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Five things to watch at COP26

By Jamie Clarke on October 20, 2021

A year later than planned, the world’s eyes will be turned to Glasgow this November as world leaders, scientists, businesses and climate activists gather for the UN’s 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26). This is the key opportunity for governments of the world’s nations to walk the walk as well as talk the talk on climate change action – and there is much to be decided on. Central to this year’s negotiations are four key challenges – and we’re working hard to make sure a fifth challenge, putting people at the heart of climate action, also takes the place it deserves.

Urban vegetable gardening in second hand plastic containers. Mandaue City, Philippines

1. Implementing the Paris Agreement. Signed five years ago, the Paris Agreement crucially committed governments to limit global temperature increases well below 2C,  ideally to 1.5C. At Glasgow, nations must now finalise the Paris Rulebook to ensure an agreed set of rules for delivering this vital ambition.

2. Fairness and finances –  rich countries committed in 2009 to providing US$100bn in climate finance annually by 2020 for less developed countries to support them to adapt to the impacts of climate change – but this is yet to be achieved and will be a critical discussion point. 

3. Boosting national ambitions for how to reduce emissions. Current submitted plans or Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) put the world on track to be 2.7C hotter, which we know will have dire consequences. One of the benchmarks of success for Glasgow will be whether the ratchet mechanism of increasingly ambitious NDCs is actually delivered – and whether countries’ emissions reductions combined can get the world back on track to 1.5C

4. Practical options for shifting to low carbon societies. Glasgow will also contain an array of ‘non-state actors’ such as mayors, civil society organisations and businesses all focused on making the transition to a 1.5C world. Genuine commitment is needed from many of these players to ensure any agreements will turn into meaningful action. 

But amidst the urgent wrangling over significantly upgrading government policy pledges, financial commitments and technological transfers, where will people feature in the negotiations?

Two men load solar panels on a boat in Turkana County, Kenya.

At Climate Outreach, we are convinced that the COP process, and climate action more broadly, cannot be a success without putting people at the centre. We’ve seen that climate policies that do not enjoy the support of the people are doomed to failure. We also know that governments have consistently failed to enable their populations to shift to low carbon behaviours, even though nearly two-thirds of the energy reduction needed to reach net zero will require people to change their behaviours.

We need more than rules and regulations laid down by governments – we need to place people at the heart of addressing climate change and build a social mandate for action. 

Currently, many people lack the agency, expertise and knowledge to act. But through meaningful processes of engagement we can harness people power – unified across societies – to support ambitious government and business action, as well as take action themselves. 

This is the missing key to unlocking a fair and just transition to a climate-resilient world where temperature rise is kept below 1.5C. Without public buy-in, governments do not feel the political pressure to increase ambition, powerful vested interests are able to undermine scientists’ claims and campaigners’ strategies, high carbon behaviours remain aspirational, and political polarisation threatens climate progress all over the world. 


Glasgow: a once in a ten year opportunity

This takes us to the fifth key challenge – and opportunity – for COP26: putting people at the heart of climate action.

Thousands of citizens will be expected to gather at Glasgow, inside and outside the conference centre, aiming to put pressure on governments and ensure there is political will to act. But traditionally, the role of the public has been peripheral to the actual UN negotiations, contained within the ACE track of the process – the ‘Action for Climate Empowerment’ section of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change committing nations to engaging their citizens on climate change, which is usually sidelined in the main agenda.

At COP, this ACE process is being renegotiated for the next ten years – presenting a real opportunity to ensure citizens are central to addressing climate change beyond the two weeks of the conference. How governments promote climate change over the next decade will be laid out in Glasgow, whether that is through formal and informal education, the creation of climate policies or government behaviour change campaigns.

Pupils outside a solar-power 'boat school' in Bangladesh, designed to be resilient to flooding.

Our focus at COP26

To make the most of this vital opportunity, Climate Outreach will be endeavouring to do everything we can at COP26 to strengthen both the content within the ACE process and commitments from national governments to effectively engage their populations. We’re focused on building the policies and practices that enable public engagement to become a key pillar of climate action, and we’ll be doing this by highlighting and strengthening the commitments governments have made to engage and educate their citizens in the negotiations. 

We’ll also be showcasing some of the most powerful visual climate change stories from around the world across the conference, including in the exclusive ministerial meeting room, to ensure the human reality of climate change isn’t forgotten. 


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We’ll also be working to support the amplification of voices from countries on the frontlines of climate change. Unfortunately, many climate experts and activists from these countries – who are also the least responsible for global emissions – are facing immense barriers to participation because of issues related to the pandemic, despite significant concerns being raised about their exclusion. We’ll be joined in Glasgow by Egyptian partners, whom we collaborated with recently, to ensure there are ample spaces for their voices at COP26. This will also lay the groundwork for Egyptian-led dialogues around COP27, which is likely to be hosted in Egypt.

We’re also helping to promote all COP26 events focused on public engagement through this round-up with daily timetables.

No one meeting will resolve the challenge of climate change but COP26 is a vital step, in a vital decade for climate action and it’s vital that governments step up to the mark on all the key issues. This COP, governments of the world are going to need to pull out all the stops to get us on track to a 1.5C world, with significant and meaningful climate action – and that means getting serious about putting people, and their citizens, at the heart of it.

By Jamie Clarke

Jamie Clarke was Climate Outreach’s Executive Director for almost 10 years, from 2013 to 2022. Under his leadership, Climate Outreach grew into an internationally acclaimed organisation. As a values-based leader, he provided strategic direction with an empathetic management approach. He is a proven international speaker and considered writer who feels as comfortable addressing the UNFCCC as co-authoring books such as Talking Climate. In his studies as a social scientist, he focused on participatory processes at the nexus of societal and environmental issues. Undertaking extensive research in the Pantanal region of Brazil crystalised his understanding of centrality of effective citizen engagement in change processes.  

Passionate about widening engagement with climate change, he previously worked for advocacy organisations including Amnesty International UK and Practical Action. In these roles he saw how difficult it is for many people to connect with climate change narratives, and how this often underpins apathy and opposition. Determined to address this and the largely under-recognised role that the wider public has in tackling climate change, he previously led a successful youth climate outreach programme that targeted marginalised students studying vocational courses. Jamie lived for many years on a canal boat but now lives on terra firma in Oxford with his family and is rarely off a bicycle.

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