At times it was hard to separate the signal from the noise at the United Nations’ Conference of the Parties on climate change, which ended Friday. The meeting, called COP26, featured new global agreements and protests demanding more action, major announcements from the U.S., China, and others, and denouncements from disappointed activists like Greta Thunberg. For an assessment of what was done, and left undone, the Gazette spoke with Rob Stavins, the Harvard Kennedy School’s A.J. Meyer Professor of Energy and Economic Development and head of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, who attended his first COP in 2007 in Bali. The interview was edited for clarity and length.
GAZETTE: John Kerry declared COP26 a success before it was even halfway done. And Greta Thunberg did the opposite, declaring it a failure. Do you agree with one or the other? Or is that the wrong way to look at this?
STAVINS:Looking at it as success or failure is both simplistic and obscures much of the purpose and function of these annual negotiations. This is a marathon, not a sprint. To continue that metaphor: It’s a relay race and the fundamental thing about an individual Conference of the Parties in any given year is that you don’t drop the baton when you pass it off to the next one. And this was a reasonable pass off to the next Conference of the Parties [to be held in Egypt next November].
If we look at it in terms of the ultimate measure for many, we could add up the Nationally Determined Contributions to global emissions reductions in comparison with the Paris Climate Agreement’s 2 degrees centigrade target or its aspirational target of 1.5 degrees C. Before Paris, we were on a trajectory for 3.7 degrees centigrade of warming this century. With the Paris Agreement’s original round of NDCs, we were on a trajectory of 2.7 degrees centigrade — this is all according to Carbon Tracker, which is an accepted institution that people use for this purpose. Then, with the updated NDCs at Glasgow, we could get to 2.4 degrees centigrade. And then, if you add in all of the statements from countries about net zero emissions by the year 2050, as well as private industry statements, we could be at about 1.8 degrees centigrade.
Greta Thunberg looks at that and says it’s all “blah, blah, blah” to her. When others look at it, they say, “Well, we’re certainly moving in the right direction.” My view is that we will have to see how it plays out.
GAZETTE:We heard about several different agreements at the COP: the methane agreement, an agreement on deforestation, and the agreement on carbon tariffs between the U.S. and EU. How significant were those agreements?
STAVINS:Some of them are potentially very important. Certainly, the methane agreement is, with 100-plus countries looking at a 30 percent reduction this decade. But remember there are no teeth for enforcement in these side agreements, and they don’t hold the same status as the Paris Agreement.
GAZETTE:Methane is a much stronger greenhouse gas than even carbon dioxide. Do we have a good grasp on how big a part of the overall problem methane is?
STAVINS:If you look over a very short-time horizon, methane is extremely important because its radiative forcing is much, much greater than carbon dioxide while it’s in the atmosphere. But its lag time in the atmosphere is drastically less than carbon dioxide. The way these are usually compared is to look at something like a 100-year time horizon, and then methane, although it’s important, isn’t like carbon dioxide, which is responsible for the lion’s share of the action anthropogenically.
GAZETTE:How about the carbon tariffs agreement between the U.S. and EU, which would level the playing field between nations whose production costs are higher because of steps to address climate change and those that aren’t taking similar action? Is that potentially beneficial to the U.S. steel and other industries in trade with the EU, or is it strictly a climate-related step?
STAVINS:It’s something that could greatly help with climate change because it could lead to a bottom-up coalition of like-minded countries, starting with the European Union and the United States, but with others possibly joining. Politically, it can have legs because the current wave of economic populism in the United States — a little less so in Europe — is highly correlated with a desire for China-bashing. So that approach could find favor in Congress.
GAZETTE:There was talk about the need to get rid of coal, but the final agreement’s language was watered down, for both that and fossil fuel subsidies. What happened?
STAVINS:There were NGOs and delegations that wanted to have language on phasing out coal, and some would surely have wanted it by a specific year. What came out was phasing down — not out — unabated coal, and what that refers to is carbon capture and storage. Symbolically, it’s very important to many people to have statements about coal, but ultimately the Paris Agreement is about reducing emissions, and individual countries will do it however they can.
GAZETTE:Why are they picking on coal? I know coal is the most polluting of the fossil fuels, but in order to reach the goals that we’re talking about, they all need to be addressed, don’t they?
