COP26: Goal Two – ambition meets politics

COP26: Goal Two – ambition meets politics

Last week’s blogpost looked at COP26 Goal 1, which we concluded was too little, delivered too slowly. Today’s news from the UN Environment Programme reinforces our view: “Fossil fuel production planned by the world’s governments “vastly exceeds” the limit needed to keep the rise in global heating to 1.5°C and avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis”. Notably, the report makes clear the gap between production and target “has remained unchanged since 2019”.

Goal 2 is even more gloriously vague than Goal 1:

  1. Adapt to protect communities and natural habitats

The climate is already changing and it will continue to change even as we reduce emissions, with devastating effects.

At COP26 we need to work together to enable and encourage countries affected by climate change to:

– protect and restore ecosystems

– build defences, warning systems and resilient infrastructure and agriculture to avoid loss of homes, livelihoods and even lives.

This is, frankly, an ambition, not a goal, and not a particularly well-articulated one at that. “COP26 Explained”, the glossy publication produced to accompany the conference, provides a little more detail. Absent the rhetoric, there are two central policies, which can be summarised as “make a plan” and “talk to each other”:

“All countries should produce an ‘Adaptation Communication’ …

The UK has co-developed the Adaptation Action Coalition… The coalition is bringing countries together to find solutions to some of the most challenging impacts of climate change, and we are inviting all countries to join us.”

There is undoubtedly a comprehensive, rich substratum of reports, meetings, best-practice analysis, science, and planning that underlies these seemingly obvious recommendations. Achieving consensus amongst a wide variety of political regimes, economic ambitions and capability, social attitudes, and preparedness to listen to science, is the art of the diplomat. These apparently trivial recommendations are the result of much delicate balancing to find common ground.

But when HMG’s own Environment Agency is publishing comments such as “Adapt or Die”, that common ground seems quite shaky. The Agency’s “Third Adaptation Report” is one of the types of documents that have been fed into the COP26 process – detailed, thoughtful, well researched and dense with actions. SAMI has contributed to this thinking through our work on flood and coastal erosion risk management. The EU Council’s position for COP26 is equally hard-hitting, at least in its stress on urgency.

Anyone who has worked in or with a large organisation will be aware of the problem. Detailed, thoughtful work is produced. It goes up one level, is amended, sent down, rewritten, approved, goes up another level, and the process repeats. In the end, what comes out of the process is the detailed work masked by the acceptable statement. (Both the European Council and the Environment Agency are to be commended for allowing some of the detail to show through in the final publications).

The acceptable statement then runs up against political reality. As Craig Mackinlay MP said on LBC on 19 October, “I don’t actually feel this is a very Conservative policy when you’re asking my constituents to be colder and poorer.” Now, whilst Mr Mackinlay is slightly parti pris here, chairing as he does the “Net Zero Scrutiny Group”, which itself takes its campaigning positions from the climate-change-sceptic Global Warming Policy Foundation, he makes an important political point. A lot of what needs to be done, and fast, is politically highly challenging. And when such bland ambitions inform the debate as Goal 2 on the one side, it is much easier for the other to develop emotional, compelling political arguments against them.

The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee’s report “A climate for ambition” shares some of our concerns.  Even the government’s response acknowledges that “COP26 must now translate these words into actions”. As HM the Queen is reported as saying, “It’s really irritating when they talk, but they don’t do.

Spending our lives in many possible futures, SAMI team members have thought about and delivered work on climate change and routes to mitigation. Like many, we fear that goals will be missed and that risks will increase. (It’s worth mentioning the range of opportunities provided by climate change mitigation efforts. We fear those will not fully come to pass either). The Paris Agreement on Climate Change was a significant moment when the future was potentially recreated in a way that worked. Goal 2, as it currently stands, is a different future than that of Paris – and takes us into possibilities that seem, at this stage, far scarier.

Written by Jonathan Blanchard Smith, SAMI Fellow and Director

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

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