Episode 3: The Road to Paris [Full Transcript]

30 Years of Climate Negotiations (in under an hour)

Cover Photo by Jad Limcaco on Unsplash

Ep. 3: The Road to Paris 

Casey: From The Yale Center for Business and the Environment and the Yale Carbon Charge, welcome to Pricing Nature.  I’m Casey Pickett. At Yale I run the first fee-based carbon pricing system at a university.

Jacob: I’m Jacob Miller, a recent graduate of Yale College. Almost four years ago I was the first intern with the Yale Carbon Charge.

Maria: And I’m Maria Jiang, a current graduate student who’s worked on developing agricultural offsets and studying carbon credit hedging behavior.

Casey: Today, we’ll be taking a look at the long history of global negotiations on internationally-coordinated climate action. It is a rich and intricate story of 25 different conferences, each more interesting than the last, so sit back-- grab a—

Maria: Casey I’m going to cut you off right there… Our listeners don’t have time for all of this!

Jacob: Maria’s right, I’m sorry Casey, but this is a show for epic intellectual battles... remember? We’ve gotta pick up the pace! 

Casey: You’re absolutely right, I don’t know what came over me. Alright, let’s do this thing. 

[short music]

In 2015, after almost three decades of complex negotiations, countries around the world came together to craft “The Paris Climate Agreement.” The Paris Agreement is signed by countries representing 97% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and it strives to limit global average temperature rise to 1.5°C.

It took a lot of work to craft a global agreement that had such clear goals and such widespread participation. On today’s episode we’ll ask, how did we get to this point? And why did it take 30 years to get here?

Jacob: But before we get into all that, let’s remind ourselves why a global agreement is even necessary: it comes down to the simple fact that when we emit carbon, it spreads throughout the entire atmosphere. That means the carbon emissions of one country—one factory even—will contribute to global warming and climate change all around the world. 

Maria: And almost every country in the world has either contributed to global emissions or has something to gain from contributing in the future. If we don’t work together to curb emissions all around the world, we won’t be able to tackle this problem at all.

Jacob: But that raises some big questions. Not everyone contributed to this problem the same way, so…  Who is responsible for damages linked to climate change?  Who needs to reduce emissions the fastest? Global climate negotiators have struggled with these questions for decades.

Casey: The story of these global climate negotiations is deep and long, but on the advice of my colleagues, we’ll keep it under an hour. In this episode, we’ll look at the key moments in history that help us understand the agreement we’re working with today, the Paris Agreement.

Maria: Casey, I think we should take a moment to clarify for our audience -- what will any of this have to do with carbon pricing?

Casey: Good point, Maria. In this episode we mostly step back from the policy details of carbon pricing… Carbon pricing is one tool-- a promising one, at that-- but just one among many tools for addressing climate change. Global climate agreements encourage us to use these tools, so it’s important to understand how agreements work and evolve. 

To understand the origins of global climate agreements we need to take a trip back to the 1980s, when the world first responded to a different global environmental threat, with the Montreal Protocol. I promise we’ll get to climate change later in the episode, but we’ll start with The Montreal Protocol  because it made an attractive blueprint for climate action in later years.

Casey: This takes us to Act 1 - The Montreal Protocol--A Blueprint for a Global Environmental Agreement from the 1980s

NASA Reporter: you don't have to be an ozone scientist to have heard about what's now termed the ozone hole

Casey: Maria, can you tell us what was causing the hole in the Ozone? 

NASA Reporter: ...Chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs...

Maria: Ahem, sorry Casey, I still had my 80s science reporter voice turned on. As I was saying -- Chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, were a group of aerosol gases used as coolants and propellants. They could be found in everything from refrigerators to air conditioners to spray cans. And they made life safer and easier which was pretty awesome at the time! 

Or…. so everyone thought. Until the 1980s when scientists realized all those miracle CFCs were depleting the ozone shield, a layer of the Earth’s atmosphere that absorbs most of the UV radiation from the Sun. Besides causing sunburn, increased UV radiation could raise the earth’s temperature, damage our crops, and threaten entire ecosystems.

Jacob: Wait, so we put a hole in our best defense against harmful radiation, just so we could have hairspray and refrigerators? Casey, do you remember any of this happening back in the day? 

[record scratch]

Casey: I was about to point out that refrigeration has increased human life expectancy substantially, but I’m sorry, did you just say ‘back in the day?’  How old are you? Pop quiz: Who’s Stevie Wonder?... Madonna?... Prince?

Maria: Ugh, I really hope older generations don’t start avoiding blame for climate damage by claiming they gave us Prince…. 

Casey: But we did give you Prince.

Maria: Well, unless Purple Rain was a warning about Acid Rain, I’m not sure what this has to do with climate change.

Casey: Okay, I actually do remember the growing hole in the ozone.  I was in second grade, I think. My teacher sat us down to explain the science in terms that 7-year-olds could understand. But it wasn’t like, one day: [80s science reporter voice] “News flash, children! The Earth is about to burn to a crisp.”

Maria: Casey, you have an 80s science reporter voice too??

Casey: Apparently, so!

Maria: Anyways, you’re right, it wasn’t exactly breaking news in that way… The world took some time to catch up to the urgency of the scientific community - as with most things. As early as the mid-70s, there were reports that the CFCs were having a destructive impact on the Ozone layer. But then in 1984, British scientists demonstrated that the Ozone layer over Antarctica had deteriorated substantially since 1960… And these scientists showed that the deteriorating Ozone layer was likely a result of human activity.

Jacob: Ah, that - that sounds familiar… Casey, what was the global reaction to all this? Seems like big news, no? I mean, do you remember how governments responded?

Casey: Oh ya, I remember Lee Thomas, Reagan’s EPA Administrator, calling me up to ask what I thought we should do, yeah. [Pause]  What?  No, I was in second grade.  I was working on my Karate moves and my Transformers collection.  News was something I tried to get my parents to stop listening to so I could hear more Tears for Fears. 

Wait, you two know who Tears for Fears is, right?

Jacob: Oh yeah, come on, Casey.

Casey: ...everybody wants to rule the world….

