COP26: Things are getting hotter and it’s time for cool heads

The COP 26 conference of the United Nations ended a day late yesterday with many feeling the +1.5oC target could be missed in time. It is clear much more must be done. The final pact decision text was long on ‘recognising’, ‘acknowledging’, ‘noting’ and ‘urging’ and short on ‘actions’.  In contrast, the demands of YOUNGO, the UN constituency of Youth Non-Governmental Organizations were more coherent in laying out the actions they see as essential. Unlike the final pact decision document, that fails to mention education, the YOUNGO ‘Global Youth Statement’ is packed with educational demands.  Convincing people of the need for action, and the efficient transfer of technology, around the world will require a massive step-change in global access to education. It is the ‘glue’ that will hold everything together. But this must be done in a spirit of equality and fairness to fully use human talent and resources and equally spread the benefits. The educational task is probably greater than many realise, and the global cooperation needed is perhaps beyond the capability and authority of the UN. The COP26 meeting has exposed this frailty, and much more will need to be done with young people taking a more central role.

Friday brought the ‘official end’ of the twenty sixth Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow that was co-organised by the UK and Italy for the United Nations.  But agreement was not achieved, and fraught negotiations continued into the following day. Over nearly two weeks, it brought together representatives and delegates from the 197 countries that signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1994. Rather than a celebration of progress since then, it emerged as a crisis meeting with the full extent of the danger all humanity faces now clear. If there was one take home message, it was ‘we haven’t done enough – and we really don’t know if we can’.   The simple fact that limiting warming to an increase of 1.5oC is seen as success is an admission of defeat from the outset when the world is already in trouble at +1.1oC. Whilst those who govern the various nation states took centre stage, the climate youth movements seemed to be protesting on the side-lines. They simply don’t have the power to make radical change, this will have to be enacted by leaders of countries, commerce and industry who must be listening by now.

Final pact decision.

The UK made what some would consider a bold proposal for the final agreement very early on Friday morning.  It turned out to be a bridge too far on many points, but especially on the proposal, “Calls upon Parties to accelerate the phasing-out of coal and subsidies for fossil fuels”. It may have surprised come observers that this was the first time the main culprits, ‘coal’ and ‘fossil fuels’, were included in any such ‘agreement’. Yet there they were and they were to be ‘phased out’.  This is a big step for many economies who have little technology developed as an alternative. Sure enough, the final agreement, ‘COP26 cover decision’ that emerged on Saturday had diluted the proposal to,

“Calls upon Parties to accelerate the development, deployment and dissemination of technologies, and the adoption of policies, to transition towards low-emission energy systems, including by rapidly scaling up the deployment of clean power generation and energy efficiency measures, including accelerating efforts towards the phasedown of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, while providing targeted support to the poorest and most vulnerable in line with national circumstances and recognizing the need for support towards a just transition”

In terms of the potent greenhouse gas, methane, it only suggested that the parties “consider further actions”. Surely, we could do better.

This will not be good enough for many climate activists, and especially young people who will have to live with the consequences.

No doubt the nations more vulnerable to climate change will also be disappointed but there is still some hope. This was a reality check that reminded the nations with greater advanced technology to share it more openly.  This should include a stronger commitment to education on a global scale. This not only means education at the highest technical level possible across the world. It also means education at all levels to ensure people understand what is happening and why. We must all be able to make informed decisions about the direction we want government to go.

Where do equality and education fit in?

Most observers might think that education at all levels should play a pivotal role in ‘gluing’ together the many constituents of the radical restructuring of human society that is needed now. For example, many are advocating a complete disinvestment in fossil fuels. Yet, this alone is not enough. Fossil fuel technology and expertise in gas and oil engineering will need to be redirected into developing renewable energy sources, such as hydrogen, and a massive education and retraining programme is needed. However, the seven page draft of the final agreement, drawn up by the UK team, and the eight page final agreement failed to mention education as a challenge.

On equality of opportunity, there was also little to commend the agreement. It is a sad indictment of the state of the world that it had to acknowledge as an add on “as well as gender equality, empowerment of women and intergenerational equity”.

Young people added on.

Also, there was no significant recognition of the role young people with these statements bolted on. More ‘recognising’ and ‘urging’ it seems.

“Recognizing the important role of indigenous peoples, local communities and civil society, including youth and children, in addressing and responding to climate change, and highlighting the urgent need for multilevel and cooperative action”.

“Also recognizes the important role of non-Party stakeholders, including civil society, indigenous peoples, local communities, youth, children, local and regional governments and other stakeholders, in contributing to progress towards the goals of the Paris Agreement”

“Also urges Parties and stakeholders to ensure meaningful youth participation and representation in multilateral, national and local decision-making processes, including under the Paris Agreement”

“Recognizing the important role of civil society, including youth and indigenous peoples, in addressing and responding to climate change, and highlighting the urgent need for action”.

Youth reaction.

Within a few hours of the draft agreement on Friday the dissatisfaction of many youth groups boiled over and this was led by Greta Thunberg and youth climate activists from around the world.  They filed a petition to the UN secretary general, António Guterres, demanding a ‘global system-wide climate emergency’ be declared. This is the highest level available to the UN and it sets out the direction of travel many young people wish to see. It would enable many more resources and technology to be transferred to countries bearing the brunt of climate change. It is uncompromising, defines the crisis for what it is, and is bound to increase conflict. Thunberg was scathing and described the event she was not invited to as “a failure” and a “greenwash festival”.

Young people want faster progress.

Because inaction now will impact all generations to come, the usual political process of seeking a mandate from people over periods of just a few years seems redundant. This is a long-term commitment that future generations must buy into. While the arguments continued, there were 377,743 people born on the final day around the world, and only 2,056 were in the UK.  The net world population was increased by 231,387 and is heading for a total of nearly 10 billion in fifty years’ time.

It is hoped that the delegates did not lose sight of the simple fact that they were representing those people born on the day and into the future. Yet, younger people seem to have grasped this simple point as crucial when they press for faster action. But this has consequences on whether our nation states and democracies can weather the oncoming storm.

The dilemma for those advocating faster change is in bridging the policy gap between existing democratic rules, predicated on consent and persuasion, and the outright imposition of policies in a crisis. Education could bridge this gap but, unfortunately, we are slowly slipping toward the latter with more and more young people demanding change, not suggesting it. 

The demands of young people are more coherent.

The most influential young people’s lobby, YOUNGO (youngoclimate.org), was set up by the UN back in 1992. It covers people below the age of thirty-five and brings together younger representatives from across the world. Its approach is one of cooperation and agreement and, importantly actions needed. Their ‘Global Youth Statement’  (.pdf) sits in stark contrast to the agreement thrashed out by the governments involved.  In contrast to eight pages of agreement, it is seventy-eight pages of well-constructed and well-edited text packed with the actions needed.  It sets a benchmark for actions that must be taken soon. Education features as a key element across all the actions demanded and shows a grasp of the challenge facing the world. 

But it’s not just younger people who have concerns. It would be fair to say that many people much older have long standing views on the human mediated degradation of the environment and share their concerns. This was more than evident at the largest demonstration in Glasgow on Saturday 6th November. Those there could see well over one hundred thousand people of all ages joining the march.  We need greater cooperation between countries than ever before and a recognition that isolationism doesn’t work.  It’s time for leaders with vision, technical understanding and cool heads to reverse us out of this mess. Where better to start than with education and sharing technology openly.  But this must be mediated in the spirit of equality of opportunity and a determination to deploy the best talent wherever they are.

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