Addressing the global challenge of governing climate-altering approaches through multilateralism is not just possible but necessary, said Ambassador Franz Perrez during a C2GTalk interview. In the end, he says, it is in everyone’s best interest to build a common understanding of the potential risks, opportunities and challenges linked to climate-altering approaches.
Ambassador Franz Perrez is the Head of the International Affairs Division at the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN). In this capacity, he is also the Swiss Ambassador for the Environment and represents Switzerland at all important international negotiations in the area of the environment.
Below are edited highlights from the full C2GTalk interview shown in the video above. Some answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Click on the play icons below to watch the quoted parts of the interview
Let’s start with Switzerland itself, which has long been a leader in climate action, including on plans to achieve net zero emissions. In achieving net zero, how important will it be to remove carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere, in addition to rapid action on cutting emissions?
The IPCC has shown that we will probably have to do carbon dioxide removal if we want to come on a pathway towards 1.5°C—but this is certainly not the preferred or priority option. The most important thing remains to mitigate. And so we have really to bring down all emissions to zero. That’s the only way forward.
So carbon capture, negative emissions—that’s only an additional element to compensate for what we have not been able to achieve in the past and for the very, very, very few emissions that we will not be able to prevent for the future. But it’s not an alternative to very ambitious, very robust mitigation measures—and that’s where our priority is at this moment.
You recently reached the first of its kind, offsetting agreement with Peru. In the context of what you just said, how important do you see arrangements such as that in achieving our climate and other sustainable development goals and how does that play into mitigation, not emitting and removing carbon dioxide?
Well, I think, an important starting point for these agreements—as we have now concluded with Peru and others will follow very soon—is the notion that these efforts to reduce emission, not at home but in other countries, are not a compensation for lack of domestic action. I think that is absolutely clear. That is not a way to avoid very ambitious and robust actions at home—but it is something that could be could be done in addition to the maximum emissions reductions feasible at home, at the domestic level.
That is the approach, and that is also the concept of Article 6 of the Paris Agreement. The starting point is that each county has to do the maximum it can with regards to emissions reductions at home, but then Article 6 offers a tool to do more and also to be recognized for this doing more. By working together with a partner to help that partner to reduce emissions in the country of that partner that would not have been able to be reduced if that cooperation had not taken place. So the additionality of that emission reduction—not only to the maximum effort at home, but also to walk the part and complicated do by itself is very important criteria.
The additionality, the non-double-counting—that’s also a principle enshrined in the Paris Agreement—and then last but not least, environmental integrity and the promotion of sustainable movement. And with that agreement with Peru, Ghana, and the others that will follow, we really want to create a framework that is leading up to these standards and putting them in operation. It’s certainly not an effort to reduce our domestic ambition—but it’s something to compliment and to do more than you would be able to do as Switzerland alone.
You mentioned a couple of issues: additionality, double counting. Can you say a little bit more about the governance challenges around these kinds of arrangements and how you address them and how you discuss them—perhaps taking the Peru agreement as an example, or in general. How do you navigate through some of these governance challenges?
Well, some of the governance challenges are easy to solve and others are more complicated. It is easier when it comes to no double counting: you implement or create a robust transparency system where you really adjust the inventory of the country that is transferring offsets to another country. That is something that is not too complicated—neither under Article 6.2 nor under Article 6.4 on the Paris Agreement.
And then there are other elements which are little bit more complicated but still, I think, easy to handle—for example, ensuring environmental integrity. For Switzerland, ensuring environmental integrity means more than just ensuring permanence, additionality and measurability. It means also that the activities that are undertaken to reduce emissions are in line with other environmental concerns—be it biodiversity, clean air or water—so that you do not create another problem by solving one problem. But these can also be solved bilaterally and you have mechanisms to make sure that is in place.
The third element foreseen by the Paris Agreement, promotion of sustainable development, is a little bit more complex because sustainable can mean a lot. But we found there also, I think, a good solution by indicating that it has to be in line with sustainable development strategies and policies of both of the partners.
And one element that is really dear to us: we have to really make sure that these activities do respect human rights. But these elements, you can write in and implement mechanisms to make sure that they are respected.
I think the biggest challenge is to create an arrangement that is targeting the space where you will launch activities in the right area. You don’t want to create an incentive in the host country not to formulate an ambitious Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC). So you have to make sure that whatever activity you implement under that agreement are done in that space, that is for this period, for this moment, out of the reach of an ambitious NDC.
I think that is the most complicated part for both parties—also for the host countries—that is that’s the most difficult thing to find the right area where cooperation can allow for additional activities that are not be able to be done without such arrangements.
