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Prospects for 2020: Climate Action on a Geopolitical Knife-Edge

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Photo by Artem Sapegin on Unsplash

The nature of climate change means failing to support action has the same consequences as actively blocking it. Despite looking like farce, this December saw both the NATO Summit in London and the COP25 Climate Convention in Madrid end in tragedy for climate action.

Failing to Deliver- NATO and COP25

At the NATO summit, Western powers made it clear, yet again, that they do not understand how failing to tackle climate change undermines all other efforts to maintain security. Contrary to media reports, the real problem at the Summit was not President Trump leaving after leaders were filmed laughing about his erratic behaviour. But rather, despite climate change’s inevitable impact on most of the security issues on the agenda - for example Middle East stability, Artic competition and the consequences of China’s global influence - climate was hardly mentioned.

The COP25 negotiations extended longer than any previous climate talks, with most real decisions getting pushed off until next year’s COP26 in Glasgow. Despite 500,000 people marching in Madrid for climate action, the summit’s final text contains only a weak call for countries to raise climate ambition in 2020.

The EU is the only major economy that stepped-up with its agreement to reach climate neutrality by 2050 and the European “Green Deal” to create the social, political and economic change to deliver climate action. Rather than a failure of the UN process, COP25’s poor result is due to the US, Brazil and Saudi Arabia putting their narrow national interests before the need to stabilise the climate. The outcome is also the responsibility of China, India and Japan failing to actively support the large majority of countries calling for stronger and more environmentally-sound outcomes.

The frustrations of COP25 will increase the justified anger many people feel at inaction. Anger should not be directed towards the UN process however, but targeted at countries failing to act. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is critical because it provides the venue for countries to set the pace, scale and equity of global climate action. Without the UNFCCC there is no way to align the global system on climate change to ensure global temperatures stay well below 2C.

How we can deliver in 2020

Geopolitical tensions and distractions breaking down cooperative behaviour are the biggest threats to effective climate action. With climate change now acting as a maker, not just a taker, of geopolitics it is time to cooperate well beyond the UN Climate Convention.

Faced with negative geopolitics and fraying international institutions, the diplomatic agenda for climate 2020 is bigger than a good outcome at COP26. Failure to agree a real increase in global climate ambition in 2020 will deeply damage international politics and public support for cooperation and open trade.

Climate action is needed in three critical areas beyond the UNFCCC and COP26:

  • Rebuilding a broad coalition for climate action: to tackle climate change at the necessary scale, there must be deeper and broader cooperation between like-minded countries in Europe, Africa and Latin American. The last days in Madrid saw the revitalisation of the High Ambition Coalition centred on the Vulnerable Country Group and the EU. In 2020 a number of high-level EU-Africa Summits will give further opportunities to build a strong relationship ready for action on investment in climate resilience and clean growth.  
  • EU-China Summit: the EU and China will hold an important Summit in September 2020 covering economic relations, climate and biodiversity. At the Summit, both sides must raise their domestic climate ambition but also agree to shape international action. Key areas include: how to rapidly grow global markets for electric vehicles; a plan for green investment in the Belt and Road Initiative; and setting rules on global sustainable finance markets. Next year’s US election should be stimulus to get ahead of the game in driving the global economy towards more clean, green and resilient investments.  Whether Trump is re-elected or a new US President looks to re-join the Paris Agreement in 2020,  shaping the direction & rules for a low carbon economy is in the interest of the EU and China.
  • Global financial reform: to keep 1.5C within reach 2020 must see the end of global coal investment and the beginning of a rapid decline in oil and gas financing. Global cooperation between countries, regions and cities can accelerate the phase out of internal combustion engine cars lowering future oil demand. International and national public banks should commit to phasing out fossil lending and to a massive scale up of clean investment. Finance ministries should follow the private sector and begin incorporating climate risk onto balance sheets. With the prospect of a global economic crisis looming, countries should commit to implementing stimulus packages that are aligned with the Paris Agreement.

This is a huge agenda for diplomatic action which will strain the capacity of governments and non-governmental actors alike. But, without a radical broadening of the climate agenda to shape geopolitics and global markets, climate action is in danger of being eclipsed by other events and immediate interests.

2020 is not a single moment for action but an opportunity to scale up our collective ability to drive change towards a climate safe future. This ranges from deepening geopolitical alliances, to cooperating on how to help coal miners find new jobs, designing global rules to protect savers from the financial risks of stranded fossil assets and building cross-society conversations on how much climate and ecological risk is acceptable.

2020 is the year where everyone needs to step up and play their role in the climate transition. No-one can be a spectator when the whole planet is the pitch.