Paris Can Be a Key Step

I returned from a brief trip to Paris two days before the horrific events of November 13th, which have shocked and saddened civilized people everywhere. I was in Paris for discussions regarding climate change policy at OECD headquarters. Now, I’m preparing to return to Paris in less than two weeks with my colleagues from the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements (I’ve inserted a list of our forthcoming “public” activities at the Paris climate talks at the end of this blog post).

My purpose today, in this essay, is to explain why I believe that the Paris talks may turn out to be a key step in the international negotiations, and more important, a significant step in efforts to address the threat of climate change.

Background on the Paris Climate Talks

The international climate change negotiations that will take place in Paris the first two weeks of December, 2015, are officially the 21st Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.   It will be many years before any of us can truly assess the impact of the Paris talks, but it is clear now that they represent – at the very least – an important attempt to break with the past thrust of international climate policy and start anew with a much more promising approach.

The Kyoto Protocol, which has been the primary international agreement to reduce the greenhouse-gas emissions that cause global climate change, included mandatory emissions-reduction obligations only for developed countries. Developing countries had no emissions-reduction commitments. The stark demarcation in the Kyoto Protocol between developed and developing countries was one approach to realizing a principle in the underlying United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), that countries should act to “protect the climate system … on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.”

The dichotomous distinction between the developed and developing countries in the Kyoto Protocol has made progress on climate change impossible, because growth in emissions since the Protocol came into force in 2005 is entirely in the large developing countries—China, India, Brazil, Korea, South Africa, Mexico, and Indonesia. The big break came at the annual UNFCCC negotiating session in Durban, South Africa in 2011, where a decision was adopted by member countries to “develop [by December 2015, in Paris] a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties.” This “Durban Platform for Enhanced Action” broke with the Kyoto Protocol and signaled a new opening for innovative thinking (which we, at the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, took to heart).

The Road to Paris

In Paris next month, countries will likely adopt a new hybrid international climate policy architecture that includes: bottom-up elements in the form of “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” (INDCs), which are national targets and actions that arise from national policies; and top-down elements for oversight, guidance, and coordination. Now, all countries will be involved.

The current commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol covers countries (Europe and New Zealand) accounting for no more than 14% of global emissions (and 0% of global emissions growth). But as of November 9th, 156 of the 196 members of the UNFCCC had submitted INDCs, representing some 87% of global emissions (and this will likely reach 90% or 95% by the time of the Paris talks)!

Such broad scope of participation is a necessary condition for meaningful action, but it is not a sufficient condition. Also required is adequate ambition of the individual contributions. But keep in mind that this is only the first step with this new approach. The INDCs will likely be assessed and revised every five years, with their collective ambition ratcheted up over time. That said, even this initial set of contributions could cut anticipated temperature increases this century to about 2.7-3.5 degrees Centigrade, more than the frequently-discussed aspirational goal of limiting temperature increases to 2 degrees C, but much less than the 5-6 degrees C increase that would be expected without this action. (An amendment to the Montreal Protocol to address hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) will quite possibly shave an addition 0.5 C of warming.)

The problem has not been solved, and it will not be for years to come, but the new approach being taken in the forthcoming Paris Agreement can be a key step toward reducing the threat of global climate change. Only time will tell.

A Paris Scorecard

I’ve been asked many times what success will look like in Paris. Here’s my scorecard and my predictions of five key elements that – if all were achieved — would constitute an exceptionally successful 21st Conference of the Parties:

  1. Include approximately 90% of global emissions in the set of INDCs that are submitted and part of the Paris Agreement (compared with 14% in the current commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol). This will definitely be achieved.
  1. Establish credible reporting and transparency requirements. It is likely that this will be achieved.
  1. Begin to set up a system to finance climate adaptation (and mitigation) — the famous $100 billion commitment.  A key question is whether it includes private-sector finance, in addition to public-sector finance (that is, foreign aid). This is likely to be achieved.
  1. Agree to return to negotiations periodically, such as every 5 years, to revisit the ambition and structure of the INDCs. It is likely this will be achieved.
  1. Put aside unproductive disagreements, such as on so-called “loss and damage,” which looks to rich countries like unlimited liability for bad weather events in developing countries. Another unproductive disagreement is the insistence by some parties that the INDCs themselves be binding under international law. This would probably mean that the Paris Agreement would require Senate ratification in the United States, which means that the United States would not be a party to the Agreement. I can only hope that the delegates will realize the futility of pursuing such unproductive elements.

