With the naming of a new president-designate for the COP 26 in Glasgow, Alok Sharma, it is time for the UK government, together with the United Nations (UN), to move into high gear to make the conference a success. But what, you may ask, is success?
Let’s begin by setting aside the clichés about the “failed” UN climate change process and focus instead on the real culprits in the climate crisis; governments and the business community who are not delivering the action needed, nor even the actions they have promised. Instead of rhetoric, “greenwashing” and abstract, long-term goals, what is needed is concrete action to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and build resilience. Now.
COPs are the annual meetings under the three international climate change treaties: the Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992, the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 and the Paris Agreement in 2015. These treaties show that the UN climate process can deliver important agreements - and has done so - when governments want it to. The COP could be considered the “parliament” of these treaties. Sometimes it negotiates new treaties or laws but its more routine business is that of facilitating treaty implementation; rule setting, monitoring progress, showcasing action, and promoting ambition. It cannot force governments or non-state actors to do what they are not prepared to do, but it does provide a high-profile forum for accountability as well as for peer and public pressure.
We see unprecedented public support in most countries for enhanced action on climate change to meet the ambitious goals agreed in the Paris Agreement. But most governments and large segments of the business community are not taking advantage of the opportunity. It seems as if short-term political and profit considerations win out over long-term sustainability and future generations. Witness the absence of results from last December’s COP 25 in Madrid, which reinforced the public perception of government and business failures.
This is not to suggest that the COP 26 is a pre-determined failure. Far from it. Rather, it is a critically important moment to build momentum in the global effort to respond to the climate emergency. But one has to frame the objectives and definition of success realistically and fairly, guided by what any multilateral process can achieve, especially at a time when key world powers are not much interested in climate action or in multilateralism. The process is not helped by setting dramatic yet unrealistic objectives.
The world should not expect a grand agreement - or agreement on radically-enhanced ambitions - from the COP 26. Not only is this not on the agenda, it is not in the cards due to political realities and the requirements to reach decisions by consensus. But the good news is that such an agreement is also not needed. The Paris Agreement provides the blueprint. The imperative now is to implement it through vigorous governmental and business actions and commitments.
What the COP 26 offers is a fantastic opportunity for large-scale economic, social and political mobilisation and for generating momentum. The UK presidency has a critical role to play in making this happen, just as the French presidency of the COP 21 was instrumental in making the 2015 Paris COP such a landmark event. This effort must involve not only the COP president-designate and his team, but the prime minister and the foreign secretary, other members of the Cabinet, the Climate Champion and the full diplomatic network of the United Kingdom, working with the UNFCCC secretariat and the UN Secretary-General.
The underlying foundation for success has to be the presidency’s facilitation of the routine business of the COP. Inclusiveness through extensive consultations with all governments and with civil society, as well as transparency on plans and arrangements, will build trust. This will help to establish a positive atmosphere and complete issues left pending from the Madrid COP, such as the rules for market mechanisms. Moreover, real climate action at home in the UK will build credibility.
But the real measure of success will be the mobilisation agenda. This agenda – focussed on enhanced ambition and real climate action – can be seen to have three elements.
1. Most governments need to submit new or updated action plans under the Paris Agreement before the COP 26. Every effort must be made to ensure that as many of these plans as possible, or Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), constitute real advances on the previous plans that were delivered five years ago before the Paris Conference.
This will not happen without active diplomacy from, and support by, the UK and its partners. This should be a point high on the agenda of every one of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s bilateral meetings or calls with other leaders in the coming months. While all action plans are important, those of the EU (encompassing all its member states) and China are critical. In fact, these are the UK’s essential partners for success in Glasgow.
Linked to these plans can be the submission of already-envisioned low carbon development strategies. Together, a critical mass of new plans and such strategies will send a clear message to the world that the curve is beginning to bend.
2. Financial support to developing countries is an important issue in the climate change negotiations, and one that is marked by animus and suspicion. The UK presidency must work with its partners, and with multilateral institutions, to maximise the funding available to developing countries, especially the most vulnerable, with a focus on the implementation of those countries’ action plans/NDCs. 2020 is the target year for the mobilisation from all sources of the promised $100 billion (€92 billion) per year. Accountability on the delivery of this commitment will be important in building confidence and trust between industrialised and developing countries.
3. The critical element of this agenda is for the UK to work with ambitious national and local governments, with business and with civil society to move beyond existing helpful if inadequate commitments. The objective for the COP 26 needs to be building momentum to reach a higher plain of action. New actors can be brought in and new initiatives launched. Successes need to be showcased, thereby changing the narrative to one of “can do”-attitude to enact positive change. The focus needs to be on concrete actions to achieve low carbon development, to level off on peak emissions and to reach carbon neutrality by 2050.
As it is not part of the formal COP, this outcome does not need to be negotiated or agreed by consensus. It needs to be made to happen and involve those who want to be part of the solution. The huge informal space that surrounds the more formal COP is the venue for these key discussions. The UK government, through its active engagement at all levels and with a strong organisational effort, can make this happen, but it must move very quickly to build the partnerships and organise the necessary events to facilitate it.
This 3-prong mobilisation agenda, combined with astute diplomacy and leadership in the formal negotiations, has the potential to make the COP 26 both a media and an actual success. This means that the headlines coming out of Glasgow will be about new momentum and vigour to reduce emissions, and not about weak negotiated outcomes - or worse. This same momentum will lead to significantly enhanced action on the ground, building on public demands.
Such a success is achievable, but it will require a significant whole-of-government commitment and urgent deployment of the full force of the United Kingdom’s diplomacy working closely with the UN.
Richard Kinley is President of the Foundation for Global Governance and Sustainability (FOGGS) and the former Deputy Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
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