Dr. Leah A. Dundon: On site at the U.N. Climate Change Conference
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The 2021 United Nations climate change negotiations (also known as COP26) are happening now in Glasgow.
On Wednesday, November 10, SciLine interviewed: Dr. Leah A. Dundon, director of the Vanderbilt Climate Change Initiative and research assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Vanderbilt University, and an environmental attorney, is attending the conference and is part of a coalition presenting an exhibit on youth action on climate. See the footage and transcript from the interview below, or select ‘Contents’ on the left to skip to specific questions.
LEAH A. DUNDON: So my name is Leah Dundon. I’m a research assistant professor in the School of Engineering at Vanderbilt University, and I’m also a lecturer in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, and I’m the director of the Vanderbilt Climate Change Initiative. And separate from Vanderbilt, I’m also an environmental attorney. And at Vanderbilt, my research really focuses on climate change adaptation and specifically in terms of community infrastructure, so how things like roads and bridges can be better prepared for the extreme weather events that climate change is causing. And then I’m also recently more focused on projects looking at using different fuels in the marine shipping sector. And I teach a class on climate change.
Interview with SciLine
What is the U.N. Climate Change Conference, and what are the main issues being discussed there?
LEAH A. DUNDON: These meetings are annual meetings of about 197 countries that are party to a treaty that was signed in 1992. And that treaty was really set up as an international system to get the countries together and talk about how to address climate change. And they happen every year, except for last year because of COVID. And so there are a number of issues being discussed at this particular meeting. And sort of three of the top ones are how specifically do we limit our global warming to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius? That’s 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit. And that is the global goal that a group called the IPCC – that stands for Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. And that is the group of scientists that advise the countries on what the science says. And the IPCC has essentially said that 1.5 degrees Celsius of an average increase in warming is going to stave off the worst impacts of climate change if we can keep global warming less than that.
And so one big issue at this particular conference is what are the details, what are the countries going to do to keep that warming limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius? Another big discussion point going on here is about agriculture and land use. So agriculture and the way we grow food, the way we produce our food and transport it, as well as deforestation, accounts for about a quarter of all our global emissions. So there’s a lot of discussion around how do we, you know, produce enough food to feed the whole planet in a way that produces less greenhouse gas emissions?
And then the third big topic that’s being discussed here is finance. So several years ago, the wealthier countries made a promise to mobilize about $100 billion a year that would flow from the developed countries to the developing world, essentially to allow them to develop in the same way that we have but without as much reliance on fossil fuels. And thus far, the wealthy countries have not met that promise. And so there’s a big discussion around finance as well.
Can you tell us anything about where negotiations appear to stand?
LEAH A. DUNDON: So a number of really interesting and important things have happened so far at this meeting. And one of them is that a lot of these agreements are being made by a smaller number of countries. So rather than every single country joining together in some of the announcements that have come out of this meeting is that this approach has actually been pretty effective to have smaller groups of countries coming together and making announcements. And there’s basically been three main ones. So the big one is that before going into this meeting, all of the countries promises, even if they were kept and implemented, put us still at a warming of nearly 4 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century. So that’s well beyond the global goals. And it’s well beyond what the scientists from the IPCC are saying is safe or would stave off the worst effects of global warming.
But what happened at this meeting is that a few countries got together and pledged to reduce methane. So methane is a very powerful greenhouse gas. It’s more powerful on a short term than carbon dioxide. And this methane pledge, according to the International Energy Agency – this is an international agency set up by all the governments to address sustainability and a secure energy future for the world – this group, the IEA, is saying that these new promises will keep our warming down to 1.8 degrees Celsius. That’s about 3.2 degrees Fahrenheit. So that’s really close to our 1.5 degree goal. And, again, this is promises, but this is what this group is saying.
The second big announcement is that there’s been in a lot of announcements around agriculture and land use. Countries that represent about 91% of all the world’s major forests came together and announced this week that they would agree to end deforestation by 2030. So that was a big commitment.
And then the – another big agreement that was reached is a number of countries agreed to end financing of new coal plants and certain new investments in fossil fuel. And that’s really important because coal plants have a very long lifespan. So agreeing not to build new ones today really impacts whether we’re going to have coal power in 20, 30, 40, 50 years.
Many people have heard of the Paris Agreement, reached at the 2015 U.N. Climate Change Conference. What has – and has not – happened since then?
LEAH A. DUNDON: The Paris Agreement was a critical agreement in terms of the world’s ability to address global warming. It was the first globally successful agreement to limit greenhouse gases. And the reason it was so successful is because all of the countries agree. Every single country, over 197 of them, signed their name to this Paris Agreement saying we agree we will do something to limit global warming. And at the heart of this agreement are something called NDCs. That stands for nationally determined contributions. And all that really is is a promise by individual countries made within the country as to how they are going to contribute to this reduction of greenhouse gases, what they will do in their country.
