Super-surge in climate diplomacy can tip the balance in Glasgow

What the UN and others are hoping, if this opportunity can be harnessed, is the development and implementation of a clear roadmap into the 2030s


The climate change agenda has had a lower profile since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the next month may see a global diplomatic super-surge given that success at November’s COP26 summit in Glasgow remains in the balance.

The start of this potential wave was seen at the UN this week, with several high-profile announcements that set the tone for a manic month of diplomacy, which includes the G20 summit in Rome. Among the announcements was US President Joe Biden’s pledge to work with Congress to quadruple the country’s financial commitment to help developing nations confront the climate crisis to $11.4 billion per year.

Yet, even with this generosity, the target for a new fund of $100 billion from industrialized countries for climate help to the developing world is still an estimated $10 billion to $20 billion a year short. Other countries will also need to dig deeper into their pockets in October.

In this context, there are also concerns about the stance of big developing countries toward COP26. Chinese President Xi Jinping, for example, has not yet confirmed his attendance.

With much still to fall in place, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned again this week that “if we don’t change course, we may be headed for a catastrophic temperature rise of more than 3 degrees Celsius (above pre-industrial levels) this century.” He urged all countries to move as quickly as possible toward carbon neutrality to limit temperature rises to no more than 1.5 C.

This is why a super-surge in climate diplomacy is needed to try to get a meaningful, sustainable deal over the line in November and to seize the opportunity to accelerate climate action decisively. The host of COP26, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and Guterres are doubling down, encouraging countries to adopt tougher emissions reduction targets in order to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5 C and ensure that developing countries on the front line of the crisis get increased financial support.

However, while November may be a crossroads in the battle against global warming, Guterres and other key players are also looking beyond 2021. With Biden in power until at least January 2025, and potentially for four years on top of that, there is now a possible seven-year opportunity to act in what the US president has called a “decisive decade.”

What the UN and others are hoping, if this opportunity can be harnessed, is the development and implementation of a clear roadmap into the 2030s. While this bridge to the next decade requires greater definition, it involves not just setting ambitious targets but also creating the framework for meeting them.

This requires implementation of the Paris and any Glasgow deals through national laws, where politically feasible, to make them most effective. The country “commitments” put forward in 2015, which will hopefully be enhanced in November, will be most credible — and durable — if they are backed up by legislation.

In the US, Donald Trump was able to unravel Barack Obama’s Paris ratification relatively easily because, politically, it was impossible to get the treaty approved in the US Congress. Obama, therefore, embedded the agreement through executive order before Trump made his own executive actions reversing his predecessor’s order. Biden has, in turn, reintroduced them.

Compared with executive orders, legislation is more difficult to roll back. This is especially so when supported, as in many countries, by well-informed, cross-party lawmakers who can put in place a credible set of policies and measures to ensure effective implementation.

While the pledges made for Paris are not yet enough, the treaty has put in place the domestic legal frameworks that are crucial building blocks to measure, report, verify and manage greenhouse gas emissions. Specifically, countries are required under the agreement to clearly report on emissions and their progress in reaching the goals in their national plans submitted to the UN, and must also update these every five years to highlight measures being pursued to implement the goals, including in Glasgow.

In the future, the ambition must be that these frameworks are replicated in even more countries and progressively ratcheted up. There are clear signs this is happening already in numerous states, from the Asia-Pacific to the Americas, as countries seek to toughen their response to global warming.

The Glasgow summit still has the potential to help co-create and implement what could be a foundation of global sustainable development for billions across the world. This must start with the speedy, comprehensive implementation of Paris, but needs to move even beyond that and capitalize on the greater climate ambition that November’s summit will hopefully offer.

Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.

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