts to this end. We recently adopted an environmental literacy general education requirement that will ensure our students graduate from UConn with a grasp of important, intersectional environmental issues including climate change.
UConn is also an active agent in local climate adaptation projects, notably through the University’s Connecticut Institute for Resilience and Climate Adaptation (CIRCA), which works with economically disadvantaged communities to improve their climate resiliency.
In 2017, we joined a multi-sector coalition of American businesses, state and local governments, NPOs, and colleges and universities by signing the “We Are Still In” pledge, reaffirming our commitment to the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement.
Last fall, we joined 17 other major research universities in the University Climate Change Coalition (UC3), sharing our expertise in order to accelerate solutions to global warming. And, for the past four years, our UConn@COP program has brought a delegation of students to the U.N.’s annual international climate summit for an immersive, hands-on learning experience, with the goal of developing future leaders in climate science and policy.
This year, UConn’s Sustainability Office will meet with departments and stakeholders across campus, including at a student summit scheduled for next month, in order to update our strategic goals and metrics for climate leadership through 2025. This is the next five-year milestone in our long-term Climate Action Plan. It’s also the perfect opportunity to utilize Second Nature’s Guiding Principles as a more global and equitable lens for reviewing our progress and envisioning more impactful strategies toward a carbon-neutral campus.
The midterm elections that took place this November have ushered in a new vanguard of representatives ready to fight for the needs of the people. These newly elected representatives have harnessed public enthusiasm for change to beat out incumbents, and are entering Congress full of ideas and energy. One of the most well-known of these newly elected representatives is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. A 29-year-old Latina from the Bronx, Cortez is the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. Along with a number of her colleagues, she has announced a plan called “The Green New Deal” that pushes for climate change to be prioritized in Congress. Ocasio-Cortez is just one example of the many Hispanic activists across the country and world that are fighting to protect us from environmental degradation.
In our country, Latinx people are more concerned about the environment and more willing to take action to protect it than the general population. This makes sense, since a history of environmental racism means they are one of the populations most affected by environmental hazards like particulate pollution and poor water. Despite often being excluded from the mainstream environmental movement, Latinx people have always been heavily involved in environmental activism.
In Latin America, environmentalists are fighting for their lives, literally. As the area continues to develop and those in power exploit the land and its resources, indigenous and poor people are displaced. Their way of life, their land, and their livelihoods are stolen from them, and governments do very little to protect them, if not encourage the exploitation. When people decide to organize and fight back, they are threatened or killed. A 2016 report from GlobalWitness found that two-thirds of the 185 environmentalists murdered in 2015 resided in Latin America.
UConn recognizes the importance of this reality. The USG Sustainability Subcommittee is one organization on campus that is dedicated to working towards a just and sustainable planet for all people. They are organizing a series of events this semester that make clear the importance of including Hispanic people and other diverse groups in the environmental movement. Keep an eye out for their events this semester!
We cannot possibly cover all of the passionate Hispanic activists that have dedicated their lives to environmentalism. However, we have highlighted some activists here which showcase the breadth of Hispanic people’s influence on the environmental movement.
Elizabeth Yeampierre is an internationally recognized pioneer in the environmental movement, intent on creating a platform for oppressed communities in the fight against climate change. A Puerto Rican attorney with indigenous and African roots, she was born and raised in New York City, and has fought on behalf of her community for her whole life. She has pioneered a model of intergenerational, multi-cultural, and community-led organizing that is award-winning and effective.
Yeampierre is a leader in numerous organizations across the country, including the Climate Justice Alliance, a national coalition of community-based organizations focused on environmental justice, and Building Equity & Alignment for Impact, which aims to strengthen relationships between philanthropists, large environmental nonprofits, and grassroots organizations. She was one of the driving forces behind the historical People’s Climate March in 2014. She is also a leader in New York City policy. She currently serves on mayor DeBlasio’s Sustainability Advisory board, and has been instrumental in historic legislation such as the passing of New York’s first Brownfield legislation and the adoption of NYC’s Solid Waste Management Plan. On the federal level, she was the first Latina chair appointed to the EPA’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, and was also a member of the National Environmental Health Sciences Advisory Council. In addition to delivering inspirational speeches around the world, Yeampierre works as the Executive Director of UPROSE, a grassroots organization that focuses on sustainability and resiliency in Brooklyn, NY.
Berta Caceres was a fearless environmental leader in her country of Honduras, one of the most dangerous places to be an environmentalist in the world. While still in college, she co-founded the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), and continued to lead the group for the rest of her life. The COPINH led a variety of important grassroots campaigns including protesting illegal logging, plantation owners, and US military presence on indigenous land. Caceres supported a wide range of social and indigenous issues including feminism and LGBT rights. As indigenous rights and human rights are inextricably linked with the environment, she became known as a prominent environmentalist. In 2015 she won the Goldman Environmental Prize for a campaign that was successful in pressuring the world’s largest dam builder to end a project on the Gualcarque River that would have “jeopardized the water resources and livelihood” of the surrounding land and people. However, her work to protect the people of Honduras eventually led to her death. In 2016, she was assassinated in her home by armed intruders. Fellow activists say one of Berta’s favorite expressions was “they are afraid of us because we are not afraid of them.”
Youth activist Jamie Margolin is one of the 21 youth who have filed a lawsuit against the federal government alleging that the action it has taken that has led to climate change is depriving the next generation of life, liberty, and property, and has failed to protect essential public trust resources. The case made it to the US District Court this fall.
Margolin, however, is not waiting around for a decision to be reached. While this case is proceeding, she has created a national climate movement. She is the founder of Zero Hour, a diverse youth-led movement dedicated to concrete action to end climate change. In July of 2018, Zero Hour held a three day event in DC consisting of a day to lobby legislators, an arts festival, and the Youth Climate March itself. Sister marches happened in tandem across the nation and world. Margolin’s movement is focused on concrete action, not just rhetoric – they have a science-backed platform stemming from the lawsuit, and their march included a specific set of action items. They are also successfully intersectional; their platform fully recognizes that solving social issues is vital to fighting climate change, and having women of color at the helm brings a diversity to this movement that has led to its success.
Vanessa Hauc is an Emmy award-winning trilingual reporter who has used her platform to educate Spanish-speakers and the larger world about environmental issues. She started her career in Bogota, Colombia in 1993, and in 1999 moved to LA. She graduated from the University of Nevada with majors in Communication and Journalism, while working at nearby TV stations. In 2002 Hauc joined the Telemundo network as reporter and co-presenter of “Al Rojo Vivo con Maria Celeste,” and has risen up the ranks to her current position as a correspondent for Noticiero Telemundo. Telemundo is one of the largest providers of Spanish-language content in the country and has a global reach, providing programming in more than 100 countries.
