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Citizens are central to achieving the Paris Agreement

By George Marshall on December 11, 2020

As we mark the 5th anniversary of the landmark Paris Agreement, and on the road to the COP26 UN climate summit in Glasgow less than a year from now, we need to demand governments dramatically increase their ambitions for meaningfully engaging their citizens with climate change.

There are positive signs – but if we are realistic about the challenges of reducing emissions, we need to be realistic about what will be required from people.

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The Paris Agreement was a landmark text, the culmination of a gruelling two year process described by the lead UN negotiators as the most complex, comprehensive and critical international climate negotiation ever attempted. It reiterated the right of people to be informed and involved in climate policy, but it failed to recognise that building a public mandate would be essential for the success of the whole agreement.

The brutal truth, as we come to its fifth anniversary, is that the mitigation measures prompted by the Paris Agreement are still far too low. The Paris approach eschewed the formal target-driven framework of the Kyoto Protocol and settled on a more flexible approach of pledges from all nations that could be ramped up over time. 

According to Carbon Tracker these current pledges, even if fully implemented, will likely condemn the world to a catastrophic 3 degree temperature increase. And, as with all previous agreements, the Paris Agreement avoided any recognition of the need to phase out fossil fuel production, or even to reduce the $4.7 trillion in global subsidies for fossil fuels.

 The UK has not yet announced the full details of the new pledges that will follow Paris but is claiming the mantle of global leadership with a target of reducing emissions by 68% by 2030. The ten point plan announced by the Prime Minister on 17 November covers the right bases, but the implementation plan is less clear. The stark reality is that this target cannot possibly be achieved without major changes in personal lifestyles – as our chapter for the UN Environment Programme’s Emissions Gap report makes clear.

Without public engagement, we can’t meet the Paris Agreement targets

If we are realistic about the challenges of reducing emissions, we need to be realistic about what will be required from people. Achieving these targets, transforming personal behaviours and dismantling the global fossil fuel industry will require an exceptional level of public understanding, support and a broad based mandate for action.

 There has been plentiful evidence since Paris of what happens when citizens do not understand climate change or the reasons for action. Opportunist populist politicians like Trump, Bolsonaro and Putin, have built their electoral platform on dismantling climate action.  Time and again climate policy has become the lightning rod for wider social discontent and resentments. In France carbon pricing sparked the Gilets Jaunes mass movement and rioting in the streets. In Ecuador a policy to remove  fuel subsidies sparked mass riots and had to be suspended.

Two key yet widely ignored articles in the Paris Agreement 

 Avoiding such resistance and achieving realistic targets, especially in the domain of lifestyle change, requires a secure popular mandate from an informed and fully engaged citizenry. The key to this lies in two widely ignored articles in the Agreement text. Article 12 commits governments to enhancing climate change education, training, public awareness, public participation and public access to information”. Article 11 calls on the richer countries to support low income countries to implement Article 12. Governments have done neither.

 Implementation of the whole Agreement has been patchy to say the least, but in no area has progress been weaker than these commitments to engage citizens. There have been annual discussions in a forum called Action for Climate Empowerment (ACE), with exchanges of experience and projects, but without any hard nosed performance indicators, principles for application, formal reporting processes, or enforcement procedures. ACE runs on a laughably low budget and Climate Outreach has not found any government in a wealthy nation that has a coherent, ambitious and well funded policy for climate change engagement. Ironically the best compliance has often been in the countries with the lowest emissions and resources.

Positive signs

But there  are signs that policymakers are now recognising the essential role played by public information. The catalyst is likely to be the global fight against Covid-19. As Climate Outreach has demonstrated there are multiple opportunities for sharing learning between the two crises.  At no point since the 2nd World War have governments better understood the need for good public communications and the dangers of poor communications. 

A strong social norm for action has supported draconian policies. As we move into mass vaccination,  countries with well informed citizens will readily accept the vaccine, countries with poorly engaged citizens will foster grassroots resistance. Opposition to vaccines mimics scepticism around climate change, often following exactly the same political faultlines.

 There are signs of action at a national level too. On 9 December the UK Committee on Climate Change (CCC) published its Sixth Carbon Budget. The main text has over a hundred mentions of engagement and for the first time acknowledges that “an effective policy approach must inform, engage and involve people….It will not be possible to get close to meeting a net zero target without engaging with people or by pursuing an approach that focuses only on supply-side changes”. Following on the findings of the UK Climate Assembly – itself a dramatic shift in the government’s approach – it notes the importance of involving people in decision-making, not just persuading them to change, as part of a national conversation on the options available for achieving net zero and how these options should be pursued. 

Demanding governments engage their citizens on the road to COP26 

The Sixth Carbon Budget identified a strong role for the UK’s devolved governments which have, for many years, greatly exceeded England in their commitment to public communications. In early 2021 the Scottish government will be launching a new public engagement strategy, appropriately to be followed with broad based public consultation.  Despite the recommendations of the CCC, Whitehall ministries have yet to produce any strategy or dedicated budget for informing the public.  

 This needs to change in 2021 when the UK hosts the COP26 UN climate negotiations in Glasgow. COP26 will evaluate progress since Paris and seek increased ambition from governments. Since the beginning of 2019 Climate Outreach has been urging that this must include a dramatic increase in ambition for public engagement and the sidelined Paris commitments. 

Public engagement must have the focus and status that it deserves: in UK government policy, in the new national pledges, and at the heart of the negotiations themselves. We are urging the UK and Scottish governments to match their claims that this will be a “People’s COP” with real and substantive public engagement throughout all aspects of the conference. We are working closely with multiple civil society partners, starting with the 140 members of the UK Climate Coalition, to amplify the voices of their millions of members.

 And in 2021 we will launch the Climate Engagement Initiative to demand a step change in public engagement, to make the case that people have a fundamental moral and legal right to understand how climate change will affect their lives. Working with multiple partners including the UNFCCC we will encourage governments to meet their commitments in the Paris Agreement and help them to apply best practice. As we know from the experience of Covid-19, this will be money well spent:  all policy is built on the foundations of public support, and strong policy requires strong foundations.

By George Marshall

George is the co-founder of Climate Outreach and now works as an independent consultant. He has 35 years experience at all levels of communications and advocacy – from community level protest movements, to senior positions in Greenpeace and the Rainforest Foundation, to advisory roles for governments, businesses and international agencies. He is an award winning documentary maker and writes regularly on climate change issues including articles for The Guardian, The New Statesman, New Scientist and The Ecologist.

He is also the author of two books, Carbon Detox (Hamlyn Gaia, 2007) and Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, listed by Esquire as one of the ’15 essential books on climate change’. Go to George’s Wikipedia page for more information about him.

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