• Nov 12, 2021
  • Insights

Overtime at COP26: Toward a common future

Child holding sign at COP26

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Written by Velma McColl. Published by Policy Magazine.

As I write, negotiations have gone into overtime in Glasgow, extended into the weekend rather than ending on Friday. This has happened at nearly every climate change summit since 1993’s COP1 in Berlin. The gavel does not come down on time, despite honest and creative efforts in designing the agenda. The UK, with Italy, deserves full marks for stepping up. Like every country brave enough to take this on before, they will wear the results.

Ministers and negotiators are still locked in rooms hammering out texts, arguing over the placement of a comma or the intent and significance of a single word. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has returned to Glasgow and, with Alok Sharma, the COP26 president, is pressing for greater action in every corner. US Climate Envoy John Kerry, who signed the Paris Agreement with his granddaughter on his knee, has been a man on a mission for months. Patricia Espinosa, a former Mexican foreign minister who worked magic at COP16 and is now head of the UNFCCC, moves like a conductor behind the scenes. There are hundreds of faceless others whose roles will be told in the months ahead.

Consultation and debate are not limited to rooms here in Glasgow. Phone lines have been burning up between national capitals, cabinet ministers and ambassadors to seek additional mandates from those leaders who went home to attend to domestic matters last week.

Getting agreement on a final text from “the parties” (as the 196 countries that support the underlying framework are affectionately called) is a herculean task and requires a level of sophisticated diplomacy and statecraft that few people appreciate.

While many of us are dismissive of the value of this intricate work, these climate negotiations are the only way to lock governments – and many non-state actors – into public commitments and accountability. The deliberations on the final text will continue into this weekend.

While we wait for an outcome and the post-game analysis to follow, here are some observations about what shifted here in Scotland.

We have greater global understanding of the goal of limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2030 and achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.

While many of us are dismissive of the value of this intricate work, these climate negotiations are the only way to lock governments – and many non-state actors – into public commitments and accountability.

The urgency is palpable, though our ability to act together is still imperfect — and may be for years to come. That should not stop us from acting with the necessary speed and taking heed of the crescendo of different voices in our economies, our societies and our cultures coming together, as they have here in Glasgow.

We are already at 1.1 degrees today and every tenth of a degree matters in the trajectory for addressing climate change within this generation. We understand that every domestic national action and every collective global response matters. And we know, for the first time, that we can all see how we’re doing – and what more we can do.

We are in a better position to hold governments accountable – our own and all the others. After the Paris Agreement and through tireless, though incomplete, work at the IPCC, the International Energy Agency (IEA) and other international bodies, we can now tally, in real time, both actual current emissions and what all the promises and commitments under the UNFCCC will mean for emissions by 2030 and 2050.

We need to understand this as part of the larger trend for all actors in society now, particularly with the rise of environmental, social, governance (ESG) standards. Measurement and accountability are part of the future – and the final deal here will set even more stringent timetables and reporting requirements. It will get harder to hide both ambition gaps and results. Canada’s new net-zero legislation locks in similar accountability at home.

We have finally and fully accepted what was obvious in both the failure of Copenhagen in 2009 and the success of the Paris Agreement in 2015 — that government cannot get this done alone. More than 20 percent of the world’s largest companies have committed to achieving net-zero by 2050. COP26 marks the increased participation of investors and capital markets, strategies by sector in renewables, batteries, steel, cement, road transportation, power, hydrogen, emissions, aviation, artificial intelligence and many more.

There was so much innovation on display here, it will reverberate for years to come. Those actions are well beyond government and regulations and include Mark Carney’s success at mobilizing $130 trillion in capital investment to net-zero outcomes, shifting transportation, energy, financial, building and community systems. The delivery of those capital flows – and the full benefit of the $100 billion climate finance commitment – depend on whether Article 6 terms are finally reached this weekend to set rules on how emissions reductions are accounted for and potentially traded.

Cities, yet again, showed up with an activist stance through organizations like C40, ICLEI and in Canada through the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM). More than 700 cities in 50 countries have committed to a 50 percent reduction by 2030 and to achieving net-zero by 2050.

What’s sometimes hard to fathom is that we’re creating pressure today to yield big shifts in the future. Epic changes; levels of change we have rarely achieved before and certainly not at this scale. For people living in a soundbite and immediate gratification world, it’s hard to understand how we’re going to transform so many status quo systems at the same time and not see the outcome for five, 10, or 30 years.

