Five years since the Paris Agreement came to fruition, Paul Watkinson talks to C2GTalk to provide some personal reactions, drawing on his long experience of climate action, about what comes next. How and when do we start thinking about the large-scale of carbon dioxide removal that may be needed to meet the Paris Agreement goal of limiting warming to well below 1.5°C compared to pre-industrial levels? What multilateral approaches might the world need to govern solar radiation modification?
Paul Watkinson has more than twenty years’ experience in multilateral negotiations and action on climate and sustainable development issues. He served for many years as chief negotiator of France on international climate change issues. In particular, he was a member of the steering committee of COP21, heading the climate negotiating team and contributing to the development of the Paris Agreement.
He was chair of the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) for 2018 and 2019 and a member of the bureau of the COP for those two years. As such, he worked closely with the other presiding officers to put together the package of decisions adopted in Katowice in December 2018 that constitute the rulebook of the Paris Agreement as well as other decisions and conclusions to implement the Convention and the Kyoto Protocol. He worked closely with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to ensure that the best available science could be used by parties in their work under the UNFCCC and also ensure a closer cooperation in multilateral work to tackle climate change and biodiversity. From 2009 until 2013 he was one of the lead negotiators of the European Union in the multilateral climate negotiations.
Below are edited highlights from the full C2GTalk interview shown in the video above. Some answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
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After 20 years in climate change diplomacy, what grade would you give our multilateral system in responding to the climate crisis?
I think a very honest assessment has to give us a fairly low grade because we are still well off track. At the same time, we’ve given ourselves a significant number of tools to help us to get in the right direction. In particular, with the Paris Agreement, we have all countries in the world essentially on board in putting in place climate action. We, of course, had one major country, the United States, leave the Paris Agreement in the past few weeks, but in theory coming back in 2021.
Of course, the level of action that countries are taking is still too low, but I think we’ve given ourselves a framework. The key thing is how to use it well: how to ramp up ambition, accelerate action to give us a chance of keeping within those targets, and of course to deal not only with the emissions, but also with the impacts of climate change—which are going to happen, that are already happening, and that we will have to deal with.
Do you think your assessment is widely shared in the climate community—how people feel about what has worked, what has not worked in our planning system?
I would be amazed to meet many of my colleagues who would say that we’ve achieved everything we could do and we’re in a perfect situation. Of course, we’re not. We’re in a situation where we’re probably on track to at least 3°C degrees of warming on the basis of current policies. The question is how to correct that and how to give us a chance of coming onto a much faster track.
The very interesting thing of the moment is, we’ve seen a series of announcements: the European Union looking very hard at how to get to an agreement on at least a 55% reduction by 2030 and climate neutrality by the middle of the century. We’ve had China make an announcement a couple of months ago on seeking neutrality by 2060. Japan, South Korea, a number of other countries making similar targets. And of course we’re looking to a new US administration to come in. That makes a very interesting dynamic.
What matters, of course, are the pathways and the policies we put in place in the next few years—that’s where we’ve been far too weak. I think we have the framework to track, to follow, and to work together. But we need to strengthen the action—that is the key challenge we we’ve all been looking at. And that’s about political will: it’s about the decision to move forward.
And that’s why I think we need to build on this dynamic—particularly the way in which the recovery from the COVID-19 crisis creates opportunities for investment in infrastructure, in new areas of technology and development, and types of collaboration. It’s an opportunity we can take or squander. I think it’s the taking it, which is going to be the key test of what we achieve in the next few years.
Given those dynamics that you’ve identified, what do you think the mood music will be during the five-year anniversary of the Paris Agreement this December?
Again, I think it has to be: How do we move forward? It has to be looking towards where we’re going. It’s not the time to celebrate having adopted the Paris Agreement, five years ago. The Paris Agreement is, in my view, a very, very important framework to help us to move forward—but it hasn’t solved climate change. It wasn’t the aim of it. It’s something we have to fill and it’s what we put in it. It’s what each country puts in the Paris Agreement that makes a difference.
