A LITTLE OVER SEVEN YEARS AGO, while settling in for a long-haul flight to Bali to attend global climate talks, Robert Stavins, the Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government and director of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, watched others boarding the airplane and recognized numerous members of various national delegations heading to the same conference. Many of them were carrying crumpled copies of Architectures for Agreement: Addressing Global Climate Change in the Post-Kyoto World, a book Stavins had co-edited with his Kennedy School colleague Joseph Aldy. “You could see little yellow reference notes marking the pages of these books,” Stavins says with a smile. “That was the best thing that could possibly happen for us in the project, and I’ll never forget it!”

To Stavins, the sight spoke volumes about the essential purpose of the project, as both a research and an outreach effort, to help the negotiating teams from countries around the world identify and advance the key design elements of a scientifically sound, economically sensible, and politically pragmatic future climate regime. With climate talks reaching a pivotal point this year in the run-up to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) conference in Paris in December, the project’s importance is more apparent than ever.

“This project is quintessential Kennedy School,” Stavins explains. “It’s not enough just to  learn; we have to actually do something with the results of our research.” The project’s manager, Robert Stowe, who works closely with Stavins, emphasizes the practical nature of the initiative: “In everything we do, we take seriously the Kennedy School’s mission to make the world a better place.”

Since it was established, in 2007, the project has been prolific in its output, publishing numerous policy briefs, dozens of widely distributed discussion papers, and three books. Written by scholars in the fields of economics, political science, international relations, and law, these publications cover a range of topics, presenting options for the design of a policy architecture for global climate change; examining incentives for compliance and participation in an international agreement, linkage among emissions trading systems, and other national policies; and discussing equity and justice in international climate agreements.

The project has involved close to 70 research initiatives around the world, in the United States, Europe, China, India, Japan, Australia, and Argentina. Members of the Harvard project interact with government officials, representatives of private industry, and NGOs. As Stavins describes it, this work is conducted as a two-way street, “both to learn from these various sectors, and then to communicate our findings back to these sectors.”

Undoubtedly, though, in the complicated environment of international climate change discussions, the most important groups with which the project shares its expertise are the negotiating teams from individual countries. Stavins and his colleagues have worked with dozens of teams from virtually every one of the G20 countries. Members of the Harvard project attend the annual UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (as well as many of the intermediate meetings during the year), at which they hold side events to make presentations about completed research projects and ongoing work. In addition, the project has also facilitated multilateral discussions among negotiating teams.

This is especially true in the lead-up to major climate change discussions, such as the Conference of the Parties talks held in Lima, Peru, last year, and the upcoming meeting in Paris. “We work with these teams to help them understand both the problems and the feasible solutions,” Stavins says.

Providing information and negotiation support is vital. Merely a month before the Lima talks, China and the United States jointly announced their national targets for CO2 emissions reductions, which together represent more than 40 percent of global emissions. Stavins is confident that this announcement provided much-needed encouragement to conference delegates and is a foundation for the first major international climate agreement since the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which is expected to be reached and signed in Paris and implemented in 2020.

One reason the negotiating teams place such a high value on the project’s input is that its approach to policy is agnostic. “We insist on being policy-relevant but not policy-prescriptive,” Stavins says. “And that is something the negotiating teams appreciate. Whereas many groups have an ax to grind, we do not; we just want to help them understand the nature and dimensions of specific issues and how they can address them.”

This may sound like an oversimplification, but clarifying the multi-faceted and complicated research conducted by the scholars with whom the project engages is, in fact, a valuable component of its work. “One tangible way we ensure that we are communicating the results of our research is to provide country negotiating teams with two-page versions of the technical papers we have published,” Stavins explains. The original research papers are typically written for publication in academic journals, and are difficult for decision-makers and their staffs to digest. Conveying the research findings is vital, however, and those who attend negotiation meetings tell Stavins they love the condensed versions.

Stavins has been working at the intersection of the environment and policy since he was involved in crafting innovative emissions trading proposals that were passed into legislation in 1990 and helped address issues such as acid rain and ozone depletion. He is likewise keen to assist countries develop feasible long-term solutions to global climate change problems. He has written at length about the faults he believes were inherent in the Kyoto Protocol, but as he suggests, they boil down to two important problems: It set out to do too little too fast, and it was deep in expectation but narrow in scope.

