INSIGHT: Technology, not diplomacy, will solve climate change – think tank president

Al Greenwood


COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado (ICIS)–Technological advances and  innovation will do much of the heavy lifting needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while international diplomacy will likely fall short, the president of the Council of Foreign Relations said on Tuesday.

  • The shortcomings of international diplomacy are part of a larger trend of the deteriorating of global relations.
  • Global trade is withering.
  • Individual US states are adopting policy in the midst of federal deadlock, leading to a patchwork of regulations.

The shortcomings of global diplomacy manifested themselves in how the world brought the coronavirus pandemic under control, said Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. He made his comments to the annual meeting of the American Chemistry Council (ACC).

“How did we get past COVID-19? It was not, for the most part, through international cooperation,” Haass said. Instead, it was through the development of messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines and web-based meeting applications like Zoom.

“We managed this international crisis more through technology than through collective public policy,” he said.

He expects something similar will happen for climate change.

Haass said he has little confidence that international forums such as the Conference of the Parties (COP) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). People will not put the collective good over that of their nations.

Haass’ comments have profound implications for chemical companies. He did not discuss it, but members of the UN are negotiating a treaty that would address plastic waste. Based on Haass’s comments, technology such as mechanical and chemical recycling would have a better chance of addressing plastic waste than a global treaty.

Moreover, problems such as plastic waste and climate change will be addressed by technology and the companies that develop it.

Chemical companies are developing the process technology that can chemically recycle difficult plastics into feedstock. They are developing materials needed to produce renewable energy and green hydrogen as well as to manufacture electric vehicles (EVs) and the batteries that power them.

For climate change, Haass said corporations will play a larger role.

In the US, Haass said the nation has lacked a trade policy under the former president, Donald Trump, and the current president, Joe Biden.

“There is no real difference between the two administrations. There is more continuity than you think,” he said.

With that, Haass doubts that any major trade deals will not happen. The US will not join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Instead, the US will pursue mini-trade deals, he said. It may even avoid mentioning trade at all.

This has implications for US chemical producers because they export so much of their output.

For polyethylene (PE), the US needs to export around 40-45% of total  production to keep the market balanced.

Trade agreements could make it more difficult and expensive to export excess plastics and chemicals.

If the US maintains its antipathy towards trade, it could make it harder for the chemical industry to achieve some of its policy goals, such as the restoration of the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) and the Miscellaneous Tariff Bill (MTB).

The world order that existed during the past several decades has ended, according to Haass. “The post Cold War era has run its course. We’re in something new.”

Haass calls it the new world disorder. To illustrate, he compared how the world responded to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in the early 1990s to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine 30 years later.

Adding to that disorder is the increased chaos of US foreign policy, Haass said. Because of increased partisanship, the nation’s two political parties have starkly different policies about international relations, a departure from the years in which they differed little in regards to foreign affairs.

The consequence is that US foreign policy could swing widely if a new party gains power, Haass said. “For those who count on us, we are a far less predictable and reliable partner.”

The growing partisanship and divide between the two major parties in the US is transferring policy-making from the national level to the state level, Haass said.

On the federal level, divided government and a finely divided legislative branch makes it difficult to pass policy that addresses problems such as pollution, chemical management and climate change.

State governments are stepping in the void, since they have become more uniform.

“The action will move away from Washington and more to the states,” Haass said.

State policy will vary, and chemical companies will have to contend with a patchwork of regulations making it more costly to do business.

This trend was already apparent when states passed their own laws governing the phase out of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a family of blowing agents used by polyurethane producers.

HFCs are powerful greenhouse gases, and they are being replaced by hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs).

The ACC Annual Meeting runs through 7 June.

Insight article by Al Greenwood

Thumbnail shows hands holding globe of tree. Image by Shutterstock.


Global News + ICIS Chemical Business (ICB)

See the full picture, with unlimited access to ICIS chemicals news across all markets and regions, plus ICB, the industry-leading magazine for the chemicals industry.

Contact us

Partnering with ICIS unlocks a vision of a future you can trust and achieve. We leverage our unrivalled network of industry experts to deliver a comprehensive market view based on independent and reliable data, insight and analytics.

Contact us to learn how we can support you as you transact today and plan for tomorrow.