In this week’s episode, host Kristin Hayes talks with RFF’s Vice President for Research and Policy Engagement Billy Pizer about his takeaways from being in Glasgow for COP26. Pizer reflects on how these climate summits have changed over the years, from a staid setting for diplomatic negotiations to an attention-grabbing event that inspires commitments from nations, subnational governments, companies, and more. Reflecting near the end of COP26, Pizer contends that the conference this year has led to demonstrable successes, such as a formal agreement between the United States and China to curb methane and a new partnership among major financial companies to get their investments to net zero.
Listen to the Podcast
- Potential for major emitters to collaborate on climate: “China and the United States are the two biggest emitters, and so, when they are aligned and working together, it creates momentum for everybody else to join in. Especially as you get into the second week of the COP and there are detailed negotiations to be finished and things that people want to get done, having some sort of positive signal and momentum is really important. I think it helps leverage more concessions and actions by other countries.” (3:41)
- No substitute for in-person negotiations: “There’s no substitute for doing in-person negotiations … Part of what happens here is the spectacle of all these people converging and the pressure it creates. If [COP] was just a closed-door session, I’m not sure it would create the same sort of beauty-pageant, festival notion that it does. It would be nice to think that we could do this all by Zoom, but I just don’t think you would get the leverage, and that’s really what this is about—exerting some sort of pressure on countries and other actors to own up to their obligations.” (25:22)
- Success of COP26: “Without even knowing what happens with the actual negotiations, I’d say [COP26] was a success … It forced countries and non-state actors to come up with announcements that were significant. It wasn’t so tangible that we’re going to see a dramatic change in the trajectory of emissions in a chart over the next 20 years from what we decided today, but I think it’s the kind of progress that we need to make every single year and that, over time, will add up to something significant.” (27:40)
Top of the Stack
- Fixing the Climate: Strategies for an Uncertain World by David G. Victor and Charles F. Sabel
The Full Transcript
Kristin Hayes: Hello, and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I'm your host, Kristin Hayes. Today, I'll be talking with Billy Pizer, who's the vice president for Research and Policy Engagement at … wait for it ... Resources for the Future (RFF). Billy stepped into his role on September 1, 2021, but has been in the RFF orbit for many years. I'll leave it to him to share how his path led him back to Washington, DC, and to RFF after a number of years away.
But in the meantime, in this conversation, Billy and I are recording this episode on the second-to-last day of COP26, closing out our three-part COP-focused podcast series. Billy is talking to me live from Glasgow, where he's RFF's eyes and ears on how this critical negotiating session is unfolding. He'll share his reflections on the conference proceedings and outcomes as well as what needs to happen next. Stay with us.
Hi, Billy. Welcome to Resources Radio. It's great to talk with you today.
Billy Pizer: Great to talk with you too.
Kristin Hayes: Is this really your first time on the podcast? I feel like I should have confirmed that with you sooner, but I believe it is. Is that right?
Billy Pizer: Totally.
Kristin Hayes: Okay. Well, you and I talked previously about a possible episode—this was before you were back at RFF—but a possible episode on discounting, which we can still come to at some point. But since this is your first introduction to our listeners, I wanted to give you an extra minute to say a bit about your background and role and how you came back to RFF.
Billy Pizer: Oh wow. Great story. I started my career at RFF right out of grad school. I spent 10 years there—kind of cutting my teeth, as they say—doing research and learning how to engage with stakeholders and the policy process. And then in 2008, I went to the US Treasury Department, where I spent three years working on international climate finance. Then I decided to take a slight detour. I got tired of Washington, DC, I had a small baby, and I thought I needed to go someplace quieter. I went to Duke University for 10 years, where I was a professor. But after 10 years in academia, I kind of decided I missed the excitement of being really engaged in policymaking. When I looked around and thought about the possible opportunities to combine research and engagement, it was pretty obvious I wanted to come back to RFF. So I'm pretty excited.
