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Why The UN Process Is Failing on Climate

Between October 31 and November 12, 2021, states gathered in Glasgow for the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26). The meeting was described as the world’s “last, best, chance on climate,” and many hoped it would lead to firm commitments from world leaders and tangible progress on environmental issues. Adding to the conference’s sense of urgency was this year’s report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which found that the world’s window for limiting global warming to between 1.5 or 2 degrees celsius is narrowing. In essence, COP26 was entrusted with the essential goal of ensuring that the world moved on track to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

Despite the ever-rising stakes, COP26 undeniably fell far short of expectations. Some milestones were achieved: A pledge by 100 countries to cut 30 percent of methane emissions by 2030; a pledge from 450 financial institutions managing a combined $130 trillion in assets to align their portfolios with the net zero goal by 2050; and over 130 countries agreeing to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030. Additionally, the summit’s attendees signed on to support a “phase down” of coal power and double-down on their efforts to meet 2030 emissions targets outlined in the Paris Agreement, and the United States and China announced their agreement to work together on limiting emissions. 

Yet, these types of measures are incremental changes that prove insufficient when trying to deal with a problem that requires radical, sweeping action. And these small actions taken in Glasgow hold little weight when enforced only by meek measures, such as vague “peer review” systems. As Council on Foreign Relations experts Alice Hill and Madeline Babin dishearteningly put it, “There are no global courts or mechanisms empowered to enforce these pledges. Progress rests on the weak pillars of goodwill.” Perhaps most concerning was the fact that the main conclusion of the Glasgow conference was that countries should return in 2022 to renegotiate and set more ambitious targets. When the first 26 COPs have thus far failed to produce a decisive solution to the climate crisis, what hope is there that another will?

Ultimately, serious revision to the process of global governance is needed in order to meet the challenges of today. When faced with a climate crisis that is quite literally a race against time, states, corporations, and diplomats must realize that we no longer have the luxury of defaulting to the comfortable tactics of UN bureaucracy as our main solution. Meeting the climate challenge will require serious work by states outside of the UN process and should also prompt a reformation of that process itself.

The COP process is so laborious and ineffective largely because it “requires the unanimous agreement of almost 200 nations.” In an international political atmosphere that is seeing increasing inequality not just within but also among states, unanimity will be hard to achieve. When negotiating on climate, the needs and capacities of small pacific island nations, for example, will greatly differ from coal powerhouses like China and India or late-stage industrial economies in the North Atlantic. Reconciling these differences over the course of a week at an international conference is something of a fool’s errand. A more effective approach would be like the one taken by the US and China: a series of bilateral and multilateral agreements that can hopefully push forward climate talks at a quicker pace. Rather than taking on the weight of the international system, these two countries made a bilateral commitment to address climate change between themselves. Similar commitments among states and local governments could potentially pick up some of the slack of international treaties. Admittedly, bilateralism could pose problems as larger countries begin to negotiate with smaller countries. Island nations, for example, pose less of an obstacle in curbing emissions and rather would enter into bilateral negotiations to receive  assistance from the states of the Global North. But, where bilateral agreements are perhaps poised to have the most impact is between large emitters, hopefully prompting them to act as “checks” on each other in the process to curb emissions. 

Additionally, as George Monbiot of The Guardian pointed out, “Because most climate actions devolve to lower tiers of government, mayors, local authorities, countries, and states can be enabled to slash transport and building emissions and help thousands.” In other words, states and local governments can act with an agility that the UN cannot. We have seen examples of this in Ithaca, New York, which just recently voted to electrify and decarbonize all of its buildings and across Europe, where around 250 cities have created low-emissions zones which restrict or limit the use of polluting vehicles. Perhaps the best action now for federal governments to take is truly investing in their local governments to enable them to tackle the climate crisis, be it through investments in sustainable infrastructure or payments for things like ecosystem services and incentives for creating a circular economy. 

What the takeaway from the suggestion of local action should be is that, moving forward, localities will ultimately have to be positioned as the centerpiece of climate action. The failure of large international climate conferences has both made the imperative for local action stronger than ever before and made clear that the real legwork of environmental change will have to be executed at the smallest levels of government. 

Obviously, such a goal is lofty and will need to be backed up by concrete plans of action. It also begs the question of how countries with smaller resource and capital bases can participate. The first step in addressing these potential challenges would be pushing developed countries to fulfill their promise of providing US$100 billion in aid per year to developing countries starting in 2020. For developed countries to have failed to meet this goal is nothing less than embarrassing, especially when it is viewed alongside recent figures like the $6 trillion the US spent on Covid relief and the $840 billion the Obama administration spent on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The $100 billion climate aid goal is perhaps one of the most essential targets the international community needs to meet; it will help fuel the autonomous actions of states in their own domestic spheres and drive climate progress that decades of COP talks have not been able to achieve, particularly in developing economies, where the bulk of these investments in sustainable infrastructure are needed. In this way, we see that, despite the imperative to focus on local governments, international cooperation will not and cannot be obsolete from climate action. Perhaps what needs to happen, then, is a shift in our framing of international climate conferences; rather than being the primary sites of climate action, these international meetings should be understood as reinforcements that empower localities to undertake their own climate efforts. 

Alternatively, the urgency of the climate crisis could and should also be a sign to world leaders that the UN process itself needs to change. While the action of localities in global problems like climate change is essential, the UN could reform to become a partner and participant in those actions rather than taking a backseat completely. Between expectations for rising frequency of pandemics, recurring refugee crises, or looming cybersecurity threats, the international community finds itself dealing with an array of ever-increasing and complex global problems. These problems will only be rectified through a leaner, more agile UN that does more than simply produce lofty, hollow resolutions. A large piece of the puzzle is the problem of enforcement. UN resolutions often have insufficient incentive structures, relying, as we’ve established, on goodwill. Thus, they are also plagued by free riders. To circumvent this problem, some reform-thinkers have suggested a “club” model for international agreements. In particular, Yale economist William Nordhaus has suggested a Climate Club, one that brings nations together to curb emissions and penalizes those that fail to participate through measures like tariffs. 

Other, larger-scale, reforms for the international system are on the table, too. Experts have long discussed ideas such as Security Council reform to move the caucus away from exclusivity towards being a more transparent body. What this might mean is expanding the body’s permanent membership—a move favored by Brazil, Germany, India, and Japan—as well as its non-permanent membership to change the political dynamic of the current Council. Other proposals have simply suggested an expansion of non-permanent seats, or the creation of a semi-permanent member category. Regardless, reforming the Security Council is key in creating a UN structure that disentangles itself from the current power politics and bureaucracy plaguing the organization today. Other possible opportunities for reform also present themselves in the climate realm specifically, where some policy analysts have proposed the idea of a UN climate body not bound by a universal consensus model that works more along the lines of bodies like the UNHCR. The principle of universal agreement on climate measures is a luxury that we cannot afford. Thus, the development of an independent climate body would allow a channel for more nimble international work and climate aid to take place outside the current administrative process. 

Whatever the ultimate outcome, it is clear that our current model of international governance is in need of an upgrade. Perhaps the failures we have seen at COP and on the climate issue will be the catalyst the international community needs to finally make those changes happen. 

Photo by Mathias P.R. Reding on Unsplash