Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Countries Struggle To Agree On Rules For Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions


The U.N. climate conference in Poland is wrapping up, and officials from nearly 200 countries are expected to agree on new rules for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. To talk about what progress they've made, we're joined now by NPR's Becky Hersher, who is at the conference in Poland. Hi, Becky.


SHAPIRO: There's a bit of a delay on the line. I understand the conference is scheduled to wrap up today. Have the delegates finished their work?

HERSHER: (Laughter) No, they have not. Countries are really, really struggling to agree on tons of technical issues. And negotiations have stretched into the night. They're going to run at least until tomorrow.

SHAPIRO: Wow. Well, tell us a little bit more about the role of the U.S. delegation because earlier in the week, you reported on administration officials holding a panel promoting fossil fuels, which obviously was controversial since this conference is about reducing the use of fossil fuels. But that was separate from the work of the actual U.S. delegates at the conference who are State Department officials. What have they been doing?

HERSHER: Yeah, they've been working a lot. They've been negotiating a timetable, among other things, for talking about how much money richer countries like the U.S. will give to poorer countries to help them transition to renewable energy. They've been working with China on things like that despite the trade war and political tensions. So behind closed doors at least, the U.S. is continuing, as they have in the past, to work on the agreement in good faith, if not particularly efficiently.

SHAPIRO: Right. So as these talks go late into the night and perhaps into the morning, what are the big sticking points?

HERSHER: Well, on the money front, the timetable is coming together, but the amounts aren't, which has a lot of people worried. And delegates are getting really hung up on how to keep track of how much greenhouse gas each country releases into the atmosphere. So this is actually really the key to the rules, but it's really complicated because we're talking about mostly a colorless, odorless gas that's everywhere on Earth. So the rules have to be super specific about how you count how much each country releases.

SHAPIRO: Why is it so complicated to measure greenhouse gas emissions? Just in the last couple months, we've seen several reports on global levels of greenhouse gases going up. So clearly scientists know how to do this.

HERSHER: Yeah, but on a smaller scale, it gets a lot harder. So I'll give you an example. Take a country that exports a lot of electricity to its neighbor. And let's say that country has been using coal for a long time. And they have a coal-fired power plant. It's really dirty. It releases a lot of CO2. They replace it with a wind farm. That's a lot less emissions, right? But which country gets to claim that emissions reduction? Is it the country that paid the money, that's selling the electricity, that paid to put in that wind farm? Or is it the one that's buying it that maybe said, we vow to buy cleaner energy?

So if you don't write really, really clear rules on that, you end up with complicated answers to those questions. And you end up double-counting, which is really scary because you could end up meeting your emissions targets on paper, but then in fact emissions won't go down that much, and the Earth will continue to warm dangerously.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Rebecca Hersher in Poland. Thanks, Becky.

HERSHER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.