Written by Melissa Wang | Image by Daniel Constable for Angel Hsu
In December 2015, the 21st Convention of Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) also known as COP21, made the headlines with countries coming together to create a new climate agreement. This replaces the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the older and only legally binding climate agreement to date.
But what was so different and significant about COP21?
“If you think about how much the world has changed since 1997, it is a totally different picture,” explained Dr Angel Hsu, Assistant Professor of Social Sciences at Yale-NUS College.
Developing countries, rather than developed countries, are now the heaviest contributors of carbon emissions, and they are fast outpacing their predecessors who were key to the 1997 agreement. In addition, many countries including the US, were no longer willing to commit to any legally binding deal, which signalled a need for a different approach – something COP21 witnessed.
“Paris (COP21) was really different because the discussion was not surrounded on whether or not the agreement would be legally binding,” Dr Hsu said.
“This left the agreement more open in terms of what countries could contribute. Everyone, both developing and developed countries, universally agreed to doing something about climate change, so Paris (COP21) was considered to be a huge success, ” she elaborated, highlighting that the divide between the roles developing and developed countries would play in combatting climate change is now narrowed.
An expert in Environmental Policy, Dr Hsu has participated in seven COP meetings in the last decade as an academic and analyst, helping to work towards this Paris deal. Her role revolves around producing analysis that helps to inform the negotiations at the annual COP meetings. She also helps to make the negotiations more understandable and contextualises it for external audiences like the US Congress.
COP21 however, saw Dr Hsu playing her biggest role yet. Precisely because of the political difficulty of getting nation states to agree on tackling climate change and the trickiness in enforcing legally-binding agreements, Dr Hsu’s research into the roles that cities, private sector and civil societies play instantly became extremely relevant and of interest.
Dr Hsu argues that these sub-national government and non-state actors can contribute significantly to global climate change action, and the impact that they have may be even larger than that of nation states. She had the rare opportunity to present her ideas at an official UNFCCC press conference, with the two most important people at COP21 – Secretariat Christiana Figueres and President Laurent Fabius. Invited to share about her research, Dr Hsu addressed the significance of these sub-national government and non-state actors, by analysing and contextualising their efforts alongside those of nation states.
“Any time you heard any UN or French government official talk about what city states and region were doing, my group (at the Yale Data-driven Environmental Solutions Group) produced that analysis,” describing how her research directly informed negotiations at COP21.
Dr Hsu stressed the importance of understanding how the different levels of governments and business can contribute to global climate change action and “provide a lot more potential” to the climate change pledges made by nation states.
“That was something that appeared more prominently in Paris as compared to previous COPs and changed the rules of the game a little bit,” said Dr Hsu.
“We’re no longer just focused on the agreement, or about ‘legally binding’, or relying on nation states to deliver, because now you have all these other actors who are stepping up with their own efforts against climate change,” she added.
In addition, Dr Hsu produced another report written in collaboration with former Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger’s group R-20 Regions for Climate. Scaling up: Local to Global Climate Change looked at case studies of nine cities and regions implementing effective climate policies, including examples from six of the top ten carbon-emitting countries. The analysis found that if these efforts were scaled up to a national level, the impact would be phenomenal, further demonstrating Dr Hsu’s argument on how sub-national governments influence global climate change actions.
While COP21 is now over, Dr Hsu’s work on environmental policy and research and analysis on climate change does not cease. Having only just returned to Yale-NUS from the conference and the year end break, Dr Hsu will be travelling to Davos in less than two weeks to present the Environmental Performance Index (EPI) – a global ranking of national environmental performance. At Yale-NUS, Dr Hsu not only teaches modules that look into environmental policies, she is also part of team that teaches Comparative Social Institutions, a Common Curriculum course that all students undergo.