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Paris and the Way Forward: A Conversation With the UN Foundation's Reid Detchon

April 22, 2016

It's been an unsettling couple of months for people who worry about the climate. As Chris Mooney and Brady Dennis write in the Washington Post, "The first three months of 2016 have been the hottest ever recorded, and by a large margin. Greenland's massive ice sheet melted more this spring than researchers have ever seen. Warming seas are turning once-majestic coral reefs into ghostly underwater graveyards. And scientists are warning that sea levels could rise far faster than anyone expected by the end of the century, with severe impacts for coastal communities around the globe." Throw in the monsoon-like rains that have swamped Houston and the record heat baking the Pacific Northwest, and you're probably starting to think maybe it's time our elected officials took action. (Or not.)

In December, representatives from a hundred and ninety-five countries convened in Paris for the twenty-first session of the Conference of the Parties (COP), an annual gathering under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), where they negotiated the so-called Paris Agreement, a non-binding pact to slow and, ultimately, reverse the emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. On April 22, Earth Day, the agreement will be opened for signing by countries that support it.

For most people, what that means — in terms of its impact, if any, on their lives and the future of the planet — is a mystery. To help shed light on these issues, PND spoke with Reid Detchon, vice president for energy and climate strategy at the United Nations Foundation, about the agreement, the significance of the signing ceremony, and whether the global community can slow and reverse emissions of greenhouse gases before it's too late.

From June 1999 through December 2001, Detchon served as director of special projects in Washington, D.C., for the Turner Foundation, managing a portfolio of grants aimed at increasing the effectiveness of environmental advocacy and encouraging federal action to avert global climate change. Before that, he spent six years at the Podesta Group, a government relations and public affairs firm in Washington, D.C., and from 1989 to 1993 he served as the principal deputy assistant secretary for conservation and renewable energy at the U.S. Department of Energy. Detchon also worked for five years in the U.S. Senate, advising Sen. John Danforth (R-MO) on energy and environmental issues and serving as his legislative director, and was the principal speechwriter for Vice President George H. W. Bush.

Headshot_reid_detchonPhilanthropy News Digest: United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has invited world leaders to a ceremony at UN headquarters in New York on April 22, where they will have the opportunity to sign an agreement that was reached at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris last December. Before we get into the details of the agreement, what does the UN hope to accomplish at the ceremony on the 22nd?

Reid Detchon: The significance of April 22 really goes back to the Paris Agree­ment itself. And what's so remarkable about that is that previous disagreements fell away, and the agreement was signed by virtually every country on the planet. For each country to agree to participate and make a nationally determined contribution to limit climate change over the coming years — that consensus is, I think, the larger significance of Paris, and bodes well for the process going for­ward.

So, on April 22, as you noted, there will be a signing ceremony at UN headquarters in New York. And it's expected that a larger number of countries will sign the agreement, in a single day, than has ever happened with any previous treaty or agreement. Again, it's an indication of the universality of the agreement and of the excitement and momentum that was created in Paris, and we need to carry that forward into the implementation phase. The signing ceremony is the first step in that process, and I expect it will be a great launch pad for future action.

PND: Will President Obama be in New York on the 22nd to sign the agreement? And which other world leaders of note will be there?

RD: The United States will be represented by Secretary of State Kerry. That's my understanding. And we've heard that Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of China will be present as well. As you probably know, the U.S. and China issued a statement ten days ago reaffirming their support for the climate agreement and their intention to move forward with implementation of the agreement.

Among heads of state, I believe the presidents of the current and upcoming COPs  — that is, French president François Hollande and Mohammed VI of Morocco — will be in New York for the ceremony, and I believe there will be at least forty other heads of state there, principally from developing countries and the small island states. But, of course, we'll have to see.

PND: You alluded a minute ago to why the Paris Agreement is historic, and I think supporters of the agreement would say that is especially true after what some consider to be the failure of Copenhagen summit in 2009. What happened between Copenhagen and Paris last December to change the calculus for so many countries?

RD: Well, a simple way to think about it is to say that the parties responsible for negotiating the agreement changed their focus from "burden sharing" to opportunity. Leading up to Copenhagen, and in the wake of Kyoto, the focus of multinational climate change efforts was on how to allocate what was seen as a responsibility to reduce emissions among different sovereign countries. But that sort of top-down approach proved too difficult for the international system to handle politically. Instead, the brilliance of the Paris Agreement is the fact that it is based on nationally determined contributions suggested by the countries themselves. And they are doing so in their own economic and political self-interest, not because somebody is telling them they have to. So, China has made a breathtaking commitment to clean energy. India, similarly, has made a very robust and ambitious commitment — to solar power, in particular. But every country is con­tributing their own fair share, as they see it. And that has enabled us to get to this point.