Jacob: [joining in] …wants to rule the world--

Casey: Okay, good I’m glad we’re all on the same page.

Maria:  Okay, since Casey was too busy jamming out to lead the fight against CFCs, the movement needed an environmental leader. Perhaps someone with a strong attachment to the outdoors? 

Ronald Reagan: Let us remember that America the beautiful land is not ours alone. This is our land, but it’s ours for the time being. It belongs also to those who are very close to us. And to people whom we will never know. They, too, are entitled to continued enjoyment of our great outdoors. This heritage of splendor belongs to our children, to the generation of the future on down the years for decades and centuries to come…

Maria: That’s President Ronald Reagan. I should note, Reagan had a less-than-stellar environmental record as a president… But this environmental issue was personal to him. Ronald Reagan was an outdoorsman. He spent a lot of time outside, and shortly after the first reports of a hole in the ozone in 1985, Reagan found out he had skin cancer on his nose.

Casey: Oh, that’s no good...

Maria: Not great. So in 1985, with Reagan’s support from the US, more than 40 countries convened in Vienna to craft the “Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer.” The Vienna Convention created a framework to curb the emission of Ozone Depleting Substances. Then two years later in 1987, the world convened once again, this time in Montreal. In Montreal, they established the legally binding, regulatory processes that transitioned the global economy off of CFCs.

Casey: So we’ve got a sort of wind-up in Vienna, in 1985, with a framework for global cooperation, and then the pitch in Montreal, a really practical policy that addresses the problem. And did it work?

Maria: Well, not to belabor your whole baseball metaphor you have going, but let’s just say they knocked it out of the park. 

NASA Reporter: Production of spray cans using chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs as they are more commonly known has been banned. Nations have set limits on the making and use of CFCs... a phase out of the chemical is planned by the year 2000. 

Maria: 46 countries signed onto the Montreal Protocol and agreed to phase out production of CFCs. And it’s since been ratified by every UN member state.

Casey: Nice! So easy. 

Maria: Well… sort of easy. I’ve made it sound simple [because well, I’m such a master storyteller], but there were actually a lot of complicated political, economic, and scientific factors at play. One really important factor, which is going to keep coming up in these global environmental agreements, is that not everybody contributed to the Ozone problem in the same way. And to deal with this challenge, the Protocol divided the ratifying nations into two groups, those that produced and consumed a lot of CFCs, and those that didn’t use much at all.

Casey: Okay, Maria so we’ve got one group of countries who created the Ozone problem, emitting a lot of CFCs... and another group of countries who are just feeling the negative impacts, the low-emitters. I know the low-emitting countries initially pushed back on being asked to restrict their use of CFCs… In the end, what got them to play ball, as it were?

Maria: I hope this is the final use of this whole baseball metaphor, Casey.

Casey: One can always hope, Maria!

Maria: But actually, that is a really great question. There’s one really important thing to understand about how the Protocol operated: it didn’t apply the same rules to both groups. The high-emitting countries were given a strict timetable on which they had to phase out their use of CFCs. But low-emitting countries could delay their phaseout for 10 years. This guaranteed that the whole world would eventually abandon CFCs, but it gave the low-emitting countries some more flexibility, since they hadn’t caused the problem and weren’t making it much worse.

Jacob: And Casey, there was actually one more thing! High-emitting countries set up a fund, called the Multilateral Fund, to help low-emitting countries identify and produce CFC substitutes. That way low-emitting countries wouldn’t feel the full costs of the transition when their phase-out obligations eventually kicked in.

Casey: So basically…  countries that hadn’t caused the problem could ratify the Montreal Protocol without facing unfair economic consequences. 

Maria: Exactly. And it was important to have all countries ratify the Protocol, even the low-emitters, to avoid just shifting the production of CFCs to places where they weren’t restricted. And in the end, the Montreal Protocol was pretty successful. It got everybody on board, without putting a penalty on the countries that hadn’t caused the problem. And scientists say we’re on a path to recovery -- while the Ozone Layer will take decades to return to its pre-1980s state, we’ve turned the corner and averted a major crisis.

Casey: That is a pretty remarkable feat. It’s not everyday that you get 200 unique parties working together to solve a problem. It really begs the question… What was the magic here? How do we recreate this success, but for climate change?

Maria: Well, there were a lot of moving parts to consider. For one thing, the Montreal Protocol succeeded because it met the needs of every ratifying party. That ten year delay was critical for getting low-emitting countries on board. The Multilateral Fund was important, too.

Jacob: But there were other factors at play that ensured the success of the Protocol. For example, the economic case for taking action against ozone depletion was pretty clear. If you add up the costs from increased rates of skin cancer and cataracts, the damage to fisheries and agriculture, the whole lot, and compare it to the costs of finding a substitute for CFCs, it just made sense to stop production. Now, this was in part because there was a ready technological solution, called Hydrochlorofluorocarbons. Hydrofluorocarbons, or HCFCs, were less damaging to the Ozone layer and substituting them in for CFCs was relatively cheap. And this simple fact won the support of the chemical production industry, which is a powerful lobby, especially in the United States. 

Casey: So it seems like the success of the Montreal Protocol can be chalked up to two central things. First, a flexible strategy for getting all countries on board, and second, it was a problem with a ready-made technological solution. 

Jacob: Absolutely. Unfortunately, CFCs were just the beginning of our global environmental problems. Next up, we face another challenge, only this time, the fix is not so clear.

Casey: Let’s move to Act 2 - The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Rio de Janeiro, 1992

[music interlude]

Jacob: The Montreal Protocol proved that international action could address a planetary threat. And around the same time, concern about carbon emissions was growing. Which is where our next guest found herself...

Sue: ...It was about 1988 and I was finishing up the space station negotiations -- and the state department was trying to set up an intergovernmental panel on climate change, which turned out to be the IPCC.

Maria: That's Susan Biniaz, “a senior fellow at the United Nations Foundation” and “Visiting Lecturer at Yale.” She spent 25 years as the State Department’s lead climate lawyer. And she was recently tapped to serve on President Biden’s climate team.