Hauc has taken advantage of this global audience to spread awareness of environmental issues by creating her own segment “Alerta Verde” (Green Alert), to educate the public about the importance of protecting the environment. After much success, Telemundo made Alerta Verde its own company, and is now at the forefront of environmental news coverage.
Hauc has also been on the frontlines of environmental crises throughout her career, reporting on the ground from disasters. She covered Hurricane Katrina, earthquakes across the world, including Chile, Japan, and Haiti, and the Chilean miners’ rescue. She has also dedicated her time to travelling the United States challenging legislators on anti-immigration policies, has received a Master’s degree in Economy and International Politics from the University of Miami, and studied French Culture and Languages at the University of Aix in Provence, France.
One of the world’s greatest accomplishments in the last decade was the Paris Climate Agreement, signed by 195 countries in 2015. This historical agreement was largely due to our next environmentalist, Christina Figueres. Figueres has a master’s degree in social anthropology and is a diplomat for Costa Rica. She became the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 2010 and assumed responsibility for the annual international climate change negotiations. She was determined to bring the world to a consensus and implement a regulatory framework for carbon emissions that everyone could commit to. She successfully directed a series of annual negotiations across the world that culminated in the Paris 2015 Conference of the Parties (COP21), at which the Paris Climate Agreement was signed.
Christina is not satisfied with just the Paris Climate Agreement. She continues to push the world towards increasing climate protection. She is currently organizing Mission 2020, a global initiative to have world carbon emissions begin decreasing by 2020.
This October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report that has shaken the global community. The IPCC was invited by the UN to report this year on the effects that we would experience if the global temperature warms 1.5℃ (2.7°F) above pre-industrial levels. They released a full report along with a technical summary and policymaker summary. The report contains scientific, technical, and socio-economic findings and has major ramifications across these disciplines. The contents of this report are grim, but give us a much more concrete vision of our future—something that is vital as the world makes plans to prevent catastrophic climate change.
Since civilization hit the industrial revolution in the mid-1800s, humanity has been dumping carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the air at an exponential rate. This has led to an increasing amount of sunlight and heat being trapped in our atmosphere, and consequently an increase in our planet’s average temperature. Even a slight increase in this global temperature has immense impacts on our climate and in turn the survival of life on Earth, including humans.
The IPCC report begins by defining what exactly the average global temperature was before humanity started to affect it. The IPCC defines pre-industrial levels as the average global temperature over the period of 1850-1900. The report then talks about where we are now. We have already caused a 1℃ rise in the average global temperature compared to pre-industrial levels. Effects from climate change are already happening, and at this point they are inevitable.
However, we still have control over how severe these effects become, and how long they will last. On our current global trajectory, we will reach a 2℃ increase by 2040. With the passage of the Paris Climate Agreement, the world committed itself to changing this trajectory. Countries promised to keep the increase to under 2℃, and to strive to keep the increase near 1.5℃. In reality, the agreement has little binding power. Globally, we are struggling to reach the 2℃ goal, never mind 1.5℃, which is currently categorized as ‘above and beyond.’
The IPCC report focuses on the changes in our climate that will result if we curb the global temperature rise at 1.5℃ as compared to an increase of 2℃. Although any further rise in the global temperature has and will result in devastating changes to our natural and human systems, the difference between 1.5℃ and 2℃ warming is significant. This report makes it clear that 1.5℃ should not be considered as ‘above and beyond,’ but instead as the absolute limit for global temperature rise.
By 2100, the global average sea level rise is projected to be 0.1 meter lower at 1.5℃ than at 2℃. Sea level rise will continue past 2100, and it is inevitable at this stage. However, sticking to the 1.5℃ goal and slowing the rate of sea level rise will allow more time for adaptation of coastal communities impacted by this rise. Although 0.1 meters may not seem significant, it will make a big difference in giving the world time to prepare for sea level rise.
One of the most poignant symbols of this change in global temperature is the livelihood of the coral reefs. At 2℃, more than 99% of coral reefs will die off due to coral bleaching. At 1.5℃, only 70-90% of current coral reefs are projected to die off. The loss of this incredible phenomenon would be a tragedy. The majority of the ocean’s biodiversity exists in coral reefs, they serve as a buffer that protects coastlines from tropical storms, and they function as important primary producers as well.
The frequency of a sea-ice-free Arctic during summer is substantially lower at 1.5℃ than at 2℃. At 1.5℃, an ice-free summer will happen once per century; at 2℃, it will happen at least once per decade.
In addition to the effects mentioned previously, a 2℃ rise instead of 1.5℃ will drive the loss of coastal resources, reduce the productivity of fisheries and aquaculture, and lead to greater species loss and extinction. Vector-borne diseases, such a malaria and dengue fever, are expected to increase and shift geographic regions. A 2℃ rise will lead to larger net reductions of cereal crop yields such as maize, rice, and wheat.
As the global temperature warms, the effects outlined above are expected to lead to increased poverty and disadvantages in vulnerable populations. Limiting the temperature rise to 1.5℃ instead of 2℃ could reduce the number of people who will be susceptible to poverty and facing climate-related risks by up to several hundred million by 2050.
The IPCC states that reaching the 1.5℃ goal and protecting what we can of our world requires “upscaling and acceleration of far-reaching, multi-level and cross-sectoral climate mitigation and by both incremental and transformational adaptation.” While the Paris Climate Agreement was a historical step for humankind, it’s not nearly enough to save us. The agreement was the beginning of this world transformation; true change will require continued, tenacious, collaborative effort.
This information can be overwhelming and disheartening. We at the office understand that, and know that this work requires stubborn positivity. The only way we’re going to get close to reaching the 1.5℃ goal is if we wholeheartedly believe in our mission and in the future of our world. Even if we do not reach our goal of 1.5℃, or even that of 2℃, any change we make now will still have an important effect on generations to come. So get out there and make some change happen. Reduce your carbon footprint. Vote on November 6th. Start improving your community. Collaborate with friends and neighbors. Have meaningful conversations with those around you. We are each just one person, but we still have an important, irreplaceable influence on the world around us.
Link to the IPCC’s Report: http://www.ipcc.ch/report/sr15/
On the weekend of September 8th, New Haven was brimming with energy. There were events happening throughout the city to foster progress for people and the environment.
The first was a summit presented by the Yale Art Gallery and Artspace, a contemporary art non-profit. This summit, called “Homage: Soil and Site” was seven hours long and drew in some of the national leaders in the environmental movement today—household names like Eddie Bautista and Elizabeth Yeampierre. Oh, you haven’t heard of them? There’s a reason for that. They are self-proclaimed environmental justice advocates, a group that has had little space or power in the environmental movement until recently.