If we could go briefly on to the idea of carbon dioxide removal, which we’ve touched on and has, perhaps, a relationship with offsetting, as well but goes further. Switzerland, for example, is home to Climeworks, an innovator in direct air capture, which is one technology-based approach to carbon dioxide removal. Based on your experience, what can governments do to support this kind of innovation?
First of all, we think it is really important that innovations like the one that developed at Climeworks take place. We need innovation to solve certain problems. But at the same time, what is equally important is always to be aware that innovations may also involve significant uncertainties.
So we know from IPCC that carbon dioxide removal will be a measure that we will need in order to come on the 1.5 degree pathway. But we also have a lot of indications that certain technologies—be it carbon dioxide removal and even more when it comes to solar radiation management—could imply significant risks. Also some carbon removal approaches like ocean fertilisation, but also large-scale afforestation projects, can have significant environmental and social impacts that we do not yet fully understand. I think, whenever we are on the one side being open for new ideas, approaches and technologies, we also have to undertake every effort to make sure that we understand potential risks.
That is one of our biggest concerns—that because we feel we need carbon dioxide removal, we are just moving blindly and over optimistically into technologies that then at the end, could trigger other problems. I think the first thing is always, you have to make a robust assessment with the knowledge that you have today. What could be the impact? And also try to close the knowledge gaps and uncertainties that we have with regards to negative impact. If you’re not taking that side of the coin very seriously, then we are also not credible when we are at the same time willing to look for options and new technologies that can perhaps have the potential to bring critical elements for the solutions that we need.
We talked about learning and addressing these risks. But how does that happen in practice? What are the kinds of governance techniques you can bring to bear to start to make those assessments—starting on a national level and then we’ll talk a little bit later about international level, as well. What does it look like to learn and make these assessments and practice?
I think that is partly one of the daily basis of governance—to make such assessments, risk assessments, potential assessments before the policies—because you always want to base your policies on sound science as much as that is possible. And you also want to be aware of possible uncertainties. So they were studies undertaken already by Royal Academy in England. Switzerland just recently undertook a quite a comprehensive assessment through the Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) to try to understand what are potential risks. All of these studies involved researchers from all around the world. So we have to support these kinds of assessments. That’s the only way to close our knowledge gap. And that’s only way to create a framework and enabling and making sure that you’re moving towards the right direction.
In 2019, Switzerland co-sponsored a resolution on geoengineering at the fourth UN Environment Assembly. That resolution called, amongst other things, for the United Nations Environment Program to prepare an assessment of the status of these technologies, in particular carbon dioxide removal technologies and solar radiation management. Why did Switzerland take this action? Was there a link between your national experience—what you’d learnt—and then seeing the need for such at an international level?
The motivation for that was that we were really concerned that there might be a tendency to move too quickly to new approaches without making a sound assessment of both potentials and risks. We thought that the knowledge base is not sufficient, and that some might be over enthusiastic. Some of these approaches could have significant international impacts. Although there’s the positive side of perhaps slowing down global warming, you also have very significant negative international impacts. There’s always a risk that is externalities, if they are not transparent—that they are overseen or neglected or perhaps even purposely overseen. Therefore we thought we need more than national assessments. We need more than assessments by the Royal Academy, by Swiss academic institutes, by science academies in other countries. We need an international common understanding of the potential risks—and that’s the only way forward in order to create a certain assurance that it would be difficult to start to employ technologies that could lead to many negative consequences.
And we were exploring internally: Who could do such an assessment? Who would be the best international body to provide an assessment that also has that credibility and authority that could then guide further political decision-making. We realised that within the UN system, we have many bodies with a lot of scientific expertise: IPCC, IPBES—there are many institutions like that. But all these institutions have a special angle to look at certain issues: IPCC looks at issues from the climate change perspective, IPBES from a biodiversity perspective. But these technologies captured under the term geoengineering or climate-altering technologies and measures impact all these dimensions. They have a dimension on climate, on biodiversity, on water quality, and so on.
There’s one institution in the UN system that is ensuring that broad environmental picture while also looking at social consequences and having robust expertise and credentials of providing such assessments: UNEP. UNEP has assessments that have later been instrumental to trigger policy actions and to guide political decision-making. That is the core mandate of UNEP, and that’s the reason why we thought UNEP should be the body to make such an assessment, to collect information that allows for a better understanding of the challenges, potentials, but also possible governance needs that the technologies might need.
In the run up to this and talking about other countries about it—you just now, to some extent in the framing of it, focused on risks. Is there a degree to which that was also balanced by opportunities? How do you balance talking about risks and potential opportunities?
