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Angel Hsu stands facing the camera in front of the Old Well.
Angel Hsu

As a graduate student at Yale University, Angel Hsu traveled to Copenhagen for the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference, or the Convention of the Parties (COP) 15. 

“COP 15 completely changed my worldview,” Hsu said. “Why does the UN matter? Because it convenes stakeholders — activists, business leaders, local governments, Indigenous groups academics and policymakers. The UN feels very far away from us as people, but it matters.” 

Attending COP as a student infused purpose into Hsu’s research. Since then, she has delivered two TED Talks, provided expert testimony to the U.S. Senate, co-authored the 2018 UNEP Emissions Gap Report, contributed to the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report, served on the National Committee on U.S.–China Relations and become an overall renowned figure in climate research and sustainability. 

Today, Hsu is an associate professor of public policy in UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences, she is the founder and director of the Data-Driven EnviroLab (DDL), and she takes students every year to COP. 

“UNC-Chapel Hill is a registered observer organization at COP,” Hsu said. “That is an honor and a privilege. There are so many other universities throughout the world that don’t have this opportunity. That’s why I take students every time I go — because I know how life-changing the experience is for students.” 

COP is the world’s only multilateral decision-making forum on climate change, involving nearly every country. The DDL is an interdisciplinary research group focused on quantitative approaches to environmental issues, providing important research to climate negotiators at COP. 

“There is not a lot of accountability because private actors, in many cases, are not being regulated by governments,” she said. “So, the voluntary pledges that they make are not actually enforced. The DDL’s data on the Net Zero Tracker have shown that fossil fuel companies are the most active in pledging that they’re going to go net zero, but none of them has a plan to transition away from fossil fuels. We are trying to provide that accountability.” 

Following COP 28, the Office of the Vice Provost for Global Affairs, the DDL and the UNC-Chapel Hill Undergraduate Student Government’s Executive Branch co-sponsored a panel discussion, which featured the students who attended the conference. They discussed their experiences and the state of climate policy. Significantly, COP 28 resulted in the first international agreement marking the “beginning of the end” of fossil fuels. 

According to Hallie Turner ’24, one of the organizers of the event, the purpose of the panel discussion was to “make a complicated series of negotiations engaging and accessible to all who are curious.” 

Hsu believes climate policy must extend beyond governments to involve non-state actors, and that people around the world should understand how their lives are affected by climate change. 

One area where Hsu bridges the gap between research and practice is through her involvement with the Carolina Asia Center’s Bringing Southeast Asia Home (BSEAH). The five-year initiative offers research opportunities, strengthens global partnerships with Kenan Foundation Asia and the National University of Singapore (NUS), expands scholarly networks, enriches course offerings and hosts events and workshops. 

“One of the main goals of BSEAH is drawing connections between the two regions,” Becky Butler, assistant director for Southeast Asia initiatives in the Carolina Asia Center, said. “Hsu’s work demonstrates perfectly how the regions share challenges and solutions.” 

Last year, Hsu collaborated with researchers at NUS, one of Carolina’s four strategic partners, who are exploring groundbreaking approaches to urban heat management. NUS researchers use Digital Urban Twins, advanced 3D models that simulate various climate scenarios. The tool allows researchers and policymakers to evaluate interventions before implementing them. According to Hsu, urban heat management, such as building modifications and cooling, is hugely important to North Carolina. 

“I was really trying to learn from colleagues in Singapore,” Hsu said. “What are they modeling? What questions are they asking? How are they approaching urban heat management?” 

Hsu discovered techniques used in Singapore and the DDL is applying them in the Research Triangle. Through cross-disciplinary collaboration, the DDL aims to address heat stress disparities and promote environmental justice, contributing to the development of resilient, sustainable cities — in North Carolina and worldwide. 

“We’re never going to solve the problem if people are not talking about it,” Hsu said. “We need to be having these conversations every single day. Climate change — including climate solutions — needs to be part of our consciousness.”

By Madison Van Horn, UNC Global Affairs



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