Dr Karsten Sach has been leading the German negotiating delegation at international climate negotiations for over twenty years. Five years after the Paris Agreement was concluded, he takes stock in conversation with KfW Stories. He explains what has been achieved to date and why we now need change to happen faster.
About Mr Sach
Dr Karsten Sach, a lawyer by training, is a Director General at the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety. He is known as the “brains and face” of international climate policy and as one of the world’s most experienced negotiators. Over the years, Sach has lived through all the highs and lows of global climate protection efforts and also played a significant role in negotiating the Paris Agreement.
Exactly five years ago, the Paris Climate Agreement was concluded. How do you view the agreement with hindsight?
Paris was a huge success, a break-through. There, as a community of countries, we made a commitment to becoming carbon neutral in the second half of this century. That means that our emissions must not exceed the level of greenhouse gases that carbon sinks can absorb. Countries, businesses, municipalities and citizens understand this obligation, even if it isn’t linked to a fixed timeframe. It was a clear message that makes sense and has become the new normal. That’s what is great about the Paris Agreement.
Not all commentators share this view. Critics complain that the Paris Agreement doesn’t include any binding reduction quotas. How would you respond to them?
I don’t actually see it like that. It is true that we don’t have those quotas, those specifications laid out in advance, as was the case in the Kyoto Protocol. But the objective has been formulated clearly and countries have committed to the agreed process for getting there: all member states have committed to nationally determined minimum contributions – as well as agreeing to raise these on an ongoing basis. The Paris Agreement is binding under international law.
Are you not making the outcome sound better than it actually is?
No. We achieved a lot in Paris. For me, it represents the turning point in the international climate negotiations. The previous system was no longer working – I remember the difficult negotiations in Copenhagen – and the Kyoto Protocol had expired. We needed regulations to succeed it. Before, only a few industrialised countries needed to get involved in climate protection. That ought to change, so the whole world is engaged. Now we have a universal agreement.
It was certainly a triumph that there was even an agreement at all, after all the years of stalemate in international climate negotiations. But is the agreement itself sufficiently ambitious?
With the Paris Agreement, we found a model that is seen as fair around the world. It recognises that countries have a history and that they have differing levels of development. This is acknowledged in the “nationally determined contributions”. All countries have undertaken to reduce their emissions, even if the scale of the reductions varies. In addition to this, there are clear duties to report and common rules regarding how this progress can be made transparent. Finally, we agreed that the national objectives will be refined and made more ambitious every five years. That means that Paris created a very clever set of guidelines that is not too strict, but in which every country sees itself reflected. That sparked a huge sense of dynamism.
It’s this important five-year review conference that was supposed to take place this year and was postponed until next autumn due to the coronavirus pandemic. Is the dynamism you mentioned slowing down?
Surprisingly, no. Instead, the urgent nature of climate-change mitigation has – fortunately – become a key issue within society. One important reason for this is the European Union’s Green New Deal, in which we set out the aim for the EU to be carbon neutral by the middle of the century. That would make the EU the world’s first carbon-neutral continent. The interim steps to be achieved by 2030 and 2040 are being laid out at the moment. But a whole array of other countries have also signed up to this goal. These include Canada, South Korea, New Zealand and Japan, for example. China has set 2060 as the year by which it aims to achieve carbon neutrality. Together, this group of countries represents around two thirds of global emissions and three quarters of the world’s economic output. That is a huge step forward.
Incoming US President Biden has declared that the climate is one of his four priorities – alongside rebuilding the economy after coronavirus. Do you expect that to generate additional movement on all things climate protection?
Absolutely. Over the past four years, we have seen what happens when you lose a leading power. Other nations also start to hide behind this dismissive attitude. Happily, that is changing again. And with John Kerry as climate envoy, we will have a climate protection icon as our point of contact. That is a clear sign that the USA is reasserting itself as a leader and it offers hope that we can achieve even more. However, it is also clear that Biden won’t have an easy ride when it comes to passing his agenda, given that the Republicans are likely to dominate in the Senate.
Emissions are still high. Science is pushing for more action and young people are impatient. How do you respond to these demands?
