I certainly hope that COP-26 will not be a cop out. Given that 25,000 people (smaller than usual for these meetings) gathered in the hip city of Glasgow, Scotland will produce a negotiated just agreement worthy of the expenditure of money, carbon, energy, time, travel and emotion, that’s a very, very tall order. We live in hope..
Full disclosure: I was present at COP-11 in Montreal in 2005 and at a similar meeting, the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002. Attending with very little experience or understanding of global UN meetings I quickly learned about mitigation, adaptation, clean development, REDD (Forest Carbon partnership Facility) and all sorts of other mechanisms which undergird more wider ranging agreements amongst the so-called “united” nations.
Such nations certainly don’t appear that united when you are in the room, or I should say pacing the corridors and riding the escalators where many deals are furtively negotiated, though most agreements are sealed before the delegates arrive. Such gatherings are a mixture of good and ill intent. Daily briefings by national negotiating coalitions are tempered with strong and diverse NGO presentations and presence. It’s a lot to take in. It’s messy; it’s what we have available.
The general strategy for these global negotiations is follow the money. For many attending it’s all about keeping the money, or finding the money, or ensuring the money flows in particular directions. Differences between industrialized nations and those impoverished and punished by climate realities become starkly clear as the days roll on. One delegate asked me quietly in 2002 what I thought of globalization. Regardless of what I think, globalization and all the good it offers can only benefit all, if all participate in a generous way.
Concepts of climate debt (what those nations who have benefited from extractive and productive wealth owe to those nations who have had such safety and security taken from them), the estimation of what has been damaged over time, in many cases permanently—from rising sea levels, salt/fresh water contamination, pollution transfer between nations, severe droughts and rapacious fires (only now becoming more evident in richer nations—all these join other conversations focused on amongst other things, reparations.
At COP-26 arguably the most important conversation requiring significant agreed and tangible outcomes with a short-term schedule involves a single prevailing question: “How to get to Net-Zero, and fast.” Equally significant will be funding structures supporting net zero transitions in counties most affected by the climate crisis but least able to pay. Onetime Governor of both the Bank of Canada and the Bank of England Mark Carney in his recent book Values: Building a Better World for All provides a succinct explanation of what the COP could and should do.
It began in earnest in 1992, at the Rio Earth Summit, where world leaders agreed to adopt a series of international environmental agreements under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations. The Conference of Parties – commonly known as the COP and comprising representatives from nation states and UN bodies – meets annually and governs the UNFCCC.
He continues both economically and optimistically:
The urgency to reorient the financial system to finance the tens of trillions of dollars of investment needed over the next three decades for the transition to a sustainable economy. The complacency of many in finance not knowing their own carbon budgets, not having net-zero transition paths, not understanding their impact on an existential crisis.
Carney remains hopeful that COP can do as I suggest above, follow the money and direct it to a good place. Other UN agreements around biodiversity, water and indigenous land rights and justice seek with good effect to right wrongs and manage things well, such actions lauded by none other than Bill Gates and David Attenborough. The need and effect of these initiatives notwithstanding, nibbling around the edges is not enough. The centre of our global common economic activity needs urgent and significant reform. The love and control of money lurks and remains the primary obstacle to success.
If Gretta Thunberg suggests that much COP discussion is blah, blah, blah, she identifies powerfully the unwillingness of so many leaders, negotiators and politicians to genuinely embrace a new economics, to commit to a new way of sharing power and the gifts of the earth, and to use a very Anglican phrase, to admit to those things done and left undone (The Book of Common Prayer). We have created new global structures within recent memory, notably through the Breton Woods Conventions following the Second World War. The author Seth Klein suggests we adopt a war posture, combining the best of public and private sector wisdom, talent and expertise. Activists worldwide shout that we need to immediately transition away from fossil fuel extraction, transmission and combustion, especially through the avoidance of coal, gas and oil. Unionized workers complain, with some justification, that transitional planning is not sufficiently robust. Another key conversation at COP and for all nations once returned home is the detail of what a just transition looks like.
Beyond all of this obstruction and obfuscation there remains a simple truth, seen through the COVID lens where the anti-vaxers simply will not consider the safety of their neighbours let alone their friends and families. At COP, the only way forward will be for negotiators to (as the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives suggest in their organizational tagline) to “think again.”
St. Paul encourages the early Church at Philippi with the following words: “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant.”
The key phrase is “made himself nothing” gk: kenosis, to pour out or empty.The closest equivalent in English is humility. Many will claim that humility has no place in global negotiations. Well if that’s true, even in small measure, we’re hooped. If the only real response to our collective future is fear, mitigated only through the acquisition of massive amounts of surplus wealth, then the competition will continue; “Let the games begin” and good luck to the losers. That’s what happened at COP-15 in Copenhagen in 2009. The meeting was a catastrophic failure derailed by nationalist ambition and corporate self-interest with a survivalist mentality. An agreement at COP-21 in Paris presented at the last minute remains an encouraging sign of hope which is woefully ignored to date.
Let’s hope this in not the case in Glasgow. There are people of faith directly involved; the President of Seychelles is an Anglican priest. I recall people calling some faith community partners aside expressing gratitude for our presence. As we are able, let’s pray, speak and watch carefully. Hopefully, COP-26 will not be a COP-out.