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Physicist-turned-climate adviser says developing countries will be seeking money at U.N. climate talks

Some of the countries most vulnerable to climate change are those with the least access to scientific expertise in climate negotiations. Bill Hare, a climate scientist and physicist, founded the Berlin-based nonprofit Climate Analytics to provide that expertise—like summarizing locally relevant climate science findings—to small island nations and developing countries such as Mauritius and Bangladesh.

He has attended every one of the annual United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP) climate change talks since their inception in 1995. In 2015, Science spoke to Hare ahead of the pivotal COP21 meeting in Paris, which yielded an agreement to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and to limit global warming to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels. With the COP26 meeting coming next month in Glasgow, U.K., Science caught up again with Hare, who is still optimistic about limiting global warming to a 1.5°C rise. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: You’ve been working on international climate agreements since 1989. Is COP26 just another climate convention to you, or does it stand out?

A: COP26 is enormously important. It’s at least as important as the COP that adopted the Paris agreement, because at this COP we’re meant to be seeing the world confirm ambition sufficient to meet the Paris agreement’s long-term temperature goals.

Q: In 2015, you said to Science that you see Paris as being a “kickoff point” for a decadeslong process that would begin to actually reduce global emissions. Did that summit live up to your expectations?

A: The Paris agreement definitely has kicked off a major international process, of a character we’ve never had before. The very fact that we’re having COP26 with so much pressure on the emissions commitments confirms that. The Paris agreement embeds a 5-year cycle of ambition increases. … Is it enough yet? Certainly not. Looking ahead to Glasgow, not enough emission commitments are on the table from countries yet to keep 1.5°C in reach.

Q: What advances in climate science since Paris are the most important for COP26?

A: There’s really been quite a lot. The [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC’s)] Sixth Assessment Report [published in August] shows that the rate of increase of impacts with every half a degree of warming is really quite rapid, and in some cases extreme. So what that tells us is that we really need to move quickly on emissions. The most recent science shows the world still has a chance to limit warming to 1.5°C, if you can pull off the emissions reductions required by the 2030s.

Q: And what changes in international climate politics since Paris are noteworthy?

A: One of the biggest developments has been the election of President [Joe] Biden. That has seen the United States rejoin the Paris agreement, and rejoin with the ambition of getting very significant domestic reductions. The U.S. has also engaged diplomatically. We’re seeing a lot of developing countries begin to step up action as well. The other fundamental issue is the continuing, ongoing reduction in the costs of renewable energy and storage, and at the same time, the explosion of the electric vehicle market.

Q: In 2008, you founded Climate Analytics, which offers scientific and technical advice about climate change in the most vulnerable countries. What drew your attention to this?

A: Projections from the IPCC and other scientific work show that these countries were really going to be on the front line of damaging impacts. The other motivation was the observation that they were suffering in international negotiations by not having high-grade scientific and analytical support. Larger countries have at their fingertips the best available science and analysis that often enable them to outmaneuver the smaller, vulnerable countries.

Q: What perspectives and interests do the countries you help bring to the negotiations?

A: Climate change is a survival issue for them. If they don’t get enough action from the bigger emitters, then their survival is seriously at risk. That’s not a feeling one gets from very many bigger countries. That might be changing; we’ve seen some really big climate-related disasters in the U.S. and Europe in the last year.

Q: What commitments do the countries you work with most need from wealthy and powerful countries?

A: It comes down to money. Not just donations, or grants, but also helping to derisk investments—providing longer term guarantees so countries can make a longer term bet. A lot of these countries are looking for debt relief to help them through the cost that they’ve incurred in dealing with the COVID-19 economic crisis. It’s a complex set of financing issues that really is the first-order need for most of these countries.

Q: Are there any policy areas that you think aren’t getting the attention they deserve?

A: One of the areas is the so-called hard-to-abate sectors, [like decarbonizing] steel, fertilizer, chemicals, cement, and metal processing and manufacture. These hard-to-abate sectors haven’t gotten as much attention as decarbonizing electricity and electrifying transport.

Q: You’ve expressed optimism about meeting the 1.5°C commitment. Do you still think that’s possible?

A: I still think it is politically possible, but I think it’s not going to be done in one big bang in Glasgow. It comes down to how quickly we can see some of the major political actors turn. China is, of course, critical. All signs are that it is slowly going in the right direction, but too slowly. India has yet to really signal where it stands, and I guess India’s position is going to ultimately be linked to how much climate finance is on the table.

Q: What are the best- and worst-case scenarios for COP26?

A: The best-case scenario is that we see a significant number of additional commitments come forward from countries. And that we have a U.S. president arrive in Glasgow with all the bills that he wants through Congress done, because that would send a very big signal that the U.S. is back and serious, rather than having question marks about whether or not the administration can ultimately get this through.

The worst-case scenario is that we have a lot of countries standing back from commitment; that the U.S. is unable to present a pathway to how it’s going to achieve its emission reductions; and that there is a slowing down of momentum on action. I don’t think that’s the most likely scenario, but it would be the worst possible time now to have momentum for action unwind. This is the last big chance we’ll get to meet the Paris agreement’s limit and prevent really dangerous changes from happening.

Source: Science Mag