England & Wales, Global, Ireland, Scotland Climate action and sustainable development

On COP25: “Caught in the devil’s bargain, we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden”

I was listening to Woodstock, a Joni Mitchell song, and musing about the COP25 meeting in Madrid and what I might write about the discussions. Then, I heard a line I had never really listened to before: “we are billion-year-old carbon”. The theme of climate change has gotten deep into my brain.

In November 2020, COP26 is happening in Glasgow, with the UK hosting the main summit and Italy hosting the preparatory events. Some people describe the 2020 conference, when the world will report on five years of progress, or the lack of same, as the most important since the Paris Agreement 2015, in which temperature increase caps were agreed on. Bafflingly, the language always seems to be one of delay, of putting off making decisions, with the next event always representing the most important crossroads for decision-making.

Reporting from COP25 over the last two weeks has been filled with descriptions of anger, disappointment and lack of progress. This UN climate conference, COP25, was the meeting that should have set the rulebook for carbon markets and international cooperation. The aim was to send a statement of intent to all countries to start getting their act together. In fact, there was so little agreement that the whole meeting was extended and discussions kept going until Sunday 16th. As a reminder, last week was week 69 of school protests, with young activists who have called out governments they say are dragging their feet. The reporting from this marathon UN summit indicates that there is little to show for two weeks of meetings, and indeed the battle plan does appear to fall far short of what is needed.

192 nations and around 30,000 people gathered but many decisions have been deferred, yet again, to next year, including those on emissions reductions, finance and carbon markets. Commentators point to the gap between what governments are doing and what citizens want governments to do but unfortunately, this is an overly generous read of current political conditions. Commentators might more correctly point to what a limited number of countries are doing and that there is still limited citizen-based engagement in many countries, thanks to prevailing political conditions in those countries.

The outcome? Well as Alden Meyer, a veteran of 28 years of talks, was quoted as saying “I have never seen such a disconnect between what the science requires and what climate change negotiations are delivering in terms of meaningful action. Most of the world’s biggest emitting countries are missing in action.”

During COP 25 a parallel-full day was devoted to local government and cities, with the theme of capacity-building for cities to build an urban environment with resilience to climate change. The key messages were the importance of a community-based approach to deliver impactful solutions, both small and large scale, to ensure that mitigation and adaptation actions were put in place. There was a focus on a human rights approach regarding access to critical services including water, housing and health care. A rights-based way of thinking about the challenges from climate change requires leverage of human capital including using climate “heroes”. There is an evident need to integrate all actions and all players (public, private, academia, NGOs and citizens), and a requirement for clearer leadership and contribution from players with legal and financial skills, to tackle this pressing problem. The concluding statement calls for actions to address, in part, climate change by building an ecosystem of nature-based solutions, informed by data, in urban environments. There is no time to lose. On the road to Glasgow, the voices from local government must be heard, and local and regional governments’ stated priorities are:

  • To raise the level of ambition
  • To ensure integration and transparency
  • To make available local climate finance
  • To deliver a balanced approach to mitigation and adaptation
  • To link climate to the circular economy and nature, and
  • To amplify global climate action

UN secretary Antonio Guterres opened the meeting by asking “do we want to be remembered as the generation that buried its head in the sand?” In his closing remarks, he said that he was disappointed, calling the meeting “a lost opportunity”.  Greta Thunberg said, “it seems to have turned into something of an opportunity for countries to negotiate loopholes.” Non-state actors did rather better, 177 companies pledged to cut emissions after 477 investors controlling 34 trillion dollars of assets asked world leaders to step up their ambitions. The EU also agreed to make the bloc “climate neutral” by 2050 as the European Commission revealed a European green deal.

The overriding feeling is that COP 25 was supposed to be a moment of truth, but in fact turned out to be a failure of political will. Big emitters and the fossil fuel industry won out, with the US and Saudi Arabia as cheerleaders of the awkward squad that includes Brazil and Australia. As governments return home, citizens of all ages will be asking difficult questions of governments as each individual country has the chance to show ambition and commitment and make sure the steps they take align with the science in 2020.

Commentators in the UK are now looking ahead to 2020 and COP 26. The newly elected Prime Minister, Boris Johnson has said he wants a post-Brexit “Global Britain” to play a leading role on the world stage. Meanwhile, his Irish counterpart, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, is desperately seeking to sell his climate change credentials as he confronts what will be a difficult general election in 2020. It was notable that in recent protests in Ireland and during the recent Young Persons Assembly on climate change that many heavily involved in the youth movement on climate change in Ireland are close to becoming voters, not to mention their families. Given recent experience with the social changes to the constitution in Ireland, this implicit threat will not go unnoticed in even the most elite of political circles in the Emerald Isle.

Meanwhile, back in the world of local government, councils and partners are making progress with efforts to tackle climate change every day, as some of our briefings over the past few weeks and this week demonstrate. When the rubber hits the road, these decisions can be divisive and difficult to make, and though I have no doubt in my mind that progress is being made, more needs to be achieved, both immediately and in the future.  Some countries are making progress on sustainable travel; I loved this piece on the cycling paradise of Copenhagen that reminded me of my spring trip. The City of London Corporation this week declared Britain’s first zero-emission street. Dublin seems to be moving in the same direction.

Climate change must not be seen as a future event that will affect us at some point. We cannot rely on a triggering of catastrophic events that will encourage the mass action and international cooperation we’ve been waiting for, saving the day. Not only will it be too late to act by that point, but in fact, reports confirm that the causes of climate change are already affecting us now, every day. Air quality affects health, and policymakers indicate that only evidence-informed, citizen-supported approaches to policy delivery on sustainable transport, energy and agriculture practice will be enough to improve air quality and support population health.

Moving onto more positive news I like this story about harvest mice, because it shows that change can be made. I do want to believe, as I am sure you do, that we can work together to make things happen. Almost every day I read that businesses are effecting change in the supply chain to remove waste, especially plastic, in response to consumer pressure.

Finally, I want to draw attention to a story about three people who care enough to  “Do what’s right”.  The first is a doctor, who was moved to leave A&E because he felt people were just being patched up, yet good mental health was not being prioritised and climate change was, in his view, was one of the biggest threats to human health. A second person, a retired nurse, believes volunteering for extinction rebellion (XR) does not feel like a sacrifice. Finally, an ex-banker runs the finance department for XR, because he felt it was the right thing for his children and future generations. I was moved by these stories because those three people are not young activists, they are ordinary people who illustrate that human ingenuity and a willingness to work for something you believe in really does have the power to make a difference. Everyone needs to choose what sort of difference he or she wants to make, both at work and in their personal lives.

Perhaps the key message for COP26 from COP25 is for more governments to listen to more people out on the streets, who all have a story to tell and a clear message. The message is to take tangible action, to the best of your capacity, and do it soon before it is too late. After 25 meetings on the same subject now it is time to get off the fence and make the 26th meeting in Glasgow the one that actually delivers something positive on climate change actions.

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