Jacob: So, Sue Biniaz says that at that point in her career, the state department was beginning to establish the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which you heard about in our first episode -- also known as the IPCC. The IPCC is a body of the United Nations that gathers the best peer-reviewed work from thousands of scientists and reports on it to the public. 

Sue: And I thought oh that sounds interesting. Climate change was obviously not a big issue in 1988. No one had really even heard of it. 

Jacob: Then just two years later, the IPCC released their first climate change assessment report. It called for a global treaty to address climate change. Not unlike the Montreal Protocol.

Maria: And riding the success of the Montreal Protocol, 172 countries got together in 1992. This time in Brazil, at the Rio Earth Summit. 

Casey: Another atmospheric crisis, another global treaty to crank out. Piece of cake, right?

Maria: If only it were so simple…

Sue:  I ended up negotiating the climate change convention, the framework convention, which was finished up in 1992.

Jacob: At the Rio Earth Summit, countries negotiated the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNF Triple-C. This Framework Convention stated that Climate Change was a real problem, and set goals for reducing the greenhouse gas emissions causing the crisis. It was a little like the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer -- it acknowledged the problem and declared the need for a coordinated solution. But also like the Vienna Convention, the Framework Convention on Climate Change didn’t actually set any legally binding rules. Instead, it set a roadmap for establishing those legally binding rules in the future.

Maria: The Framework Convention on Climate Change established a supreme decision-making body known as the Conference of the Parties, or COP. And this body meets annually, negotiating how to effectively implement the framework convention goals.

Jacob: Now, for any confused listeners, Conference of the Parties also happens to be what we call the annual meeting of this decision-making body. So, not to get ahead of myself, but maybe you’ve heard of COP21, the 21st COP held in Paris in 2015, where the Paris Climate Accord was crafted? So the Conference of the Parties isn’t just a Decision-Making Body, it’s also… sort of a conference… and… also sort of a party?

Casey: Yeah, but as exciting as these conferences can be, it’s not really that kind of party. When we talk about Parties here, that’s just another word for countries who are signed onto the convention.

Jacob: Ah, yeah, unfortunately.

Casey: It’s useful to see how a lack of a global government or strong global governance institutions, means we have to reinvent the wheel every time we encounter a global crisis. We’re constantly thinking up new ways to work together, there’s no central authority to make those decisions for us. For example, when we see a hole in the Ozone Layer, we craft a Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer. When we discover that greenhouse gases are driving up global temperatures, we write up a Framework Convention on Climate Change. 

That’s the world we’re in.  And the way it works is, once we’ve got these Conventions in place, then we move onto our Protocols, which establish the international rulebook.  It’s the wind up and the pitch again. With CFCs, we started in Vienna, crafted a Framework Convention, and then pitched in Montreal with a proper Protocol. So now, catching up with our story, we’re in Rio in 1992, and we’ve got another Framework Convention for a new crisis. I think it’s time for a pitch… where’s our Protocol?

Jacob: That’s an excellent segue, Casey… 

Casey: Thanks Jacob, you wrote it !

Jacob: Alright, onto Act 3 - The Kyoto Protocol, Annexes, and the Clean Development Mechanism 

Casey: Really riveting act titles, Jacob. We are ‘nailing’ these, aren’t we?

Jacob: Oh, okay so now my writing is suspect? Is that what you’re saying, Casey?

Casey: Uh, the Casey giveth and the Casey taketh away a compliment?

Jacob: [Laughs] Okay okay, before we get into Kyoto, let’s back up for a moment. To recap: We’ve got the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer in 1985. This Convention sets us up for the legally binding Montreal Protocol in 1987, which successfully controls CFC pollutants causing ozone depletion. 

Casey: Then when the prospect of climate change rears its head a few years later, the Vienna Convention and Montreal Protocol serve as inspiration for countries around the world to get back together, re-claim that planet-saving glory, and stop climate change by reducing carbon emissions. They converge on Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

Maria: The Rio Earth Summit in 1992 establishes the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, where we arrive at this global consensus that… well, something’s gotta be done? So now it’s time for that Protocol that saves us from the horrors of Climate Change. Unfortunately, things are not so simple this time around, and we’re not able to craft a binding agreement on the first attempt.

Jacob: Yeah… In 1995, the first Conference of the Parties, COP1, convenes in Berlin, but they don’t leave with a binding agreement.

Casey: Alright, so I think this is what is known, in baseball, as a “balk.”

Maria: Okay, please Casey, let that be the last baseball metaphor.  But for our audience, can you explain what a balk is?

Casey: I can try, I have to admit I’m actually not the world’s greatest sports fan. But my understanding is that a balk is when a pitcher, uh, does the wind-up, but then doesn’t actually make the pitch. And then that’s like a fake out, and that’s not allowed.

Maria: Got it. So countries come together in Berlin, but nothing really substantial happens at the conference. Okay, as you were saying, Jacob.

Jacob: So since COP1 in 1995, the Conference of the Parties has met annually to try to set some global rules to avert the climate disaster. Today, we’re up to 25 conferences, with a 26th planned for November of 2021. And while no conference has resulted in an agreement quite like the Montreal Protocol, there are a few that have stood out over the last 26 years. Let’s jump from Rio in 1992, to COP3 in Kyoto, Japan, 1997. 

Maria: There were high hopes heading into the Kyoto negotiations. Representatives from almost every country attended. And, *spoiler alert*, we are gonna come out of this thing with a Protocol. They called it: the Kyoto Protocol.

Casey: Awesome, it’s about time! So what did the Kyoto Protocol achieve?

Sue: It's a highly regulated approach. 

Maria: That’s Sue Biniaz again. In contrast to the Framework Convention principles, which were highly flexible, the Kyoto Protocol was more rigid: 

Sue: You negotiate your emissions target with other countries, right, the US went in with one proposal and ended up with something else, right? Because everybody had to agree on what the targets were going to be. And they were legally binding targets, so it would be a violation of the agreement if you didn’t meet them. So quite a stringent, often it's called a top-down approach. Basically, much of the material in the agreement is internationally dictated. 

Maria: A top-down approach, she says. The negotiators all had to agree on the emission caps set for each country. And then the individual countries were responsible for finding ways to satisfy those targets.

