C2GTalk: An interview with Jo Tyndall, Director Environment Directorate at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) 

How should policymakers address the risk of climate tipping points?

27 March 2023

What is a climate tipping point?

How should policy makers address the risk of tipping points?

What opportunities and challenges lie in carbon dioxide removal?

Should there be more research into solar radiation modification?

How can climate and biodiversity policy be better connected?

How do you keep a sense of motivation when working on climate change?

This interview was recorded on 27 January 2023 and is also available with interpretation into 中文, Español, and Français.

Climate tipping points are points of no return, beyond which the Earth’s systems would reorganize beyond the capacity of socioeconomic and ecological systems to adapt, warns Jo Tyndall, in a new C2GTalkPolicy makers need to do more to address these risks now, including through support for carbon dioxide removal technologies – accounting for both opportunities and challenges. While solar radiation modification is not currently feasible, more research is needed. 

Jo Tyndall is Director, Environment Directorate at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) where she oversees the implementation of the Directorate’s programme of work, covering a broad range of environmental issues, including: green growth; climate change; biodiversity; quality of ecosystems; eco-innovation; circular economy; and, resource productivity.  

She was, most recently, New Zealand High Commissioner (Ambassador) to Singapore from February 2019 to September 2022. Prior to that, Jo served as New Zealand’s Climate Change Ambassador, commencing this role in June 2010. From 2016 to December 2018, she also co-chaired the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) Ad Hoc Working Group on the Paris Agreement (APA). As Climate Change Ambassador, she was head of delegation to the United Nations climate negotiations with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.  

Prior to her role as Climate Change Ambassador, Ms Tyndall was Director of the Broadcasting Unit in the Ministry for Culture and Heritage. From 1999 to 2006, she was Chief Executive of the public broadcasting funding body, NZ On Air. She has also served as Chief Executive of two screen industry organisations – the Screen Production and Development Association (SPADA) and Project Blue Sky (1994 to 1999).  

Ms. Tyndall began her career as a multilateral trade policy specialist with the then Department of Trade and Industry and subsequently the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. 

Below are edited highlights from the full C2GTalk interview shown in the video above. Some answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Perhaps you could start by telling us about your work at the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development).  You have been there since mid-September of last year, I believe.  Can you give us an overview of the programs you oversee and what the priorities are over the coming months? 

Thanks very much for having me on this C2GTalk. 

Yes, that is right.  I joined the OECD in mid-September last year, so I am still just able to claim ignorance for another probably couple of months before I am no longer new. 

One of the things I have noticed most particularly since starting this role is how very much climate change and other environmental issues are increasingly being mainstreamed across the OECD work.  That is reflected in two major initiatives that are pretty new for the organization, one called Net Zero+ and the other the Inclusive Forum on Carbon Mitigation Approaches or IFCMA.  I can talk very quickly about both of those. 

The Net Zero+ project aims to ensure that our resilience to climate change impacts and more importantly the resilience of the transition to net zero itself are not thrown off course by the kind of rolling crises that seem to be afflicting the world at the moment.  That project is underpinned by up-to-date comprehensive data and indicators across all forms of climate action. 

The IFCMA, the Inclusive Forum, was just launched in June last year, and it is about to meet in early February.  Its aim is to take stock of the full spectrum of climate mitigation policies and to develop tools to assist their effectiveness in reducing emissions.  We know that in joining the Paris Agreement countries took a vast diversity of approaches to how they were going to meet their mitigation targets.  More generally, though, in the Environment Directorate we help not only OECD members but also nonmember countries to design and implement effective policies to address environmental challenges and sustainably manage resources. 

I have talked about climate policy supporting net-zero targets and climate resilience.  Another big area is biodiversity.  Of course there was a ministerial conference at the end of last year in Montreal, and we provide evidence-based analysis and data and will be supporting governments to implement the post-2020 global framework on biodiversity.  We are working on plastics as well, particularly as there is a new global treaty on plastics in negotiation. 

An interesting area that tends to become rather technical very quickly is chemicals.  While I read papers that make little sense to me, when you drill down to what they actually mean, they impact on every single human being’s and animal’s life every day.  It is really important work. 

On climate change the other area we are focusing on is resource mobilization, making sure that finance and investment from all sources — public, private, international organizations, or whatever — are redirected to meeting the climate challenge because what we know is that if we are going to have any chance of reaching the Paris Agreement goals we cannot make changes that are linear or incremental.  It has got to be absolutely transformational and treated as a crisis with the urgency it deserves. 