It’s raising the ambition for 2030 to put us on a pathway to climate neutrality. It’s seriously getting to the climate neutrality by the middle of the century. Of course, we’ll need to talk about moving beyond that and net negative emissions, which I think is part of our discussion is coming up. And of course, it’s working together. It’s the collaboration. It’s a solidarity—in particular with those who are in the front line of the impacts of climate change, the most vulnerable, and in particular the poorest amongst us.
You mentioned net negative emissions. Given insufficient action on emissions cuts, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) noted in its reports that large-scale carbon dioxide removal is also needed to avoid catastrophic global warming. Why do you think there has been so little relative discussion of this so far?
Whatever we use in terms of negative emissions technologies, the focus has to be on getting our positive emissions down to zero or as close to zero as we can. And I think it is vital that is our starting point. The Kyoto world, if I can take us to a some years ago, took us to a view that we could put all emissions and absorb options on the same level. It doesn’t matter where we reduce emissions or when, and if you’re making a 5% or even a 20% reduction. That’s probably a reasonable way of seeing it.
If you’re going to zero, you need every bit of your emission profile to go down. Your energy systems need to be decarbonized totally to produce electricity. Our transport systems, housing—we just need to bring those down to zero and we need to get them in the next few decades. We need to look at industry. Now some industry, we can go down to zero because it’s primarily about the use of energy. Others, there are real challenges, particularly where there are process emissions involved.
And of course then there’s agriculture, forestry, land use, which have the dual characteristic of being sources of emissions and but also our sinks, which can absorb carbon dioxide. Sometimes these will be affected by climate change in the future, and that creates uncertainties. So we need each of these to come down.
I think the fact that we are focused on those reductions is vital. I think that is the starting point for this. The question is, how do we go beyond that? I think the question now—particularly as we look into the 2030s and towards the middle of the century—is what is the space for negative emissions technologies and carbon dioxide removal as we start to think in a large scale? The IPCC is telling us we will need these technologies. How and when do we start to talk about that they’re coming in? And which ones are ready? Which ones raise serious challenges, in particular trade-offs with other policy aims we need to start to look at these in a serious way.
This challenge that you laid out terms of the balance of stopping emissions and then starting to remove CO2 already in the air and what the IPCC has said about that—how widely is it understood, that there is this other part of the challenge, and the sensitivities and complications around that? Or are we really starting from quite a low level right now?
I think it’s something which is becoming part of the conversation in a much wider way. As I said, if you go back to the type of conversations were having 10 or 15 years ago with the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol, offsets were seen as something to balance: I can’t reduce my emissions now so I use an offset. That sort of logic is not the logic we need as we move down to net zero by the middle of the century, and then into the net negative emissions. We will need to work out how we get everything to zero and then how we take those negative emissions forward. I think that conversation has got to begin. I think it’s been right to have the focus first on getting to zero; that remains the key objective. The rest of it is meaningless, almost, if we don’t do that. We can’t do this as an offsetting, keeping our emissions high. How do we then start to see large-scale use of carbon dioxide removal? This is going to come onstream in five, ten years in terms of how we need to start to see it. And so, we do need this conversation.
Do you think there’s an issue with the word offset itself and the assumptions that brings with it?
I think it is the sense that you can avoid making reductions. We cannot avoid making reductions. We need to eliminate the emissions across as much of our economy as we can. There will be some non-compressible emissions in a few sectors, particularly in some of the land-use areas, potentially agriculture. Maybe in some industrial areas, although there are some ways we need to explore, particularly with process emissions to see how we can bring those down as far as we can. The question then is, how do we go beyond that? In particular, net negative emissions are not about offsets. They’re about removal.
The type of conversations we’ve had until now—particularly about how we could finance or track or even incentivize these types of activities—are simply not adapted to literally drawing carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere either mechanically or by large-scale biological means. They’re taking us into new territory, and it’s a mind shift. We need to take from the way we’ve handled this in the past to the conversations we need to be having in the future. I don’t think we’ve made that shift yet, but we need to start preparing it.
So how, how ready now or when might the UNFCCC process be ready to seriously consider large-scale carbon dioxide removal as part of its suite of activities?
If you’re looking at timing of these issues, I still have to insist: the priority this year and the next few years is the reduction of emissions. That remains an absolute, and I think anybody who starts to put this forward in any other way is not helping our discussion. We need to get to zero. I think we’ve had a large number of discussions on this. This now needs to be the real focus, particularly cooperation between governments to set targets, implement policies and take us forward.
