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Historic agreement

Interview: Irene Quaile / rrJune 4, 2015

UN talks in Bonn this week are paving the way for COP21 in December. DW asked Jennifer Morgan of the World Resources Institute how things are shaping up for a historic international agreement on climate change.

Image: Reuters/I. Fassbender

Where are we in terms of getting a binding climate agreement in Paris at the end of this year?

I think we're well on the way. Countries are showing that they are taking negotiations seriously, they're putting their offers on the table of how much they are going to introduce emissions and there are a whole row of negotiations coming up so that the agreement can be put together by the end of Paris.

But there is still a huge gap between what has been promised so far and what we actually need if we are to keep to the 2-degree target.

I think what Paris can help do is close that gap, both by getting stronger targets and commitments from countries but also by getting a mechanism in the agreement itself that will strengthen targets every five years and aim towards a long-term goal of phasing out emissions by mid-century.

How do you see the position of the United States with President Barack Obama coming to the end of his term in office?

I think President Obama takes the issue of climate change very seriously. He's the first US president to really implement mandatory national measures. He's regulating major industries in the US, reducing emissions from the power sector, from cars and he raises it in all his bilateral meetings around the world. They've put a serious off on the table for Paris. It's clear that the US should do more but I think it's a good start.

Jennifer Morgan of World Resources Institute
Morgan represents the World Resources Institute at international climate meetingsImage: privat

But there's also a lot of opposition from the Republican Party at home.

There is a huge level of opposition in the US - mostly from actors that are profiting from a current high-carbon economy - and they are trying to slow down that transition. My hope is that more and more Americans understand the risks of climate change, but also the benefits that the solutions bring - why not be energy independent with solar on your roof? So I think we need a bigger national debate about this and I think in the end people need to start voting according to their heart - and for their kids.

China is another country where the benefits of opting for climate friendly technologies should be a motivating factor to making considerable progress in Paris.

Absolutely. China is struggling against massive air pollution. The health issues are just incredible there. Now, if you are posted in Beijing it's a hardship post because of the health risks. Therefore the government is working to cap and reduce coal. They are increasing their wind and solar, trying to be more efficient, and I think we need to do everything that we can so that they succeed - and over-achieve, because we need their emissions to peak by 2025 in order to have a chance to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Activists protest the Shell Oil Company's plans to resume Arctic Drilling.
Activists protest the Shell Oil Company's plans to resume Arctic Drilling - Morgan says the societal costs of oil exploration must be accounted forImage: Reuters/J. Redmond

Europe likes to see itself as a leader in this whole process. Has it managed to hold on to that position?

Europe has always been a leader in the climate change negotiations and I think it's fair to say that Europe has more experience and has done more to reduce emissions and transition its economy than any other country or set of countries in the world. And they have shown that you can grow economically while doing this. Now we need Europe to engage politically - we need the heads of state to engage, we need the foreign ministers to engage. If they don't, others will step in. I think that the agreement will be less beneficial, less effective if we don't have increased European leadership.

The drop in emissions in the US in particular has been thanks in part to the development of shale gas. But it has a huge environmental impact of its own - is it worth it?

The drop in emissions is due partially to shale gas, partially to economic downturn and partially due to climate change policies. Shale gas is hugely controversial. If you don't deal with the methane emissions it's as bad as coal and I think governments really need to consider the risks to local communities as well. If it's not done carefully then I think you will find fewer and fewer communities and fewer and fewer governments taking it on.

Some governments - like the British government - are going heavily into nuclear. Is that an alternative?

Nuclear has risks to society that in many countries, like Germany, make it an untenable solution. If we are going to avoid nuclear particularly in places like China and South Africa then we need to step up the research and development in renewable technologies. But we also need to work with these countries so that there can be a greater implementation and greater partnerships in getting non-nuclear technologies to have much faster uptake.

Hinkley Point reactor
Funding to complete the Hinkley Point nuclear facility in England has not yet been securedImage: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

There is still huge excitement when new oil is found. What has to happen for us to agree to leave it in ground?

There needs to be a price on CO2 that is high enough that it is not profitable to explore that oil. There needs to be a societal cost as well so that companies that continue make a profit from exploration are called into question. There also needs to be a transition for those companies. Oil companies now need to start seeing themselves as transportation service companies and start changing their business models.

How big a role do companies have to play? We tend to rely very much on getting an agreement within the Unites Nations framework.

Companies have a massive role to play. Countries need to move forward but countries are made up of many interests - citizens, companies, cities. Companies are the ones that can bring innovation, that can out compete each other to find the solutions. They can engage their consumers in the solution, as some companies are now doing. And I think they are more and more going to be in the spotlight because those companies who are on the right side of history will be winners. Those who are not will be increasingly called into question by society.

Jennifer Morgan is global director of the Climate Program at the World Resources Institute (WRI) and WRI's lead representative at international climate meetings, including the UNFCCC negotiations.