Kristin Hayes: Well, that's great. Yes. We're very fortunate to have you back and to have you in Glasgow to round out this series with us. Let me start with a follow-up question to something that Suzi Kerr and I talked about last week. She and I reflected a bit on some of the commitments that had stemmed from the first week of the COP. I'd like to ask you or start this conversation by asking you about one of this week's major announcements: how consequential is yesterday's joint announcement between John Kerry and a leading Chinese climate negotiator?
Billy Pizer: Xie Zhenhua.
Kristin Hayes: I knew you'd be better at pronouncing that, given your connections to China. But the two of them sort of came out in back-to-back press conferences affirming both countries’ commitments to climate action. So, how much does that matter?
Billy Pizer: I think it's actually quite significant. If you look through the details, for example, and try to compare it to the big announcements they made in 2014, there's not as much stuff there. But I think it's always really important when China and the United States can stand together and announce their joint commitment on climate change, no matter what's in there. And here, you did have some significant action—I think on methane, for example. But it's important because China and the United States are the two biggest emitters, and so, when they are aligned and working together, it creates momentum for everybody else to join in. Especially as you get into the second week of the COP and there are detailed negotiations to be finished and things that people want to get done, having some sort of positive signal and momentum is really important, and I think it helps leverage more concessions and actions by other countries.
Kristin Hayes: Okay, good. I want to talk a little bit later on about surprise because I understand that the announcement was a bit of a surprise, that it wasn't something visible long in advance, but it was, nonetheless, the result of a year-long set of negotiations that got them to this point. So, I'm hoping we can talk again about surprises.
In the short term, I want to ask you another question that builds on some of the conversations I had with Rachel Cleetus and Suzi Kerr in the first two podcasts, and that was about the importance of climate finance conversations at this COP and the need to really fully resolve some of the remaining issues related to full implementation of the Paris Agreement. What can you tell us about those two critical measures and how they've been unfolding?
Billy Pizer: Well, I think they've been unfolding differently, I guess is the way I would say it. The leftover issue from Paris—the big one— was really what they call Article 6. It's the mechanism by which countries that overly comply with their nationally determined contributions (NDCs), their pledges under the Paris Agreement, can sell those excess emissions to another country that may not quite make their Paris commitment. The rules for doing that and the mechanisms for crediting it has been tricky. I could go into the details, but the main thing is that it seems like there is a deal to be had there. People seem optimistic that they'll get a deal by the end of the week. Of course, you never know until the end, but it seems like there's momentum building for a deal.
The other issue on climate finance is trickier, and it’s harder to resolve because it's not just a question of negotiation, it's a question of countries coming up with money to support poor countries that developed countries just haven't been able to come up with. In that case, there's been a lot of disappointment and a lot of frustration. It's not just a question of negotiation, like I said; it's having to go back to governments and to find resources that they haven't been able to put together in the past.
Kristin Hayes: Yeah. There's always a danger of recording these episodes any time before the end of the COP because I know that a lot can happen in that last, critical day. But given where we are now, it's good to have your thoughts on those two critical issues.
Billy Pizer: I should say on the climate finance part, it's not that I think it's going to get stuck, it's just going to be painful. At the end of the day, everybody has an interest in having a deal, and everybody recognizes the difficulties, but it's frustrating for a lot of people that this pledge that had been made in Copenhagen for the $100 billion has not been realized.
Kristin Hayes: Copenhagen was in 2009? Is that right?
Billy Pizer: Yeah, it was in 2009.
Kristin Hayes: It’s been a while. Okay. Let me turn to a question about the United States here for a second. In the time that you have been in Glasgow, the United States got its infrastructure bill over the finish line, more or less—it hasn't been signed by the president, but nonetheless, it’s considerably farther over the finish line—but it has not gotten that larger climate-focused agenda that the Biden administration was almost certainly hoping to pass as part of the Build Back Better—it's the ambition and legislation. What was your sense of the progress that the United States was able to make? How did that ultimately position the United States to participate and contribute? How much did it matter?