This is a serious concern that gets at another dimension of why climate change is a human problem. Our attention spans aren’t long and our tolerance for short-term costs is limited. Yet those who want climate action are asking all manner of decision-maker to prioritize the long term over the short term, a move that is rarely rewarded in our current economic systemsThose trade-offs are already starting to bite consumers on some goods and hard questions around economic costs of the 2030 targets and net-zero by 2050 should be an open and expected part of the debate after Glasgow. It’s another kind of transparency.

Our short attention spans explain why digital and traditional media interest in climate change dropped off dramatically when the leaders left last week. We can’t make progress if we pay attention only four days a year – or four days every six years, when leaders show up on the international stage. This is something that Greta Thunberg and youth organizers understand by keeping interest up with Fridays for the Future. They want a weekly reminder so we focus on solutions and generational change.

Those who want climate action are asking all manner of decision-maker to prioritize the long term over the short term, a move that is rarely rewarded in our current economic systems.

This is also why these annual climate summits matter – inside, and outside in the green and blue zones, or in the streets filled with people chanting and waving signs. It’s all part of a necessary ecosystem of change.

The COPs create a global focal point, a place to take stock, to report transparently on actions across the planet and progress (or not) by different countries, to celebrate innovations, to define success and to get clear on how to accelerate change. We need to change human systems as much as we need to change technology and buildings.

Speaking of ecosystems, the dear green city of Glasgow will forever more be known as the COP that finally merged nature, biodiversity, oceans and agriculture into the global climate framework, formally recognizing them in the solutions, partnerships and accounting for emissions reductions and investments. Adaptation to climate impacts was also acknowledged as a necessary part of climate finance here, a move welcomed by small islands and African states. There are many efficiencies and benefits to addressing these agendas together.

We are each accountable for our own actions. As we discussed at the outset of COP26, climate change is a human problem. We all have the opportunity to embrace it at a personal level, within our households, neighbourhoods, cities, regions, provinces, states/territories, nationally and globally. That means caring that the Maldives, Pulau and Barbados may be lost in rising tides if we act too late or that African territories will become so dry that the land will actually crack open from desertification. It means looking beyond nationalism to multilateralism and solutions that transcend borders and even continents.

Whatever happens with the final text, we will need to stand in the complexity and contradiction that COP26 is imperfect and incomplete, a step on a trajectory of change that will take a generation.

This seems easier for the younger generation to comprehend. For one thing, they are often better briefed, have more facts, understand the impacts more acutely. They are digital natives used to accessing global perspectives online and have sampled global culture all their lives. These modern warriors have a deeper intuition about how we humans and our planet are interconnected, not just geographically but culturally and socially. The rise of their voices for the planet as a social movement is impossible to ignore – as are the existential anxieties that so many of them feel. They are turning up the volume and have every right to demand change. They are the politicians and innovators of the future and today they are asking us to find ways, in our lifetimes, to turn down the heat and cool our one blue planet.

Whatever happens with the final text, we will need to stand in the complexity and contradiction that COP26 is imperfect and incomplete, a step on a trajectory of change that will take a generation. We should not shy away from the scientific projections showing that if we do nothing more than was pledged here, we will overshoot 2 degrees Celsius and cause disaster for the planet. That is entirely possible – if we do nothing more.

… what came through across all the different pleas, protests, plenaries, panels, parties and pledges in Scotland is our common humanity.

But that’s not what’s happening here in Scotland or for those who tracked every speech online or who are making change around the world.  Something bigger is shifting and we are engaged in and accountable for a common global goal.

Many businesses, sectors and countries have turned their attention to making change within the decade, because fundamentally – and finally – they believe that making change now is cheaper and more efficient than waiting another 10 years. It took 30 years to get here but, like all major social movements, we have hit a tipping point where progress accelerates, outcomes come faster than conservative estimates suggest. If you have the time, an excellent summary of the accelerating pace of the S curve of innovation in climate is a 12-minute Ted Talk by Nigel Topping, Boris Johnson’s appointee to do exactly that in key breakthrough sectors.

For my part, what came through across all the different pleas, protests, plenaries, panels, parties and pledges in Scotland is our common humanity. I saw people, from every walk of life and profession, who are “daring greatly” as Teddy Roosevelt would say. Men and women (though we need more women) who are in the field, and whose “face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds…”

And so, we wait for the negotiations to close and to parse the text of the Glasgow agreement (whatever we end up calling it). No matter the ultimate global deal, at home we’re going to have to translate the lessons of COP26 into a comprehensive plan to do hard things together, across our federation, all at the same time. It might be time for a climate summit of our own (similar to 2016) so we can take stock, map progress and watch for the doers, those Canadians who are daring greatly, wherever we might find them.

Filed from COP26 in Glasgow.

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