Casey: So by target here, we mean an amount of emissions reductions or a total amount of emissions that they aim to achieve. It’s like a runner - I run the occasional 5K, and I’m often trying to hit a certain time. And so, as I practice, I work on shaving off seconds from my time, to hit that goal or target time I’ve specified in advance.

Jacob: Yeah, that’s a good metaphor, Casey. And it also raises this question of, you know, “who sets the targets?” For you, you set the target for yourself, you know, it was your personal aspiration. But this has been a centerpiece of climate negotiations for decades, and Sue Biniaz points out that there is a range of possible approaches on this front...

Sue: Should it be like heavily negotiated and dictated internationally or should countries be able to decide on their own targets, you know much more of a so-called bottom up approach.

Maria: And the Kyoto Protocol was quite lengthy, specific, and strict. It didn’t give countries much discretion at all, and targets were dictated, from the top-down.

Jacob: Right. Now, because the Kyoto Protocol was so strict in its targets, parties were looking for flexibility as to how they could meet those targets. And one popular way to incorporate some flexibility is through market mechanisms. 

Sue: As kind of a trade-off for the stringency of the targets and their legally binding nature, the parties agreed to include market mechanisms. So on the one hand you're gonna have stringent targets. On the other hand, you're going to have some flexibility in how you were gonna be able to meet them. The U.S. was a big proponent of getting this kind of market mechanism or sometimes they were called flexibility mechanisms into the Kyoto Protocol, and I think a couple different reasons.

One reason was just as a matter of principle, the U.S. had experimented under the Clean Air Act with domestic emissions trading and thought that it was a good tool and allowed you to get your emission reductions where they might be cheaper, so it was economically efficient, and I think the U.S. thought it would need to engage in emissions trading in order to meet its target under the Kyoto Protocol. So one was a matter of principle, and one was a matter more of like necessity.

Maria: Ahh yes, emissions trading… in case you were wondering when we were going to get back to carbon pricing. Jacob, can you remind us why market mechanisms allow for flexibility? 

Jacob: Sure thing Maria -- so if you remember back in Episode 1, we talked about the cap-and-trade style of carbon pricing. Under this system, parties can buy and sell emissions allowances that say, “I can emit one metric ton of carbon dioxide.” So in the case of the Kyoto Protocol, if a country hits and surpasses its emissions target, it could sell excess emissions reductions as allowances to other countries. If it looks like you’re going to miss your target, you can buy those allowances to help you hit your target. This gives countries some flexibility as to how they hit their targets, and in theory, it reduces emissions at the lowest cost.

Maria: So the Kyoto Protocol set emissions targets,and established the foundation for this global cap-and-trade-type market. The targets weren’t flexible, but the methods for hitting them were. Buuuut, and this is crucial to understand, not every country’s emissions were capped under the Kyoto Protocol - only certain countries, mostly high or upper-middle income nations that had already emitted a lot of greenhouse gases were given binding targets. These countries were known as Annex I countries. Other countries were exempt from reducing their emissions.

Casey: So a two-tiered standard, like in the Montreal Protocol?

Jacob: Yeah. Except this time lower-emitting countries had zero obligations, instead of just delayed obligations. So these exempt parties were known as “non-Annex I countries.”

Casey: And why the annex jargon?

Maria: Well, to put it simply, the countries that were expected to limit their emissions, these so-called “Annex I” countries were listed at the end of the Framework Convention in an appendix titled… can you two guess?

Jacob and Casey - alternating:

Jacob: Uhh, Who’s afraid of Virginia’s Coastal Flooding?

Casey: The Kyoto List of Kooky Carbon Polluters

Maria: *inhales* Not quite…

Jacob: Uhh, of Mice and Multilateral Environmental Agreements?

Casey: Oh, that’s good, uhhh Each and Every one of Earth’s Enormous Emitters.

Maria: okay…

Jacob: Oh no, I’ve got it - Harry Potter and the List of Countries Expected to Limit Their Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Casey: Oh, I feel like that’s it…

Maria: Not that either.

Casey: No? Uh ohhhhh - Pink Elephants on Parade? I don’t know, I don’t know, man - this is hard.

Maria:... okay, not quite, you two, but I appreciate the very creative attempts - the Annex I countries were actually listed at the end of the convention in an appendix titled “Annex I.”

Casey: Ohhhh, I - like looking back on it you can see where we went wrong.

Jacob: Next time, Casey.

Casey: Yeah, next time, Jacob.

Maria: I know, very very close. But - bringing us back to the conversation, it’s important to understand that the language used to divide up nations is controversial -- historically, the Framework Conventions and Protocols used categories of “Developed” and “Developing,” and you’ll still see that distinction made in recent UN agreements, which is why you’ll hear our guests using that language in their interviews. But many experts today agree that this categorization is arbitrary, and it creates this hierarchy that leads to harmful stereotyping. Check out our website to read more about this conversation. 

For the purposes of this episode, we’ll try to specify which distinctions we’re making between groups of countries and why. For example, we talk about Annex-I and non-Annex-I countries because that’s the distinction the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change has used since 1992.

Casey: And also because it rolls off the tongue so easily! 

Maria: *laughs* Exactly, but most often, this grouping corresponds to high-income, high-emitting countries (Annex 1), and lower-income, low-emitting countries (non-Annex 1). And it’s important to note that some countries are changing rapidly… and we’ll get into that in more detail later. 

Jacob: Now, the reason we differentiate at all is because, as we saw under the Montreal Protocol, it’s important to design an equitable policy and reduce emissions over time. 

Looking at historic emissions, it’s clear that Annex I nations like the U.S., Australia, Germany… they emitted a lot of carbon in expanding their economies over the last hundred and fifty or so years, and they continue to emit a lot. So placing restrictions on these nations can have a sizable impact on global emissions. But if non Annex I nations expand their economies by relying on cheap fossil fuels the same way that high-income nations did, then we haven’t really solved the global problem -- we end up back where we started. 

