On the day when the Paris Agreement entered into force, 4th November 2016, I met with Professor Myles Allen, a leading climate science scholar, to record a podcast conversation for the Wide Open Air Exchange. Below is a transcript of the interview which covers developments in the UNFCCC, spanning from Rio to Paris, and provides some context for current climate politics.
The transcript was produced and posted here in October 2021. It has been very lightly edited for readability, and sub-headings added with links to help you navigate to your topics of interest.
Or, you can read on for the whole transcript.
Wide Open Air Exchange podcast
Host: Christine Gallagher
Guest: Professor Myles Allen
Recording date: 4th November 2016
Location: University of Oxford
Christine Gallagher: Hey there I’m Christine Gallagher and this is the Wide Open Air Exchange.
Today the Paris Climate Agreement enters into force and if you’ve seen any of the press coverage it’s being hailed as a momentous occasion. You may have seen it in your news feeds or your social media.
And one thing I find with rolling coverage of issues like climate change is that there’s a certain amount of assumed knowledge required in order to really follow what’s happening. So, I wanted to bring you a conversation about the climate agreement which may hopefully demystify some of the ins and outs of UN climate negotiations.
My guest is a leading academic and authority on this subject. I think you’d be pretty hard pressed to find someone more knowledgeable about climate science and the UN climate negotiations.
Myles Allen is a Professor of Geosystem Science with the Environmental Change Institute which is in the School of Geography and the Environment at the University of Oxford. He leads the climate research program there, and he’s head of the Climate Dynamics Group in the Department of Physics at Oxford University.
Professor Allen has also served on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and had dozens of publications on the subject of climate change.
He leads the Climate Prediction dot net project which, from what I understand, runs climate modelling experiments. And, he’s been an active delegate at UN climate conferences including in Paris. He’s also co-director of the Oxford Martin Net-Zero Carbon Investment Initiative at Oxford which looks at the role investors have in enabling a transition to a stable climate.
Professor Allen very kindly met me today in his office, in the appropriately named “Climate Tower” here in Oxford, which was especially generous because there are events happening today to mark the entry into force of the Paris Agreement. Professor Allen had back to back commitments, so I’m grateful to him for sitting down with me for this interview today.
Christine Gallagher: Before I bring you that conversation, I thought I’d give a few brief explanations of terms. You may already be familiar with these but it’ll only take a minute and, as I said, it’s with a view to making this conversation accessible if you aren’t familiar with the abbreviations and acronyms that get used for discussing the climate conferences.
So first, UNFCCC: that stands for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The parties to that convention meet annually in different cities around the world to review the implementation of the Convention.
So when you hear the terms “COP21” or “COP22”, that stands for Conference Of the Parties. C.O.P is COP and then the number of the annual conference. The Paris conference was COP21: the 21st meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention.
You sometimes also hear people say just a city, “Kyoto” or “Copenhagen”, and that’s shorthand for these annual conferences based on the city in which they were held.
And when we say, “Conference of the Parties”, the parties are all countries, and all UN members, and so the Convention is an agreement among states.
But at the conferences there are also non-state actors involved, what they call civil society participants, including academic delegations which is how Professor Allen and other delegates from Oxford and other institutions around the world have a role in the process.
Christine Gallagher: Alright, let’s get into my conversation with Professor Myles Allen. It starts with him explaining some of the developments in the lead up to the Paris Agreement.
Myles Allen: The UNFCCC of course began with the Rio Conference in 1992 where governments committed to avoiding dangerous climate change but they didn’t say what that meant. But they recognised there was a problem, they recognised that greenhouse gases were likely to cause climate change, and so that was a good starting point.
Then in 1997, in Kyoto, they made the first sort of practical steps towards addressing it.
Christine Gallagher: So that’s the Kyoto Protocol
MA: (agreeing) and that’s the Kyoto protocol.
And that was a particular approach where countries, not all countries but basically rich countries, agreed to effectively mandatory emission reductions.
That process then worked its way through over the followinging decade and, I think most people agree, didn’t do particularly well. Some countries left the Kyoto Protocol…
CG: or never ratified
MA: (agreeing) or never ratified, in the US’s case. Canada for example pulled out because they realised that they weren’t going to be able to meet their emission reduction commitments.