Environmental justice, put simply, is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to environmental conditions, regulation, and change. Those on the frontlines of climate change and other forms of environmental degradation are often the most economically and politically repressed. Impoverished island nations facing increased hurricane activity, poor urban communities facing the worst of air pollution, minority communities having little influence over the siting of a landfill in their backyard, and indigenous people facing potential contamination of their rivers by powerful oil companies should be given a seat at the table in discussions of policy and change. After all, they’re the ones who have experience dealing with the problems that we’re trying to solve.
After decades of effort on the part of environmental justice advocates, we are finally reaching a point where all voices are being heard. This was evident at event number two of the September 8th weekend, a rally for “Climate, Jobs, and Justice.” This event was unique in the groups that came together in order to make it happen. There were the typical organizations that are an important presence at environmental rallies in the state, notably the Sierra Club and 350CT, in addition to other groups such as the CT Puerto Rican Alliance. This meant that there was a larger variety of speakers and performances than the typical rally. There was a presentation of an electric car, and there was also a performance by local rappers about police brutality. There was a call to action for protecting CT’s Green Bank, and there was a young Latinx girl who sung about coming together as one. One stop of the rally was to admire a fuel cell, while another was for a local group to speak on issues related to prison reform. Rallies like this give hope for continued collaboration as we strive to create a safe and healthy environment for all people.
The OEP is working on incorporating environmental justice as a focus as well. We recognize the importance of indigenous people to our country and to the environmental movement. Worldwide, they are protectors of 80% of the world’s biodiversity, despite only living on 20% of the world’s land. They hold Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) that is vital to the stewardship of land, and utilized by many, including the US National Park Service. To honor this, we have partnered with Global House to hold a film screening and discussion of Sacred Water: Standing Rock Part 2 on October 3rd about the Standing Rock protests. It’s the kickoff for Indigenous People’s Week, a series of events at UConn that aim to replace Columbus Day with a celebration of indigenous people in our country. Please join us in the Global House Lounge at 5:30pm to learn more about this incredible population of people!
In 2010, UConn created its Climate Action Plan (CAP) aimed at reducing the carbon footprint of the University. The goal of this plan is to be carbon neutral by 2050, with an interim milestone of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 20% from the 2007 baseline by 2020. The OEP has worked with a number of UConn departments to achieve this goal through projects such as re-lamping with LEDs, other energy efficiency measures in existing facilities, and a strict LEED Gold-certified green building policy for new construction.
By 2016, emissions had been reduced by 20,381 tons, a 13.36% reduction from the 2007 baseline of 152,538 tons. We recently received 2017 GHG emissions data, and, as of last year, UConn had slipped somewhat, showing emissions reductions totaling 18,822 tons, or only a 12.34% reduction since 2007. This increase in emissions over 2016 is mainly attributable to the energy demand from the operation of three new buildings that came on-line late in 2016 or in 2017: Next Generation Connecticut (Werth) Residence Hall, the new Engineering and Science Building, and the Innovative Partnership Building. Despite the added GHG emissions from powering, heating and cooling these new buildings, UConn still made critical progress by further decreasing GHG emissions through ongoing projects like retro commissioning and re-lamping.
While UConn did emit more GHGs this year than last, the University is still on track to meet its 20% emissions reduction goal by 2020. When ongoing and proposed energy efficiency and clean energy projects are accounted for, UConn is on track to reduce emissions by 32,614 tons by 2020. This would be a 21.38% reduction, exceeding the 20% reduction goal. One possible development that could influence this projection is the number of curtailment days the university utilizes. During especially cold winter days on campus, when the demand for natural gas is high, UConn burns oil (a more carbon-intensive fossil fuel) instead of natural gas. For future projections, 20 curtailment days are accounted for, with each curtailment day adding 210 tons of emissions to the total. Under our three year gas procurement contract with CNG, however, it is possible for the University to have up to 30 curtailment days in a year. When the additional ten curtailment days are accounted for, the projected percent reduction drops from 21.38% to just 20%, right at the goal, leaving less room for unanticipated emissions increases.
To help offset the impact of curtailment days, UConn continues to focus on its ongoing emissions reduction initiatives, like re-lamping and steam line replacement projects. OEP and Energy Management staff estimate that campus-wide LED retrofitting of all interior and exterior lighting will contribute nearly 40% of emission reductions needed by 2020, with steam projects contributing another 30%. Given the momentum from these ambitious projects, we are optimistic that UConn will achieve its 2020 reduction goal!
This article was written by Richard Miller, Director of Environmental Policy. It also appeared in the Daily Campus on April 19, 2018.
As the events of UConn’s Environmental Metanoia continue to unfold this month, providing students with dozens of opportunities for learning, reflecting and talking about issues like solar power, water quality, environmental justice and more, it’s fair to ask the question: “What is UConn doing to become a more sustainable campus?” After all, in creating the context for teaching and inspiring our students, it’s important for the University to be the change we want to see, by demonstrating best practices and green technologies that make the campus a “Living Laboratory” for a more sustainable future.
With that in mind, in early 2017, UConn’s President Susan Herbst endorsed a 2020 Vision for Campus Sustainability and Climate Leadership. This is a strategic plan with 20 precise goals and metrics for success. To achieve these goals, UConn will need to reduce its carbon footprint by 20 percent, compared to 2007, despite our growth since then. That will mean big reductions in the energy, water, and fuel we use, and the waste we generate.
Students, faculty and staff were involved in setting these 2020 goals, and in giving feedback, including at a student summit meeting last year, about strategies for accomplishing them. As a result of an inclusive University planning process that focused on a series of ambitious targets, we’ve already made progress! Here are a few of the 2020 goals achieved ahead of schedule:
100% of purchased electricity used at our regional campuses consists of renewable energy
Daily potable water use at the main campus has decreased nearly 40% since 2005, despite a concurrent growth in enrollment of more than 20%
52% of our electronic purchases for items like computers, laptops and monitors are Gold-rated under the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) – up from 23% in 2016
All eight dining halls in Storrs are Green Restaurant certified – making UConn the first public university in the nation to achieve this standard.
UConn’s commitment to sustainability is especially centered on understanding and addressing the social, economic, environmental, and public health issues surrounding climate change. Over the past three years, no other public university in the nation has engaged more undergraduate students than UConn has in the U.N.’s annual International Climate Summit and Conference of the Parties (COP), held in Paris, Marrakech and Bonn. UConn@COP is a nationally-acclaimed program aimed at developing future leaders in climate science and policy.
Last year, through President Herbst, UConn joined more than 2,300 members of a multi-sector “We Are Still In” coalition of American businesses, state and local governments, and universities, committed to continued pursuit of climate action goals set in the 2015 Paris Agreement. Strategic coalitions like this will help keep UConn on the crest of what the Environmental Defense Fund recently called “The 4th Wave of Environmentalism,” driven by technology and multi-sector efforts.
