S4E4: the basics of international climate change conversations

Dr. Drew Shindell is a faculty member at the Nicholas School of the Environment and at Tel Aviv University. His area of interest is focused broadly on the societal impact of climate change and action needed against climate change, including the link to air pollution. He has testified in front of Congress and has helped lead two IPCC reports.

In this episode, we cover an overview of international climate relations and the international political steps we need to reach carbon neutrality.

Climate simulators:

EnRoads Simulator from Climate Interactive:

Climate Time Machine from NASA:

Energy Policy Solutions from Energy Innovation:

Guest: Dr. Drew Shindell

Hosts: Emily Nagamoto and Matthew Brune

Producers: Aimi Wen, Emily Nagamoto, Matthew Brune

Audio Editor: Aimi Wen

Music: Cali by Wataboi, What U Thinkin by Wataboi


K: Hey, welcome to Operation Climate, a podcast made by young people, for young people, where we break down environmental issues through conversations with cool people.

E: Hello, I’m Emily.

M: And I’m Matthew. What’s new in climate news Emily?

E: Well, President Biden just announced that America will aim to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 50% below 2005 levels by 2030. That’s crazy, I have no idea how we are going to achieve that, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction

M: It is, and other countries need to do their part too. I mean, we need aggressive plans all across the globe to cut emissions, and that takes a huge effort in international climate relations.

E: I am so glad you brought that up, because that happens to be what we are talking about today: international climate relations.

E: So, today we’ll be breaking down international climate relations and the international political steps we need to reach carbon neutrality.

M: We’ll get expert insight into the topic from Dr. Drew Shindell, a climatologist who has testified before US congress, holds appointments at Duke University and Tel Aviv University, and has been the coordinating lead author for multiple chapters in official IPCC reports. In short, he knows what he’s talking about.

E: Together, with Dr. Shindell, we’ll investigate these specific topics: why is 1.5 or 2 degrees significant? What is the Paris Climate Agreement? Can negative emissions technologies, NETs, work to solve climate change? What will it take to get international cooperation?

M: And these are all really important because no one person or one country will solve climate change alone. It takes deliberate coordination on the part of a myriad of people and countries who all come from different backgrounds and want different things in the future. We want to figure out from a surface level understanding how this international cooperation can happen, because simply, it needs to happen.

E: You gave me chills Matthew, let’s dive in.

E: Professor, can you tell us a little bit more about yourself, your area of expertise, and your current research?

S: Certainly. Thanks for having me on your podcast. I am a professor here at Duke in earth and climate science, and my expertise and interest is really in understanding a broad range of impacts on society from climate change, and actions that we might take to deal with climate change, which inextricably affect other things like air pollution as well.

E: So, what is your experience with international mitigation decisions or international climate discussions?

S: Well, my experience with that is mostly from the working on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and this is the scientific body established by the UN to provide policy relevant information to governments, so policy neutral but policy relevant, and so we have provided information on say the allowable carbon budget needed or that's possible for all of the countries of the world to emit to meet their stated goals of keeping temperature below certain thresholds. And then the international negotiations take that and figure out ‘Oh, how do we allot this carbon budget’ and ‘do we set targets for each country,’ ‘when do we have to reach net zero,’ things like that.

M: So with these targets, I know a lot of us are familiar with the 1.5 or two degrees Celsius targets, could you just kind of give a quick breakdown of what it would mean to reach each of those and why those numbers were chosen. Were they arbitrary or specific?

S: Well, I would say, they were a little bit of both. Two degrees is somewhat arbitrary, in that, you know, this kind of came about a while ago and it was largely a practical matter of people thinking that was about as low as we could achieve. And that, as you got to higher temperature certainly the damages got large, but the political language was we, the countries of the world, essentially agreed to avoid dangerous, anthropogenic climate change without saying what dangerous was.

Only within the last decade, as it became clearer and clearer from studies of projections of the future, but also from just seeing how quickly the world around us was already seeing the consequences of climate change at about one degree of warming, it became clear that even two degrees was not very safe and that was actually that was probably well above the dangerous threshold, so there was a push to change this to 1.5 as a much safer threshold that was really pushed by countries in adopting the Paris Agreement in 2015.