I think you always have to balance risks and opportunities, but the problem is that we too often see the opportunities because we might directly benefit from them and we don’t see the risk because someone else will have to bear these risks. We were concerned that the focus is too much on opportunities. Some might even believe the opportunity—meaning that we don’t have to change our consumption production patterns and that they can continue to act as in the past because opportunities of these technologies might be so tremendous. Our concern was that the risks are not being seen and, that was the motivation for it.
But you should also not only look at risk of course; you have to make a balance. But at this moment, we think that that the most important thing is to have a better understanding also of the risks and not only the opportunities.
You also managed to convince a number of other countries to support this action and to co-sponsor this resolution. Can you say a little bit about how you went about talking to those countries and bringing them along?
Well, we were talking to countries that in many other environmental areas have a similar approach as we do—colleagues that we’re working with in other areas, be it chemicals, climate change, biodiversity, or UNEP in general. So that was one motivation to approach certain countries.
Another approach was also to use the environmental integrity group (that is our climate change negotiation group), and all the members of that group were part co-sponsoring that resolution. Our objective is not to have a group of co-sponsors that is as big as possible; our objective was really to be representative—meaning that you have smallest emitters and very big emitters, developed counties and developing countries. We were pretty proud that we were able to bring a group together. You really can find nearly every perspective that is relevant in that context. We thought that gave a clear signal that this is not a concern of one particular perspective; it is a concern, in principle, of everybody to have a better understanding of the risks, potential, and possible governance needs for each of these different technologies that can be captured under the term “geoengineering” or all kinds of climate-altering technologies and measures.
To bring this group of co-sponsors or supporters together, was there a moment at which one country or another country suddenly went for it and convinced other countries? How’s the dynamic of that? I imagine it might be a little nerve-wracking for some countries to put their head above the parapet on this (and obviously Switzerland has lead). But how is the dynamic of putting together a group of people to help you on a resolution like this?
I think you always need partners who are, first of all, sharing the same concern and convinced that is the right thing to do. If someone is not really convinced, the partner would not be willing to go ahead. You want partners who are also willing to show their face and speak out—and we were able to find such partners. We had a lot of interactions and there was a lot of trust within the group. That is also important so that you’re also willing to say things where you’re not absolutely sure, just to test ideas. To criticise things and ideas without getting the feeling that that someone is not really sharing the basic concern. So these interaction was very helpful. It was very, very dynamic. It involves a lot of engagement of all of these actors that have been supporting that idea.
So in the end, the resolution did not pass. But reading through the analysis afterwards, I think everybody agrees that it was successful in catalysing a pretty significant debate. And these discussions that emerged from that continue to have repercussions and effects today. Could you say a little bit about how you saw the outcome at UNEA 4?
Well, that is of course a very subjective perspective—how I perceived it, as one of the proponents and co-sponsors of that resolution, how I perceived these negotiations.
There are three groups, more or less, three kinds of reactions. There were not formal groups but you could cluster their actions into three categories. There were those who understood our concern, shared it, and therefore supported it.
And then there were those who were concerned that such an assessment could be seen as an enabling framework for technologies that might be risky. So, they were concerned that such an assessment could, as a consequence, facilitate the deployment of technologies that we might at the end not really wants to be deployed. The interaction with that group was helpful, and then we were able to also show to that group that that is certainly not the idea behind it. The idea is to develop better understanding precisely to also develop frameworks that are constraining, if there’s a need for it. At the end, that group’s view was reflected the most by bringing into that draft resolution an explicit reference to the notion of precaution. Saying that we are doing all that assessment under the overall political approach precaution, that was very important for them to put the right framing about that that ethic.
And there was another group of countries where we have impression their concern was just the opposite. They are afraid of triggering a process that leads to bringing together scientific information and then to lead over to the political debate that then at the end, could limit certain technologies. And, I think, that was the group that at the end of the negotiations was not willing to go ahead with the proposal.
We took up all the different concerns. Some of the concerns expressed by many was, for example, we don’t want to have one category of having only geoengineering. That was never our objective. We think we need a specific analysis of each of the different areas. We took that on board. Some said we don’t want to be so specific about governance. We want to focus more on risk and potential at the moment. We also tried to put that on board in the revisions of the of the draft. At the end, I think the last draft reflected all these concerns in a very balanced manner, but it still met objection, I think, from those who are afraid of creating something that could limit their space of freedom, of maneuvering in the future.
