With all the news about extreme weather around the world and a creeping despondency about the likelihood that the Paris target for global warming will be met – no more than +2°C and as close to +1.5°C over pre-industrial levels – it is easy to wonder whether these great gatherings really serve a purpose. Each year we seem to be treated to grand announcements – often after an all-night session for added political drama – which promise much, only for there to be another round of head-scratching about slow progress the following year.
Where are we at in 2022?
This week Antonio Guterres, head of the United Nations, published a report saying that current emissions reductions pledges by the 193 countries that are parties to the UNFCCC would lead to global heating of at least 2.6°C. The past year has seen catastrophic floods in Pakistan and Nigeria, record heatwaves in Europe and South Asia, and continuing severe droughts in the south-west United States and the Horn of Africa. COPs don’t seem to be slowing the rate of climate change or its intensifying global impacts.
And yet. The climate treaty and its annual gatherings are fundamental to solving the climate crisis. The UNFCCC is the main piece of international law regulating our collective management of the global climate system and COPs are the place where its pledges and instruments are worked out and edged forward. Climate change is a fiendishly complicated problem to govern because the atmosphere is shared, almost everyone on Earth contributes to the problem by using fossil fuels (though to radically differing degrees), getting to Net-Zero is difficult and costly, and the effects of a changing climate are unevenly distributed, geographically and socially. We are in this together, but with widely differing stakes and capabilities to respond. Effecting change requires action on many fronts, many of which require international cooperation and are slow in bringing tangible effects.
Why do we need COPs?
This is a long game and change will be incremental and for the long-term. If the UNFCCC is the primary game in town as far as managing our climate goes, then COPs are its annual ‘focusing events’, holding the attention of international leaders and forcing them to take the next steps on a long journey to a safe climate. COPs are also pretty inclusive events. About half the people who attend are activists, researchers, journalists or representing businesses. They too are given a platform and a chance to influence the mood and the political negotiations. It’s a sort of Glastonbury of climate politics and activism, only with the future of the world at stake.
The political negotiations of climate COPs have essentially four functions:
- Countries review the science and understanding of climate change, including the latest observations of the climate system – including the atmosphere, oceans and the biosphere – and projections of future climate change, taking into account promises made by countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through decarbonising their economies and changes to land use and forestry.
- Countries’ pledges are reviewed – so-called Nationally Determined Contributions (NCDs) made by countries to cut their emissions. The idea is that the process of having to publish a target and the peer pressure exerted at these meetings force countries onto a progressive escalation of effort, the opposite of a ‘race to the bottom’. Here, however, the news is less good. Just 23 of 193 countries had submitted their plans to the UN by the end of October. While higher energy prices are accelerating investments in zero-carbon energy, which is now the cheapest option in many parts of the world, the clean energy transition still faces many obstacles.
- Countries agree on commitments to assist with adaptation to climate change impacts, the big debates being about financial aid for those affected by climate risk in lower-income countries (the $100 billion Climate Fund) and the tricky issue of ‘loss and damage’ – whether victims of climate-related losses should be helped by those who caused it through their historical production and consumption of fossil energy.
- Countries make decisions about further developments of the complex of policy instruments for achieving a safe climate. At the Glasgow COP26 the so-called Paris Rulebook on transparency of emissions reporting and other issues was agreed. COP27 is likely to see agreement on new measures focused on Africa and poorer nations.
Understanding the long game
Dealing with a complicated global problem like climate change is a slow business. One way of seeing the climate governance regime is to characterise it as an example of ‘polycentric governance’. This idea, first developed by the great polymath social scientist Michael Polanyi and later by Vincent and Elinor Ostrom, describes a process of messy competition, collaboration, conflict and conflict resolution that occurs when autonomous units – including, in the case of climate change, governments, businesses, investors, consumers and activists – seek to act while taking account of others.
It may be confusing and frustrating to watch at times, and we may feel that progress is dangerously slow. But it the best way we can think of to make the steady, peaceful and mutual progress towards the goal of a safe climate in which the most vulnerable can be protected. We are in this together and climate COPs offer a moment each year to reflect on what has been achieved and what more needs to be done.