Policy commitments, together with specific operational goals and strategies for a more resource-efficient and lower-carbon campus, are helping UConn lead the way to a prosperous, clean technology future.
The following blogs, written by UConn faculty and students who attended COP 23 in Bonn, Germany, reflect on the outcomes and impacts of the Conference, both within and outside the official zones of negotiation:
Living City: Climate Messages Communicated Through Public Spaces Mary Donato
Networking at COP 23 Caroline Anastasia
Will the United States Actually Leave Paris? Colby Buehler
Key Outcomes of COP 23
Dr. Scott Stephenson, Assistant Professor, Geography
With so many events taking place at the 23rd Conference of the Parties (COP 23) organized by a multitude of diverse actors spanning a range of venues and campuses, one could be forgiven for wondering what exactly the COP is. Is it a political summit? An academic conference? A clean energy tech convention? A global anti-coal demonstration? While it has grown to encompass all of these since its first meeting in 1995, at its heart, the COP serves as the annual meeting of more than 190 parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). As such, the primary function of the COP is to provide a forum for formal negotiations among official state delegations on a global climate agreement. “But wait,” you might ask, “didn’t the parties already negotiate a global climate agreement at COP 21 in Paris – the Paris Agreement?” Indeed they did – but at that time, the parties essentially signed on to the agreement in principle, with the understanding that the details would be worked out in due time. These details were the focus of the negotiations last year in Marrakech (COP 22) and this year in Bonn. In particular, COP 23 centered on finalizing key details of the “rule book” for implementing the Paris Agreement: who should do what, by when, how, and with what technical and financial support.
With this in mind, what were some of the key outcomes of COP 23?
Progress on planning for the global stocktake – the “Talanoa Dialogue”
An essential component to the Paris Agreement is the “ratchet and review” process, whereby parties’ collective efforts to tackle climate change will be assessed against the long-term Paris goals, and “ratcheted up” if necessary. In Bonn, it was agreed that a facilitative dialogue among parties to take stock of these efforts would begin in 2018, under a process now known as the “Talanoa Dialogue.” With Fiji the host of COP 23, the word “Talanoa” was chosen to reflect “a process of inclusive, participatory, and transparent dialogue” that highlights the need to elevate the voices of the most impacted parties in the room. This traditional emphasis on fair and just outcomes echoes the UNFCCC core concept of “common but differentiated responsibilities,” which has been invoked to justify calls by developing countries for enhanced ambition and assistance from developed countries. The adoption of such language would seem to be cause for celebration among developing countries, were it not for…
Lack of progress on loss and damage
Hopes were high among developing countries that loss and damage – those climate impacts that cannot be avoided with mitigation or adaptation – would be enshrined in the UNFCCC process under the Fijian COP presidency. Unfortunately, strong opposition from developed countries such as the US, Canada, and Australia stalled the inclusion of loss and damage finance in the assistance that developed countries will give to developing countries to carry out their Paris commitments. For now, loss and damage seems to have been relegated to further discussion in an “expert dialogue” to be convened in May 2018.
COP 23 took steps toward supporting the implementation of gender-related decisions in the UNFCCC process, formally recognizing the importance of gender in climate capacity-building and knowledge-sharing activities. In addition, efforts to advance an indigenous knowledge platform within the UNFCCC gained traction at COP 23, opening the door to increased use of traditional knowledge alongside western scientific ways of knowing (e.g. IPCC reports). Both of these developments strengthen the role that traditionally marginalized groups will play in the negotiations going forward, even if the specific outcomes of each platform have yet to be realized.
In a bold statement of new ambition, Canada, the UK, and 17 other countries committed to rapidly phasing out coal power by 2030. The alliance aims to accelerate the decline of coal in the global energy market in favor of renewable or less carbon-intensive energy sources, and send a strong signal that developed countries aim to deliver on their Paris commitments in advance of the first meeting of the Talanoa Dialogue. It should be noted that the countries currently signed on to the alliance account for less than 3% of coal use worldwide, and do not include the largest coal-users such as China, India, Russia, and of course, the US. Nevertheless, the alliance is significant as an example of “energy diplomacy,” revealing a divide between the US and some of its closest allies in the energy marketplace. Gone are the days when developed countries could be expected to negotiate as a bloc, opposing climate ambition at every turn. Now, a more distributed leadership regime reigns at the UNFCCC, within which developed and developing countries may find their climate priorities aligned in ways that may have seemed impossible before Paris. If the US were to rejoin the Paris Agreement under a new president beyond 2020, it will likely find its leadership marginalized in favor of other states and non-state actors whose activities are now shaping the trajectory of the negotiations for the years to come.
Needed on Climate: Ambition, Courage, Realism – with no time to waste.
My takeaways from the Bonn Climate Summit.
Dr. Anji Seth, Professor, Geography
1. COP23 in Bonn was all about “ambition”. In the 2015 Paris Agreement the countries of the world committed to limiting global temperature increase to “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels”.
We knew back then that national pledges made in advance of Paris accounted for only ~1/3 of the emissions reductions required. The Agreement was written with a 5-year review mechanism and transparency that was designed to incentivize increasing national ambition over time.
Meanwhile an Emissions Gap Report is published annually as a check up on how we are doing. The 2017 report (see vox article for excellent summary) came out just before the November Bonn UN climate summit. The good news is that greenhouse gas emissions are coming down in Europe and the US. And that China is on board to begin reductions soon. The bad news is that even if we were all wildly successful at meeting the pledges made for Paris, we’d be only 1/3 of the way to the goal for 2030, and worse, emissions are not ramping down as fast as were planned. More Ambition is needed.
2. Carbon pricing is the key to success – and it appears that method matters. Europe, parts of the US and other regions have set up Emissions Trading Schemes (ETS). An ETS places a cap on emissions and allows for trading of emission permits under the cap. In this method the price is determined by the market with the emissions cap specified and reduced over time. This should lead to increasing price of carbon. Contrary to this expectation, the experience in Europe (and also in the Northeast RGGI emissions market) has been that the cap can reduce emissions in the sectors to which it is applied, however, the price determined by the market has not increased as required. An economist at the German Pavilion at COP23 explained that traders can benefit more overall if the price of emissions is held low. Whereas the ETS carbon price was expected to be equivalent to that from a rising Carbon Fee, experience in the past decade has shown that trading schemes do not achieve an increasing price on carbon that is needed to transform the economy away from fossil fuel. At the time of this writing the price/ton of Carbon in RGGI is ~$5. The Gap Report estimates a price less than $100 would be sufficient to create an economy wide transition. Still many of the new pricing schemes planned around the world are continuing to use ETS. More ambition is needed. And more courage.