I wanted to pick up on your phrase earlier, the “rolling crises.”  I think in Davos recently the phrase of the day was “polycrisis.”  There certainly is a sense of a lot of stuff that is coming along at once.  How would you describe this moment?  How does it affect the ability of countries to work together especially on climate change issues? 

 It is pretty evident I think that these polycrises or “permacrises” or whatever form of crises you want to call them are having some immediate impact or risks to tackling environmental degradation and climate change because of course governments and countries are facing significant tradeoffs between policy priorities.  We only have to see that in a number of countries the energy crisis is slowing progress toward climate goals, at least for now, with reopening of coal plants in a number of countries, for example.  The question is: Does that mean that climate change is dropping down the agenda, or is it now being embedded in policy planning? 

I take heart from the fact that even though there are these short-term risks and seemingly backward steps, crises also spur innovation and new ways of thinking.  The International Energy Agency recently put out an energy technology perspectives report that notes that the main driver for renewable energy deployment has become energy security rather than climate considerations.  Well, okay.  If the motivation has changed, that’s fine.  As long as the result is to accelerate innovation and deployment of renewable energy technologies, then that is all for the good. 

You mentioned risks.  The OECD recently released a report on climate tipping points, exploring how overshooting 1.5°C global warming could lead to irreversible changes to the climate system.  It also offers some policy insights for effective action. 

I would like to dig into some various aspects of this report, but let’s begin with the basics if we can.  First of all, what is a climate “tipping point?” — it sounds terrifying — and what are some of the major risks in particular we should be concerned about with what kind of impacts? 

Yes, it could be terrifying because tipping points are the points of no return beyond which the Earth’s systems reorganize.  They can often do so abruptly and irreversibly.  The full impacts might not happen overnight, but once the ball starts rolling it cannot be stopped.  That is what a tipping point means. 

What happens with Greenland and the Antarctica ice sheets, the Amazon rainforest, and essential ocean currents are some of the potential tipping points we have looked into in this report.  If they are crossed, the impacts could be indeed disastrous. 

It is not just a case of what we are already seeing at a regional level with droughts, wildfires, and floods, everything increasing in severity and frequency.  It is that on steroids and at a global scale too.  Tipping points are not isolated systems.  If you tip one element, it can have a cascading effect, tipping other elements, so you start right up in the Arctic Circle and end up through the ocean currents right down in Antarctica, a truly vicious circle.  

In fact, one of the phrases in the report that was particularly chilling said that the impacts of these tippings points could “cascade through socioeconomic and ecological systems over timeframes that are short enough to defy the ability and capacity of human societies to adapt.”  What does that mean? 

What are key findings from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s report on ‘Tipping Points’? 

Pretty much what it says, I guess. The changes would have too big an impact on our socioeconomic and our ecological systems to allow humans or indeed animal life to adapt and would wreak quite immense negative consequences on human and natural systems. 

One example: When talking about the potential collapse of the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, the melting of permafrost grounds in the Antarctic, scientists now say these are considered likely, even within the temperature guardrails of the Paris Agreement, the 1.5°C goal.  If that happened, it could cause several additional meters of irreversible sea level rise.  We have been talking about rises in the parts of a centimeter, so several additional meters is pretty massive. 

We know that the greater part of the world’s population lives in cities and a lot of these cities are in coastal areas, so the effect on heavily populated areas would be considerable as well as resulting in a feedback loop with additional greenhouse gas releases leading to yet more warming and pushing us closer to more of those tipping points. 

The other thing that has to be taken into account and has not been so far is the economic cost.  Those for a long time have been underestimated because economic modeling has left tipping points out of their projections, and now we are seeing studies that show that tipping points could increase the costs of climate change by up to a factor of eight, and we already know we are talking about trillions in terms of costs. 

How should policymakers react to this information?  The report says it is vital to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5°C with no or very limited overshoot, yet the science suggests that more likely than not this limit will be passed over the next coming years and that currently no plausible path exists to limit warming to 1.5°C.  Also when we see the results of recent UN climate summits, while there was some progress on some issues, it did not fundamentally give much hope that humanity is ready to cut emissions at the pace or scale needed. 

Where does this leave policymakers?  First of all, how could they do more to go about actually limiting, if not altogether, the extent and duration of an overshoot of 1.5°C?  Also how should they be preparing now essentially for these risks brought about by the overshoot and potential tipping points? 

