Q and A: Anthea Harris on Paris 2015 international climate negotiations

Anthea Harris, CEO of the Climate Change Authority, talks in depth about what we can reasonably strive for in negotiations for an international agreement to limit emissions beyond 2020.

Below is an edited transcript of an interview with Anthea Harris, CEO of the Climate Change Authority, about the Authority's report, International climate action: priorities for the next agreement released on 23 June.

Expectations for a climate agreement from Paris 2015

Tristan Edis (TE):               Now Anthea, your targets and progress review paper set out a number of reasons for optimism in what’s happening globally. Since its release  the US has now unveiled controls over existing power station emissions, and we’ve also got China now starting to suggest there’s a reasonable possibility that we might actually see a national emissions trading scheme and an absolute cap potentially sometime around 2020 in that country. 

So, will Paris be what we had hoped for in Copenhagen, do you think?

Anthea Harris (AH):         It depends what you mean by what we hoped for.  So, that’s really what this paper’s about.  You know, what should we reasonably be hoping for?  What’s important for us to be hoping for?  Now, if people… and I think this is probably a broad brush general community kind of thing, if people think this is going to be the all singing, all dancing document that has everything agreed, sewn up tight, every single clause in it legally binding and it’s the magic answer, then they’ll be sorely disappointed.  It’s not going to be that.  We know it’s not going to be that. 

But that does not mean that whatever gets agreed is necessarily a failure, so we have to think about what success means and what we really want out of this.  Now, we know that what really matters is action.  It doesn’t matter about form.  All those sorts of things are completely secondary.  What really matters is action on the ground, so we need this agreement to foster and encourage action.

We need to be able to tell where the action is actually occurring, so that says lots of things about transparency and reporting; and we need the agreement (because it’s just a point in time, it’s not the end of some kind of process) to be able to encourage and facilitate action to step up over time. So that means having a forum where people can trade success stories – look, here’s how we did it, this is working for us – and also for a process of review that generates the kind of peer pressure that comes from everybody looking at everybody else, and hopefully developing a bit of a positive momentum to do more over time.  So, I think those things mean success.

TE:          So, what you’re saying is a thing for people to sort of get together and just check up on each other kind of thing?

AH:         Looking back through time… It’s probably an overstatement, but if we think about Kyoto very crudely as almost a top down sort of process where the rules are very detailed and constrained about what counts towards your targets, all those kinds of things, the world has changed so much now. 

Now, we almost have a hundred countries with targets on the table.  We have all sorts of domestic schemes popping up in all… the regulatory arrangements, market based schemes, all sorts of things popping up all over the world.  So it’s a completely different sort of environment now where we’ve got these sort of domestic processes leading what people are going to commit to internationally.  So, we’re in quite a different space to what we’ve ever been in terms of what’s going to be driving international agreement. 

So, it’s a two way street; what goes on internationally and what happens domestically, for all countries, including us.  So, as you know, the first thing people say when we talk about targets is well what’s everybody else doing?  So, that international side of things is important for domestic things because people need confidence that they’re not going it alone.  But also, what you’re… you’ll be influenced about what you’re willing to put on the table internationally by what you think you can do domestically, how your domestic policies are going.  You know, if things are going swimmingly, you’ll feel more confident about putting stronger targets on the table.  So, it just goes both ways, so… for all countries, not just us.

United Nations process versus employing the G20 process

TE:          When you think about it … it’s an incredibly elaborate process these UNFCCC meetings involving a huge number of countries.  If we just had the G20, you’ve got twenty countries, they account for something like I think eighty-five per cent of the emissions, it’s a controllable group of people. Surely, something like that would be a better vehicle for us to drive progress in this sort of thing and then really, once they’ve sorted it out amongst themselves, we then maybe flow through into a broader agreement that’s driven by, say, the UN.

AH:         There’s no reason to think that the UN has to be the only game in town and there’s no reason, in fact that would be great, if other bodies and organisations and groups of all sorts of, you know, configurations can add to that and encourage countries to go further.  Now, so we shouldn’t underestimate what the UN process has achieved.  It made huge leaps and bounds in terms of reporting and transparency.  Compared to where we have been, those things have been immensely successful, so and that they’re agreed at that UN level, so that’s actually really important.  So, you know, we shouldn’t think that this… the whole UN process has been a complete failure.  I’m not trying to dumb down or, you know, trying to dismiss the difficulties of trying to get that many countries to agree anything at all, but so long as it provides a framework for things like transparency and accounting.  If countries want to trade, it’s quite clear that it appears on both people’s books, you know, things like that then that’s great.  If other groupings, like G20 or whatever, want to go further, fabulous, so there’s no kind of exclusive rights for these sorts of things.

TE:          Also the thing is at that UNFCCC meeting you have some countries there that really aren’t players in the mitigation game and what they do with their own emissions, but they have other concerns and problems.  They want compensation, for example, for the fact that they’re going to be severely disadvantaged by global warming and perhaps that means you’re trying to address multiple issues that are almost too difficult to solve within one forum. It’s almost like we’re trying to corral cats with this process leading up to Paris.

