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Is COP up to the task?

The results of the 28th Conference of the Parties (COP) are mixed. Investing in fossil fuels has certainly become more risky. But the watered down commitment to ‘transition away’ from fossil fuels, opposed to phasing them out, has seen this year’s COP, as in years past, come under scrutiny. Is COP up to the task of tackling climate change? We asked five experts in today’s Big Ask.

Sydney Chisi, Equal Right

In 28 separate COPs, the world has met in search of climate change solutions, working either to mitigate it or adapt to its adverse effects. In coming to these solutions, there has been a need to identify the source of the climate crisis that has left those in the so-called ‘Global South’ more vulnerable. Whilst developing nations played a crucial role in climate action under United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) Paris Agreement, many remained reluctant to support the ‘Global South’ in financing both their mitigation and adaptation capabilities. 

In the past fourteen years, climate finance targets have not been met, and the current Loss and Damage Implementation Fund remains just another platform of pledges. This is because the Paris Agreement is not legally binding. The inclusion of the private sector, especially international financial institutions and oil companies, have diluted the voices of the marginalised and allowed commercial interests to capture climate action. 

The removal of human rights-based arguments within many frameworks such as ‘just transitions’, or definitions of who is supposed to benefit from loss and damage funds, makes COP a mere climate diplomacy space. The demand for climate justice and solidarity based on cooperation and advocacy between developing states would better channel the forum’s efforts, and may lead ‘Global South’ countries to realise their negotiating potential given their low net-emissions and carbon sink potential. 

In all, we must push to make the Paris Agreement legally binding.

Tom Evans, E3G (Third Generation Environmentalism)

Climate change cannot be addressed unless every nation takes action. On that basis, COP is an inevitable response to a collective problem. Yet for those same reasons, the outcomes of the negotiations represent a baseline rather than a bar of ambition. 

Critics say that it is not enough. But it is difficult to imagine a scenario where OPEC members would agree on their own accord to ‘transition away from fossil fuels’ – and that is precisely what all countries now acknowledge must happen.

This is largely due to the demand for action that came from Small Island Developing States at highest risk from climate impacts. Anywhere else, such calls would fall on deaf ears; yet it is at the COP where these states have an equal seat at the table. 

Such commitments are not just words on a page. They send signals to markets and governments about the direction of travel, exerting pressure on every decision they make. 

In a world beset by geopolitical fractures, COPs represent a rare case of functional multilateralism. No wonder then that we increasingly see other challenges that are intertwined with climate change rising up the agenda of COPs – from reform of the global financial architecture and addressing debt distress, to delivering sustainable development and managing international trade disputes around emerging clean economy competition. This should be encouraged. If we can not tackle these issues, developing countries will only face higher burdens and barriers to clean growth. 

It also shows that climate action is deepening, broadening, and a central thread of international affairs. COPs are far from perfect, but if they have allowed us to put an existential challenge at the heart of foreign policy, then surely they are an essential tool for averting the climate crisis.

Fin McCarron, Conservative Environment Network

COPs are up to the task, just not in the way that many think they are. We see that the annual climate conference is something of a circus now with the formal negotiations taking up less space and attention than they used to. But this is not necessarily a bad thing. 

The main negotiations will always move at the pace of the slowest nations, no matter how hard we try – only some countries agreeing to end the age of fossil fuels is not as valuable as waiting for a global commitment. The intense media scrutiny of COP adds pressure that your average petrostate bureaucrat will otherwise be insulated from. That is how you get countries to agree to deals.

Equally, the media made a very big deal about fossil fuel lobbyists present at COP28 without seeming to realise that there will always be fossil fuel lobbyists wherever climate decision-makers meet. Even if we do not like it, fossil fuels are a fact of life and some countries will be able to transition faster than others. But making COPs a bigger event with more observers means that it lowers barriers for activists and green entrepreneurs or renewables companies to make their voices heard and keep tabs on those fossil fuel lobbyists. The circus is not a distraction. It is part of the solution.

Sophie Newbould, Innov8Law

COP is not up to the task for one obvious reason: corruption.

As long as countries like Brazil continue to destroy the world’s most important natural habitats and indigenous populations; industries like fishing are permitted to murder the vital ecosystems of our oceans; and the production of unsustainable artificial substances and harmful waste continues, COP’s role to avoid ‘dangerous climate change’ and reduce gas emissions globally is null and void.

COP is now at best a good global business event. If it wants to be taken seriously, it must confront the criminality feeding into the problems discussed. 

If COP is supposed to be a bona fide governance vehicle that serves to protect people, places and economies around the world against the threats of climate change, it must put in place a fit-for-purpose justice system that meets the standards of 1992 UNFCCC. 

Anti-corruption is complex. But, for this author, it is the missing piece of the COP jigsaw. 

A well-funded, planned, managed and resourced global restorative justice system that supports countries in the investigation, prosecution, trial and enforcement of corrupt offenders will see immediate results that stops harm, repairs damage and rehabilitates offending governments and corporations.

Andy Scollick, Independent consultant

Did COP28 do anything substantial enough to keep us from breaching the 2°C threshold? No, it did not. There was no phase out of fossil fuels. Not even a phase down. Instead, there was an almost meaningless call for ‘Transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems’. Some say that such negative criticism is ‘the glass half empty’ approach. However, in terms of the remaining carbon budget for the 1.5°C threshold, the glass was already over 90% empty.

So, is COP up to the task of stopping us from burning through the remaining carbon budget? Apparently not. COP in its present form is a failure. Something must be done, and urgently.

COP is a political-economic rather than science led process. It is the wrong way round; science must lead. Negotiators must be required to follow the science and enact policies that actually address the threat.

Do we abandon COP and replace it? We simply do not have a spare decade to renegotiate a global multilateral institution. To make COP fit for purpose, the logical step is to comprehensively reform its structure and process to make it more accountable (e.g. to the United Nations General Assembly), and to give it authority. In other words, a leaner, meaner COP that puts climate science in pole position. But reform must be urgent and implemented before COP29 in Baku, Azerbaijan.

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