Beyond COP: Why we can’t count on international negotiations alone to save our planet

A ray of hope at COP22 in Marrakech?

A year on from last December’s landmark climate deal in Paris, Jeanne Martin, an alumnus of  Imperial’s Centre for Environmental Policy, argues that governments around the world are losing momentum – and it’s time for citizens to step in.

A year ago, the world’s governments adopted the Paris Agreement, a global commitment to taking strong action on climate change. Paris was hailed as a major milestone in international climate politics – and rightly so. Eleven months later, the Agreement entered into force – a record time in international environmental diplomacy. While early ratification of the Paris Agreement deserves applause, it will remain a false dawn if not followed up by concrete measures.

What did COP22 achieve?

Paris laid out the roadmap for future climate action. Now, governments have an even more important task ahead of them: to dive into the nitty-gritty of how to deliver on their commitments. The speedy ratification of the Agreement carries the hope of closing the current gap in international climate action before 2020. Indeed, most countries have not ratified the Doha Amendments, which established the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol. This means that until the Paris Agreement becomes legally active, governments are under no international duty to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

As 2016 shatters climate records, with Arctic sea ice covering 40% less area than what it did in the 1970s and the Great Barrier Reef experiencing its worst coral bleach ever, the imperative to take strong climate action now is clearer than ever.

Jeanne speaking at lectern
Jeanne speaking at COP22 about the role of youth in addressing climate change both inside and outside of COP

Yet, in my opinion, the sense of urgency that impelled progress in Paris has now evaporated, with harmful consequences. The UN climate conference held in Marrakech last month (COP22) epitomises that. As far as I could see, governments wasted much time patting themselves on the back for ratifying the Paris Agreement early – rather than speeding up its implementation. As a result, most decisions made were merely agreements to postpone when to make the decisions that really matter. This included decisions on:

  • Finance (setting a new long-term goal and agreeing on the technicalities of the Green Climate Fund);
  • Mitigation (agreeing on an accounting framework for NDCs that ensures compliance);
  • Transparency (how to report progress);
  • The global stocktake of 2023 (how to run it); and
  • Adaptation (more precisely, how to communicate adaption efforts and the future of the Adaptation Fund).

These issues matter because they define the legal strength and ambition of the Paris Agreement. For example, a robust and clear transparency framework is vital to measure progress on emissions reductions across countries and ensure that everyone is taking the appropriate level of action to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Additionally, pre-2020 action was barely mentioned and the Financial Roadmap was found full of dodgy loopholes: Oxfam estimates that out of the $67 billion of public finance identified in the Roadmap, only $18-34 billion are new and additional funds and constitute net assistance to developing countries addressing climate change.

That is not to say that nothing happened at COP22. Nations united to reaffirm their commitment to climate action in the aftermath of the US election – a powerful message. Furthermore, the Climate Vulnerable Forum, a group of 48 vulnerable nations, announced that they would go 100% renewable by 2050.  Finally, the 2050 Pathways Platform was launched to help countries develop their long-term strategies, with 22 countries, 15 cities and 196 businesses joining the initiative. Important progress. But not enough of it.

COP22 is only an event: Grassroots action is a way of life

To me it seems obvious: the COP process will not deliver the transformational change that avoiding catastrophic climate change requires. Increasingly, citizens understand this. They are standing up in greater numbers than ever for their rights to life and to a clean environment. 2016 witnessed significant wins. For example, years of campaigning by Australian citizens forced BP to abandon its plans to drill for oil in the Great Australian Bight. In July, more than 800,000 Indian citizens planted 50 million tree saplings to increase India’s forest cover and sequester CO2. In the US, 21 young people are suing their federal government for their right to a stable climate.

Finally, the fossil fuel divestment movement has mushroomed from a small student-led campaign to a global citizen-led movement, putting pressure on institutional investors to divest their fossil fuel assets. In only four years, 688 institutions representing $5 trillion ($1.6 trillion more than in 2015), have now committed to divesting from fossil fuels. While noticeable losses accompany these victories, they showcase the untapped potential of people power and highlight the importance of action outside of the COP process. The action of citizens can become a climatic game changer for climate, alongside the irreversible energy transition.

The energy revolution is unstoppable

The UK Youth Climate Coalition (UKYCC) delegates meet UK climate minister Nick Hurd at COP22

Renewable energies are rocketing. This year, more than half of the new energy capacity was from renewables. And with good reason – their prices are plummeting. Costs of solar energy are down to 0.6% of their 1970s levels, and the levelised costs of electricity for offshore wind decreased by 28% in the past year. As John Kerry told us at COP22: “The energy revolution is unstoppable (…) and carbon-intensive energy is today one of the costliest and foolhardiest investments any nation can possibly make”. This realisation led Austria, Canada, Finland, France, Germany and the Netherlands to commit to completely phasing out coal by 2030.

These events will increasingly bolster international negotiations. Indeed, the past year saw the launch of the African Renewable Energy Initiative and the Marrakech Global Partnership on Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency at COP21 and COP22, respectively. Therefore, the question is no longer whether we will transition to a new energy system – but whether we will do so on time to avoid a climate crisis.

What’s next?

Capping temperature rise at 1.5°C requires peaking global greenhouse gas emissions before 2020. But, until the Paris Agreement becomes binding there will be a gap in international climate action. Climate action on the international stage lacks leadership. Let’s not wait until a government steps in. Let us fill this gap ourselves. Let’s help governments make the tough decisions that we need with our expertise and the legitimacy that we, as citizens, afford. Let us lay the foundation for and usher in a new, citizen-driven climate action regime.

Read Jeanne’s blog on the role of youth in climate negotiations

One thought on “Beyond COP: Why we can’t count on international negotiations alone to save our planet

  1. Jeanne…….thank you for a cogent perspective on the state of play at the high table of climate change – whose pause in momentum I’m sure, is only for breath. I’m one of those (older) citizens who also understand (reasonably) the various drivers & imperatives for action but I feel rather disoriented about a role for me – however, I’ll happily keep learning while looking. All the best in your young climate change quest…..Stephen Middleton

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