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COP, Kissinger, and the Art of the Possible of Climate Negotiations

December 20, 2023

On the day before the 28th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP28) began, Henry Kissinger, whom some regarded as the Dark Lord of U.S. foreign policy, died. A day after COP28 was supposed to end, the release of the final COP agreement was historic because it named the Lord Voldemort of climate COP negotiations: fossil fuels. The topic that previously should not be named was in a highly contested statement that would, in any other setting, seem banal: “The Conference of the Parties … recognizes the need for … transitioning away from fossil fuels.”

These were fitting bookends for COP28. In 1971, it was said that “only Nixon could go to China” (with Kissinger’s orchestration ahead of time). Five decades later, perhaps only the United Arab Emirates and Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, a country dependent on oil revenues and the head of its largest oil company, respectively, could host COP and lead negotiations to a unanimous declaration that the world must move “away from fossil fuels.”

I’ve heard cynics point out that the nations are finally saying out loud what every knowledgeable observer has known for decades. They also say there’s little reason to care because the 2015 Paris climate agreement, and all subsequent agreements, rely entirely on voluntary steps to keep the world’s temperature rise below 2.0°C (3.6°F), and preferably below 1.5°C (2.7°F). Words are cheap. Actions are what count.

Others, including me, recognize that politics is the “art of the possible,” as argued by Otto von Bismarck, a Kissinger-like figure of 19th century Prussia and Germany. Getting 198 nations to agree on any words is remarkable. And if words are so cheap, why did 100,000 people just spend two weeks in Dubai trying to influence them? Actions rarely precede words. Rather, aspirational words lead the way toward collective commitment, peer pressure among nations, and eventual action.

Since the Paris agreement, the growth of solar energy capacity, electric vehicle sales, and heat pump adoption are on or near the trajectory needed to reach net zero by 2050 described by the International Energy Agency. Overall, however, progress has been much slower than needed to avoid a 1.5°C temperature increase and all the human misery and infrastructure destruction that would come with it. Yet without the written words from Paris, we’d be even further behind. Every bit of progress matters.

Furthermore, Bismarck’s “possible” is not static, and words are a necessary precursor for policy action, corporate action driven by consumer and investor expectations, and research innovation that both drives and responds to governments and markets. Expanding the possible is what academic researchers are devoted to, through innovations in understanding, concepts, and technology. Obvious examples where accelerated innovation toward decarbonization is needed include air travel, and concrete, cement, and steel manufacturing. Technological innovation can powerfully expand what is possible when it informs and is informed by corporate practices, government policies, and markets.

One example is the discovery of the importance of methane as a greenhouse gas, and rapid innovation by many university researchers around tools and techniques to measure methane emissions, which has motivated current policy actions to reduce emissions. Just before COP28, China and the U.S. agreed to reduce methane emissions. At COP28, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced new regulations to reduce methane emissions, the Global Methane Pledge prompted some nations to commit a total of $1 billion to reduce emissions, and new corporate commitments were made to reduce livestock methane in the dairy supply chain. With this building momentum, the COP28 agreement, in a first for COP agreements, calls for “substantially reducing … methane emissions by 2030.” Research and development has changed what is possible.

As my Cornell Atkinson colleague Ben Furnas, executive director of The 2030 Project: A Cornell Climate Initiative, noted to me: “The final COP28 agreement emphasizes the importance of continued investment in innovation and technological development. It is gratifying to know that our work across Cornell contributes to help the global community meet these ambitious goals – from developing and testing new feed additives to reduce methane from livestock, to innovating new chemistries and techniques for carbon capture and sequestration in industrial processes, to strategies for deploying clean energy at scale while supporting good jobs and protecting natural environments.”

Ultimately, we may look back at this COP as the “get real” COP. As Armond Cohen, executive director of the Clean Air Task Force, wrote, “The final text for the first time reflects the size of the challenge and the need for multiple shots on goal.” A wide variety of specific avenues to reduce emissions are endorsed, including tripling renewable energy capacity by 2030, accelerating deployment of carbon capture, accelerating production of low-carbon hydrogen, and accelerating deployment of electric vehicles.

Equally important, the agreement recognizes that different circumstances in different countries will require global transitions to occur in a “just, equitable, and orderly manner,” i.e., take different approaches in different nations on different timetables. Commitments just before and during COP28 to fund the “loss and damage” fund will support transitions in the countries most affected by and least responsible for climate change. As Ishaq Salako, Nigeria’s environmental minister, pointed out, “Asking Nigeria, or indeed, asking Africa, to phase out fossil fuels is like asking us to stop breathing without life support.”

The presence of at least 10 Republican members of the U.S. Congress along with many Democratic colleagues, and tens of thousands of corporate leaders and lobbyists, tells me that climate negotiations are getting real. Without naming the core issues and without engaging diverse interests, global climate policy development and action will remain too slow. There are lots of moral hazards for policy development behind and ahead, but without engaging the full range of interests and potential tools, both necessary aspirational words and sufficient actions will never happen. Universities will continue to drive innovation and be honest brokers in evaluating words and actions. COP28, by mentioning the previously unmentionable, and including interests that some environmental activists would prefer to condemn rather than engage, offers reasonable hope of accelerated action.

Learn more about David M. Lodge

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