And then all this culminated in Copenhagen in 2009 where, in theory, the Kyoto Protocol approach was going to get endorsed and extended and expanded to lots of other countries.
I wasn’t there in 2009 and lots of different explanations have been given for why that conference didn’t go particularly well but one of them was essentially that the big emerging economies, like China and India, simply didn’t feel they were ready to take on the kind of rigid emission commitments that were in the Kyoto Protocol. And then the rich countries sort of said, “well if you’re not going to join in we’re not either”. So it all rather fell to bits.
Common But Differentiated Responsibilities
Christine Gallagher: There is this tension between “developed” and “developing” countries, in inverted commas, they’re controversial terms, but this idea of the Common But Differentiated Responsibilities between these economies
Myles Allen: There’s natural tension in the sense that there’s lots of different ways of saying how a country is contributing to the problem.
China’s emissions are relatively high, it’s the world’s largest emitter, but it’s also got the world’s largest population. So, you could argue, because they’ve got a lot of people, they’re entitled to emit more than another country that has fewer people.
The US has one of the highest emissions per head of population, but not the highest.
A country like Canada has relatively high emissions but then you could argue their geography, because it’s a very cold country, a very large country, people have to fly to get from one bit of the country to another
CG: So more heating and flying, more consumption
MA: Yes, so it’s natural that their emissions should be higher.
So there’s a lot of potential sources of tension, and then the other side of this of course is that one of the key bits of science that’s come out over the past decade is that it’s not the rate at which we emit C02 into the atmosphere that matters but the total amount we emit over the entire industrial period: the cumulative emissions.
CG: When you say the entire industrial period..?
MA: Well that began when we started digging up fossil fuels and burning them, so it began in the UK
CG: Nineteenth century, imperial projects, and industrialisation?
MA: Before then. The century before the big empires there was a lot of industrialisation going on in the UK. Carbon dioxide had been building up in the climate system ever since we invented the steam engine and started digging up coal and burning it. And it’s the total amount of emissions over all time and not the rate we emit in any given year.
CG: Okay, I see
MA: And that has rather profound consequences. Because, for example, the largest culprit (so to speak) per head of population in terms of cumulative emissions to date, is the UK. Even though the UK’s emissions are currently falling and it likes to paint itself as a virtuous citizen in terms of climate, when you actually measure in terms of overall impact per head of population today, it’s actually one of the worst.
CG: So, historically one of the worst.
MA: Yes because we started burning carbon before anybody else, we’re about a century ahead of the rest of the world.
CG: Is there an argument that the UK needs to have a bigger commitment because historically it’s been a bigger emitter?
MA: This is the big historical responsibility argument that’s been going on in the UNFCCC.
So countries like India are arguing, “well, rich countries have already emitted their share, now it’s India’s turn”.
The problem with that argument is that the implication of it is that rich countries have to switch off their emissions completely tomorrow, or even yesterday, and of course that’s not going to happen. But I think government’s recognise that’s a pretty unhelpful way of attacking the problem.
How the Paris Agreement differs from the Kyoto Protocol
MA: And in the whole build up to Paris, this was the key achievement for Paris, was recognising that we’ve got a collective problem, all countries are going to need to do something, but a global straightjacket, a global system that formally allocates emissions to countries, was just never going to work.
CG: And that’s what Kyoto was, the Protocol?
MA: That was kind of how the Kyoto Protocol worked, countries had to accept emission targets
CG: Mandatory targets?
MA: And those targets had some legal weight. There was a lot of argument about whether they were legally enforceable and all that sort of thing but the point is that each country had a number they were aiming to meet and it was a number in terms of absolute emissions.
CG: And the difference then with Paris is that each country nominates its own level of emissions?
MA: The crucial difference in Paris was that countries were asked to come up with their own proposals as to how they wanted to address their emissions and also how they wanted to be measured in terms of success in reducing their emissions.
CG: Ah okay, so what are the different ways that you can be measured?
Two ways of measuring emissions
Myles Allen: There are two obvious ways. There’s a big difference between, for example, if you measure absolute emissions (what are your emissions in any given year) or measure emissions relative to the size of your economy.