Billy Pizer: I think it was pretty consequential. I think everybody has been looking at the United States, and I think John Kerry and his team—I mean, you were talking about the China announcement a minute ago—have spent the past year doing multiple visits, multiple countries, and Zoom meetings, but actually physically traveling to try to build up support for greater ambition for their priorities on methane and hydrogen and deforestation. I think the question they always face is “Well, is the United States really a partner in this? Is the United States going to do what it says it's going to do under its pledge of 50 to 52 percent?” which hinged on these packages—or at least, would be substantially enhanced—by these packages.
I think when the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed, it was a shot in the arm for people’s conviction that maybe Biden could do this. Obviously, everybody understands that of what’s in the Build Back Better, the reconciliation bill is the much bigger piece of the action for climate change—and is also the harder piece to pass in some sense—but making progress on the infrastructure bill shows that it can be done and that they know what they're doing, so I think it was very valuable.
Kristin Hayes: Good. Another question for you. You mentioned to me earlier in the week during another meeting that you were struck by the continued role of non-state actors, whether that's industry or subnational entities like US states, but the continued role of those non-state actors in driving climate commitments forward. So, and feel free to rearticulate that—it was your original thought that I'm teasing out here—but can you give an example or two of something that really struck you in Glasgow? Let me start there.
Billy Pizer: Just to back up, if you go back 20 years in the negotiations, the meetings always had side events and observers who would come and meet at the same time. The negotiators were meeting sometimes to try to influence the negotiation, sometimes to just observe the negotiation, and sometimes just to network, which is what I'm doing here, but it's really changed. In my mind, I'd point to Paris where the side events—the events that were being hosted by non-government organizations or non-government actors, non-state actors, as they're called—began to almost be as significant, if not, more significant, than the negotiations themselves. I sometimes tell the story that the French in Paris did this somewhat as a hedge because there was no predicting they were going to get a deal with the official negotiations, but if they had staged all of these non-state actors and they knew we were going to make these announcements and these pledges and these commitments, at least they would have that, right? I think it was a brilliant strategy.
Since then, there's been increasing recognition and an official platform for these non-state actors to do their activities and to have a stage at the COP. Now, it seems like that is actually the bigger thing. I guess of the things that come to mind that have happened here, one is this big methane coalition that the United States has put together—I guess it wasn't a non-state actor, but it wasn't a COP outcome, it wasn't an outcome of the negotiations. This was a platform for the United States and all of its partners that were involved in this methane effort, to make this announcement, that they were going to control methane emissions. Similarly with the deforestation announcement. I guess it's a little wrong to call it a non-state actor, but it was not part of the negotiations. Something that was not even a state actor that you could look at would be this announcement by all of these major financial investors that they are going to work towards net zero. I forget, I think it's the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero—it's got kind of a funny acronym—but in theory, all of these major financial companies like BlackRock have banded together as a group to jointly work towards net zero in their investments. And again, not part of the negotiations, not even, a government in this case. In some ways, these are the more significant outcomes of the event. I mean, Article 6, those details are important, whatever financial arrangements get put into the official decisions and the negotiations, that'll be important, but in some ways, these other things are almost more important.
Kristin Hayes: Do you feel like it's fair to characterize the COP as a motivating factor? Every year, we know there's going to be this period of time where all eyes are focused on climate change, and so, if nothing else, it's become a motivator for some of these non-negotiated actions to kind of come to life?
