The 25-Year Road to Paris: Talking COP with Alden Meyer

December 11, 2015 | 3:46 pm
Katharine Hayhoe and Emily Powell

The other morning, I headed to the lobby of the Avalon Hotel in Paris for a rare opportunity to catch up with Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists. Meyer is the principal advocate for UCS on national and international policy responses to global climate change. He has been in attendance at all but one of the Conference Of Parties (COP) meetings organized by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) since they began in 1990.

We sat down with Meyer over breakfast to get his unique and invaluable perspectives on the evolution of past COPs and how they have shaped the path to Paris.

A History of COPs

It’s evident from the first exchange that Meyer has a wealth of surprising facts and important insights to share. He has witnessed first-hand many key turning points in the history of international climate negotiations during last 25 years of COP meetings, a long history that provides him with unique insight into the battles fought and impediments faced that still reverberate through the climate negotiations at COP21 today.

Few people probably realize that preliminary negotiations took place in 1990 in Westfield, Virginia, USA—the first and only such talks to be held on U.S. soil. These negotiations began right after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its first report in 1990. Meyer was there when the UN General Assembly passed a resolution authorizing the negotiations that led up to the Rio Framework Convention, which were adopted in New York in 1992 just before the first meeting in Rio de Janeiro, known as the Earth Summit.

Alden Meyer, Director of Strategy & Policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Alden Meyer, Director of Strategy & Policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists. Photo: IISD

Meyer describes the Earth Summit as a huge deal in its size and scope. It led to the UNFCCC and the Convention on Biological Diversity. But tension around the idea of legally binding commitments was already thick in the air.

At the 1992 Earth Summit, many worked hard with the U.S. to persuade then-President George H. W. Bush that climate change was a real threat. Although the science was taken seriously in that agreement—calling for limits on carbon dioxide levels that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic, or human, interference with the climate system—the text of the treaty was so convoluted that it was difficult to say whether the U.S. was taking any specific measure under the agreement. For example, one section of the text stated a goal of returning emissions to 1990 levels and another section stated it would demonstrate leadership if industrialized countries could achieve that goal by the year 2000. However, in keeping the two sections separate, it prevented the U.S. from being legally obligated to these goals.

Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, 1992 Source: Worldwatch

Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, 1992 Photo: Worldwatch

There was also an understanding with the U.S. Administration that if there was any amendment in the future that imposed binding emissions obligations on the U.S., this agreement would come back to the Senate for a vote. In fact, this is the origin of the debate today around the terminology “legally binding.” For instance, if an amendment is set to “achieve” a target, this triggers an understanding such that the agreement here in Paris would have to go to a vote in the Senate, which would not likely get anywhere near 67 votes given the current outlook of Republican senators in today’s climate, Meyer points out.

Alden Meyer recalls the first official convening of the COP in Berlin in 1995. This meeting represented the first time there was agreement among countries that not enough progress was being made to implement the goals of the framework treaty and that we needed to negotiate a protocol – the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. The Kyoto Protocol included binding emissions reductions for developed countries, but not for developing countries like India, China, and Brazil. This rapidly became a source of contention, and the focal point used by opponents. Even TV ads ran in the U.S. criticizing the protocol, saying it wouldn’t work because it was not global. And while Asian countries were being told not to accept binding agreements because it would hurt their economies, the U.S. public was told that the U.S. shouldn’t accept binding commitments because these other countries wouldn’t accept them.

COP6 in 2000, which took place in The Hague in the Netherlands, was the only COP in history to be suspended. Debates between the U.S. and the EU on rules for crediting carbon sinks or using offsets toward the Kyoto targets resulted in a standstill. The session resumed five months later, but disagreements continued. After the resumed session and before the next COP meeting in 2001, Meyer remembers how the U.S. announced it was going to pull out, as George Bush famously stated that the Kyoto Protocol was dead. This announcement angered the rest of the world, and countries rallied to save Kyoto with the Marrakesh Accords in 2001.