So the size of the economy, for example, is China’s preferred way of measuring emissions. They argue that they’re growing so fast that they can’t really predict how their economy is going to grow over the next ten years, because it’s grown so explosively for the past twenty years.
And that therefore imposing an absolute emission limit for China would be dangerous for them because it could really affect them badly if their economy grew unexpectedly fast or something. So they prefer what they call an emissions intensity target where they try to reduce the amount of carbon they need to emit per dollar, per yuan, of GDP.
Other countries, for example, are presenting targets relative to their predicted emissions. Countries that are growing fast are typically giving these sort of relative targets rather than absolute targets.
Christine Gallagher: And have they had to make their cases for why those targets should be accepted, or have all targets just been accepted as they are because the idea is that countries are allowed to set their own?
MA: It’s an inclusive process, and it’s definitely an agreement that some country’s plans are much more explicit than others.
The US, for example, has declined to give a target for 2030 at all, they’ve given a target for 2025. There’s reasons for that. For the time scales of legislation in the US, 2030, it was argued, was unconstitutionally far away for a present US administration to make a commitment for 2030.
CG: But isn’t that part of the problem overall with climate action, is that it requires long range planning?
MA: And long range planning is happening. I think the 2025 versus 2030 issue with the US was only a technical one, and it doesn’t really matter if they’re on a particular trajectory to 2025. I’m just giving that as an example of a country which, as it were, broke ranks as most countries have presented numbers for 2030.
But it doesn’t matter, as an ambitious target for 2025 is arguably more effective because it means you have to get on with it. Many people actually applauded the US’s faster timetable and in fact many people argued that other countries actually should present 2025 targets.
The case of Australia and issues with exporting carbon
Christine Gallagher: So what about a country, say like Australia, which has the resources of the old dirty sort of energy resources?
Myles Allen: Australia is in a really interesting position on the whole climate issue. It’s uniquely vulnerable to climate change and a lot of climate impacts are emerging in Australia. It’s a part of the world where we’re seeing some of the clearest impacts of climate change already. It’s also got an economy that’s almost uniquely dependent on some of the key drivers of climate change, notably coal. Now the way the UNFCCC works is countries are measured by their own emissions not by the carbon they export and burn somewhere else.
CG: Oh Australia exporting coal may be contributing to those emissions, I see.
MA: Making money by digging up fossil carbon and exporting it doesn’t feature in the UNFCCC books. The argument is, “well it’s the responsibility of the person who buys that carbon and burns it not the person who’s digging it up and selling it”.
MA: Now many of us have argued for a very long time that this doesn’t make sense. You’ve got to ask yourself, “who really benefits from the use of fossil carbon?”.
In the UK, for example, when oil prices were very high and we were paying a great deal for petrol, we were paying so much to drive around it’s questionable how much benefit the final consumer was actually getting from driving because they were having to pay so much to do it. You get to a point where people were actually making decisions, which environmentalists applaud, to stop driving and take public transport instead because fuel was unaffordable.
Now, if you get to that point and people are making those decisions, it’s very hard to argue that the end consumer is the main beneficiary of using those fossil fuels. So who’s the beneficiary?
Well, when fossil fuel prices were very high the obvious main beneficiary was whoever it was that owned the fossil fuel as it came out of the ground. That was where the big money was being made.
These days fossil fuel prices are a lot lower but if you happen to have a lot of very cheap fossil fuels then it’s still the case that most of the money gets made when the fossil fuels come out of the ground.
Australia is of course an interesting example because Australia’s fossil fuel reserves are extraordinarily cheap to extract. Once you’ve built those train lines and ports and so on, my understanding is the cost of scraping coal off Queensland and the Northern Territory is almost zero.
So it’s always going to be the case that most of the money gets made as the fuel comes out of the ground. And unfortunately, the way the UNFCCC is set up, that’s not where the responsibility for doing anything about the climate issue is imposed.
Paris Agreement temperature goal and net zero acknowledgment
Christine Gallagher: One of the things that I find difficult to understand, as a non-scientist, is the targets: 2 degrees, 1.5, or zero, what do they mean?
