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Assessing COP26 and what must come next to address climate change

Transitioning to ecological sustainability

Democracy Collaborative board member Charles McNeill was in Glasgow at COP26—the 26th “Conference of the Parties” of the United Nations Climate Change Conference—in November 2021 as senior advisor for the UN Environment Programme. Longtime Democracy Collaborative senior fellow and environmental movement leader Gus Speth has an intimate understanding of the issues and political dynamics of these climate conferences. We asked McNeill and Speth about their impressions of COP26 and what should come next.

What is your assessment of what was (and was not) accomplished during COP26?

Charles McNeill: People-powered victories

The climate convention “Conferences of the Parties” (COPs) include both multination diplomacy and the associated civil society participation. In COP26, the dynamism, creativity and impact of civil society engagements in and outside the Glasgow negotiating area was beyond anything I have seen before and was amplified by new opportunities for virtual participation and social media outreach. I would argue that the balance between the relative influence over governments of environmentalists, scientists and human rights activists compared to the power of the fossil fuel industry was tipped in favor of civil society in Glasgow. The voices of youth and indigenous peoples—religious leaders and faith communities—were stronger than ever in Glasgow.

To this end, the first-ever references to fossil fuels appeared in a COP decision (as in “phasing down” coal power and phasing out oil and gas subsidies), hopefully signaling the death knell of our fossil-fuel-based economy. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) estimates that fossil fuel subsidies are at a level of $423 billion per year, an amount that could go a long way to help poor countries address climate change. How perverse that nations are subsidizing the very industry that is causing the suffering from climate change that we are seeing all around us?

An agreement that all countries should report again next year on their climate plans (‘Nationally Determined Contributions’) instead of waiting for the five years stipulated in the Paris Agreement is extremely important since this 2020-2030 decade is truly the make-or-break decade for climate action so we can’t wait until it is half over to ratchet up collective commitments.

The reasserting and strengthening of a commitment to keeping temperatures within 1.5 degrees Celsius was another important advance that didn’t seem possible at previous COPs.

The call for doubling industrialized country financing to developing countries for adaptation was also positive.

I was particularly encouraged by the “Glasgow Leaders Pledge on Forests and Land Use”—by 127 countries covering over 90% of the world’s forests—to halt and reverse deforestation and land degradation by the end of the decade, underpinned by $19 billion in public and private funds, including $1.9 billion to support indigenous peoples. Another significant pledge on methane is good news and both pledges need to be carefully tracked.

In terms of what was not achieved, although we saw the first-ever reference to “loss and damage” in a COP outcome, it was disappointing that in spite of developed countries historic responsibility for the climate crisis there was no firm commitments nor a mechanism to channel those funds to developing countries.

Based on the sum total of national commitments for action in the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), I recall that before the Paris conference the world was headed towards a 4-degree Celsius future. After Paris we faced at least a 3-degree C future, and now after Glasgow we are staring at a 2.4-degree C future (assuming all countries keep their promises). So although we are closing in on the goal, we are moving much too slowly in view of the massive suffering that has already started in our world at 1.1 degrees C warmer than pre-industrial times.

Overall, countries’ announcements emphasized ‘net-zero emissions by 2050’ (a necessary component of reaching a 1.5-degree C limit) but were light on concrete action in the near term. 

Gus Speth: One key failure

These annual COP events galvanize energies and attention from scientists, policymakers and the public from all over the world. They are like huge souks with a thousand little stalls with vendors selling their solutions, inventions, findings and results, promises, and more. They raise hopes and expectations, as well as focus anger and frustrations. Everybody is talking, organizing, promising, explaining, complaining, asking, begging, waiting. And the media is covering. And all this gets bigger and bigger as the crisis grows. All that is for the good. 

But the COPs are also supposed to lead to binding intergovernmental agreements to reduce GHG emissions on a firm schedule, and that is the one thing they seem incapable of doing. Glasgow was no exception, and because the climate crisis is hard upon us, Glasgow must be marked as a failure and a disappointment. I would not say that the 26 COPs were a waste of time, but they sure have wasted a lot of time.

Given that, what would you say is the key policy demand we need to be making in the US and other industrialized countries?

Charles McNeill: Phase out, not down

The U.S. needs to stay involved and provide leadership in the international community because with less than 5% of the world’s population, we have put up 25% of all the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, far more than even the nearest country, China, with less than 14%.

In the U.S., all attention and focus must be on Congress to quickly pass the Infrastructure and Build Back Better legislation.

The U.S. and other countries need to be followed up and supported to deliver on their significant forest and land use, and methane commitments as well as their pledges to fund adaptation measures in developing countries. Industrialized countries need to be more forthcoming with finance for climate change mitigation and adaptation since just one flooding event from this year is costing Germany $30 billion.

All industrialized countries need to push for the phasing out of coal and of oil and gas subsidies—not just “phasing down”—and transition to clean energy—domestically and internationally. The trillions of dollars spent on propping up polluting technology can be directed to fight inequities, build social safety nets, and support the transition to clean energy economies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve human wellbeing. Phasing out fossil fuels and taxing carbon can stimulate growth, innovation and health.

Gus Speth: Six essentials

Of course, one result at Glasgow was the failure to mobilize North-South transfers on the scale justified morally and practically. The US could certainly do far better on this front from now on. The bills will come due one way or another, and they are drawing interest at a very high rate.

At home, bearing in mind that doing the same things as in the past over and over is unlikely to produce a different result, six things are essential. President Biden’s climate agenda needs to pass in Congress and move powerfully through the federal regulatory process. (A long conversation in itself.) We need a massive, unprecedented civic mobilization of protest, demands, non-violence, building on the start made by Sunrise, Extinction Rebellion, youth, native peoples, and others. We need to get far, far more involved in electoral politics at all levels, building political power outside the constraints of section 501(c)(3), which has been a wet blanket. We need to bring the judicial branch into the picture, since the other two branches have failed us miserably. Thankfully, lawsuits are proliferating, including ones raising constitutional issues.

I need to mention two of my books to make the last two points. In Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the GlobalEnvironment, I outlined an agenda for needed change in the processes of global environmental governance. The multiple shortcomings of the current order were on vivid display at Glasgow. What a ridiculous setup it is. The world community would never tolerate such incompetence if the world economy were at stake, but as for the world environment, well, that’s different.  It’s past time to get busy reforming the international processes of environmental governance.

My most recent book, They Knew: The US Federal Government’s Fifty-Year Role in Causing the Climate Crisis, details the way our political economy has botched the climate issue decade after decade. If ever there were a tale of system failure, this is it. There is much we can and must do working with the current system to address climate, but getting serious about climate protection also means getting serious about building a new political-economic system. As the banner at climate marches says, “System Change, Not Climate Change.”

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