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After the Paris Agreement, what’s next for climate change policy?

Climate change experts gathered at SIEPR to discuss ramifications of the historic accord reached in December.

Leading climate experts headlining a recent Stanford panel discussion presented optimistic outlooks and a dose of skepticism about the Paris Agreement, reflecting the debate sure to surround the historic accord and its policy implications.

“Having toiled in the trenches of climate change for several decades, I think it's really true that I haven’t seen this much positive energy and progress in this area for a long time,” said Charles Kolstad, a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR), while delivering the event’s introductory remarks. “Progress is always better than no progress.”

The Jan. 28 event, sponsored by SIEPR and the Stanford Environmental and Energy Policy Analysis Center (SEEPAC), featured a distinguished panel of guest speakers: Todd Stern, U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change for the Department of State; Matthew Rodriguez, California’s Secretary for Environmental Protection; Trevor Houser, a partner with the Rhodium Group who leads the firm’s energy and natural resources work; and Jerry Taylor, founder and president of the Niskanen Center, a Washington-based libertarian think tank.

The event came a month after the global conference in Paris, where 186 countries pledged to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. The collective aim of the Paris Agreement is to eventually limit the rise in global temperatures to no more than 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels.

“It establishes the first truly universal and durable climate regime,” said Stern, who, as President Obama’s chief climate negotiator, played a key role in the Paris talks as well as the diplomatic meetings preceding it.

Getting commitments from developing nations that account for about 65 percent of the world’s emissions and instituting a regular reporting plan of emission levels was “extraordinary,” Stern said.

Taylor had a different perspective of the near-universal accord.

“This agreement really is akin to a New Year’s resolution,” he said. “Everyone has agreed to a really great goal, but without any enforcement mechanisms, we don’t believe that anyone is going to be held to the standards.”

Taylor, a vocal proponent of a carbon tax, contended the cost of reaching the climate goals would amount to $3.5 trillion – far from the $100 billion-a-year pledge target of the Paris Agreement.

“The goals are worthwhile, but nothing was really accomplished in Paris,” he said.

Stern agreed the costs are high and that the number of countries pledging to finance climate change measures would need to increase, but “the politics of the issue is even harder than getting the technology (of renewable energy) right,” he said.

Besides, if the Paris Agreement had a binding structure, it would not have received such broad participation, Stern added. Enforcement, in any case, would have been difficult.

“Real verifiable international momentum” is already surfacing, following the past few years of talks between the U.S. and China, Houser said. He cited preliminary estimates showing how China’s greenhouse gas emissions fell 3.1 percent last year, due to a 5 percent decline in coal consumption and large increases in wind, solar and natural gas consumption.

In the U.S., Houser said there is plenty of opportunity on the private sector front.

“There are companies with huge brand risks and they want to make sure that their brands are associated with sustainability, pushing that all the way up their supply chain,” Houser said.

“One of the big challenges,” however, is to create “a policy framework that ensures that states, cities, private companies are interested in leaning on clean energy.”

While California is seen as a model with its ambitious climate-change measures, some economists believe the state’s “smorgasbord of policies” is not cost-effective, said Lawrence Goulder, Stanford’s Shuzo Nishihara Professor of Environmental and Resource Economics. Goulder, who is also a senior fellow at SIEPR, moderated the discussion.

Rodriquez defended the state’s policies, including the so-called cap-and-trade incentive program, and contended that various research reports have not conclusively shown how such programs would increase fuel costs or negatively impact the economy.

“We have found that it is difficult to predict how these things are going to play out, so you want to maintain your options,” Rodriguez said. “And the key is to fine-tune your program and respond to changes, and to be willing to be nimble and make the changes that are necessary. It requires constant vigilance.”

May Wong is a freelance writer.

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