As you can see, I anticipate that elements #1 through #4 will be achieved in the Paris Agreement, and hopefully #5 as well. So, my fundamental prediction for Paris is success. (Unfortunately, some greens and some members of the press will mistakenly characterize this same outcome as “failure,” because the 2 degree C target has not been achieved immediately.)

Finally, for those of you who will be in Paris and/or like to keep up on the work of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, here is a partial schedule of our activities there (“partial” only because some of our engagements, including numerous bilateral meetings with national negotiating teams, press engagements, and other private meetings, are not included):

Harvard Project on Climate Agreements

Robert Stavins, Director, Robert Stowe, Executive Director, Jason Chapman, Program Manager, Harvard Environmental Economics Program

Events at the Twenty-First Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, November 30 – December 11, 2015, Paris, France

Events Co-Sponsored by the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements:

“Dialogue on the Comparison of Climate Change Policies”

Friday, December 4; 1:00 -3:00 pm; Pavilion of the People’s Republic of China (“Blue Zone”) — Co-host: National Center for Climate Change Strategy and International Cooperation (NCSC; Beijing) — Participants: Robert Stavins; Zou Ji, Fu Sha, Qi Yue, Chen Ji (NCSC); Duan Maosheng (Tsinghua University); Thomas Brewer (International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development); Wang Mou (Chinese Academy of Social Sciences).

“Comparison and Linkage of Mitigation Efforts in a New Paris Regime”

Monday, December 7; 11:45 am – 1:00 pm; Pavilion of the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) (“Blue Zone”) — Co-Hosts: International Emissions Trading Association (IETA), World Bank Group Networked Carbon Markets initiative — Participants: Robert Stavins; Dirk Forrister (IETA); David Hone (IETA and Shell); Andrei Marcu (Centre for European Policy Studies); Gilbert Metcalf (Tufts University); Vikram Widge (World Bank Group)

“The IPCC at a Crossroads: Enhancing the Usefulness of IPCC to the UNFCCC Process”

Wednesday, December 9; 11:30 am – 1:00 pm; Observer Room 12 (“Blue Zone”) — Co-Hosts: Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei (FEEM; Venice and Milan), Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC; Berlin), Stanford Environmental and Energy Policy Analysis Center (SEEPAC) — Participants: Robert Stavins; Carlo Carraro (FEEM); Ottmar Edenhofer (MCC); Charles Kolstad (SEEPAC); Hoesung Lee (Chair, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change)

“Key Elements of the Paris Agreement and Implications for Business”

Wednesday, December 9; 3:30 – 5:00 pm; Room 9, Climate Generations Area (“Green Zone”) — Co-Host: Enel Foundation — Participants: Robert Stavins; Joseph Aldy (Harvard Kennedy School, by Skype); Dirk Forrister (IETA); Simone Mori (Enel SpA)

Other public events at which Robert Stavins is speaking:

“International Carbon Markets in a Post 2020 Climate Regime”

Thursday, December 3; 4:00 – 5:30 pm; Africa Pavilion (“Blue Zone”) — Hosts: African Development Bank Group, European Commission

“China-California Low Carbon and Climate Change Cooperation”

Monday, December 7; 2:00 – 4:00 pm; Pavilion of the People’s Republic of China (“Blue Zone”) — Hosts: State of California and the National Development and Reform Commission (Government of the People’s Republic of China)

“Can National Policies and INDCs Alone Lead to a Workable and Effective Climate Regime?”

Based on new book, Towards a Workable and Effective Climate Regime (available for free here), edited by Scott Barrett, Carlo Carraro, and Jaime de Melo — Tuesday, December 8; 11:30 am – 1:00 pm; Observer Room 4 (“Blue Zone”) — Hosts: Fondation pour les Etudes et Recherches sur le Développement International (FERDI), University of Venice, ClimateWorks Foundation — Participants: Carlo Carraro (University of Venice and Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei), Surabi Menon (ClimateWorks Foundation), Roger Guesnerie (Collège de France), Jaime de Melo (University of Geneva), Scott Barrett (Columbia University), Robert Stavins

“Exploring the Potential for International Trading Partnerships in Emissions Permits”

Thursday, December 10; 12:00 – 1:30 pm; Pavilion of the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) (“Blue Zone”) — Host: Electric Power Research Institute

“Building a Low-Carbon Society: Think Tank Views on Long-term Action”

Thursday, December 10; 1:00 – 3:00 pm; Pavilion of the People’s Republic of China (“Blue Zone”) — Host: Government of the People’s Republic of China

I’m exhausted just reading that list, but I promise to report on some of the highlights from Paris during and after COP-21.