Billy Pizer: Yeah. Well, it kind of goes to the heart of what the model is now that—in the olden days, 20 years ago, it was all about trying to negotiate a stronger international agreement: targets and timetables, that was the rhetoric and the knots to get everybody to participate because, at the time, it was only the Kyoto Protocol. It was only a small set of countries we were trying to get all these other countries to join in, including the United States. The whole model really shifted initially in Copenhagen, but then much more so in Paris, to this model where countries put their own voluntary contributions forward. There’s a regular cycle of upping their pledge, examining and reviewing their pledges, doing what they're supposed to do next year, which is the global stocktake. What’s also happened is even more regular pressure to increase ambition. You saw some of that is going on even now. They're trying to get decisions to actually revisit the NDCs, the nationally determined contributions, more frequently to get people to strengthen them.
So, in some ways, that's the model. Those actions and those state commitments are obviously the biggest things—the most significant things—because eventually, they are hopefully going to be backed up by policies, regulation, and things that will ensure the outcomes whereas the other announcements are essentially voluntary. Although, anything at the international level is sort of voluntary but that's what the annual process is. It's like everybody knows there's going to be these two weeks in November and December. It's an opportunity for people to make the big announcements that they've been working on, for countries who don't want to be embarrassed, they have to come up with something they're going to announce. In the case of investors, who want to look better to their clients or don't want to look bad to their clients, it's the time when they are under scrutiny.
It’s this annual—I don't know if you want to call it a beauty pageant or a medical appointment, where everybody gets carefully examined, I'm not quite sure what the right metaphor is—but it's this regular annual event now. It’s really not about the negotiations. There's not a lot to negotiate. It's about these increased ambitions and announcements.
Kristin Hayes: I just have one more follow-up question about that. It also seems that some of these announcements are now multisectoral as well. Maybe they have been before, maybe I just haven't looked at them in enough depth to know that, but it's not just that groups of countries are announcing something, and over here, groups of companies are announcing something. Some of these commitments that are coming out, again, separate from the official negotiating process, but some of these commitments that are coming out at the beauty pageant of commitments, are in essence, public-private partnerships, right? A number of actors have always been saying that the governments can't act alone, the business community can't act alone. They really have to act in concert. First of all, does that match your understanding? And does that matter? I'm asking you a lot of questions about what matters. This is a very meaty conversation here.
Billy Pizer: Yeah, I think you're onto something. I've been having similar thoughts. I don't know, “epiphany” is a strong word. But I think as an economist, you’re trained to think about everything in terms of regulation; businesses are going to profit-maximize; if you want to change behavior to do something that's not profit-maximizing, namely, to reduce carbon emissions, you’ve got to regulate them, you’ve got to price carbon, you’ve got to do something. Otherwise, they're just going to keep doing it.
I think the political scientists have been a lot more clever about thinking about policy as not the starting point but as the outcome. The actions happen first and then you get the policy, and then maybe there's feedback into action and the next round of policy.
One of the things the public-private interaction does is, in the absence of, say, more aggressive regulation in the United States, to have all these companies believing it's going to happen and investing as if it's going to happen, creates momentum for action. And so, that’s one way in which I think there's a public-private interaction that is a little bit unusual for economists to be admitting, but I think it's right. I think that's kind of the way this works right now. I mean, there are other types of public-private interactions where they’re working together to develop something. But I think here there's a much more interesting political dynamic at work that I think people have figured out that this is a way to eventually move the policy by working with a set of stakeholders who, honestly may still want to make a lot of money—they think that they're getting ahead of the curve by investing in these technologies that not everybody has figured out is going to be the way of the future—so, there are all kinds of interesting dynamics lurking beneath the surface.
Kristin Hayes: Alright. Well, I'm going to come back to my question that I was hinting at earlier, which is about surprises. The reason I wanted to ask you this question is because I've been fortunate enough to be in touch with you over the course of this week, and there have been a few little nuggets that you've shared that surprised me: the rekindled interest in North American collaboration, for example, around climate mitigation. I wanted to ask you to share with our broader audience here whether you had any surprises that you wanted to share. I imagine you've had a series of fascinating conversations. Were there any new ideas? Were there any fresh opportunities for progress that really jumped out at you?
