REPRESENTATIVES from almost every country on the planet will arrive in Glasgow at the end of this month for the biggest diplomatic event on British soil since the end of the Second World War. The 2021 UN climate-change conference COP26 will represent a further attempt to thrash out a collective response to the global climate crisis.
COP26 is the most important such summit since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015. Then, every country in the world committed itself to reducing emissions and tackling the climate emergency. In Glasgow, it will be the first time that nations report back on their progress since the then, and it is hoped that they will strengthen the pledges made in 2015.
As host, the UK Government has a crucial part to play in the fortnight of talks. The Prime Minister and his appointed COP26 president, Alok Sharma, previously Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, have the task of ensuring that the talks are effective and achieve an outcome that matches the challenge.
COP presidents need all the skills of a top diplomat, both charm and determination, to get countries talking and then agreeing to the most ambitious outcome possible. The talks can be fraught. As the end of a meeting nears, negotiations regularly go on through the night in the effort to reach a conclusion.
At the 2006 meeting, the head of the UN’s climate change body at that time, Yvo de Boer, became known as the “crying Dutchman” after breaking down in tears at the lack of progress. At the gathering in France in 2015, however, skilful leadership from the French hosts delivered the Paris accord. Although not perfect, this laid the groundwork for efforts to transition the global economy away from fossil fuels.
LWF/Albin HillertOne of many attempts to emphasise the urgency of the matters discussed at COP25
The full name of COP26 sounds like a creation of the Circumlocution Office in Dickens’s Little Dorrit: the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It doesn’t trip easily off the tongue. Despite the arcane elements and occasional sclerotic processes, however, if we didn’t have COP26 and the UNFCCC, the climate crisis would force something similar on us.
Seen in another light, COP meetings are a rare example of global democracy, as nations come together to tackle an enemy that threatens us all — albeit to different degrees right now.
Unlike the G7 and G20, an exclusive club for the biggest and richest economies, the COP26 talks are for everyone: every nation has an equal vote and ability to speak on the plenary floor. It is the global forum in which the voice of the climate vulnerable can be heard, and in which moral and diplomatic pressure can be applied to any polluting countries that hold up progress on tackling it.
SINCE its creation at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, the UNFCCC has been through many ups and downs. The Copenhagen summit in 2009 faced an almost complete breakdown of talks; and the process came under attack by President Trump when he withdrew the United States from the Paris Agreement.
But that act also showed the strength of the accord. The withdrawal of the world’s richest country and largest historical polluter would, in the past, have made the agreement unravel. In the event, no other nation followed President Trump out of the door. Now that President Biden has reversed that decision, there is hope that the US can make up for the disastrous four years of recent American climate policy.
Although it is true that each country has its own say and vote during COP proceedings, it would be naïve to think that geopolitics doesn’t play a big part. For years, developing countries, especially those on the front line of the climate crisis, have been calling for urgent and ambitious action to tackle the crisis.
LWF/Albin HillertFaith representatives joined street protests during the COP25 gathering in Madrid, among them Stephanie Joy Abnasan from the Lutheran Church in the Philippines
Despite these calls, rich polluting countries have dragged their feet and made the progress of the previous COPs incremental rather than approve the sweeping changes that climate scientists, vulnerable communities, and religious groups have been calling for. That this will be the 26th such gathering, and that climate change remains the world’s gravest threat, are testament to that.
Over the years, countries with similar interests or geographic ties have joined together to form negotiating blocs in which they operate across other UN forums. For example, the Africa Group consists of the 54 African states, AOSIS is the Association of Small Island States, the EU operates as one bloc — and there’s the Umbrella group, an odd mixture of nations including those made up of big polluters such as Russia, the US, Australia, and Japan.
Some of these groups overlap. Chad, for example, is in the Africa Group, but also in the Least Developed Countries group (LDCs) and the G77. The G77 comprises almost all developing nations. (To add to the confusion, it has grown from its 1969 beginnings and now consists of 134 countries.)
There are often many layers of negotiation at the COP within and between these blocs. Often some of the biggest fights happen behind closed doors and between countries in the same bloc. For example, in recent years coal-loving Poland has been a drag on EU actions to reduce emissions, complicating the setting of EU targets.
