Opinion | The climate summit no longer works

The disappointment came after the climate summit in Egypt on the 27th Conference of the Parties (COP), large. There will be a fund to compensate for climate damage, which is important for developing countries, but otherwise little progress has been made. This raises the question of whether the climate summit still works in this form.

The annual COP is the United Nations’ supreme body for climate policy. All 197 countries that signed the UN Climate Convention in 1992 have a say in decision-making. Tens of thousands of people will gather for two weeks: delegations from countries, scientists, NGOs, lobbyists and journalists. The final statement requires the consent of all countries.

Hannah Prins, climate activist, and Heleen de Coninck, climate scientist, discuss the statement by email: the UN climate summit no longer works.

Hannah Prins is HP, Heleen de Coninck is HdC.

HP: “When I was born in 1997, two years after the first COP, the number of CO2particles in the air 363.48 ppm. We are now at 416.43. Since then, fossil fuels have not been phased out, factory farming has only increased and we are experiencing more and more and worsening wildfires, floods and famines. Despite all good intentions, it has not succeeded in averting the worst consequences of the climate crisis. I have no doubts about the intentions of many people who visit the COP, but it is clear that we need to look for other, more effective ways to turn the tide.”

HDC: “I completely agree with you that things are not going in the right direction with the climate, and that the climate summits have not been able to turn the tide. But they have served their purpose, and will continue to do so. The temperature forecasts are now at a rise of 2.8 degrees compared to the pre-industrial era. Before the Paris Agreement (2015) these were clearly even higher, between 3 and 4 degrees. It is still not enough, but it is much better, and without the international agreements, no matter how soft, that would not have been possible. Moreover, these UN climate summits are the only place where the poorer and vulnerable countries have a stage. Where they can make their point and the whole world has to listen. You don’t want to take that away from them, do you?”

HP: “A forecast of 2.8 degrees means that we have failed to make adequate climate policy. People from the global south who are already suffering disproportionately from the consequences of the climate crisis, we should indeed listen to them much more. How can their voices be heard if they are overshadowed by oil and gas company lobbyists? Lobbyists from the oil and gas industry outnumbered representatives from the already hard-hit Pacific countries. You don’t invite Marlboro if you want to quit smoking, do you?”

HDC: “It could even become 1.8 degrees if the net-zero vows countries have made towards COP26 are fulfilled. And also 2.8 is much better than 3 or 4 – every tenth of a degree matters! And about the lobbyists: according to the participant list, there were almost 14,000 participants from non-government organizations. If there were indeed more than six hundred participants from the oil and gas industry, I don’t think that would be too bad, to be honest. They are not invited, by the way, but they are allowed to present themselves if not for profit get accredited. The good thing is that COPs are arranged so that ‘observers’ have no voice – only the countries have that. You are targeting the wrong players: it is the fossil fuel exporting countries that are the problem in the negotiations. And only if we continue to have COPs can the power of those countries be broken.”

HP: “As has been shown in the past, nice promises are not fulfilled. Our own government will not meet the 2030 climate plans. The climate summit will be held in Dubai next year. In all likelihood, it will be another big one greenwashing event, with major polluters as sponsor and the host country that uses the top to pretend to be more sustainable than it is. It’s better to boycott it. Canadian journalist and activist Naomi Klein has an alternative People’s Summit suggested.

“My question to you: how many more COPs must be held before the power of those countries can be broken? My patience is running out. After 27 failed conferences, I have lost faith in the 28th. That’s why I choose to take action. Civil disobedience is one of the most effective ways to force government and business to make a radical change to secure a viable future.”

HDC: “I am convinced that the pressure must come from all sides. Sun People’s Summit seems like a great idea. Campaigning also puts pressure on the cause, which we also see with the COPs, but also, for example, with the decision by pension fund ABP to phase out fossil fuels. But the COPs also remain necessary. Because that’s where all the governments of the world come together, and in addition to social movements, financial institutions and companies, they are crucial decision makers.

“The nice thing about the climate summits is also that they offer a platform for various perspectives: scientists mingle with each other and with environmental organisations, governments talk to youth activists, companies with indigenous peoples. And that across all countries of the world. It is precisely this exchange that is essential for a common approach. I agree with you that things could be better and that there are major interests in the way. But they only really have free play in one free for all world it will become if the COP does not curtail the influence of vested interests. Then you see what is happening in many countries: environmental activists who are persecuted and even killed without any visibility. That was a real problem in Egypt, even outside the walls of the COP. But within the walls of the COP, all accredited observers are allowed to express their point of view.

“To answer your question: I think it is an illusion to think that climate policy will soon be ‘finished’. It is constantly evolving, countries are learning from each other, and that is much needed. There is no simple recipe for a solution, for that emissions are too intertwined with just about all our economic activities and also with other issues, such as inequality. Even if the mitigation issue (prevention) has been resolved, the adaptation issue (adapting to the consequences) will remain on the agenda for vulnerable countries for a while, and also ‘loss & damage(the damage that is already there). So I don’t think we can get rid of the COPs for now. They are far from perfect, but I have no doubt about their usefulness.”

Read also: Why the world is still on course for ‘climate hell’ after the summit

HP: “You are not in favor of one free for all world – but unfortunately that is what we live in now. The fossil industry collects large government subsidies and enjoys lively discussions during the COPs. In this way they legitimize the fossil status quo. In the meantime, the idea is emerging in the perception that ‘everything is being done’ to deal with the climate crisis. And that’s not true. New, more powerful forms of international and local cooperation are needed, a change from muddling through to decisiveness. It is hard to imagine that this change will take place within the traditional frameworks of the COPs. We can’t afford to cling to that. That is why I glued myself to the A12 on Saturday to draw attention to the 48 million euros in fossil subsidies per day. Are you coming too?”

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