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OPINION: “You cannot turn back from Paris” – Sam Bickersteth


Sam Bickersteth, Chief Executive of CDKN, has led this global alliance of southern and northern organisations delivering innovative solutions for climate compatible development since 2011. Meanwhile, CDKN has become a leading global, multi-donor funded programme supporting developing country decision-makers. It has designed and delivered over 400 technical assistance, research and knowledge management projects in 70 countries. From his privileged observer’s position, Sam talks with Miren Gutierrez about the Paris agreement and its implications for developing countries.

What have you learned from your experience of leading CDKN?

How long have you got? Let me try to pull out the top three learning experiences…I´ve learned that there is something distinct about the climate change challenge in relation with other development challenges. There is something new and different about it in the sense that is global, and that the science has been evolving as we had to tackle the problem. I´ve learned that the urgency is far greater than I first realised. It is huge. I don’t think I, or any of us, knew that at the beginning, frankly. So there is something about the challenge of managing the science-policy interface, which is at the heart of what we do, while having to tackle problems, which has made it particularly challenging and interesting.

Allied to that is the importance of linking international processes to local processes. That has become very clear in the relationship between the UNFCCC process and national development. Probably more starkly than I´ve ever seen in other areas of development that I´ve worked on, the local and national and global can be mutually reinforcing.

The third area of learning is really around building an alliance, which requires a lot of skills and a constant effort to hear the diversity of voice and perspective, while having a sense of direction.   It is an ongoing process. That is why I am still in the job, because I find it incredibly enjoyable and fascinating. We created a fabulous team from many parts of the world, who have common sense of the challenge of integrating climate action into ongoing development.

How do you view developing countries’ domestic processes of negotiating the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs)? CDKN has assisted some of these countries.  

The INDCs were bottom-up processes, and they were a recognition that top-down processes were never going to work very well in climate change. Copenhagen was an attempt at a top-down process, and by and large was not so successful. The INDC process, instead, enabled everyone to be included. And beyond all expectations so many parties, virtually all parties, put forward their INDCs, which was great.

How do you think the emission targets in developing countries’ INDCs will be delivered? India, for example, submitted a target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 33-35% per unit of GDP, conditional on finance being made available. India is one of the large emitting countries (in absolute terms). How is this going to be monitored? And will sufficient finance materialise?

There wasn’t a distinct template for the INDCs – partly because the approach taken was so inclusive. This means the INDCs are not directly comparable with each other. This is definitely a problem, because for the Paris Agreement to be effective, the rules, the transparency and the reporting must hold all countries to account. If there is no comparator of what emissions are, it is going to be really hard.

CDKN, amongst others, provided some guidance as to what the INDCs could include, and now we are providing guidance in the implementation. It continues to be an open and inclusive approach. At national level, it is sovereign governments who will be making these difficult decisions about shifting towards low-carbon, climate-resilient economic growth paths. This cannot be done by a remote process headquartered in Bonn, Germany. That was never going to work.

Although the bottom-up INDC process was a good one, we know that the INDCs do not add up to the less than 2 degrees of global warming we are collectively aiming for. It could have been worse – emissions commitments could have still set us on the road to 3.5 degrees; while it is between 2.7 and 3 degrees. What a huge gap we have to fill[1].

There are also questions about baselines from which you measure emissions reductions: sometimes, baselines are not so good. Land use is not captured in many countries’ emissions baselines, while it is one of the major sources and sinks for greenhouse gas emissions. The data is weak or lacking in many countries. For instance, Bangladesh has a really good INDC, but was not able to include land use as the data was not good enough yet.

So there is a huge goal to climb in making INDCs good enough. But they are a point of departure.

Finance for climate action in developing countries will come partly from international sources. India has been quite explicit about the requirement for that. But India is one of the biggest economic powers in the world, and has huge resources itself: some of these resources will be channelled into developing non-fossil fuel and alternative sources of energy.

On India’s outlook for climate mitigation action, specifically: there are some very positive ambitions and national initiatives underway to deliver solar power, other renewables and energy efficiency in India (see CDKN’s India page). We also see how renewable technology developments world wide are driving down the costs of renewables and achieving parity in the cost of power production compared to fossil fuel sources – this can only benefit a giant country like India with hundreds of millions of people living in conditions of unacceptable poverty.

For instance, look at the exciting developments right now in Morocco. The government has just tendered for huge wind farms and the bidders are offering to produce energy at 3 cents per kilowatt/hour, which is super cheap. And they have launched the world’s largest solar scheme there. You are getting big solar PV (photovoltaic) systems in the Middle East and Dubai at 5 cents per kilowatt/hour. (These are both in the range of power production costs for gas- and coal-fired power plants.) The changing cost of technology is shifting the curve and creating the potential for renewables to truly compete with fossil fuels in the power sector.

The only thing I would add is a very interesting aspect of gender dimensions in India. I heard the India’s Minister of Environment speak on this topic in Paris. CDKN supported the mainstreaming of gender considerations into the state action plans in a number of Indian states. That is really important because of the differential impacts of air pollution on men and women, the differential access to finance for men and women, and the potential for climate compatible development solutions to contribute to gender equality – rather than entrench inequality.

What is your take on the Paris summit overall, then? 

