October 28, 2021
Q&A: What to look for in crucial climate negotiations
International negotiators will meet in Scotland this Sunday for the latest UN Climate Change Conference. Stanford experts in a range of fields discuss their hopes for the talks as well as major themes likely to influence negotiations, keys to success and more.
By Rob Jordan
Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment
No one knows how the story will end at the UN Climate Change Conference that begins this Sunday in Scotland, but the plot line and central characters seem clear. Six years after the historic Paris climate agreement buoyed hopes for meaningful change, greenhouse gas emissions have continued to climb, and pandemic recovery efforts have largely ignored clean energy investments. On top of that, a full commitment by the largest emitters to net-zero emissions by 2050 – a target crucial for minimizing temperature increases – has yet to materialize. On the other hand, the return of the U.S. to the climate change deal table after a long silence during the Trump administration, the increasing profitability of clean energy technology and other positive signs provide a strong dose of optimism.
A composite image of the Earth taken from a satellite in 2012. International negotiators will meet in Scotland this Sunday for the latest UN Climate Change Conference, COP26. (Image credit: NASA/NOAA/GSFC/Suomi NPP/VIIRS/Norman Kuring)
Below, Stanford experts in a range of fields discuss their hopes for the talks as well as major themes likely to influence negotiations, keys to success and more. Rachel Cardone is the deputy director of Stanford’s Program on Water, Health & Development. Chris Field is the Perry L. McCarty Director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. Rob Jackson is the Michelle and Kevin Douglas Provostial Professor of Energy and Environment in Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth). Michael Mastrandrea is research director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at the Woods Institute. Kari Nadeau is the director of Stanford’s Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy & Asthma Research. Alicia Seiger is the managing director of the Precourt Institute for Energy’s Sustainable Finance Initiative at Stanford University.
What is important to understand about this year’s Conference of the Parties (COP)? How is it different from those that have come before?
Field: After Paris, the absence of U.S. leadership on climate action was a huge drag on opportunities. Now, especially if the U.S. can come into the COP with strong proposals and strong commitments to working with partners, the landscape will be fundamentally different. U.S. leadership is an essential ingredient for accelerated progress.
Seiger: The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare and further exacerbated global inequality, while loss and damages from climate impacts have increased in frequency and severity. This will be the first large in-person climate conference to take place in the midst of such intense pressure. I hope that results in new and major breakthroughs, but we could see unrest.
What needs to happen at this year’s COP for it to be a success?
Nadeau: Countries must set and follow through on ambitious national climate commitments if they are to sustain a healthy and green recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. The World Health Organization issued a special report recently that spells out the global health community’s prescription for climate action based on a growing body of research that establishes the many and inseparable links between climate and health.
Seiger: Climate finance is also a critical component. Achieving our climate goals is going to take unprecedented levels of investment in technology and infrastructure. A successful COP will result in specific commitments from rich countries and the creation of more effective pathways to channel investment to emerging markets in the form of public-private partnerships.
What takeaways from the most recent UN climate report will figure prominently in these talks?
Field: The top-level message from the report is that we are out of time. We need accelerated action now, from countries, companies, communities and individuals around the world.
Nadeau: I believe the take-home message is that the same unsustainable choices that are killing our planet are killing people.
Jackson: Methane is finally getting its day in the sun. Both the most recent UN climate report and the U.S.-E.U. Methane Pledge have built momentum toward methane action.
Will the U.S. have a different role in negotiations following its departure from the global agreement during the Trump administration?
Seiger: The U.S. is going to have to earn back its role as a global leader. Key to the success of Paris was the bilateral groundwork the Obama administration did with China and India in the lead-up to that conference. COVID-19 has made that pregame work more difficult, as have increasing geopolitical tensions and domestic partisan bickering. It’s not a great cocktail to be holding at the start of the show. That said, the Biden climate team is stacked with experienced A players, so I’m cautiously optimistic the U.S. can regain some of its galvanizing muscle.
Cardone: Yes, and, the best signal the U.S. can make about its global role on climate is to couple COP negotiations with strengthening our democracy. Consider the statement that would be made by Biden signing the Voting Rights Act during the COP. Even better: if that were coupled with an announcement of an executive order or direction to Congress to eliminate subsidies for the fossil fuel industry in the 2022 budget.
Countries are being asked to bring down greenhouse gas emissions to even lower levels than were agreed to at the Paris climate talks, even though many haven’t yet met the less ambitious goals set then. Are there any incentives that might help the largest emitters agree to new reductions?
Field: Ambition needs to rise because time is short and actions to date have not been strong enough. The most important incentive is always the opportunity to leave a vibrant planet to future generations. It is also really important that many of the best solutions, for both mitigation and adaptation, are also compelling financial propositions.
Mastrandrea: Strong high-level incentives include growing recognition that climate change poses systemic financial risks and that leading on climate solutions can deliver long-term economic benefits. The proliferation of pledges and action by subnational governments and businesses also incentivizes action by national governments.
Cardone: At a certain point, the only incentive is for the International Monetary Fund to cap governments’ ability to create new debt. Even better, the IMF could stitch together macro-economic policy with planetary boundaries.
What issues related to climate justice and equity are front and center at this year’s gathering?
Jackson: The vulnerability of the poor, whether in poor countries or in poor areas of rich countries. Poorer people didn’t cause climate change and can’t afford to adapt to it without our help. It’s truly unjust.
Seiger: At the systems-level, there are financing challenges that threaten justice and equity. Beyond the need to drive greater levels of climate investment in the global south, there is an increasingly worrisome issue of poor governments’ ability to repay the debt they are accumulating during the pandemic in light of impending climate shocks.
Field is also the Melvin and Joan Lane Professor for Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies, a professor of Earth system science and biology, and a senior fellow at the Precourt Institute for Energy. 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 & Finance.
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