IPCC report: why curbing our carbon footprint needs teamwork

Delegates huddle during the final day of negotiations at Cop26 in November, 2021. (Credit: (Credit: UNFCCC/Kiara Worth)

Global temperatures are on their way up and the world has to promptly reduce greenhouse gas emissions in all sectors to stave off a catastrophic 1.5ºC or more scenario. This is the warning that came out of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) latest report on Monday, in which scientists reviewed all the available solutions to limit global warming. 

One of the chapters of the almost 3,000 page document focused on the role of international cooperation. It explores how countries have been working together to face the climate threat through mechanisms like the Paris agreement, but also other types of collaboration that have started to emerge between businesses or civil society organisations to push for climate action. 

Anthony Patt, lead author of the IPCC report and professor of climate policy at the Institute for environmental decisions at Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETHZ), told Geneva solutions why global cooperation is a key tool to curb the carbon footprint.

GS News: What is the role of international cooperation in limiting climate change?

Anthony Patt: International cooperation is vital for the global response to climate change. It’s been working so far to motivate countries to put in place more ambitious policies, and those policies have shown some results. What we’ve seen is there's been a change in terms of what international cooperation does. Looking back at the Kyoto protocol 10 years ago, international cooperation was the place within which countries negotiated how much they were going to reduce their emissions. The theory was that if more countries promised to do more, other countries would promise to do more as well through these negotiations. What we're seeing now is that it’s a less formal process. What the Paris agreement does is it imposes strict deadlines every few years where countries are required to make commitments. That seems to be providing a really strong political incentive for countries to promise to do more. 

The other side of it is finance, technology and capacity-building support for countries with governance challenges. It’s a question of developed countries helping the developing countries. One of the things we saw from Kyoto was that it was primarily wealthy countries making commitments – and over 20 of them actually began to reduce their emissions during that period – but we haven't seen that in developing countries because there's just a very big dissymmetry in terms of economic and knowledge resources to do so.

GS News: Is it up to international cooperation to bridge that gap?

AP: You're not going to bridge the gap that exists in developing countries between what they have and what they need within their own countries. They need support coming from developed countries and that support can take a variety of forms. 

It can happen through global institutions like the World Bank, which often provides financial assistance. It can happen through bilateral agreements between countries. Switzerland has agreements with several developing countries where we're providing both finance and technical support for climate mitigation. And it can also happen outside of the context of countries cooperating together, through transnational networks and partnerships, for example, global initiatives to get rid of coal power generation, or to move towards 100 per cent renewable energy supply chain. These are about increasing political pressure for actors around the world to act and also about sharing expertise.

GS News: How does the IPCC report frame carbon offsetting, meaning paying for emissions reduction projects elsewhere to compensate for one’s own?

AP: It's an interesting question of whether it's about offsetting or whether it's really about additional ambition. The Paris agreement makes it clear that international cooperation of the kind where Switzerland, for example, claims some credit for the emissions reduced elsewhere, that that should only happen when the net effect is to increase the level of ambition, so it shouldn't be a substitute. The Kyoto Protocol was kind of the heyday of these global carbon markets, with the clean development mechanism and emissions trading between countries while under the Paris Agreement, that plays a much smaller role. It's much more about wealthy countries trying to do that within their own borders, but then also recognising the responsibility to help other countries. In some cases, it’s pure assistance and in others they get credits in return for their support, and Switzerland is doing this.

GS News: Do we know how much potential there is for cooperation in terms of money or emissions?

AP: One of the key numbers is the promise of $100bn a year in international financial help, with the estimate that it would take at least that amount to get developing countries on track for a lower carbon economy. So far, that promise hasn't been met, so that's untapped potential.

GS News: What are the key challenges for the delivery of the $100bn and cooperation in general?

AP: One of the big challenges is a lack of trust and a lack of transparency. In fact, that's one of the main issues that the Paris agreement was planning to overcome by emphasising on providing transparency and reporting of actions. A lot of wealthy countries are hesitant to provide this kind of support because they don't know where it's going, so they're asking for a greater level of transparency on the part of developing countries. On the other hand, developing countries would promise to do more if they knew that the finance was actually coming, so they're asking for greater predictability in terms of when and how much of the assistance is coming in.

GS News: How is the Paris agreement offering to increase transparency?

AP: A lot of the work under the Paris agreement has been in terms of negotiating systems for information flow, so that, for example, developing countries can indicate exactly what they need to know about the financial flows that are coming their way. This is for example, understanding the timing of the legislative cycle in any given donor country so that [the developing country knows] if and when the decision will actually be taken.

GS News: Can you provide a concrete example of how countries working together helps scale up climate action?

AP: One of the things that I look at is how this support can tip the balance in favour of low carbon development in developing countries. My group did a study looking at the cost competitiveness of solar power throughout Africa, in combination with the storage that you would need to make it reliable. We found that across sub-Saharan Africa, solar would become competitive by 2030 – given projected cost reductions for solar –, in many places by 2025, and in a few places even today. But for other parts of Africa, solar would not be fully competitive before 2025 or even 2030 and the reason for the higher investment costs is a lack of infrastructure such as roads, and, in some cases, a lack of cooperation between African countries which would help trade power to balance the energy system. 

However, we further found that this was sensitive to improvements in finance, capacity, and technology support envisioned by the Paris agreement. With such support, solar was competitive across all of Africa before 2025, and in many countries delivered substantial cost savings compared to new fossil electricity generation even by then.

International cooperation can help address all of these issues. One way it can do this would be calling for greater South-South cooperation under the Paris agreement and promoting dialogue between African countries on merging their electricity markets as a way to enable a greater scale up. Another way is through finance. If you were to get the $100bn a year and leverage it the right way, it would lower interest rates, the weighted average cost of capital or the rest of the finances coming in and you could bring financing costs down closer to what they are in wealthy countries. In a lot of African countries, the interest rate is over 20 per cent compared to five to seven per cent in developed countries. 

GS News: The IPCC report reviews the science up until October 2021, which means that the war in Ukraine was not taken into account. How do you suspect the current geopolitical context could affect international cooperation for climate action?

AP: Within the European context, there are some signs that the Western European countries are cooperating more out of security concerns and I think it could spill over into the energy systems. It can help to balance renewable energy sources like solar and wind and make it possible to get to 100 per cent renewable energies faster, with less of a need for electricity storage through parts of the year than if countries tried to do it on their own. 

Beyond that, at a global level, I think it's too soon to tell. The war is disrupting global markets for food and energy, and it's hard to say what's going to happen.

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