A Key Moment is Coming for the IPCC’s Future

About six month ago, I posted an essay at this blog (The IPCC at a Crossroads, February 26, 2015) highlighting some of the challenges faced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which plays an important role in global climate change policy around the world. [In previous essays at this blog, I wrote about problems with the IPCC process (Is the IPCC Government Approval Process Broken?, April 25, 2014) and about its significant merits (Understanding the IPCC: An Important Follow-Up, May 3, 2014; The Final Stage of IPCC AR5 – Last Week’s Outcome in Copenhagen, November 4, 2014)].

A Key Moment to Think About the Future of the IPCC

Now is an important moment to think carefully about the path ahead for this much-maligned and much-celebrated organization, because in early October of this year, the 195 member countries of the IPCC (who together constitute this “intergovernmental panel”) will meet in plenary in Dubrovnik, Croatia, to elect a new Chair, who will lead the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report (AR6). There are some excellent candidates for the chairmanship. I hope they see (and read) today’s essay.

As I’ve said before, the IPCC is at a crossroads. Despite its many accomplishments, this institution, like many large institutions, has experienced severe growing pains. Its size has increased to the point that it has become cumbersome, it sometimes fails to address the most important issues, and – most striking of all – it is now at risk of losing the participation of the world’s best scientists, due to the massive burdens that participation entails.

In February of this year, we (Harvard) co-sponsored a three-day workshop on the future of international climate-assessment processes in Berlin, Germany, to take stock and reflect on lessons learned in past assessments – including those of the IPCC – as a means to identify options for improving future assessments. The workshop (titled “Assessment and Communication of the Social Science of Climate Change: Bridging Research and Policy”) was co-organized by: Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei (FEEM, Italy), the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements (USA), the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC, Germany), and the Stanford Environmental and Energy Policy Analysis Center (USA).  The workshop was funded, in part, by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

How Can the IPCC and its Procedures be Improved?

In an essay published in the Review of Environment, Energy and Economics (“Assessment and Communication of the Social Science of Climate Change: Bridging Research and Policy.”), Carlo Carraro (FEEM), Charles Kolstad (Stanford), and I offered our thoughts on the path ahead, drawing on our reflections on the Berlin workshop. We described a set of challenges and opportunities facing the IPCC, and provided options for future improvements. Here are some excerpts in five key areas.

1.  The IPCC could better integrate and coordinate across IPCC Working Groups, as well as enhance interaction between scientists and governments.

The scoping process could include more interaction between governments and scientists, driven by policy questions governments want answered and issues scientists feel need addressing. More experts could be involved in the process leading up to scoping meetings so that draft outlines going into scoping meetings might better reflect broad scientific consensus.

Feedback among policymakers, scientists, and other stakeholders during the assessment process could be improved. A lack of coordination and discussion between policymakers and scientists during the scoping and writing process has sometimes led to controversies and misunderstanding at the Summary for Policymakers (SPM) government approval sessions, which might have been avoided through earlier consultation

The Chair of the IPCC could enhance coordination among Working Groups. The Chair could improve coordination between Working Groups at multiple stages of the assessment process, including in the preparation of the Synthesis Report (SYR).

Special Reports could be developed to more flexibly target emerging issues, develop closer interactions between Working Groups, and inform future Assessment Reports. Shorter reports would be easier to produce and involve shorter turnaround times.

2.  The IPCC could enhance its interface with social scientific disciplines and communities.

Involving experts from a more diverse set of social-scientific communities in the scoping process, prior to scoping meetings, could enhance the quality of the Working-Group outlines and reports. Scholars from a wider range of fields might contribute to the scoping process by suggesting policy-relevant questions and by indicating which questions from policymakers are most amenable to response.

The IPCC leadership could strengthen engagement with relevant research communities that may initiate research projects and consortia to address gaps of knowledge identified in the IPCC scoping or assessment processes. Such recommended research might then be evaluated and incorporated as appropriate into Assessment Reports.

Consider establishing more formal interfaces with professional societies and national academies of sciences to facilitate identification of authors from various scientific disciplines, including social sciences, during the author selection process. This could facilitate the task of the Bureau, Coordinating Lead Authors (CLAs), Technical Support Units (TSUs), and governments in identifying and recruiting the most appropriate disciplinary mix of scientists for the IPCC.

3.  The IPCC could increase its efforts to facilitate the contributions of expertise from developing countries.

Selecting CLAs and LAs on the basis of scientific skills, capability, and reputation is paramount, but it is also important to reflect the perspectives of both developed and developing countries. Today, excellent scholars are available from all regions of the world.

