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Climate policy and the challenges of global energy transition: A conversation with Joel Jaeger, WRI

Flyer for Joel Jaeger RDP event

By Anna Linvill 

On April 25, 2023, the Duke University Rethinking Diplomacy Program (RDP) in partnership with the Nicholas School for the Environment, and Duke’s Energy Access Project, hosted a conversation on Climate Diplomacy with Joel Jaeger, Senior Research Associate at The World Resources Institute (WRI), a global research organization that works with governments, businesses, multilateral institutions and civil society groups to address seven global challenges: Food, Forests, Water, Energy, Climate, the Ocean, and Cities. They analyze climate issues through the lenses of business, economics, finance and equity. Joel has helped develop WRI’s methodologies for measuring progress towards the climate goals outlined in The Paris Agreement, a legally binding treaty signed by 193 states plus the EU in December 2021 that entered into force on 4 November 2016.  

Protecting Earth’s environment and building a prosperous, but more sustainable economy has become a priority for most countries in the world. We hear often that the green energy transition has enormous and growing potential to address environmental risks while generating wealth in the U.S. and in the broader global economy. The goal of this webinar was to dig deeper. Are these claims realistic? How far along is the green energy transition? What needs to be done on the national and international diplomacy front in preparation for COP 28 in Fall 2023? 

While Jaeger’s analysis has shown that the ambitious goals of the Paris Agreement are still a long way from being met, trend lines for many areas of concern are moving in a positive direction. Because of falling prices, renewables and EVs are increasing in uptake and becoming more economical. In some cases, renewables are cheaper than fossil fuels. Thanks to government incentives and investment in R&D, economies are changing, and societies are adapting rapidly. Even after the U.S. pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement during the Trump administration, progress continued to accelerate in the private sector.  

Dr. Giovanni Zanalda, director of the Rethinking Diplomacy Program asked about the state of corporate climate commitments in 2023. “WRI is part of an initiative called the science-based targets initiative, helping corporations make commitments for emissions reductions that are in line with the latest climate science. Commitments have been increasing every year” Joel explained. “Now it is about accountability.” 

With the transition away from fossil fuels towards electrification gaining momentum, many global communities are concerned about what will happen to already economically and socially stressed communities if they are left behind, especially in fossil fuel-dependent economies like those in Africa, South America, and many local communities in the U.S., Russia, and Canada.  

Webinar panelist and Duke graduate student, Jibikeoluwa Faborode is particularly interested in how the energy transition might impact poverty reduction efforts fossil fuel economies like her home country, Nigeria. Jaeger agreed that this is a major problem for many communities, with no easy solution. The work of WRI’s Just Transition Center has determined that the green revolution’s positive economic effects will most certainly be uneven, and many communities will require support. This support could come in the form of retraining in green technologies. Financial support will also most certainly be necessary. 

Climate Finance, a concept being promoted in diplomatic circles and civil society, would structure global finance to promote financial aid for stressed, developing economies by countries whose advanced, industrialized economies have contributed the most to climate damage. According to the UN, climate finance is needed for mitigation efforts and adaptation, as significant financial resources are needed to adapt to the adverse effects and reduce the impacts of a changing climate.  

Even in developed economies, there will be economic winners and losers. While WRI projects that green spending can boost the broader economy 2-7 fold, job quality in the green economy is a major problem. Many green jobs are low paying and non-unionized, while jobs in the fossil fuel dependent economy have been high paying and unionized. Not only that, but much of the green economy is dependent on China for resources and manufacturing.  

In one interesting exchange, RDP fellow, Ambassador Robert Pearson (ret) and Jackson Ewing of Duke’s Nicholas School for the Environment highlighted diplomacy’s role in the process of global energy transformation, emphasizing that the U.S.-China relationship is key to achieving climate goals. If large economies do not work together, and economic relationships become increasingly competitive, domestic support for the green economy will drop, and countries will revert to using the resources close at hand—coal, gas, and oil.  

Global instability like the war in Ukraine and the recent increase in tension between China and much of the West, has indeed pushed some countries to return to domestic sources of energy. Meanwhile, China has pulled out of multilateral climate talks. In spite of these negative trends, panelist Dr. Jonathan Phillips, director of Duke’s James E. Rogers Energy Access Project, says much can be done internationally through coordination of efforts rather than through formal agreements.  

With COP 28 is being hosted this year by the UAE, a major oil producer, some, including Duke student, Luna Abadia, are skeptical of efforts by governments to claim green credibility. Jaeger agrees that fossil fuel economies like the UAE may seem to have a conflict-of-interest vis a vis the energy transition, but Duke’s Jackson Ewing says there may be some openness to green adjacent solutions like carbon capture technology and cleaning up coal emissions. It is also easier to achieve some carbon reductions by replacing coal with natural gas, even though the natural gas burning does emit greenhouse gases. Natural gas can also be used in more efficient, less polluting ways—for example, to power the hydrogen economy.  

When asked what the most important thing we can do to mitigate climate change, Jaeger did not hesitate: “The single most important thing to do is to reduce deforestation, and then reforest and restore degraded lands, because forests, meadows, and wetlands are a really important carbon sink–preventing carbon from getting out into the atmosphere.  

On a personal and community level, Jaeger says it will require a behavior change from all of us, especially in the developed world. We can replace lawns with meadows and woodlands. We can redesign our communities to be more walkable. We can demand better access to safe and reliable public transportation. We can continue to explore ways to increase crop yields per acre to reduce the amount of land under cultivation and eat less meat. Meanwhile, civil society should continue to lobby for good climate policy, holding countries and companies to their promises. In the end, successful adaptation to and mitigation of the effects of climate change depends on commitments at all levels–from the individual to the international. 

This webinar was organized by Duke’s Rethinking Diplomacy Program in alignment with the Duke Climate Commitment and with a grant from the Josiah Charles Trent Memorial Foundation Endowment Fund.