Why the world never sleeps for climate change negotiators

Many hours, days and nights of talks take place away from the spotlight before the annual Cop events

Environmental activists in the UK demand action on rising carbon emissions. Bloomberg
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Few jobs are likely to be as complex and demanding as that of a climate change negotiator.

Representing national governments or multinational institutions such as the EU, their task is to thrash out agreements to reduce emissions and prevent the worst effects of climate change.

Hundreds of them will be in the UAE for Cop28 at the end of this year, when they will be expected to find a way forward that campaigners hope will be more ambitious than the statement signed off at the end of Cop27 in Sharm El Sheikh last year.

While the annual Cop events attract vast media attention, most of the work of climate officials happens at other times of the year, away from the public gaze.

“We have endless hours, days and nights of meetings … sometimes very technical, sometimes very political,” said Christina Voigt, a law professor at the University of Oslo, who for many years was one of the Norwegian government’s representatives in climate change negotiations.

“The issue is not difficult technically, but the political sides are so controversial that it makes [for] very, very difficult discussions.”

An overarching principle with climate change is that of common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR) — the idea that everyone is responsible for dealing with the issue, but not equally. Finding agreement within this framework is difficult.

Prof Christina Voigt is a former Norwegian climate change negotiator. Photo: Prof Christina Voigt

“There’s a strong recognition that developed countries take the lead and there’s an expectation that developed countries will assist developing countries with technology and finance,” said Dr Adrian Macey, New Zealand’s climate change ambassador from 2006 to 2010 and the chairman of UN climate change negotiations from 2010 to 2011.

While this broad principle has wide acceptance, wealthier nations may be concerned that they are paying several times over for their contribution to climate change. They may have to take the lead in cutting emissions — known as mitigation — while also being expected to compensate poorer nations for the loss and damage caused by climate change.

“Where you set your goal from historical responsibility is pretty fraught,” said Dr Macey, who is now at Victoria University of Wellington.

An important factor, he said, is how much it will cost a country to transition away from fossil fuels. Major hydrocarbon producers may argue that they stand to lose more from the winding down of fossil fuels than nations whose economies have traditionally not depended on oil and gas sales.

As developing nations, notably in Africa, experience rapid population growth — the UN forecasts that sub-Saharan Africa’s population will nearly double to more than two billion by 2050 — and look to bring more citizens out of poverty, the question of whether they can grow their economies without increasing greenhouse gas emissions looms.

“The task in Africa is also not to try to embark on a trajectory which is locking you into fossil fuel emissions,” said Dr Artur Runge-Metzger, former director of the EU Commission's Directorate-General Climate Action. He was one of the commission’s negotiators from the late 1990s until the Paris Agreement was finalised in 2015.

“That is a very particular challenge for Africa, because a lot of gas and oil has been found in Africa. There’s still a discussion about whether it’s not a right of the nations not to use that opportunity in order to develop their industries.”

Dr Artur Runge-Metzger, a former German climate change negotiator, says growth in Africa should not lock the continent into fossil fuel emissions. Photo: Dr Artur Runge-Metzger

Advancement in renewable energy

There has been increasing recognition that economic growth can be achieved without increasing emissions, according to Dr Runge-Metzger. He pointed to huge advances in renewable energy.

“If you said 30 years back that wind energy and solar energy were going to start dominating the investments, you would have been laughed out of the room, because windmills at the time were these tiny things that you sometimes see in the backyard of a farm,” he said.

“You can see how much has changed over time, how much bigger they have become and how little they cost now compared to 25 or 20 years ago.”

Last year the Paris-based International Energy Agency said that solar power had become the “cheapest energy in history”, at about $40 per megawatt hour for new projects. Coal and natural gas projects cost approximately double this.

A shift to renewables has helped Europe in particular to reduce its contribution to climate change, with official figures indicating that the EU achieved a 24 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions between 1990 and 2019. Dr Runge-Metzger, who is now a fellow at the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change, said that additional reductions may be harder to achieve.

“The EU will have a power sector that is out of emissions within the next 10 to 12 years, but then the EU will still have emissions in industry, in buildings, in transport, in agriculture that also need to be reduced, but that is not going to be easy,” he said.

“If you look at transport and the internal combustion engine, the first decisions have already been made to phase out the internal combustion engine and that will have an effect internationally that others will follow. So from that point of view I am optimistic.

“The question still is, ‘Are we fast enough?’ That’s something I wouldn’t dare to make a bet on. But everybody understands the faster we are, the less damage we will have from climate change.”

Dr Adrian Macey is a former New Zealand climate change negotiator. Photo: Dr Adrian Macey

China has a 'particular responsibility'

Another important issue is emissions “outsourcing”. With many manufactured goods used in Europe now made in China and other places, it is slowly becoming an important aspect of climate policy and regulation in Europe.

“It’s not so difficult to reduce your emissions if you just buy the stuff that causes emissions somewhere else,” Prof Voigt said.

Looking ahead, Dr Runge-Metzger said that China, the world’s biggest emitter, has “a particular responsibility when it comes to new power projects, new industrial projects” to ensure that they are as green as possible.

A recent report by Global Energy Monitor and the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air found that the country permitted the construction of an average of two new coal-fired power plants per week last year, while many other nations are winding down coal use. China is said to have six times as many coal-fired power stations beginning construction than the rest of the world combined.

Beyond negotiations between governments and international institutions, Dr Macey said it is no longer just governments dictating the pace of change because many companies have aligned themselves to net-zero policies. About 80 per cent of the investment needed for the energy transition is likely to come from the private sector, he added.

The many other issues surrounding climate change, including the thorny question of loss and damage — compensating nations for the harm they experience because of climate change — will keep officials representing national governments and international institutions busy in the build-up to Cop28. Prof Voigt knows well how tough such negotiations can be.

“That’s usually something people don’t see, when you sit there all night and you’re tired and there’s little food,” Prof Voigt said.

“It’s a tiresome process but if by the end of the day there’s a multilateral outcome, there’s a consensus, there’s a little step forward in this global fight on climate then it’s worth it, because that really is the only way. You can only solve it by getting states together and agreeing on some sort of level playing field.”

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