Maria: That’s true, buut it begs the question: why should low-emitting nations have to pay more to industrialize sustainably when, for instance, the U.S. wasn’t asked to do so as we grew to emit over 6 billion tons of greenhouse gases annually?

Jacob: And the stance of non-Annex I nations at Kyoto is “we still emit way less carbon than you Annex I nations. How will we grow our economies to match yours if we curb our energy use now? What moral ground, what right, do you have to tell us to emit less carbon?”

Casey: It’s a fair point!  Energy use, infrastructure -- that’s what enabled high-emitting countries to build up their economies in the first place. So, if you ask lower-emitting nations to curb their emissions, then they’re worried they might never catch up, economically speaking. Especially without help from those who already reaped the benefits of emitting vast amounts of carbon.

Maria: And those concerns were heard by the negotiators of the Kyoto Protocol. [pause] Coming out of Kyoto, non-Annex I (or low-emitting) nations had no firm commitments to do anything about their emissions...

Sue: There was no provision in the Kyoto Protocol for emissions commitments for developing countries, either in the same time frame as developed countries or even X number of years later. 

Casey: So as we mentioned earlier, that’s a little different from Montreal. After Montreal, low-emitting countries did have to limit their Ozone-depleting emissions after ten years. But under Kyoto, Sue Biniaz is saying there were no long term emissions restrictions for the low-emitting, non-Annex I nations... 

Sue: The only thing included was this CDM provision.

Maria: CDM stands for Clean Development Mechanism. Even though there were no emissions restrictions for low-emitting countries, there was this CDM provision, which allowed Annex I nations to offset some of their own emissions by investing in emissions reductions in Non-Annex I nations. 

Casey: It’s a Robin Hood mechanism without the robbing. And without the Gamestop. 

Maria: No Gamestop here. But the rationale is it doesn't really matter where you reduce emissions. High-income countries could help reduce global emissions by funding projects in low-income countries and provide the capital necessary to enable those countries to grow sustainably.

Sue: What Kyoto did is say, if you have a particular project, let's say in a developing country and you could prove that you were going to make reductions because of a particular project, then that country could sort of, you know, sell that emission reduction, and a developed country could use the reduction to like - offset its emissions.

Maria: Under the Clean Development Mechanism, Annex I countries could invest in carbon reducing measures in non-Annex I countries and use proof of that emissions reduction to lower their own obligations in this global cap-and-trade program. 

Casey: It sounds good in theory. But low-emitting/non-Annex I nations still had no firm climate commitments.

Maria: Right. In the lead-up to the meeting in Kyoto, as the shape of the agreement became clear, that wasn’t satisfactory for some negotiators…

Dan: And those agreements were seen by some of us as too narrow in that they involved only the so-called Annex 1 countries - the 40 or so most developed nations - and it left a hundred and fifty or more countries -  all of the developing world - sitting on the sidelines. 

Maria: That’s Dan Esty, a professor of environmental law and policy at Yale. 

Dan: And a number of us began to say that's unworkable. And in fact, the breakdown in terms of U.S. support for action on climate change had partly been a function of folks saying why should the U.S. take action when major trade competitors like China are not required to take action? One still hears that from some folks who oppose action today.

Casey: What does Dan Esty mean by “the breakdown in terms of US support for action on climate change?” That would be a pretty serious drag on the power of the agreement.

Maria: So even though in the Fall of 1997, the US negotiators signed the Kyoto Protocol abroad on behalf of the U.S., Congress still needed to ratify the agreement for it to become U.S. law. But…

Sue: This Kyoto style agreement was not going to work for the United States.

Maria: See, back home, Congress was worried about this exact outcome, where low-emitting non-Annex I nations would be allowed to sit out on climate action for the foreseeable future. So in July 1997, just five months before the Kyoto Protocol was signed, Congress passed the Byrd-Hagel Resolution. 

Sue: The Byrd-Hagel resolution was a resolution that passed the U.S. Senate by a margin of 95 to zero. So basically everybody supported it. It was passed in the last year of the negotiation of the Kyoto Protocol, and it essentially said to the administration, to the executive branch, don't even think about bringing an agreement back to us if it either causes harm to the US economy or mandates emissions commitments for developed countries, but doesn't include such commitments for developing countries in the same timeframe.

Maria: Byrd-Hagel was a warning shot saying, “If negotiators don’t come back from Kyoto with an agreement that requires non-Annex I nations to participate, don't bother coming to us. We’re not going to cooperate.” 

Sue: The United States ended up not joining the Kyoto Protocol.

Maria: For the U.S. congress, it was all or nothing. Either all of the non-Annex I nations have strong commitments under the protocol, or we—the US— are out. And the non-Annex I nations did not have strong commitments. So...  we were out. [... ] 

Casey: See, I remember this. Fall of 1997 was my first semester of college, and one of my first papers was on the Kyoto Protocol. I remember pouring over New York Times articles, sitting on my - orange carpet in my dorm room, and it was just so clear, you could see these two paths opening up. The world going down the path of a global cap-and-trade system - some kind of global carbon regime - or not. And it was clear that the U.S. Congress was wrestling with the question of who is responsible for carbon emissions, who is responsible for reducing carbon emissions. And that was the big question of the day.

I just - this moment, I just want to note it cuz - it was this moment where it really felt like the world was hanging in a balance and could go in one of two directions.

[hopeful music]

Maria: Through Kyoto, countries of the world hashed out who should be responsible for greenhouse gas emissions. But the Kyoto Protocol was too strict in its reduction targets and left too many countries out. Mandating that only certain countries reduce greenhouse gas emissions wasn’t going to work for the U.S., and without the U.S., international agreements tend to struggle. 

Casey: So for the next decade or so, the U.S. kind of sits on the sidelines of international climate negotiations, and as a result, there isn’t a ton of progress made.

Maria: Yeah, I remember how long the Kyoto Protocol was the centerpiece of climate activism... When I was in college, our climate action group was actually named Kyoto NOW!, formed in 2001 in response to the Kyoto Protocol. And the name stuck around for awhile, since there wasn’t really something new to rally around.

Casey: But Kyoto isn’t still the central focus… So when in the history do things change?