3. In the WASI pavilion we learned that the most progressive US states are finding it most difficult to reduce emissions from transportation. The more fuel efficient we make vehicles, the more we drive them! There is lots of discussion about the future of transportation being electrified and autonomous with shared vehicles. The effect of such a transition on emissions remains unclear, and will depend on the fuel source for electricity as well as VMT. If we need to close the emissions gap by 2030 then we have to find a way to reduce emissions from transport.
More ambition is needed. And more courage. And more realism. With no time to waste.
Living City: Climate Messages Communicated Through Public Spaces
Mary Donato, Natural Resources and the Environment
In a conference like the UNFCCC, there is a heavy influence focused on the official delegations of the parties. Of course much of the action at any COP is tied into the decision making and discussions within the negotiations. For those of us outside the official zones of negotiation, public spaces become centers of idea trading and demonstration.
Throughout our days in Bonn, I have seen many ways in which public spaces have been used to communicate messages regarding the proceedings of the conference as well as climate change as a whole. From small signs in the street to a globe shaped cake in the window of a bakery, signs of the climate discussions are all over Bonn. The public presentations I’ve seen are varied in form and impact, but are all important in sharing the voice of people worldwide.
I find it impactful to see public space used effectively in context of this situation. For instance, the path between the Bonn and Bula Zones contains a long path of open areas in which exhibits are set up and open to the public. These projects included monuments to climate refugees and a life-sized graph depicting carbon emissions as they spike rapidly in modern times. Represented by a pipeline piercing through a polar bear and titled “Unbearable,” the sculpture (which was extended to reflect current emission accuracies while I viewed it) is a striking example of symbolism causing a reaction within the community. In contrast, I find that the interactive and community-based projects are more effective in bringing the climate change issues close to home for a greater audience.
In continuing on the path from the Bula to the Bonn Zones, more projects to see and experience were set up. A display of protest signs carrying varying messages all relevant throughout the history of the world were present and created a sense of how the public finds a way for its voice to be heard in a determination transcending specific issues. The creation of a peace blanket and tree sculpture were more interactive projects both including inviting passerby to write a message to be added to the final product. It was obvious to see that such interactive projects are much more engaging to audiences of all ages, and having them available in public spaces allows for conversations surrounding various issues to be open and present for practically anyone regardless of barriers such as language.
Public spaces have a huge impact on life in any location, but particularly a city that is currently full of such a diverse and spirited population. Public transportation, used by many, is a relevant space for providing information and evoking a response. A train station nearby to the UN campus on which the conference is located had an exhibit with beautiful pictures of the non-beautiful realities of lignite mining, a major component of Germany’s energy economy. Large sculptures of “Trash People” brought attention to waste inherent to modern societies. Just outside this train station, public protests on inequality brought further attention to issues being discussed here at COP23.
To see all of these public exhibits and presentations made in collaboration across the people of so many nations and backgrounds is amazing. The reactions and discussions created by these items can be seen on the faces of those experiencing them. I know that seeing these public presentations makes me feel that myself and my fellow UConn representatives here at COP23 are in good company in our concern and push for action. We can find hope not only in any progress made in the conference, but also in passionate people all over the globe.
Networking at COP 23
Caroline Anastasia, Chemistry, Minor in Mathematiccs
One of the things that made my experience as a UConn@COP23 Fellow so memorable was meeting and conversing with like-minded people from around the world. Despite the diverse backgrounds of everyone gathered in Bonn, Germany for the UN’s 23rd annual Climate Summit and Conference of the Parties, it was reassuring and even inspiring to know that so many of us share deep concerns about global warming and even stronger commitments to climate action.
But even for an extrovert like me, it was difficult, in the hustle and bustle of navigating public transit between Cologne and Bonn, and attending presentations, workshops, panel discussions and side events, to connect with others outside of my UConn cohort. That’s why one of my favorite activities during the week was the Higher Education Networking Event, co-sponsored by UConn along with Tufts University, Second Nature, and the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE). Held on a Tuesday evening, following a busy day of programs and proceedings, the event attracted upwards of 200 students, faculty, staff and friends to the US Climate Action Center in Bonn, also known as the “We Are Still In” Pavilion, which was located alongside the main venue for COP23. With free food and drinks, and music playing in the background, I found great conversation about the environment and sustainability with student peers and others from universities across the country – there was no way this event could have turned out less than stellar.
Beginning with opening remarks by Tim Carter, the President of Second Nature, and Rich Miller, a lead organizer of what was now the third annual higher education reception to be held during the UN’s climate summit , the crowd in attendance quickly became aware of UConn’s presence at COP23. As the night progressed, we networked with conference attendees from California to Georgia and Indiana, and even students from France, Germany and Bosnia.
I met a graduate student from Yale who worked doing carbon accounting and compiling greenhouse gas inventories for various companies in New Haven. Though we were both about 3,700 miles away from our Connecticut campuses, we made plans to meet again, closer to home, to continue our conversation. I then met a group of students from Indiana University who told me about the higher-level negotiations they had observed that day at the Bonn Zone. Later, I enjoyed talking with several MBA students from Paris who were focusing on sustainability in business.
It was very interesting to learn where all the participants at the event came from, and how each of them had incorporated their unique interests in sustainability into their coursework and research. As a junior majoring in Chemistry, these interactions gave me some ideas about how I might do the same. The higher ed networking event was definitely a highlight for me, and I hope that UConn continues to host such a great event at future COPs.
Will the United States Actually Leave Paris?
Colby Buehler, Chemical Engineering
On the final day of programming at the US Climate Action Center two key personnel in securing the Paris Agreement for the United States gave their thoughts on where the US would end up on the accord. After President Trump announced that he intended to leave the Paris Agreement in early June questions about the extent of the withdrawal began to surface. Todd Stern brought up three main options for the US moving forward. The first involves a complete and total withdrawal from the agreement. This process requires some time before it can come to fruition. The agreement locks in countries for five years and even if the President wanted to he could not formally withdrawal for another few years.
The second path for the US ultimately leads back to joining the agreement. Because the formal withdrawal process requires some time, the next administration could come back in and reverse the decision to leave. One of the themes of the talks at the US Climate Action Center throughout the week was the volatility of the US and that our word only lasts for four years at a time. Stern warned that even if the next administration immediately reenters the agreement the damage would persist. The final option Stern explored involves the US staying in Paris but lowering our targets. In the Paris Agreement each country voluntarily sets their own targets for reducing emissions. If the Trump administration views the targets as too high they can come back to the table at future COPs to lower the target goals without facing penalties. While this would show a lack of leadership and might encourage other countries to relax their own goals, this would keep an American presence at the table. In terms of the amount of effort involved, Stern argued that the third option would be the easiest which might encourage the Trump administration down that path.
