A 2021 Climate Diplomacy Agenda | Part III

The Rhythm of 2021

Glen Coe, Ballachulish, UK – Mike T on Unsplash

3 part blog series: 

The ‘drumbeat of ambition’ is a familiar phrase to many campaigners, spoken of in the run-up to major climate summits over the years. 2021 is no exception but has its own unique ambition rhythm. More than a drumbeat, it is better thought of as a quartet – played across the four priority outcome areas outlined in Parts I and II of this blog – building to a crescendo at COP26.  

Put simply, the political and economic foundations of ambitious climate action will build up throughout the year as outcomes are delivered across many diplomatic venues by both state and non-state actors.

So where does COP26 fit into the climate diplomacy agenda?  

COP26 is not just a climate change summit. 2021 ultimately culminates in the Glasgow summit as a moment of truth measuring whether we have achieved enough to set up the next decade as one for decisive climate action, sustainable development and multilateral cooperation that keeps us on a path of climate safety. 

Falling short of any of the outcomes outlined in part I and II of this blog will play into the COP26 atmospherics in a major way. For example, failing to address finance and debt issues risks jeopardising the talks before they begin, with trust between developed and developing countries too low to foster agreement. 

The calendar in detail 

Q1: The first quarter of this year is critical in setting the right agenda to unlock outcomes throughout the rest of 2021. The statement from the G7 leaders’ call in February set strong overarching priorities – vaccines, debt, trade reform and of course climate action, among others. The first meeting of G20 Finance Ministers set a similarly positive vision ahead, particularly for SDR allocation, debt relief and sustainable finance. Now details need to be fleshed out at key venues, such as the UK Climate and Development Ministerial in March. 

On climate ambition at the national level, Q1 has so far seen China’s Five Year Plan set a slow path for climate ambition momentum, with no new commitments or major policy shifts towards the 2060 carbon neutrality commitment. We will need to see a strong US NDC to push the accelerator on climate ambition ahead of Q2’s summits. To keep China at the climate ambition table, world leaders will have to deploy delicate and agile diplomacy that balances cooperative and competitive approaches to climate while managing a tightrope of potential tensions (both climate related like increasing competition over clean energy markets; and human rights related like abuses in Xinjiang and democratic crackdown in Hong Kong).  

A key priority throughout Q1 will be mainstreaming climate in foreign policy, whether through reconnecting transatlantic alliances under US President Biden or effectively distributing leadership on the climate agenda across progressive actors. The first test of this for the COP26 hosts will emerge with the UK Integrated Review, due in March, where climate should be centred in post-Brexit foreign policy. Elsewhere, we will see further domestic green recovery plans announced and their greenness must be monitored.

Q2: With the agenda set, the second quarter provides a phase for unlocking early action, particularly at the G7 level. G7 ministerials on foreign affairs (April), finance (May) and climate (May) alongside the US Climate Leaders’ Summit (April) will gather commitments on financial system reform, fossil fuel phase out, aligning near term climate ambition with net-zero and debt relief. They will also set the standard on transparency, greenness and fairness of recovery investments, as well as re-establish the G7 as a core climate alliance for the rest of the year.  

Restoring trust between G7 and climate vulnerable countries will be a top priority, particularly by resolving thorny issues of climate finance at important summits such as the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). The IMF/World Bank Spring Meetings (April) will also be a focal point for climate actors, where increasing fiscal space will be an essential outcome.

Q3: If successful, the G7 Leaders’ Summit in June will set an example of climate leadership for the rest of the world. The third quarter of 2021 then becomes about normalising G7 leadership throughout the G20. For instance, a net-zero G7 becomes a net zero G20, as G20 economies feel pressure to raise climate ambition or risk losing out. This is particularly true if a coalition of champions is able to signal a path away from fossil fuel use and production at this year’s UN General Assembly and energy ministerials (September).

Q3 also marks a turning point as discussions on immediate stimulus spending to bolster the economy transition into deeper conversations about structural reform e.g., on debt relief, international trade, development finance. Global vaccine deployment will become an essential enabling condition of climate action in this phase.  

Q4: Many of these outcomes will progress with a view to landing at the start of the fourth quarter in October’s two key meetings – the IMF/World Bank Annual Meetings and the G20, which takes place on the eve of COP26. These will be key moments for cementing green recovery as a vehicle to accelerate climate action in support of countries’ future security and prosperity – the essence of the Paris Agreement. Transformative outcomes on finance, debt and resilience at the G20 are essential if high expectations for the climate agenda are to be met.

Finally, this November’s COP26 Summit provides the opportunity to address gaps to meeting the Paris Agreement goals across finance, mitigation and adaptation. Above all, the summit can be an opportunity to strengthen the ratcheting mechanism to accelerate climate action in the coming years.  Alongside the future COP27 host (to be an African nation in 2027), the UK COP26 Presidency should put down key signals for the 2022 agenda.

Meanwhile, renewed geopolitical alliances with climate and resilience at their heart forged this year raise the prospect of setting up deeper structural reforms to global governance of health, security and trade to be delivered over 2022 and beyond. 

In short, the final months of the year have the potential to set up the 2020s as a decade of climate delivery. 

Photo by Mick Truyts on Unsplash.


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