The Progressive Post

COP28 highlights the need for fundamental transformations in climate governance

International lawyer and Convenor of the Climate Governance Commission. She is also co-winner of the International New Shape Prize on Global Governance Innovation, Senior Treaty Advisor, Integrity Initiatives International and Co-Founder, Global Governance Forum

The outcome text of COP28 has been hailed as historic, as it may, according to some, officially signal that “our future is in clean energy and the age of fossil fuels will end“. While representing a breakthrough in negotiated text, with an explicit mention of “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems” – albeit with plenty of predictable loopholes, ambiguous language and missing commitments – this hard-won step forward for the international community is unfortunately too little, too late, underlining the urgent need to upgrade planetary climate governance to ensure reliability and efficacy, in the interests of global public safety.

COP28 has taken place amidst an ever-worsening planetary emergency, with the Earth on the verge of breaching five critical tipping points with grave and potentially irreversible consequences for the planet. Since the first COP in 1995, the number and diversity of participants have grown to the extent that this year’s UN Climate Change Conference is estimated to have involved more than 70,000 participants, including a record number of fossil fuel lobbyists. Despite this growth in participation, COP28 has underscored the limitations of the current model of climate governance, and in turn the need for a transformative shift in our approach to the planetary emergency. 

Key flaws of COPs include their lack of a reliable accountability mechanism, and a failure to adequately interlink science-driven policy with the needed climate commitments and action on the ground, among others. Recent findings from both the UN Environment Program (UNEP) and the UNFCCC Global Stocktake show that we are still well off-track to achieve sufficiently ambitious reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to avoid breaching the 1.5°C temperature limit. According to the UNEP, if countries follow through on their current climate commitments, warming would rise to a catastrophic 2.9°C. However, we have already crossed the limits of adaptation in various localities to the current temperature rise (about 1.2°C), and scientists are raising further doubts if the 1.5°C limit is a safe level. Additionally, scientists have assessed that we have already breached six of the nine Planetary Boundaries, which are critical to maintaining a ‘safe operating space’ for human societies. 

We need to move away from the current model of inordinate reliance on unwieldy and slow-moving COPs, to a strengthened whole-of-system approach where diverse parts of the international system and all of society are engaged with solving critical climate issues. The Climate Governance Commission (CGC) has brought together a diverse coalition of innovative leaders, thinkers, and activists to advocate for the necessary transformations to our shared climate governance. Its 2023 report, Governing Our Planetary Emergency, sets out a series of near- and medium-term proposals for vital governance improvements, providing a path forward for the feasible, equitable, and ambitious action needed to respond to an unprecedented planetary emergency. 

Near-term proposals which can be acted upon immediately include remodelling future COPs to streamline COP meetings themselves, and repurposing them into reporting, accounting and action-oriented working sessions. At the same time, compliance mechanisms under the Paris Agreement should be enhanced and current mediation and facilitation tools should be used to overcome traditional disagreements that have stymied progress on climate action. COP structures should move beyond the typical emphasis on states parties to enable the formation and inclusion of multistakeholder coalitions to advance practical and just solutions to the planetary emergency.

These reforms to the COP process should be complemented by broader near-term solutions to address the full scale of the climate emergency. These include: a formal declaration of a ‘planetary emergency’ by the UN General Assembly at the Summit of the Future in September 2024 and the activation of an ‘Emergency Platform’ elaborating on a proposal by the UN Secretary-General; the establishment of a Science-Policy-Action Network (SPAN) to enhance multilateral science-driven climate policy; and renewed, innovative efforts to bridge the ‘great climate finance divide’. Efforts for the latter would include steps on debt forgiveness, reforms to multilateral development banks and balanced global carbon taxes and tariffs to help fund climate mitigation and adaptation in low- and middle-income countries. 

The CGC has also offered solutions for ‘next-generation’ governance, which should be seriously discussed in the aftermath of COP28 and could culminate at COP30 in 2025 (‘Paris +10’). These solutions include the establishment of a Global Environmental Agency to serve as the central node for climate governance, and an International Court for the Environment as a standing international legal accountability mechanism. Next-generation climate governance would work in tandem to the streamlined COP process to ensure and enhance efforts and accountability as part of the whole-of-system approach to the planetary emergency. 

COP28 may have been disappointing, but its outcome can catalyse the push for a fundamental overhaul of climate governance. The CGC will seek to seize this opportunity and work with partners to address this quintessential global governance challenge of our time.

To view a recording of the 28 November launch of the CGC’s landmark report Governing Our Planetary Emergency, please see here.

Photo credits: Michailidis

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