I think when we start to look at how we can go beyond that, there are a number of points in the UNFCCC process where that could be picked up. It can be looked at from the work with the scientific community. When I was chair of the Subsidiary Body on Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA), I organized briefings with the IPCC on the Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, and their work on land and climate change. These issues were raised with Parties because they are clearly part of the pathways we need to move forward. In the next few years, we will have the Sixth Assessment Report from the IPCC on the table—in particular when we come in 2023 to the first Global Stocktake. Where are we? Where do we need to go? I think that’s one of the places this conversation will start to be clear. We need to go to zero and beyond zero. And I think that point will be on the table and parties will have to think about it. How do we raise ambition and start to go down that way?
We’ll also need to think about it in terms of the tools and the rules that we have in place under the Convention and the Paris Agreement. Now those have rightly been designed to track policies and emissions profiles, as they are at the moment. And I think it would be unhelpful for us to try and shift that at this stage to think about the large-scale removal agenda. But I think in a few years’ time when we’ve had experience of running the Paris Agreement, for the first few years, that would be a moment to look at how those rules apply when we move into larger scale use of carbon dioxide removal.
By the mid-2020s—as a point where we’re supposed to come back to all of our transparency rules, (2026 or 2027, I think I can’t remember offhand) that comes up to be prepared before then—that’s the point we could see: are we actually able to do the tracking and the verification we would need over time? In particular, we could start to look at the type of tools we would need to incentivise actions of this sort. So, I think there are stages we need to go through. I think we’ve got a priority at the moment, which is elsewhere, but I think these points can start to be prepared in the coming years.
As we start to move towards those stages, as you’ve described, can you identify any specific or unique challenges to carbon dioxide removal—governance challenges that international decision makers are going to face, which perhaps are new kinds of challenges?
I can see a number of types of challenges. One of them I just touched on is a methodological one: tracking, following. I think we’ve probably got a lot of the basis we would need to do that. I think particularly when you look at the verification, permanence and so on, there are things people need to look at in more detail. Are they really adapted? Those points can be worked on further, but I think there’s a solid basis to extend them to the sort of challenges that carbon dioxide removal on a large scale would raise.
But I think it picks up on several other types of challenges, which I put in particular about equity. I see equity as being twofold here. One is a temporal equity: When do we act? How do we manage this? Clearly, the longer we put this off the more we’re passing on the efforts of future generations. That’s part of this challenge, and we need to talk about that. And that comes to your question about when and how do we start this conversation? And I think there is a big equity issue there.
Another side is an issue which is at the heart of our work under the Convention and the Paris Agreement for many years, which is geographical equity. Equity between countries and within countries as well. Parties won’t necessarily have the same capacity to adopt these measures. They won’t necessarily have the same options. If we’re looking at biological storage and forests or land, different countries have different potential. If we’re looking at geological storage—capturing from the air, stocking underground—again, the simple potential is different. There’s a temptation to say I’m going to go this way but someone else is going to do the effort. That is something we will need to think about very clearly, because it raises big equity issues. I cannot simply say, oh yes, this is very important, but someone else is going to solve it for me. We’ll have to talk about that.
The final point is: there are different technologies and they raise different challenges. I think we’ll have to talk about them separately. It’s not carbon dioxide removal or negative emissions. Is it land based? Is it using carbon capture and storage as well as land based? Is it using it in direct air capture? Then even things like ocean and other fields. They are very different challenges and they touch on many different areas outside the climate field.
Clearly, if we look at large-scale bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, for example, we’re looking at issues of food security. We’re also looking at issues of human rights, typically with local communities, indigenous people, and the impact of such policies on them. And there are other interactions, too. Those will need to be looked at in a coherent way. There can be win-win solutions, but there can also be lose-lose solutions in some of these fields—particularly if these technologies are not used in a sustainable and long-term way. And we’ll need think about which technologies are ready over time. So I think there’s a range of challenges which are coming forward.
Some of them I think we can deal with already. Some of them we’re talking about in different fora; I think the Convention on Biodiversity has touched on some of these in recent years. Other areas have thought about how to touch on and address some of these challenges, but we don’t have a coherent way of doing so. We certainly don’t have a crosscutting way of doing so, which has shown us a way forward.
So with that in mind, do you think there could be a role (at least for the time being) for a new international, informal collaborative forum to start getting to grips with these issues, which bring together some of the key actors to talk about this?
Well I can understand that it might be helpful. I don’t have a view on it and I’m expressing a purely personal position throughout this interview, obviously. But I think these issues need to be prepared. The scientific communities through the IPCC can give us the information on what options exist, what challenges exist. Other bodies such as the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) can give us a view also from the biodiversity point of view. That’s a very useful input, but it doesn’t tell us how we might take it forward. So I can see that having spaces where we can explore this can be helpful.
I don’t think there’s a single space where all of this will be handled, and I don’t think the UNFCCC is the only space where this will be talked about. I think the idea of a forum, if I understand it, is to have a space when number of key players can come together and link in to some of the different conversations, which are moving forward. Sharing that information can undoubtedly be a helpful thing in the next few years to prepare some of the more complicated discussions in the formal fora which will be needed. I can see that as being something which could help us in preparing this.
And in those preparations, what kind of actors would need to be involved?
Clearly, a number of actors from governments around the world would need to take part, since governments are the major actors in terms of regulation and action in this field. But it needs to involve civil society. It needs to involve representatives of different groups around the world, who’ve got concerns about it. It needs scientific communities to feed in, to bring their expertise. And I can see quite a number of fora at a multilateral level—clearly the climate convention, the convention for biodiversity, the different fora which are talking about oceans, or management in those fields, areas talking about food security (the FAO, other organisations in such fields). I can see many different actors have something to bring to this conversation.
And quite often the challenge is to get the right people around the table, to have the right conversations. You can get the wrong people, and you have a very interesting conversation, but it doesn’t take you anywhere. I think if there were a space, which would bring some of the right people around the table, that could help to prepare some of the conversations, which will go on in these different spaces, as they move forward.
You mentioned civil society—what would constitute the right people in terms of bringing civil society on board for a discussion like this?
I don’t think it’s for me to say exactly how you can represent the whole of civil society; you can’t.
Obviously there are large-scale civil society organizations, but you also need to make sure you get the geographical balance within there. This affects countries in the North and the South. And there are very different issues in large emerging countries, small island states dealing with the interest of local communities, indigenous peoples organizations, and from a gender perspective as well.
You would want to bring different perspectives to bear, and I think you would need an effort to bring together a range of perspectives to ensure that they are reflected in the conversation. You can’t have everyone around the table; you need to make some choices. But I think you need to work with these organizations to ensure that they take part and they come into the debate. Simply inviting two or three representatives to be your civil society is not enough. You need to find a way of ensuring those different voices—youth, perspectives of different groups around the world—can be heard.
So there’s another set of ideas: the IPCC in the Fifth Assessment Report and also the upcoming Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) point to ideas to potentially reflect more sunlight back into space, broadly described as solar radiation modification or solar geoengineering. Are our systems and institutions able yet to start considering taking decisions about these ideas? Do you have any specific insights into these ideas?
First of all, it’s important to keep separate conversations. For a long time, we had a term of geoengineering, where we put everything in there. The technologies and the challenges they raise are very different between carbon dioxide removal and solar radiation management. They take us into different fields and different types of challenges.
There’s one thing which links them: they’re not substitutes for reducing our emission and transforming our economies and societies. One of them, carbon dioxide removal, is undoubtedly something we will have to tackle to give us a chance of really staying below 2°C or 1.5°C. Solar radiation modification is a very different type of challenge, and I think it’s one that we have not at all started to address in a multilateral setting. It’s not one, I don’t think, which we are equipped to deal with at the moment.
There’s been a number of conversations over the years in how might you start to look at the management of, at least, the research agenda in this field. Clearly a great deal of research is underway and that is reflected in the type of papers and studies which the IPCC is picking up and reviewing in the context of a AR6 and its work. It will be interesting to see the state of knowledge which we can get when the AR6 comes out.
