Andrea Thompson of Scientific American on COP 27

While much of the world turns its gaze to the first World Cup held in the Middle East, there was recently another important international gathering on the environmental front nearby. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak to Andrea Thompson of Scientific American to get a better understanding of what was discussed at the United Nations Climate Change Conference known as COP27 that just took place in Egypt. We look at the hurdles that need to be overcome by the major emitting countries, examine the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and talk about the irony that one of the least eco-friendly countries was hosting a global climate summit.

00:01 Narrator – This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

00:17 Andrea Thompson (AT) – I maintain some sort of cautious optimism that we are moving in the right direction. But it’s very, very hard to get people and governments to stay focused on long term goals when there are short term things like inflation, disasters they’re having to respond to like a war happening, and all of those things are competing for attention.

00:46 Narrator – While much of the world turns its gaze to the first World Cup held in the Middle East, there was recently another important international gathering on the environmental front nearby. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak to Andrea Thompson of Scientific American to get a better understanding of what was discussed at the United Nations Climate Change Conference known as COP27 that just took place in Egypt. We look at the hurdles that need to be overcome by the major emitting countries, examine the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and talk about the irony that one of the least eco-friendly countries was hosting a global climate summit.

01:49 Alex Wise (AW) – I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Andrea Thompson. She is an associate editor at Scientific American. Andrea, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

01:58 Andrea Thompson (AT) –  Thank you for having me.

01:59 Alex Wise (AW) – So I wanted to talk about COP 27. This latest climate summit, which is occurring in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. You wrote a piece for Scientific American entitled world edges closer to meeting climate targets, but not fast enough. Before we dive into the immediacy of COP 27, why don’t you? Take a step back to the last couple years and how the major emitters have evolved into where they are today.

02:30 Andrea Thompson (AT) – Sure, so you know this all stems from the 2015 Paris accord, where countries agreed to limit warming to well under 2 degrees Celsius, preferably 1.5 degrees Celsius and under that agreement countries can set their own. What are called in UN parlance nationally determined contributions, but it’s essentially how much they’re going to reduce emissions by a specific year. And generally those are targeted to about 20-30 and there’s been quite a bit of, you know, change over the last couple of years prior to the last meeting, which was in Glasgow last year. Obviously, the pandemic interrupted things. We weren’t able to have the meetings and so that slowed a little bit as this down you know, countries. Were supposed to increase the aggressiveness of their emissions targets every five years, which was supposed to happen in 2020. The pandemic interrupted that. So a lot of that sort of happened before the Glasgow meeting last year. And what they tried to do with the meeting last year was get countries to increase their targets on a more rapid pace, so instead of every five years to actually trying to motivate them to do it before this meeting and one thing we saw is that that really didn’t happen of the countries that did sort of that did submit formal pledges before this meeting. Most of them were sort of playing catch up. They hadn’t done that before. Glasgow. There were some movement, probably most notably was that the US actually put some teeth behind their pledge. So President Putin after he took office made a pledge to reduce emissions about 50% by 2030 in the US, but there wasn’t really the policy. To make that happen until the Inflation Reduction Act passed this past summer. Now it doesn’t get us all the way there, but the studies that have been done suggest it could reduce emissions by anywhere from 30 to 40%, which is a pretty good chunk. Probably one of the biggest changes in awhile last year was that the US got a lot more credibility in terms of being able to meet its pledge, which when you’re dealing with these UN meetings, is really important if the US is trying to be a leader on this to back up what they say they’re going to do is really crucial. One other issue has been sort of a little bit of a freeze in relations between China and the US. And it was under President Obama that a lot of the movement towards you know the Paris Agreement. And towards getting China to make some pledges happen because of diplomatic moves then and the last couple of years has been a little bit of a freeze and that is potentially falling now, but I’m President Biden and Premier Jinping match this week. Obviously you have to see how that’s going to take shape moving forward, but it’s you know, potentially a good sign. And then, of course, the war in Ukraine is a big factor in right now. In terms of how quickly countries are able to make some of the pledges they wanted to make, particularly in Europe, which is so dependent on on fuel from Russia, they’re having to really quickly pivot to try and find alternate sources of fuel, and in some cases that’s potentially prolonged. Seeing how long things like coal-fired power plants are being used and so those are a lot of the background things that have kind of happened, or at least some of the main ones coming into this cut meeting.

