Former WMO boss Michel Jarraud: ‘Every Cop has a different dynamic’

Former chief of the World Meteorological Organization, Michel Jarraud, who has experienced over 15 Cops, says that every conference is different. (Credit: Keystone/Salvatore Di Nolfi)

Highly awaited climate talks are kicking-off in Glasgow in less than two days, amid warnings that climate change is having deadly consequences and countries are far behind in curbing their carbon emissions.

A UN report released on Tuesday revealed that, given countries’ climate commitments, the world was heading towards a 2.7ºC rise in global temperatures, breaching the 2ºC target set in Paris in 2015. Michel Jarraud, secretary general of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) from 2004 to 2015 and chair of UN Water from 2012 to 2016, saw the Paris agreement come to fruition.

As leaders gather for another climate summit, to take stock of the progress made, issues from delivering financing to help vulnerable countries face climate impacts, to putting a price on carbon, to choosing the best path to reduce emissions will be on the table. Jarraud, who has seen countless Cops go by, spoke to Geneva Solutions about the challenges that negotiators will face over some of the most contentious  topics.

Geneva Solutions: Cop26 was supposed to be the moment of truth, yet most countries have not strengthened their climate plans, rich economies have not kept their financing promises and very few have made net-zero pledges. Could this year’s Cop be on the path towards disaster?

Michel Jarraud: I've attended probably more than 15 Cops and every Cop has a different dynamic. So it's difficult to predict in advance what will happen because a number of actors and countries do not want to put all their cards on the table before negotiations start.

In Copenhagen in 2009, there was an enormous dynamic around it and the slogan was ‘seal the deal’. But it didn't deliver, probably because at that time expectations were unrealistically high. They were good from a climate perspective, but a number of countries were not ready to accept that. Just before the conference, the fourth assessment report of the IPCC was published, and there was a lot of lobbying efforts by the sceptics to try to undermine its scientific conclusions, and even the scientists themselves. It was an ugly situation and it contributed to a disappointing outcome.

In Paris, it was quite the opposite. There was also an assessment report published just before the conference and it was the first time in my long experience with a Cop that all delegations from all countries really took this information seriously. It was very interesting because the negotiation was not based on ‘fake news’. Even the countries that were more reluctant to act didn't argue with the scientific basis.

GS News: What about this year? Do states at least have a clear idea of what they want to achieve at this summit?

MJ: Expectations may be very different depending on the various countries. Some countries, like many European countries, know based on the IPCC report that if we are serious about the 2ºC target, we need to have emissions peaking by 2030 and coming to net zero by about 2050. The UNEP published their annual report on the emission gap, between what is required and what has been pledged. And it showed that the gap has not been reduced fast enough. So one of the huge challenges of the Cop will be to get more countries on board – and we are thinking of the big emitters, like the European Union, the US, Canada, Australia, and we should not forget China, Russia, India, Brazil and a few others. Many of these countries have made pledges but these will need to be strengthened if we are to meet the commitment.

GS News: But leaders like Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and China’s President Xi Jinping have said they’re not going. Will we still be able to have a strong commitment come out of the conference?

MJ: You could interpret that as a sort of a political signal. If they announced they would come, we would know that they would probably make some significant announcement. But it doesn't mean that nothing will happen and I'm sure there will be huge delegations from China, India, Russia and all the other countries, because some countries are trying to tie several elements together like a pledge with some agreement on financing or transfer of technology. China made some significant announcements recently, like no longer supporting the construction of coal plants in other countries. You may argue this is not enough, but certainly it's a significant step compared to what we saw before.

GS News: Methane is the second greenhouse gas contributing to climate change after CO2. How is it important to the climate talks?

MJ: Methane is actually a more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2 but concentrations are much lower. The molecules stay much less time in the atmosphere, so after 50 to 70 years a significant fraction of the methane that you have emitted disappears. There are a number of sources of methane emissions. One of them is agriculture, for example cows and rice paddies emit a significant amount of methane, but also when you extract oil. These could be quick wins, to reduce methane very quickly and at a reasonable cost.