I think we have lived in a false feeling of security thinking that, yes, tipping points might be there, but they are a long way in the distant future. 

The first thing for policymakers to understand is that this is today’s problem and not tomorrow’s.  Of course it makes sense then because it is today’s problem to add to the imperative, to take collective, ambitious, and bold action to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions before the end of this decade.  We know that is the very limited timeframe within which we have got to act, less than seven years, and really ramp up if we are to keep average global temperature rise to 1.5°C, not being satisfied with 2°C, and try to limit any overshoot throughout this century.  Bear in mind, though, that a just-below 2°C world in line with the Nationally Determined Contributions that have been put forward would still mean a world that is considerably less habitable than one at 1.5°C of warming. 

At the same time, let’s do something a little bit more optimistic, because just as you can have negative tipping points equally it is important I think to identify and create conditions to trigger positive tipping points — the inflection points in social, economic, or technological trends that would lead to a sudden acceleration in systems change and a downward trend in emissions.  We are already seeing that start to happen in some areas — agriculture, ecosystem regeneration, and equally in politics and public opinion, where things have changed over the years.  

I have definitely noticed this framing actually recently of the positive tipping points.  We are now at a positive tipping point in the electrification of vehicles or renewables or whatever it may be.  Is this a deliberate effort by people like you to try to get this framing out there to try to help people think differently about this challenge? 

I think that is where we want to go next. I don’t think it is particularly helpful to the world — and it has not been helpful in the past — to have a narrative that is driven entirely by doom, despair, and just painting this awful picture of an uninhabitable world where there is almost a sense that there is nothing that can be done about it. 

Positive tipping points is an area of work we want to build on very much in the next phase of our work, and we need some background work to understand the levers of the opportunities for setting them in motion.  That is definitely on the horizon for the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development). 

One thing the report says is that technological development and innovation are going to be pretty crucial in all of this.  One approach it cites is carbon dioxide removal (CDR), which it says would need to play a role in limiting warming to 1.5°C with no or very limited overshoot.  Obviously the focus has been primarily on not emitting in the first place, but we have seen growing attention paid to carbon removal over the past year, increasingly by the private sector — entrepreneurs and investors — first to deal with hard-to-abate emissions but also in some cases talking about rolling back and essentially cleaning up the atmosphere. 

At the same time, there are concerns that we may be seeing too much potential for this and that there could be costs and tradeoffs.  I would be very interested in your thoughts on how you see the emerging carbon removal sector and what kinds of opportunities and challenges there are around this group of technologies? 

You are right; it is a combination of opportunities and challenges.  I think it is interesting that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has made it pretty clear that carbon dioxide removal in one form or another is going to have to play a key role if we are to keep global warming to within that 1.5°C limit or indeed keep the overshoot very limited in particular when it comes to counterbalancing the hard-to-abate sectors of the economy with residual emissions, but we should not underestimate the challenges around CDR. 

There are legitimate concerns regarding bioenergy with carbon capture and storage.  There are legitimate concerns around the need for significant land use and the impacts that could have on biodiversity, natural ecosystems, and of course food production itself because we don’t want to take away land from the production of food with a growing global population. 

There is also I think a great deal of work to be done before we are able to scale up technologies like direct air capture.  At the moment, doing that seems to use up too much energy or more energy than it is saving.  We need to much better understand the potential tradeoffs between the risks of using CDR and the risks of crossing climate tipping points if those technologies were not employed, and that means investing in better understanding the tradeoffs and doing a better job of risk assessment. 

I guess in each case it is not just that one particular approach or technology does this.  You could do it in a good way or a bad way, and there is this idea of high-integrity versus low-integrity linked to all sorts of issues such as how permanent is the removal, what kind of monitoring, and so forth.  What kind of policy tools do you think we are going to need over the coming months or years to encourage high-integrity carbon removal, and what kind of role might the OECD play in encouraging that? 

I guess that gets to the point about one of the OECD’s main areas of comparative advantage, and that is in the ability it has and the reputation it has for providing policy advice and for using the work it does to help the development of best practice. 

The first thing I think I would note is that policy around this area needs to attract and support long-term investment.  It needs to provide certainty or stability, and that in turn can encourage investment and innovation.  It also assumes good sustainability, governance, public engagement, and transparency of course.  That is I think a first point. 

It also is going to be crucial to communicate to policymakers that to avoid overshoots the technologies have to be applied in addition to fast emissions reduction.  It is not an either/or.  The IPCC has made it clear that we have reached a point where both are going to be needed.  CDR technologies are not going to deliver the mitigation necessary to save the world nor can mitigation alone lead to safe levels of emissions. 