06:10 AW – So a lot of these are political. How suspicious or how wary are other global powers towards America stance to things like these climate summits? When we saw such a zigzag, such a pendulum swing. Going from the Obama era to the Trump presidency and now back to President Biden, I mean, what happened in 2019 in Chile and COP 25? I don’t really recall what the US role was during that first year of the Trump presidency. Did the Americans even participate?

06:49 AT – So from what I recall, they’ve always sent a delegation, but I do think during the Trump years, there was a bit more emphasis on what they called American energy independence, so promoting the domestic production of fossil fuels to keep prices lower for Americans. So some of that rhetoric definitely happened in the with the delegations that we did send to those meetings. From what I recall, a lot of the Trump administration attitude towards this cop meetings was a little more benign neglect than total outright hostility other than the main thing that Trump did on that front was to pull the US out of the Paris climate accord. So the first and only country to do that. Of course, President Biden, one of the first things he did when he came into office was to put the US back in so that was a fairly short lived, in fact.

07:48 AW – You could see that being ominous in terms of creating trust within the the signatory countries, right?

07:54 AT – Absolutely, and I think you know, as I said, that the the pledges countries make under the Paris Accord are voluntary. There’s no binding language that they have to follow them, so to some extent what happens? It’s a little more important. What is actually happening on the ground in the country than what they say? They’re going to do on any pledge. And that’s where the infrastructure, the Inflation Reduction Act. Probably comes in and is probably doing a lot to, you know, assuage concerns because I do think most of the people that work in diplomatic circles at that level have a pretty good understanding of the American political system and are aware that with a law like that, you know that’s really hard for Republicans who might be averse to some of the provisions to undo. It’s sort of in a lot of ways a done deal, and having that law on the books is much more important than any particular pledge Biden has set. You know, in terms of actual emissions reductions.

08:52 AW – Why don’t we focus a little bit on the science aspect of it. Right now, the subtitle of your piece in Scientific American is as the cop 27 climate summit begins. Emissions reduction pledges are still far behind where they need to be to meet the goals to limit global war. I’m particularly interested in one of the largest emitters in the on the planet, the second largest per capita in terms of greenhouse gas admissions Russia. I mean they have become an outcast nation largely over the last eight months. How is that being reflected in terms of getting them on the table and in a productive, transparent way at a summit like this?

09:36 AT – Yeah, and I don’t know a ton about the actual diplomatic engagement that is or is not happening on that level and but I do know from the experts I’ve talked to that Russia’s pledge is they do have a pledge but it’s sort of something they can easily meet…It’s not really, it’s not aggressive, it’s not ambitious.

09:59 AW – It’s interesting that while the diplomatic community is treating Russia with draconian measures and from the sound of it, the COP 27 participants are hoping to just keep them at the table. Is that a fair assumption? This isn’t the time to kind of turn the screws on them. Is is what you’re saying?

10:19 AT – Maybe yeah, and I honestly I don’t know exactly how much the engagement with Russia in terms of getting them to make pledges is really a key concern. You know the sum I think much more is how they are impacting the ability of other countries to meet their targets, because particularly Europe, the European Union has pretty aggressive targets. The situation right now is sort of having a number of different effects. Like I said, it’s in, you know, in some cases it’s means that coal-fired plants may be online longer than they were in the past. Now it’s not expected that they will be on for, you know, years and years to where they’re going to make a really big impact, but it’s still, you know, not ideal. And I think in the other aspect, is there is concern because because European countries are having to pivot to other sources of natural gas, they’re having to build infrastructure to get those natural gas imports, such as shipping from the US versus the pipeline they have from Russia. And anytime you’re building infrastructure that is very expensive. That tends to put you know, some pressure to sort of get the most use out of it, so there’s some concerns that if they’re building that infrastructure, they’re going to want to keep importing fossil fuels for longer than they would have otherwise. But there is also, some movement to really more aggressively ramp up renewable energies, so I think it’s a little uncertain as to how all those things are going to balance out. I think in the long term the sense is that it’s probably going to favor renewable energy. It’s just a question of how long things like natural gas kind of stay entrenched there because of this.

12:20 (Music Break)

13:15 AW – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to Andrea Thompson. She covers sustainability for Scientific American, so we’ve been talking about the major players in this conference – the COP 27 climate summit in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. Andrea, let’s talk about countries like Egypt or the next host of COP 28, the United Arab Emirates. I’m interested in how they’re participating and how the major emitters are treating them as it become kind of this paternalistic, dynamic or do they have an important voice at this conference, in your estimation?