The IPCC could invite authors from developing countries with less regard to where they are currently based. There are a significant number of scholars of international repute from the developing world living and working outside their countries of origin. These scholars could contribute significantly to IPCC reports

New partnerships, including with national, regional, and international academies of sciences, could support the author-nomination process. The academies might support CLAs, TSUs, and national focal points in identifying excellent researchers from a diverse set of geographic regions.

The IPCC could facilitate efforts of other organizations to build scientific expertise in developing countries. While the IPCC does not have the mandate to finance or execute such capacity-building efforts, the IPCC could recognize and support other international organizations that help develop stronger developing-country scientific expertise.

4.  The IPCC could increase the efficiency of its operations and ensure scientific integrity through organizational improvements.

 Preparing IPCC Reports is a complex management operation. Operational aspects of the Assessment-Report process could be improved significantly in a number of ways:

The IPCC should ensure that Chair and Co-Chairs of the Working Groups are selected early in the assessment cycle, and particularly before the scoping meetings, in order to enable careful preparation of the overall assessment process. Having the Chair and Co-Chairs engaged in the process from the beginning would also help foster a more deeply-shared vision between IPCC leadership and governments of the ultimate assessment products.

The IPCC could improve the efficiency of TSUs, which is essential for effectively managing the Assessment-Report process. The functioning of the TSUs requires frequent and intense face-to-face collaboration among staff and with the Co-Chairs. This requires maintaining a single TSU for each Working Group, physically located in a single geographic location under the authority of the Working Group Co-Chairs, with clearly assigned responsibilities. Geographic balance can be increased via global searches for qualified professionals, including from developing countries, to serve on the TSU staff.

Work organization, in particular of Lead Author (LA) meetings, could be greatly improved. Inefficient organization and high workload significantly reduce the incentives for researchers to contribute to the IPCC process. Frequent LA meetings are putting a high travel burden on authors, and the IPCC could reduce the number and length of LA Meetings (LAMs) and use means of remote collaboration, communication, and organization. Chapter Science Assistants (CSAs) provide critical support for chapter teams, facilitating the functioning and organization of work between and during LAMs. The IPCC could allow them to participate in all meetings and provide dedicated funding streams for CSAs for all chapters. The money saved by holding fewer and briefer LAMs could partly be dedicated to this purpose.

Consider expanding the definition of conflict of interest to include not only economic conflicts, but also conflicts due to institutional affiliation. For example, authors, Bureau members, Working Group leadership, and other IPCC personnel with dual roles as national negotiators could be identified as having a potential conflict of interest. Also, authors who work for an organization that aims to influence climate policy might be defined as having a potential conflict of interest. While this expanded definition need not preclude these individuals from working with the IPCC, public disclosure of the potential conflict of interest should help assure the integrity of the IPCC process. It could be valuable to have such an expanded definition in effect early in the AR6 process.

5.  Outreach and communications could be strengthened.

The SPMs, as well as the Technical Summaries (TS), are widely considered by non-experts to be difficult to access and understand. It would be difficult to change the SPM process, given its negotiated character. However, the IPCC could consider engaging expert science communicators to help produce more concise TSs, making them more accessible to policymakers and the general public. In addition, re-naming the TS as “Executive Summary” could more accurately characterize this component of the Assessment Reports and draw the interest of a broader readership.

The impact of IPCC publications on the UNFCCC process may have suffered from not being more closely aligned in terms of timing. The IPCC could consider synchronizing the IPCC Assessment cycle with the UNFCCC negotiation schedule.

Next Steps

My co-authors and I are continuing to develop our thinking on these and other issues associated with the functioning of the IPCC. Whereas some commentators have argued that the IPCC has outlived its usefulness (or is irreparably broken), I prefer to resist the temptation to “throw out the baby with the bathwater.” Instead, I welcome your thoughts on how the IPCC and its procedures can be improved.

Crude Oil Prices, Climate Change, and Global Welfare

A few weeks ago, I participated in a panel session titled, “The Remarkable Transformation of the Energy Sector: Does it Also Transform Our World.” The motivating question was: “Is the dramatic decline in oil prices a complete gift to the West because of the enormous funds being saved, or is it an unintended Trojan horse because development of renewable energy as well as new fossil-fuel sources will decline in the West, posing longer new challenges?”

The other members of the panel – from private industry – had vastly more expertise (and relevant insights) on fossil-fuel markets, but here’s what I had to say. This is hardly at the sweet spot of my professional competence, so I welcome your comments and corrections! In general, how would you answer that question?


