Will Paris Talks Lead to a Better, Binding Climate Agreement?

26:58 minutes

Streams and rivers that form on top of the Greenland ice sheet during spring and summer are the main agent transporting melt runoff from the ice sheet to the ocean. Credit: NASA/Goddard/Maria-José Viñas
Streams and rivers that form on top of the Greenland ice sheet during spring and summer are the main agent transporting melt runoff from the ice sheet to the ocean. Photo taken July 19, 2015. Credit: NASA/Goddard/Maria-José Viñas

The 21st United Nations Climate Conference started this week in Paris with nearly 200 countries working to create a global agreement on limiting greenhouse gas emissions. Journalist Lisa Friedman, from E&E’s ClimateWire, and Steven Cohen, the executive director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, discuss how the challenge of balancing economic growth and climate goals for India and developing nations will affect negotiations, and what role technology plays in reducing emissions.

Segment Guests

Lisa Friedman

Lisa Friedman deputy editor of E&E’s ClimateWire and is based in Washington, D.C.

Steven Cohen

Steven Cohen is the executive director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute in New York, New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. This week, the 21st UN Climate Conference got under way in Paris. In a departure from past conferences, perhaps to add some gravitas to the meeting, many heads of state arrived on the first day to kick off the conference, including President Obama.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Here in Paris, let’s secure an agreement that builds in ambition, where progress paves the way for regularly updated targets– targets that are not set for each of us, but by each of us, taking into account the differences that each nation is facing.

IRA FLATOW: We’ve been through Kyoto in ’97, Copenhagen in ’09 without an agreement. Will this conference be any different? Will India, for example, and developing countries have a bigger say in these talks? And what should we watch for in the coming week, maybe even longer than that? My next guest is in Paris following the talks. She’s here to walk us through what’s happening so far. Lisa Friedman is deputy editor of ClimateWire. Welcome.

LISA FRIEDMAN: Hi, thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: How’s it been going? How’s it going so far? You’ve been to quite a few of these, and you call these the Super Bowl of climate conferences. What’s it like on the ground there?

LISA FRIEDMAN: Thanks. Well, yeah. This is my eighth COP now, as it’s called, Conference of the Parties. And it feels like a different COP. Normally the way these start out is a lot of posturing in the beginning. Countries fight about agendas for two, three, four days before beginning to think about starting getting down to business. And this started out with a lot of momentum. Like you said, we had President Obama. We had heads of state from nearly 150 countries.

Christiana Figueres, the head of the UNFCCC, called it a world record. Never before, apparently, have so many world leaders come to talk about one thing on one day. Even the UN General Assembly is spread out over three or four days.

So the mood, until just recently, was pretty high. Now, things are getting into the nitty gritty. And I think there’s a lot of concern from a lot of different quarters that getting an agreement over the next week is going to be really pretty tough.

IRA FLATOW: Because of so many conflicting interests?

LISA FRIEDMAN: Exactly. I mean this is– I have a profile coming out Monday of our US envoy, [? Todd ?] [? Stern. ?] And one of the things he said in his kind of dry humor was, look, this is an agreement that will affect the economies, that will affect the economic sectors of every economy of every country.

And so you can’t expect– so just that. It’s only that. It’s a huge, huge lift to try and get 195 countries to agree on how to reduce emissions, whether to reduce emissions, and how to divide up the responsibility fairly.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. It doesn’t look like, from my vantage point, that there’s going to be anything binding coming out. Well, there is going to be a lot of probably voluntary agreement?

LISA FRIEDMAN: You raise a good question. It depends on what the meaning of legally binding is. Everybody’s using this phrase, and I think that a lot of people are loading it with their own meaning. The United States says that it wants a legally binding agreement. Obviously, they mean something very different than what Europeans mean or very vulnerable island countries.

The US position, and what they’ve been pushing for, is an agreement where everything is binding except the target themselves. So that is, the US has promised to reduce emissions economy-wide 26% to 28% below 2005 levels by 2025. China has pledged to cut emissions– pardon me. China has pledged to peak its emissions by 2030.

