Global multilateral climate order: a point of no return?

Europe's World

Climate & Energy

Picture of Raphaël Danglade
Raphaël Danglade

Project Manager, Sustainable Agriculture / Sustainable Energy, Africa Europe Alliance

Picture of Gareth Whalley
Gareth Whalley

Programme Assistant at Friends of Europe

Photo of This article is part of Friends of Europe’s discussion paper on global governance reform.
This article is part of Friends of Europe’s discussion paper on global governance reform.

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Show more information on This article is part of Friends of Europe’s discussion paper on global governance reform.

Since the founding of the ultimately ill-fated League of Nations in 1920, global governance has been dominated by a succession of supranational bodies, culminating in the foundation of the United Nations and the diverse Bretton Woods institutions at the end of the Second World War. These organisations have largely worked to ensure peace between the Western powers in the security sphere but also in finance and trade.  In a changing world, however, with the rise of new powers, it is imperative that the voices and needs of emerging nations are also adequately reflected. Given that 21st century global concerns focus far more than ever before on hybrid threats, human rights and the environment, is it time to draw a line under the past 99 years of global governance and look to re-evaluate and reform our established systems?

This article is part of Friends of Europe’s discussion paper on global governance reform, in which we ask the ‘unusual suspects’ to share their views on what reforms are necessary to make the rules-based order work for us all.

With COP 25 in Madrid failing to ramp up international climate ambition, the European Union faces a pivotal moment both in its internal policy and in its aspirations for global leadership. At its most ambitious, the European Green Deal – which establishes a target of net-zero emissions by 2050 – is not just a call for bold climate solutions within the EU, it seeks to spur action worldwide. It is an opportunity the EU cannot squander.

With the Green Deal, the EU has to bring all stakeholders together and at a fast pace. As activists and scientists call for the declaration of a planetary emergency, this coming decade will define the planet’s future for centuries to come.

Strengthened EU leadership will be necessary as the Paris Agreement officially enters into force in 2020. The road to COP 26 in Glasgow will be critical, as the window of opportunity for action continues to narrow and our global carbon budget – or the total amount of allowable future carbon emissions that scientists believe will limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C – continues to shrink at an alarming rate.

Recent studies found that nine out of fifteen climate tipping points are pushing the Earth past the point of no return. Vital systems that regulate the state of our planet, including permafrost, ocean currents and jet streams are changing, creating self-reinforcing cycles that drastically reduce the chances of limiting warming to 1.5°C by the end of the century.

There are only eight years left – at current pace – to prevent the worst effects of climate change

Risks associated with climate change have been underestimated and concerns are rising about security due to climate change’s role as a threat multiplier. As human production and consumption continue to damage the planet’s health, climate change threatens to exacerbate natural disasters, increase poverty and provoke widespread instability.

Global multilateral governance around climate change is also being eroded. Countries continue to emit at an unsustainable rate, with promises and pledges that fail to align with the urgency of the situation, despite the fact that the cost of inaction will inevitably be much higher than the cost of transformation, both politically and financially.

According to the latest estimates, there are only eight years left – at current pace – to prevent the worst effects of climate change. Time is running out and we need to bend the curve of emissions now. And yet, despite awareness of these hard truths, the outcome of COP25 was deeply disappointing, signalling difficult challenges to come.

Expectations and promises to increase climate targets have not been realised

A wider pattern

Five years have passed since COP 21 (2015) in Paris. It set a non-binding agreement between 197 countries to limit warming to well below 2°C by the end of the century. At first, the international community was hopeful about the agreement, as it established a robust framework of action, tying signatories to ramp up climate ambition by 2020, with a first global stocktake in 2023.

However, five years later, the parties continue to battle it out over the rulebook. The sense of urgency and cooperation that defined Paris has slowly degenerated into political deadlock and resistance from vested interests who benefit from the status quo. Even worse, emissions from fossil fuels have hit an all-time high, increasing 4% since countries signed the agreement.

COP 25 in Madrid was part of a wider trend of trade and geopolitical tensions, including a global economic slowdown associated with tariff wars and a rise in protectionism from the US and China, the two biggest emitters. Two key moments have epitomised this slowdown in ambition: President Trump pulling out the US from the Paris Accord in November 2019, and China’s refusal to back the publishing of carbon emissions as part of the Paris rulebook at COP 25.

Expectations and promises to increase climate targets, obtained at previous international summits such as the G20s and COPs, have not been realised. The outcome of Madrid confirmed that the high hopes of Paris in 2015 have given way to paralysis and inaction. What used to be common ground between signatories of the Paris Agreement is turning into a sore point of contention.

Nevertheless, with the announcement of its European Green Deal and its vision for climate neutrality by 2050, the EU is positioning itself as one of the frontrunners on climate policy. Brussels has aligned itself with a large number of developing and vulnerable countries expressing their frustration with the lack of progress. If taken seriously, the Green Deal has the potential to boost growth, tackle climate change and combat rising inequality, both within the EU and beyond.

Traditional big players … have made no indications of their willingness to take more aggressive action on climate

Stepping into the breach

The lack of ambition from the largest emitters for the foreseeable future does not mean that emission reduction and global environmental governance is a doomed project.

The space is not being left vacant. On the contrary, other non-traditional climate leaders are filling the vacuum. This includes civil society, cities and regions, businesses, small islands, developing states and a group of forward-looking countries with a history of high emissions that recognise the urgency and science of climate change. These movements are creating coalitions of action that give weight to climate negotiations, which may signal a radical shift in power in climate governance.

In December 2019, the president of COP25 Carolina Schmidt, announced that 73 small and developing countries had signalled their intention to enhance efforts to combat climate change and 72 countries were working to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, joining a coalition of highly ambitious countries launched in New York at the UN Climate Action Summit. This provides momentum for action and a sense of leadership in a time of climate uncertainty and decision-making volatility.

Meanwhile, traditional big players such as China, India, Brazil and Saudi Arabia have made no indications of their willingness to take more aggressive action on climate, and Australia and the US have likewise said they will not boost their goals despite the wildfires and mounting social pressure. This culminated with these countries opposing any obligation on countries to submit enhanced pledges in Glasgow, arguing “it should be each country’s own decision”. The final draft of COP25 ended up being a general statement of intent rather than a revised expectation.

Europe should use this year to demonstrate true leadership in maintaining and reforming the existing global climate order

When comparing non-traditional and decentralised climate leaders with the biggest emitters, it is clear that the EU is positioning itself on the right side of history, with its Green Deal and ambition to become the first climate-neutral continent by 2050, although Poland has so far opted out of the EU’s targets.

The EU has key tools that it can call upon to add some weight to its declarations of intention. As the world’s largest trading bloc, the EU has the capability to demand climate standards and forestry protections from its trading partners. By embedding these principles into future trade arrangements, providing finance for green infrastructure and supporting technology transfers to developing economies, the EU can provide teeth to environmental governance. Overall, a shift of mindset among European citizens themselves must accompany this transformation.

One can say the heart of the Paris Agreement is still beating, but just barely. COP 26 will show whether the UN system is credible in tackling the climate emergency by asking countries to ratchet up their ambitions, a goal that in 2019 proved unsuccessful.

Europe should use this year to demonstrate true leadership in maintaining and reforming the existing global climate order, starting with the EU-China Summit next September. By employing the Green Deal not just as a domestic but also as a foreign policy tool, combined with its power as a norm leader, the EU can help revive global climate governance.

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