No matter the year, the COP climate summits divide opinion and spark debate. When the stakes are so high, how could it not?
But at COP26, most delegates could agree on one thing: climate action must be fair and inclusive. A just transition, as it is known, has steadily grown in prominence over the years but in Glasgow this all-important issue was front and center. This COP further crystalized that climate action is as much a social challenge as it is an economic, political, technological, or scientific one.
Given the major transitions required to meet our climate goals, the climate crisis presents a real opportunity to address increasing and structural inequalities. Securing support for the ambitious reforms needed to usher in these transitions will be critical.
How was just transition featured at this COP?
Emission reductions: 151 countries presented new climate plans, or nationally determined contributions (NDCs), to cut their emissions by 2030, which the UN estimates will put us on a course to overshoot the 1.5 C safe limit. The issue of fairness and equality was central to how many countries set and presented their climate ambition and plans. This is hardly surprising when considering the strong correlation between emissions and global inequality. Oxfam’s assessment of current NDCs finds that the carbon footprint of the richest 1% on earth will be 30 times higher than the per capita emissions permissible to remain below 1.5 degrees, while the poorest half of the world’s population will see their carbon emissions remain well below the per capita limit.
This COP further strengthened the notion that climate action is inexorably intertwined with issues of equality and economic development. One cannot come at the expense of the other.
Coal: Delegates sparred over whether the final agreement should commit nations to phasing “out” coal or phasing it “down.” Major coal-producing nations defended the latter as a way of safeguarding economic development and promoting an equitable transition for coal-dependent communities. For its part, the opposing side argued it was delaying the inevitable and risked stranding more assets and communities.
Separate from the negotiations, the multilateral Climate Investment Funds (CIF) launched an approximately $2.5 billion coal transition investment vehicle. This first-of-its-kind program will help developing countries retire and repurpose coal assets, while providing affected workers and communities with resources to rebound, reskill, and be part of energy transition decision-making. In another significant development, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and the European Union announced an $8.5 billion CIF-supported partnership to help South Africa finance a just transition away from coal. The move could serve as a transition blueprint for other countries.
Finance: Developed countries have not yet made good on their $100 billion pledge to help developing countries fight climate change. But the good news is that there is a general consensus that a lot more needs to be done.
There are signs of accelerating momentum. Over 160 financial firms managing more than $130 trillion in assets launched the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ) to help achieve a net-zero financial system by 2050. This is on top of other landmark financial initiatives unveiled at COP26, including the CIF Capital Market Mechanism. Such announcements are important, but what matters most is making sure these commitments translate into real, timely action to help deliver more finance to developing countries. Deliberation and real focus on making this happen in the next few years will be paramount.
The streets: I was inspired by the dedication, urgency and understandable frustration of the thousands of people who braved the Scottish elements to make their voices heard. Their rallying cry for climate justice for all, led by champions like Greta Thunberg and Vanessa Nakate, are elevating the conversation around fairness and the urgency of action.
So how do we start to walk the talk of climate justice?
Scientists, diplomats, politicians, and activists all come to COP to help steer the course of climate action. But they can’t be the only ones. If we’re serious about supporting a just transition, we also need the people most vulnerable to climate change at the table sharing their concerns, and participating in the decision-making that affects their lives.
We need to help provide real platforms for inclusive discussions and planning in the communities where change will happen (see our recent report on Understanding Just Transitions in Coal Dependent Communitieswhich illustrates just how complex but vital this engagement and planning is). We also need to promote the understanding within communities of why the transition is needed and how livelihoods and communities will continue to be supported through this change. This is, indeed, the often slow but crucial work of building and developing trust. At the same time, speed is of the essence, both to slash emissions but also to show these communities real results.
We therefore need to find practical and expedient ways to get expertise and resources to the local level to support this work. While there is still learning that is needed, we already have many existing platforms and tools to advance this work. CIF’s Dedicated Grant Mechanism for Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities is one example of how multilateral climate finance can directly support inclusive, locally-led climate action. If scaled up further, such approaches can go a long way in ensuring finance is delivered inclusively and fairly to the communities that need it most.
It is easy to focus on the discord that dominates sensitive negotiations in a forum like COP26, but the fact remains that over 195 countries reached consensus on many fronts that could help solve the challenge of our generation. We cannot lose sight of the achievements that are already bringing us closer to a climate-smarter world. The universal support for a just transition in Glasgow is therefore really important and well worth celebrating. It’s a breakthrough with real strategic significance for future negotiations and, crucially, climate action on the ground. It represents a platform with the potential to unlock deadlocks, break down silos, and bring agendas and key groups together, from local to international, around a shared vision for a future founded on fairness.
This is, however, very much a starting point. Decision-makers must now begin the complex work of making good on the commitments they set in Glasgow with concrete policies, plans, and investments that are inclusive and deliver fairness for all. It will be a challenge like no other, but they must show the world that their words at COP26 were not just talk but a roadmap for a just transition.