What the US is saying is, we will be obligated to report and monitor and verify that we are working towards reaching our target. But countries should not be held to some kind of enforcement standard for meeting those top level targets. EU sees things very differently.

They’re pushing very hard to get the United States to agree to that, or at the very least to promise to implement policies. A lot of things in these talks come down to fights over the words “shall” and “should”– thousands of lawyers working on these agreements. And I think at the end of the day, it’s going to be a hybrid, and everybody will be able to describe it the way they want to.

IRA FLATOW: And one of the key players in this that no one talks about, but– well, not in the past agreements very much, but a country that is moving up in population and will soon overtake China in population, is India.

LISA FRIEDMAN: India is a huge player here. So just to back up, one of the very significant things about what’s happening here and the way it’s happening here is that it’s really a fundamentally different agreement from the Kyoto Protocol that you mentioned earlier. That 1997 agreement divided the world into two categories of countries– wealthy countries who were obligated to act, and everybody else. And everybody else ranged from India, China, Brazil all the way down to very poor countries like Bangladesh or tiny islands.

This time around, you’ve got more than 180 countries, including India, including China, who have put forward submissions of how they will address emissions. Some of them are economy-wide targets. Some of them are absolute cuts, like Brazil. Some of them are like India’s promising to cut emissions relative to their GDP growth.

India here is really in an interesting position, because on the one hand they’re acting quite ambitiously at home. They have a massive solar program. They just made a rather large announcement with Bill Gates to double the domestic research and development for clean energy.

And yet, they’ve also taken a very hard line position on a number of things. They want to see intellectual property rights given to them to help develop some of their clean energy. And they’re really holding firm to a lot of positions that make the US uncomfortable.

They want to make sure that even though developing countries are coming to the table, that the world does not forget that climate change is a problem that was caused by wealthy countries. And they are not shy about repeating over and over. And I think that’s a very difficult thing for a lot of developed countries to swallow.

IRA FLATOW: You’ve got yours. All this is your doing. Why should we be held accountable for it?

LISA FRIEDMAN: Actually, I think that’s the conversation has changed a little bit to, you’ve gotten yours. If you want to grow in a different way than you did– and remember that there’s not a single country in the world that’s gotten rich without fossil fuels– essentially they’re saying, if you want us to do something very different, then you need to help us. And and so that makes money one of the biggest issues here. All roads on every other issue lead back to money.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. It always does, doesn’t it?


IRA FLATOW: I want to bring on–


IRA FLATOW: And if you give us money, we can help catch up. But we’re poor. That’s why we’re called developing countries.

LISA FRIEDMAN: And that money is really not forthcoming yet. That’s, I think one of the final, final issues. Developed countries know that money is going to unlock a lot of other issues that are stuck, but it’s not something that you’re going to see movement on until ministers come back here. John Terry comes back next week. And that’s when you’ll start to see something of [INAUDIBLE].

IRA FLATOW: And the US Congress is already on record as saying they’re not giving any money for anything new.

LISA FRIEDMAN:That’s the other issue, exactly. And the other day, I asked Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, about the vote that Congress held. House voted to gut the Clean Power Plan, the cornerstone of the Obama administration’s pledge in Paris. And he really shoved it off. He said how Obama told me that this was going to happen, and we’re not surprised.

And when it comes to the money, you have a contingent of Democratic lawmakers who just arrived in Paris. I spoke to Senator Brian Schatz this morning. And he said that he’s been assuring people that the money– in this case, the US has pledged $3 billion over four years for something called the Green Climate Fund.

The UN created this independent fund to help countries deal with climate change. The first charge of that $500 million is– Republicans say dead on arrival, not going anywhere. And Schatz and other Democrats are out here telling people that they actually think there’s a reasonable chance. And even if it doesn’t come this year, it will come. We’ll have to see.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s see, I want to move on and bring on someone else to join the conversations. As you say, these negotiations center limiting emissions. But how accurate are our measurements of greenhouse gases? I want to bring on another guest who’s researching that. And he created a camera to measure the amount of methane in the air. David Bastviken is a professor of environmental change at the Linkoping University Linkoping, Sweden. Welcome to Science Friday.