Myles Allen: So the two big achievements of Paris.
First, agreement that we were aiming as an overall goal to stay well below 2 degrees with an aspiration to aim for 1.5 degrees if possible. Now that was much more ambitious than most people were expecting, as they were expecting at best an agreement to aim for 2 degrees.
CG: What would 2 degrees do, when we think about looking forward?
MA: To put that in context, 2 degrees is already a very substantial warming. It would already take us well above temperatures experienced in the Holocene. And for many small island states, for example, it would mean them ceasing to exist.
CG: Because of sea levels rising
MA: Yes because of sea levels rising.
So I think, one of the key developments over the past decade has been a recognition that even quite modest amounts of climate change have big impacts. Impacts not just on coastal regions but impacts on extreme weather. We’re seeing increasing evidence that even the climate change we’ve already had, the 1 degree of warming we’ve already experienced, is already affecting patterns of extreme weather around the world.
It’s increasing the risks of heatwaves and wildfires; for example in Australia, there’s very well documented evidence of that. And it’s increasing the risk of heavy precipitation, flooding in Europe for example. And many parts of the world now are starting to experience negative impacts of climate change.
2 degrees will then be twice as bad, and more than twice as bad actually, because particularly in terms of extreme weather you start to see the impact and then it rapidly accelerates as the climate changes.
CG: And the research that you’re doing through the Climate Prediction dot net project, is that about modelling those effects?
MA: Absolutely, a major part of our activity is on quantifying how climate change to date is effecting our weather in different parts of the world. One of our big collaborators on that is the University of Melbourne, David Karoly’s group there, and they actually focus on the Australia-New Zealand region and they’ve published a lot of papers on this.
CG: And you’ve advised the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change based on the research that you’ve done.
MA: Yes, one of the key findings of the most recent IPCC assessment was that it is possible to make a link between changing risks of extreme weather and the climate change we’ve already seen. So we’re already seeing an impact of climate change on extreme weather.
It’s important to stress this is a probabilistic link. It’s not as if we’re seeing extreme weather events that could not have happened without climate change. A lot of people get confused over this and they sort of say, “well, there’s some evidence we had wildfires back in the year 1000”, or something, “and therefore we can’t possibly blame this recent wildfire on climate change”.
That’s not what we’re saying. We’re saying, not that the climate change made the wildfire possible but that it increased the risk, possibly by a very substantial margin. Certainly things like heatwaves, we’re seeing an increase to a factor of ten. So what would have been a one in a hundred year event becomes a one in ten year event. And you know that sort of change and risk is very substantial.
CG: And in communicating that to the policy makers, there’s this idea of climate security that has become really prominent. The idea of those climate events impacting resources and food scarcity, mass migration that sort of thing. Has that had an effect on these more ambitious targets in Paris? 1.5 is quite ambitious, and more than what was expected, which is why it’s been celebrated.
MA: Yeah, I think, yes. People often ask me, “as a climate scientist are you frustrated that politicians don’t listen?”. I actually think this is an example of a process where the politicians have been responding to emerging scientific evidence really quite well. I mean not everywhere of course, and not all politicians. In Australia I’m sure there are examples of politicians who have been somewhat resistant to listening to scientists.
But this is a case where I think, by and large, the world’s governments have accepted that something’s going on, as evidence has emerged of impacts of extreme weather on sea level, they’ve taken that on board, and a lot of the push for more ambitious action has resulted from this acknowledgment that even quite modest levels of climate change have negative impacts.
One thing I do find interesting is even those who argue that we shouldn’t do something about climate change, typically don’t take issue with the idea that we shouldn’t allow temperatures to rise above 2 degrees. They tend to say, “we should try and do that but it’ll be easy because the response is at the low end of the current range of uncertainty”. So that’s typically the focus.
There’s very little public argument about whether a 3 to 4 degree world would be desirable . I don’t think anybody has the nerve to come out and say that. And that, I think, is quite interesting. Even politicians, even quite skeptical politicians, typically don’t say “I want a 4 degree world”. They say, “we don’t need to reduce emissions and we can still have a 2 degree world”.
CG: How do they think that can be done?