The outcome of the Paris agreement was better that it might have been. And sets a very important tone. You cannot turn back from Paris. All the parties agreed, and there was a sense that the private sector had engaged in a way that never had before. It is a point from which we see the possibility to shift things. And you can see transformation in the energy systems taking place here in the UK and Europe; they are closing down coal stations week after week; you see renewables taking 30%, 40%, 100% of the entire daily supply of electricity systems in parts of Europe. It is really transforming things.

But there will be lots of countries and processes that will try to block the speed of action we must achieve in moving to climate compatible development. We must accelerate action: building the rules and the accountability, shifting investments, engaging the private sector even more. Still, awareness in society of the climate challenge is only the ‘tip of iceberg’.

Even if all developed countries do all they can, that still isn´t enough to keep us globally within safe limit of 2 degrees of warming. And that is why developing countries have to join the low carbon revolution, too.

Are you optimistic? Will we manage to keep temperatures below the 2 degrees threshold?

I am really optimistic about this transformation we are seeing in the energy systems; but I am deeply troubled about the challenge if we look at land use systems. For example, 40% of Peru´s emissions come from deforestation. For years, civil society, governments and industries have debated deforestation in this region; yet still illegal mining continues to destroy huge areas of forest in the Peruvian Amazon, and as many people are being killed in those conflicts as has ever been the case.

The Governments of Ethiopia and Rwanda are demonstrating what the level of ambition should be around sustainable land use management and they are really shifting policies and practices. Sixty four percent of emissions reduction being planned in Ethiopia will come from a huge effort to improve land use cover and watershed management, aside from investments in hydro and improvements in its transport system. But in other parts of the world the level of reforestation, regeneration and avoided deforestation is just a massive task.

Even if we tackle forestry, we don´t know what to do about livestock. The big existential threat is that we still eat lots of meat. Global meat consumption is projected to grow by 75% by 2050.  We start to see technology to improve things, but we need to shift behaviours as well. Although it is just such a long way to go, we can reduce emissions from this sector by up to one third by cutting down on the meat we eat; or we can go further if we become vegetarians.

How do we sustainably feed 9 million people? What does sustainable intensification of agriculture and forestry look like? These are really big challenges ahead.

I think there is a possibility that the world will warm beyond the 2 degree threshold and then retreat below it again. We are likely to see many more storms and more extreme events, global temperatures will continue to increase, tipping points will be reached… where is it going to go? It is going to go into sea level rise and extreme events. It seems to me implausible right now that we don´t go over 2 degrees. But I think it is plausible we can manage this, although many states in the frontline, including the UK, will face major threats. We have to get to zero net carbon emissions by 2050 or thereabouts (see UNEP’s analysis in its latest Emissions Gap Report).

As more business opportunities emerge in clean development, investment will happen in an extraordinarily short period of time. Actually, technology is moving fast to improve this. For example this huge Moroccan solar plant continues to generate power nearly 24 hours a day as it stores up the heat in water at night. Human ingenuity is going to do a lot, but many people are going to be hit in the process. That is why building resilience is such a major priority.

What about next steps after Paris?

The key words here are ratification implementation and integration. From 22nd April countries are invited to ratify the Paris agreement at the UN Headquarters in New York. There have been encouraging signs that the U.S. and China may ratify this year, but so far only three Pacific states, on the frontline of climate change –Marshall Islands, Fiji and Palau— have acceded. It will require 55 countries whose emissions total 55% of global greenhouse gases to enable the Treaty to come into effect and, with many short term political challenges, significant groups like the EU may not be in a position to ratify until 2017.

As for implementation, several of the Least Developed Countries and Small Island Developing States presented ambitious INDCs. Ethiopia has set a target to reduce emissions by 64% versus what its 2030 ‘business as usual’ levels would be, while the Marshall Islands INDC pledged to reduce emissions by 32% below 2010 levels by 2025. It is important that progressive, “lighthouse” countries make an early start to demonstrate the economic and social benefits of implementation.

Countries agreed in Paris to review targets and ‘ratchet’ them up to higher levels of ambition every five years. This means that NDCs are now a pressing implementation issue for developing countries. Review means they have to progress their commitments each time.

With limited capacity and paucity of data the reporting may place a burden on climate vulnerable countries unless external support is forthcoming. Therefore, international support will be important.

In addition, the INDCs to date have most set out the “low hanging fruit” – the easier to achieve emissions reductions opportunities. In subsequent five year cycles towards 2030, ramping up ambition effectively will be a really challenging process, which will need further  support.

Integration comes next. NDCs have been a powerful tool for engaging all ministries across government and all sectors of society. This had been important for building strong domestic support for climate change nationally, which in turn itself is an important foundation for international diplomatic efforts.

The current ratification process in each country is an opportunity to engage a wide cross section of policy makers, public opinion and legislators around climate goals.

Further reading:

Climate Funds Update – to understand investment flows

CDKN’s Guide to INDCs 

[1] According to a report published by UNEP, the “INDCs represent GHG emission reductions of 4 to 6 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year (GtCO2e/yr) in 2030 compared to projected emissions under current policy trajectories… Efforts to tackle climate change, including those taken before the Paris agreement and full implementation of the INDCs, could cut up to 11 GtCO2e from projected emissions in 2030.  This is however around half of the total required to reach the global emission level of 42 GtCO2e in 2030 consistent with having a likely chance (>66 percent) of staying below the 2°C target in 2100.”

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