Models for Success and Lessons for the Future: COP15 Analysis
by Sarah Brylinsky, Sustainability Education Coordinator, Center for Environmental and Sustainability Education, Dickinson College
Should we be disappointed, or hopeful?
It was the question on everyone’s mind as the professors, administrators, and students who had spent two weeks in Copenhagen learning from and influencing the negotiations of the United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC)’s 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) flew home to celebrate the holidays, reflect on the outcome and process, and prepare for work ahead in 2010.
From a political perspective, there is much work yet to be done. The intent of the conference was to complete legally binding negotiations on a new international agreement as the Kyoto Protocol winds to a close in 2012. The aim was lofty -- to create a new agreement be reached, one which surmounts the difficulty of balancing cost-effectiveness with equitable policy architecture and generates enough consensus to come into effect as a long-term solution to mitigating and adapting to climate change.
With mere hours left in the conference, an unexpected agreement took form behind closed doors, virtually erasing the progress (and lack thereof) from previous days. The Copenhagen Accord, a politically binding but not legally binding agreement, was created by the USA, China, India, South Africa, and Brazil. All seventeen countries of the Major Economies Forum—which account for 90% of global emissions—will participate. The confirmation from major developing economies previously at the fringes of Kyoto development processes (including the United States) is a huge step forward to finding common ground for action on an international scale.
But as Robert Stavins points out “…let’s be honest about the difference between the outcome of the 1997 negotiations in Kyoto (a detailed 20-page legal document, the Kyoto Protocol) and the outcome of the 2009 negotiations in Copenhagen (a general 3-page political statement, the Copenhagen Accord).” Key points are summarized in his December analysis. Major downfalls of the agreement include a lack of metrics for evaluating commitments, compliance mechanisms, policy review, afforestation mechanisms, market linkage facilitation, technology transfer mechanisms, methods for updating the agreement or providing incentives for developing countries to participate, lack of carbon finance structures, and incongruence with international trade rules.
From a civic perspective, there is still much work to be done. As institutions, we face the challenge of continuing to reinvent and reconfigure everything from our fiduciary reasoning to the potential for transdisciplinary classroom interactions and do so without federal support for climate change awareness driving further resources to our doors. Yet the success of constituencies including students, teachers, and administrators, along with environmental NGOs, indigenous peoples, farmers, and especially youth during the negotiations in relating to one another and finding common ground on which to move forward was invigorating, unprecedented, and powerful. Our common resolution to learn from one another and use our various strengths to make change at both local and global levels was most present in those representing colleges and universities; a shift in purpose has been made, and our resolve to discover differently and engage sustainably will only continue to inspire and pressure political change. Look to any major news source during the negotiations and you will find youth, student, and academic voices making strong calls for fair, timely, ethical climate justice – their voices carried rocky negotiations through two weeks of tumult to arrive at the end of December with a sense of common ability and purpose.
As negotiations faltered Wednesday evening, students and youth organized a peaceful sit-in with a clear message: ‘We stand in solidarity with millions of people who need climate justice, and we will settle for nothing less.’ Their actions and those of other civil society constituencies jumpstarted negotiations the following day. Photo by Ellie Johnston
The answer – hope or disappointment? - is further complicated by a more fundamental question – by what criteria do we measure success? The timeliness of the outcome? Ethical fortitude? Feasibility (political buoyancy)?
Our institutions provide hope in a time of discouragement. The international community can learn from the success of the ACUPCC in creating peer incentives for committing to climate neutrality and creating individualized and effective climate action plans. The success of the ACUPCC as a model for private sector emissions reductions (which include successful flexibility mechanisms by allowing individual colleges to create reduction strategies appropriate to their strengths, geography, and demographics) provides an unparalleled model from which other organizations could learn to find a similar balance between mandatory reductions and flexible approaches. You can read more about my analysis of the ACUPCC as a successful model for supporting national reductions incentives here. There is great hope on which to celebrate our successes and bolster our renewed efforts in sustainability development in higher education given the response of civil society to new educational paradigms, the shift in higher education to a self-monitored climate change action agenda, and the potential for using these tools as leverage for greater political strength.
Keep an eye out for further analysis and agendas from delegations such as Dickinson College, Ithaca College, College of the Atlantic, Stanford University, Dartmouth, Alma, and the College of William and Mary. Their observations will continue to inform us as a community well into the new academic year. And this Spring, AASHE will host a post-conference webinar with the members of Dickinson College's interdisciplinary student research team to get a synthesis of the negotiations, learn what the impacts of the negotiations are on our goals as institutions and allow viewers to ask questions. The date and time of the webinar will be announced on their website.
The Copenhagen Accord provides us with potential at the beginning of the new year. Our task lies in continuing to provide meaningful opportunities for civic engagement for our students and engaging as civic bodies ourselves. Preparing tomorrow’s generation to tackle the very real and complex issues caused by climate change is a more certain necessity now than ever. In the creation and success of implementing the ACUPCC and thousands of creative sustainability programs, higher education has already positioned itself to be a leader in modeling proactive and successful climate change mitigation behavior. Using the successes of our sector will not only strengthen the revitalization of higher education through economic turmoil by continuing to provide very necessary training and engaged learning opportunities, but will also act as a vital contribution to the nation and globe as we all continue to find new ground on which to learn from one another.
Sarah Brylinsky attended COP15 with a delegation of 15 interdisciplinary students from Dickinson College and another sustainability administrator for the full two weeks of the conference. Their observations and research were recorded athttp://blogs.dickinson.edu/copenhagen/*, a blog which will continue through the Spring semester as part of their course “Kyoto to Copenhagen: Negotiating the Future of the Planet.”*
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