Jacob: Well, let’s jump ahead to 2009 -- President Obama has recently taken office, and a new climate agreement is on the horizon. Taking us to Act 4: 

Casey: Alright, Jacob, lemme try my hand at the title situation. Watch this: Act 4: The Copenhagen Accord, High Hopes, a Bit of a Let Down, and a Lasting Legacy

Jacob: Whoo, Casey, that’s profound… I’m moved.

Casey: As you should be.

Jacob: The limitations of - of podcasting are that you can’t see the tears streaming down my face.

[music/sounds fade]

In the years following Kyoto, you had one of the world’s largest emitters, the U.S., basically putting climate change policies on the back burner, because they’d opted out of these global commitments, so they didn’t really have anything keeping them accountable to climate progress. 

Maria: Meanwhile, global greenhouse gas emissions and global temperatures continue to rise… and some of the once low-emitting nations have significantly grown their economies. 

Most importantly, China, which was originally grouped in with low-emitting nations under Kyoto, has grown so much that it’s now the number one greenhouse gas emitter. 

Sue: So I think the world is basically looking around and saying wait the two countries with the most greenhouse gas emissions are not meaningfully part of a regime- 

Maria: Sue Biniaz is referring to the U.S. and China after Kyoto - 

Sue: Because one's not in and one’s in, but not with any commitments, right?

Casey:  Letting non-Annex I nations sit out on Kyoto backfired in a big way.

Jacob: Especially because of countries like China, which wanted to develop its economy in the same ways that countries like the U.S. had. And can we really blame China for using the same strategies?  

Casey: OK, well, the climate clock is ticking… In 2009, we’ve got a new U.S. president, did anything change?

Jacob: Well, the next big climate conference after President Obama’s inauguration was in Copenhagen, Denmark in 2009. And during his campaign, Obama had said that the U.S. should lead global efforts to reduce emissions. 

Maria: And in the lead-up to Copenhagen, the absence of the big emitters from the existing global agreement was front and center. 

Dan Esty: And there was a big push at the time and this was the slogan of that Copenhagen gathering to “seal the deal” and try to ensure that the world community really got behind serious efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions…

Sue: So for the U.S., it was incredibly important that whatever this new beast was, it would include developing countries, at least the major ones, not necessarily all of them, because they didn't want to come home with another Kyoto Protocol, like yet another thing that they couldn't join. 

Maria: On the other hand, countries with rapidly growing emissions were reluctant to join a new agreement...

Dan Esty:  At the time, China was not very eager to sign on to emissions reductions of any kind. It turns out that China's economic growth had led to massive increases in emissions, and they were at that moment overtaking the United States as the world's largest greenhouse gas producer, the world's largest carbon emitter, and so they were very unhelpful to the process. 

Jacob: So, they reach a compromise at Copenhagen. And in the end, the Copenhagen Accord has more ratifiers than Kyoto. However, it was totally non-binding, and arguably…. insubstantial. 

Sue: The Copenhagen Accord is like two and a half pages long.

Casey: Two pages?! My CVS receipts are longer than that!

Jacob: Ha - what’d you buy… like, a single pint of ice cream?

Casey: Yeah, how’d you know. And - and a new hairbrush, of course.

Jacob: Oh, nice -  in short, the Copenhagen negotiators traded ambition and substance for greater participation.

Sue: I think there’s a lesson there, both for climate negotiations and kind of - international environmental law, more broadly where you sometimes have this trade-off between what looks like stringency and participation. It comes up, all the time when you’re trying to design an agreement.

Jacob: So by not making the Copenhagen accord legally binding, by instead making it voluntary... 

Sue: ...all the major economies took on commitments so that was a huge breakthrough….

Jacob: It’s true. The countries that signed on to the Copenhagen Accord represented 80% of global emissions. But the commitments themselves were pretty weak. Sue Biniaz compared Copenhagen to Kyoto, where the commitments were strong, but the participation was weak.

Sue: The Kyoto Protocol is this classic example of extremely stringent, but minimal participation, right? Because you got a bunch of developed countries. You didn't get the United States. You didn't get the major developing countries. So yeah, it's extremely stringent on paper. But then really not enough countries are part of it. And then you know Copenhagen's kind of at the other end of the spectrum where it's got very wide participation. You finally got in the United States with a target, you got China in with a target, but then people look at the content and then they say, oh this is too weak.

Jacob: At Copenhagen, negotiators tried to fix the limited participation problem that we saw in Kyoto. But that introduced a new set of problems, and as a result, the Copenhagen Accord has developed a bit of a reputation...

Dan: The sad reality, of course, was that Copenhagen gathering, that Conference of the Parties in 2009, did not produce a very robust result. In fact, most people would say that it was a failure…

Sue: People will often refer to Copenhagen as shorthand for disappointment to disaster... low point…

Jacob: But ...

Sue: ...but if you go back and look at it actually contains a lot of the seeds of what became the Paris Agreement.

Casey: Okay Jacob, so Sue Biniaz is saying there might be a bit of a silver lining to this Copenhagen cloud?

Jacob: Yeah absolutely. Some experts point to a few key successes that paint the Accord as less of a failure, and more of a… stepping stone to future agreements. For one, the Accord set a goal to restrict global temperature rise below 2 degrees C. The emissions commitments in the Accord weren’t necessarily on track to hitting that goal, but the goal was set, nevertheless. And second, the Accord got the two biggest carbon emitting countries on board, the U.S. and China. And in a story of decidedly incremental progress, this was a very important increment. And finally, the Accord helped to establish the mechanism for setting emissions targets that’s still in place today, 12 years later. Under the Copenhagen Accord, targets were domestically determined. That means each country set their own goals… it was all completely voluntary.

Casey: Yes, and having voluntary targets set by each country is distinct from the Kyoto approach, where the targets were legally binding and were set by the negotiators.

Jacob: Exactly. And these voluntary targets helped Copenhagen attract widespread participation.

Casey: Alright, well, Sue Biniaz said Copenhagen contains a lot of the seeds of what became the Paris Agreement… sounds like Paris is the next appropriate stop on our time traveling escapade. Let’s fast forward to 2014, when preparations are being made for the 21st Conference of the Parties, in Paris.

