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The UN’s Yearly Climate Gathering Must Change to Tackle the Planetary Emergency

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Unveiling the “One World” COP28 logo, Jan. 17, 2023, in the United Arab Emirates. As COP28 begins on Nov. 30, the essayists write that the model for the annual United Nations climate conference needs to change to better grapple with the “climate emergency.”

The world is meeting for the annual United Nations conference on climate change, where global leaders and other attendees will tackle worsening global warming problems amid a dramatically shrinking “carbon budget” of scientifically recommended temperature limits. Since the first COP in 1995, the number and diversity of participants have grown, and COP28, which starts on Nov. 30 in the United Arab Emirates, is estimated to involve more than 70,000 participants. Yet notable leaders such as United States President Joe Biden and President Xi Jinping of China will not be there.

Regrettably, the UN climate conferences lack sharply focused results and place a heavy emphasis on governmental participation while neglecting to include or hold accountable key players like civil society and businesses. Through complex, convoluted negotiation processes, the COPs, as they are known, hinder the swift action that is needed to grapple with the climate emergency.

The crisis requires a holistic approach, and the COP model is not meeting that need. A newly restructured governance architecture must be seriously discussed now to culminate at COP30 in 2025 (Paris +10).

The tensions predate COP28. However, recently we have seen — despite clear warnings from authoritative scientific bodies — the continued widespread subsidizing of fossil fuels, backsliding of leading high-income countries on climate commitments and trouble securing an equitable loss and damage fund. It is unclear how a single climate conference can resolve all these challenges to comply with the Paris Agreement.

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Recent findings from both the UN Environment Program and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Global Stocktake show that we are still well off-track to achieve enough reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to avoid breaching the 1.5 degrees limit. If countries don’t follow through on their current climate commitments, global warming will rise to a catastrophic 2.9 degrees. However, it is also clear that we have already crossed the limits of adaptation in various places to the current temperature rise (about 1.2 degrees), and scientists are raising further doubts as to whether the 1.5 degrees limit is safe.

Additionally, scientists have assessed that we have breached six of the nine Planetary Boundaries, which are critical to maintaining a “safe operating space”  for humans. As noted by the Club of Rome in its call for reforming COP: “This lethargic progress is at odds with climate science and real-world climate damage and risks, which show that the only way to come close to holding the 1.5°C limit, is to cut global emissions by approximately 50% by 2030, and continue to cut emissions by 50% per decade, to reach a net-zero world economy by 2050-2060.”

New thinking on our governance architecture is therefore required. As COP28 unfolds, it is essential to recognize that despite its flaws, the conference provides an opportunity to lay the groundwork for major reforms, including the streamlining of COP meetings themselves and repurposing them into reporting, accounting and action-oriented sessions.

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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 hurt progress on climate action. Further, COP structures should enable the formation and inclusion of coalitions to find practical, just solutions to the planetary  emergency.

Further steps will be needed throughout the international system to tackle the emergency. These include a formal declaration of a “planetary emergency” by the UN General Assembly at the Summit of the Future in September and the activation of an “emergency platform” elaborating on a proposal by UN Secretary-General António Guterres; a “grand bargain” among the big-four greenhouse-gas emitting nations and regional blocs (China, the US India and the European Union), joined by other high-emission nations; and renewed efforts to bridge the great climate finance divide.

A new report by the Climate Governance Commission, “Governing Our Planetary Emergency,” details these proposals as part of the holistic approach that is necessary to tackle the planetary emergency. COP28 can mark the beginning of new era to guide our collective response to the quintessential global governance challenge of our time.

View a recording of the Climate Governance Commission’s report Governing our Planetary Emergency.


This is an opinion essay.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts on COPs?

Maja Groff is the convener of the Climate Governance Commission at the Global Governance Forum.

Eoin Jackson is chief of staff and legal fellow at the Climate Governance Commission.

We would love your thoughts. Please comment:

The UN’s Yearly Climate Gathering Must Change to Tackle the Planetary Emergency
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