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The Paris Agreement and the complex, winding road to overcoming climate change. In dialogue with Claudio Forner (World Resources Institute)

 (Marco Emanuele)

The Global Eye in dialogue with Claudio Forner, an international climate policy expert in the Climate Program at the World Resources Institute. He is currently leading work on next frontiers for climate diplomacy by exploring how non-climate international forums and initiatives should mainstream climate action. Prior to joining WRI, he worked for the World Bank as a senior climate specialist, where he established a program to enhance the work of the World Bank on mainstreaming climate into macroeconomic policy support. He also worked for the UNFCCC secretariat, where he led support to negotiations on climate change mitigation in the context of the Paris Agreement.


The goals of the Paris Agreement are fundamental to tackling climate change. How far have they come?

I would like to start by stressing the importance of the aim and long-term temperature goal of the Paris Agreement. It is without a precedent that universal consensus was reached on such a goal and, more important, what it entails in terms of emissions, resilience and finance. Its significance rests in the clear signal it provides for the direction that the global economy should take: eliminating greenhouse gas emissions by the middle of the century which, in turn, signifies an end to fossil fuel consumption and deforestation, and a change in our food, transport and industrial systems.

That is no easy task. There are very difficult technical, economic and financial dimensions and most recently, the social aspects as illustrated, for example, by the backslash from the farmers in the Netherlands.

The answer of how far we have come is not a simple one, primarily because of the difficulties embedded in the goal itself. From a simple standpoint of greenhouse gases, one could argue that not much: by now, we are supposed to be driving a steep decline in emissions with a view to achieving a halving by 2030. The reality is that, at best, emissions have plateaued. Fossil fuels largely dominate the global energy matrix and they may continue to do so for a while. On the resilience side, adaptation continues severely underfunded and current actions are scattered and highly fragmented. And finally on finance, green investments remain well below what is required while polluting activities continue to receive the bulk of finance.

But one could also look at individual indicators and see that there has been, in fact, a global mobilization and interest in achieving net zero emissions by 2050 (no without headwinds) and a great concern with climate impacts. Decarbonization goals are widespread among public and private actors; all governments have put forward their national climate action plans for reducing emissions and adapting to a changing climate; and central banks and financial institutions are seriously addressing climate risk. Before the adoption of Paris this was unthinkable. I can’t think of an endeavor that has galvanized so many actors.

Then there is the constant progress with the calculations of the expected temperature rise based on country’s commitments: Back in 2010, it stood at 3.7–4.8°C by 2100; then, in 2015, the number came down to 3.0–3.2; two years later to 2.6–2.7; and today to about 2.4–2.6°C. There has been a consistent decrease toward the highest range of the goal, and this speaks to tangible progress. This is at least in what relates to promises to act; the implementation side is facing some headwinds, but it is probably too early to come up with bold conclusions.

I don’t want to imply, by any means, that progress has been adequate. Quite the contrary and even more if one considers that already climate impacts are imposing great costs to many populations and that scientist are constantly surprised by how quickly climate change is manifesting itself. But I think that one has to recognize the incredible progress in terms of mindset and engagement. Still, the heavy lifting is coming ahead and change of mindset will not be enough in the coming years. We have to ensure that global GHGs are more than halved by 2035 and we are still far away from achieving it.

What intergovernmental actions can be put in place to support the realisation of what was decided in Paris?

The epicenter of international policy making has been the UNFCCC. For its nature and representation (e.g., who represents governments in decision making and in what capacity) the scope of its discussions are of a rather general nature and around issues for which global consensus can be reached. This represents a significant limitation on the power of the UNFCCC to set up “actions” to achieve its goals. I would argue that the most important policy strengths of the FCCC are already reflected in the Paris Agreement. There are important spaces where the UNFCCC will still play a key role, for example in setting general political signaling, exercising transparency accountability and the regular checkins of progress. It will also continue to be the most important multilateral space for inclusion, where the voices of all countries and of many actors have a microphone.

But the UNFCCC can only go thus far. I think it is important to recognize that addressing the specificities of climate change can only take place in forums and ensembles of actors with the jurisdiction, political commitment and technical capacity to do so. The fact that regional and sectoral intergovernmental spaces do not always take climate face on, based on the premise that it is not in their responsibility, has, in my view, two broad consequences: first, the straight vacuum of action and missed opportunity and, second, the potential for agreements and actions having negative consequences for climate goals, as is the case, for example, in trade in energy. Most intergovernmental forums (regional and international) are already advancing climate work, but there are large gaps an overall in a fragmented way.

So intergovernmental forums and organizations of all sort (e.g., financial institutions, trade agreements, regional organizations and other) have an important responsibility of taking in the political signals of the Paris Agreement and bringing them one level down, for example by setting specific directions of travel for aligning their work with the Paris Agreement, agreeing on decarbonization pathways for specific industries or activities (e.g., cement and steel, trade, security), setting up science based targets, agreeing to adopt standards for the production of polluting goods, pulling resources together to reduce the costs of technology, agreeing on the setting of policies (e.g., carbon pricing), scaling up climate finance, addressing resilience and vulnerability of particular populations, products or supply chains and many others. Like minded and smaller settings with the right representation are likely to set in motion the right type of actions, which, as said, is already happening but not at the scale and the strength required.

On the other hand, we have the hundreds of cooperative initiatives that have been established since the inception of the UNFCCC. In this space, key actions include a move towards deep cooperation as most of them have been set to exchange information; participation is also patchy and the main players are not always where it matters; only a few have set objectives and targets that are aligned with Paris; and there is generally a lack of accountability. So improvements include bolder aims, support and accountability mechanisms, and efforts to secure critical mass and expand opportunities for those governments that have been left out. The current landscape covers all important issues and is a good starting point, but my sense is that not only existing initiatives need strengthening, there is also a need for coming up with innovative modes of cooperation that unclog the political stalemate that divides rich and poor nations, producers and consumers of fossil fuels and others.

Finally, will COP28 in Dubai be a turning point in global climate policies ?

By the end of the year, governments will come together for the first time to take stock of progress, an event that, by design, will take place every five years. The exercise will be about considering the effect of the actions so far vis a vis what science tells us what should be done and, on this basis, agree on what should be done. We already know that action is faltering in all fronts so a strong and common message of concern must be delivered. I expect governments to discuss and agree on political messages on global ambition, probably quantitative as regards the gap in GHG trajectories; and general directions on energy and other system transitions, on scaling up climate finance and resilience. To the extent that such messages result from broad political agreement and a shared concern, then we can talk of a turning point.

But the turning point the world requires lies beyond the UNFCCC and very much on the ground. In fact, we need multiple turning points. The COP will deliver whatever signals, but it will be up to capitals, ensembles of governments, multinationals and other actors to deliver these turning points. I think we should not rest on the assumption that a COP, with the snap of a word, will materialize policy and investment. In out article we describe the COP as a lighthouse. The captains of ships are now where the real decisions are taken. Following on my points in the previous questions, the turning points will be reached when there are robust signs of sectoral transition, for example, with bold and stable policy and credible long term decarbonization strategies, a robust and equitable reform to international financial organizations (currently under discussion), when smaller ensembles of governments adopt commitments for themselves as a group rather than signals to the outside world, when actors are accountable to commitments identified several declarations and agreements on, for example, fossil fuel subsidies, decarbonization and others; when decisions by investors significantly shift financial flows in our energy and production systems.

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