[Fade in Musette]

Casey: Act 5 - Aaahhhhhh Paaaa-risssss

Casey: The climate negotiations up until this point seem like a Goldilocks scenario. In Kyoto, the agreement is binding, but it’s too stringent for some key countries and we don’t get full participation. Too hot. Then in Copenhagen, we’re seeking wide participation at the expense of meaningful action. Too cold.

Jacob: But the story isn’t over! We still have to get to Paris. In the years leading up to the Paris Agreement, there’s a lot of anticipation that the negotiators might finally get the porridge just right. But first, a few details need to be worked out… so in November 2014, about a year before COP 21 in Paris is scheduled to begin, President Obama travels to Beijing to meet with China’s president, Xi Jinping. 

Sue: So basically what we did with China was more than a year before Paris, we had a lengthy negotiation with them ...

Jacob: China and the U.S. have massive influence in climate negotiations. They knew, leading up to Paris, that they could have kept an agreement they didn’t like from coming together at all. So they decided to work out their problems ahead of time.

Sue: So that provided a lot of momentum to the Paris process ‘cause I guess the fact that the U.S. and China which, first of all were the two biggest emitters, but also had historically been kind of at odds on climate change as an issue, were jointly making an announcement at the presidential level. It gave a lot of countries hope that the Paris Agreement was actually gonna work out...

Casey: I see -- if the U.S. and China demonstrated that they could work together on this agreement, then other countries would be more willing to get on board… Applying a little bit of social pressure can be really powerful. So, what sort of an arrangement did the U.S. and China come to at this private chat?

Sue: The so-called joint announcement was a document where both countries reflected their nationally determined contributions. 

Jacob: Nationally Determined Contributions also commonly referred to as NDCs. An NDC is basically just a self-imposed target, just like we saw in Copenhagen. It’s not binding, but it is public, and therefore, subject to all kinds of scrutiny and social pressure. And in the US-China Joint Announcement, both countries committed to much stricter targets than they had previously under the Copenhagen Accord. The hope was that if the two biggest emitters announced more ambitious targets ahead of time, it would encourage other countries to do the same. 

Sue: So by the time countries got to Paris a year later, there were about a hundred and eighty five of these nationally determined contributions on the table, which is pretty remarkable.

Casey: So is the porridge finally just right? 

Jacob: Well, it’s definitely getting closer.

Casey: So... lukewarm?

Jacob: Yeeah, I think that’s - that’s about right. So - remember that the Copenhagen Accord was signed by countries representing 80% of global emissions… The Paris Agreement has Nationally Determined Contributions from countries representing 97% of global emissions. And a lot of the NDCs themselves have increased in ambition from Copenhagen to Paris, notably those from the US and China, but also Australia, New Zealand, the E.U.... 

Maria: And just to be super transparent here, we’re not saying that the NDCs will reduce 97% of global emissions. We’re saying that countries that emit 97% of the world’s emissions have agreed to self-regulate and reduce those emissions over time. 

Jacob: The exciting takeaway from all this, though, is that the Paris Agreement left almost nobody on the sidelines. And some of the targets are getting more serious, largely thanks to the efforts of the U.S. and China.

Casey: Okay, so in Paris we’ve got increased participation and slightly increased stringency, both of which are important examples of progress for global climate action. This is great news. But I’m sure at this point, our listeners are wondering once again… What does any of this have to do with carbon pricing? Under the Kyoto Protocol we saw a mechanism that allowed for global emissions trading. Now what are the implications for carbon pricing under the Paris Agreement?

Jacob: That is a tricky question, and it takes us into the finer details of the Paris Agreement. It all comes down to one portion of the Agreement, known simply as “Article 6.” Article 6 tries to tackle some of the challenges of global emissions trading systems. For example, if one country invests in emissions reductions efforts in another country, kind of like that CDM provision we talked about earlier, there’s a risk that both countries might count the emissions reduction towards their own target. Let’s say Spain pays to replace an inefficient piece of equipment in a factory in China. So both countries may try to claim that they reduced their emissions because of this investment. 

Casey: And that would be double counting, right?

Jacob: Exactly - and one important piece of Article 6 is figuring out how to avoid this. We’ll explore this phenomenon and other details of Article 6 in a future episode. (If you can’t wait, check out the supplementary reading on our website.) But for now, the important thing to understand is that Article 6 is still under negotiation. Even though the Paris Agreement is ratified by almost 200 countries, there are still portions of the Agreement in flux. That means we don’t have a global emissions trading scheme in place just yet. 

Maria: It’s true we don’t have a global trading scheme in place yet, but don’t forget we can also look to domestic and regional carbon pricing. These international agreements are important for setting the rulebook at a global scale, but they’re also really crucial for encouraging action at the national and sub-national level.

Let’s look back at the Montreal Protocol as a case study. Take the U.S. for example -- in 1988, just one year after the Protocol was ratified, the U.S. created a domestic trading system for Ozone Depleting Chemicals. And then in 1989, we put a tax in place as well!

Casey: Interesting! So, a two-pronged approach?

Maria: Exactly! Now, these pricing schemes weren’t the only domestic policies the U.S. employed, but they played an important role in the phase-out. In just 1992 and 1993 combined, the tax alone raised $1.4 billion dollars in revenue. And now, almost 30 years later, as the world has shifted its focus to Climate Change, we see carbon taxes all over the world, in countries such as Argentina, South Africa, Japan, and dozens more!

Jacob: And, we’ve seen some governments implement Carbon Cap-and-Trade systems as well. There are Carbon Emissions Trading Systems operating in the E.U., China, Kazakhstan, and even regionally in the United States, as well as a number of other places around the globe. We’ll take a closer look at these national and regional carbon pricing schemes in future episodes.  

