As COP25 stumbled and mumbled towards its final curtain last week, there appeared precious little to show for almost two whole weeks of high-level policy negotiation, political posturing and press calls. This was a world stage devoid of drama, or even many actors worthy of applause — it hosted the sort of jaded live performance that sends a global audience straight to sleep.
The compromise deal that concluded the longest UN talks on record has been described as a ‘mixed bag’ that managed to ‘underperform even the lowest expectations’. Perhaps the strongest criticism, though, came in a Tweet from the Secretary-General of the UN himself, António Guterres, who expressed his deep disappointment with the results of COP25: “The international community lost an important opportunity to show increased ambition on mitigation, adaptation and finance to tackle the climate crisis.”
Fresh off the boat (literally) from the United States, teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg even issued a warning in her speech in Madrid that ultimately proved ominously prescient: “Without pressure from the people, our leaders can get away with not doing anything.”
The influence of Westminster on proceedings appears more a cause for concern than confidence
Berlin, Kyoto and Paris
Every year, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) convenes the Conference of the Parties (COP), bringing together almost 200 countries. This is a big bash: the provisional list of participants registered for COP25 numbered over 26,000 individuals, including more than 3,000 journalists.
The series began back in Berlin in 1995, with COP1. Two years later in Japan, the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated, coming into force in 2005 — from which time, the get-togethers have also hosted the Conference of the Parties Serving as the Meeting of Parties to the Kyoto Protocol (or CMP for short), now on its 15th annual iteration.
Fast forward one decade more and the landmark Paris Agreement made headlines at COP21, in 2015 — and we have just had the associated CMA2, for good measure.
The most recent summit should actually have taken place in Chile, but with little more than a month to go before opening night, fears of ongoing political and social unrest in the capital Santiago necessitated an 11th-hour switch to Spain, with the city of Madrid stepping into the role of host.
Admirable as it might be that Madrid threw open its doors, the relocation away from South America to Europe not only disrupted participants’ travel plans, but also undermined the sense of occasion somewhat and arguably slackened-off the political focus. Moving continents certainly did not help.
Despite the successes of Kyoto and Paris, however, when it comes to letting the climate community down, the COP programme has form: Copenhagen in 2009, for example, was a notable flop.
So, with COP26 coming to Glasgow in 2020, what should UK businesses do to prepare themselves?
Welcome to the UK?
For the UK, the timing of the Glasgow COP tour dates can be viewed as either a curse or a blessing — depending on quite how its under-pressure policymakers respond and react.
Following the re-election of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the country will be governed by a Conservative party which scored worst on climate change in a survey conducted by Friends of the Earth. So, barring a second referendum on Scottish independence between now and November, the influence of Westminster on proceedings appears more a cause for concern than confidence.
Furthermore, the UK will also (probably) still be reeling from the first-year effects of Brexit. For Leave and Remain voters alike, the process of disentangling domestic climate and environment policy from EU legislative frameworks will inevitably have a disruptive effect on regulatory regimes in the UK. Many commentators are anticipating a weakening of both rules and resolve, plus It has also been argued that the UK’s exit will threaten prospects for climate action within the EU itself, too.
There is, however, always an outside chance that this inauspicious, almost perilous, set of circumstance on the home front will somehow heighten the sense of emergency and inspire some revolutionary rearguard action on the part of activists and commercial markets alike; pooling their collective climate influence to help pull something out of the global policy bag in Glasgow.
So, faced with such odds, how should a UK business best place its bets on Scotland in 2020?
Building for Glasgow
The one thing a COP can guarantee the host nation is attention: climate change will be a hot topic in the UK, in every sense; and the spotlight will be on Scotland. COP26 is an opportunity.
There is, however, no promise of success. The talks might turn out a conspicuous failure, or some soul-crushing combination of a tedious talking-shop and bureaucratic blame-game. COP26 is a risk.
So, even for a climate-aware business, yoking company strategy and ambition to the UN conference chariot is a bit of a gamble — should the wheels come off in Glasgow, those who have over-promised and under-delivered, may well find both their aspirations and reputations in the ditch.
The safe and sensible tack, then, is one of constructive pragmatism — it is all about building momentum slowly and surely, taking sustainable baby steps on the long march towards Glasgow.
To build consensus, credibility and confidence will, therefore, take time and care. So, New Year’s resolutions should include commitments to build a committed team, realistic expectations and a deliverable strategy. It might also be wise to build a bulletproof recovery plan, too, just in case….