E: Okay, let’s take a step back. What does 1.5 versus 2 degrees really mean?

M: The difference is stark. Do you know how much of the coral reef population of the world will die at 1.5 degree celsius warming?

E: Probably a lot, I mean maybe like 75%?

M: Exactly, I mean right around there. But in the IPCC report, co-authored by Shindell, we find that 99% of the coral reef population of the world is gone at 2 degree celsius warming.

E: Wow, that’s devastating.

M: And the fact is it’s coming sooner than we think. 1.5 degrees celsius has a 40% chance of occurring in the next 5 years.

E: That’s horrible, but hold on, we can’t lose all hope yet. There has to be something we can do. Let’s continue to listen to what Dr. Shindell has to say.

M: That perfectly segues into our next question because we wanted to educate our listeners a little bit about what the Paris climate Accord is, what NDCs are, and kind of how that international governance structure came about. Would you like to give a little breakdown of that.

S: Certainly, so the previous agreement under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, was the Kyoto Protocol, and that had an advantage. A strength of that Protocol was that it had specific targets set with numerical values, say 20% reduction relative to 1990 for European countries. The disadvantage to or a weakness to that Protocol was that it only included those countries that considered advanced and wealthy nations back in 1990, meaning that it left out the bulk of the world and it left out in high emitting countries like China and India, who, in particular were not that high in 1990 when people started this discussion, but became very high emitters, especially China, and so this was one of the rationales that the US Senate used for refusing to join a protocol like Kyoto, on the basis that China had become the world's largest emitter and wasn't part of it.

So the Paris Agreement in contrast did not set binding targets and there's no numerical value for what any country has to do. That was, depending on your perspective, either a strength or a weakness. The value of that is it allowed the protocol to be extended to cover every country in the world because you didn't have to work out what the specific targets were so nobody was kind of objecting and saying no that's too strict. The disadvantages of course are that every country can pledge to do whatever it likes and that's what you were talking about. That's what NDCs are, Nationally Determined Commitments, where each country says ‘Hey, this is the best I think I can do.’ There's no common baseline, they're not all relative to 1990, some are relative to 2005, some are relative to what we project we might emit in say 2050 if we didn't do anything. And so, you know, we pledge a 10% reduction in 2050; well, that sounds great until you realize that they were projecting to increase emissions by 50% so now they're increasing only by 40% but they're still going the wrong direction. So now the projections are now the pledges are kind of all over the place from all the different countries of the world.

E: Yeah and when we think about and hear about on the news or in the media about you know what countries are doing and stuff like that, I feel like sometimes we hear this buzzword called negative emissions technology. So, can you just break down what is that what that means, and why is there a reliance on this negative emissions technology in forecasts of temperature and global CO2 levels?

E: Okay, okay, I know “negative emissions technologies” is not really an everyday buzzword, but it is still an important concept to bring up. By assuming that these negative emission technologies can pull carbon from the atmosphere, many countries utilize NETs to reach their carbon goals. Dr. Shindell is going to talk to us about what these NETs are, how the idea for them got started, and what they mean for carbon neutrality internationally.

S: So the scientific reports and essentially the constraints of physics say that we have to hit net zero emissions by mid century to keep to a 1.5 degree target or maybe around 2070 to keep to a two degree target. So how do you reach net zero? If you just think of CO2, which is our biggest pollutant, then that means whatever emissions that you haven't gotten rid of, you have to compensate for by having some carbon removal, unless you absolutely get rid of 100% of all carbon emissions. So the problem with getting rid of 100%, is that some things are very difficult to decarbonize, like aviation right. I mean you can decarbonize ground transport much more easily, because you know you just drive around and you see Leaves and Teslas and various cars right, you can do that, but you cannot put electric batteries in airplanes and still have them be light enough to fly across the ocean. That's not going to happen.

To make up for that, you want to take up carbon and that's where negative emissions come in. And so what can do that, there are a few things, there are relatively benign things like planting more trees and trees take up carbon when they grow, and that provides lots of good for the world, like biodiversity is helped and water storage and lots of ecosystem services. So that seems pretty straightforward, but there's a limited amount of land that's good for growing trees that's not already being used for either trees or farms or something.