PND: The agreement is not binding unless it is signed by at least fifty-five countries representing at least 55 percent of global greenhouse emissions. Do you think that can be achieved in the next five years?

RD: Absolutely. We have high ambitions of reaching that target much quicker than that. I don't want to make predictions, but given the reaffirmation by the U.S. and China, the two largest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world, that will get us a long way to the percentage target, and the strong support for the agreement among many developing countries and small island states will make the number-of-countries target relatively easy to achieve as well. That's not to say it won't take some time. Each country has its own procedure for affirming its participation in the agreement, and so it will take longer in some countries than in others, but I have high hopes of it happening much more quickly than five years.

PND: The underlying assumption of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, of which these COP conferences have been an important part, is to limit global temperature increase in this century to under two degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels. Recently, the World Bank and others have reported that a rise of one and a half degrees Celsius is already locked in, and earlier this year the average temperature in the Northern Hemisphere, for a small period of time, exceeded two degrees Celsius. Are we kidding ourselves in thinking we can keep global temperature increase in this century to two degrees Celsius?

RD: Well, that's the critical question, of course, and it's a very significant challenge. The difficulty about climate change is that the inertia that gets built into the system from decades of emissions takes quite a long time to turn around, both in the atmosphere and on the ground. And the Paris Agreement, I think, is widely understood not to be sufficient to get below two degrees C. In general, I've heard it said that the effect of the agreement was to reduce the projected emissions from something like three and a half degrees Celsius to two-point-seven — but two-point-seven is not two, much less one and a half.

The most significant thing about the Paris Agreement in my mind is the commitment to come back every five years and revisit the progress that has been made, to review the tech­nology and tools that are available to drive further progress, and to ratchet up our ambition at successive meetings until we get below the two-degree Celsius threshold and, ideally, begin moving toward the one-and-a-half degree line.

Let me just add that much of the progress that has been made is being driven by the success of clean energy technology development. The cost of solar energy, the cost of wind energy has fallen dramatically, while, on the other side of the equation, the application of energy-efficient technologies in things like lighting has spread rapidly — I'm thinking here of, for example, LED bulbs – and that is going to have a tremendous impact around the world in terms of energy demand. At the same time, we have a growing global population and growing economies across the developing world, and both of those facts represent an ongoing challenge in terms of meeting that goal.

A final point: We have an opportunity to buy our­selves some additional time, not sufficient to change the overall equation, but some time nevertheless, and that is to think more aggres­sively about how to sequester more carbon in the natural world, particularly in soils. Carbon is very good for soil, it increases fertility and agricultural productivity, and I believe if we can encourage much more rapid adoption of farming techniques that capture more carbon, that could give us a little bit more time for clean-energy technology to catch up, and for the world to make the very significant shift from fossil fuel-based energy systems over the next thirty-five years or so.

PND: A potential unintended consequence of such an approach might be an acceleration of ocean acidification. Is that a legitimate concern, or just unavoidable?

RD: Well, to a certain extent, it's both. Obviously, ocean acidification is an enormous concern. Because of the emissions that are already in the atmosphere — and carbon emissions typically stay in the atmosphere for something like a hundred years — the oceans are an important absorber of atmospheric carbon dioxide. But as carbon in the atmosphere has increased, it has created a change in ocean chemistry that is very worrisome. And the answer to that problem must be to reduce our emissions as quickly as possible.

Now, some people have said that we might be able to geo-engineer an increase in the oceans' capacity to absorb carbon. But I, and most people I speak to, think the impact on marine ecosystems and species would be catastrophic, so you won't hear me say that that idea has promise. In general I would say that geo-engineering schemes address, at best, only part of the problem. And the very idea that we can fix this through technology, through some kind of carbon removal scheme, within the near to mid-term…well, it strikes me as impractical, at best, and unrealistic when you start to dig into the details.

PND: You mentioned earlier that one of the important aspects of the agreement is its focus on burden sharing. Does the United Nations have a view on how that burden should be shared? In other words, should it be shared equally by developed countries like the United States, England and Germany that, historically, have contributed the most to the problem and by emerging countries, like China and India, which today are the biggest emitters of carbon? Or should there be some proportionality applied to the formula, if in fact there is a formula?

RD:  Well, again, the significance of Paris was that the community agreed that formulas of that kind were not helpful if rigidly applied. But if the fundamental psychological shift represented by the agreement was from burden to opportunity, certainly countries with the greatest emissions today have the greatest opportunity to reduce those emissions — and to do so profitably while creating a range of other benefits in the areas of public health, agriculture, and so on. So, yes, I do think countries that are emitting the most have the most room for improvement, and that that's where you're going to see the biggest changes.