While I wish we did not need to concern ourselves with these matters, I hope that the US remains in the agreement in one way or another. The United States disproportionately contributed to climate change and we should play a lead role in trying to remedy the situation. I agree with Stern that if this administration wants to limit US involvement in the Paris Accord, we should lower our targets rather than leave entirely. Keeping a place at the table is far too valuable to give up for simply appealing to the administration’s base. Based on the logistics of withdrawing from the agreement I believe we will end up staying in the agreement for better or worse.
Carbon Sequestration, Forests, and Higher Education
Colby Buehler, Chemical Engineering
The idea of preserving forests has always made good sense to me, for a long list of reasons. But add to that list, the notion of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and I had to learn more. That’s why I attended a COP23 session at the US Climate Action Center about carbon sequestration, called The Big Sink: Large-scale Land Management to Meet Climate Goals. An expert panel of representatives from Washington, Oregon, California, the University of Maine, and the World Bank got together to specifically address the successes and challenges of using forests for carbon sequestration.
The representatives from the three west coast states focused on the challenges of protecting forests through careful planning and limiting of urban sprawl, and by using specific incentives, like the California Cap-and-Trade program and forestry offset initiatives. I was especially interested in Dr. Aaron Strong’s discussion about the University of Maine’s leadership in utilizing their forests for reducing carbon levels and boosting educational opportunities.
Dr. Strong started with a description of the University of Maine as a public land grant university and noted that they oversee the protection of 5,500 hectares of forests near campus. These forests play an important role in meeting carbon footprint reduction efforts under the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (since renamed the Carbon Commitment) because of their value as emissions offsets and carbon sinks. This Carbon Commitment challenges universities to reach net-zero carbon emissions at their campuses by 2050 – several hundred college and university presidents signed on as far back as 2007. Currently, UMaine forests sequester 10,000 tons of carbon per year and eight companies utilize their land through the Californian Cap-and-Trade program. While this represents only a relatively small portion of UMaine’s total carbon footprint, every bit matters to them in order to reach their carbon neutrality goal.
While the forests play a key role in helping reach carbon goals for UMaine, they also serve as living laboratories for environmental education and research in fields such as ecology, environmental engineering, and natural resources and the environment. Dr. Strong emphasized the importance of getting students involved in forest research projects. He argued that if students can get outside to experience nature firsthand during their coursework they would be more likely to continue with environmental careers, research and activism after graduation.
UMaine continues to actively seek out opportunities to enhance their forest management program and collaborate with other organizations. Recently Dr. Strong assembled a group of higher education institutions and businesses to discuss different ways to enhance climate action initiatives by utilizing forests.
We can learn from UMaine’s accomplishments. I would love to see a dialogue between UConn and UMaine to strengthen forest management programs at both institutions. Environmental leadership includes collaborating and exchanging information with your peers for mutual benefit. COP23 and the U.S. Climate Action Center featured many talks by business and governmental leaders that incorporated the role of universities. As a COP23 fellow, I look forward to bringing these discussions back to UConn.
A Presentation on Nuclear Energy
Benjamin Hawkins, History and Human Rights
We started our first full day in Bonn, Germany, visiting the U.S. We Are Still In (WASI) tent. Unfortunately, it turned out the center was closed to the public for a business conference. While our group lingered outside to consider alternative plans for the day, we were invited to view a talk on nuclear energy. Apparently, the presentation group was scheduled to present at the same event we originally planned on attending, but was uninvited at the last minute. Their explanation for the removal was that the U.N. determined nuclear energy should not take part in sustainable energy discussions.
The abridged 15-minute presentation was, in a word, interesting. It was one-sided since there was a clear objective to persuade the audience that nuclear energy is an excellent carbon-neutral choice over coal and other fossil fuels. Given that time was limited, details and facts were largely missing and we instead experienced flashy rhetoric. Beyond that, it was fascinating to see how they argued that nuclear is a “sustainable and pragmatic” choice.
I am largely uninformed about the pros and cons of nuclear energy but I thought their points had at least superficial merit. Nuclear power can reliably provide the amount of power the world currently uses, while quickly reducing the global harmful emissions that COP23 is intending to eliminate. They stressed that emission reduction goals were not feasible with only conventional alternative energy since it is more expensive and is reliant on unpredictable factors (e.g sun and wind). Furthermore, they criticized Germany for recently investing in brown coal, the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel. In particular, they objected to Germany’s approval of a new strip mining operation on the outskirts of Bonn that had resulted in the evacuation of a small farming village. Obviously, there are valid concerns about radioactive nuclear waste, which the group did not address. But I am still intrigued as to why nuclear power has such a small role in today’s energy discussions. It seems like it should at least be considered at the U.N.’s international climate summit.
A highlight of the 15-minute presentation was an opera singer’s rendition of an anti-coal message. For an environmental opera singer (looks like those exist), I enjoyed his voice! His performance might have not persuaded anyone through hard science and statistics, but it did get our group’s attention.
Norm Reform: The Power of #WeAreStillIn
Mary Donato, Natural Resources and the Environment
On the final day of presentations at the U.S. Climate Action Center, near the official COP23 “Bonn” and “Bula” Zones, our UConn@COP group of students and faculty attended a talk by Todd Stern, Special Envoy for Climate Change in the Obama Administration, and Susan Biniaz, a legal adviser for US climate negotiations. This talk, on the last day of the “We Are Still In” (WASI) events, was interesting to listen to, as it brought the perspective of those who really led the charge of climate negotiations in past years.
One particular quote by Todd Stern stood out to me. In explaining how the United States will move forward in light of the announcement that the federal government intends to pull out of the Paris Agreement, he stated that “politics is the killer.” As soon as he said it, I realized how many of the things I had seen throughout the week proved the statement true. So many people and groups showed up to represent their passion and share their stories and ambitions. Movements from humble beginnings, individuals affected by storms and sea level rise, representatives from companies huge and small, and groups of students, all attended the conference in numbers that reflect the interest and willingness of the people to move forward.
The many WASI speakers and panels at the U.S. pavilion were a huge reflection of the intention of subnational entities to move forward with climate action. It was rightfully brought up at the closing panel that this sort of subnational movement is complicated and can become cumbersome. However, it is refreshing to see coalitions like WASI, which includes cities and states, businesses, NGOs and higher education, continue their commitment to climate action, despite political leaders at the federal level. There was no inkling of politics “killing” climate change movements from the hundreds of people representing the coalition who showed up at COP23. Despite any roadblocks politics may present, there is already clear evidence, at the subnational level, of a determination to overcome.
Any Conference of the Parties is by nature a political gathering. Despite this fact, Todd Stern made a powerful statement that helped me realize why the WASI movement is so important. He talked about the idea that creating norms is more powerful than creating laws. For example, renewable energy technologies are cheaper and more efficient than ever, and will drive the more widespread use of cleaner energy instead of carbon-intensive fossil fuels.
