Come what may, the world cannot afford a diplomatic meltdown in Glasgow later this year. Respective government envoys must clock in at the conference ready to submit progressive and ambitious emission reduction targets that reconcile with the global pursuit of net-zero carbon footprint by 2050. Anything contrary shall defeat the overall objective of the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change.
Anyone trading their craft in foreign policy along the legal corridors of multilateral environmental agreements would probably concur that the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change was such a delicate balance. Fine margins were struck between binding and non-binding legal nomenclature to draft the most ambitious climate legal regime in history. Getting 197 states to unanimously agree to every other comma in the adopted text was no easy task. Much credit goes to the then-French presidency and the Obama administration for its relentless diplomatic push.
Arguably, last year presented the first hurdle to the future of the Paris climate agreement. Remember that ‘bittersweet’ feeling when the United States of America formally withdrew and re-joined the agreement within a hundred and seven days? Agree or disagree, not having the second-highest greenhouse gas emitter aboard was going to cripple the global fight against climate change under the Paris framework. For many environmental experts and analysts, subsequent membership bail out (after USA’s withdrawal) was not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’. Well, the agreement barely survived its first obstacle and not long after comes the second one; the 26th session of the United Nations Climate Change Conference of Parties (otherwise known as COP 26)
The United Kingdom plays host to the 26th session of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of Parties in November. COP 26 will be the most significant intergovernmental meeting on the climate crisis in the last five years and comes at the backdrop of the UN Secretary-General Climate Action Summit in 2019 and the just concluded virtual 2021 Leaders Summit on Climate (Earth Day Summit)
The mere fact that COP 26 ushers in the second commitment period to the Agreement is crucial by the very nature. For most people, this conference may look like ‘unchartered waters’ but make no mistake, we’ve been here before. This is a déjà vu moment for most climate activists and environmentalists. After COP 18 in Doha, the Kyoto protocol (the then international climate change regulatory framework) crumbled right at the renewal of its second commitment period (when parties failed to activate phase two of the protocol through the ratification of the 2012 Doha Amendment) This failure led to the downfall of Kyoto as key countries pulled out treaty membership while many others stayed, but abandoned further carbon reduction commitments. We even see members such as the European Union, who are often viewed as the ‘gold standard’ for environmental advocacy display ‘climate leadership fatigue' by equally not committing to Kyoto’s second commitment period. The culmination of these shortcomings triggered a series of diplomatic lobbying to conclude an alternative climate change treaty. After multiple failed attempts, it takes six years to orchestrate negotiations that eventually conceived the Paris Agreement.
With the current global economic and political ultra-complexities, one can only imagine how long it may take the world to negotiate a replacement; if indeed the Paris Agreement were to be subjected to the same ‘hostility’ as Kyoto, during or even after COP 26. However, we need to get ahead of ourselves and question a thing or two if this were an eventuality. Like, what will happen to the climate during such negotiations? Or perhaps, the billion dollar question is, to what extent is the world able to self-regulate in the absence of an international climate change regulatory framework?
Negotiations leading to the signing of the Paris Agreement ran two processes concurrently. One at the global stage and the other at respective national levels. The former entailed a diplomatic push and pull that conceived a mutual consensus among parties to commit to limiting the average global temperature rise to no more than 2°C above the pre-industrial levels and “to pursue efforts” to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C by 2050; The latter forms the foundation of the Agreement’s structure where all Parties were required to voluntary define at individual national levels (or through alliances such the European Union) what actions they are able and willing to take in achieving the overall goal of the Agreement — through a reporting system known as the Independent Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) Being the first commitment period to the Agreement, it can be presumed that most countries submitted ‘tentative’ carbon emission reduction targets through respective NDCs in 2015. This shouldn’t be an issue because signatories to the agreement were then expected to revise and improve their NDC in 2020 at COP 26, which was pushed to 2021 due to the global virus pandemic.
COP 26 is now only a few months down the road. Unlike previous conference of parties, this conference finds the world battling a global pandemic that demoted every other issue into second place, including climate change. For most countries if not all, climate change probably played subordinate to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 (with the same expected in 2021)
At the heart of COP 26 lies the current emission reduction deficit. Based on key climate science reports from Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the world has continued to record steep increase in the average global temperature since the Paris Agreement came into force. Going by data from such reports, the world is on the brink of missing the opportunity to limit global warming to 1.5°C. According to the 2019 Emissions Gap Report, the world needs a five-fold increase in collective current commitments under the Paris Agreement if we are to avoid a possible temperature rise to 3.2°C by the close of this century.
