Climate change and global governance: Personal reflections on the journey from COP6 to COP26

This post is an adaptation of Catherine’s response to an address by the Hon James Shaw, New Zealand Minister of Climate Change, at the New Zealand Centre for Global Studies’ 8th Annual Global Affairs Lecture (‘The UN and Climate Negotiations: Implications for our planet and country’) on 6 December 2021. Catherine’s response was given in her individual capacity and does not represent the views of her affiliated organisations.

Photo credit: iStock

The 26th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was held in Glasgow from 31 October to 12 November 2021. While tangible progress was made both inside and outside the formal negotiations, the world still faces a critical target gap to limit rises in global temperatures to 1.5oC above pre-industrial levels.

I would like to share my personal experience in the international climate change negotiations and offer further reflections on the challenges of climate change and global governance. These are only reflections, not answers.

I have attended five COPs, three as an NGO observer in the Climate Action Network and two as a New Zealand negotiator. My experience has been dominated by the COPs that collapsed.

“Beyond the Barricade” – The backstory from a musical tribute to emissions trading

In September 2018, the New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme (NZ ETS) marked its first decade of operation. I was part of the core group of government officials who designed the system back in 2007 and 2008. Since then, I have continued to work both inside and outside of government to advance its progress. Having decided that the dramatic story of heartbreak and hope deserved nothing less than a little musical theatre, I filmed a short musical tribute on my iPhone. It made its debut at a birthday party for the NZ ETS at the Ministry for the Environment, and was posted online for fun together with a media release from Motu Economic and Public Policy Research.

The idea came to me when I was washing the dinner dishes and puzzling over how to help people understand the story of what happened. Say the words “emissions trading” and many people glaze over and tune out. Most of the rest of them say something about “dodgy carbon credits,” recalling how our emission price dropped very close to zero because of unlimited overseas units. The system has had no significant impact so far on domestic greenhouse gas emissions by the government’s own admission. It has taken most of a decade for the emission price to recover to the point where we started.

Vast, majestic and ever changing

In October 2016, my partner and I spent several wonderful days hiking in three of Southern Utah’s parks. Each offered a special geological wonderland to explore. Layers of sedimentary rock were formed over millions of years when today’s inland desert region was under water. About 13 million years ago, the sea bed was uplifted to form a series of plateaux broken by fault lines. Over the centuries, water and wind have sculpted exposed rock layers of varying hardness and mineral content into fantastic formations in rich shades of red, purple, yellow and white.

Bryce Canyon features giant rock amphitheatres lined by mazes of pinnacles nicknamed “hoodoos.” True to native Paiute legend, they look like weird creatures which have been turned to stone, standing as sentinels over the passage of time. Along the trails snaking from the rim down to the floor, we saw trees and shrubs adapted to harsh conditions, anchored on exposed sandstone hillsides or thrusting upward toward the light between steep rock walls. We marveled at how some trees become eerily twisted when they die slowly in portions as their roots are exposed. On the Peekaboo Trail, we randomly asked a passing couple to take our photo and discovered they were from Auckland. Facing the maze of spires, I understood why Ebenezer Bryce, the Mormon pioneer for whom the park was named, referred to the landscape as “a hell of a place to lose a cow.” We lingered in a cold wind to watch the sunset from the rim. A nearby chipmunk appeared to do the same, perched at the very tip of a tree root jutting out over the chasm. …

Waging collaboration on climate change: Finding effective narratives

© Dave Bredeson |

(Updated in November 2018) On 22 April 2016, 175 countries signed the Paris Agreement, setting a world record for the number of first-day signatures to an international agreement.  The agreement will enter into force once 55 countries representing 55% of global emissions ratify it.  The photo of US Secretary of State John Kerry signing the agreement with his granddaughter on his lap was a compelling reminder that this agreement is about protecting future generations.

Building on the scientific consensus that humans have been the dominant cause of the warming observed since the mid-20th century, we now have a diplomatic consensus that countries should limit temperature rises to well below 2 degrees Celsius – and strive for below 1.5 degrees – above pre-industrial levels. What is needed now is a social consensus about how quickly decarbonisation should occur in each country and at what acceptable cost.  Speed matters.  Keeping the 1.5-degree goal within reach requires limiting cumulative emissions of long-lived gases below a threshold which we will pass by about 2030-2052 under business as usual.  The 2030 targets under the Paris Agreement will only take us to roughly 3 degrees and there are no legal penalties if countries fall short.  Making more reductions more quickly buys us more time for new solutions to emerge and mature. …

Testing climate change convictions

No One Can Convince Me v3Last week, I was deeply moved by Piers Sellers’ article “Cancer and Climate Change” in the New York Times.  At age 60, Sellers, a former astronaut, was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer.  Faced with decisions about how to spend his precious remaining time, he chose to return to his job doing climate research at NASA.  He writes,

“As an astronaut I spacewalked 220 miles above the Earth. Floating alongside the International Space Station, I watched hurricanes cartwheel across oceans, the Amazon snake its way to the sea through a brilliant green carpet of forest, and gigantic nighttime thunderstorms flash and flare for hundreds of miles along the Equator. From this God’s-eye-view, I saw how fragile and infinitely precious the Earth is. I’m hopeful for its future.

And so, I’m going to work tomorrow.”

Celebrating the Paris Agreement on climate change

Bravo la France!On 18 December 2016, a small group of people added a postscript to the Wellington Climate March by gathering in front of the French Embassy to hold a “celebratory demonstration” in honour of the positive outcome from the Paris climate change conference.  Our efforts were graciously received by the French Ambassador.  Below are the comments I prepared for the occasion.

Christiana Figueres, the Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, has described climate change mitigation as the Everest of our generation. With the Paris Agreement, we just reached base camp. The Paris Agreement pulls 195 countries into a common legal framework for reducing emissions, and puts in place a clear, methodical long-term process for reviewing progress and increasing ambition over time. It strengthens channels for financial support, capacity building and technology transfer to help developing countries move more quickly toward low-emission development. It also opens the door to harnessing private-sector action through carbon markets.

How much effort should New Zealand make on climate change?

Wellington Climate March 2015

From 30 November to 11 December 2015, governments will meet in Paris to resolve the framework for a new international climate change agreement to take effect from 2020.  New Zealand is bringing to the table an emission reduction pledge – or Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) – of 11% below 1990 emissions, or 30% below 2005 emissions, by 2030, conditional on rules for forestry accounting and use of carbon markets. 

How much effort should New Zealand make on climate change?  In September 2015, the Green Party organised a Parliamentary conference entitled “Feasible Ambition: Climate Goals for New Zealand in 2030.”  Below is an adaptation of some comments I provided as an independent panelist responding to a research paper presented by Dr Kennedy Graham, MP.

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