So every five years or so, they come back together and discuss what did they promise and did they make their – did they make the targets that they set out to and can they increase their ambition and promise even more things over the next five years? So this COP – this meeting right now is the very beginning of this five-year period where countries assess what they promise and whether they actually met their promises. And so for the first time with these new promises that have happened even in the last two weeks, there are increased promises to actually even go further below the 1.8 degrees that I just mentioned.
And so one thing that has not happened is that we haven’t really implemented a lot of these promises since the Paris Agreement was signed. So they’re still just promises, and we still need to see more about what the countries are going to do internally in terms of implementing those promises. And then the second thing that really hasn’t changed is there’s still no agreement on carbon pricing. So right now, it doesn’t cost – in most parts of the world and certainly most parts of the U.S. – there are some exceptions – it doesn’t actually cost anything to emit carbon dioxide into the air. Of course, there are some exceptions, but they’re limited. And so what we really need is sort of a global agreement or even a U.S.-wide agreement on what will it – how much will companies and entities that emit carbon dioxide into the air have to pay per pound. That’s really critical, and that still hasn’t happened since the Paris Agreement.
How might decisions made in Glasgow impact U.S. industry sectors?
LEAH A. DUNDON: So climate change is really moved from a sort of niche environmental issue to a mainstream financial and business issue. That seems very clear at this meeting but also just in the business sector around the globe and certainly in the U.S. So whether your business is directly or your industry is directly concerned about climate change – and more and more are – you’re going to be connected to this larger global business system that all sectors are starting to really look at and do something about climate change. Just one example – there’s a huge focus newly coming out of these meetings in Glasgow on methane and there’s going to be new rules in the United States on methane that are going to impact the oil and gas sector.
So that’s just one industry that’s obviously very connected to climate change. But also a huge number of businesses now have been recognizing that climate change is a mainstream financial issue, and they’re being asked by their investors and really increasingly their customers to start to decarbonize – that means lower their own emissions – and also separately address their own risks from climate change. So depending on where companies really rely on their suppliers or have really important facilities, if those facilities are impacted by storms and weather events, there’s a lot more being asked of these companies to better understand those type of risks.
And then just a couple of examples – the London Stock Exchange just recently announced that it’s going to start developing voluntary carbon markets to support companies that are voluntarily trying to invest and take opportunities to decarbonize their own businesses. And then secondly, the Securities and Exchange Commission in the U.S. is looking very closely at issuing new rules for companies around reporting of climate risks. So those are just some examples of how, you know, mainstream businesses are really starting to see climate change as a very important risk to business and to the financial sector.
Can you speak about youth involvement on climate issues?
LEAH A. DUNDON: I have 14 Vanderbilt students with me, 12 of them are undergraduates and two of them are graduate students. And almost immediately at this meeting, they linked up with a huge amount of other youth and student involvement in these meetings. And there is a very palpable connection to the youth movement here in this meeting in Glasgow. There’s been marches in the street. I think it’s pretty clear that young people are very concerned. They are the generation that are going to inherit the planet from our generation and want to inherit a livable planet that is livable all across the globe for all people. They’re also incredibly talented. And I think that they are going to be going to work for governments, for businesses, for NGOs, and they want to work for places that care about climate change and want to take action on climate change. So I think the youth example is just a really inspiring and powerful movement that’s happening and that is going to be holding our leaders accountable as they – when they go back from this meeting to their local communities.
Anything else I didn’t ask that you’d like to add?
LEAH A. DUNDON: One issue about climate change – we often discuss it in sort of very negative and dire terms and talk about the loss of life in terms of extreme weather. And that is true and can’t be ignored. But I think there is another aspect of climate change that is really important to focus on, which is the opportunities that are going to come by addressing climate change. We have – there’s huge business opportunities, opportunities to lift people out of poverty, create new jobs. There’s massive amounts of effort and ingenuity and technology that we’re going to develop. And, you know, the U.S. itself is actually an incredibly innovative country. And to me, I’m very excited to see, you know, what we do when we’re really unleashed to address this problem and do it – do so in sort of an effective and globally coherent way.
So I think the co-benefits that are going to come from addressing climate change are really important. And health is just one example I’ll mention. You know, I think all of us, no matter where you fall on any political spectrum, can agree we don’t want children to have asthma or live in polluted cities. And much of that air pollution comes from the burning of fossil fuels and tailpipe emissions. So simply addressing that – addressing that addresses both climate change and makes for a healthier living environment. So the co-benefits where you produce two benefits when you’re only trying to address one problem I think is a really – is a great opportunity for us to look forward to in addressing climate change.