So one of the other things you can do is try to grow biofuels and burn them to create energy and at the same time capture and bury the carbon, and then that counts as a negative emissions technology. And in models at least that's the most frequent technology that's deployed at large scale to make up for residual emissions from sectors that are hard to decarbonize. And that of course presents lots of lots of societal trade offs, unlike say planting forests, which is generally a benign thing, if you're growing lots and lots of biofuels to essentially grow all this stuff and then set it on fire, that leaves you a lot less arable land to grow food and it leaves it has a big footprint on the environment if you're fertilizing those crops and you're diverting a lot of your water to water these crops and etc. So it's deployed in models, but it has a lot of potential trade offs to society to actually use these negative emission technologies.

And in some sense there's this ethical dilemma, where if people worry that merely saying that this might be available in the future, reduces the incentive to decarbonize in the first place.

M: Yeah and kind of along with that, we aren't able to fully decarbonize some industries, we have both negative emission technologies, and then we have the topic of carbon offsets that's grown in popularity. So what are your thoughts on the debate over carbon offsets? Are they beneficial to the community around you? Things like that about the ethical use of carbon offsets in declaring carbon neutrality.

S: So I think carbon offsets are something that can be on the table. The issues are twofold in my mind, one is that when you have offsets, it's difficult to ensure those offsets are real and, in particular, that they're long lasting, because when you emit carbon from that airplane engine,a good portion of that carbon will still be there, more than a century from now, two centuries from now, even three centuries from now, there will be a bunch of that carbon in the atmosphere. So if, in exchange for my paying for an offset someone plants a tree somewhere, unless that forest is maintained for centuries, i'm not ahead. And that's that's a hard one to ensure, you know, how to, if it's owned by somebody a private landowner or what if they sell it if it's owned by a government, you know what if the government changes their policy. Another issue with offsets is, how do you decide whether a forest counts?

E: What does Professor Shindell mean by deciding whether a forest counts for carbon offsets? Let’s look at an example. Shindell brings up the question if it would count as a carbon offset for the US government to pledge to save the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This would not be an effective carbon offset, because those trees are already protected by law and were not going to be cut down anyways. We wouldn’t be gaining any forests as new carbon sinks, we would just be double counting an existing one.

Where this comes into play internationally is looking at how and where countries plant their forests and buy carbon offsets. If a country buys part of an existing forest to stop it from being cut down, is that really a carbon offset?

The next issue about carbon offsets that Professor Shindell addresses is if the carbon offset is necessary, or just a convenient alternative to doing the actual decarbonization work. A developing country may not have the resources to pour into decarbonizing, and it might be the best course of action to use offsets. But what can happen is that richer countries buy offsets because they may be easier than working to decarbonize, and where does that leave the poorer countries? Dr. Shindell breaks this concept down with an example of a company making decisions about purchasing carbon offsets instead of going through the effort of pursuing decarbonization options, and what that will then mean for everyone else. Let’s hear him explain this further.

S: Company says ‘ooh it's hard to get our employees to come to work without driving so rather than Set up public transit or encourage them to carpool or anything else or move our offices near public transport we’ll just buy some offsets.’ Well then, you've used up these off and they're not available for those difficult to decarbonize sectors. They're not available for poorer countries that can't afford the offsets. There is a limited pool of them, which are being taken up by the wealthy as a way to make themselves look good rather than take what might be the harder efforts of decarbonizing things that you actually could and therefore should be decarbonizing, so I do worry about these.

M: Yeah and kind of along that vein of this cooperation, we have to kind of have a concerted effort to work together, we know that, but what will it take to get international cooperation to aggressively combat climate change? What will it take to incentivize these countries to really preserve and safeguard the future?

S: Well, I wish I knew the answer to that question, we've all been wondering about that for a long time. My personal view is that there are a couple different classes of countries and that there are countries that are that are very advanced, that have fairly clean air and clean water that have strong environmental agencies within their national governments. And these countries have a pretty good track track record of dealing with many environmental issues like mercury and lead and gasoline and ozone protection and air pollution, and not so much with climate, but I think they're moving in the right direction, and by that I mean generally the wealthy countries of the world, Japan, Korea, Europe, North America.

