Center for LeadershipS and Sustainability

Article by Àngel Castiñeira, Ferran Curtó and Anna Maria Gonzalez

The Glasgow COP26 ended on November 13th with the signature of a climate agreement urging countries to “review and bolster” their climate commitments by late 2022. For the first time, it included an explicit reference to fossil fuels and called for coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies to be gradually phased out. All eyes are now on COP27, where the new promises for 2022 will be at the top of the agenda, along with implementation, adaptation and finance issues.

The 27th sitting of the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP27) will take place in Sharm El-Sheikh (Egypt) from 7 to 18 November 2022. It is important for the next COP host country to be in Africa because this could (if the Egyptian regime does not clamp down on the civil society gathering for this conference) give an extra boost to the issues of climate finance, adaptation, losses and damage, all of great importance in Africa – home to many of the people most susceptible to the impact of climate change.

Africa hosting the next COP could give an extra boost to the issues of climate finance, adaptation, losses and damage

As is well known, COP26 had four main priorities: 1) to ensure net global zero by the mid-century and not exceed a 1.5°C increase in temperature; 2) accelerate climate adaptation to protect communities and natural habitats; 3) mobilize funding to facilitate the energy transition in developing countries; and 4) promote the collaborative work of alliances.

Each of these four areas has become increasingly ambitious but despite the progress made, the outcome was frustrating, with an obvious gap between the high expectations announced and the present-day sense of urgency and emergency and the commitments taken on. Despite many drawbacks, however, the prevailing spirit of cooperation encouraged further action to reduce emissions and promote the exchange of technology and successful policies between countries and companies.

Leadership and governance

Basically, the Conference of the Parties still has leadership and governance issues. Getting 197 countries to agree is no easy task. Developed countries are unwilling to bear the costs, whilst developing countries demand the right to continue to use fossil fuels to achieve economic growth. There have been disagreements (about historical responsibility, burden sharing, costs and the accuracy of scientific data), geopolitical pitfalls, coal industry lobbying, and conspicuous absences (the main leaders who failed to attend COP26 were Xi Jinping, V. Putin, A.M. López Obrador, Ali Jamenei, J. Bolsonaro and R.T. Erdogan, most of whose countries are major producers of CO2 emissions).

The shortcomings were not the broad-based, bombastic targets but the specific, credible plans and the advancements and achievements. The Achilles’ heel of COP26 was the method. The scientific community has already told us what is needed, but the international political community has been unable to implement it well and quickly. The 2021 Edelman Barometer revealed an upsurge in widespread mistrust of institutions and a loss of leadership, particularly amongst governments – the entities regarded as the least competent and ethical.

COP27

From variable-geometry agreements to common agreements

We must move beyond non-binding commitments and voluntary agreements. Any multilateral agreement about climate change must be answerable to an international regulatory body rather than depending on the goodwill of each country. Meanwhile, a “non-binding commitment” by participating countries is a declaration of good intentions rather than a real commitment to the implementation of new agreements. As a result, the efforts made by countries so far have either proven insufficient or have been postponed for future summits.

Without a regulatory enforcement pact (as Hobbes would say), promises are merely words on paper. The Glasgow declaration was big on promises but short on details. There was no clarity or alignment between countries about what they had just signed. There was no framework for how they were to meet their targets. Standing on an international stage and saying that countries will stop deforestation by a certain date does not take any actual details into account. How will it happen? What will the targets be? How will it be funded?

From appeals to action

Many limitations are attributed to the annual United Nations climate summits (COP): the complexity of parties having to reach consensus agreements together with the steady decline in ambition, the deployment and media staging of events, and the nuances of jargon used in official documents. Despite the progress made, the current plans submitted by countries would entail an increase in temperature of between 1.8°C and 2.4°C, and thus breach the Paris Agreement, despite robust scientific evidence. At COP conferences, countries act on their own behalf and/or in blocs, as in the case of the European Union. Diplomatic and multilateral negotiating is one of the main scenarios, but not the only one. Other decisive actors involved in reaching targets include businesses, sub-national entities and representatives of civil society.

States must convincingly convey the climate emergency and challenges of the transition to their societies

To prepare for COP27 in Egypt, the participating States must convincingly convey the climate emergency and challenges of the transition to their societies. Unless discussions are transferred as a priority to national budgets and parliaments, and then explained and democratically supported, it will be difficult to create specific action plans with well-defined targets and associated, robust resources. Accountability is crucial in order to update Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC), or the design of plans to implement the famous industry agreements to reduce methane emissions, combat deforestation, eliminate combustion-engine vehicles or the announcements of funding for innovation in these areas.

It is also necessary in order to legitimize the transcendence of political commitments and incorporate the paradigm of sustainability into the political culture of states whose economic and sociocultural growth was based on a model destined to become obsolete, and requiring a radical overhaul of production, consumption and work. The change in business culture is equally important for driving the shift to a sustainable economy, creating social value and taking advantage of new business opportunities. In this respect, it will be very interesting to see what becomes of the proposal made by Secretary General António Guterres at the beginning of COP26 to have a group of experts that set benchmarks for measuring and analysing the net zero commitments of non-state actors, thereby avoiding the opportunism of green washing.

