With COP less than two weeks away, one may wonder what the 26th round of the United Nations annual climate talks has in store. Media outlets from around the world, advocacy groups, and NGOs have come down hard on climate diplomats to have a renewed sense of urgency. The IPCC’s latest Assessment Report on the physical science basis is clear that, without deep decarbonization over the next decade, stabilizing average world temperatures at 1.5°C will be impossible. Many people are therefore looking at this year’s climate summit with a deep determination that COP26 has to deliver actionable next steps. Postponed by a year because of the Covid outbreak, thousands of people plan to travel to Glasgow to attend the talks, engage in activism, and make their voices heard.
Despite this euphoria and high hopes, on a technical level, COP26 is simply the continuation of a process that started in Paris six years ago. Since the conclusion of the 2015 landmark agreement, countries have still not managed to find solutions to several technical issues. Top of the list are questions about the creation of international carbon markets (Article 6 of the Paris Agreement), “loss and damage” provisions to compensate developing countries for adverse climate impacts already occurring now (Article 8), and international climate finance.
Many of these issues are complicated by tenser international relations around the world. A EU plan to introduce a carbon border tax received mixed reactions from firms and countries, and it remains to be seen whether it stalls or fast-tracks discussions at COP around international emissions trading. UK-EU relations have soured since Brexit, and the latest power row in the South China Sea upsets diplomatic ties between the US and China, greenhouse gas heavyweights, so much so that the Chinese President Xi Jinping is unlikely to attend the talks in Glasgow. Lastly, concerns over international vaccine cooperation will taint the credibility of any international agreement on technology transfers and joint mitigation efforts across the Global North and the Global South.
Importantly, the obstacles to tackling climate change do not lie in Glasgow; they will also not be solved by either this year’s COP or any future COP. While international climate talks are important to coordinate countries’ climate actions and to hold world leaders accountable, the biggest challenges to deep decarbonization are political and need to be addressed at home in each nation’s capitals. Since countries can walk away from any pledges they make internationally (the Canadian exit from the Kyoto Protocol in 2011 and Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement in 2017 are two prominent examples), climate action is only credible if it creates sufficient domestic political support. In the past, this support has mostly been haphazard, and breaking interest group resistance to weaning economies off of fossil fuels has proven difficult. This explains why, according to the latest World Energy Outlook, ambition levels of currently proposed climate policies need to increase by about 2.5 times to reach carbon net neutrality by 2050.
Yet, there is hope. Domestic climate politics are not only doom and gloom. Indeed, there is a wave of new climate politics that are starting to shape domestic political agendas in countries around the world. In a response to the Covid-19 pandemic, many governments announced stimulus programs, adding up to trillions, that often contain provisions for a green recovery. While these policy packages could (and should) be more ambitious and risk being empty words, they have nonetheless played an important role to focus the discussion around climate change. They also prove an important point: once there is political will to act, at least in the developed world, money is a lesser issue.
In the UK, for instance, the Committee on Climate Change estimated the necessary investments in low energy technologies to amount to £50bn a year by 2030, or about only half of the cost of the UK’s furlough job retention scheme. The latest spikes in gas prices and the current UK fuel crisis also likely provide incentives to speed up elements of the UK Government’s Green Growth strategy, including the ban on petrol cars and gas boilers to drive down transport and building emissions.
The domestic political landscape has also been changing in Germany. In the country’s September election the Green Party picked up about 15% of the vote, sending an important signal of public support for climate action in a major economy. As a first tangible consequence, the likely incoming coalition government of the Social Democrats, the Green Party, and the liberal Free Democrats have agreed to bring the country’s coal phase-out forward by almost a decade to 2030.
It is the sum of these domestic policies that increase countries’ climate ambitions. Of course, domestic political developments are less encouraging in the US at the federal level, and these counterforces must be accounted for as well. While paying close attention to the UN climate talks, we should never forget about the importance of national climate policy and the independent role of domestic political beliefs and attitudes on climate leadership.
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