This is definitely a concern that critics of this trend have brought up, the idea of moral hazard, that by giving the sense that you could remove CO2 from the atmosphere you might lessen the impetus to not put it there in the first place. 

You have made it clear it is about informing policymakers.  Are you actually starting to think about policy tools to ensure that one does not detract from the other, that there are things we can do to avoid this moral hazard beyond information? 

I think that is ongoing work.  I don’t know if we have come up with full answers to that yet, but as I said earlier  

we are working at very much breaking down silos within the OECD organization itself.  We have a Directorate that deals with science, technology, and innovation, and that is one that is looking very closely at these kinds of technologies and what might need to happen. 

We have talked about carbon dioxide removal technologies which are a little bit more established or have been around for a longer period of time, but there are of course others around solar radiation modification (SRM) that are even less tested or understood.  I think in both of these areas we have not yet tackled — and I don’t know if it is the OECD’s place to do so itself, but it could certainly help — the lack of any kind of national or international governance around them, and I think that is going to be important as well. 

We have got to understand better the risks and tradeoffs that have to be made.  So often with new technologies we start off with the good side, the “It’s the best thing since sliced bread, it’s going to change the world,” and all the rest of it, and then the bad side becomes apparent.  If you look at social media or things like that, it is obvious as an example of something we couldn’t live without, but it has some downside risks that were not thought about at the beginning.  

I would love to pick up on this.  You mentioned solar radiation modification technologies, and this is the idea of reflecting more sunlight into space to reduce the temperature, including a controversial idea to spray the stratosphere with aerosols.  Of course, there is a lot of uncertainty around this. 

The tipping point report said that these approaches are today not a feasible option for reducing the risk of crossing tipping points, but do you think there is a potential that they could be in the future?  You talked about assessing the risks and benefits.  Would you support more research into understanding SRM at the moment as something that we might potentially turn to later? 

I think the very fact that geoengineering techniques are on the radar is perhaps a bit of an indictment of decades of failed efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

Yes, as you said, our report suggested that SRM technologies are not a feasible option, certainly at the moment.  That is partly because the level of research to date is pretty limited, there is low confidence in their effectiveness, and considerable risks associated with them.  As I said earlier, national or international governance is pretty nonexistent.  The whole area I think has to be approached with real caution. 

With that said, because the notion is around things like aerosol technologies and they are being talked about, of course more research needs to be done.  We cannot just pretend they are not there.  If they are around we have to give some thought to what that means and what the tradeoffs might be. 

We have limited resources so I think the first priority has to be making sure that we are investing in the technologies that can deliver 1.5°C through greenhouse gas mitigation.  These sorts of remedies are dealing with the symptoms rather than cures.  It is like taking aspirin for a headache; they might be providing relief while they are being deployed, but as soon as you stop deploying them you might see a rebound or even a worsening of the problem.  Some of the technologies or ideas in place are frankly potentially a little bit scary, so yes, they need to be better understood, and that does mean more research.  

They are scary.  So is climate change of course.  This is where it gets tricky.  How do you measure scary against scary?  How do you give a value to the different levels of which one is scarier?  This is the whole challenge I guess: How do you actually go about measuring the risk of doing something against the risk of not doing something? 

It is a profoundly difficult thing.  In terms of actually framing things like that — risk versus risk — have you got any insights into how you can help policymakers actually go about balancing these two different sets of risks? 

I don’t know about these specific sets of risks. What we are doing increasingly I referred a little bit earlier to this Net Zero+ project.  What we are trying to do there is not only mainstreaming climate change into our own thinking and into government thinking but also trying to use strategic foresight and systems-thinking approaches to help the design and implementation of policy.  There we are trying to look at tradeoffs of risks and at the implications of using levers in one sector of the economy and what that might result in, in other areas. 

Another point I think we are increasingly trying to build in is looking at the connections, for example, between climate change and biodiversity.  The two have been treated as somewhat separate, but if we are looking at solutions for climate change, we have to also factor in the potential risks or tradeoffs for biodiversity.  If you plant lots of trees but it is a single type of tree, you are going to create a biodiversity problem potentially in trying to resolve a climate one.  Systems-thinking approaches I think is one area that we are going to be building on quite significantly to try to help policymakers and governments understand the huge complexities and the huge tradeoffs that have to be made. 

