Combating climate change needs a ‘business-unusual’ approach
As we approach the 26th Conference of Parties (COP26) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)—which marks a quarter century of talks on how to tackle the greatest global crisis that humanity has ever faced—we have made some progress, but not nearly enough if we consider the speed of climate change. As the sixth assessment report (AR6) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has revealed, we have unequivocally entered the new era of adverse impacts of human-induced climate change as the global mean temperature has risen over one degree Celsius due to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions since the Industrial Revolution over a hundred years ago.
What this means—and this is new—is that we will now have to face increasing levels of loss and damage from rising global mean temperature every year for the next 10 or 20 years. If we are able to enhance our efforts in reducing GHG emissions very drastically to stay below the 1.5-degree-Celsius threshold of temperature rise, we may be able to prevent even more catastrophic loss and damage in the longer term. But the adverse impacts for the next decade are now baked in and inevitable.
It is thus clearly evident, as we are repeatedly reminded by the Friday for Future activists, that our house is already on fire and we are still merely talking about taking action. Our business-as-usual approach for the last two and a half decades has completely failed to prevent the crisis, and we are still far from rising to the urgency required.
I am, therefore, going to propose some ideas for a "business-unusual" approach at all levels to enable the world to tackle the climate crisis on a scale and with an urgency that are needed.
First, we need to rethink the purpose of the annual COP where all the governments of the signatories to the UNFCCC come together once a year, while many thousands of non-governmental actors also join in for side events in the same city, and also hold demonstrations in the streets. This once-a-year talk fest is simply not effective anymore, as the actions that are agreed to by the governments require consensus of all 190-plus member states, which inevitably leads to so much compromise that the outcomes are never close to satisfactory.
The exception to this ineffectiveness was COP21 in Paris in 2015, where an agreement was reached by consensus. All the countries agreed to collectively keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius, and the rich countries collectively agreed to provide USD 100 billion every year from 2020 onwards to support the poorer countries to tackle climate change through both mitigation and adaptation.
An important feature of the Paris Agreement was that, although it was made by governments and global leaders, it no longer required those leaders to be the only ones to take actions to fulfil the agreement. From governors of provinces, mayors of cities, to heads of companies and NGOs, and ordinary citizens—everyone can take their own actions to implement the stipulations of the Paris Agreement. This was very well illustrated when US President Donald Trump officially withdrew the United States from the agreement: his decision drove a plethora of state governors and city mayors to continue their actions to implement the Paris Agreement.
This has unleashed two major campaigns for non-state actors: one for mitigation called Race to Zero, and one for adaptation called Race to Resilience. Under these campaigns, hundreds of companies, mayors of cities, NGOs, and many other organisations have signed up and have already started taking appropriate actions.
So, the situation now calls for actions by everyone everywhere, in whatever way they can, with the urgency required to deal with the emergency we find ourselves in. Hence, an annual parley of governments to discuss next steps is no longer fit for purpose. What is needed are coalitions of the willing, which can include governments as well as other actors to move forward, rather than try to achieve consensus among all the countries.
Hence, I propose that we make COP26 an "inside-out COP," where the focus is less on the details of the negotiation between governments inside the Blue Zone, and share and instead celebrate the actions of all the other groups who will attend the summit. Indeed, my advice to all the media who will be at the summit would be to cover the "Action COP" (coalitions of practice) taking place in many different locations around Glasgow city, where COP26 is due to be held.
Another major business-unusual practice I would like to propose is for the UN secretary-general to officially recognise the annual pre-COP youth meeting, which recently took place in Milan, Italy, to be mandated and empowered to actually review progress on the implementation of the Paris Agreement. On behalf of different think tanks around the world who study the performance of different actors, including governments as well as companies, we could prepare and share our findings with the pre-COP youth meeting every year.
Another issue that has become a stark reality in 2021 is the loss and damage from human-induced climate change, which has previously been covered under the Warsaw International Mechanism at COP19. While there has been some excellent work on research and knowledge-sharing, and some limited work on funding under pilot index-based insurance schemes, there has been no progress in funding beyond insurance. Given the huge loss and damage even in rich countries—like the floods in Germany and America and the wildfires in Europe and America—the need to raise funding support for the victims has become more urgent. One way forward could be for a number of sympathetic governments, along with philanthropic foundations and other potential financiers, to come together in Glasgow and launch a coalition to explore how to raise and disburse funds to help the victims of loss and damage from climate change from a humanitarian perspective.
Finally, I would like to advise all the countries, mayors, CEOs, and heads of other organisations who have signed up to either the Race to Zero or the Race to Resilience campaigns to provide regular reports on their actual performance on a weekly basis to the Friday for Future movement. After all, these young climate activists represent the generation to whom the rest of us are now answerable for taking actions to give them a safe future.
The time for making pledges, which are then ignored, are gone. Now is the time for monitoring and evaluating actual delivery of the pledges made by everyone, including the governments, to save our planet from the climate crisis. We must rethink the way we can tackle the global climate change emergency more effectively and move away from the business-as-usual approach at all levels.
Dr Saleemul Huq is director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) at the Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB).