What can we learn from COP26 as world federalists?

WFM / IGP What can we learn from COP26

By Keith Best

At one level the result of COP26 was a massive disappointment (as voiced by the representatives from Antigua, Marshall Islands, Maldives and other countries directly adversely affected by climate change); it was business as usual in a world dominated still by that nation state in which national interests trumped (I use the word deliberately) those of the global common good. China and India predictably safeguarded their own fossil fuel guzzling communities claiming, with some justification, that they are at the stage the developed Western world was at when its own industrial revolution belched out toxic fumes some 200 years ago and that, without compensation and financial help, they cannot be expected to contribute to a reduction in global warming when the problem in the first place was that created by the now post-industrial states.

The whole story

Yet that is not the whole story and a period of reflection will enable a more balanced view to prevail. Nevertheless, the frustration bordering on tears from the Conference Chair Alok Sharma in not getting China and India to sign up to a scheduled elimination rather than a reduction in carbon emissions was palpable (‘phasing down’ rather than ‘phasing out’ of coal). He felt that he and the Conference had been let down at the last minute. In a world still governed by nation state interests from the UN General Assembly to every other self-appointed groupings of states such as the G20 we should not be surprised that politicians who are elected by their national citizens will feel that their principal responsibility is to them and not to the wider world.

Increasing awareness

What has been remarkable, therefore, is the increasing awareness that no-one is safe until everyone is safe (a concept enhanced by the pandemic which does not respect international borders). Multilateral attempts at disarmament and now the better management of our planet are now an accepted part of international diplomacy. These efforts have gone alongside the ending of the Westphalian accord that what states do within their own borders is of no concern or interest to others – the universal focus on human rights abuses, poverty reduction and development is not just a commercial corollary of increased trade and communication but a genuine understanding that we are all our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers and that what happens in a far off land is of equal importance to us as are theactivities next door.

Westphalia is not yet dead

The reality is that we are living in a post-nation state world mentality and collective human responsibility which is in advance of our global governance. Therein lies the problem which can only be ameliorated by greater global democracy and accountability for those self-appointed groupings of states and at the international governance level. At COP26 it was summed up by the British Prime Minister ““We can lobby, we can cajole, we can encourage, but we cannot force sovereign nations to do what they do not wish to do.” The United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres remarked that the outcome of negotiations that took place was “not enough” and that “They reflect the interests, the conditions, the contradictions and the state of political will in the world today. They take important steps. But unfortunately, the collective political will was not enough to overcome some deep contradictions.” Anyone who saw Sir David Attenborough’s thoughtful but highly evocative contribution supported by the facts and put into historical context would have recognised that they were experiencing a master-class in perseverance, persuasion and poignancy: it should be shown in every classroom and political fathering around the world.

Small mercies

Nevertheless, perhaps we should be thankful for what we got because it could have been a lot worse. US-China deal, signed at the COP26 summit, in which the two countries committed to increasing carbon reductions by the end of this decade, was historic and shows that even though there may be hostilities based on geo-political influence, trade and increased armaments on this issue the two super-powers are prepared to work together.

COP as a guide

COP26 is a useful experience in which, while safeguarding their own national interests and seeing the wider picture through that lens world leaders came together and had to think about the environment in global terms – beyond their individual control but with the power collectively to make a massive difference. In any negotiation compromise is a key component and we should not be surprised that not everyone got what they wanted. The collective view seems to be that the conclusions and commitments were not nearly enough. Yet we live in the real world of politics in which it can take a long time to achieve meaningful goals: the idea for an international criminal court, for example, was mooted eighty years before it finally came to fruition. The comment by Tom Bawden,a Science & Environment Correspondent, was that the summit has by no means solved the climate crisis but it has broadly been a success and turned out much better than many people had expected.It can plausibly be argued that the ultimate aim of the conference – of ‘keeping alive’ the Paris Agreement global warming goal of 1.5C – has been achieved, although it does rather depend on what happens in the next year or two and all the way up to 2030. Those nations that are not doing their bit to hit 1.5C will come back with plans to increase cuts up to 2030 at next year’s COP in Egypt.The agreement includes a pledge to at least double the amount of money given to help developing nations to weather climate change – through measures such as flood defences and power grid protection – to more than $40 billion a year.They have also promised to start compensating developing countries for ‘loss and damage’ already caused – although there is huge room for improvement in this.Developed countries promised to substantially increase their target of $100 billion a year of financing for developing countries for emission reduction and other climate-change related measures beyond 2025.

Bad boys?

After Paris it was always going to be a tall order to have a solid commitment to limiting the increase in global temperature to 1.5% from pre-industrial times.Yet perhaps the most important outcome that is so obvious that most of us cannot see it is that world leaders of all countries now accept the urgency and the need for action as well as the imperative to attend such gatherings. People asked where was Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. Both have a serious domestic agenda which made it unlikely that they would be in Glasgow. We should put this into perspective. Neither Xi Jinping nor the six other members of the Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee have left China since early 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic started to spread in the world. They now have a serious domestic situation. There was also the coincidence of the annual plenary session of the CCCP due to further bolster his power.The Chinese chief negotiator in Glasgow was known to Xi Jinping from his days asthe top official of  Zhejiang province where he promoted green causes; it is wrong to portray him as the villain of the piece.

Compromise is the key

It is said that a true and lasting compromise is one that leaves everyone equally dissatisfied so that no-one can be triumphalist. I am writing this with the memory of Remembrance Sunday still fresh in my mind. When we look back at the immediate aftermath of the First World War the mood in Britain was triumphalist – Victory was the cry, the German aggressor had been humbled. It was only in the 1920s that the war poems of Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen and others came to symbolise our current understanding of that war in which millions died in horrendous circumstances and the flower of Europe’s manhood (mostly) was extinguished for a generation. With the shelling of Hartlepool and arial bombardment it was the beginning of what has become the hallmark of modern conflict – that the greater casualties are civilians and not combatants and that terrorism has ensured that no-one is truly safe however far from the battlefield. With that understanding came also the knowledge that military action is never a solution to human conflict but can only be a catalyst (and, in many cases, an impediment); that lasting solutions are achieved subsequent to conflict around the negotiating table and that the infliction on the supposed loser of humiliation only builds resentment and the casus belli of future conflict. “Vae victis” (“woe to the vanquished”) was the consequence of victory throughout most of our troubled human history in which defeated peoples were taken into slavery, their goods sequestered and their holy places and culture often destroyed. We have learned the hard way, and only recently, that conciliation in victory is the only way in which to avoid building the foundations of future conflict, summed up by Churchill’s words on the frontispiece of his History of the Second World War:“In War, Resolution; In Defeat, Defiance; In Victory, Magnanimity; and in Peace, Good Will.”

That spirit of compromise will not only better succeed but will find itself enveloped in a facilitating environment if we can use the issue of climate change as a catalyst to increasing better global democratic accountable governance – that is the key to a safer world.