Countdown to Paris: Q&A With UN Climate Change Official Halldor Thorgeirsson


The world's nations are now within 500 days of gathering in Paris to hammer out the details of the world's first global agreement designed to confront climate change. But delegates at the United Nations climate negotiation process have yet to come to a consensus on what form the end-of-2015 Paris agreement will take or what topics it will cover. Most delegates say the work on the first formal draft of the text is still months away.

But there are some reasons for optimism. Though negotiating sessions at the just-completed Bonn Climate Change talks saw few breakthroughs, some delegates reported a cooperative atmosphere that could lay the groundwork for future progress.

Add to that a series of high-level meetings outside the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change context—from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's head of state summit in September, to the Group of 20 and Group of Seven meetings, to next month's Petersberg Climate Dialogue—that will provide ample opportunities for the political will delegates repeatedly said was missing at the talks in Bonn to emerge.

Halldor Thorgeirsson, head of the Implementation Strategy Unit for the UNFCCC and a top lieutenant to UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres, spoke to me on the sidelines of the June 4-15 talks in Bonn. During the 30-minute conversation, Thorgeirsson discussed likely milestones along the road to the 2015 Paris summit, ways in which confronting climate change is changing and impacts the non-UNFCCC meetings could have on the process. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

BBNA:  How do you see the negotiations evolving between now and the summit in Paris?

Thorgeirsson:  It's important to look for certain milestones in what we call this “collective construction,” which is a way to refer to structuring the Paris outcome. The next big one is to develop clarity on where you want to be by Lima [the 2014 year-end climate summit]. That's the priority this year, to provide as much clarity as possible about how this agreement will operate and what is expected of the parties and to identify the key political choices that will remain open until next year.

BBNA: Do you think there will be enough progress between now and Lima so that the talks in Lima can be successfully leveraged so that a successful outcome in Paris remains possible?

Thorgeirsson: I think it's very encouraging that parties are getting much closer to reaching a shared vision of what is needed in Paris.

BBNA:  Really? I hadn't picked that up. The various sides still seem entrenched to me. Please give me an example of the way you think they're closer than they were when we spoke in March.

Thorgeirsson:  Well, they have started thinking through the relationship between the INDCs [Intended National Determined Actions—each country's pledge of climate action] that will come forward next year and how the agreement itself will operate. There is new clarity on this point. There is also a fear that if you nail down a certain approach for 2015 agreement now that that will pre-judge how commitments will be considered. And so these two questions of the information and how to deal with contributions in 2015 compared to how this new agreement will deal with commitments over time is becoming more apparent.

BBNA: There are a lot of technical elements under discussion in these months: the role of urban areas, HFCs, transport emissions, renewable energy, and so on. They are very interesting discussions, but how does it all get together into something useful?

Thorgeirsson: The idea of these discussions to accelerate progress before 2020 and to give governments confidence they can take on a significant objective for the longer term. Those are separate purposes: deliver immediately and to create confidence. Urban environments, for example, are mixture of time frames. Some things can be done before 2020, but there are also choices being made on housing, transport infrastructure and so on that will have impacts far beyond 2020.

BBNA:  Do these things have to be resolved by Paris?

Thorgeirsson: No. This is an important point because it's part of a paradigm shift in the way we make progress. We started under this convention by focusing on national commitments. That is what Kyoto did, and they will continue. We need national commitments; they are the core. But there are other kinds of commitments that are playing a role as well. It's extremely important for national governments to know that at the sub-national level, that cities and metropolitan areas are already mobilized. And they need the private sector as well. They need civil society for things to happen. The nature of the climate problem is no longer just putting out regulations about refrigerants or some other small area. The problem is so pervasive that it can only be solved by everyday decisions from everyone and entities at all levels, and the process is taking note of that.

BBNA: Does that mean that the INDCs next year don't hold the same importance as pledges did in Kyoto [in 1997], or in Copenhagen [in 2009] for that matter? Can the process succeed without them being as ambitious as they could be?

Thorgeirsson: No, no, it is extremely important that we make a very significant down payment on this long-term task. We have to go for very deep decarbonization of the economy, for example, and that cannot be done in a short span. To accelerate this first transition to a low carbon economy, the period after 2030 is extremely critical. And if you study the economics of doing that, the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] says, sure, you can do it with delayed action. But it's extremely expensive. It requires a miracle every year. To avoid that, we need significant commitments in 2015. Otherwise we risk the long-term goal ending up out of our reach.

BBNA: Let's assume the submissions of the INDCs end up falling short of the commitment needed to stay on track for keeping global warming under 2 degrees, as almost everyone expects will be the case. Are you aware of any kind of mechanism that could be developed in time to kick into force in order to cajole, beg or force countries to take on more ambitious commitments by the end of 2015 in Paris?

Thorgeirsson: My sense is getting countries back on track will be the core focus of the Paris agreement. It probably won't happen before that. If that is the case, the Paris agreement will not be determined by what is on the table when we get to Paris but rather by the ability of the agreement to ratchet up ambition over time. You need that significant down payment, but you also have to manage the mortgage over time. The bigger the down payment the smaller the mortgage payments are, but both are important.

BBNA: I am starting to hear that some delegates and key observers are resigning themselves to the idea that the Paris agreement will be a set of aspirational goals or framework of rules, with the difficult parts of the agreement being added in later. Is there still a realistic possibility some version of that can be avoided? Is there still a hope Paris can result in an ambitious treaty?

Thorgeirsson: Yes, I think there is. But the question is, will we recognize ambition when we see it?

BBNA: Please explain that.

Thorgeirsson: What I am trying to say is that we have this desire to measure ambition in numbers and targets and alone, forget about the aspects that are more difficult to understand. Even in Kyoto, it was impossible to compare the targets of individual countries. But people still looked at the fact that some countries had what appeared to be less ambitious targets, and it was a problem. The result will be much, much more diverse in Paris. The first focus here is to have everyone involved in a multilateral rules-based system—that's already pretty ambitious. We have to mobilize finance, support developing countries, ensure there is no backtracking.

BBNA: I understand that obligations will differ from country to country. In these circumstances, the incentive for every country seems to be to try to arrange it so they take as small a step as possible and insist that every other country do as much as possible. It's the classic free rider idea.

Thorgeirsson: Yes, that's true. That has to be guarded against as well. It's a complicated task.

BBNA: Do financial goals for the adaptation fund have to be stated in the 2015 agreement? Do you envision a treaty with specific dollar amounts for each industrialized country? Or will that be included in some other way?

Thorgeirsson: The focus at the moment is to focus on reaching the [Green Climate Fund goal of] $100 billion by 2020. Since the Paris treaty will go into effect in 2020, that target cannot be written into it. After that, various tools—market mechanisms, a price on carbon, specific levies and so on—will be used, and it has yet to be decided how that will work.

BBNA: Outside the UNFCCC meetings, there are several important meetings scheduled to take place: Ban Ki-moon's UN summit in September, the Petersberg Dialogue for ministers, various bilateral and regional meetings and the G-7 and G-20 and so on. How can all these meetings dovetail into the UNFCCC process?

Thorgeirsson: It's absolutely essential political focus be maintained, and these will all play a role. Paris is a political moment that can and should change the course of history on climate and that requires political conversations like the Ban Ki-moon summit or the G-7/8 and others. Very significant.


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