The summit in Poland hasn’t delivered on the climate progress we hoped for

The announcement of the COP26 summit in Poland promised some good news on addressing the existential threat posed by climate change. The lofty goals of an “age of consensus” were on the table —…

The summit in Poland hasn’t delivered on the climate progress we hoped for

The announcement of the COP26 summit in Poland promised some good news on addressing the existential threat posed by climate change. The lofty goals of an “age of consensus” were on the table — the ministers tasked with designing an international agreement adopted a set of goals (including a very high goal of bringing global emissions down to well below two degrees Celsius) and agreed to choose a route (a “rule book” of rules) in order to achieve that goal. As many of us have noted, it’s doubtful that we will reach that target, and even if we do, the fight against climate change is about far more than a precise numerical target. But it was heartening that an international climate summit would move in the direction of making substantial progress toward achieving that goal, at least for the beginning of a process that will require significant reform and a level of cooperation the world has never seen before.

In short, it was good to see something positive happen on the climate front. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for the event to throw some cold water on that feeling. The day after the summit’s opening ceremony, news arrived that the proposed rule book of rules is seriously problematic, and the new French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jean-Yves Le Drian, issued a statement suggesting that there may be some way out for now, but probably not.

The reason for the problems is obvious: The summit was supposed to be about a stable international rulebook for the fight against climate change. It’s not clear that a legally binding global agreement is even necessary (consider how few countries agreed to the Kyoto accord) and it’s not even clear that it would be enforceable. Why limit the rulebook to one aspect of climate negotiations, if it’s really possible to come up with multiple paths to reaching the two degree target?

The fact that the Cameroonian summit organizer, the États-Unis du Climat (ENUC), the body that hosted COP26, originally mandated the summit to be about raising the international commitment to a stable climate, then moved it to a “relaxed” one, then shifted back to “secular,” is not a good sign. It suggests that the newly-minted UN Secretary General (and soon-to-be COP President) Antonio Guterres is going to need to move beyond the diplomatic niceties.

This is a serious problem for the Guterres administration, but it’s also a problem for those of us in his own climate team, since the way that it was handled could make it harder for Guterres to sell “security” as the central feature of his diplomatic efforts on the fight against climate change. The issue has become so politicized that previous UN Secretary Generals have called for the conduct of climate talks to be taken out of the realm of diplomacy and elevated to the diplomatic levels of discussions of common security among sovereign states.

The new French-designed rulebook has potential to be useful in making progress toward a stable international climate regime and in pushing the cap-and-trade market system forward. The details are very uncertain, and the process is highly politicized. It’s likely that there is at least some possibility for a relatively quick release of an eventual directive, but that could require going along with what COP delegates appear to think of as efforts to create a system on their own. It would be an important step forward if Guterres can figure out how to deal with this problem and start a meaningful, active contribution to the fight against climate change. The more time that elapses between the day that a credible international accord that includes a clean greenhouse gas emissions standard is agreed to and the day that Guterres can say, “I can report on the outcomes of the green climate fund,” the less useful his leadership will be.

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