Ep64: Guy Turner 'Good COP, Bad COP?'

“That simplicity was a huge success and to move away from that and to say lets do 1.6, 1.7, 1.8 degrees I think it is a slippery slope.“: Guy Turner on the risks of abandoning the +1.5 degrees target.


In this episode of Cleaning Up, Michael Liebreich speaks to Guy Turner, an expert on carbon markets and the pathway to net-zero. 

Michael and Guy begin by discussing Guy’s overall impressions of COP26 and what happened there.

They then move on to talk about the concept of ‘net-zero’ and why it is controversial.

Finally, they discuss some specific points from COP26 including Article 6 and commitments on deforestation.

This is an abridged transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity.


Michael Liebreich: Tell us, what happened at COP26?


Guy Turner: Well, there was a lot of bluffing, a lot of bluster and a lot of attention on it. There's been a lot of reports in the media. I am perhaps a little more sanguine about the outcome, because I think that we didn't get the single declaration around a firm pathway to one and a half degrees that a lot of people wanted. But I think what we did have was a set of sub agreements and sub commitments, those act as stepping stones, and at least kept the process moving forwards and kept us engaged. 


ML: What did COP26 actually achieve in terms of agreements and pledges?


GT: The process not just at COP, but the updated national determined contributions leading up to COP that have been put in place for the last year, collectively have moved the needle. The projected global warming, increase from pre industrial levels was on track to be about three degrees prior to COP, and the analysis is that that's now come down to 2.4 degrees, which whilst an improvement, is still nowhere near the +1.5 degrees that the scientists say we need to target to avert dangerous climate change. But it has moved the needle and it's moving forwards.


ML: Why is net-zero such a controversial concept? As long as it's net-zero what does it matter if we are emitting some CO2?


GT: I think it comes down to the ‘get out of jail free’ concept. The most important thing for the planet is to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, in particular CO2. We need to engage in that as soon as possible. And there's a feeling that by offsetting and claiming victory on a net basis, you're still putting emissions into the atmosphere, and you're not changing the business structure. You're not changing the technology, you're still locked in to the old fossil fuel consumption. And it's that change of technology, that paradigm shift in how we go about our lives, what energy systems we use, that is absolutely required. I think there's a fear that it perpetuates existing fossil fuel reliance. I think the molecules of CO2 or methane in the atmosphere would agree with you, they either get emitted into or removed from the atmosphere. If the two are equivalent, then I agree with you that it should be like for like, and we should end up in the same net position. But we need to reduce fossil fuel consumption, we need to radically shift the technologies and how we live our lives, at the same time sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere, largely through forests and at the same time improving the health of the planet and biodiversity as well.


ML: How does Article Six of the Paris Agreement help countries to achieve net-zero?


GT: It allows governments to achieve the objective they've set in their NDCs. Their nationally determined contributions, their targets, by financing emission reductions in other countries where it's easier to do that. It's the basic tenet of emissions trading where you allocate money around the world, to the place where it's most cost effective. A good case study would be South Korea which is heavily industrialised and an advanced economy, very reliant on coal and fossil fuels. Its renewable resources are somewhat limited compared to say Northern Europe with modest wind resources and limited land area for solar. How can it decarbonize and maintain a standard of living that people want? It's very difficult, it has a 40% reduction by 2030 target. Countries like that are going to have to look to financing emission reductions elsewhere in the world. The Article Six framework gave some solidity to that transaction process. It does that in two ways. One is country to country or government. The other is at a project level, where a private company can do something that reduces emissions, forestry, potentially, or other technologies, and then sell that credit to a government or an airline, maybe under the international airline scheme, who can then use it against their compliance obligation. The interesting thing about Article Six was if that transaction happens, the country in which the project takes place has to adjust their emissions upwards, because they get the benefit as well. And so there's no double counting. So that clarity needed to come through. That was a big success in Glasgow.


ML: What were the other main take-aways from COP26?


GT: One is the high level generalised commitments that a lot of countries signed up to in the Glasgow climate pact. Then there are the sub agreements which are sector specific agreements which have been negotiated in parallel. So at the high level, I think some of the good things were we still have the one and a half degree target referred to quite a lot in the pact. Although we're not on target for that it's helpful that it was maintained and provides a beacon and a reference point that we can refer back to the nationally determined contributions, there was a call for those to be revised to ratchet not every five years but every year. If we can achieve that it will be a major step forward. Five years is too long a time to wait now and I think we have to keep the pedal to the metal on this and to test countries' commitments on a much more frequent basis.


ML: You have said that you are sanguine about the outcome of COP26. We're making  incremental progress but we're running out of time, aren't we?


GT: Me and everybody else who turned up to COP26 would like to see that that transition happen quicker. It's a tragedy of the commons, we have to bring everyone together to try and agree that we have huge disparities of income and wealth and 200 years of historical emissions from certain countries and not from others. Every time someone pops up and says ‘China's the largest polluter in the world by a factor of two’. Somebody else says ‘yes, but Americans and Europe are responsible for 80% of the CO2 in the atmosphere’. There's always those unavoidable problems and challenges in terms of equity and how you share the burden of this global challenge. So yeah, we would all like to reduce CO2 emissions and greenhouse gas emissions immediately. It's just really difficult to do, and we need to take our victories where we can get them.


ML: A big topic at COP26 was deforestation. Why should it take until 2030 to stop deforestation? 


GT: I was looking recently at a state in Malaysia where 1/3 of the population lives in an urban environment but two thirds are dispersed throughout the countryside in small villages. A lot of their livelihoods are dependent on the forest, not sustainably but unsustainably, and have been for generations. You've got two thirds of the population whose jobs and livelihoods are inextricably linked with logging and conversion of forests to agriculture. So yes, technically we can do it but how do you provide the income and jobs for the people in those environments? I mean, there has to be a new economic plan for some of these countries to be able to suddenly switch it off. So I think politically, those are the kinds of questions which they're going to have to solve to be able to stop deforestation.


ML: I am starting to make my peace with the fact that we will probably not achieve the goal of limiting climate change to +1.5 degree. A lot of the world is still fixated on that target, how do we back off from that?


GT: That's a great question because one of the huge successes of Paris was the simplification of the goal to +1.5 degrees. The simplification and directness of a target like that, that the whole world can get behind was incredibly important. And it's the same with net zero as well, just those two words become very easy to understand. So that simplicity was a huge success and to move away from that and to say lets do 1.6, 1.7 1.8 degrees, I think is a slippery slope.