GS News: If it's such low hanging fruit, to a certain extent, why don't we have a target for methane?

MJ: Because it still has a cost. You need to find a solution to make sure that the cost can be afforded and I personally believe it can be managed, but also afterwards the methane has to be stored somewhere. Many solutions have been proposed, for example in certain places underground where you’ve exhausted the source of gas. There's some technical issues but this is certainly something that is worth dealing with pretty quickly. It wouldn’t be sufficient to solve the problem, but it would be a significant contribution.

GS News: Another stingy topic will be setting the rules for a global carbon market. Can we expect countries to come to an agreement?

MJ: If there was an agreement in principle to put a price on carbon that would already be a big step. I don't expect the Cop to agree on the exact mechanism and whether you call it a tax [or something else] – let's leave that to the politicians, the economists and business people who can find what is the best way to do it and be compatible with the rules of the World Trade Organization. It is essential to have something which respects fair play and cannot be used by some countries to the detriment of other countries.

GS News: Is carbon offsetting a necessary measure to reach the Paris targets or will it only delay the decarbonisation of the economy?

MJ: There's no easy answer to that. You can look at it both ways. When this mechanism was put in place there was the discussion whether it would weaken the effort to reduce emissions, with developed countries just transposing the problem to other places. At the same time, it is good to help developing countries to also reduce their emissions. We should not forget that the ultimate goal is to reduce emissions as quickly as possible.

GS News: Does that mean it would help bring down emissions?

MJ: Maybe. It all depends on the price of these credits. Is the price realistic or not? And we are back to this question of the carbon price. For example, if you travel by plane, you can offset your emissions by paying a bit of money as compensation. But that price, in my view, is very small so it doesn't dissuade people from emitting because it's cheap to offset it. We need to discourage people through the pricing and right now, the discouraging is not there. It's quite the opposite. You still see a huge subsidy to fossil fuels. I'm not an economist, I cannot tell you what is the best mechanism, but what I know is that it's important to encourage a greener approach and at the same time analyse the real costs of carbon because when you emit CO2, it means it has a cost for the economy and it has a cost for the future.

GS News: Nuclear power has made the headlines these past weeks with France and the UK announcing important new investments. Could this Cop mark the return of nuclear energy?

MJ: It has, in a sense. It is in the IPCC report. The challenges with nuclear energy are those linked with the waste and when disasters like Fukushima happen, which remains in the minds of people as a traumatic event. I personally believe that nuclear energy should not be excluded as a matter of principle, of course, once you take into account the specific challenges and dangers of nuclear energy such as making sure that nuclear plants are not in places where there can be damage due to earthquakes or other phenomena.

I would prefer a world without nuclear energy, but we are not going to be able to meet the targets of the Paris Agreement without it. We mentioned earlier this 2.7 ºC, but this is if pledges are delivered on. We are even further away with the current delivery and we are on track for 3 to 4ºC or possibly worse. This is tragic, so yes, there is a risk with nuclear energy. Is the risk with 4ºC warming bigger? In my view, yes.

GS News: You're currently working on a report on the climate dimension of international Geneva. Should international Geneva play a greater role in global climate discussions?

MJ: There are many obvious actors in Geneva, like the WMO and the IPCC who are working with climate-related issues. But there are also other relevant actors. WHO is obviously another one because so many diseases are linked to climate or to meteorological parameters. In the WTO, many of the trade elements also interact with climate. There are also other actors in the private sector or in academic institutions, like the Graduate Institute where there’s a whole department on the environment.

The spirit behind the report I’m working on is to analyse the various interactions between these actors. How do we get the best synergies and what could be done in the future to better leverage this enormous potential in Geneva? Is it used in an optimal way? The honest answer is probably not, but then what can we do to improve that.