Casey: So while these international agreements don’t necessarily mandate the use of pollution pricing policies, they do encourage them. And that’s a really important point to understand -- very little action is mandated by the international climate agreements we’ve seen in recent years. But countries are still responding to the goals they’ve set for themselves. Now, there’s a separate debate to be had about whether or not the goals are stringent enough or if current emission-reduction efforts will avoid a climate catastrophe. Many experts say that our current goals simply will not avert disaster. But it’s interesting to see how non-binding agreements can still motivate action. The social pressures at play, just through goal-setting and public transparency, are enough to at least partially mobilize local and national governments to act. And perhaps, with continually applied social pressure, we can ramp up our goals and bring about the change this crisis deserves. 

[music break]

Conclusion - Social Pressure

Maria: So after Paris, we had reason to be hopeful about international climate action. While the commitments under Paris still wouldn’t be enough to avoid a catastrophe, we were on a promising path. But the 2016 US Presidential election dramatically changed the U.S.’s approach to climate policy with some really big global implications. Casey, about that continually applied social pressure… I’ve got some bad news.

Trump: “…the United States will withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord — (applause) — So we’re getting out.  But we will start to negotiate, and we will see if we can make a deal that’s fair.  And if we can, that’s great.  And if we can’t, that’s fine.”  

Maria: In 2017, the Trump Administration said it would pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement at the earliest possible moment. Which would mean removing a lot of pressure from other participating countries. Like… six billion tons worth. 

Casey: Oof... this makes me think about that U.S.-China meeting right before the Paris Agreement. The U.S. made a huge impact on the agreement just by demonstrating a little enthusiasm for it... so what kind of an impact would abandoning the agreement entirely have?

Maria: Probably a big one. But luckily, the negotiators anticipated something like this and set up the agreement so the earliest date to withdraw was the day after the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

Casey: That’s ALMOST incredible foresight... just needed it to be the day after the inauguration and not the day after the election. So here we find ourselves, in 2021… President Biden has just re-entered the agreement, but we were on the sidelines for four years and out of the “official agreement” for a few months... What sorts of repercussions could our momentary absence have? 

Maria: Well, it’s a little early to tell if Trump’s stance influenced the other parties’ willingness to set and hit their goals. But we asked climate journalist David Roberts, author of the Volts newsletter [Casey: Highly recommended reading [Maria: and formerly a journalist at Vox, what he thought about the US briefly abandoning the Paris Agreement. He says that mostly what we need to worry about is… our reputation as a country.

David: “...everybody gets the Paris agreement wrong or not everybody, but like, especially in popular political discussion, everybody gets the Paris Agreement wrong. Trump gets it wrong. Everybody gets it wrong... It's not a treaty that forces you to do things…

...It doesn't force the U.S. to do anything. So like every, almost literally every word Trump has ever said about it literally makes no sense. If you understand how the agreement works, like how could it bankrupt America? America only has to do what it wants to do and says it will do, and America's not going to bankrupt itself. So what... what does that even mean? …So given that it's a purely voluntary agreement and given that, um, all that's really involved, like the only sort of enforcement mechanism insofar as there is one is just reputational…

Casey: Okay, in some ways, that feels like a relief that the damage is mostly reputational. But given that international agreements rest ultimately on trust and social pressure, the damage to our reputation seems like a huge handicap on the U.S.’s ability to lead.

Maria: David Roberts would agree:

David: “Given that the whole thing runs on basically trust and reputation, not on any sort of like penalty or legal enforcement or even fines or anything, given that, of course there's repercussions from us yanking out and then going back in, which is to say it made very clear to the international community. I guess what they already should have known, but made it vividly unmistakably clear to the international community that any pledge from the U.S. is valid until the next presidential election. And that's it.

And beyond that, you just don't know, beyond that it could very easily swing in the diametrically opposite direction…”

Casey: Wow. That is tough to hear, but it makes a lot of sense... In recent years, US policy on climate has been an absolute rollercoaster. That’s gotta make it hard for other countries to plan ahead, given what a large role the U.S. plays in these agreements. And right now, we need to be able to plan ahead -- it’s the only way to tackle a long-term problem like climate change.

[music break]

Casey: We covered a lot of ground today… 30 years worth of global climate negotiations, 3 different Conferences of the Parties, 2 separate global environmental threats… I think we could use one final recap. Maria -- would you do the honors?

Maria: I will happily - Casey, will you tee it up?

Casey: Ho ho… Bringing back the baseball thing... Alright here we go:

1985 [Maria] We start with the discovery of the hole in the Ozone, which led to the 1985 Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer, eventually resulting in… 

1987 [Maria] the legally binding agreement to phase-out CFCs, known as the Montreal Protocol. 

Let’s do 1992 [Maria] Then we encountered another global environmental crisis, in the form of rising global temperatures and a changing climate, which led to the creation of the IPCC and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, signed at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.

1997 [Maria] In 1997, we got the Kyoto Protocol, a stringent global climate agreement that lacked widespread participation, 

Jump ahead to 2009 [Maria] in 2009, we had the Copenhagen Accord which had lots of participation, but weak emissions goals, 

2010 [Jacob] Jacob has his Bar Mitzvah! [Casey: Mazal Tov!] Thanks, Casey!

2015: [Maria] and in 2015, we arrived at the Paris Agreement which built off of Copenhagen but with stronger targets and more participation. 

And 2020 [Maria] And then in 2020, the U.S. threw out all that hard work only to pick up the pieces three months later.

Casey: Wow Maria, very impressive. For those of you listening to this podcast on 2x speed, I’m sure that was exhilarating. Thanks for joining us on the Road to Paris - and beyond. 

Maria: Next time on Pricing Nature, we’ll take a look at the history of Carbon Pricing policy in the United States. Domestic climate politics in the U.S. play a major role in international negotiations, and therefore, the future of our planet. We’ll spend the next few episodes working to understand these politics and get back into the policy details of carbon pricing.

Jacob: This is Pricing Nature. To get in touch, email us at carbon@yale.edu


Maria: This episode was written by Jacob Miller, with help from Ben Linthicum, Casey Pickett, Maria Jiang, and Naomi Shimberg.  Sound engineering by Jacob Miller and music by Katie Sawicki. Thanks to the Carbon Pricing Leadership Council for their communications support. And finally, special thanks to Ryan McEvoy, Stuart DeCew and Heather Fitzgerald for making this episode possible.