There can be no mitigation or adaptation without funding

The pledges of funding for mitigating and adapting to climate change in vulnerable countries and small island states must not be allowed to simply fade away. Apart from being essential for enabling such countries to find effective formulas for their development, they are also crucial for generating trust about the success of negotiations and the global understanding of the climate emergency.

The agreement amongst developed countries to provide annual funding of 100 billion dollars dates back to 2009, 6 years before the Paris Agreement when the time frame was changed from 2020 to 2025 in order to mobilise the necessary resources. The good news is that following COP26, and as anticipated in the Climate Finance Delivery Plan, this target may be achieved by 2023, but continuous delays could undermine promises to set new post-2025 funding horizons and also raise doubts about the responsibilities of the States whose development has been linked to the use of fossil fuels since the pre-industrial era.

On the other hand, discussions about a mechanism to offset losses and damages to small island developing states – which the parties to COP26 are invited to think about – date back to the Warsaw COP19 of 2013, but seem unlikely to be settled at a future summit. These conferences should not only be about announcing advances or shortcomings in this respect. States should be brave enough to explain to their citizens these contributions to equality and global cooperation in response to a planetary emergency whilst protecting their own systems to avoid the consequences of potential food, health and environmental crises that could jeopardise people’s livelihoods.

From geopolitical competition to planetary cooperation

The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed humanity’s reluctance to tackle global challenges such as healthcare and climate change. Given that we have been unable to vaccinate the whole world despite our awareness of the risks and costs involved, will we be able to find joint solutions in time to combat climate change?

To prevent the climate emergency from ending in a veritable “tragedy of the commons”, it is essential to move from the paradigm of geopolitical competition to a framework of effective global cooperation. Initiatives such as the alliance for a fair energy transition put forward at COP26 are apparently moving in this direction. However, the general approach to cooperation emerging from these meetings still has a market logic that is insufficient to solve global issues requiring coordinated, joint action and empathic approaches. Likewise, the inclusion of all voices in the COP26 dialogue (cities, regions, businesses, investors, civil society, indigenous communities, state governments, etc) still seems to be more in response to the desire for everyone to appear in the photo, rather than empowering and giving a voice to the groups most affected by the problem or those able to contribute most to the search for joint solutions.

The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed humanity’s reluctance to tackle global challenges such as healthcare and climate change

If the fight against climate change is to be successful, we think it is essential to establish the moral and operating criteria to govern such cooperation. Just as progressive taxation is based on the criterion that those who have the most must contribute more to the state coffers, we must apply principles of fairness to commitments to reduce emissions and mitigate the loss of biodiversity. This would mean considering not only the huge gaps between countries’ current carbon footprints, but also other factors that could create imbalances in the distribution of responsibilities by country, region or community and, in the private sphere, by business size or sector. Until we manage to anchor the frameworks and instruments for cooperation to a theory of fairness suitable for the climate emergency, it will be very difficult to achieve great agreements and good intentions that contribute effectively to mitigating it.

The need for leaders with a systemic outlook

The paradigm shift from competition to cooperation calls for people and countries able to provide systemic leadership for the transition. Just as the onset of new variants of COVID 19 has revealed the long-term futility of applying local solutions to global problems, there is no point having carbon neutral regions such as Tasmania whilst other countries ignore the recommendations and carry on building coal-fuelled power plants. Against the backdrop of the climate emergency, claiming individual successes makes little sense if others meanwhile are failing or breaching regulations.

This is why it is important for leaders and decision-makers to sidestep unilateral thinking based on short-term self-interest, and start seeing and understanding the “big picture” of the problem. To do so, not only must the different subsystems that make up the emissions universe (e.g. food, energy and urban systems) be taken into account, but also the interactions between them. In this respect, COP27 must focus on both the targets to be achieved and on ensuring that the leadership of change has a systemic approach. This outlook can improve policy outcomes in three ways (OECD, 2020): 1) by providing a methodology with a set of tools making it possible to disaggregate, understand and act on interrelated issues; 2) by giving a better insight into the behaviour of complex, dynamic systems in order to anticipate their future development and assess and manage associated risks; and 3) by identifying and understanding critical connections, synergies and exchanges between issues and actors that are generally dealt with separately.

The price of greatness is responsibility

At COP27 we will obviously need systemic leadership, but also transformational leadership, i.e. exemplary authorities able to exert a drag-and-pull impact on the other parties in the multilateral landscape to bring about major, fast, visible changes to mitigate climate change. The more powerful the institution represented at COP27, the greater its responsibility.

In this respect, the United States (and its president, Joe Biden), China (and its president, Xi Jinping) and the European Union (and its president, Ursula von der Leyen) cannot take part merely as spectators bowing down to the pressures of civil society or other more aware leaders. Each of these three superpowers also has its own ambitious action plan directly linked to the shift to green energy and green economies: the United States’ Green New Deal (GND), the EU’s Green Deal, and the construction of an “ecological Chinese civilization” (生态 文明), a concept described by the official Chinese media as “a forward-looking guiding principle”. On-going groundwork in the coming months by these three major global players in search of ambitious agreements and action plans would allow them to land at the next G20 and COP27 summits hoping to make real environmental progress that will trigger the commitment of the other countries. The challenge is existential and their responsibilities must rise to the occasion.

All written content is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.