I just wanted to pick up one of those points you raised because it’s an issue that we often deal with in our communications: the concept of geoengineering itself, and under that is a whole set of potential approaches to do with large-scale carbon dioxide removal and with solar radiation modification. And within each of those umbrellas of approaches, there are many different potential techniques and technologies that could be deployed. Over time, we have moved towards talking about carbon dioxide removal separately from solar radiation modification, but there are people that still use the term “geoengineering”, for various reasons. Can you say anything about when how important do you think these terminology issues are in getting governments together in helping to create shared understanding at the international level? How much are some of these terms getting in the way?
I have two perspectives on that. I think on one side, from a rational perspective, you would assume that these terms are not as difficult. They should not be a real problem as long as you have a clear understanding what they meant and what the consequences are.
But interestingly, in the reality, that’s not the case. It’s as you said, many of these terms have a certain connotation or create the connotation which some like and others don’t like.
That’s not only with the term “geoengineering”; take for example, “green economy”—a term that at once got really problematic for some for totally different reasons that are outside the meaning of the concept. Sometimes, some use the approach of criticizing a term, not because they don’t like the term but because they want to convey a certain message, which might not be absolutely correct when you look only at the term. So “geoengineering” we used it as a broad chapeau term, with a clear understanding that under this term, you can use geoengineering or climate-altering technologies or measures.
There are many different technologies under that broad term, which are totally different—with totally different potential, techniques and risks. Some risks might be very local, while some might be of a global dimension, like solar radiation management. That’s something totally different.
We thought that the benefit of having one term is to highlight that there’s a broad kind of actions which are not mitigation, and which can be seen as a tool to address some of the challenges of climate change, and they’re all linked with interfering with how the climate works. And we don’t attach a value judgment to that term. For many, geoengineering has an ethical value judgment linked to it. So now we are using CATM (climate-altering technologies and measures) because some believe that it has a less negative connotation.
But in the end, a term is a term. What is important is that we have a common understanding. We want to look at each of these technologies separately. But at the same time, we want to look at each of these different technologies and we don’t just leave one out because there are some special interests who think, let’s not look at it because this is alright. None of that is fully understood at this moment. Or perhaps we have a full understanding but then it’s also helpful to bring that together through an authoritative report to indicate we have a good common understanding that the risks with that specific technology are not as big as they would need some specific governance around it. So I think, using the broad term helps us to make sure that you don’t neglect one and that we have a good picture. But I think geoengineering has become for several too negatively connotative a term—and then at one moment, terms stand in the way of finding a solution.
Do you think this is a something specifically with the English word or it might sound different in other languages? Chinese, Spanish, French, Arabic or Russian, I mean? Are there similar terminological minefields there and other languages, or is this just because peculiarity of the way we’re using it?
I think we have the same problem in all languages. For example, climate change—the term is challenged by saying this is too positive; we need to use the term climate crisis. And that’s in English and in Germany and in France, like that. There’s a life that each word is having, and each term after certain moment, develops negative and positive connotations. I think that’s the same in all languages. It then becomes interesting if you start to translate the same term because one term in English can have a very positive connotation, but if you translate it to French, at once you might have a negative connotation for whatever cultural and social reasons linked to it. And then of course it becomes really interesting negotiating when there are different connotations for the term in each language. I think that’s also part of the art of negotiating or finding solutions that reflect what we want and not reflect all the possible connotations that with good or bad faith could be attached to certain formulation.
So based on this experience that you had at UNEA 4, what next steps did Switzerland take to keep these discussions alive? I know, for example, Switzerland commissioned the report by the International Risk Governance Center on climate engineering. What impact has that had? Where do we go from here?
We immediately did three things. First of all, we continued the discussion with that group and with others outside about the importance of the topic and that discussion of course continues, because we are still convinced that we would all benefit from such an assessment. I think that is a critical basis to creating an environment that gives us assurances for the future.
On the second level, we commissioned that study, which did a little bit what we hoped UNEP would do. And I think is important that many of these studies will be undertaken. We are also supporting a study in Africa, in that direction, purely from an African perspective.
You get a better understanding of the risks, opportunities and challenges linked to these technologies. And we think these studies are important, but they cannot replace something that has the authority of a multilateral process.
The third element which we tried to do is also to create space within IPCC, with the current IPCC assessment, to look at the issue—but there we were not really succeeding in making sure that IPCC takes a sufficiently robust look at the issue of geoengineering. But even the IPCC perspective will not be sufficient. The IPCC will always have a very important perspective, but it’s one perspective; IPBES might have a totally different perspective. Or if you have an academic or scientific institution looking at oceans only, they again might have a different perspective. What is important is to bring these perspectives together and to make an authoritative perspective that is understood also as a global perspective.
