Representatives of world governments have met at the Conference of the Parties, or Cop, every year since 1995. Cop is a global platform for reaching agreement on climate mitigation, but it also reviews the implementation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which was adopted in 1992. It is supported by the significant scientific knowledge of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Political processes, and politicians, are often viewed as a brake on climate change action. Politicians have been derided the world over by climate activists, and others, for slow progress. This suits the current mood of growing distrust in politics.
Indeed, not all Cop meetings have been particularly successful, Cop15 in Copenhagen being a prime example, whilst current commitments are insufficient to meet targets and the governments of Australia, Japan, and Saudi Arabia, amongst others, are trying to convince the UN to play down the need to move rapidly away from fossil fuels.
It is possible, however, to think about political processes, and their policy outcomes, as enabling sustainable change. Every positive climate scenario, where limits to warming are achieved, assumes massive policy change across the globe.
Although scientific knowledge tells us why change is needed, policies are viewed as central to driving that change. Political processes, such as Cop agreements on, and monitoring of, Nationally Determined Commitments (NDCs) are a vital backdrop to governments making the climate policy decisions necessary to drive change.
If we pause to consider global climate politics from the standpoint of divergent global interests, each Cop success represents a significant climate win. Cop21 facilitated the Paris Agreement, and the aim of a 1.5°C limit to global warming, shaping policy change in energy, transport, and other high emitting sectors. In this sense Cop, like many political processes, is about recognising divergent interests as an essential first step in moving towards global agreements.
Divergent global political interests also reflect the fact that sustainably transitioning the economies of the world is a task of Herculean proportions. Necessary aspects of transitions, like phasing out fossil fuels, will have severe socio-economic repercussions for some countries, and some groups within society, if not properly managed.
Clearly, there are also huge social gains of successful climate policy of avoiding catastrophic climate change, but also the socio-economic benefits of innovating and developing sustainable technologies and businesses that enable change.
Although targets and policies can, and do, drive sustainable change, politicians also need to do more to consider climate injustices. These exist between generations; some have enjoyed economic growth fuelled by cheap energy whilst younger generations now live with the consequences of fossil fuel driven growth.
Injustices also exist between nations whose industrialisation was founded on fossil fuels and those seeking to develop in similar ways today. This form of injustice is embedded in UNFCCC agreements by assigning differential responsibilities for emissions reduction between countries.
Past agreements, and any agreement reached at Cop26, always result in “non-climate” political outcomes. Coal miners in Poland or Germany might lose their jobs, the oil income which underpins Saudi Arabia’s political model might be lost, developing countries that have recently discovered oil and gas resources may not be able to gain economically from them. Recognising these potential outcomes is crucial to successful management of change through policy.
World leaders must be bold enough to make decisions that are underpinned by an overt recognition that not all countries are impacted equally – either by climate change or by climate mitigation policies. They must also be skilled enough to ensure sustainable transitions that are sufficiently equitable such that the majority are kept on-side over the long-term.
It is our job at the University of Warwick to support this complex political work on climate change. We provide the latest insights and technological innovations, and by informing decision making and supporting policy implementation.
As part of its official observer status, the University of Warwick is sending 17 delegates to Cop26 in Glasgow this November. The invitation recognises the contribution we are making to address the climate crisis and achieve net zero.
Beyond Cop, we support climate mitigation and adaptation through our research. For example the world leading work of Warwick’s Professor Keith Hyams, Professor Simon Caney and Dr Ed Page aims to place ethics and justice at the core of climate and international development research and policy agendas.
Warwick also has plans to deliver an Eco Park on university-owned land, help accelerate the battery economy through innovative research, host the UK’s first conference on micromobility, and develop cutting edge Very Light Rail technology. Our partnerships with industry are creating new, greener technologies – from electric cars to e-cargo bikes.
The University of Warwick’s Way to Sustainable campaign recognises net zero is not enough. We need to go further to ensure change meets other social needs. We are hopeful that Cop26 can make some progress, but we are not naive to the challenges to implementing change.
There will be various political responses to climate policies in the coming decades. These need to be recognised and addressed by policy to keep current public momentum behind climate change going.
Dr Caroline Kuzemko is associate professor in International Political Economy at the University of Warwick