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The state of the negotiations: How worried should we be about COP26 preparations?

Alex McManis | Climate Change and Energy Security Fellow

In November 2021, world leaders will gather in Glasgow for what will be the most consequential climate conference since Paris in 2015. The conference, which was originally scheduled for November 2020, will be the first major test of the Paris Agreement, under which parties must update their nationally determined commitments (NDCs) to reduce greenhouse emissions every five years either affirming previous aims or submitting more ambitious targets. The hope is that they will do the latter. However, so far five of the G20 countries (Australia, Japan, Russia, the US and Indonesia) have said they will not submit new targets. Moreover, the COVID-19 induced global recession has some seeing parallels with the failed Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, which took place immediately after the Global Financial Crisis. Should we be concerned about the state of international climate action?

Economic conditions

Poor economic conditions were widely seen as dampening global ambitions during the Copenhagen summit. During financial crises, governments often prioritise keeping their domestic industries competitive over policies designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But recovery spending also provides the opportunity to invest in low-emissions industries. So far COVID-recovery packages have had mixed environmental effects. Some countries have tied industry bailouts to improving environmental outcomes, for example, France’s bailout of the aviation sector was contingent on airlines ceasing to fly short-haul routes that competed with high-speed trains.

However, think-tank alliance Energy Tracker estimate that there have been 1.5 times the spending on supporting fossil fuel energy sources in G20 countries than on clean energy. That may oversimplify the situation, as the figure includes supports for high-emitting industries that have furloughed staff, like airlines, which should taper off. Another paper from Nicholas Stern, Joseph Stiglitz and other environmental economists suggest that most COVID-recovery spending has endorsed the status quo emission positions. There is less spending on ‘green’ solutions than after the Global Financial Crisis, but there is also less spending on policies that increased greenhouse gas emissions. This means that, thus far, recovery packages have done little to change the climate situation.

That being said, the economic fundamentals remain fairly strong for green investment. Costs of renewable energy technology are declining, making it easier for governments to scale up renewable capacity with minimal spending. Additionally, unlike in 2009, no one is seriously talking about austerity measures. The language of austerity was crucial to unambitious actors’ arguments at Copenhagen and its absence may give governments a freer hand to invest widely in climate solutions this time around. There may be hope for more green investment yet.

The UK’s COP Presidency

Effective hosting can make or break a climate conference. The host helps parties explore agreement text options and brokers compromises. The Danish team in Copenhagen were widely criticised for being disorganised and contributing to the conference’s failure. Now reports suggest the UK hosts may be similarly unprepared. In a scathing open letter following her sacking as COP26 President in January, Claire O’Neill claimed the UK team were riddled with disagreements over their approach to the conference and drastically under-resourced. She later attacked Boris Johnson suggesting he “just doesn’t get climate change”. What certainly seems to be true is the UK team are not putting nearly as much time and effort into conference preparations as the French team in Paris, who were widely regarded as one of the most effective climate conference hosting teams. Much of the success in Paris was down to the dedication of French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius who spent a year travelling the world, speaking to leaders and trying to raise global ambitions.

The UK may now be trying to play catch-up, announcing on September 24th it will co-host an online climate summit in December to mark the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement. That summit will provide an important opportunity to pressure countries to improve their climate commitment. The UK will also take over the G7 presidency next year, and Italy, with whom the UK is partnering for pre-COP events, will hold the G20 presidency. This gives them important opportunities to put climate change on the world agenda at major economic summits, although this will mean little if the UK is not willing or able to seize these opportunities.

The US Election

In 2009, the world hoped that President Barack Obama’s election would see the US reengage constructively in international climate politics, after disinterest under former President George W. Bush. If Democratic nominee Joe Biden wins the 2020 presidential election he may arrive in Glasgow with similar expectations. However, Obama’s experience in Copenhagen tells a cautionary tale. Despite grand ambitions, Obama’s presence did nothing to prevent a colossal failure in the negotiations, and an incredibly unambitious accord. While Biden’s climate plan is ambitious to say the least, the US has always been skeptical about legally binding international commitments under both Democrats and Republicans, and its possible Biden will have to get his domestic emissions reductions policies past a Republican-controlled Senate.

There are still fourteen months until world leaders assemble to try and advance the cause of climate action. But there are certainly reasons to be concerned about the negotiations. While economic conditions may improve, Biden may prove more effective than Obama, and the UK has time to get its act together, everything suggests the situation is finely balanced. Glasgow will not necessarily be a Copenhagen-style failure but it will be important to keep the pressure on governments in the months ahead to raise ambitions, make positive decisions for the climate and ensure the conference is a success.

Alex McManis is the Climate Change and Energy Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.


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