And then you have a lot of poor countries which still have very poor air quality in particular and those countries often lack a lot of economic opportunity for their people, they often, you know, you have the lowest income countries, they still burn biofuels, they gather wood or animal dung and such to cook over. These countries-- dealing with climate change is not a priority, and I think that's quite fair. I don't think it should be their priority; they didn't cause it. They are not primarily responsible, and it's understandable that their priorities are focused elsewhere. So I think getting those countries on board, we really have to highlight for them how transitioning to a low carbon economy can, in the long run, make their economies more efficient, they can clean their air and improve their public health, and it brings them a lot of benefits that are totally distinct from whether they care about climate change or mitigating climate change at all. I think that's the real way to bring the developing world on board.

E: So for our last question we kind of wanted to know, as a student, what's the best place to learn more about international relations and climate change? You know that can seem so far off and broad but climate change is a problem that's affecting everyone globally, maybe not equally, but it's important that people understand what's happening near them and not near them. So what's the most important thing people can do to be more mindful about approaching international climate change decisions and conversations?

S: One of the issues that makes this complicated, as a little bit of a follow up from what I was just saying, is the perspective of different countries is quite different so i'm not sure that they're necessarily is as a single answer to that, other than to realize that one of the reasons you know that it's hard to answer Matthew’s last question, how do we get an agreement, how do we get everybody on board, is because people are coming at this with a whole bunch of different perspectives. Technology is not the whole story here.

M: Just like Dr. Shindell mentioned, every single country is going to come at international climate relations from a different perspective, from a different background and a different experience with climate change. Saudi Arabia and Venezuela are big oil exporters and thrive off of a booming fossil fuel industry across the globe. Europe’s fuel consumption is much lower than other countries around the world in other regions. Therefore as resources and demands are variable, so too will perspectives be variable. Let’s go back to Professor Shindell for his explanation.

S: it's not as if we all come from the same point of view and say ‘Okay, climate change is bad here we go let's let's roll up our sleeves and get to work,’ people bring really different financial and social and and historical responses, you know, that's a real thing. If a country has now said ‘You go ahead, India, you make a big change in in your economy and don't do what we did because we're telling you that's that's the best way to go,’ and they're saying, ‘but we didn't admit hardly any carbon, but why are you telling us anything, you know we're not responsible for this.’ So kind of understanding, where they're all coming from, I think those kind of interactions that you see in those are really, really insightful; they're really illuminating.

M: Dr. Shindell is emphasizing the importance of looking at all perspectives, and that is something we all can learn to do. Here are some things that you can do: watching these climate summits, reading the reports, talking to your local representatives, and just understanding that there is more to climate change than just mitigation.

E: In this episode, we’ve covered a lot of ground as to what international climate negotiations are and what direction they are going in. We’ve learned about the difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees celsius warming, the basics of international climate relations and negative emissions technologies, and we’ve learned that there is room for hope to work together to reduce our emissions.

M: It can be hard to put yourself in the context of these global discussions, but understanding them and your own role in climate is really important. It’s a complete problem that needs your specific perspective in order to find a sustainable solution. So to help your investigation, we’ve put some links in our show notes to climate simulators that will show you what steps we do need to take to get to where we want to be. Check them out, and make sure to subscribe.

K: Thanks so much for tuning in to this episode of Operation climate. Make sure to subscribe on spotify, apple podcasts, google podcasts, and anywhere else that you find your podcasts in order to stay updated about future episodes. Visit our website at for a full transcript of this episode and for more information and links that you can explore to learn more about this topic that we covered today. Follow us on our socials, we are @operationclimate on instagram. And lastly, we want to hear from you. So write a review on Apple podcasts, that would help us so much, and send us your feedback and your messages through our website, email us, you can DM us on instagram, you can fill out our feedback form which is on our website. And if you are a student listening to this podcast, head to our website to fill out our student stories form to get the chance to have your story and voice featured on a future episode of Operation climate. Thanks so much and we hope you join us next time, see ya.

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