“Time periods are very important economically,” Stavins says. “Doing things too quickly can be costly. Obviously, we shouldn’t put in place the kind of policy that confiscates your car tomorrow morning. But we should put in place a climate policy that provides an incentive for you to go in a more carbon-friendly direction the next time you replace your car.” In the same vein, Stavins and his colleagues have argued for years that the Kyoto Protocol was never going to be a foundation for the long term, because although it set ambitious targets, it did so for a very small set of countries. “What really makes sense,” Stavins argues, “is to start out with the right foundation—broad but shallow—and then build on that foundation over time.”

The metaphor Stavins offers is a simple one: The Kyoto Protocol was like a plan for a 70-story office tower to be built on a 10’ x 10’ foundation. The accord reached last December in Lima, which will represent the basis for the talks in Paris, is squat in its design for now, but its foundation is the equivalent of a full city block. “It doesn’t look as ambitious at first blush,” Stavins says, “but this foundation has the potential to be a 70-story office tower!”

The Kyoto Protocol called for a 5 percent reduction in emissions by participating countries, but by the time of its second commitment period, it covered only 14 percent of global CO2 emissions, and included only the European Union and New Zealand. In contrast, after almost 20 years of difficult climate talks, the Lima agreement, backed by 195 countries, was the first of its kind to bring together developed and developing nations. The joint announcement in November of ambitious targets set by China and the United States was significant, and by June of this year, other industrialized countries and the large emerging economies of India, Brazil, Korea, South Africa, Mexico, and Indonesia announced their own contributions.

“We’re likely to eventually get to 85 percent or more of global emissions covered,” Stavins says. He is quick to note that it remains to be seen how ambitious each country’s Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCS) will be, but argues that the broader foundation represented by a much-expanded geographical scope in the Paris agreement is the best way forward for action on climate change.

Stavins acknowledges that some environmental groups will pronounce the Lima and Paris talks a failure because they won’t on their own prevent an atmospheric temperature rise of 2˚C. Nevertheless, he is undeterred from his belief in the success achieved by shifting the foundational structure of future climate change negotiations. Along with broadening the geographic scope, the Paris agreement will highlight an emerging architecture of climate change agreements that the Harvard project has been examining for years—a hybrid model combining bottom-up elements (INDCS) with top-down monitoring and reporting of contributions by the UNFCCC Secretariat or another centralized body.

Members of the Harvard project continue to work on how that hybrid model can best be realized, one aspect of which involves focusing on specifics of the 2015 Paris agreement. “Our conclusions thus far,” says Stavins, “are that it’s important not to have any language on so-called supplementarity.” This refers to the requirement that each country’s compliance responsibilities must be fulfilled within its own borders. From the viewpoint of an economist, this type of regulation strikes Stavins as both limiting and incentive-destroying.

“Supplementarity prevents international markets,” he claims. “There is some of this language in the Kyoto Protocol; it’s not as stringent as it could have been, but it does discourage linkage.” And linkage between countries and systems is, according to Stavins, what allows for a convergence of carbon prices (and therefore marginal abatement costs) and lowers the overall costs involved in reducing emissions. Put simply, linkage allows companies to satisfy their emissions-compliance obligations by using permits associated with emissions reductions in other countries.

“This provides an economic incentive for everyone to be at the same marginal abatement cost (the cost of control of reducing CO2 emissions),” says Stavins, “and if the costs are lower, we are more likely to get greater ambition. So it’s our hope that the language of the 2015 Paris agreement will be proactive in facilitating linkage, suggesting that countries may achieve their INDCS through domestic actions or by financing or otherwise stimulating actions in other jurisdictions.”

This understanding of incentive-based ambition permeates Stavins’s view of what work needs to be done in the run-up to the talks in December. It will not be easy work, and with mere months to go, the heat is on. “The delegates need to condense many, many pages of bracketed options [from the negotiating text for the Paris conference] into the brief text of an agreement,” Stavins explains. “In the process, they need to address some key issues, including how to make the INDCS [of individual countries] comparable…because if they cannot be compared, then the ‘naming and shaming’ that would provide the incentive for more ambitious INDCS over time will be absent.” Facilitating this kind of detailed work is, however, what the project thrives on, and so, Stavins confirms, “continuing to work on research and outreach that bears upon various elements of the design of the Paris agreement” will be the focus of the busy next few months.

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