Policies for People and Planet

Cambridge Zero symposium gathers researchers to examine the rules and incentives needed to combat climate change

By Ellie Austin

More than 100 Cambridge academics gathered to discuss the "arm-twisting" and "frustration" of international climate negotiations, how to punish corporate "ecocide" and the urgent need for more realistic policies to address climate change.

Researchers at Cambridge departments from Law to Land Economy discussed their research and how to influence policymakers and corporations into taking actions that will result in a net zero future.

Policies govern the way people behave. Policies agreed on a national level, for example, can be designed to influence individual behaviour towards more environmentally friendly activities, such as taxing car fuel to encourage the use of public transport or providing subsidies for renewable electricity generators to encourage new green-energy businesses. 

On an international level, globally agreed targets can put pressure on countries to implement policies that encourage lower emissions of climate-changing greenhouse gases, such as agreeing to achieve a net-zero emissions economy by 2050.

Across the late November afternoon, a range of experienced to early career climate policy researchers spoke on topics from the future of carbon credit markets to achieving a just transition for indigenous communities. 

Among the keynote speakers was Dr Joanna Depledge, former staff member of the UN Climate Change Secretariat, who spoke on the challenges and controversies around “consensus decision-making” at the global level for agreeing climate targets. 

Global climate accords, such as the ground-breaking Paris Agreement drafted in 2015 at the UN’s 21st Conference of Parties (COP21), require “consensus” between all countries in attendance for any decision to be accepted.

The Paris Agreement is a landmark in the multilateral climate change process because, for the first time, a binding agreement brought all nations together to combat climate change and adapt to its effects.

Consensus, Depledge said, can be used in bad faith. Countries can use this requirement to block the process, create mistrust and prevent the negotiations from moving forward. 

One example offered by Depledge was when Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the United States blocked the use of strong language welcoming the IPCC 1.5 °C report at COP24 in 2018.

Depledge discussed the numerous failed attempts to introduce “majority voting rules” in the UN climate change regime, and why consensus has remained despite the appeal of voting rules. 

More ambitious global climate policies can be achieved more easily with majority voting powers, said Depledge.

However, some researchers said that consensus provided smaller communities, such as tiny island nations, protection from the "arm-twisting" tactics used to force the adoption of policies which might have an unfairly negative impact on their countries.  

“There’s some frustration over the inability of the COPs to make decisions over no-brainers, like the need to phase out fossil fuels or welcoming the IPCC reports”

- Dr Joanna Depledge

“The variety of perspectives at the symposium really succeeded in showing the scale of the problem,” said Nik Petek-Sargeant, Cambridge Zero Research Engagement manager and co-organiser of the event.

“If we want to minimise the effects of climate change, we need novel approaches in governance, law, and communication,” said Petek-Sargeant.

The symposium was hosted as a collaboration between Cambridge Zero, Cambridge’s Centre for Environment, Energy and Natural Resource Governance (CEENRG), and the Conservation Research Institute.  

Cambridge Zero hosts numerous collaborative research symposia each term. To keep up-to-date with Cambridge Zero's latest news and events, sign-up to our research newsletter here.

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Published 06 December 2023

Images: Ellie Austin

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Cambridge Zero is the University of Cambridge’s ambitious climate change initiative, harnessing the power of research to tackle climate change at one of the top global research universities in the world.