STAVINS:That’s correct, and carbon capture and storage is conceptually part of the ultimate story, both for coal and natural gas, at least as a transition fuel. A general principle in the economics of environment is that performance standards are better than technology standards, because performance standards leave open which technologies are used and which technologies are used will depend upon national circumstance. Of course, carbon-pricing approaches — carbon taxes or cap-and-trade — are potentially even more cost-effective, but the politics are very difficult in the United States.
GAZETTE:How did the negotiations go on Article 6, which provides guidelines on how emissions reduction programs between countries interact? I know that was something you were particularly interested in.
STAVINS:That was the one part of the action in Glasgow that really was negotiations about implementation of the Paris Agreement, because that was the one part of the Rulebook, which hadn’t been completed. It worked out. Some might describe it as a half-full glass of water. I’ll go for three-quarters full.
There are two important parts of Article 6. One is Article 6.4, which is essentially a continuation of the Clean Development Mechanism — an offset system from the days of the Kyoto Protocol. The other is Article 6.2, which is what I was working on, and it is the crucial accounting mechanism for linkages between different countries around the world and their systems to limit emissions. They can establish linkages, and then firms within those countries can carry out trading. This can lower compliance costs tremendously, and thereby facilitate significantly greater ambition. There were two problematic approaches that were being pushed by some countries, and they wound up in 6.4, but not in 6.2. So, I was relieved and pleased with that.
GAZETTE: There was also the question of the $100 billion for developing nations to adapt to the effects of climate change, plus the loss and damage issue. How did they wind up?
STAVINS:On finance, a commitment was made at the Copenhagen COP of $100 billion per year for developing nations, mainly for adaptation, and the payments were supposed to begin in 2020, but there has been a shortfall. By some measures the commitments — not the payments — are up to perhaps $80 billion per year. Obviously, the developing countries want to get that increased. So, there’s language in the decision out of this Conference of the Parties, which is called the Glasgow Climate Pact, that was voted out at the very end and that urges, but does not require, the developed countries to double their commitment.
The loss and damage issue is quite separate, and debates and discussions on that have been going on for a decade. This is about damages that will take place despite adaptation measures. It’s straightforward to think about adaptation actions and their cost, but the cost of damage is much more difficult to measure because damages are due to things like hurricanes and flooding, which are a result of specific weather events, and it’s just not possible to tie every weather event to climate change. There were hurricanes and typhoons long before we had climate change.
So, the concern of the countries that have contributed most to the accumulated stock of greenhouse gases — the United States, the European Union, and China — is that a loss and damage measure would be a prescription for unlimited legal liability for bad weather. On the other hand, if you’re from one of the most vulnerable countries in the world — in particular the small island states — where climate change is not just going to increase costs of adaptation, but is existential, then it’s absolutely essential to have this. So, the most vulnerable countries — and developing countries more broadly — wanted something to be in the Glasgow Climate Pact. In the end, it was blocked by the United States and other countries on the final day of the talks. Instead, they set up a dialog to continue to do research on this and consider it at future conferences of the parties.
GAZETTE:How did U.S. credibility fare? I know that was one of the big issues with the change in administration.
STAVINS:U.S. credibility, from what I could sense, was more or less maintained. It surprised me that there wasn’t more discussion about it, because people are aware of the political problems the Biden administration has domestically in terms of achieving its targets. I think a lot of delegations were thrilled to have the Biden administration in place because they can actually talk with them, as opposed to the Trump administration, with whom they couldn’t even speak. There was also a joint press conference by Senator Kerry and Xie Zhenhua, China’s climate envoy. People felt very good that China and the U.S. would work together again, although it’s far from being a return to the co-leadership that the U.S. and China had during the Obama years.
GAZETTE:Looking more broadly, is there a threshold that to your mind will be a tipping point toward success? I’m thinking of the apparent increased engagement of the business community recently.
STAVINS:I think there are two important elements, and one is indeed the increased attention and activity of the business community. But the other is the presence of young people. It is absolutely clear that young people feel more strongly, by and large, about climate change and actions to address climate change than do older generations. This was clear with the demonstrations in London and in Glasgow and is true around the world. It’s true if you look at people who are of school age in the United States compared with people who were of school age a decade or two earlier. What we don’t know yet, however, is whether this is a cohort effect or an age effect. If it’s an age effect, then, as these people get older and get into positions of authority, their views may mellow. But if it’s a cohort effect, then these young people as they mature are going to change the world. And, if so, they will change the world not by demonstrating outside of the COP, but by being on the inside. Ten years or more from now, by being the delegates inside the COP, today’s youth will have a marvelous opportunity to change the world. Let’s hope they do so.