COP26: a rare win for ocean-climate action in a sea of missed opportunities
I am relative newcomer to the nature and climate cause, having worked for much of the last decade on international development issues. So I suspect that I arrived in Glasgow as a COP26 Civil Society Observer with more enthusiasm than those who had seen 25 previous such meetings come and go and the global output of greenhouse gases from fossil fuels only increase.
I also have an affection for the baffling intricacies and quiet diplomacy behind most international agreements, finding the technical language strangely comforting. But this conference in particular highlighted the frustrations with these processes that are always slow and fraught with compromise.
The climate science is clear that we should all be acting in crisis mode, making the big changes and unleashing the full potential of the political, financial and social systems at our disposal to create a cleaner greener future. For the most part, and at no level - whether individual, local, national or international - are we yet acting in that mode. This conference certainly did not meet the urgency of the moment with back-room deals and last minute trading of issues, but it also represents progress and international governments vying over resources in a forum other than outright conflict.
So I still do not know if I left Glasgow with more optimism, or greater pessimism, but I certainly discovered that the people are also the process and that is a cause for hope.
Civil Society Observers at UN meetings are in the privileged position of being able to move freely between climate campaigners protesting outside the perimeter gates and government delegates within. I observed these two groups of people who are, at least to some extent, committed to the same goal of averting a climate catastrophe but who operate in vastly different ways with tension and distrust evident on all sides.
Government delegates attended COP26 to deliver an Outcome Document, a political decision achieved through intricate diplomacy and a difficult to attain political consensus on what action individual countries, with their own specific interests, and the international community, will take to address the climate emergency.
Climate campaigners outside, and particularly the youth-led climate movement, provided a much needed focus on the urgency and scale of the problem and served to call out the inaction they see from those in positions of leadership. When things inside felt stale and lifeless the noise and energy from the protests permeated the walls and broke a false sense of disconnect. As Christina Figueres, one of the architects of the Paris Climate Agreement, has repeatedly said, we need ‘all hands on deck’ - even if they are busy doing different things.
The process to tackle climate change now involves governments submitting updated ‘Nationally Determined Contributions,’ to outline what steps each country will take to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions they are responsible for and stay within the Paris Agreement. However, as with all multilateral mechanisms, the COP process is ruled by consensus and so the pace is unfortunately set by those least willing to act.
And yet, progress is still progress and the outcome of COP26 contained successful elements. Fossil fuels appearing for the first time in the text is a vital step forwards as was the commitment to double adaptation finance. And its important to remember that before the Paris Agreement was reached in 2015 the world was on course for a catastrophic six degrees of global heating and so bringing this trajectory down to the 2.4 degrees reached at this COP within six years is progress. The essential goal of the Paris Agreement, of reducing this heating to 1.5 degrees in order to avert the worst impacts of climate change including the destruction of low-laying nations, is still just about within reach. The decision to return annually with Nationally Determined Contributions, rather than every five years, maintains much needed momentum.
The agreement in Glasgow also emphasised the importance of protecting, conserving and restoring nature and ecosystems, including the ocean both for biodiversity and carbon stores. The establishment of an Annual Ocean Dialogue finally anchors the ocean, our greatest ally to absorb the excess carbon dioxide we have already put into our atmosphere, within the United Nations climate process. Now it is up to all of us going forwards if this anchor allows us to reorient ourselves towards further, faster progress.
The question of ‘what must be done’ has been clear for decades. We must achieve a ‘Just Transition’ away from fossil fuel-powered economic growth and extractive economic models and move towards clean energy sources and economic systems that fit within our planetary boundaries. It is concerning that the ‘how’ we are going to do this remains in the hands of so few and that there are still large groups of people across the world not yet involved in this process. How to bring ‘all hands on deck’ must be a focus for all campaigners going forwards and not just for those of us used to encountering boats while we are working on the ocean.
Anna Gelderd is a former Adviser to the Shadow Minister for International Development. She now focuses on the intersection of international development, ocean conservation and the climate crisis. Follow her on Twitter @annagelderd