Robert Stavins on the U.N. Climate Meeting

September 24, 2014
By Doug Gavel

World leaders gathered at the United Nations on Tuesday to set the stage for the international climate change conference in Lima, Peru in December. President Obama was among those in attendance, urging all nations to do their part to combat the threat. "No nation gets a pass," he said.

Robert Stavins, Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government, is director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program and the Harvard Project on International Climate Agreements. We sought his perspective on the U.N. meeting.

Q: What was the objective of the meeting? Was it a success?

Stavins: The original objective of the meeting when it was first planned was to provide an opportunity for heads of state to announce their targets, called “nationally determined contributions," (NDCs) under the new policy architecture that is emerging under the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action to be finalized in Paris in December, 2015. Those announcements were originally due in the 3rd quarter of 2014 (that is, now). So, that drove the timing and the purpose of the U.N. Climate Summit. However, at the annual negotiations in Warsaw in December, 2013, the United States delegation successfully argued that the deadline for submissions ought to be moved back to the first quarter of 2015. The reason, of course, was to put it after the Congressional elections in November of this year. The other countries agreed.

As a result, the U.N. Summit lost its major raison d’etre. What was left was an opportunity for heads of state to make whatever statements they might like, and for the U.N. to thereby draw more attention to the issue. That limited objective has already been achieved – press coverage of the topic is (temporarily) at a higher level. But, the Summit – including the hundreds of thousands of people marching in Manhattan on Sunday – will have essentially no effect on the negotiating positions and eventual announcements of NDCs of any countries.

Q: What are the key issues that need to be addressed prior to the 20th meeting of the U.N. Conference of the Parties (COP) in Lima in December?

Stavins: The negotiators are converging on a “hybrid policy architecture” for the 2015 Paris agreement, an approach that we have researched and written about in the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, for quite some time. Such an architecture would include the key bottom-up element of a system of pledge-and-review, whereby each country would announce its NDCs based upon its domestic realities, taking into account what it believes it can actually accomplish. The top-down elements would include provisions for monitoring, review, and verification of pledged emission reductions and/or other actions.

The key issues involve putting flesh on this basic architecture, and providing some means to provide incentives for increased levels of national ambitions. A key issue is how to keep costs low, because lower compliance costs will induce more ambitious commitments.

Based upon work we’ve been doing in the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, we believe that the best way to do this will be to make sure that the Paris agreement does not contain provisions that will inhibit global carbon markets and does include provisions that will facilitate global carbon markets. This means that the 2015 agreement must not inhibit and should facilitate the “linkage” of national policies around the world. We released the executive summary of this work on Monday in New York City.

Q: A new report, issued by an international commission last week, makes the argument that costs associated with reducing carbon emissions may be considerably less than earlier predicted. Do you put much stock in that report?

Stavins: I have not read the report, and so I cannot comment directly on it. However, as I noted in my Op-Ed in the Sunday New York Times, the costs of reducing carbon emissions to the degree frequently discussed will be significant. Otherwise, it would already be happening!

Doing what is necessary to achieve the United Nations’ target for reducing emissions would reduce economic growth by about 0.06 percent annually from now through 2100, according to the I.P.C.C. That sounds trivial, but by the end of the century it means a five percent loss of worldwide economic activity per year. And this cost projection assumes optimal conditions — the immediate implementation of a common global price or tax on carbon dioxide emissions, a significant expansion of nuclear power and the advent and wide use of new, low-cost technologies to control emissions and provide cleaner sources of energy. If the new technologies we hope will be available aren’t, like one that would enable the capture and storage of carbon emissions from power plants, the cost estimates more than double.

Then there are the politics.

Q: You are currently conducting research on how the architecture for an international carbon market can be incorporated into the agreement being negotiated under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Are you optimistic that your research will inform international policy?

Stavins: I confess that I am quite confident about this. The reason is that it has already happened. We are in contact with some of the key national negotiating teams, and – just as important – many more follow our work closely. We know this from discussions we have with the negotiators at the annual meetings of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Robert Stavins, Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government

Robert Stavins, Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government
Photo Credit: Martha Stewart

"The negotiators are converging on a 'hybrid policy architecture' for the 2015 Paris agreement."


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