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Good COP, bad COP – does UN need a fresh approach to climate talks?

4 min read

Another COP has wrapped up with an agreement that promises movement in some areas but leaves campaigners with a sense of disappointment that resistance may have prevented progress on other key climate change issues.

The COP in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, the 27th such annual conference since 1995, concluded with an historic agreement to help fund climate change-related loss and damage, but failed to go further on lowering greenhouse gas emissions and phase out fossil fuels, or strengthen the commitment to limit global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.

“Obviously we would all want the COPs to produce more and for countries to follow through better,” Professor Darrel Moellendorf, chair of international political theory and philosophy at Goethe University Frankfurt, told The House shortly before the talks concluded. “COPs are valuable in part because they are meant to be guided by morally plausible and demanding norms…But they are also valuable because solving the problem of climate change will involve unprecedented international cooperation.”

The COP system was not designed to succeed

Disappointment was clear in the closing remarks of  Alok Sharma, the United Kingdom President of COP26, who acknowledged there had been “very challenging conversations” and said it was not a time for “unqualified celebration” as the text had fallen short in key areas. The target of keeping the increase in global warming to 1.5C remained “on life support,” Sharma said, adding that if leaders at the next COP did not, “rise above these minute-to-midnight battles to hold the line, we will all be found wanting.”

Disillusionment with the COP talks, and even climate negotiations in general, is not new. Environmental activist Greta Thunberg lambasted leaders last year, describing their repeated promises to tackle global warming as, “blah, blah, blah.” Others complain the lack of mechanisms to bind leaders to the pledges, a good COP-bad COP mix of incentives and sanctions, render the talks toothless.

“The COP system was not designed to succeed,” Rupert Reed, Professor of Philosophy at the University of East Anglia, wrote in a blog shortly before the COP27 started. “Each year they keep on talking and making bigger promises. While each year, a safe climate…slips further and further from view.”

The Climate Emergency Declaration, an environmental campaign group based in Australia, has reported that 2,291 jurisdictions in 39 countries have declared a climate emergency this year.

Environmental campaigners have long argued that wealthier big emitting countries and industries wield greater influence at COP conferences than smaller more climate-vulnerable nations that have fewer resources to bring to bare at the negotiations. Reports suggested there were more than 600 fossil fuel lobbyists registered to attend the COP27 talks, a large rise on the previous conference and outnumbering the representatives of communities on the frontline of climate change danger.

“A just system would be transparent and genuinely, globally participatory, representing the interests of future generations and ensuring the most vulnerable, impacted communities a powerful voice in decision-making,” Dr Elizabeth Cripps, a senior lecturer in political theory at the University of Edinburgh, told The House last week.

Yet COPs have yielded results by securing global pledges to cut emissions or reduce deforestation, even if delivery has been questionable. COP3 in 1997 produced the Kyoto protocol which committed rich, industrialised nations to reducing their emission by five per cent between 2008 and 2012 from a 1990 baseline. Perhaps the most significant COP took place in Paris in 2015, where leaders set the goal to limit global warming to well below 2C, preferably to 1.5C.

This year’s COP heralded some notable advances. After years of pressure, there was an agreement on the thorny issue of loss and damage, the idea that developed countries that have been responsible for past emissions should compensate less wealthy and vulnerable nations that are suffering climate-related disasters now. There was also a Children and Youth Pavilion, giving young people—often the fiercest advocates of climate action—the ability to impact the negotiations.

Some argue that, while imperfect, the COPs are a vital recognised forum for bringing the relevant parties together every year and setting goals that leaders can be held too. The meetings are so well established, it would be counterproductive to try to reinvent the wheel, they add.

“There is no other game in town,” Moellendorf said.

Dr Josh Wells is a Consultant at Dods Political Intelligence. To find out more about Dods Politicial Intelligence, please click here.


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