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UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources Blog


Discussing global sustainability issues


Negotiating Climate Change – Guest Seminar by Jeffrey Sachs

By Andrew ZP Smith, on 23 January 2015

Professor Jeffrey Sachs is Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, in New York, where he holds two professorships; he is also Special Advisor to the current UN Secretary-General on the Millennium Development Goals (a role he held for the previous Secretary General too). A busy man, so when he took the time to get in touch about the recent paper in Nature, by Dr Christophe McGlade and Professor Paul Ekins OBE, on which of the world’s fossil-fuel resources must remain unburned, and where they are, we hoped a brief email discussion might lead to collaboration sometime in the future. So it was a delight when Professor Sachs offered to drop by and present a talk just a few days later, and thanks to Kiran Dhillon and Paul Ekins, it happened. Here’s my summary of his talk:

Image: Prof. Jeff Sachs (c), with UCL Energy Institute Director Prof. Bob Lowe (l) and Prof. Paul Ekins OBE (r), Director of the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources


Jeff talked about the three major interlinked UN summits this year:

Financing for Development; July, Addis Ababa;

Sustainable Development; September, New York;

COP21 Climate; December, Paris.

2015 is the most important single negotiating year that we will have for a decade, and the most negotiating important year since 1992“. “It took 6 years to regroup from the [2009] Copenhagen debacle” [COP15] “the pivotal issue was China.

Failure this time would mean: “the end of multilateralism – if we fail this time, there will be no way to pick up the pieces of this convention“, because it takes so long to do things – after the failure of Copenhagen COP15, it has taken 5 years to reach an agreement, it will take until 2018 to get to the detail, and 2 more years to implementation, so that’s 2020.

He is taking programme-oriented approaches to the three major negotiations this year. All three summits are about 193 governments, with diplomats not trained in the technical issues, resulting in lots of misdirected effort.

“The policy maker has no time, no background, and asks a very realistic pertinent question – what do you want me to do“: not why, not that it’s important, not which budget line, just specifically what do you want me to do. He’s striving for knowledge-driven policy exchange.

Financing for Development

The summit is to specifically define the global allocation of US€100bn/y by 2020. At one extreme, the US wants a line-by-line specification of which money will be spent on what project. At the other extreme, developing countries want cash in the bank to spend at their discretion. Negotiations are about bridging these positions.

Jeff is a huge fan of global funds, e.g. the global malarial fund now 15 years old. He’s looking for 2 new global funds – one for education, one for health.

He saw a key question being: how to move private capital into infrastructure. This needs to increase by US$2 trillion per year on infrastructure investment in low/medium income countries. In addition to all this, there are discussions on tax havens and so on.

Nothing is agreed yet, and there is little negotiating time left before July.

Sustainable Development

Sustainable Development Goals should supersede the Millennium Development Goals.

He prefers the definition of sustainability as “A holistic approach that integrates economic social and environmental goals“, (“and underpinned by good governance” – we can view this as the fourth pillar, or not) rather than the explicit intergenerational statement from the Bruntland Commission. He sees intergenerational equity as implicit within his definition.

The UN Declaration of Human Rights has shaped the discourse over the last few decades: so normative global agreements have great force, even when they don’t allocate legally-binding responsibilities to particular actors.

There are 169 targets on the table right now; he’s trying to bring that down to 40-60. There are 17 goals, and he’s trying to bring that down to 8-12, with the artful use of conjunctions and semicolons. He stated, with heartfelt emphasis, that huge amounts of effort is necessary and spent on word-smithing these sorts of things, and this is very energy-sapping.

He expects annual within-country meetings, and quadrennial international summits on the Sustainable Development Goals to see how governments are progressing.

COP21 Climate

Jeff’s wishlist for COP21 is that its headline is: “this agreement implements the upper limit of 2 degrees C warming to tolerable anthropogenic climate change“, and that it’s the absolute organising principle. From that, the agreement would acknowledge the carbon budgets that this implies. Part of the target is global net zero carbon emissions in the second half of the 21st century (circa 2070). All countries would submit deep decarbonisation pathways.

China is going to sign an agreement, and it is going to accept binding terms

The Byrd-Hagel Resolution (where the US Senate voted against the US being a signatory to Kyoto, passing it by 95 votes to 0) means the US won’t do anything unless developing countries do the same: this has turned out to be a major blocker, leaving us stuck for 17 years with US signing up to saying that Annex 1 countries should lead, but domestically ruling that they wouldn’t do more than developing countries did. And China has pulled the US up on the Annex 1 commitment.