I start (and started) from the premise that the dramatic decline in crude oil prices that took place from August, 2014 ($96/barrel), to March, 2015 ($44/barrel), was due – on the one hand – to decreased demand, a function of slow economic growth in Asia, Europe, and elsewhere, endogenous, price-driven technological change leading to greater fuel efficiency, and policy-driven technological change that also has been leading to greater fuel efficiency, such as more stringent Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards in the United States; and – on the other hand – was due to increased supply, partly a function of the growth of unconventional (tight) U.S. oil production (a product of the combination of two technologies – horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing).  And, in the presence of all of this, Saudi Arabia decided not to restrict its output to prop up prices.

[Before proceeding, I should note that since May of this year, crude oil prices have increased by about 30% from their March low, but as of May ($60/barrel) are still far below their August 2014 level.]


When one examines virtually any significant price change from an economic perspective, there inevitably seems to be both good news and bad news. So with the fall in crude oil prices.

The Bad News

First of all, I assume that low crude oil prices are problematic for the economic and political stability of some of the oil-producing/exporting countries, including Saudi Arabia, Russia, Venezuela, and Nigeria.  (For details, see Bordoff and Losz 2015, below.)

Second, it’s frequently been asserted that low oil prices are bad news for the development of alternative forms of energy, including renewable sources. Of course, in the United States, there isn’t much effect on electricity generation from renewable (wind and solar), because in the U.S. electricity sector, renewable supplies compete with coal and natural gas, not with fuel oil (but in other countries, which use more fuel oil for electricity generation than we do, there can be a disincentive for renewable dispatch – and hence development).

Third, there can be – indeed, has been – a major impact in the U.S. motor fuels sector, where the market for biofuels (mainly ethanol) is negatively affected by low conventional gasoline prices. However, these impacts must be somewhat muted by public policies, which directly or indirectly subsidize (or, in fact, require) the use of biofuels.

Fourth, low gasoline prices have resulted in decreased demand by consumers for motor vehicles with high fuel efficiency, and SUV and pickup truck sales have rebounded from previous lows. But these effects are also muted, to some degree, by public policies, including U.S. CAFE standards.   Finally, low gasoline prices also have short-term effects in the form of more driving and fuel use by the existing fleet of motor vehicles, which is bad news in terms of emissions (and congestion).

Differences across Sectors

Before turning to the “good news” about low crude oil prices (and there surely is good news), it’s worthwhile noting that whether individual businesses find these low prices to be good or bad depends largely upon the economic sector in which they operate. For example, whereas commercial airlines are finally making profits, due to the low price of jet fuel (their most important variable operating cost), manufacturers of commercial aircraft will see lower demand for new planes if low jet fuel prices become the long-term norm. The primary factor driving the larger airlines to replace aircraft in their fleets is the lower operating costs due to the much greater fuel efficiency of new models.

And, of course, low oil prices are systematically bad news for oil producers, including the major U.S. companies.

The Good News

Finally, here is the upside of these significant changes in crude oil markets.

Low oil prices are unambiguously good for aggregate global welfare. This includes consumers in the United States, Europe, Japan, and South Korea. And, at least temporarily, OPEC seems to have lost its ability to set a price floor.

Low oil prices mean an increase in consumers’ disposable income, amounting to nearly $2,500 per U.S. household annually, according to Stephen Brown (see below).  If we subtract the income losses to U.S. oil producers, the net gain per U.S. household amounts to a bit more than $800 per year, with gains accruing disproportionately to low-income households.

Turning to the environmental realm, there is also good news, or at least the possibility of good news. An opportunity for new, sensible energy and climate change policies has emerged with these low oil prices.

First, now is the time to reduce – or better yet, phase out – costly and inefficient fuel subsidies, which exist in many parts of the world, particularly in developing countries.

Second, with gasoline prices relatively low – and natural gas supplies holding down electricity prices, at least in the United States – there has never been a better time to introduce progressive climate policies in the form of carbon-pricing, whether via carbon taxes or through carbon cap-and-trade. Unfortunately, none of us should hold our breath waiting for that to happen.


For further reading, I recommend:

Bordoff, Jason, and Akos Losz.  “Oil Shock: Decoding the Causes and Consequences of the 2014 Oil Price Drop.”  Horizons, Spring 2015, Issue No. 3, pp. 190-206.

Brown, Stephen P. A.  “Falling Oil Prices: Implications in the United States.” Resources, Number 189.  Washington:  Resources for the Future, 2015, pp. 40-44.