COP26, hope and judgment in times of crisis
The United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (‘COP26’) was held in the wake of extreme weather events made worse by climate change, new danger warnings from the scientific community and a global lesson on merits of acting on the basis of science during the pandemic. During the two-year gap in formal negotiations forced by the pandemic, the global movement for stronger action among young people, indigenous peoples and many other communities kept up the pressure for credible results at COP26.
Religious communities play a growing and networked role in this movement for climate action. The long virtual period to Glasgow for national negotiators has been accompanied by a sustained campaign of religious diplomacy and advocacy. Often ecumenical in scope, this series of events, announcements and declarations included the very first joint declaration of a Pope, an Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch and an Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury.
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s Climate Advocacy
Continuing his decades of leadership on environmental issues, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has been a protagonist of this pre-COP advocacy, issuing calls to action (in English, French, Greek and Italian) at high-level gatherings over three continents. These included an address at the September G20 Interfaith Forum in Bologna. In this “open letter to COP26”, Bartholomew expressed his hope that the results of the Glasgow conference “can shift the global environment to the level necessary for the world to reach net zero”.
“In less than 30 years,” he added, “it is possible to achieve the regeneration of our planet. Imagine living without fossil fuels. Imagine a world in which we take care of each other. If achieved, achieving intra- and intergenerational justice and eradicating odious poverty become possibilities. “
The culmination of this religious diplomacy was the meeting at the beginning of October at the Vatican of some forty religious leaders, including Patriarch Bartholomew and Metropolitan Hilarion of the Moscow Patriarchate. The leaders launched a joint appeal to the participants of the COP26, which Pope Francis handed to the President of the COP26, the Minister of the British Government Alok Sharma and the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs Luigi Di Maio (representing the partnership of Italy with the United Kingdom for the Glasgow conference).
This joint call urged governments to deliver transformational results at COP26, including for all governments “to adopt a trajectory that will limit the global average temperature rise to 1.5 ° C”; for keeping “existing pledges to provide substantial financial support to vulnerable countries”; for the protection of indigenous peoples and local communities against “predatory economic interests”; and for an “efficient and inclusive just transition” that prioritizes “decent work for all, especially those in sectors dependent on fossil fuels”.
To these statements, one could add the remarkable speech of Pope Francis of October at the Fourth World Meeting of Popular Movements, in which he called (among others) the “big extractive industries” to “stop destroying forests, wetlands and mountains, to stop polluting rivers and seas, to stop poisoning food and people ”.
By placing these religious leaders’ calls for transformational change side by side with the actual Glasgow results, we can only hear faint echoes of the former in the latter. On emissions reductions, the Glasgow Climate Pact – the overall conference decisions agreed at ministerial level – notes that keeping global warming at 1.5 ° C requires significant reductions in global emissions by 2030, while emissions are set to be higher in 2030 than they were in 2010. The decision therefore calls on countries to strengthen their 2030 targets by the end of 2022, “if necessary to align with the target of temperature of the Paris Agreement ”. With respect to the transition to low-emission energy, there is a strongly cautioned call for “accelerating efforts towards the relentless phase-down of coal-fired power and the phase-out of inefficient subsidies to energy sources. fossil fuels”.
Regarding support to developing countries, the decision “notes with deep regret” that the commitment of US $ 100 billion per year from developed countries by 2020 has not been met and “urges” developed countries to respect it. Also on finance, the conference called on developed countries to double their adaptation funding for developing countries by 2025 and agreed on a new process to identify a post-2025 climate finance target.
There is also a two-year program of work on the global adaptation goal and a new ‘dialogue’ to ‘discuss modalities for funding activities to avoid, minimize and address loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of change. climate ”- conclusion in 2024.
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Collectively, the Glasgow results represent progress. They are perhaps more than one would have expected after a two-year hiatus in negotiations, were it not for the usual in-person preparatory meetings that normally precede a COP. But they are clearly not the drastic change that is needed. A reader might ask, and would be justified in asking, what were we all doing in Glasgow, then?
The truth is that Glasgow has shown the limits of what a negotiation between nearly 200 countries, based on consensus, can achieve. The last-minute weakening of language on coal, over objections from a handful of large countries, is just one high-profile example of how it works. There were literally hundreds of other such cases, most of them out of the public eye. Consensus means that almost all countries must be accommodated, from the most progressive to the least.
Despite these limitations, the United Nations process has an important role to play. It is the only platform that grants equal status to the poorest and most climate-vulnerable countries, alongside the great powers. Consensus gives legitimacy to rules that countries ultimately cannot be forced to follow. And if the appeals of religious leaders and of civil society at large can only be seen in the Glasgow decisions “through a glass, darkly”, there is no doubt that these mobilizations made the results more ambitious than they would not have been otherwise.
Finally, the impact of COP26 is not limited to its formal and negotiated results. Several major partnerships and initiatives were launched in Glasgow on critical topics such as finance, methane emissions and deforestation. It is in this space, outside the negotiating rooms, that civil society and other non-state actors (or “non-party stakeholders” in the parlance of the United Nations) can play a direct role. With the completion of the rules of the Paris Agreement in Glasgow, the UN climate conferences are expected to become less about negotiations and more about convening, monitoring progress, and building ambition and drive. action.
Dr Stephen Minas who wrote the above article in a personal capacity. is Associate Professor at the School of Transnational Law at Peking University and Senior Fellow at the Transnational Law Institute at King’s College London, where Stephen obtained a Doctor of Laws degree.
He is Chairman of the Technology Executive Committee of the UNFCCC and a member of the EU team in the UN climate negotiations.