DAVID BASTVIKEN: Thank you very much.

IRA FLATOW: Tell us about why we need to measure methane.

DAVID BASTVIKEN: Well, methane is the second most important greenhouse gas at the moment. It’s growing quickly in the atmosphere, and it’s growing irregularly. So we don’t understand it as well as we understand carbon dioxide. And it’s growing in importance as well. So we have to find good ways of targeting emissions.

IRA FLATOW: So you’ve built a camera that can detect methane levels? How does it work?

DAVID BASTVIKEN: Well, it’s basically a camera– it’s called a hyperspectral camera. It records a normal image. But for each pixel in this image, you also get a spectrum, an infrared spectrum where some gases absorb this infrared light. And they show up [INAUDIBLE] absorption peaks and you get, like, a fingerprint of different gases for each pixel in the image. Then we can determine basically how many gas molecules you have between the camera and the background for each pixel and image. Then we can build an image on the gas concentrations. And also, if you take many image over time, you can actually make a movie and you can see fluxes.

IRA FLATOW: So this actually fills in a gap, a hole in the technology, for measuring methane.

DAVID BASTVIKEN: Right. We have a number of good management techniques. We have near the ground– typically we’re very sensitive [? for ?] [? the ?] point measurements. And then you have the remote sensing techniques that usually are useful space to map larger area, square kilometer sized areas.

But they’re missing the capacity to sort of make mapping fluxes and concentrations near the ground where all the action is, because the emissions are actually happening from local processes near the ground. And we just wanted to– what if we could see this emission and [INAUDIBLE] see them, image them. Then we could see what the fluxes come from and we could actually pinpoint where we could do good measures to reduce emissions.

IRA FLATOW: Well, good luck to you. We’ll look forward to seeing your camera in action, David.


IRA FLATOW: David Bastviken is professor of environmental change at Linkoping University in Sweden. Not only are diplomats negotiating terms, but this week Bill Gates announced he’ll contribute a billion dollars to create, quote, “early stage investing and potentially transformative energy systems with near zero carbon emissions.” Want to bring in another guest to weigh in on this. Steven Cohen is executive director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute here in New York. Welcome to Science Friday.

STEVEN COHEN: Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: In that interview, Bill Gates said that getting developing and poor countries to switch to clean energy, the technology needs to be cheaper and better. And the only answer to that is innovation. You got to innovate. Do you agree?

STEVEN COHEN: Absolutely. I think that what’s really important about what’s going on in Paris right now is it’s focusing everybody’s attention on how difficult the issue is. And the only way to really address climate change is with transformative technology.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International, talking about the Paris agreements with Steven Cohen at the moment. There was a joint statement by corporations like Royal Dutch Shell and 13 other big carbon industries supporting these talks. They seem to have been reading all over the internet what they’ve been saying. They seem to be wanting a carbon tax, or some real guidance on how to move forward.

STEVEN COHEN: Well, there’s not going to be a carbon tax and there’s not going to be mandatory reductions or anything like that. But what there is going to be is a drive to transform the energy base of our economies. The thing to understand is that energy is not like regulating anything else we ever tried to regulate.

It’s so central to modern life and economic life and really to the political stability of regimes because of that, that you simply can’t regulate it the way you could a toxic substance. And so what you have to do is come up with a technology that is truly transformative. You need to move to a to a cheaper, more reliable, and cleaner form of energy than what the modern economy has been built on. Without that, we simply will never solve the climate change issue.

IRA FLATOW: But we keep talking about, and we keep hearing that the switch to natural gas, which is in great abundance, is the stepping stone to getting to something where we want to go to more green-friendly technologies. Would you agree that that’s going to work?

STEVEN COHEN: No. I mean, it’s better than coal. But what you really have to do is understand that fossil fuels are finite. And getting them out of the planet is destructive, and burning them is destructive. So we have 20 or 30 years to make this transition, maybe 30 or 40 years. But we’re going to have to do it.

And we’re going to have to move away from the current base of fossil fuels. And I think that these companies are recognizing in some ways the way Abu Dhabi recognized, this is a short-term business, at least when you measure it in decades or centuries. And we have to get out of it.

