Can the Paris Agreement Still Avert Climate Chaos?

Laurence Tubiana, France’s top diplomat at the talks, said another key innovation was what she termed “360-degree diplomacy.” That means not just working through the standard government channels, with ministerial meetings and chats among officials, but reaching out far beyond, making businesses, local government and city mayors, civil society, academics, and citizens part of the talks.

“That was a very important part of [the success] of Paris,” she said. The UK has taken up a similar stance, with a civil society forum to ensure people’s voices are heard, and a specially convened council of young people advising the UN secretary-general. The UK’s high-level champion, Nigel Topping, is also coordinating a “race to zero” by which companies, cities, states, and other sub-national governments are themselves committing to reach net zero emissions.

One massive issue outstanding ahead of Cop26 is finance. Bringing developing countries, which have suffered the brunt of a problem that they did little to cause, into the Paris agreement was essential. Key to that, said Fabius, was the pledge of financial assistance. The French government had to reassure poorer nations at the talks that $100 billion a year in financial assistance, for poor countries to cut their emissions and cope with the impacts of the climate crisis, would be forthcoming. “Money, money, money,” Fabius insisted, was at the heart of the talks. “If you don’t have that $100 billion [the talks will fail].”

For the UK as hosts of Cop26, the question of money presents more of a problem since the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, swung his ax at the overseas aid budget in the recent spending review. Although the £11 billion designated for climate aid will be ring-fenced, persuading other developed countries to part with cash—and showing developing countries that the UK is on their side—has suddenly become more difficult. Amber Rudd, the former UK energy and climate minister who represented the UK at the Paris talks, said, “A country that understood the seriousness of Cop26 would not be cutting international aid right now.”

Alok Sharma, president of Cop26 and the UK’s business secretary, will draw on his experience as the UK’s former international development minister in dealing with developing countries’ expectations. He said, “I completely recognize making sure we have the finance for climate change action is very important. That’s why we have protected international climate finance. I think people understand we are in a difficult economic situation. We have said when the economy recovers we would look to restore [overseas aid as 0.7 percent of GDP]. I do think when it comes to climate change we are putting our best foot forward.”

Boris Johnson will be hoping to smooth over these tricky issues when he, alongside the French government and the UN, presides over a virtual meeting of world leaders on December 12, the fifth anniversary of the Paris accord. At least 70 world leaders are expected to attend, and they will be pushed to bring forward new NDCs and other policy commitments, as a staging post toward the Cop26 summit.

Johnson kicked off preparations for the meeting on December 4 by announcing the UK’s own NDC, setting out a 68 percent cut in emissions compared with 1990 levels, by 2030. That would put the UK ahead of other developed economies, cutting emissions further and faster than any G20 country has yet committed to do.

Critics pointed out, however, that the UK is not on track to meet its own current climate targets, for 2023. Far more detailed policy measures are likely to be required, some of them involving major changes and economic losers as well as winners, before the path to net zero is clear.

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