MA: Well I guess they’re just very optimistic about the way the climate system will respond, as there is a range of uncertainty in the response. It’s possible (although looking increasingly unlikely, particularly with the relatively warm years we’ve had recently) that the climate response really is right at the bottom end of our current predicted range. But if it is, if we get really, really, really lucky, then it might be easier than we expect to actually stay below 2 degrees.
But I would argue that the really important question is the one which the Paris Agreement has addressed which is, “where are we aiming for?”. How we get there is something that will really only emerge over the next few decades as we try and do something about it.
CG: Once you have the targets
MA: Absolutely. But there’s remarkably little argument that keeping temperatures well below 2 degrees isn’t actually a desirable goal.
CG: Is 1.5 enough? It’s great that we’re making progress but how meaningful is it and how much more do we need to be doing?
MA: 1.5 is certainly very ambitious but it does mean half as much climate change again, measured in terms of global temperature, as what we’ve already seen. We’re probably at pretty much exactly one degree. And the changes particularly on extreme weather will accelerate as the world warms. So we’ll see more than half as much again in terms of changing risks of extreme weather as we’ve seen so far. So that puts it into context.
Obviously that’s better than 2 degrees. If we could stop climate change today that would be very desirable but everybody knows that would be extremely expensive. Because, as I mentioned before, the only way to actually stop climate change is to stop putting C02 into the atmosphere.
And that’s the other big point that was acknowledged in Paris, the other big result of Paris, was that government’s acknowledged that achieving their long term temperature goal would require a balance between human emissions of gases like C02 and uptake of carbon sinks, uptake of processes that get rid of it. Now they don’t say so in the document, because it was very contentious language, but what that effectively means is that net human emissions of carbon dioxide have to reach zero.
For a long time some of the countries were arguing for an explicit net zero sentence. The phrase doesn’t feature in the final document because it was considered to be too contentious but the fact is acknowledged. I mean they’re basically saying “yeah we’ve got to get emissions down to effectively to zero”.
Paris Agreement entering into force and “legally binding”
CG: The other very significant thing about Paris is not just the agreement but the fact that within a year it’s now coming into force
CG: Because there was a level of signatories? Could you explain how that works
MA: In order for the agreement to come into force, I think 55 countries representing 55% of emissions (I’m not sure why 55 but whatever) needed to ratify it, and that’s now happened.
MA: It’s coming into force today, which is historic and actually extraordinary. International agreements like this typically take decades sometimes to come into force so the fact that it’s come into force so quickly really does illustrate how so many countries around the world really have grasped this problem and understand it and are serious about taking action.
That said, it’s important to qualify this with, you know, talk’s cheap and at the moment while emissions appeared to have slowed we aren’t seeing the kind of rapid emission reductions that would be required to meet the long term temperature goal. The real proof of the pudding will come when we actually start to do something aggressively.
CG: And next week is the COP22 conference in Marrakech
MA: That’s right
CG: I imagine there’ll be conversations there about, “where to from here”. What will be discussed at the conference?
MA: The way the COP process works is there’s a sort of informal agreement about which topics will be the focus of different COPs. So the mitigation challenge, the long term temperature goal, was the focus of Paris, and they won’t be wanting to reopen all that in Marrakech. So, job done they’ve got a long term temperature goal in place, and they’ve got an agreed mechanism for achieving it.
One of the key things in Marrakech will be a stocktake on “how are we doing?”, and “how do national aspirations for emissions add up in terms of their consistency with the long term temperature goal”.
And one of the key concerns people have is if you look at countries’ commitments for 2030, and just add up all of the emissions they say they’re going to produce by 2030, it doesn’t really square with a long term trajectory that’s keeping temperatures to 1.5 degrees or even well below 2 degrees in fact. It looks more like a trajectory that’s taking us well above 2 degrees.
So there’s a mismatch there between what countries say they’re going to do in the short term and where they want to get to in the long term and that needs to be addressed. And I’m sure that will come up in Marrakech but I’m not so sure it will be resolved in Marrakech. It’s just one of those things that’s going to have to proceed.
CG: The other question I have in terms of the difference between the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement is about Paris being hailed as the first legally binding climate agreement. How is it a legally binding climate agreement? What are the consequences of not meeting the targets?