IRA FLATOW: At least at the meeting, do you see the big corporations, the fossil fuel companies seeing the handwriting on the wall now, about switching?

LISA FRIEDMAN: Yes and no. What happens in the negotiating halls tends to be very disconnected from what happens in the real world and on the ground. The Gates announcement– that’s a story that I broke actually. And you mentioned natural gas and I talked with a number of the people who are involved.

And they were saying that part of the aim of this is to help drive the cost of renewable energy down below natural gas, even though it’s a bridge fuel to negate the need for that. It made a massive impact the first day of the talk. There was help build the momentum. People were pleased about it.

Similarly, you’ve got a lot of discussions happening on the sidelines about carbon tax. But once the nitty gritty of the negotiation starts going, very little from the outside world filters into those hallways and those meeting rooms. They are focused on texts and commas and semicolons.

IRA FLATOW: The lawyers are there.

LISA FRIEDMAN: There’s thousands of them. I

IRA FLATOW: Rather than get into another topic, let me take it– we’re coming up on the break here, so let me just say, we’re going to take a break. We’re talking with Lisa Friedman, deputy editor of ClimateWire. She is in Paris on the ground describing the reality of what’s going on.

Steven Cohen, executive director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute in New York is back in the States here. We’re going to talk more about this. See if we got a phone call or two– 844-724-8255. You can tweet us @scifri. Stay with us. We’ll be right back after this break.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re talking about the Paris climate talks with Lisa Friedman, deputy editor of ClimateWire, who’s over there in Paris. Steven Cohen, executive director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute in New York. Let me see if I get a phone call or two in here. Let’s go to Buffalo, New York. [? Alan, ?] welcome to Science Friday.

[? ALAN: ?] Hi, Ira. Thanks for taking my call. I’m a physician, and I’m hopeful that sooner or later health will become an important issue in the climate discussions. Heat is already the leading cause of weather-related deaths in the United States, and it’s important worldwide. And undernutrition is an unappreciated problem, particularly in third world countries where many children are below the 50th percentile in terms of the appropriate weight for age.

These children have development problems that impairs them permanently for the rest of their lives and makes it difficult for these countries to climb out of the states of poverty that they’re in now. And the good news is that this is an important public health opportunity.

We know how to take care of many of these problems if there is a sufficient political will to do that. And one of the things that we’ve learned in medicine is that prevention is always better than treatment. It’s less expensive and it’s more merciful and helpful.

IRA FLATOW: All right. Thanks for that comment, [? Alan. ?] Steve, any reaction?

STEVEN COHEN: Well, I think that the climate issue will– does affect where we’re going to be able to grow food and how much we’re going to be able to grow. On the other hand, we’re actually creating more calories on the planet than we can use. Our problem is that rich people throw out a lot of food and poor people don’t have access to it.

So I don’t think that’s largely an environmental issue. It’s really more of a political issue. But one of the things I did want to mention about the issue of energy and climate is that this idea of raising the price of fossil fuels through a carbon tax or some other pricing mechanism is a political non-starter in most parts of the world and particularly in the United States.

So I think the emphasis should be instead of trying to raise the price of fossil fuels for the true cost to be reflected, to lower the price of renewable energy so it actually drives fossil fuels from the marketplace. And I think that we’re actually hearing that conversation with Gates and others now in a dominant way, because we’re starting to realize that these kinds of negotiations are really not going to end up having the kind of impact that we need them to have.

IRA FLATOW: Probably the biggest vocal proponent of carbon, of taxing carbon is Jim Hanson.

STEVEN COHEN: I know Jim very well and he’s a brilliant climate modeler. But I think that the understanding of how you actually bring about technological innovation and political change really has to be built on a reality base. The US Congress is not going to raise the prices of energy. In fact, most parts of the world are trying to figure out ways of having a smaller part of the GDP used for energy. And so that’s a non-starter.

