Harvard Dialogues on What can Paris Climate Change Talks achieve?

Verteego went to law firm Herbert Smith Freehills Paris office to attend a Harvard Club of France conversation featuring Nathaniel Keohane as main speaker and Serge Schmemann as a moderator.
Dr. Nathaniel Keohane (pictured left) is a Vice President and head of the International Climate Program at Environmental Defense Fund and served as Special Assistant to President Obama on Energy and Environment between 2011 and 2012.
Serge Schmemann (pictured right) is a member of the editorial board of The New York Times and winner of a Pullitzer price in 1991.

Dr. Keohane addressed not only COP21-related issues but also shared his views on current environmental hot topics.

On COP21: what can we really expect?

Though China has made a major step last week by announcing US-joint plan to fight climate change, nothing says COP21 will be a success:  in fact, a climate report released this Monday affirms the objective of limiting global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius will not be meet and expects an agreement on 6 degrees, recalled Serge Schmemann. Keohane’s input: “We will have an agreement on COP21, but not the kind of agreement the world is hopping for” – not even one inspired by the Kyoto protocol, he says. According to him, the test for Paris is not on whether we lock 2 degrees or not but rather on whether we can agree on concrete measures to make significant progresses towards tackling climate change. For Keohane, the first step is to make global emissions fall and only then we will be able to aim long term goals. He thinks we now rely much more on individual countries – like US, China, EU – to bring forth their own plans to reduce emissions and one of the goals of COP21 is therefore to encourage the efforts of leading countries.

But as the world will be expecting from Paris, in what form will the commitment be made if there are no figures, no percentages? How can we trust the countries to meet their commitments?

What about the role of the United States?

The US is conscious that everyone is looking up to it, but the Congress has been reluctant to accept Obama’s climate pledge, which is a problem because a bipartite approach is essential to get to a solution, says Keohane. Nonetheless, the US is very serious on taking leadership and Keohane thinks that a UN treaty by itself won’t be enough. The US needs to show that when implementing environmental measures the economy will still be going. It has already started to take important steps with the Clean Air Act and, on a larger scale, with the very ambitious Clean Power Plan announced by Obama back in August.

On Shell abandoning its drilling program in the Arctic this week:

It is a good sign, for the Arctic environment at list, but it also means bad news in a long term basis, stresses Keohane: this decision was driven by lower global oil prices, and low prices mean more consumption. Shell has removed this expensive project but might return once prices rise again. The irony is, he reminded, that it is the climate change that made the Arctic more accessible to drilling.

On the Volkswagen gate: can markets really play a role in resolving climate change?

Nathaniel Keohane, as Serge Schmemann recalled, is known for his optimism regarding the role of markets in tackling global warming, but Volkswagen forging gas test emissions is quite contrary the proof of a failure of a environmental contribution by a major western firm. According to Keohane, the silver lining is that this scandal also shows NGOs do have a say in the matter of global warming. Moreover, VW will be facing a significant fine when they thought they could get away with it, and in that sense Keohane thinks economic-incentive policies are effective in addressing the issue.

The conversation was then followed by a question and answer session with the audience.

On carbon trading:

  1. Doesn’t it cause more harm than good as local populations are affected by it? What about social justice?
  2. And how is it moral to allow this “buying of the right to pollute”, as Michael Sandel says?

Dr. Keohane agrees that the first question is essential: the State has to ensure that local populations are not harmed by those policies. There has to be laws that regulate toxic chemicals and other noxious emissions. California’s Cap-and-trade program is a proof that carbon trade can be conceived with due regard to disadvantaged communities.

As to Michael Sandel’s quote, Dr. Keohane thinks that trade emissions keep costs down an drive innovation forward. Though understanding Sandel’s point, he believes carbon trade has truly benefic effects.

What is the future of nuclear power?

Dr. Keohane believes there are two approaches to keep in mind:

First, the more important thing is to reduce gas emissions and if nuclear power is a way to address the problem, we shouldn’t automatically set it aside. But he added that the nuclear power industry is not, currently, doing a “good job” as the security and cost issues are not correctly addressed.

Second, an organization has to be “technology neutral”. The role of the government isn’t to pick winners and losers and so it is still waiting for the nuclear power industry to meet those security and cost issues.

Does Dr. Keohane believe in the “Peak Oil” concept?

Regarding peak coal: coal is leveling off in China and Dr. Keohane does believe we are near peak coal. But regarding peak oil, he is much more skeptical as it is much more difficult to shift to other resources. If it happens, he says, it is going to be policy-driven, but he doesn’t see it happening.