MA: Countries have accepted a legal obligation to present their plans and implement them and keep the UNFCCC up to date on what their progress is. So that’s the legal obligation. What they’ve not accepted, and they’ve not been asked to accept, is legally binding emissions targets in terms of hard numbers. So although it’s a legally binding treaty, it talks about very different things than what Kyoto talked about.
There’s also ways of splitting hairs about exactly whether it’s a legally binding treaty. Technically it’s not a treaty because that would have required ratification by the US Senate, so there are reasons why it’s set up the way it is. But it is important to understand that countries have bound themselves into a process, they haven’t bound themselves to a particular target, in terms of emission numbers .
Now I would say actually as a scientist working on this and understanding the uncertainties of the climate problem, that’s a good thing. Because I actually don’t think any country has the information to specify an actual number for the emissions they should be aiming for in 2040, today.
CG: So this needs to be a process that can move and change
MA: It needs to be an adaptive process. We need to be able to adapt our goals in the light of the climate response and that’s essentially what the governments have decided to do, and it’s a nice example actually of policy makers really getting ahead of the science community. They’re doing something sensible and pragmatic that perhaps with hindsight the scientific community should have been suggesting they did. But we didn’t, but they got there and now we’re responding.
Brexit, US presidential election, and China as a climate leader
Christine Gallagher: As a scientist you have an expertise but there’s also an advocacy role there, especially when it comes to something like climate science. So just finally, what would you like to see happen going forward from here and are you optimistic that things can be achieved?
Myles Allen: I’m very optimistic that things can be achieved. There are obvious roadblocks. It’s an international problem. It’s an intergenerational problem. It’s a classic problem where if everyone acted entirely selfishly in their own best interests, as Nash observed a long time ago, you can end up with these situations where everybody does what’s collectively in their own self interest, and you end up with a solution that’s worse for everybody. And it is one of those problems.
And so we are going to need to work together on this. I find Paris very encouraging that governments are prepared to work together. I find other developments, recent political developments, for example in the UK where there seems to be a sort of backing off the idea of international cooperation as a way of addressing problems, I find that very worrying. So if you’re asking me whether I’m optimistic, I was but there are clearly some headwinds.
[Note: In June 2016, a few months before this interview, the UK voted by referendum to leave the European Union, an outcome commonly referred to as “Brexit”. This interview was also immediately prior to the 2016 US Presidential election and during his campaign Donald Trump had made leaving the Paris Agreement part of his election platform]
CG: Will the US election affect that?
MA: Well it certainly could, when you’ve got one of the candidates who’s definitely taking a much more isolationist stance.
The US has been a very progressive voice for international cooperation, actually under both Democrat and Republican presidents over the past few decades, and I think if the US becomes a force for isolation and for countries simply pursuing their individual self interest in the world, then that could be very negative.
I thought it was very interesting how China has responded to this possibility by essentially stepping up and saying “okay well in that case we’ll just have to take over” and that might well be the outcome.
CG: China as a new climate leader?
MA: Absolutely. China has taken a much more progressive stance on this. They recognise that they are themselves highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, and they recognise that environmental impact is a big political issue for the Chinese population. So they’re taking it very seriously, and it may well be that we could end up with a real turning of the tables: that China takes the leadership role over from the US on this issue, and that would be historic.
CG: It would be. Thank you so much. I admire the work that you’re doing and I appreciate the time that you’ve given me on such a big day. Thank you.
MA: Great. Good. Thank you very much.
Christine Gallagher: That was Professor Myles Allen from the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University, among other positions which I won’t list again. I hope you found that useful or at least interesting.
I still find the science slightly boggling in terms of the degrees of warming and all of that, but I definitely have a better understanding about the Paris Agreement, how it differs from the Kyoto Protocol, and also about some of the issues around the varying circumstances of countries trying to navigate the process of coming to some agreements for collective action.
To say it’s a complicated issue would be an understatement, but thankfully there are good communicators like Professor Allen around who have the expertise and the ability to be able to explain things pretty clearly.
Anyway do let me know your thoughts, firstname.lastname@example.org is the email address.
[Ends with previewing a US election episode and thanks to listeners]