And we actually know that fossil fuels eventually will become– because they’re finite– will become more expensive and that renewable energy, with technological innovation, will become cheaper. And in fact, we’ve seen over the last several years the historic crossover, so that some forms of solar energy are actually cheaper than fossil fuels in certain places. We have to now turn that into a permanent cost equation.

IRA FLATOW: Lisa, any reaction?

LISA FRIEDMAN: Can I ring in on the health question?


LISA FRIEDMAN: Just to say that island countries and African countries and least developed countries here are acutely aware of the health issues that the called raised. And even though health isn’t being talked about directly in the negotiations, it’s coming into play in a lot of places. Most directly one of the big fights that’s happening here is about what the objective of this whole agreement is supposed to be.

Back in Copenhagen, they had talked about keeping temperatures below a two degree rise, two degree Celsius rise over preindustrial levels. About 100 very vulnerable countries are now calling for 1.5. It’s something that India has not wanted to see, Saudi Arabia has not want to see for various reasons. Countries are coming in around on that maybe.

But what you hear a lot from island countries, African countries, and others are a lot of the health concerns that your caller raised, that their croplands are endangered, that at two degrees, whether it’s from coral reefs or crop yields, a lot more threats than they do at 1.5.

IRA FLATOW: And also, some of them are going underwater quickly.

LISA FRIEDMAN: Absolutely. We heard from a number of island presidents this week who really brought that existential threat home.

IRA FLATOW: Well, at the end of all these talks, even if we do come up with an agreement, as I said before, and we talked about before, none of these negotiations will be binding on any of these.

LISA FRIEDMAN: So, here’s the things, though. There’s different views on this, but one of the things that I’ve heard from a lot of legal experts is if countries’ targets are based on their domestic policies, if countries are following their policies at home, then that’s a lot better than some notion of internationally legally binding. You can take that or leave that idea. There is plenty who disagree. I know European leaders are much more comfortable with international pacts than Americans are.

The question of whether or not the United States goes forward with its own policies and regulations to address greenhouse gases is its own huge question. But assuming that the Obama Administration regulations on greenhouse gases go forward, I think there’s a legitimate question to be asked about whether it really matters whether this is a full treaty or not.

IRA FLATOW: Steve, what’s your take on that?

STEVEN COHEN: Well, I think the regulations and the policies set a framework and a set of expectations. I think what’s actually more important right now is that young people really understand that the climate issue– and not just climate, but threats to biodiversity and to the oceans and to the planet itself and its ability to provide us with air, food, and water, these are central issues for the generation coming of age right now.

And I think they understand that in a way that people my age had to learn as time went on. So I think we’re going to see some of these changes, but it’s not going to be a top down policy promulgated by Washington or by the international community. We’re actually seeing a lot of action at the community level. What we need in addition to this, though, is the transformative technologies.

And what I mean by that is, ask yourself a question. 20 years ago, did you think that you’d be carrying a computer in your pocket and it would become so essential to life that if your smartphone goes down, you sort of get nervous and don’t even know how to live. This is really what we have to see happen in renewable energy.

IRA FLATOW: What would we do differently than promoting more solar or more wind energy research? You’re talking about maybe batteries or something that we don’t even know exists yet.

STEVEN COHEN: I would say that of the existing technologies, if you could make solar cells more efficient and smaller and lighter, the same way we did, by the way, with computers, because the computer I used in graduate school was the size of my living room and it had less computing power than my iPhone has. So if we could do that to solar cells and we could do that to battery technology so that you basically– an apartment in Manhattan could power itself with a few solar batteries and solar cells, then you could see that kind of transformation take place.

The way I sometimes put it, in New York City the biggest pollution problem we had in 1910 was horse manure. We were knee-deep in it. By 1920, the internal combustion engine drove that out of the marketplace. We didn’t tax the horse-drawn carriage. What we did is we created a technology that was far better. We have to do the same thing for energy now.

IRA FLATOW: All right. Thank you very much. And a lot of it is happening, as you say, in the grassroots level. Steve Cohen is executive director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute in New York. Lisa Friedman, deputy editor of ClimateWire in Paris. Thanks for staying up with us, Lisa, and good luck and good luck to you in Paris and give our regards.

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