It is clearly evident that relying on the current commitments under the Paris framework is not sustainable at all. It is also crystal clear that the world is in desparate need for stringent ambitious and progressive emission reduction targets at the 26th session of the UN Climate Change Conference of Parties.
COP 26 offers the perfect gateway to fast track the realization of carbon neutrality (net zero carbon emissions) by 2050. A potential success of COP 26 will not only position the climate agenda on the right path but also set a good precedence to subsequent five year cycles of improving climate action under the Paris Agreement. Of particular interest is the world’s major emitters who are yet to step up their ambitions with concrete commitments. We need the G20 countries who account for approximately 80% of the global GHG emissions to vacate business as usual and cut their greenhouse gas emissions by at least 45% in 2030 and reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050 at the latest. According to the 2020 Emissions Gap Report, none of the G20 countries is in line with limiting warming to 1.5°C. It is imperative that the world holds these countries accountable and push them hard at COP 26 come November. Respective NDCs from the G20 hold no waters if they fail to address issues around fossil fuel subsidies and carbon pricing.
Presumably, the ripple effect of COVID-19 to COP 26 might weigh heavy on the Paris Agreement implementation tool kit (particularly on its financial mechanisms) The financial costs incurred to fight the pandemic might obscure states’ willingness to dig too deep in their NDC submissions at the conference. This means that a number of NDCs might not reflect true ambition towards carbon neutrality as should be the case. Remember, the rule of the thumb for NDC is that countries only submit what they are able and willing to do. So in principle, there is very little the international community can do to force nations to aim higher in their NDCs.
Financial costs of COVID-19 also leaves the mobilization of 100 USD concessional finance from developed countries hanging on a balance. Remember that this money is needed to facilitate the adaptive capacity of developing states through the Green Climate Fund. This is expected to be a pivotal agenda at COP 26. As it stands, more action is needed to address the promise of USD 100 billion per year for developing countries. From where I sit, I can only imagine whether or not COVID-19 might be used as a ‘wild card’ at the conference to delay the mobilization and transfer of these funds. Remember, any delay whatsoever is a race against time for extremely vulnerable countries’ timelines to build resilience against climate change, particularly for Small Island and Developing States (SIDS)
The success or otherwise of this conference will have stark consequences for the world. If COP 26 runs down in history as a failure, the world risks relapsing back to a global disorder in fighting climate change. Such eventuality will surely derail the milestones and progress achieved so far by the Paris Agreement. If countries cannot agree on sufficient pledges, in another 5 years, the emissions reduction necessary will leap to a near-impossible 15.5% every year. The unlikelihood of achieving this far steeper rate of decarbonisation means the world faces a global temperature increase that will rise above 1.5°C. Every fraction of additional warming above 1.5°C will tag along worsening impacts threatening lives, food sources, livelihoods and economies worldwide with climate change hot spots such as Least Developed Countries and Small Island and Developing States expected to face the full brunt of such outcomes.
For the Paris Agreement to achieve its intended outcome, COP 26 must be a success. For COP 26 to be a success, world leaders must embrace boldness. This is not a time for political goodwill lip service. This is a time for the leaders to present concrete and realistic plans compatible with the overall objective of the Agreement. As echoed by the UN Secretary-General in the build-up to the 2019 Climate Action Summit, ‘leaders should come to the conference to present plans, not make speeches.’
At international forums such as COP 26, the political class often holds the ‘trump card’. They could choose to display ‘goodwill’ or choose ‘otherwise’. If they choose 'otherwise' by failing to demonstrate the political goodwill to fight the climate crisis at the 26th session of the United Nations Climate Change Conference of Parties, the world can only bank on one thing to hold our leaders accountable; the court of public opinion. Climate change is now the elephant in the room for most households. People around the world have demonstrated that they understand the severity of the challenge and are asking for political solutions. The 2020 Peoples’ Climate Vote found that nearly two-thirds (64%) of people in 50 countries believe that climate change is a global emergency; presenting a clear and convincing mandate for decision-makers to increase their ambition levels in commitments under the Paris Agreement. It is highly likely that governments’ seeking to display ‘scepticism’ at COP 26 will attract emphatic negative approval ratings from their respective electorates.