13:59 AT – So I think, broadly speaking, the role of and it’s hard to find the right term for countries, but what you might broadly cover called developing countries that their voices have definitely become louder in the last couple years, particularly around the issue of what’s called loss and damages, and those are when you have, you know, say a climate fuel disaster or something like sea level rise where you have losses, you know, financial livelihood that wouldn’t have happened without climate change. And developing countries who you know historically have contributed extremely little to the problem of climate change. Are often some of the countries that are really bearing the brunt of the impacts and that often have the least capacity to prepare for them and to recover from them.

14:55 AW – Do you have an example in mind?

14:57 AT – Sure, so I think a really recent example would be the flooding that happened in Nigeria last month. And that you know, we know there’s a really strong linkage between warming and increases in heavy rainfalls and so a country like that you know may not have the IT has huge sweeping impacts. You know that level of flooding would obviously have impacts in the US, but the EU has a really robust emergency response structure. We have things like insurance. We have things that can help make people whole. Again, they’re not perfect by any means. But those are often completely lacking in countries in the developing world. And they don’t have necessarily have the funding to put those in place because they have a lot of different things they’re trying to do at the same time, and so a lot of countries have raised those as saying, look, we’re dealing with the impacts much more. And then then the countries that cause most of this problem. We’re not as able to respond. You need to help us so a big part of the debate at this COP meeting is whether developed countries will get behind a fund, a dedicated fund to help make some of these to help alleviate some of these costs. It’s a very contentious thing countries like the US are particularly averse to it because they think it opens up the possibility of litigation, whether or not it does is beyond my expertise, but you know, that’s the concern they cite. And now there is also more push for funding for adaptation for countries, and there’s a little bit more movement on that front. But you know these, they’re asking for funding at a bunch of different levels to mitigate to adapt and to put right the losses that are, you know, things you can’t adapt to anymore that are just sort of done deals. So yeah, that’s been a huge, huge consideration coming into that and the countries. Behind it have been really, really vocal about it, and you know we’re successful in getting it on the agenda this time.

17:21 AW – So Andrea, while we’re talking about the host country dynamic, you know the the more developing countries as opposed to the major emitters. Who are participating in COP 27? I can’t help but think of the contrasts that a lot of these countries offer. Egypt is a perfect example. I mean you have, I remember reading that they were turning Sharm El Sheikh into this Green Zone. Almost, uh, a fantasyland compared to the rest of the country. I mean you you’d be very hard pressed to find one electric vehicle in Cairo. I’ve never seen such traffic and air pollution before that. Not to impugn Egypt as much as that’s just the reality with some of these countries that their economic situation lends itself to not having a very efficient grid transportation system, etc. Maybe kind of highlight the dichotomy that guests are seeing when they go into a place like Sharm El-Sheikh? I know you’re not there, but it it’s pretty obvious that there’s very much these two worlds that are being presented 1 to the one to the rest of the world, and one where I think most Egyptians would find pretty humorous that Egypt is hosting this green summit.

18:45 AT – Yeah, I Think most of the people that are attending a meeting like up the negotiators, the activists, the scientists are probably pretty aware of that dichotomy. I don’t think that that is lost on them at all, I think, especially ’cause a lot of them have been to these meetings before they know the kind of production it is.

19:04 AW – Well, let me interrupt real quickly. You mentioned activists. They’re actually not allowed. There’s been a lot of these activists like Human Rights Watch that usually attends these things, and they’re not allowed to go because of the stranglehold that the Egyptian government has had on who gets to attend. And we know that I think 65,000 political prisoners are behind bars in Egypt because of their political dissension.

19:32 AT – Yeah, and I will say that’s one I can’t really speak super authoritatively on. I know mostly what’s been reported elsewhere that protests compared to previous cups have been really, really limited. You particularly don’t see anything outside the venues outside the sort of Blue Zone. And you know several activists that have been there speaking at the conference have really noted that. And what a difference that can make, because those protests. Can you know, sort of a good reminder to the people who are inside negotiating. You know what they’re negotiating for and who is. What is really at stake here? You know, I think the that dichotomy…I do think that’s something that probably the people who would be who have been doing this for a while and are really into this issue, which by and large are the people that are attending COP are really aware of. I don’t think that that’s lost on them. You know it’s how much I think that is translated to the broader global public is really dependent on how media covers the story and whether that’s highlighted or not. And that you know fairies a whole lot there are so many news outlets now and so many ways to cover a story. And I’m sure that some places are trying to get that story across. But there is also the tendency to really be sort of focused on the nitty gritty day-to-day negotiations that are happening at cup.

