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From summits to solutions: what success means at COP26

by Mahmoud Mohieldin

At the 76th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, world leaders discussed the need to scale-up ambition to address key global challenges, including the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, political extremism, and widening inequality. With less than two weeks to go before the COP26 Climate Conference in Glasgow, UK, however, the world is not delivering on its promise.

At this critical precipice, urgent action is needed to ensure that COP26 delivers for people and planet. This requires not only accelerating efforts to decarbonize our economies and societies, but taking an integrated, holistic approach to sustainability, by placing climate action firmly within the context of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Finance must also be massively scaled up to support developing countries in this effort, including middle-income countries, while ensuring that every decision, every policy, and every investment is based on an agenda of global solidarity.

Decarbonization is essential, but insufficient

Five years on from COP21, when the Paris Agreement on Climate Change entered into force, this year’s COP26 could be a pivotal moment for climate action. It will be the first time that countries update their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to limit climate change to 1.5°C since 2015, and some countries have pre-emptively noted that they will announce major cuts in emissions at Glasgow.

Despite progress in advanced economies, emerging markets, and developing economies (and in the private sector), the COVID-19 pandemic —the greatest development emergency in over a century— significantly derailed multilateral efforts to offer global solutions to global challenges, as countries became increasingly myopic and focused on their domestic situations.

This was most evident in the world’s failure to ensure that all countries could respond adequately to the pandemic, including through equitable access to vaccines and sufficient finance, which has not only harmed the developing world —but prolonged the crisis for everyone. While seven of every ten citizens in some G7 countries are already vaccinated, less than 1% of sub-Saharan African has been fully vaccinated, with estimates suggesting it could be 2024 before Western levels of vaccinations are reached.

Meanwhile, the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19, which caused global public debt to soar to almost 100% of GDP, have further complicated governments’ ability to invest in a sustainable future, producing a ‘great divergence’ in recovery tracks that now threatens to become systemic.

Similarly, while some policymakers capitalized on the opportunity to re-focus attention on climate action as part of their response and recovery efforts, these cases remained the exception rather than the norm. According to an analysis of spending by leading economies, led by Oxford’s Economic Recovery Project and the UN Environmental Programme, only 18% of announced recovery spending could be considered ‘green’.

Going into COP26, global actions on climate action paint a similar picture of narrow self-interest rather than global solidarity. While pre-existing decarbonization efforts are welcome, they remain  underwhelming and insufficient to meet the sheer scale of this challenge.

An integrated, holistic understanding of sustainability is needed, based on SDGs

The green transition could potentially generate 100 million new jobs by 2030, it could also displace millions of people dependent on the fossil fuel industry in the short term. In the absence of well-designed policies, including job-reskilling and up-skilling programmes, a mismanaged energy transition could exacerbate inequalities, sow distrust, and foster growing unrest. A just transition is necessary to seize the benefits of this transformation.

Ahead of COP26, support for a just transition —in addition to decarbonization and other climate pledges— must be elevated to the top of the policy agenda, including in extractive-dependent economies who will be most affected by the transition to net-zero. If we can succeed in the goal, we can not only arrest and reverse growing inequalities, but bolster resilience and restore people’s trust in their governments ability to deliver —and in multilateralism at large.

To get the world back on its feet, we need a holistic and integrated approach to sustainability, one that is not limited to climate action; nor climate action that is limited to mitigation.

But finance is needed at scale and in support of sustainability objectives

To achieve these goals, finance not only needs to be massively scaled-up in support of developing countries —including middle-income countries— but also invested in alignment with a comprehensive sustainability agenda based on the SDGs.

In 2009, developed countries agreed to mobilize US$100 billion annually from public and private sources for mitigation and adaptation action in developing countries by 2020. According to the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), of the 23 developed countries responsible for providing international climate finance, only Germany, Norway, and Sweden paid their fair share.

The global development community, including the G20, must do more. It must not only meet, but surpass, existing targets. All donors should also heed the UN Secretary-General’s warning that the 2021 IPCC report is a ’code red for humanity’ —and ensure that at least 50% of climate finance is allocated to adaptation, in addition to mitigation. Indeed, chronic gaps in adaptation finance expose the world’s poorest people to climate chaos.

Recovery packages from COVID-19, as well as the recent issuance of US$650 billion in Special Drawing Rights (SDRs), offer a vital opportunity to accelerate progress towards sustainability goals. But of these, only US$274 billion went to emerging and developing economies.

In this regard, the United Nations Secretary-General, as laid out in his Common Agenda, has called for an SDG investment boost, including through a last-mile alliance to reach those furthest behind. But to get there, governments need the adequate fiscal space to invest in a recovery, including by ensuring they are not forced to choose between servicing their debts and serving their people.

This should include a boost in global liquidity to developing countries, including through a re-allocation of SDRs to vulnerable countries, greater debt relief for all who need it, including through the operationalization of the Common Framework for Debt Treatment and its expansion to include private sector creditors and middle-income debtors, and a reform of the international debt architecture to prevent future debt crises.

Here, international financial institutions, and multilateral and national development banks have an essential role to play, including by revising operations and asset management rules to increase their capacity to support investment in developing countries, de-risking sustainable investments, and drawing capital to create bankable, job-creating projects in communities that need them. Their support to developing countries to achieve sustainability objectives could set countries on a path to an inclusive and climate-resilient future; while their neglect would all but ensure that they are left further behind.

Success at COP26 means turning a summit into solutions, with a view to next year in Egypt

Success at COP26 means meeting this challenge by taking an integrated, holistic approach to sustainability rooted in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and ensuring finance is invested adequately and sufficiently where it is needed most.

Success at COP26 could also pave the way for an even more ambitious agenda, focusing on implementation, during COP27 in Egypt, when those in the Global South most affected by the impacts of climate change will have a platform to more visibly demonstrate the challenges they face.

But to get there, a final push is needed in the remaining few days to ensure that a global solidarity agenda is deeply in place at COP26. The very future of this planet depends on whether we can rise to this challenge and convert words to action.


Mahmoud Mohieldin is the United Nations Special Envoy on Financing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. He previously served as the World Bank Group Senior Vice President for the 2030 Development Agenda and is a Professor of Economics and Finance at Cairo University.

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute or the United Nations University, nor the programme/project donors.

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