Paris could prove the turning point in the global effort to combat climate change, but culture will be as important as policy going forward.
Earlier this week delegates from 196 countries arrived in Paris to attend the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. COP21 is neither the first nor will it be the last COP. Yet many see it as the most important negotiation round since the 2009 one in Copenhagen. To shed some light on the strategic issues underlying COP21, Look ahead interviewed Jennifer Morgan, global director of the climate change program at the World Resource Institute. Morgan, who also serves on the German Council for Sustainable Development and who is a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, has followed the negotiations since the early days of the Kyoto Protocol. Here, she tells Look ahead what leaders should expect from COP21, how technology can help achieve some of the goals the conference will set and why climate change is just as much about cultural change as it is about policy reform.
From a strategic point of view, what distinguishes COP21 from the previous COPs?
I think it’s understood that COP21 is a moment in a longer negotiation process. Yet it is also happening at a very critical time. The prices of renewable energy have dropped dramatically over the last few years. Over 160 countries have also put forward climate action plans. Last, but not least, countries now understand that taking climate action actually has multiple benefits, while in the past they might have seen it as an environment-versus-the-economy issue. Altogether, this is creating a perfect-storm moment that is facilitating a different kind of conversation than has been the case in the past.
Another differentiator is the cooperation between the United States and China. If you look at their relationship in general, you can see there aren’t that many issues that the two countries are actually in deep collaboration about, which makes climate, really, a very unique and special issue. It also means no country can hide behind anybody anymore.
We have now reached a stage where it’s about how we’re going to do this, not whether we’re going to do this. I think that’s quite important.
In view of the above, how should one measure success at COP21?
As far as benchmarks go, I think Paris needs to be the turning point after which it is clear that emissions are going to continue to go down. It’s an acceleration mechanism in a way.
For this to work, the international agreement should be binding with a strong enough level of precision as to send a signal to the business and investor communities and help shift investments. Such a signal includes a long‑term goal that countries are committed to decarbonising the global economy over the course of the century.
We can talk about it in different ways, but it needs to be supported by goals out to 2050 or 2060 — combined with a decision to come back every five years to the table to strengthen commitments in view of progress (both political and technological). Last, but not least, we need a cooperation package to support developing countries in this transformation and in dealing with the impacts of climate change. This is vital, notably for Africa and the island nations.
The intended nationally determined contributions (INDCS) submitted so far go beyond existing policies. Despite that, we are still 12-14 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e) per year short of a 2C pathway. What can be done to increase ambition? Can this be achieved at the COP21 or is it something that one should think about in a separate dynamic?
I think staying below two degrees is a long‑term effort. In that regard, what happens the day after the COP is going to be as important as what happens in the COP. I also think that there are additional things that can happen on this question in Paris and which can provide more confidence that we still have a fighting chance to stay below two degrees.
One relates to these signals I was talking about. Scientific research by a consortium of institutes and think tanks, for instance, shows not only that a further 5GtCO2e per year could be saved thanks to frequent “pledge and review” mechanisms, but that the transition below 2C is also much more orderly (and thus less costly, too).
The other lever of action in Paris, which is much harder to quantify, is the part of the Paris agenda where companies, cities, banks and other key actors of civil society commit to do more. There, I think one needs to pay attention to the divestment commitments and longer‑term ones related to infrastructure or things that probably countries did not take into account in their INDCs because it’s very hard to pick that apart. Another forum to keep an eye on will be the World Economic Forum next January and how it will respond to the COP’s outcomes.
Let’s move to climate finance — another important part of the climate deal. According to the OECD, we are about halfway to the $100 billion climate finance goal. How do we bridge the remaining gap?
I think finance is one of the key foundations of the whole thing. The fact that the prices of clean energy technologies have dropped so quickly, for instance, is a fundamental change/shift in the fight against climate change. With India placed so that it can achieve its solar mission, in particular, it will be fundamental to staying below two degrees. At the same time, I think that there is a lot more that can be done to catalyse private investment by bringing together the multilateral national development banks.
