Opinions - 10.11.2022 - 00:00 

COP-27: Climate summits used to be crucial

Once again, all eyes are on the climate talks, this time at COP-27 in Sharm el-Sheikh. However, while such talks were crucial in the past, they no longer matter in the same way. In fact, the continued media focus on them fails to reflect how climate negotiations have changed under the Paris Agreement. By Klaus Dingwerth.

There are two main reasons why this year’s talks are not that exciting. First, the function of climate negotiations has changed significantly since states have agreed on the Paris Agreement in 2015. Since that agreement is in place, governments indicate what their “nationally determined contributions” – the NDCs – will be for the near to mid-term future. They announce their individual targets every five years, and they need to raise their ambition with every target they submit to the UN. The run-up to last year’s climate talks in Glasgow was interesting because it came at a moment when states had to submit a new round of national targets. But that is not the case this year, nor in most others. And even when it is, the climate talks no longer serve as a forum for “negotiating” these commitments. Instead, they mainly serve as an indicator of what governments are willing to contribute (as well as a forum for publicly reminding developed countries of their climate finance pledges).
Second, media attention is usually driven by an attention to dramatic “negotiation failures” (Copenhagen in 2009) or “negotiation breakthroughs” (Paris in 2015). Yet, the notion of such failures or breakthroughs is misleading. Thus, even COP-21 in Paris was not simply a diplomatic masterpiece in which French foreign minister Laurent Fabius and UN climate leader Cristina Figueres orchestrated a global consensus on a new architecture for international cooperation. To be sure, both have played their parts, and the major climate agreements have been adopted at conferences hosted by states with particularly strong diplomatic connections, thereby rendering a “breakthrough” at that event more likely. However, all major ideas contained in the Paris Agreement had been developed for years, if not decades, before any agreement could be reached.

Climate action needs to come fast, but diplomacy is slow

In brief, while climate action needs to come fast, diplomacy is notoriously slow. It is not a bad thing that states continue to discuss climate finance or the compensation for losses and damages. But these days, climate action is mostly happening elsewhere: in a plethora of investment decisions, in companies’ decisions to “do the right thing” and adjust to the carbon-restricted world that will inevitably come, in street protests to end fossil-fuel subsidies, in cities and municipalities that commit to achieving climate neutrality by 2040, and maybe even in those novels or non-fiction books that help us imagine a world without greenhouse gas emissions and that – just as importantly – the possible paths to such a world.
Whatever we can achieve at these levels will allow states to make more ambitious pledges and to thereby render the climate talks more interesting. Our habit of watching the annual gatherings of climate diplomats “fail” or “succeed” has become just that: a habit. It may even be a bad habit for that: one that expresses the hope that “they” will solve the issue for “us”.
The opposite is true, however: governments can do a lot more once societies offer them (or support) solutions on which they can build to raise their ambition. So let us keep all eyes on how and where our societies are already transforming and on how we may overcome the biggest stumbling blocks – economic, social, political – along the many roads to net zero.

Klaus Dingwerth is Professor of Political Science with special focus on the Political Theory of the Globalizing and Digital Society

Image: Adobe Stock / Rafael Henrique

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