You mentioned how different groups expressed different types of concerns at UNEA4. Are you seeing that evolving in some ways, as people have had more time to think about some of these issues, and learning and society-wide discussion has advanced? Where are we today?
Yes, I think things are things are evolving but in the national process, things are not evolving in a very dramatic, rapid manner. We have to be aware that UNEA4 was the first time that the international community started to engage on that topic. And whenever you bring something for the first time, some concerns are created or woken up because it’s something new and you don’t feel secure. You didn’t have sufficient time to prepare yourself. You didn’t have time to consult with everybody at home. The debate at home might not be mature enough to have a clear position that. So when you table something like that the first time, and you do not have enthusiastic support, it is understandable.
And it is also understandable that since then, looking again at the proposal and the broader debate that was initiated since then, all the debate and work that was done by different fora, including C2G—all these different debates have really helped to bring the thinking forward. And I’m sure if the same question comes up again, the understanding of the proposal will be much better—that also means that the understanding on where we could land together to reflect something that is building on, respecting and answering all the concerns of each of us. It’s not something that should be only raising the concerns of one particular group of countries; it should declare something that is, at the end, in the interest of everybody. And this needs time, that everybody sees that this is in the interest of each of us.
So there’s a lot of talk right now about the intersection of science and public policy—we’ve been thinking about that a lot during the COVID-19 times. Every country has got its own experience. How do you see how scientific advice and learning interacts with other political, economic, cultural factors and decision making? Do you see any of those other factors coming to the fore on these carbon dioxide removal and solar radiation modification yet?
Well, I don’t want to be to be misled by wishful thinking and perception, of course. But I have impression that in the different areas, I think at the end, most if not everybody believe that scientific input is critical for some policymaking. So I think that nobody is challenging that really. And I think that that people and actors increasingly understand that also. There might be fundamentally different interests, but each of them has at the end, an interest that we have a better understanding.
So I hope that a debate like that, framed like that, can also become a little bit de-emotionalised and de-politicised by saying we’re not talking politics now. We’re talking about creating a common understanding that then allows later a policy debate.
Are you optimistic that a multilateral agreement on this is possible? Some people have questioned this, and proposed that maybe this ends up being something that goes mini-lateral or other forms. Do you feel multilateral agreements on something as potentially contentious at some of these technologies is fundamentally possible?
I think multilateralism on these issues is not only possible, it’s needed. It’s the only way forward. If you’re not able to address such challenges which have a global dimension through multilateralism, then we have tremendous problems. Each of us—also the very big actors—will face problems at a certain moment if they do not work through multilateralism and based on multilateralism. So I think that’s only option we have.
The question is, how fast will multilateralism be? Will it be fast enough to provide these assurances that we need, or will it be too slow? But I think multilateralism is the only option that we have.
And do you think that there might be a risk that in the meantime, given the speed issues you raise, that some countries could try to proceed unilaterally or in coalitions on some of these issues?
I think that risk exists. I believe that this exists in some areas more than others—not only here regarding geoengineering or climate-altering technologies and measures. I think that’s in all policy areas. You always have that risk.
The biggest challenges to explain, convince and show these actors, who potentially could be in a position to go ahead, that in the end it’s also in their interests to move together in in a framework that at the end for the sustainability of these actions will be important.
Overall, this is a difficult sphere to work in. For individuals, emotionally, there can sometimes be a tendency to see despair in terms of the size of the challenge ahead and the willingness of countries to come together to deal with those challenges. And yet you also talked about optimism and maintain some positive attitude that these things are going in the right direction. How important is it for you to maintain a sense of optimism? And how do you do that, whilst at the same time being honest about the gravity of the challenge? Sometimes one could be so optimistic to the point of denying the gravity of the chat. How do you balance all of that at a personal level, and what advice do you have for people struggling with those issues?
I think two things are important. One is of course, never forget what the objective is. But at the same time not always focus on objective—you always have to bear that in mind—but if you only focus on the objective and you don’t advance quickly, then you will be frustrated. You have to also see the small steps and the small successes you are achieving. And by also appreciating these small steps then you realize that, indeed, we are approaching the objective.
So we didn’t succeed in having that resolution adopted at UNEA 4, but what we succeeded in is to launch a tremendous discussion and debate—and that is a success. And so we have to build on that, on the perception. It was not a, “No, no, no, no, no.” Things have changed, thanks to our proposal.
And perhaps we might be able to get an assessment tomorrow or the day after, but we see a certain progress and I think it is important also to be proud and glad about the small progresses, we are able to achieve, despite the fact that the tremendous challenge still remains.