What success means at COP26

Mahmoud Mohieldin
Tuesday 2 Nov 2021

A final push is needed to ensure that a global solidarity agenda is in place to secure the future of the planet.

At the 76th session of the UN General Assembly, world leaders discussed the need to scale up their ambitions to address key global challenges, including the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change, political extremism and widening inequality. With fewer than two weeks to go before the COP26 Climate Change Conference in Glasgow in the UK, however, the world is not delivering on its promises.

At this critical juncture, urgent action is needed to ensure that COP26 delivers for people and planet. This requires not only accelerating efforts to decarbonise our economies and societies, but also taking an integrated, holistic approach to sustainability by placing climate action firmly within the context of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Finance must also be massively scaled up to support developing countries in this effort, including middle-income countries, while ensuring that every decision, every policy and every investment is based on an agenda of global solidarity.

Five years on from COP21, when the Paris Agreement on Climate Change entered into force, this year’s COP26 could be a pivotal moment for climate action. It will be the first time that countries update their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to limit climate change to 1.5°C since 2015, and some countries have pre-emptively noted that they will announce major cuts in emissions at Glasgow.

Despite progress in the advanced economies, emerging markets and developing economies (and in the private sector), the Covid-19 pandemic – the greatest development emergency in over a century – significantly derailed multilateral efforts to offer global solutions to global challenges, as countries became increasingly myopic and focused on their domestic situations.

This was most evident in the world’s failure to ensure that all countries could respond adequately to the pandemic, including through equitable access to vaccines and sufficient finance, which has not only harmed the developing world, but also prolonged the crisis for everyone. While seven out of every ten citizens in some G7 countries are already vaccinated, less than one per cent of the population of Sub-Saharan Africa has been fully vaccinated, with estimates suggesting it could be 2024 before Western levels of vaccinations are reached.

Meanwhile, the socio-economic impacts of Covid-19, which caused global public debt to soar to almost 100 per cent of GDP, have further complicated governments’ ability to invest in a sustainable future, producing a “great divergence” in recovery tracks that now threatens to become systemic.

Similarly, while some policymakers capitalised on the opportunity to re-focus attention on climate action as part of their response and recovery efforts, these cases remained the exception rather than the norm. According to an analysis of spending by leading economies led by Oxford University’s Economic Recovery Project and the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP), only 18 per cent of announced recovery spending can be considered green.

Going into COP26, global actions on climate action paint a similar picture of narrow self-interest rather than global solidarity. While pre-existing decarbonisation efforts are welcome, they remain underwhelming and insufficient to meet the sheer scale of this challenge.

The green transition could potentially generate 100 million new jobs by 2030, and it could also displace millions of people dependent on the fossil-fuel industry in the short term. In the absence of well-designed policies, including job-reskilling and up-skilling programmes, a mismanaged energy transition could exacerbate inequalities, sow distrust and foster growing unrest. A just transition is necessary to seize the benefits of this transformation.

Ahead of COP26, support for a just transition, in addition to decarbonisation and other climate pledges, must be elevated to the top of the policy agenda, including in extractive-dependent economies that will be most affected by the transition to net-zero. If we can succeed in the goal, we can not only arrest and reverse growing inequalities, but also bolster resilience and restore people’s trust in their governments’ ability to deliver and in multilateralism at large.

To get the world back on its feet, we need a holistic and integrated approach to sustainability, one that is not limited to climate action or to climate action that is limited to mitigation. To achieve these goals, finance not only needs to be massively scaled up in support of the developing countries, including middle-income countries, but also invested in alignment with a comprehensive sustainability agenda based on the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

In 2009, the developed countries agreed to mobilise $100 billion annually from public and private sources for mitigation and adaptation action in the developing countries by 2020. Yet, according to the UK-based Overseas Development Institute (ODI), of the 23 developed countries responsible for providing international climate finance only Germany, Norway and Sweden have paid their fair share.

The global development community, including the G20 group of countries, must do more. It must not only meet, but also surpass, existing targets. All donors should also heed the UN secretary-general’s warning that the 2021 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report is “code red for humanity” and ensure that at least 50 per cent of climate finance is allocated to adaptation, in addition to mitigation. Indeed, chronic gaps in adaptation finance expose the world’s poorest people to climate chaos.

Recovery packages from Covid-19, as well as the recent issuance of $650 billion in Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) at the International Monetary Fund (IMF), offer a vital opportunity to accelerate progress towards the SDGs. But of these, only $274 billion have gone to the emerging and developing economies.

In this regard, the UN secretary-general in his Common Agenda has called for an SDG investment boost, including through a last-mile alliance to reach those furthest behind. But to get there, governments need adequate fiscal space to invest in recovery, including by ensuring they are not forced to choose between servicing their debts and serving their people.

There should be a boost in global liquidity to the developing countries, including through a re-allocation of SDRs to vulnerable countries, greater debt relief for all who need it, including through the operationalisation of the Common Framework for Debt Treatment and its expansion to include private-sector creditors and middle-income debtors, and a reform of the international debt architecture to prevent future debt crises.

International financial institutions and multilateral and national development banks have an essential role to play here, including by revising operations and asset-management rules to increase their capacity to support investment in the developing countries, de-risking sustainable investments, and drawing capital to create bankable, job-creating projects in communities that need them. Their support for developing countries to achieve sustainability objectives could set countries on a path to an inclusive and climate-resilient future, while their neglect would all but ensure that they are left further behind.

Success at COP26 means meeting this challenge by taking an integrated, holistic approach to sustainability rooted in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and ensuring that finance is invested adequately and sufficiently where it is needed most.

It could also pave the way for an even more ambitious agenda, focusing on implementation, during COP27 in Egypt, when those in the Global South most affected by the impacts of climate change will have a platform to more visibly demonstrate the challenges they face.

But to get there, a final push is needed to ensure that a global solidarity agenda is in place. The very future of this planet depends on whether we can rise to this challenge and convert words into action.

*A version of this article appeared on the website of the United Nations University World Institute for Development Economics Research.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 November, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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