Learning lessons of COP26

King’s College London

Techniques from management studies help us understand why the Glasgow Climate Pact was a disappointment

Boris Johnson at COP26 with world leaders
Boris Johnson at COP26 with world leaders. Picture by Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street.

COP26 has made some progress, but nowhere near enough to avoid climate disaster. While millions around the world are already in crisis, not enough leaders were in crisis mode. People will see this as a historically shameful dereliction of duty.– Former President of Ireland Mary Robinson

A two week celebration of business as usual and blah blah blah.– Climate activist Greta Thunberg

Five years on from the Paris Agreement, this year’s COP was a literal and figurative temperature check on the world’s progress on fighting climate change. The Agreement was to keep the global average temperature rise to well below 2°C compared to pre-industrial levels, and preferably to 1.5°C. While the organisers of COP26 have claimed that the signing of the Glasgow Climate Pact “keep[s] 1.5°C alive”, the global response was unenthusiastic.

The difficulty of COP is that it is based on diplomatic negotiation and voluntary commitments. According to scientists, the cumulative commitments are not big enough or fast enough stop the impending crisis. In this post I’d like to draw on two themes in management studies – how we justify sustainability and how we organise around time – to consider how to make climate change goals that are fair, ambitious, and achievable.

Fairness and justifications for change

In order for parties to come to an agreement, negotiations should feel fair. This is difficult at COP, because emissions are both currently and historically imbalanced and are closely tied to the way many economies have developed. Many Global South countries want to “peak” as late as possible, arguing that earlier targets limit their right to develop. Another imbalance is that Global South countries often have much lower emissions per capita. For example, although India is the third largest emitter overall, per capita its CO2 emissions are quite low at 1.8T, compared to Canada’s at 15.5T per capita.

There is also conflict in what should be cut. We can see that in order to combat climate change, the world needs an energy transition away from fossil fuels. However, countries want to protect their financial interests. For example, the energy agreements of the Glasgow Pact focus on coal, which is a bigger energy source for the Global South, and omits oil and gas, which is a major source for the Global North. Not only that, but the wording of COP26’s coal agreement was watered down from “phasing out” coal to “phasing down“.

There is an inherent unfairness too in COP’s heavy focus on ‘mitigation‘. Actions limiting warming are prioritised and framed by global leaders as investment opportunities. This focus on future emission reductions puts sinking island nations like Kiribati or Tuvalu and tens of millions of climate refugees from countries like the Philippines and Bangladesh at a disadvantage, because we lose sight of who needs help now.

The Glasgow Pact was intended to include a ‘Glasgow Loss and Damage Facility‘ which would offer financial assistance to vulnerable countries, but this was downgraded to a ‘Glasgow Dialogue, which will discuss funding arrangements in the future. Other key players, such as the poor, who are hit the hardest by climate change in every country, and indigenous peoples, who protect 80 per cent of global biodiversity, need to be better included at COP. The idea of incorporating stakeholder views has been widely recognized in management studies for decades, but COP26 shows that climate negotiations and commitments can still improve on their inclusion of marginalised voices.

This could include recognising the human rights impact of climate change and indigenous views of nature. Scholars are moving away from making a business case for sustainability, and businesses are becoming more and more aware of their responsibilities towards society instead of just profit. It is time for the international climate change discussion to move on in a similar way, with a negotiation process that is less about the monetary and investment value of emissions and mitigation measures, and more about a broader concept of fairness and the urgent need for change.

Achievable but ambitious: fixing our goals in time

While negotiators are struggling for fairness in commitments that everyone can agree upon, the world is watching the results. The Glasgow Pact is not considered to be enough. To understand why, we can look at two successful COP26 agreements: one to curb methane emissions and another to end deforestation. The agreed 30 per cent reduction in methane is achievable but not ambitious.

Methane is considered easier to cut than carbon dioxide and will reduce 0.2°C of warming, but scientists say that a 45 per cent reduction is what is actually needed. On the other hand, halting and reversing forest loss and land degradation by 2030 is a very ambitious goal. But it does not seem achievable: there have been multiple attempts to stop deforestation in recent years, such as the New York Declaration on Forests, where most targets had a 2020 deadline and were not met. We can see, even the successful agreements do not balance ambition and achievability well.

To analyse how we can make ideas achievable but ambitious, we can draw on ideas of ‘temporality’: how we make sense of time and organise around it. The crux of sustainability is time, to consider long-term intergenerational equity instead of just short-term financial stability. The Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) agreed at COP26 illustrate how one time-based outlook is prioritised over the other.

Bigger polluters are reluctant to continually improve their NDCs: in fact, some countries like Brazil, Australia and Mexico have worse NDCs at COP26 compared to previous years. These countries have prioritised short-term economic needs over long-term environmental ones. Conversely, when it comes to strategic planning, we have the opposite problem. The world needs to cut emissions in half over the next decade, but the combined NDCs agreed at COP26 do not hit this target.

Most of the net zero targets for countries are to reach that goal by 2050 and are without clear plans or reporting mechanisms. The temporal focus for climate action is too far out. If we put a long-term deadline in place, we need short-term steps to reach it. Both the long-term reach and the short-term action are necessary to make NDCs ambitious and achievable.

Conclusions

In the past decade, a global consensus has an emerged that climate change is the biggest threat for humanity. The question isn’t whether COP is necessary, but whether it’s enough. In general, we can see that governments and businesses are taking climate change more seriously.

We can see industrial change, the greening of the economy, and companies integrating climate goals into their reporting. There is an increased understanding of nature-based solutions, biodiversity, and the role of indigenous peoples and women. But if we want more progress, faster, we need to analyse the shortcomings of COP26 and consider the disparity of needs and resources between countries of the Global North and the Global South, and to move our reasoning away from financial validation. We need to have a better balance in how we connect the short-term with the long-term. That is fundamental to ensure that the targets of COP26 are reached, and that future COP agreements are fair, ambitious, and achievable.

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