But there’s certainly no single place where these different technologies have been looked at and thought through, particularly if you start to think about putting aerosols into the atmosphere or trying to change the degree of reflection of clouds. We’re talking about totally different governance issues that go beyond national boundaries in a way which we’ve not been at all good in tackling within the climate field in the past. We base our policies on national types of action. These types of technologies are, by their very nature, transboundary. They raise many, many issues of that sort, which I think we’re ill equipped at the moment to tackle.
Do we have existing fora and processes which could be the basis of having these discussions? Or are we talking about completely new ones that might be needed?
I know there have been attempts to begin conversations on looking at this, particularly in the UN Environment Assembly, which did not reach agreement when it looked at this a year or so ago.
This is somewhere I don’t think there is an actual home for at the moment. I don’t feel myself, and it’s a personal view, that is something we could really pick up and work with well under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, or the Paris Agreement. The Paris Agreement sets us temperature goals, and you could argue that these methods are about temperature control.
But they take us into so many different issues. I mentioned equity before, but I certainly you’re talking about long-term reliability of these methods. You’re talking about the impacts, which potentially are disrupting the climate in their own right: impacts on rainfall patterns, impacts around the world, and serious problems if we don’t maintain these technologies and interventions, over time. Those are the types of challenges which we’ve not had to deal with so far. I think those which require us to think very seriously about how and if the international community wanted to manage them.
The easiest way would be say we don’t use them, but I think that’s a different type of governance you need.
You used the term “equipped” a few times. Does that mean in terms of knowledge or are there other things, like governance as well? What exactly do you consider to be the sort of equipment that you would be looking for to be able to take these decisions?
First of all, I’m not quite sure what type of decisions we are talking about now. I think the first thing is: Do we have management of research in this field? I think that is something which is underway at the moment. How far do you take that down the road?
There are two schools of thoughts: One is if you start working on this, it’s almost prejudging that you’re going to use it. On the other hand, if you don’t have the research, knowledge and ability to judge what is possible, you could not even take that decision. And you couldn’t take a wise decision at the multilateral level.
The second one is: What multilateral approaches would you need if you wanted to move into an operational use of these technologies? My personal view is we should not be using those technologies at a large scale and thinking about that. But if we were to go down that road, we would need to create something because we don’t have the type of fora which could manage interventions over a long scale, which are transboundary and multigenerational potentially, by the time you look at the type of timescales, which are being thought of for these sorts of interventions.
With emissions, it’s today we emit. If we get to zero, we haven’t solved climate change, but we’ve given a clear basis for future generations to build their future developments. If you start going down the solar radiation management road, you’re talking about: How is that managed over time? It’s a very, very different set of challenges. So I don’t think we’re equipped at all to handle those sorts of issues at the current time.
Some people have described this era as the Anthropocene, in which human activity is the dominant influence on climate ecosystems, and suggest that requires a new kind of approach and way of thinking about how we address that. Do you do see that as a meaningful idea? And do you see the multilateral system realising that we’re in this period? Is it capable of adjusting to this kind of new phase, whatever the Anthropocene brings with it?
Well, I think you can understand the Anthropocene in several different ways. You can see it as a statement of fact that human activity has now become a force at the level of the planet. That’s climate change. It’s also our impact on the ozone layer, our impact on biodiversity, and the sheer quantity of material that humans are using around the world. We’ve become a geological force and that will be seen in future generations; potentially in thousands or even millions of years, you could identify this period. That’s a statement of fact; it’s an analysis of the situation we’re in.
I think there’s another set of ideas, which is: Do we as humanity decide to actively intervene to manage the planet in this way? And I think that’s the choice as to whether we want to go down that road or not. We can try to limit our impact on the planet to live within the planetary boundaries and that is one option we can take—for sobriety, for our way of living and organizing our societies, which allows us to stay within those boundaries and meet the essential needs of our populations in coming generations.
Another way would see us actively intervening to manage what those boundaries are. We can’t change them fundamentally, but we could change the way in which they interact. I think solar radiation management in particular is taking us that way. It’s the desire to the enormous power of science and technology to manage the planet actively. That’s a very different set of choices for the future of humanity. My preference is for the first one and not the second one—that’s a personal view as to where I would like us to go.