Most of the Lima [COP20] debate was about the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, in the period 2025-2030.

I’m almost allergic to global policy solutions” such as tradable permits, because of the individual complexity of each legislature. “One uniform market does not strike me as very plausible.

The important thing is get the goals in place (with enough tension to ensure that people take it seriously), and then let implementation percolate through.

The EU has signalled that it will sign pretty much anything. So China and the US are the important negotiators. The EU has the most senior negotiators, but it neither has the armies, nor the geopolitical power, nor the weight of negotiating position.

We can’t win this [battle for a sane global climate agreement] without a value offer, and carbon tax isn’t the right value offer. Economists like shadow pricing; [whereas] the public wants to know what would the world look like, and we haven’t elucidated this clearly.

Deep Decarbonisation Pathways Project

University of Columbia’s Earth Institute has contributed to these negotiations with the Deep Decarbonisation Pathways Project – DDPP – which our own Gabrial Anandarajah has worked on. These are substantive expressions of transition, which individual country teams have built from the bottom up, in contrast to the IEA approach of building globally top-down.

What does quality of life look like for these countries, under DDPP? One insight on closing a negotiation: there were 15 modelling teams, and no time was spent on burden-sharing between countries.

He asked the modelling teams to go away, and work out technically what does it mean, to reduce emissions from 36 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent [tCO2e] to 12-15 billion tCO2e by 2050: well, that divide by 9bn people implies 1.5 tCO2e per person per year [pppy]. But each modelling team came back with 3.4tCO2e pppy. All the teams found it hard. To give one example, there was very strong resistance from the India team. India said the best it could manage was 3.9tCO2e pppy, but the US, after prompting, found it could manage 1.5t. The Indian model had extremely conservative assumptions. The Prime Minister, Narendra Modi has seen growth as necessarily excluding emissions reductions (though there are signs that this is changing). So Jeff told the Indian team to put some specific technological assumptions for specific years into your models, and if the Indian government asked the modelling team why they had used this assumption, they should blame Sachs himself directly.

Engineering and Technology

We have a lot of competing models. Lots of strong feelings about nuclear, CCS, etc. The negotiators don’t talk about any of this. COP goes for years without mentioning a particular technology.

We need technologies “developed, demonstrated and diffused“: he still sees grid-balancing at the scale of “seconds to seasons” as a major issue, (note that several of us at UCL see this as a technically-solved issue: for us, the remaining questions are: what are the most economic ways to do it, which pathways have the least lock-in, and what is politically feasible).

Developing countries won’t individually sacrifice growth, though collectively that route will destroy them. They need lots of technological reassurance that this [decarbonisation] is doable and affordable for them. Practically how does this issue look from the point of view of the major signatories?

Economics and engineering should be a deeply paired field“. Specific identifiable technologies are the main drivers of change, and economics is mostly silent about those drivers of change.

Why does economics ignore technologies, innovation? “It’s because we [economists] are lazy. It’s easy to write down a production function” it’s hard to learn about the technologies. It’s easy to write generalities and stay away from the specifics.

The comparison with the Human Genome project, the Apollo project, the Higgs Boson project, the Manhattan project, is all valid. We need to say – this is something we will achieve. Then we work backwards, public and private sectors, to deliver it.

Bob Lowe pointed out that it’s all about deployment: this gives prices for economists, experience for developers, comfort for potential new buyers. Jeff agreed. And he said that senior negotiators have talked about 5 or 6 high-level research projects, on: smart grid, intermittent management, solar, storage, CCS and technology orientation on safe nuclear, as there may be 20 countries that will have major nuclear programmes. They want to know: “what do the real leading practitioners think are the real problems“. Things like: who pays the fixed cost, who pays for the transmission & distribution network.

Oil, Coal, Gas

We can’t really sacrifice the world for the sake of a few oil companies

On the fall of oil prices: he sees it as quite a positive development. Yes, the short run looks bad: bigger cars etc. But the “Long term transition is impeded most by political economy.” The oil companies are a blocker: “having a powerful oil lobby is no friend to reaching a negotiation in Paris”. This low[er] oil price puts them on the back foot. It is important to keep Canadian oil sands and arctic drilling inactive. The low oil price gives us a chance to lock these decisions off the table.

The co-benefits of not using coal are huge for China. The co-benefits for clean coal are huge for China, but only takes us part of the way on Carbon.

Jeff really likes the explorations of the stranded asset issues: and that’s where we came in, as it was the Nature paper by our own Christophe McGlade and Paul Ekins that prompted an email from Jeff to Paul that led to this talk from Jeff.


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