I wanted to pick up one point before finishing on the solar radiation modification part.  You have mentioned governance a few times.  Do you have a sense of what international fora you think would be most appropriate for the governance of this idea? 

I don’t know if I have an answer off the top of my head, but I think clearly it needs to be done, and whether it is a UN issue is one thing.  The United Nations is obviously the largest in terms of membership.  I am not suggesting the OECD because it is not a treaty-making or negotiating forum.  It also has more limited membership, so we are not the place.  We can help support, but if it happens anywhere it is probably under some part of the UN system.  We could help with transdisciplinary research that could create the conditions or at least create the context within which some international work on governance arrangements could be helpful. 

Going back to your systems-thinking point I wanted to draw briefly on your history with public broadcasting.  What more can the media do to help people think in this way, to actually compare systematically, “This is this world, this is that world, and here are the different risks, and this is the which way it might go?”  It is a very broad question obviously, but we are in a pretty fast-shifting information environment where people are increasingly finding it difficult to distinguish reality from disinformation, the infodemic, and so forth.  Do we need a new kind of media or to reform existing public media or something to help the general public get a better grasp of these difficult decisions so that they can also play a meaningful part in future governance of climate technologies and so forth? 

It is a big question, Mark. 

I am not necessarily expecting an answer; I just wanted to throw that out.  Have you had any thoughts in that general area? 

Unfortunately, as I said, we have seen the downside of social media, very much so, in recent years and that you have these echo chamber implications with people just talking with like-minded people and reinforcing their own views, whether they are climate skeptics and deniers or people for whom it is a daily passion. 

Media does and must have a pivotal role in ensuring that there is better understanding of the risks and implications of climate change.  Education is critical, and education is increasingly being delivered through media and not just a teacher standing in front of a chalkboard.  I don’t know if I can come up with a solution for a new form of media, but I think it is important to get the balance right in terms of the message so that the message doesn’t sugarcoat the issues but at the same time doesn’t induce despair. 

I was posted in Singapore, as you mentioned, as New Zealand’s ambassador or high commissioner there.  While I was there — and okay, it was mainstream media — they produced a series of documentaries, really well done, that brought climate change and other environmental issues to the people.  It was presented by a minister of parliament — who could have given up his day job and done this fulltime — who did a fantastic job of illustrating in meaningful ways that people could grasp and apply in their own life what climate change would mean, why they needed to care about it, and what they could do about it. 

I would like to finish on a slightly more personal note, if that is all right.  You interestingly said that we need to counter the terrifying narrative of negative tipping points with positive tipping points.  Just in the last answer you talked about balancing despair with what you can do. 

This is great sometimes on an intellectual level, but deep down, emotionally, I don’t know, when you read these reports they can be quite hard to digest.  How do you personally keep a sense of motivation, agency, or hope when working on such an intractable problem? 

I quite agree.  It is terribly easy to just want to pull the duvet up over your head and hope it all goes away. 

It is an oft-used thing, but I have children, and I want my children to be living in a world that is habitable.  Who wants to be passing on a planet that is worse than the one we inherited ourselves? I like to see this like ripples in a pond.  Drawing on my background as a negotiator on the Paris Agreement, when I started work on climate change it didn’t feature.  Environment ministers and ministries had responsibility for it, but it was off to one side and it was sort of, “Go away and do your stuff.”  With the Paris Agreement I think it set off these ripples in a pond.  Okay, it is not a perfect agreement, but it is a global treaty.  It sent very strong political signals that 164 governments around the world were committed to delivering on its long-term objectives. 

The ripples then led to countries setting targets at a national level.  Ripples went further out to developing policies and the instruments that would deliver on those targets. 

From there I think it extended out to local governments, so you have cities, provinces, states, or whatever also taking action, and again to the business sector.  When they could see the long-term “writing on the wall,” as it were, it allowed them to start — at least big business — making investment and business decisions that factored climate change action and reducing carbon emissions. 

From there I think the ripples go down to a household and individual level and people starting to think about how they live their lives, how they move around, what they eat, and what energy they use. 

It is not fast enough.  There is a long pathway that needs to be done, but I am a great believer that we are on a pathway from which there is no return.  We can speed up, we can put the foot to the floor in our electric vehicle and accelerate massively to get to where we need to go. 

Jo Tyndall, let’s hope a few more ripples have emanated from this interview.  It has been a pleasure to speak with you.  Thank you so much for taking part in C2GTalk. 

It has been a pleasure, Mark.  Thank you.  I enjoyed it.

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