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The COP process has failed. Time to try something different.

Regrettably, Greta Thunberg is right. By the only measure that really matters — did it put us on a trajectory to limit global warming to 1.5°C? — COP26 was a failure. As one of her tweets during the conference put it: ‘unless we achieve immediate, drastic, unprecedented, annual emission cuts at the source then that means we’re failing when it comes to this climate crisis. “Small steps in the right direction”, “making some progress” or “winning slowly” equals losing.’

Satisfying as it may be to pin the blame on individual leaders and nations — Boris Johnson for not doing enough as host; Joe Manchin for ensuring the US delegation turned up empty-handed; India and China for ensuring the final text refers to phasing down coal, rather than phasing it out — the reality is that this was a failure of process, not of personnel.

“Unless you change the structure and the ground rules, this is not going to work,” former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed told Financial Times journalist Simon Mundy back in 2019. “Why can’t willing countries come together and go forward? I can’t see why we are waiting for every single person to agree that we should not die.”

The requirement that decisions be unanimous is just one of several design flaws in the COP process. The fact that agreements are largely non-binding is another — as is the absence of any mechanism for punishing countries that drag their heels. Once you realise that the negotiators in Glasgow, as at the previous 25 COPs, were arguing over a text that binds their governments to nothing and which contains no penalties for leaving promises unfulfilled, it’s hard not to view the whole thing as part of what the writer Anand Giridharadas has labelled “the elite charade of changing the world.”

Photo by Lewis Parsons on Unsplash

The tragedy is that the majority of the people caught up in this charade — the actual COP delegates — are some of the best, most hard-working, most well-intentioned people on the planet. Sure, there are some bad faith actors in the pocket of the fossil fuel industry, but I don’t buy the view that COP26 failed because the people in the room didn’t have humanity’s best interests at heart. They’re simply trapped in a process that empowers the few over the many — and that constrains their freedom of movement based on past compromises.

Being only human, those who have toiled away late into the night at successive COPs are susceptible to the sunk cost fallacy: we can’t give up now, they think, after so many years of painstaking work. Loss aversion is part of human nature too: we know that COP hasn’t delivered enough, but we can’t risk losing the precious fragments of progress this quarter-century-long process has delivered. Better to be making too-slow progress than no progress at all, right?

Without a doubt, the COP process is better than nothing. But the thing is, nothing isn’t really the alternative. If we abandoned COP, something else would emerge to take its place. The crisis we’re in guarantees that. So the real question is whether we can imagine something better — and whether we’re brave enough to let go of the known in favour of the unknown.

Learning from nature — and history

One of the patterns that ecologists have observed in natural systems that survive and thrive over time is what’s known as the adaptive cycle. The cycle consists of four distinct phases: growth, conservation, release and reorganization. Systems that resist going through the ‘back loop’ of release and reorganization for long enough tend to collapse.

The Adaptive Cycle, as conceptualised by Canadian Ecologist Crawford Stanley (Buzz) Holling

The adaptive cycle applies to human systems too. The COP process that was initiated in the 1990s is, I would argue, stuck in the conservation phase. Its legitimacy and credibility is evaporating fast, signalling the need to enter the back loop: release and reorganize. Better to adapt voluntarily — however painful that may be — than to wait for an even more painful collapse in the not-too-distant future.

So, if not COP, then what?

Two historical models jump out as useful precedents. The first is the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, negotiated between 1965 and 1968. There is now a fast-growing campaign, backed by 2,500+ scientists and 100+ Nobel laureates, calling for a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, explicitly modelled on the nuclear non-proliferation treaty that helped ensure the Cold War stayed cold.

Already, several of the necessary building blocks are in place. A 2019 article by two academics from the University of Sussex making the case for a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty pointed out that the first step in the nuclear case was ‘a stock take of who had what weapons’ and that something similar would be required to make a fossil fuel treaty feasible. Two years later, Carbon Tracker and Global Energy Monitor have just launched a prototype of the first ever Global Registry of Fossil Fuels. Being able to do a global stocktake of fossil fuel reserves is no longer a pipe dream.

What’s more, put together the members of the Powering Past Coal Alliance and the Beyond Oil & Gas Alliance and, arguably, you have enough of a quorum of nations to start negotiating the terms of a non-proliferation treaty. While today there are 191 countries signed up to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the original negotiations involved just eighteen countries.

The second historical example to draw lessons from is the Montreal Protocol, agreed in 1987, which led to a hugely successful phase out of ozone-depleting chemicals. One of the key features of the agreement, as Tarun Gopalakrishnan of the Fletcher School at Tufts University notes, was that ‘countries that ratified the Protocol were prohibited from importing or exporting ozone-depleting technology, even to or from countries which had not ratified the Protocol. These trade measures operated as a multiplier to expand the Montreal club — every additional country joining tangibly raised the cost of holding out.’

The Nobel Prize-winning economist William Nordhaus argues that this club model should be replicated to tackle the climate crisis. A “Climate Club” made up of willing nations — with penalties for non-joiners — would, he argues, solve the free-rider problem that plagues multilateral agreements. ‘Participating countries would agree to undertake harmonized emission reductions designed to meet a climate objective… nations that do not participate or do not meet their obligations would incur penalties.’

Specifically, Nordhaus proposes that members of the club should agree on an international target carbon price and then penalise countries that don’t set such a price by imposing tariffs on imports from those countries. Others argue for different versions of the club idea, and the European Commission’s proposal of a Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism is based on a similar premise. If the “climate club” idea is to work, the EU will need to be a founder member.

One thing that is notable about both the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty signed in the 1960s and the Montreal Protocol of 1987 is how quickly they were agreed. Both took just three years. Compare that with 21 years to get to the relatively toothless Paris Agreement — and another six years of wrangling over the details since. Climate may be a more fiendishly complex problem than either nuclear disarmament or phasing out CFCs, but not that much more fiendishly complex.

Neither a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty nor a Climate Club is necessarily incompatible with a continuation of the COP process. We don’t need to wait for the UNFCCC to pull the plug on the existing system before we try something different. But we do need to start diverting time and resources away from COP towards these (or other) alternatives. Right now, the COP process is swallowing up almost all of the world’s budget of political will, energy, talent and capital for solving the climate crisis. And it’s not working.

Sculpture in Dulwich Park, London

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Richard Roberts

Richard Roberts

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Inquiry Lead @ Volans. Fascinated by the future of business, sustainability and politics.