Billy Pizer: In some ways, it's kind of hard to pick out little ones. I'm glad you prompted me by mentioning that North America idea. One thing lurking in the background for me—and I heard somebody ask this question this morning—is how much of a difference did President Biden's election make in what is happening right now in Glasgow? I forget what the person who was asked said, but I was actually thinking it actually is quite important.
Not from the obvious perspective that the United States is now working to take action, but because the United States—when it works really hard and you have the right team in place at the State Department, and I think John Kerry has a great team of people working, and they've been working rather relentlessly since January—can be pretty effective. If there's some surprise lurking for me here is how they've managed to really leverage what they had, which was this very slim majority in Congress and the possibility, and then finally the success, with the bipartisan infrastructure bill—to really leverage a pretty impressive set of actions here. So, overall, I think it is kind of impressive, the idea that maybe there could be rekindled interest in some sort of North American joint climate policy or something. I think it's a really remarkable turnaround in 12 months. So, that's probably the biggest thing, honestly, is just that the mood here feels like—I mean there's always people who are protesting because we need to stop using fossil fuels tomorrow or yesterday—but to me, there's been a palpable feeling like there is some progress.
I guess the other thing that I think remains surprising to me—although I guess nobody else, maybe I'm late to the party—is the overwhelming interest in the financial sector. I guess I've known about that in the United States, but seeing it internationally, it's remarkable how convinced the financial markets and the private sector is that this is all going to happen.
I think in the United States, it's easy to get caught up in what can be legislated, what can't be legislated, what's going to go to the courts, how the courts are going to deal with it. We're all hoping Biden will make good on his pledge or, well, he'll be out of office—granted he won't be in office in 2030, but still, the idea that this will all work if we care about this issue. But there are a bunch of people who are convinced it's going to work, and so there are people who are betting on it, they're putting real money on it. Now, how far they can go without the policies is another question, but people are betting on it.
Kristin Hayes: Okay. Well, we're coming close to the end of our time here. I'm going to ask you one hot seat question that I think a lot of people think about in the context of these meetings, and then I'll turn to a few wrap-ups. But here's my hot seat question for you: is it worthwhile to have so many people attend these meetings? There are tens of thousands of people who show up, many of whom are just there to observe, and there are, as you mentioned, tons of side events and all these non-negotiators participating. So, what's your take on that? There's a big cost of getting people there, there are the carbon costs, and in this case, there are real concerns over equity and access. What’s your read on the value of attendance?
Billy Pizer: I guess I would look at it a couple of ways. Certainly, you're right. There were a lot of people coming here, and a number of us have been in the government and negotiated in the past. I met one friend, David Sandolow, and we were talking about how much more fun it is to come here when you're not in the government. There are some perks to being in the government, like you don't have to wait in line quite as much, and you get your hotel reservations taken care of. But the flip side is you're working from dusk till dawn, you're working from 5:00 a.m. till midnight, or something nonstop. I feel like in Copenhagen, I definitely went more than 24 hours without sleeping, and now it's like, oh … I can do a podcast. So, there's definitely an aspect that there are a lot of people who are not burning the midnight oil all the time.
But first of all, there's no substitute for doing in-person negotiations. I mean, I don't know anybody who does any sort of work like this who would say that you can do it over Zoom. You just can't tell if the person you're talking to is sincere or not, or if they're really mad, or if they're at the end of their rope. So, I think negotiations certainly have to be in person, and you can't get around that, and that is probably almost 10,000 people.
I think for the side events, you have to ask the question, “Is there some element of that outside of the negotiations?” I think the answer is yes. I mean, I think there are benefits that we get from—we were talking about all these side event announcements from methane to whatever—and those are increasingly significant, so I think that there is value in that. Does it need to be every year? Could it be fewer people? Probably, there's some way to edit it down. It would be an interesting calculation: 10,000 or 20,000 or 25,000 people—the carbon costs of those people coming versus what is achieved and what might not be achieved if we didn't actually have the event.
