Despite its faults, the COP is the only show in town

[This article with some small changes appeared in the Irish Times on Saturday 5th November 2022]

Greta’s not going; neither is Prince Charles, China’s Xi Jinping nor India’s Narendra Modi. The red carpet at this year’s Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Egypt will be decidedly threadbare this year as leaders of key global states snub the summit. Prospects for any kind of breakthrough remain slim, with observers forecasting anything from a diplomatic disaster over loss and damage, to a best-case scenario of a modest breakthrough on climate finance.

None of this will seem like the appropriate reaction to the extreme weather events of 2022. If you are following the science and reading the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), you are probably terrified. You should be. There has been enough information about the risks of climate disaster to justify a swift and determined response by the international community for decades. But so far, progress has been incremental at best, and confined to policy commitments rather than actual emission reductions on the scale that is needed. And physics won’t wait for us to catch up: climate-related disasters are happening everywhere with increasing severity and frequency. While Europe has seen extreme weather, it is countries in the global South that have experienced the worst impacts, with thousands dead due to record flooding in Pakistan, Nigeria and South Africa this year, and millions at risk of starvation in the Horn of Africa. It is only going to get worse: climate-induced disasters will bring about irrecoverable losses, civil conflict, food insecurity and forced migration on a scale we have yet to contemplate.

Yet at a time when we need a concerted and decisive global response to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and support vulnerable developing countries, the G20 states are losing interest, and focusing their attention elsewhere. The US-China climate diplomacy has stalled, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has caused an energy crisis across Europe. Global tensions are being used to justify new fossil fuel licencing and exploration, despite warnings from the International Energy Agency that no new fossil developments can be permitted if the world is to stay below 1.5 degrees.

Decision-making is painfully bogged down by the strategically ambiguous language of the Paris Accord, consensus procedures, and spillover effects from other geopolitical agendas. The absence of “first mover” initiatives from the largest emitting nations – principally the US and China – makes it hard to generate momentum for action anywhere else.  Anyone tuning into the COP live stream from Egypt next week will be shocked at the lack of urgency, the deference to tedious work programmes with more acronyms than actions, and the pettiness of powerful states and big emitters. Most developed countries, including Ireland, still seek to protect their chief exports from what are perceived as costly trade barriers.

According to the Climate Action Tracker website, as of September 2022, not a single country is compliant with the Paris Agreement. The vast majority of OECD member states are categorised as “highly insufficient” or “insufficient” in their responses.  The EU is not on track to meet its commitment as part of the global methane pledge signed at Glasgow COP26 last year, and Ireland’s record is still woefully slow and inadequate.

Yet the international climate regime, for all its faults, is still the only show in town. Global cooperation is essential to address a problem that, by its very nature, has incentives for individual states to free-ride or default on their commitments. It is also the only forum in which developing and vulnerable nations can leverage influence to ensure that the promises made in relation to climate finance are fulfilled, and that there is equity and fairness in the transition away from fossil fuels.

It is not surprising therefore that the issue of loss and damage will loom large at this COP.  80% of all GHGs come from G20 countries and just 4% of cumulative emissions came from the entire continent of Africa. If there is to be fairness in the climate regime it must acknowledge both historical responsibility and ultimately liability for climate damages. There is still no global financial facility that is specifically earmarked for this purpose, and big historical emitters are fiercely resisting any definition of loss and damage that might expose them to compensation claims in the future.

What needs to be done? Reducing global emissions to ‘net zero’ by the middle of the century in turn demands ending the world’s reliance on fossil fuels as soon as possible. There is an overwhelming case for introducing a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty as a protocol to the UNFCCC. Because we didn’t act sooner, the emissions reductions required by developed countries are now in the order of 10-20% per year, once equity is taken into account. That means scaling up existing plans and policies in a transformative, system-wide mobilisation of society and all in sectors of the economy. It won’t be easy, but it is necessary.

However, even a “bad” COP is not the end of the world. Close observers of the international process argue that climate action will always be messy and bottom-up in practice. International diplomacy may not deliver a concrete plan of action, but there are welcome signs of a big shift towards renewable energy penetration, a peaking in fossil fuel use and new partnerships and alliances for climate action that reach across territorial and sectoral boundaries. Climate action is supported by a strong majority of the Irish public in all surveys and opinion polls and awareness is building all the time.

Climate action will not happen because the UN forces our governments to do it. It is up to us, as free citizens in a country that permits freedom of expression, organisation, and protest (in contrast to the host nation of this year’s COP) to insist that our governments live up to their promises, implement their own laws, and deliver climate action on the ground. A strong climate movement is the key to unlocking political will. We should all be part of it, because all of our futures depend on its success.

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