COP27 – Time to Highlight Local Climate Action

Placards, Climate Change demonstration by Julian Osley is licensed under CC-BY-SA 2.0

COP27 kicked off yesterday in Egypt, with a rockier than expected start. This climate conference has been called the “implementation COP” because of the expectation to negotiate on decisions made at Glasgow (COP26). Yet, there has already been no end of obstructions to progress.

Criticisms began with backlash against Egypt as host country because of a multitude of political scandals, including the fact that it holds approximately 60,000 political prisoners. Before the conference even started there was disappointment as civil society representatives from different African countries struggled to get passes to the events – both undermining the conference’s position as an ‘African COP’, and highlighting the eternal struggles of those most vulnerable to the effects of climate change to be included in key climate decision-making processes.

COP27 started in a less than desirable position as participating countries have failed to act on progress made at Glasgow. Only 24 countries have since updated their pledges, with Australia making the greatest strides – but that has only elevated us from ‘highly unacceptable’ to ‘unacceptable’. Just confirmed is Australia’s bid to host COP31 in 2026, but that brings up the question of legitimacy amidst a renewed focus on new fossil fuel projects.

To make matters worse, the start of the conference was delayed as delegates failed to agree on the agenda for the fortnight. One sticky point has been the inclusion of reparations for loss and damage due to climate change for the most vulnerable. One can see why, nonetheless it is crucial that those in power are held to account.

There have been calls to include a greater emphasis on adaptation in the negotiations. Given the scale of climate-related events globally over the last few years, it would be wise to strengthen community resilience and capacity to adapt.

Given all of these obstacles, there sems that there is little hope to be had in global diplomacy. This predicament powerfully emphasizes the importance of prioritising locally-led climate action and sustainability solutions. Local communities are the best placed to identify the challenges that climate change brings to them, so considering the lack of transformative capacity for global climate diplomacy to respond to the urgency of the situation, greater priority must be paid to empowering locally-identified and led solutions to the climate crisis – both adaptation and mitigation.

Community-managed projects for the conservation of biodiversity and local ecosystems, for example empowers communities to become invested in the local environments, but it also utilises vital local knowledge. Communities that are more socially invested in their environment, are more inclined to look after it and better placed to identify appropriate solutions, albeit with considerable technical and political cooperation. There are multiple substantial benefits. Not only does local climate action lead to better context-specific programs and projects, but they are also generally more equitable and lead to higher social, environmental and economic returns for a community. Locally-led solutions are usually more holistic, with fewer trade-offs between society and nature.

Grassroots projects also raise the bar of optimism on climate, which in turn leads to greater involvement and action. Given the pessimism around the expected outcomes of COP27, I will be encouraging positivity for future climate action. Every Monday I’ll be posting positive local climate news on my socials, as I firmly believe in the power of positivity to bourgeon change.

While COP27 has been led by a rocky start, it still opens up discussion and debate about what is needed at all levels as we head into this dangerous new phase of climate change. And that is cause for hope in my opinion.

What Now for Climate and the Planet?

COP26 is over. It’s all over. After 2 weeks of negotiations, speeches, commitments, scandal (like extractive company Santos being given centre stage at the Australian booth), protests, cries for change from some countries, and a certain level of denial of the role of fossil fuels by other countires countries, COP26 has ended with a weak Glasgow Climate Pact that has led the COP President to solemly apologise. At the end of the summit Alok Sharma said in an emotional speech,

 “May I just say to all delegates I apologise for the way this process has unfolded. I also understand the deep disappointment but I think, as you have noted, it’s also vital that we protect this package.”

At the beginning of the of the summit, UN Secretary General along with many leaders called for the need to strengthen the Paris Agreement and limit warming to 1.5 degrees celcius, which some argue is already out of reach. There was also a goal to look at phasing out coal and fossil fuels. So, by these expectations alone, the outcomes of COP26 have been deemed a failure.

Earlier in the week the draft statement was released calling for Parties to “accelerate the phasing-out of coal and subsidies for fossil fuels”. This text was monumental in the history of mulitlateral environmental pledges. Despite being in draft form, and a loose symbolic statement, it was somewhat of a win for envirnomental activists everywhere because it was the first time the need to phase out fossil fuels had made it into COP.

That win was short-lived when several countries which have been unnamed but we know included Australia were working to water down key proposals around the phasing out of fossil fuels. The final text agreed upon interrupted by a last minute intervention by India says that Parties should “phase down” the use of unabated coal and fossil fuel subsidies. It also left a numer of loopholes for the continued extraction of fossil fuels.

From an international legal perspective, the problem is that statments like the one made at COP are not legally binding. What matters in that respect is if and how countries pass the commitments made into their own legislation. Once there is proof of widespread state practice and opinio juris (a sense of obligation), then they become customary international law, which in theory makes them binding, but in practice it is a lot more complicated, especially in the absence of an international court for the environment.

The next problem is in the wording, which has been the bane of some of the progressive countries, as well as activists in the days before the signing of the declaration. The subtle change in wording from “phasing out” to “phasing down” is not insignificant because language matters in international law. A key component of international law and whether or not states are held to account is ‘interpretation’ of legal documents. As Odile Aman says, “[I] nterpretation is not a mere technical device, but a political matter of the utmost importance:  it may eventually depend on which interpretative method is applied whether a state (or any other actor, for that matter) can be accused of an internationally wrongful act, or whether it will be regarded as having stayed faithful to its commitments.”

COP27 has been scheduled for November 2022 in Egypt. The time in between now and then is a critical moment for states to demonstrate the commitments pledged in this pact by strengthening and introducing genuine and radical policies and legislation domestically.

It will also be a critical time for activists and environmentally concerned citizens to ramp up the pressure and work at change at the grassroots level. People power is essential! For Australians with the Federal election coming up, your vote can be an important driver for change. Changing behaviours, mindsets and attitudes is as important as changing legislation and policy. One reinforces the other.

There are now many complimentary frameworks and guidelines that can help us accelerate the change towards a more sustainable planet – at both the local governmental level, and at the level of people and communities. These frameworks can work together to guide transformative change.

If you are interested in how the framework for Buen Vivir can work in either your community or your local government, check out my book and other writings on Buen Vivir and please get in touch for ways this might be implemented in your local context.