As these and other costs of being environmentally friendly get lower, and as diverse groups become more engaged, so to will climate action become a norm throughout the United States and worldwide. My experience at COP23, as a representative of the WASI coalition, assured me that we have the power to create positive norms for future generations.
Harmonizing Climate Action Priorities
Rebecca Kaufman, Political Science and Human Rights, Public Policy Minor
It’s been a few weeks since I returned from COP23. Even after arriving home and discussing my experience with friends and family, I still have trouble distilling what I learned and the myriad emotions I felt into an ‘elevator speech’ (which, frankly, is all people really want to hear).
I feel frustrated that the numerous disciplines studying climate change—from sociology, to political science, to human rights, to chemistry, to engineering, to ecology are ‘silo-ed.’ In my conversations with my peers, I recognized a dissonance between what each of us thought should be prioritized in the fight to mitigate climate change. After attending a panel hosted by the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy and Tuft’s Fletcher School, called “The Engine of Ambition: University Research and Engagement to Support Climate Action,” I realized this dissonance I felt was not unfounded. While the panel was focused specifically on the research in public policy programs, the message carries over to all researchers and academics: If we are not taking it upon ourselves to make sure that our research is understandable and accessible to the general public and policy makers, what’s the point? This means extra work.
Obviously, more complex reports are necessary to ensure that our research can be expanded upon by others in our fields. However, the increasing specialization of academics necessitates the production of summary documents, like white papers, that explain research in language understandable to those outside of our fields of expertise. Beyond that, both natural and social scientists are constituents. It seems obvious to me now that we can’t just make our work accessible. As members of a democracy, it is our civic duty to actively bring our research to our policy makers and help them understand its urgency.
A quick Google search of the question “what is the responsibility of a politician?” produces countless iterations of the same thing—the responsibility of a politician is to secure and protect our unalienable rights. When it comes down to it, the fight against climate change is the fight for the right to live—a clean and healthy place to live is the foundation upon which all other institutions are built. What is more unalienable than the right to life?
My experience at COP23 left me feeling a lot of things, but most tangibly, I feel motivated. As a political science and human rights student, it’s easy to feel hopeless and dissatisfied. Having the opportunity to collaborate and learn from a group of people whose academic and life experiences are so fundamentally different from mine, reminded me of my purpose, as a minuscule person in a gigantic universe.
The following blog posts, written by members of the UConn contingent to COP 23, discuss the engagement of the private sector in climate action through fiscally sustainable green business and corporate responsibility:
The WASI Pavilion: A Place for Encouragement and Inspiration at COP23 Rich Miller
Panels at the U.S. Climate Action Center Show How Businesses Can Lead on Carbon Reductions Lindsey Tenenbaum
Is Corporate Social Activism a Good Thing? How the role of US businesses in climate policy has overstepped its mission Jillianne Lyon
The Future of Green Finance: How can Wall Street create a more sustainable economy? Austin Langer
The WASI Pavilion: A Place for Encouragement and Inspiration at COP23
Rich Miller, Director, UConn Office of Environmental Policy & Sustainability
This was the third year for the UConn@COP program, and each year has been a distinctly different experience. We’ve traveled from the historic celebration of the Paris Agreement, which radiated great hope from the “City of Light” at COP21, to the post-U.S. election concerns, which cast a shadow over COP22 in Morocco. Now, it was onto Bonn in 2017, under a cloud of disappointment and uncertainty about how the Trump Administration’s announced plans to withdraw from the Paris Agreement would affect international progress on climate action. One way or another, COP23 would also be pivotal to the future of the UConn@COP program.
A huge difference about COP23, and one that frankly salvaged our group’s overall experience in Bonn, was the presence of hundreds, if not thousands, of representatives from the “We are Still In” (WASI) coalition of U.S. businesses, state and municipal governments, NGOs and higher education. With no public “Green Zone” as part of the UN’s formal COP23 proceedings, we instead relied on side events, some of which were highly impactful (see our previous blog set Climate Justice and Solidarity). We also leaned heavily on the three days of WASI-organized programming held in the U.S. Climate Action Center (USCAC).
A remarkable aspect of the WASI coalition’s determined presence at COP23, was its righteous representation of the sheer economic and political power that remains fully engaged in climate action here in the U.S. and around the world. After all, the combined purchasing power of the WASI coalition, at $6.2 trillion dollars annually, is nearly half the Gross Domestic Product of the U.S. If this “Made in America” public-private coalition were a nation unto itself, it would be the third largest economy in the world! Despite WASI’s unofficial UN status as a sub-national entity, it proved at COP23 that it can nonetheless be a powerful voice for global leadership on climate action.
Unlike our experiences at previous COPs, the executives speaking from the panels and lecterns at the USCAC weren’t representing just the obligatory green businesses and b-corporations, but included some of America’s largest companies, which own and operate manufacturing and distribution facilities all around the world. Make no mistake, these are companies that can drive the global transition to clean energy through best practices and more sustainable operations. They can also ensure the success of thousands of smaller green businesses, which provide essential goods and services to them, through their sustainable supply chain standards and procurement policies.
It was reassuring and inspiring to see these U.S. based mega-companies, along with a number of state governors, city mayors and college presidents, stepping up at COP23 to fill a leadership void created by the Trump Administration’s step backwards. I enjoyed hearing from chief sustainability officers (CSOs) at companies like Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart, Microsoft, Mars, Ingersoll Rand and Patagonia, talking about progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from their own operations and supply chains. It was obvious to me that their corporate CEOs and investors firmly believe that strong environmental performance is good for their brand and their business, and not just a matter of compliance with laws, regulations or international treaties.
I realized too, watching and learning from many of the WASI panelists at COP23, that the corporate CSO’s job is not that different from my own as UConn’s sustainability director (substituting sustainability-related academic metrics for the profit motive, of course). Even in academia, a good business case, such as cost savings, bolsters the likelihood of success for any sustainability initiative advanced by my office. Likewise, building UConn’s reputation for sustainability and environmental stewardship, helps attract and retain the best and brightest students, faculty and staff to the University, just as a company’s strong brand for climate leadership attracts consumers.
Representing UConn as part of the WASI coalition (President Herbst signed the WASI pledge last June), and participating in the events at the U.S. Climate Action Center, truly made COP23 a unique and memorable experience. And, for the third year in a row, UConn was proud to co-host a higher education networking event at the COP, this one attended by hundreds of faculty, staff and students who were in Bonn to observe the proceedings and loudly proclaim that “We Are Still In.”
Panels at the U.S. Climate Action Center Show How Businesses Can Lead on Carbon Reductions
Lindsey Tenenbaum, International Business Management and Natural Resources
Todd Stern, former Special Envoy for Climate Change for the Obama Administration, summed up the challenge in his remarks toward the end of COP23: Can we transform the economy quickly enough to avoid the catastrophic impacts of climate change? This dilemma stresses the urgency for businesses to take on a larger percentage of the U.S., as well as the global, effort in combatting climate change.