21:05 (Music Break)

22:06 AW – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to Andrea Thompson. She covers sustainability for Scientific American. So what do you want Scientific American readers to take away from reading about COP27? It’s very complicated, irrespective of the politics and the optics and all and the activism.

22:28 AT – Yeah, so I think from you know just someone covering this. That’s something I stay aware of. But the thing I try to impart to our readers is really that broader context, which is what this story that you mentioned was getting at that if we want to meet these targets, we have sets, and those targets are, you know, their science based. They will help us avoid the impacts of climate change being ever worse because we’re at, depending on, you know the exact temperature record you’re looking at. We’re a little over 1 degree Celsius of warming above pre industrial levels and we are very clearly already seeing very devastating impacts of climate change. We are seeing that in intense droughts we are seeing that in the heat waves that we had all over the world this summer that are very, very easy to pick out. The signature of climate change and those that they are happening more often that they are worse that they last longer than they would you know. In a world without climate change and every degree, every fraction of a good of a degree of warming that we avoid the better. Every little bit makes a difference in terms of not making this problem worse and and you know this, this story that you mentioned. You know the graphic shows the gap we have to meeting those ambitions.

23:49 AW – Yeah, since this is an audio format, explain the graphic and these gaps and breakdown the numbers as simply as you can for our listeners.

23:58 AT – Yeah, so the graphic shows. I think one thing that’s helpful to point out. It shows you know if we were still operating under the policies that were in place around the world as of 2010 that greenhouse gas emissions would be going up pretty steadily based on current policies. They’re still going up. They’re not going up as steeply. There’s a little bit of a kink in that line because of all of the lockdowns around the pandemic where you know a lot of travel and electricity use and stuff stopped, but you know we, we’ve since come back from that, so so that was just a blip. But then sort of under that line you can see based on the pledges that countries have made. They say this is how much we will reduce emissions by 2030. You can see that emissions would start to go down. Now they don’t go down as much as the lines where we’re meeting a limit of two degree Celsius warming or a limit of 1.5 degree Celsius warming, but they’re still going down, so it’s good. The issue there is that the policies aren’t in place to back up those pledges, so until those policies are in place, things like laws like the infrastructure or the Inflation Reduction Act. Those pledges are sort of just not to say empty promises, but they’re unfulfilled promises I guess.

25:21 AW – And largely aspirational at times.

25:24 AT – Yes, and in some cases you know the experts I talked to said, you know in some cases some countries are actually doing more on the ground than their pledges account for. So India is a good example of this. India does not have a super ambitious pledge. They under the terms of the Paris Agreement, they don’t need to. They’re not pushed to as some other countries. But their policies on the ground make it that they will easily meet their pledge and probably surpass it. So there’s you know a lot of, and that’s we tried to show that there’s uncertainty in these and these lines they’re not set in stone. But so there’s a little bit that’s masked there. But then you have the US where we only have the policies to partly hit the target we’ve set. And you know, you can see in the graphic it shows the gap between. Mean pledges and what we would need to reduce emissions by two hit two degree Celsius or 1.5 degrees Celsius and for two degrees it’s about 12 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, and for 1.5 it’s 20 and those are pretty big numbers. They’re not insurmountable. We have the technical capacity to meet those. It’s really a political issue, it’s you know it’s having the political will and getting countries to all act in the same direction and that’s that’s a really, really hard thing to do. Because leaders and countries are balancing so many other things which it’s understandable that is their job and they have to do that. But you know this is a very existential problem, and if we have a limited amount of time to meet these goals, but it is at least a sign of some forward action, whereas you know ten years ago we weren’t really even seeing that. So I, you know, as someone who’s covered this for a long time, I maintain some sort of cautious optimism that we are moving in the right direction. But it’s very, very hard to get people and governments to stay focused on long term goals when there are short term things like inflation, disasters, they’re having to respond to like a war happening, and all of those things are competing for attention.

27:54 AW – She’s an associate editor at Scientific American, Andrea Thompson. Andrea, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio

28:02 AT – Thanks for having me.

28:17 Narrator – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Fela Kuti, Paul Simon, and Josh White. To read a transcript of this show, go to stream or download the show, or subscribe to our podcast on our site or visit our archives to hear from Doris Kearns Goodwin. Gavin Newsom, Stewart Brand and many others. And tune into Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.