These blocs will also often work together. The EU, which has been largely progressive on climate policy, recognising its historical responsibility for creating the climate crisis, has worked with AOSIS and other vulnerable groups to push for stronger action. Similarly, polluting nations will sometimes band together to resist progress that they reckon will undermine their economic growth.
This is why COP meetings also involve observers from civil society, who attend and track the negotiations. These policy experts, who often know as much about the ins and outs of the talks as the country delegates, provide scrutiny and help to highlight the bad actors who try to undermine the summit and water down its outcomes.
LWF/Albin HillertIndigenous leaders deliver their demand at COP25 in Madrid
At the talks, the civil-society observers work together through the Climate Action Network to highlight areas of concern that might go unseen by the outside world. They even have a special daily awards ceremony, when they give the “Fossil of the Day” to the worst-performing country at the talks, to shame it into working harder for climate action. These generate uncomfortable news headlines and are part of the public pressure that can be put on countries to stop attempts to derail the negotiations.
The civil-society presence also works to remind those inside the climate-controlled confines of the conference centre of the people who live on the front line of climate change: there are numerous campaign activities, colourful stunts, and other protests that amplify the voices of the vulnerable in an effort to increase their influence in the summit halls.
THIS year, there are three main priorities. The first is the need to mobilise $100 billion to help poor countries adapt to the climate change that they didn’t cause, and help transition away from fossil fuels. The figure of $100 billion was agreed and meant to be delivered by 2020, but it is still more than $20 billion short. If rich countries are to be trusted as negotiating partners, they need to deliver this by the end of COP26.
Second, there needs to be progress on establishing a fund that helps countries to deal with the permanent losses and damages caused by climate change. People cannot “adapt” to the loss of their island home to the rising sea-level, or their farmlands’ becoming desert. The word “compensation” is not used at COP itself — it has been vetoed by rich nations, which are wary of being held liable for damages — but compensation is basically what this fund would be.
LWF/Albin HillertStreet protests in Madrid during COP25 in 2019
Third, countries need to improve on the emissions-reduction measures that they agreed in Paris.
The Paris Agreement is made up of national action plans — Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) — outlining emissions-reduction measures. These were a good start, but, if enacted, they will still result in about 3ºC of warming above pre-industrial levels, much higher than the goal of 1.5ºC in the Paris accord.
The only way in which the agreement will continue to function is if countries strengthen these commitments every five years, as renewable technology improves and the science about the folly of fossil-fuel addiction becomes ever clearer. For countries that haven’t yet upgraded their NDCs, we need to see them do this by Glasgow, so that we can hope to bend the curve from 3ºC down to 1.5ºC.
The eyes of the world will be on Glasgow and on the UK Government, which is overseeing these discussions. It has been said that we are the first generation to feel the impact of climate change, and the last generation that can do something about it. The Glasgow summit is when that something must be done.
Joe Ware is a journalist and writer for Christian Aid.
What if COP26 disappoints?
THE UNFCCC process sets the general direction of travel on climate change, but on its own may not deliver the sweeping changes that scientists and the most vulnerable in terms of climate say that we need to see. Should COP26 be a disappointment, there are plenty of ways to respond:
- The UK was the first major economy to announce that it would have net-zero emissions by 2050. The Government needs to be pushed hard to keep to this, and accelerate the rollout of a net-zero infrastructure around the country. Use your democratic voice to write to or meet your MP and urge them to make this a reality.
- The Church of England has a net-zero-emissions date of 2030, as voted on by the General Synod. If this can be achieved, it will be a great example of faith in action, and a role-model for other institutions. Work to ensure that your church is doing its bit. You can use the C of E’s Energy Footprint Tool, and sign up for A Rocha UK’s Eco Church scheme.
- There will be many campaigns and activities launched after COP26 by charities and other organisations keen to accelerate climate action in the UK and around the world. These make a real impact; so sign up to the ones that interest you. For example, in 2015, a group of NGOs, including Christian Aid, CAFOD, and the RSPB, got the Conservative, Labour, and Lib Dem leaders to make commitments to phasing out coal use. Coal contributed 25 per cent of UK electricity in 2015, and today it’s just one per cent.
Joe Ware is senior climate journalist at Christian Aid.
Listen to an interview with Joe Ware on the Church Times Podcast