How can we avoid another ‘lost decade’ in the climate fight?

As 2020 begins, IIED director Andrew Norton considers what it will take to galvanise meaningful action on climate change against a ticking clock and political reticence.

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6 January 2020

Andrew Norton is director of IIED

An orange sky

Huge bushfires darken Australia’s skies. The country often sees wildfires, but climate change has disrupted weather patterns, creating catastrophic conditions (Rob Russell via Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

We entered the last decade under a cloud: the inter-governmental process on climate change crashed disastrously at COP15, held in Copenhagen in 2009. But six years later, the Paris climate conference gave us a moment of hope.  

Abandoning Copenhagen’s proposals for ‘top-down’ architecture, the Paris Agreement (largely to accommodate the US’ political allergy to international law with teeth) took a ‘bottom up’ approach, built on national action plans. This allowed the Obama administration to sign up to something that did not need validation in Congress. 

But this was a fragile approach, dependent on active support from a critical mass of countries to maintain momentum.  

Climate commitments fight for life

Five years on, the Paris Agreement is on life support. A small number of key countries whose governments are driven by fossil fuel or other reactionary interests – principally the US, Brazil, Australia and Saudi Arabia – brought the multilateral process to its knees at COP25 in Madrid.  

Now, as 2020 dawns, we are not seeing the urgency of intent or action necessary to confront the climate crisis in a remotely adequate way

Failing people and planet

Outside of the corridors of inter-governmental negotiations we know things aren’t working because emissions are still rising, causing the accumulated stock of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to reach unprecedented levels.

We know things aren’t working because of a string of disastrous events related to the climate crisis is hitting the world. Devastating wildfires in Australia are dominating the news as I write, but climate change has also had a hand in floods, droughts and cyclones affecting countries less able to cope with the impact.

The reality is that more than two thirds of people killed in climate-related disasters over the past 50 years were living in the world's poorest nations.

2019 delivered an authoritative review of the scale of global biodiversity loss – the ‘hard drive’ for all life on the planet. One million animal and plant species are at risk of extinction and more than a third of all marine mammals are threatened.

Climate change is a key cause, along with changing land use, pollution and over-exploitation of the natural world. The evidence for action couldn’t be clearer or stronger.

The 2020s: seeking moments of change

The Paris Agreement could have created momentum for change through two channels. The first was a ‘signal to the markets’ that the entire global economy would undergo a fundamental shift; capital would respond by moving at scale to cleaner technologies.

The second was the ‘ratchet’. It was clear that existing national climate pledges were insufficient; the intention was that citizen and peer pressure would drive increased ambition (2020 is the year that the first set of enhanced national plans is due).

However, both channels were fundamentally undermined by the election of a climate denier as US president. Without the US the ‘ratchet’ is incomplete and the ‘signal to the markets’ is undermined.

Important climate actions have been taken across the US over the last decade: citizens, firms, communities, cities and states have pushed for change. But at the level of the global multilateral system, US leadership remains crucial, and so the US elections in November offer a potential moment of change.

New leadership – particularly a change that reflects the full energy of the ‘Green New Deal’ proposals put to Congress in March – would certainly make a difference to climate action, within and beyond US borders.

Greater momentum could also come from Europe. The European Green Deal, proposed by the European Commission, includes significant plans to reduce emissions and protect biodiversity domestically; it also indicates intent to engage with other major emitters to ‘increase the level of ambition’.

The EU-China summit of September 2020 therefore offers another chance to make change happen. Even without the US, the economic mass of China and the EU can push for a new set of rules for a more sustainable global economy.

Political and legislative processes in the early part of 2020 will be key to position the EU to progress the Green Deal.

Some priorities for action

Revitalising the multilateral process

The political challenges that COP25 couldn’t resolve now fall to COP26 in Glasgow. To restore basic credibility to the Paris process, COP26 must deliver a bare minimum of three things:

  • A critical mass of big emitters significantly increase ambition to reduce GHG emissions
  • The thorny issue of the ‘rulebook’ for carbon markets is resolved in a manner that supports credible accounting on emissions reductions (on which the whole edifice stands), and
  • New ways to channel more funding to the poorest countries to support a resilient, low-carbon future. 

At IIED, we will keep working closely with the Least Developed Countries (LDC) Group, which has, alongside other groupings of vulnerable nations, provided moral leadership to the multilateral process throughout the past decade.  

We will support the group to develop domestic action plans through the LDC Initiative for Effective Adaptation and Resilience and support its vital contribution to the global negotiations – these must not fail in Glasgow as they did in Madrid. 

Driving climate justice in the transition

Sustainable change must be driven by policy and action that addresses the concerns of the ‘losers’ in the planetary emergency – both those standing to suffer from the impacts of a changing climate and ecology and from rapid economic change.

This means bringing social policy and social justice together with climate action. IIED will both continue to work on ways to get ‘money where it matters’ – to those on the sharp end of the crisis – and explore ways of applying social protection policy and instruments to build climate resilience and preserve ecosystems.

Making the connections in the planetary emergency

Finding a sustainable pathway to change over the next decade requires us to confront the connections between different dimensions of the planetary crisis.  

Accelerating elite wealth undermines the human solidarity that drives effective change. The loss of biodiversity and the assault on indigenous communities deprive us of human and natural assets needed for the challenges ahead. As urban growth increasingly occurs in countries without the resources to shape it in inclusive, healthy and sustainable ways, the numbers of people exposed to the worst impacts of the climate crisis will also rise.  

Last year IIED launched a new five-year strategy. In it, we explore the links between the climate crisis, the changes in society and economy that we need, and other critical currents of change – and what they mean for effective action at all levels.

Engaging with social action

2019 has seen a cry for action the world over, especially from young people, that matches the scale of the planetary emergency. The response from the formal political system is, as yet, woefully inadequate. Supporting the growth of the social demand for change is the most important thing that any of us can do.  

Over the coming year IIED will look for ways to support the continuing groundswell of demand for climate action. We have a base and a network of partners in Scotland where COP26 will be held. We will seek to leverage these, alongside our extensive global network, to do all we can to strengthen the voice for change. 

2020 needs to be a breakthrough year for global action and the stakes couldn’t be higher.

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