3Q with Michael Davidson

Emily Dahl    ·    November 22, 2016    ·    MITEI

PhD candidate Michael Davidson researches renewable energy and climate change policies in China. At COP22, the 2016 United Nations Climate Change Conference, he followed China’s progress toward implementing its commitments under the Paris Agreement and also examined questions of how nations’ pledges to reduce carbon emissions are being tracked. This is Davidson’s 4th COP.

Since you first began studying and attending the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), how have you seen the process evolve, and what are some of the differences you see between earlier COPs and those in Paris and Marrakech? 

When countries met in Copenhagen in 2009 to conclude what was supposed to be a long-term global agreement to address climate change, I was studying energy access issues in China. At that COP, acrimony between the U.S. and China surfaced as a key roadblock in beginning the push away from top-down binding targets on each country as had been negotiated for the previous fifteen years, to a new bottom-up “pledge-and-review” system. In subsequent COPs, I participated and watched as these two countries reframed their relationship, focusing on extensive bilateral energy and climate cooperation, and navigating various alliances to shepherd through the international agreement adopted in Paris in 2015.

The goodwill generated in Paris carried through into Marrakech, billed as an “implementation COP” designed to start work on the particulars of many aspects of the Paris Agreement as well as give a concrete boost to long-standing issues such as financing country actions. Rather than “re-litigate” the advances and compromises of last year, I felt that countries came to the table honestly seeking to move forward, which struck home for me that indeed the Paris consensus was a new anchor for these talks often mired in conflicting interpretations of the direction forward.

What research and educational goals with Valerie Karplus did you have for attending the COP?

I came here to understand the progress of transparency and review mechanisms called for within the Paris Agreement. These are crucial if the long-term goals of the agreement—to keep average global temperature rise to 2ºC with best efforts for 1.5ºC—are to be achieved. There is a range of discussions focused on building up these institutions, but my main purpose is in highlighting the importance of robust scientific assessments of countries’ progress toward meeting collective goals.

I was attending sessions and talking with lead negotiators of various countries to understand where there is consensus on bringing in scientific voices, looking at the key review points in 2018, when the mitigation portions of the first Paris pledges will be assessed, and 2023, for the first global stocktake—a review that will happen every five years to assess the climate actions achieved by the countries party to the agreement.

Discussions on transparency of pledges and progress toward meeting them are still very early, but it is clear that having in-depth exchanges and the ability to raise a range of topics (including potentially sensitive ones) would be important to increase trust and transparency.

I’ve found some hesitance to opening up these processes to a wide-ranging set of stakeholders outside of traditional actors. However, there’s an overwhelming number of countries that agree that a robust scientific review process is at the heart of the Paris Agreement. The next review of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), to be completed in time for the 2023 stocktake, will be invited to directly address some of these questions of aggregate progress. There is also a growing acceptance of more flexible ways of introducing scientific reports, such as through the UNEP Emissions Gap Report and other scientific organizations.

These observations will also help inform a new course on global political economy of clean energy to be offered at MIT in Spring 2018 by my advisor, Valerie Karplus in MIT Sloan, and Chris Warshaw in Political Science. We are creating a module on global climate negotiations that will incorporate a negotiation simulation, designed to capture some important dynamics of this global governance structure in a hands-on way.

What do you see as the climate policy opportunities or challenges for China in the wake of the recent U.S. election?

The election news, coming in the middle of the first week, had the potential to rock many of the discussions and goodwill from Paris, if the U.S. chooses to follow through on the President-elect’s campaign promise of leaving the agreement. Fortunately, I felt that much of the work continued as normal in Marrakech, with many obviously choosing to wait and see what occurs in the next administration. There are many reasons why the U.S. should stay in, not least of which is to build on rather than cede to China the incredible economic opportunities within the ongoing global clean energy transition.

Officials from many countries, including several from China, have made it clear that they will honor their pledges and not make it easy for the U.S. (on trade among other foreign policy issues) if it decides to be the lone global hold-out. Besides the large clean tech industries built up over the past decade, China also has substantial local environmental challenges and climate change impacts motivating its domestic policies. I do not see this fundamental calculus changing.

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