Our podcast series continues!
Raise Green’s second podcast episode is an extended double with Sue Biniaz, lead climate lawyer in the US State Department for more than 25 years. She played a central role in all major climate negotiations during that time, including the Paris Agreement.
Sue joins co-founders Franz Hochstrasser and Matt Moroney. “Raise Green” is a 7 episode podcast series exploring the climate crises through the minds of local leaders and global experts. Listen to the approximately 20 minute Episode #2 here on Spotify. Episode #3 is a continuation of the interview, and can be found here on Spotify.
We begin with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which Sue helped develop at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. The UNFCCC sets the framework for how nations have approached climate issues for the past 28 years and counting. The negotiation to arrive at the UNFCCC involved many of the same issues that continue to arise in international climate discussions today, with this conversation focusing on differentiation and bindingness.
Bindingness: Are policy commitments legally binding? Differentiation: Should all countries have the same commitments?
For example, the Kyoto Protocol (1997) defined legally-binding caps on greenhouse gas emissions for developed countries, but the US didn’t ratify, so it only ever accounted for a third of global emissions. Part of the reason was that countries were differentiated into two different Annexes of the Convention, classifications that have been contested ever since. That was until the Paris Agreement outlined a framework that lets each country set its own target, and their chief binding commitment was to continually report on progress and update the targets every five years.
Frameworks before that had attempted to recognize more nuances with countries’ categorization. To name a few, there are oil-producing countries, tiny island nations, and countries going through dramatic economic transitions (e.g. countries affected by the collapse of the USSR).
This highlights the complexities of climate policy negotiation, a subject which Sue Biniaz is all too familiar with. She shared four tips for negotiation which we’ve summarized below:
1) Preparation. There are multiple ways to represent your own position, and knowing other parties’ positions can help you effectively present to them. Consider different ways to reflect the same substance. 2) Ask a lot of questions. Related to Tip #1, clarifying other parties’ positions can help you address the same substance with different wording. 3) Be clear and concise. Long rambling proposals can lose people’s attention. Short, simple lists can go a long way. 4) Explain why the proposal is in the other party’s interest, rather than simply dictating your position.
Sue is still active in the negotiations as a Senior Fellow at the UN Foundation and has been teaching courses on international climate negotiations at various law schools. Franz took the opportunity to inquire about the current state of the Paris Agreement:
A new US administration could easily re-join the Paris Agreement, but it would have to design an emissions target within 30 days, as each country decides its own NDC (Nationally Determined Contribution)This would create a delicate balance for the new administration: substantial commitments to regain credibility, versus domestic backlash in response to ambitious policies. Franz points out that the COVID-19 pandemic has added even another layer to that dynamic. It has delayed the next UN Climate Conference (COP26) by a year, which will be the first global stocktake for countries’ NDCs. Sue highlights that this may be a blessing in disguise, since many countries weren’t on-track to reach their NDCs this year, and it also gives the US a chance to regain its footing with a new president.
COVID-19 has understandably shifted countries’ focus for the time being, but countries can still work towards their NDCs by “building back better,” ensuring that stimulus packages aren’t going back to business as usual.
Despite what it may seem, Sue reminds us that only a fraction of the world is trying to devalue the science around climate change. We all have a duty to continue pursuing a fact-based approach to problem solving, insisting on even our own accuracy.
With that, there’s reason for optimism, as countries like China are still pushing towards ambitious targets for climate policy. Domestic momentum on climate action is also picking up: companies, cities, and other non-state actors are continuing to improve their ambition, invest in green and scale down brown.
This is the role Raise Green plays: empowering local communities to improve their infrastructure and tackle climate change. Many of the challenges are persistent, but Sue reminds us of our ability to make a difference. Whether in negotiations or neighborhoods, working together creatively is the way to get it done.
You can find the “Raise Green” Podcast on Spotify, Apple, and Soundcloud streaming services. Be sure to check us out!
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