Q&A: Environmental justice and other topics to watch at climate negotiations
International negotiators will meet in Egypt this Sunday for the latest U.N. climate change conference. Stanford experts in a range of fields discuss issues likely to be in the spotlight, including compensation to developing countries for climate change-related damages.
The bill is overdue. That’s one way of looking at the 27th U.N. Climate Change Conference, often referred to as the conference of the parties, or COP, that begins this Sunday in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. Countries are “nowhere near” emission reduction goals they set out in the historic 2015 Paris Agreement, according to a U.N. report released last week. Meanwhile, the delayed deadline negotiating countries set for establishing a $100 billion annual fund for climate-related loss and damage is up next year.
Below, Stanford University experts in a range of fields discuss the likelihood of progress, major themes likely to influence negotiations, and more. Alicia Seiger is the managing director of the Precourt Institute for Energy’s Sustainable Finance Initiative. Kari Nadeau is the director of the Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy & Asthma Research. Rob Jackson is the Michelle and Kevin Douglas Provostial Professor of Energy and Environment in the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability.
Nadeau will be in Sharm El-Sheikh to participate in the climate talks, along with other Stanford experts in fields ranging from clean-energy technologies to sustainable food systems (read more about Stanford at COP27).
How is this year’s COP different from those that have come before, and what surprises might be in store?
Seiger: This year, the U.S will be coming to the table having passed three pieces of legislation – the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the CHIPS and Science Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act – that will fund the transition to clean energy, transport, and manufacturing at an unprecedented scale. These acts signal a new U.S. industrial policy and will serve to drive down the cost of decarbonization both domestically and abroad. This watershed development could breathe new life into multilateral climate negotiations by giving the U.S. more credibility in its efforts to galvanize action among other top emitters.
What issues related to justice and equity will be front and center at this year’s gathering?
Seiger: Addressing the human suffering as a result of climate change, known as “loss and damage,” will be the focal point of COP27. Less developed countries are feeling the impacts from climate change first and worst. Yet, while some progress has been made on increasing cross-border investment for mitigation, very little serious effort has been made to figure out how to compensate poorer countries for their losses. This topic was always going to be on the table, but the recent catastrophic floods in Pakistan, Nigeria, and Chad, coupled with devastating drought and famine in the Horn of Africa, are making clear the suffering developing countries are enduring despite having contributed the least to global emissions. COP27 will test the bounds of diplomacy in the face of mounting damages.
Will adaptation to climate change play a greater role in this year’s meeting? How so?
Jackson: This is the first COP in more than five years outside of Europe. I expect more attention on climate adaptation and climate finance – how poorer countries can stave off at least some effects of climate change they didn’t cause.
Nadeau: Stanford led one of the few side events at last year’s COP26 on the need for national adaptation plans. This year, at COP27, there are more events and meetings on adaptation plans, creating guidance for public health officials and policymakers. For example, members of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and the Stanford Doerr School for Sustainability will present a report that details adaptation plans for wildland fires.
There is a recognition of the need to avoid adaptation choices that increase our risk further down the line. For example, installing more air conditioning to cool indoor spaces could inadvertently increase outdoor heat via higher greenhouse gas emissions. Stanford researchers, including my lab, are focused on how adaptation can prevent future losses, such as poor health, while providing economic opportunities and creating wider social and environmental benefits.
What public health issues will the talks address?
Nadeau: Health effects of heat, drought, dust storms, and wildfires will be front and center. So will climate-related children’s health issues. Importantly, the WHO has prioritized resilience planning for low- and middle-income countries in vulnerable communities.
Negotiators will discuss solutions like decarbonizing health care, using renewable or less toxic fuels for indoor heating and cooking, and innovating for clean reusable water. This is due in part to a U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report earlier this year that characterized ecosystem collapse, species extinction, and various climate hazards. We know these are all linked to physical and mental health problems, with direct and indirect consequences of increased morbidity and mortality.
Has any significant progress been made on issues surfaced at last year’s negotiations? What hope is there for progress this time?
Jackson: Launched last year in Glasgow, the Global Methane Pledge seeks to reduce global methane emissions 30% (compared to 2020 emissions) by 2030. The pledge could reduce warming by 0.2 Celsius, and has catalyzed global attention on methane as a critical greenhouse gas. I hope global action lives up to global pledges.
Seiger: The Just Energy Transition Partnership, an $8.5 billion multinational venture aimed at accelerating the phaseout of coal in South Africa, was a notable outcome of COP26. The hope for COP27 is to scale this platform by creating replicable models that develop detailed decarbonization plans for emerging economies and channel effective international support for those plans.
Jackson is also a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and the Precourt Institute for Energy. Nadeau is also the Naddisy Foundation Professor in Pediatric Food Allergy, Immunology and Asthma, professor of medicine and of pediatrics and, by courtesy, of otolaryngology at the Stanford School of Medicine and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. Seiger is also a lecturer at Stanford Law School and managing director of Stanford’s Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance.
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