The challenge now is to capitalize on the benefits of areas like the renewable energy market and closed loop systems. Additionally, we need to develop more accurate models for predicting the cost associated with not implementing risk mitigation techniques meant to help curb our changing climate. It has been mentioned numerous times throughout the week that if we can figure out how to measure the cost, we can then figure out a way to implement it into the decision-making process.
There are examples of businesses that have already started to factor this into their decision-making. In a panel earlier in the week hosted by the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES), business leaders from a range of sectors discussed ways their companies have been on the forefront of implementing environmentally sustainable practices within their supply chains. David Eichberg, Sustainability and Social Innovations Lead for HP, explained how there has recently been a branching off of corporate environmental responsibility (CER) from the more commonly known practice of corporate social responsibility (CSR). Specifically at HP, they have implemented environmental scorecards, which feed into annual supplier scorecards (a multi factor rating of how “good” a supplier is). Now, when a supplier is more environmentally friendly it can boost their score by 10% and conversely, if they are not participating in environmentally friendly practices, their score stands to be reduced by up to 50%.
Perhaps my biggest take away from COP23 so far has been that policy takes time. When looking at how long agreements between countries can take (there were many previous attempts that lead to the formatting of the Paris Climate Agreement) it is easy to see that efforts in other areas have to be made if we want to win this “race.” U.S. businesses can make a huge statement because they represent such a large portion of the economy. A great example of this is the more than 1700 businesses that have signed the “We Are Still In” pledge, where they are committing to uphold the targets of the Paris Climate Agreement. Persistence such as this will help us continue to pull our weight in global effort to reduce climate change.
Is Corporate Social Activism a Good Thing? How the role of US businesses in climate policy has overstepped its mission
Jillianne Lyon, Human Rights and Political Science, Minor in French
Climate change and business are inevitably intertwined. The fossil fuel industry has propagated and profited off environmental degradation for years, aiding companies in all sectors to increase profit margins and dodge social accountability.
This year at COP23 in Bonn, Germany, business is playing a new role on the other side of the equation. Among local and academic leaders, American companies forged their own place in the UN climate conference, funding a US Climate Action Center adjacent to the Fiji-hosted pavilions. The US tent, nicknamed ‘WASI’ after its #WeAreStillIn slogan, represents organizations, politicians, and companies that have committed to the Paris Agreement goals in light of President Trump’s announced withdrawal this past June. Big brands like HP, Target, Coca Cola, Walmart, Microsoft, and Mars are spotlighted as they debut green initiatives on sustainability, renewable energy, and ethical investing. Federal silence on climate action has given way to an astonishing level of corporate social activism.
However, between the “We Are Still In” printed tote bags and specialty m&m’s, the back patting seems a bit premature. Conversations in the WASI tent are narrowly curated to feature businesses as lead protagonists in the fight against climate change, sidelining other key voices in the discussion. The predominantly white businessmen-dominated discussions curtail critiques on gender, colonialism, and classism that affect the core of climate change.
Focusing on business leaders limits the conversation of climate solutions to corporate actions. Many of the talks hosted by the WASI tent focused on economic incentives and the profitability of sustainability instead of policy reforms and targeted research. This allows companies to control the terms of climate reforms to minimize damages on their business. NGOs and public institutions that often call out corporate conduct are marginalized in these climate discussions where they should be highlighted. The WASI events lack representation from indigenous groups, Small Island Developing States (SIDS), racial minorities, and other communities disproportionately vulnerable to climate change effects.
Secondarily, business-centric dialogue amplifies the voice of the private sector in government, where corporate lobbying already plays a dominant role. Governor Kate Brown (OR) took time from her interview to commend Nike (headquartered in Oregon) for “working everyday to reduce their carbon footprint.” Brown, as well as representatives from Hawaii, Minnesota, and California focused their panel presentations on policies that engage manufacturing industries, support renewable energy companies, and (most importantly) create jobs. Catering local policies to business interests, as well as narrowing dialogue to economics, leaves space for company interests to take center stage.
All this being said, the companies member to the We Are Still In coalition at COP23 have undoubtedly displayed incredible leadership on climate change where the government has stepped back. Their level of corporate activism is in many ways unprecedented, and greatly applauded by the international community. This is the first time I’ve heard a multinational corporation highlight local agriculture, sustainable supply chains, or habitat preservation. However, in this acknowledgement, critique is also warranted. Problems arise when the private sector is empowered and even encouraged to play a center role in social activism. The core of any business is to manifest and increase profit. We cannot ignore capitalist structures when amplifying corporate voices, especially when consumerism fueled global warming in the first place. It is additionally problematic to overlook widespread green-washing, where businesses often fund sustainable campaigns like #WeAreStillIn while simultaneously engaging in climate damaging practices.
Businesses have an important role to play in the fight against climate change, but that role is not center stage. Local representatives, NGOs, and communities disparately affected by climate damages should be principal voices in the discussion, especially at events like COP23. It’s time to redirect power from profit-driven companies to people who fight and have always fought on the frontlines of climate justice.
The Future of Green Finance: How can Wall Street create a more sustainable economy?
Austin Langer, Finance and Economics
Business leaders from the top global banks joined each other on stage to discuss their responsibility in the financing of green investments and the role their institutions need to play in financing an energy transformation. Anne Kelly moderated this panel that was made up of Michael Wilkins, Managing Director, Global Envrionmental & Climate Risk Research, S&P Global Ratings; Abyd Karmali, Managing Director, Climate Finance, Bank of America Merill Lynch; Val Smith, Director and Global Head, Corporate Sustainability, Citi; and, Erin Robert, Exectuive Director, Sustainable Finance, JPMorgan Chase.
All of the business leaders were quick to acknowledge the role of human factors in climate change, but the conversation pivoted to discussing how to move forward to mitigate the risks of climate change and change our energy sources from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
The financial industry has begun to make more and more investments into sustainable companies, such as wind farms and solar panel companies. When looking at these investments instead of traditional companies the difference of returns are immaterial, just a few bases points. Although the banks are not maximizing their returns, there is a social return for being environmentally conscious and investing in sustainable companies. The banks are still able to make sizeable returns on their investments, while moving the world towards more sustainable energy choices.
Many of the banks represented at the panel have created green and environmental finance divisions, which are tasked with evaluating the sustainability of investments and whether the cost of lesser financial returns is worth the benefit of social returns. However, all the banks believed the Federal government needs to lead the investment future. Karmali stated, “The public sector needs to use its capital to de-risk low carbon opportunities in emerging markets so we can bring in private capital and scale up”. As we progress further as a society we see an increased emphasis on investing in socially sustainable companies to move away from fossil fuels and transition to renewable energy.