As you mentioned, part of what happens here is the spectacle of all these people converging and the pressure it creates. If it was just a closed-door session, I'm not sure it would create the same sort of beauty pageant festival notion that it does. It would be nice to think that we could do this all by Zoom, but I just don't think you would get the leverage, and that's really what this is about, is exerting some sort of pressure on countries and other actors to own up to their obligations.
Kristin Hayes: Okay. Well, thanks. Thanks for talking through that. Really quickly, I'm trying to pull the threads from all three of these podcasts and the series together. I've asked both of my previous two guests about success. What does success look like? Are we on track for success? And then I want to ask you, recognizing that the COP's not over yet—we still have at least a day to go, and sometimes, if not, often, they run longer—but given where we are, would you, Billy Pizer, consider this COP a success? Why or why not?
Billy Pizer: Without even knowing what happens with the actual negotiations, I'd say this was a success. It served the beauty pageant role in the sense that it forced countries and non-state actors to come up with announcements that were significant. It wasn't so tangible that we’re going to see a dramatic change in the trajectory of emissions in a chart over the next 20 years from what we decided today or this week or these past two weeks, but I think it's the kind of progress that we need to make every single year and that, over time, will add up to something significant.
I think when this whole arrangement was imagined, it was all about maximizing what you can get from countries, recognizing the limitations of international negotiations and agreements. The system is kind of working the way it was designed. Maybe we can get more in the future, maybe we can have a binding target and timetable sort of thing, but right now, I think we may be leveraging about as much as we can. And it’s flexible. The United States can disappear for four years in terms of climate change, the process continues, the United States comes back, and we make progress.
Kristin Hayes: Alright. Well, I love ending on an optimistic note, so that's fantastic. I do want to close with our regular feature, Top of the Stack. Billy, what's on the top of your stack? Is there anything that you're reading or listening to, COP-wise or otherwise, that you'd want to recommend to our listening audience?
Billy Pizer: Well, I have to confess, I had to think a bit about this because I haven't been reading or listening to podcasts that much. But when I thought about it, I was reminded of a conversation I had with David Victor who's a political scientist out at San Diego about this idea of “penalty default.” It’s this idea that we're at a moment in time where companies are really at risk if they do not take risks and do things that are a little bit outside their comfort zone. Think about General Motors deciding they're going to have an all-electric fleet by whatever date—not something that a conservative company would normally do. But I think there's this feeling that if they don't do something dramatic and significant like that, they're going to be out of business. I forget how it ties into the term “penalty default” but he has a book called Fixing the Climate with Charles Sabel. It’s not something you can go out and read right now, but you could probably get an advanced copy or maybe find a manuscript somewhere or excerpts from it. It seems like it's kind of onto something in terms of thinking about why you see this behavior that you do among some of these companies.
Kristin Hayes: Okay, good. Well, there you go. Now, not only do we have Top of the Stacks that are literally available, but ones that are going to keep our listeners on the hook for months to come. That’s great. We'll just keep them coming back for more. All right, Billy, this has been fantastic. Thank you again for taking the time out of your Glasgow experience to talk with me and thanks for helping me wrap up the series in fine form.
Billy Pizer: Kristen, it's been totally my pleasure. So much fun.
Kristin Hayes: You've been listening to Resources Radio. Learn how to support Resources for the Future at rff.org/support. If you have a minute, we'd really appreciate you leaving us a rating or a comment on your podcast platform of choice. Also, feel free to send us your suggestions for future episodes. Resources Radio is a podcast from Resources for the Future. RFF is an independent, nonprofit research institution in Washington, DC. Our mission is to improve environmental, energy, and natural resource decisions through impartial economic research and policy engagement.
The views expressed on this podcast are solely those of the podcast guests and may differ from those of RFF experts, its officers, or its directors. RFF does not take positions on specific legislative proposals. Resources Radio is produced by Elizabeth Wason with music by Daniel Raimi. Join us next week for another episode.