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5 Questions on COP21 with Juliette Rooney-Varga

Climate Change Initiative Director Shares Thoughts on Paris Agreement

Rooney-Varga COP21

Assoc. Prof. Juliette Rooney-Varga represented the UMass Lowell Climate Change Initiative at COP21 in Paris.

By Ed Brennen

The 2015 United Nations Conference on Climate Change (aka COP21) in Paris drew delegates from nearly 200 countries and attracted more than 40,000 world leaders, policy-makers, environmentalists, economists, researchers and scientists — including Assoc. Prof. of biological sciences Juliette Rooney-Varga, who represented the UMass Lowell Climate Change Initiative.
Rooney-Varga and her colleagues at Climate Interactive ran World Climate, their simulation of the UN climate negotiations playing out for real. The purpose was to show conference attendees, the media and, ultimately, policy-makers the projected global warming impacts of targeted greenhouse gas emission reductions. 

The conference resulted in the Paris Agreement, a landmark accord that aims to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2°C (3.6°F) by 2100. Rooney-Varga, who blogged during her trip, shared her thoughts on the agreement and on participating in COP21.
Q. It came down to the wire, but the Paris Agreement was adopted on the final day of the conference, governing climate change reduction measures starting in 2020. What do you think of the agreement?

A. The very act of 195 countries forming an agreement that, at its core, is about peace, is historic.  Paris has delivered a globally shared vision of a transition away from fossil fuels and toward a sustainable society. Paris has also made it clear that all countries are already experiencing the impacts of a changing climate and realize that it is in their own self-interest to move away from cheap, polluting fossil energy. Among world leaders, there was no debate that climate change is real, caused by humans and potentially catastrophic for humanity. The question is no longer, “Does the world want to combat climate change?” but rather “How will the world combat climate change?”

Unfortunately, the Paris Agreement leaves that question unanswered. The pledges countries have made thus far as INDCs (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions) are wholly inadequate to meet the stated goal, as negotiators acknowledged. While a five-year review mechanism was included in the agreement, with a goal of ratcheting commitments during reviews, every year that action is postponed only makes the job of addressing climate change more costly and less likely. 
So, ultimately, Paris has punted the ball back to all of us. We know where we must go and it’s time to roll our sleeves up and do the hard work to get there. Now, more than ever, we need local efforts to reduce our own carbon footprints, educate others, develop new technologies and muster the political will to foster a rapid transition away from fossil fuels and toward clean, renewable energy.

Q. This was the first time you attended a Conference of the Parties, or COP. What did you think of the experience?

A. It was really the most diverse conference I’ve gone to in so many different ways. Just to be in a place where there are 195 countries represented, and so many different disciplines, so many different agendas, was really a unique experience. Climate Interactive is a small NGO and, unlike the typical multi-year academic process to get from hypothesis to published results, was able to provide scientific analysis of pledges in near real-time. In Paris a negotiator would say, “Tomorrow show me a scenario where we meet 1.5 degrees warming but India can push off peak emissions for a few more years.” To be able to run the numbers and come back and say, “Here is another scenario. Can you work with this?” ... it’s really a unique gift to the world. I don’t know how else to say it.

Q. Countries came to COP21 with their emissions pledges, or INDCs, which your team showed would result in a 3.5°C increase by 2100. How was your work received?

A. Policymakers knew when they walked through the door that their INDCs were not going to get us to any reasonable climate goal. They also spent quite a bit of time arguing over what the goal should be, 2°C or 1.5°C above preindustrial times.  Perhaps this argument is irrelevant - it’s like arguing about where you’re going to park in San Francisco when you haven’t left the East Coast yet. We’ve got to get this ball rolling. What we need to do is act as soon as possible and do the best we can.

There was a policy analyst advising the Marshall Islands, Farhana Yamin, who framed the goal in terms of a transition to zero carbon emissions as quickly as possible. That’s a message that people really understand and can get behind, one that resonated with my experience with the university’s Climate Action Plan. When the decision to pursue that goal was made, we had not yet come up with a plan for how to achieve it. (Former UMass President) Jack Wilson signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment in 2007 and that was it. We were committed. The net zero emissions goal was put in front of the Climate Action Plan committee and all of a sudden people started thinking, “How can we reach that goal?” By 2014, we had already cut UMass Lowell’s emissions by more than 30 percent of CO2 equivalents per full-time employee, while saving the university millions of dollars. 

Q. Did the recent terrorist attacks in Paris change the atmosphere of the conference?

A. I don’t think so. It felt pretty normal to be there. But terrorism and climate change are linked. Frankly, you could look at what’s happening in the Middle East and say a lot of it is connected to climate change. Conditions are becoming worse there and it could get considerably worse before anything turns around. I think, if anything, this was a conference for peace. Just the fact that there were 195 countries trying to come to an agreement about something that is really about peace is pretty amazing.

Q. What’s the biggest lesson you took from COP21 that applies to your work here on campus?

A. I would say there were two key take-home messages for us here at UMass Lowell. One is to focus on the work we’re already doing here. And the other is that we need to support the efforts of developing nations. They hold the key to the future and it’s in our best interests for them to leapfrog fossil fuel development and develop with clean energy. So anything we can do in our collaborations internationally — like with the program Bob Giles and Chris Niezrecki have with getting solar panels to communities in Haiti — those are the kinds of things that we need to be doing. We need to lead the way and show that it’s possible. We need to be fostering progress and help transition the developing world.