I agree with them that we need to speed up considerably. Our belief in progress cannot just rely on new technologies. It’s about fundamental change that affects whole societies, their economic system, their way of life. To achieve that, you need to take people with you. That is why unrealistic demands are useless. We need to find the right speed to bring everyone on board. To take a sporting example, you can’t get as fast as Usain Bolt overnight. You need a sensible and yet ambitious training programme. That means we need to improve our performance on a step-by-step basis, but it needs to be quick. And that’s exactly what we’re doing in Europe, for example, by putting in place a legally binding structural change needed to build a carbon-neutral continent with fixed interim steps.
In your opinion, who has progressed further in this drive to adapt – Europe or China?
China’s climate policy has seen a positive transformation in the past ten years: I could mention the development of renewable energy sources, modern battery production. China is even a global market leader in that area. On the other hand, the Chinese are still building the most coal-fired power stations in China and abroad. And alongside its ultramodern sustainable tendencies, China also has provinces and sectors that continue to rely very heavily on production methods that harm the environment. Overall, I would say that Europe has progressed further, not least due to the societal discourse that accompanies this structural change.
What have been the effects of coronavirus? Is it slowing the pace at which societies transform?
I don’t believe so. Initially, which is completely understandable, coronavirus did cause the priorities of day-to-day politics to be reorganised. Now it’s more about health and keeping the economy on its feet in the immediate future. However, coronavirus has also shown that societies can change quickly in times of crisis – even faster than was previously thought.
What does that tell you in relation to the effort to limit global warming?
That we can move even faster on climate-change mitigation too, since the climate crisis is also a threat to the foundations of our society and calls our model for prosperity into question.
Do the stimulus packages created in many areas help with this? Or are they actually harmful?
To the extent that I’ve been able to get an overview, the benefit from the stimulus packages seems to vary. In Europe we have specified that 37% of the rebuilding fund and 30% of the total budget must be climate funding, while the remainder must not be detrimental to climate-change mitigation. To date we have seen a rather mixed picture globally, but the debate on this is well underway – and that is a good thing.
Let’s talk about developing countries. Voluntary national commitments are at the heart of the Paris Agreement, but many developing countries struggle with this. Why is that the case?
The picture in this area is mixed, as well. There are champions like Costa Rica and Chile who are investing in renewable energy sources, transforming their basic industries and offering them as a green product on the global market. Countries like Morocco are also making strides forward. South Africa wants to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, although the country is currently still heavily reliant on coal. Overall, however, most developing countries – like industrialised nations as well – have a mixed track record. Some sectors are making good progress, others are not. However, it is positive that the majority are on board with the need to develop comprehensive strategies to enable a change of direction.
What can development banks do to support this process?
The development banks are enormously important. With a policy that is clearly geared towards implementing the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals, they can help to divert financial flows away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy sources, for example. With targeted investments they can set a good example and pave the way for the private sector, as investment from private companies is going to play a vital role in limiting global warming to a bearable level. And finally, development banks should use their contacts in ministries engaged in planning and finance, to advocate for the Paris agenda to be implemented across all ministries in a coherent manner. That’s why they have a key role, in my opinion.
Recently, 450 development banks joined forces, believing that they could achieve more on sustainability as a collective. What do you think of that initiative?
We think it’s positive. In practice it’s about pooling organisations’ strengths and diverting investment into green channels at pace. This requires rules and standards, which the banks can set jointly through this cooperation. We aren’t there yet, though. Those were good objectives for starters, but they were still quite generic and need to be spelled out in more detail. There need to be further meetings over the coming year to drive the whole thing forward. My expectation of development banks is that they make their portfolios Paris-compatible. That means they should only use taxpayer money to promote causes that accord with the aim of carbon neutrality. Most banks still have some catching up to do in that area.
You have been involved in climate negotiations since 1994 and you have now been leading the negotiations for many years. Do you never feel a sense of desperation about how relatively slowly things are moving?
Achieving the kind of fundamental societal change that we will need in order to combat climate change is no task for someone looking for quick wins. We have a huge task and I knew from the start that it would be a marathon, not a sprint.
What else do you hope to achieve in your role?
If everything works out as planned, I’ll be attending five more climate conferences, the COPs. Until then, my desire would be for every country to agree a robust climate protection plan and set a clear course towards carbon neutrality.
Published on KfW Stories: 10 December 2020.