If humanity chose to go down the road of actively managing the way the planet works, then that’s a very different set of institutions we would need. You started off by grading the current multilateral system in responding to the climate crisis, our ability to work as a multinational community. Multilateralism, international law—they’re essential, but they’re very difficult tools to make work. I would be extremely doubtful of our ability to have that level of cooperation and manage that sort of intervention over time, which means that I think we have to go down the road of living within the limit.
It is the Anthropocene, because we have had those impacts. We have to find a way of living with it and changing the way that our societies and economies work. The other option is there. I think it raises real questions of whether it could possibly work and I would be extremely doubtful of that approach.
You mentioned these two broad potential approaches. How do people actually take a decision? You mentioned your preference, but how do other people take a decision as to which broad approach to take? To what degree is this something that science can help determine? Do other considerations have to play a part, as well as: ethical, cultural, religious? How do all these various things come together to help somebody say: ”I think we should go this way or this way on such a fundamental question”?
It is an extremely good question and I don’t have an answer, certainly not an easy answer to that. We could talk for hours to try and get to grips with it. I think it is not a scientific statement: Here is what we can do and therefore, we take it forward—that’s a very technocratic way of seeing it. It’s not going to work. This raises serious ethical issues about how we live on our planet. What is a good life for each of us in the decades to come, or for future generations that we leave behind—in terms of the options for those future generations?
Coming back to the intergenerational equity I raised earlier—we cannot avoid those questions. They’re ones which are very, very hard to have in a political system which is so dominated by short termism. Again, we’re not equipped by our political systems, even at a national level, to have conversations, which take us much beyond 10 or 15 years in the future. And most of the time we’re looking at a 3, 4, 5-year electoral timescale, which most politicians are thinking of and most of our debates are thinking of. These put us onto generational or even secular timescales. I don’t think we’ve ever had to have that sort of conversation and think about how to manage those changes over such a long time.
Climate change and the other issues we’re now facing—biodiversity loss, and other challenges of managing the planetary boundaries—are going to make us think about these. We will have to think of the national level: How do we bring these into our institutional and even constitutional ways of thinking about the impacts on future generations. Yes, the scientific community can give us some of that. Yes, we’ve seen it in the last few years with the major impact of youth movements, people who are 15 or 16 talking about their future in 50 or 60 years’ time.But even that is probably not enough for us to structure these conversations. We will need to think of some ways of doing that. I don’t have an easy answer to it, but it will take us into very deep ethical issues, which again we don’t have a lot of experience of handling well.
If we could just finish on a final question about the nature of hope. It’s something that people often talk about in climate communications—sometimes in a simplistic way and sometimes in a complicated way—in the sense of whether you need hope or not, and how you might maintain a hope whilst also being honest about the scale and nature of the challenge? In essence, not slipping into what some describe as “hope-ium” or a more simplistic view of hope. How do you manage that emotionally? What do you suggest to other people working in these difficult areas? How do you keep realism and enthusiasm and hope, going together?
It’s true. When you spend a lot of time working on climate change and you read a number of reports, which set out what some of the impacts could be , the choices that leaves up for future generations, or sometimes, even for the next 10 or 15 years and the risks were facing—it can be a bit depressing. You can come of it thinking there’s is nothing we can do. I don’t think that’s helpful. I’m sometimes asked, “Are you optimistic or are you pessimistic?” I don’t think those words are helpful. I think the questions is: What can we do? How can we deliver? How can we act? That has to be the focus for each of us as we move forward.
It’s not about hopeful or not hopeful; it’s about being very honest about what the situation is and determined to make a difference. That is the approach we need to keep. That’s why we need to focus for the moment on strengthening the action we’ve begun. It’s nowhere near enough; we need to go much faster and accelerate it.
We need to prepare—that’s our first stage of our conversation—the type of techniques we will need to use in the coming decades. And we need to think honestly about the type of challenges we may have to deal with in the future and how potentially we can avoid them. Honesty, I think, is the best way forward. Honesty is not always easy; sometimes it is rather hard to look in the face of the challenges in front of us. But if we look at them in that way, we can start to address the solutions. So focus on the solutions, focus on what we can do and double down on action.