AH:         Well, certainly… The international agreement in the Paris agreement, whatever this looks like, it’s certainly going to cover more than mitigation, so it will cover other areas like adaptation, finance, all of those sorts of things.  It’ll certainly cover those sorts of things.  And it’s unrealistic to imagine that any country’s going to get everything that it wants on mitigation without thinking about how those other building blocks fit into the agreement as well. 

Why we shouldn’t obsess about an agreement being legally binding

That said, in this new kind of world where countries are going to do what they’re going to do, so no one’s going to force any country.  They never could, obviously no country’s going to be forced into doing anything it doesn’t want to do.  So, what we need to do is to have a forum where it encourages people to do more, put that on the table and have it very clear and transparent and have opportunities for a review and building up ambition over time.

TE:          So, it sounds to me like one of the reasons why you guys have done this report, it seems to me like there’s almost a fear of… to some extent of our expectations setting us up for failure. Copenhagen perhaps was as much used as a reason for not acting… In fact it was almost counterproductive the whole Copenhagen event because the expectations were so high?

AH:         It was too easily dismissed as a failure.  Yeah.

TE:            And then that has been used quite openly in Australia to say, ‘hey look, Copenhagen was a failure, let’s not do an emissions trading scheme, no else is acting’.

AH:         That’s right.  And what we’ve seen since then is this proliferation of what really matters which is countries acting, so part of the motivation for this… twin motivations:

--One, we’re going into negotiations.  It’s important to be thinking about what we want to get out of it, what are the priorities because, as you know, these negotiations are large and complex and it’s important to keep your eye on the main game and not be distracted by a whole bunch of things that really don’t matter. 

--Two  from the public perspective our motivation was exactly that too, try and inform people about what matters and try and avoid just red herrings about things that don’t matter.  So, a perfect example of this is whether countries, you know, their targets that they put down, whether those targets are legally binding.  That is such a red herring. 

So, take for example, the US. It has got a stronger target than us no matter which way you look at it.  They’re doing it.  Is it legally binding in an international sense?  No.  Are they going to meet it?  Yes. 

So, you know, it doesn’t matter.  What matters is what countries are actually doing.

TE:          I suppose the other thing is that Canada ultimately did ratify Kyoto…

AH:         And they pulled out.

TE:          …and then didn’t deliver…

AH:         Exactly.

TE:          …pulled out and has received no penalty out of that.

AH:         Exactly.  So, most people when you think legally binding, you know, we lay people, it’s excusable for us to think something dreadful is going to happen to you if you don’t do what you said you would do.  Now, in this international arena that’s not really the case.  So, that’s the perfect example of the red herring.  What really matters is getting countries to actually do more.  That’s what matters.

The importance of consistent rules for assessing and comparing countries emission reduction efforts taking into account international trade in emission credits/permits

TE:          So, is it really more that we should see these international agreements as a keeping score mechanism -  have you been doing what you promised to do?

AH:         And encouraging people to do more and providing a forum for that.  And there are all sorts of things that are agreed at international levels that matter from a practical perspective.  So, having agreed rules.

So, if you’re going to be putting forward your targets, encouraging people to put forward targets, particularly for major emitters, in a consistent way is really important. 

So, for example, if you’re a major emitter, really you should be putting down a target over whatever the commitment period is in a budget… in budget terms.  You really should be doing that.  If you’ve got strange accounting rules, you know, if you’re diverging from the normal rules, you’ve got to be very clear about if you’re not counting, you know, your land sector or something like that.  You need to be extremely clear about what you’re doing. 

That’s very important to have that all centrally, you know, transparent at a central kind of level.  Things like international trade, making sure that the counting rules for that are very clear gives all countries confidence.  When they’re looking at what other countries are doing, you can see there’s no funny business, no double counting going on.  That’s important.  And also from a practical perspective and also giving confidence to private sector players if they’re involved, using some of the things that we’ve already built like the International Transaction Log or the registry system that we already have, being able to use those at least on a voluntary basis with all of the systems that they have in place to make sure that everything is robust, that gives confidence to governments and the private sector alike that trade is robust.

TE:          I suppose the issue though with that one, is if you’re buying credits off a country that doesn’t have an absolute target locked in, say  China can make a commitment and Australia can make a commitment. Meanwhile we’re buying credits off them and saying oh, aren’t we doing wonderfully?  We’ve reduced our emissions by a whole amount.

And then China says ’Hey, guess what?  We’ve reduced emissions too’.… And we’ve just got this agreement to kind of ignore the fact that we’re both taking credit for the same emission reductions.

AH:         Well, that’s exactly what needs to be sorted out, so to make sure that you don’t have that sort of doubling counting.  If they’ve got some sort of commitment on the table that they’re saying they’re meeting, clearly you can’t have them to claim the same ones that we are claiming that we bought.  So, we would want to make sure anyone we bought them from won’t be  no double claiming that abatement.

TE:          Yeah, because there’s nothing in place right now to stop that.

AH:         No.  Right now for a second commitment period, no.  So, first commitment period… So, if you look at the CDM for the first commitment period, all of… none of the countries creating CDM units had targets on the table, so there was… they couldn’t possibly have double counted anything.  Second commitment period that we’re in now, it hasn’t been sorted out yet.  So, if you wanted to be buying, to be on the safe side, you’d just want to make sure that there is some commitment in place that anything they sell you they won’t use to towards their own commitments to the extent that they happen.

END