On the opportunity side, it’s increas­ing­ly apparent — and I am hopeful India will be able to model this for the rest of the world — that countries don't need to follow the same fossil fuel-dependent path to economic development as the U.S., Japan, and European countries did, that a modern electric grid built on substantial contributions from solar and wind resources can be just as effective in terms of supporting economic development as a more conventional grid. And so the hope, of course, is that clean energy pathways increasingly will be adopted by developing countries around the globe, particularly rapidly developing countries like China, India, Brazil, Indonesia, and Mexico, so that we don't simply repeat the same mistakes that were made during the first great wave of industrialization.

PND: Given the skepticism of many Republicans in Congress toward an anthropogenic theory of climate change, do you, as someone who has worked on Capitol Hill, see any way to forge a political consensus around the issue in the U.S.?

RD: Well, sometimes Washington is the last place to catch up to trends in the country, but I think there is a broad and growing understanding and embrace of the need for action on climate change in the United States. It shows up most clearly in the strong support across political lines for clean energy, and for renewables in particular. We've seen some evidence of that even in Congress, at the end of last year, when, as some members were complaining about the Paris Agreement, Congress passed legislation extending for five years a very important production tax credit for wind and an investment tax credit for solar, both of which will make a big difference in helping the U.S. meet its climate commitments.

As we move forward, the changes that we need to make — and that have been feared by some — will prove to be more beneficial than skeptics anticipate, and aggressive deployment of renewable energy, as well as energy efficiency measures, will continue to move us rapidly down the path to realizing a clean-energy economy.

On that note, I don't want to neglect the very important role that will be played over the next twenty years by, first of all, the doubling of fuel-economy standards for cars and light trucks in the U.S to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, as well as the promulgation, by the Department of Energy, of literally dozens of appliance efficiency standards, which, like LED bulbs, will deliver the same labor-saving productivity as before but consume much less energy. These kinds of things are going to be good not just for consumers' pocketbooks, they'll also significantly reduce our emissions regardless of where the power is generated.

PND: How does the Paris agreement fit into the Sustainable Development Goals campaign launched by the UN last year? And, more specifically, how do you see the agreement working with Goal 13 of the SDG campaign, which calls for the global community to take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts? Is there a relationship between the two efforts?

RD: In many ways, the most significant event of 2015 was the coming together of these two strands, development and environment. The vice chair of the UN Foundation is the former prime minister of Norway, Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, who chaired the World Commission on Environment and Development more than thirty years ago. In fact, it was the recommendations of that commission which laid the groundwork for the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. If you go back and look at the commission’s report, you'll see that even then many people in the international community were stressing the inter-connectedness of the two. And what happened in 2015 was that the international community as a whole really embraced that theme and finally accepted the idea that to succeed on climate change, and to avoid seeing literally decades of development progress reversed by adverse weather and related events, we simply have to have sustainable development. Concurrently, there was a recognition in the climate community about how actions to reduce the threat of climate change must take into account the legitimate rights of people, all people, to economic development.

So, to me, the significance of the Sustainable Development Goals is not just that Goal 13 focuses on climate change, but that these two themes run through almost every other goal. I would point in particular to Goal 7, which targets access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all. That goal, of course, is intimately tied into our response to the changing climate, as well as our need for sustainable development. Again, the interweaving of these themes across all seventeen of the Sustainable Development Goals really is the most important theme that emerged from the SDG process — and one that will be increasingly central to the implementation process going forward.

PND: A final pair of questions for you. Are foundations and private donors doing enough to combat climate change and its impact? And, given philanthropy's relatively limited resources, how do you think it can best use those resources to secure ratification of the Paris Agreement and advance the fight against climate change?

RD: The challenges in climate change work are so large that it's hard to say anybody, anywhere, is doing enough. We all need to do more. In fact, at a recent discussion it was suggested that, going forward, those of us working on climate issues should adopt the motto "More, Faster."

That said, I think philanthropy has stepped up in very useful ways and will need to continue to do so. Probably most significant is what it has done to help mobilize grassroots support for action on climate change, communicating that to elected officials, and generally helping where it can to build momentum behind calls for action. As we go forward, however, it will be important to raise expectations for future commitments, because, ultimately, the challenges and needs are going to be even greater than they are today. In that the sense, we're all in the same boat, and we all need to work together to protect the hopes and security of future generations, not to mention the planet we live on, in a way that is sustainable and contributes to a better life for all.

— Mitch Nauffts

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