I’m not a finance expert, but another thing that has captured my attention is the whole question of financial regulation, the UNEP work on that topic and the fact that China is hosting the G20 next year and is putting finance and “green finance” on the agenda there.
I was on a panel yesterday with Christian Thimann from AXA, which recently divested EUR500m out of coal. He was saying that along with financial risk, we’ll increasingly have to take into account climate risk, too. I see this as a massive field of progress moving forward. Before Copenhagen, very few people were not talking about shifting the trillions agenda or the financial regulatory structures at all. Not anymore.
The need for a clear, long-term and ambitious carbon-pricing-driving investment is well understood. What role, if any, can or should we expect COP21 to play in this regard?
What you’re already seeing is that a number of countries have carbon-pricing or carbon-emissions trading systems in their national implementation schemes. I think that’s important and I think COP21 has helped to catalyse that. Part of the agreement hopefully will have global accounting rules, which is really a precondition if you want to have any kind of emissions-trading scheme moving forward — even if it’s the linking of national systems to avoid double counting. But setting a global carbon price has never been part of the delegation’s mandate. It’s never been on the agenda per se.
Success in Paris will hinge on a solid reporting and verification framework. As recent events in the US and China suggest, however, there are challenges with emissions reporting. Do you expect issues related to the recent US/China revelations to complicate the talks’ dynamics?
Incredibly important topic. I think these scandals put a greater emphasis on getting more clarity in the Paris agreement on MRV [Monitoring, Reporting, Verification] issues. The interesting thing about the China case is that China was actually the one that brought forward the fact that these numbers were off. To me, that’s actually a positive sign. They didn’t try to hide it. It does, however, show the massive complexity and challenges of “getting the numbers right.” That’s for sure.
What Paris should try to do is to create a culture and a binding commitment of countries to report and be verified every two years, to have a level of detail that’s there that allows for catching these types of errors that come through and also a culture that allows the Chinas to come forward and say, “You know what? These numbers were wrong.”
What role do you see for technology in helping the monitoring and verification of climate pledges?
It’s huge. WRI’s Global Forest Watch is an example of what technology could bring to the table. Using satellite data, rapid-SMS and cloud-computing algorithms, for instance, we can now track illegal deforestation in near-real time where it’s happening, identify who owns the land and send automatic alerts to law enforcers. It’s tremendous. Similar work is happening through NASA and other projects. If I look into the future, there’s a huge role both for innovation and technology here to help countries hold levels of extreme transparency. Unfortunately, it’s not always discussed in these negotiations, because it’s a bit overwhelming for some of the delegates.
China’s 13th Five-Year Plan will be finalized in March 2016. How do you expect current discussions around it to influence the negotiation process at COP21 (and vice versa)?
On that one, what we’ve seen is the relationship between the Five‑Year Plan and the INDC. My expectation is that the Five‑Year Plan will be able to go into more detail and include things that they, China — this is the case for many countries — is not comfortable putting in an international agreement.
Take the coal-cap debate, for example. This is a huge debate in China of trying to cap coal. I think that is a very active and important discussion that COP could, in some ways, complement and — if successful — help bring a greater confidence to the supporters of coal cap domestically.
You’ve been tracking the climate negotiations for more than 20 years. What advice would you have to a youth leader interested in bringing change to this field?
My advice would be to be really active: both against and for things. I personally think we need more youth, more activism in capitals that are standing up for, I don’t know how else to put it, but truth and power in all of this. We need more climate campaigners to bring the issue home in a way that policy people can’t.
In addition to science and economics, this will require them to develop important communication skills. It will also require courage. The other side has done a good job of silencing people and it takes courage to actually stand up and say these things. Theatre is a great training in that regard. It’s a great way to become a powerful public speaker who can speak with the facts.
As for where to act, culture will be as important as policy moving forward. We really need to get into the mainstream culture. We’ve done some of that on climate, but if I look at the gay rights movement in the United States, there’s a lot to learn from them.
(Top image: Courtesy of Thinkstock)
This piece first appeared in GE Look ahead.