Blog3_photo_COP15_CopenhagenAt COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009, several countries opposed the Copenhagen Accord, so the outcome there was that they only took “note” of the accord. In response, the U.S. and other countries launched a big campaign to persuade countries to put forward pledges, which was the antecedent of a new process to develop INDCs – Intended Nationally Determined Contributions – ahead of Paris. INDCs are bottom-up, self-differentiated goals among nations. They offer a tangible way for governments to communicate the steps they will take to address climate change. Copenhagen essentially became a stepping-stone in developing a process for setting emissions reductions targets from the ground up.

The U.S. has supported the INDC process ever since it was first proposed. But, according to Meyer, INDC commitments are not ambitious enough. To Meyer, a major element of the COP21 agreement will be setting up top-down assessments of how we are doing collectively, and establishing expectations for countries to “up their game” moving forward into the 2020s, 2030s, and beyond. But because the INDC process is bottom-up and self-determined, getting adequate ambition is very difficult.

Meyer is hopeful, however. Decentralized renewable energy is becoming more cost-effective and efficient. He spoke to a senior negotiator from India earlier in the week here at COP21, who told him that in India the cost of an LED light bulb had dropped from the equivalent of $5 USD to just over $1 per bulb in the last 17 months. India’s goal is to replace all street lighting in the country with LEDs by the year 2019, which, Meyer says, “is more ambitious than any developed country I know of.”

Common threads throughout COPs

According to Meyer, issues of equity and leadership have always been central at the COP meetings. The division between rich and poor countries remains arbitrary. Non-developed countries were exempted from Kyoto, which meant that rich countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia with much higher per capita GDPs were exempted, compared to some of the poorer industrialized nations like Portugal and Greece. Meyer describes this as a shorthand mechanism for establishing rich and poor, but not one that has been objectively based. The Climate Action Network is working to establish an equity reference framework that sets up principles, criteria, and indicators to make this process more objective. This will include INDCs, finance, and technology support because, as he explains, “everything’s connected.”

“The notion that development and carbon emissions are inextricably linked is one of the biggest problems in this process. It is not true. And now, it is certainly less true than it ever was,” Meyer said.

With the scaling up of renewables in Germany, the U.S., and China, prices continue to go down. By 2020, India, China, and others will be able to do much more than they think they can do now. For this reason, Meyer says, it’s important not to lock the current INDCs in place. Instead, there must be flexibility in the process. Meyer says one of the most important things they are fighting for here in Paris is simply an opportunity that civil society can use to urge all countries to increase the ambition of their first round of INDCs.

“COPs are where you make climate change a priority,” Meyer said. While it is true that no international agreement will force countries like the U.S., China, and Brazil to do anything they didn’t intend to do in the first place, COP meetings are the moments when the world discusses the problems, when civil society rallies around them, the media covers the issues, and they become a political issue.

The major issues for COP21

To Meyer, the focus is not so much on the details of countries’ INDCs, but rather on formulating the process. This process is making a change in domestic policy, because, for the first time, coordination and consulting with ministries and stakeholders will change what they think they can do to tackle the issues. In other words, examining the issues uncovers opportunities they may not have known were there.

Source: Emily Powell, DOI landscape Conservation Cooperatives

Photo: Emily Powell, DOI landscape Conservation Cooperatives

But what will it really come down to at the end of the wire for COP21? Meyer says the biggest issues are review, finance, and transparency. The monitoring, reporting, and verification (MRV) regime for developing countries are crucial. The U.S. cannot accept self-reporting without some type of independent verification. Countries need a flexible review process post-2020 to have all countries increase their INDCs moving forward. This is still being negotiated and, according to Meyer, will be one of the last-minute items to be settled. Adaptation and loss and damages will also have to be a big part of the Paris agreements.

But how to get more ambition from countries in an equitable way remains a big question.

There is a lot of work still to do here in Paris. Reaching a Paris agreement is crucial, because we don’t have time to waste. The rate of emissions reductions we’d need to achieve to get on the 2°C pathway goes up the longer we wait. Meyer believes that, while we may not be able to solve the problem of getting on the 2°C track at Paris, COP21 may be a tipping point and a transformational moment if countries commit to doing more by the end of the decade. At the very least, he believes we can keep the option of the 2°C track open.

Despite the outcomes of past meetings, some successful, some more disappointing, Meyer remains hopeful that “we will leave Paris with something dynamic and energizing, something that preserves some hope in the system.” I think we are all hoping for that!