It has become clear at the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties, or COP 26, in Glasgow, Scotland, that the climate challenge is perceived as global. The challenge transcends politics, as was put by EU Commission Executive Vice President Frans Timmermans from Glasgow.
The tone has changed, as noted by Youssef Nassef, director of the UN Adaptation Division of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, who said that in the history of the conferences, "there has never been such a large number of voluntary initiatives".
The question is whether this consensus is also reflected in global determination to substantially reform the economic system. That is a different order of challenge that is nothing less than civilizational. As Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi said right before COP 26, "We are changing the economic system."
The focus rests on how to bring to the mainstream the innovation to accelerate the transition to a post-fossil fuel economy. The first step, however, is to build a new system of rules for the ecological industrial system. New policies must be designed to ensure the scalability of solutions and the transformation of markets. A whole-economy carbon (and resource) price is what we need. This will transform our societies and the way we all live.
A key dimension of this failure is political. In the history of climate negotiations while environment ministers made commitments to reduce carbon emissions, their colleagues of energy, agriculture and finance promoted policies to support the production and consumption of fossil fuels. This contradiction has marked the entire long journey of the COPs, albeit in different ways over the year.
The global environmental challenge of climate change requires policies both to reduce the carbon intensity of the economy as well as to enhance the natural carbon sinks: energy, industry, transport, agriculture, taxation/incentives, are the main sectoral policies to be involved in addressing climate change.
To address environmental challenges, environmental management needs to shift towards social and industrial systems. Our society needs to use carbon less intensely, while we bolster the resilience of the environment by enhancing carbon sinks.
The rules of the new economy are simple: to mainstream climate regulation, you need to internalize the external environmental damage. “Cheap” or “expensive” should be a calculation that involves extraction, production, and consumption.
Once these externalities are integrated in the market system, energy producers and national economies will have a “level playing field.” And this industrial, economic, and social revolution needs to happen quickly and globally.
There is a sense of urgency. China's top climate negotiator Xie Zhenhua believes that a broad deal on carbon markets is becoming possible. German State Secretary for the Environment Jochen Flasbarth said, "The new normal of COP26 is speeding things up”.
Eventually, how we build forward better, will make or break the success of the ecological transition. Even more than before, truly ecological standards are needed.
What we need is an orderly transition. If rich states are unwilling to assume a fair share of the cost, in their own interest, we will all fail. In Glasgow, some steps have been taken to show support. To date, Glasgow has dealt with everything from green infrastructure for poor countries to the end of coal in South Africa to the water crisis.
According to Prime Minister Draghi, money is not the issue here. But the main task lies with private and green finance. New mechanisms are needed to address this demand. Today, even the US Congress is talking about a carbon price.
And technical negotiations, which revolve around clauses of the Paris Agreement are moving on in Glasgow, with China playing an active role. As declared by EU Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans, the Chinese "are ambitious on the transition to renewables".
Beijing has put a concrete program on the table, and it has already been converted into law. If internal and geopolitical conditions allow, it will be improved. The EU is banking on collaboration.
Geopolitical tensions could undermine collaboration and the common fight to save the planet’s climate. Relations among big powers are not at their best, which affects complex negotiations around how to ensure that emissions are reported transparently and correctly, and to ensure negotiators to finalize the so called “Paris Rulebook”.
That China and the United States find common grounds in Glasgow has great geopolitical significance. The US-China Joint Glasgow Declaration is a good omen for the planet and bodes well for a reinforced global climate governance. The two sides declare that they are “committed to tackling (the urgent threat of accelerated climate change) through their respective accelerated actions in the critical decade of the 2020s.”
For months, the world watches over the two largest economies seeking for a common position for COP26. The two countries’ special envoys hoped to replicate the model for cooperation, created and tested by John Kerry and Xie Zhenhua themselves, which contributed to the success of Paris. Indeed, the breakthrough Declaration announces that “the two sides intend to establish a “Working Group on Enhancing Climate Action in the 2020s”.
After the injection of optimism in Glasgow, it’s time to move from words to deeds. The clock is ticking. China, which often under-promises and over-delivers, is moving towards an ecological civilization.
Europe aims to become the world’s first climate neutral continent. The EU moves a step forward by reaching a deal with the United States over their dispute on steel and aluminum, which links climate policy, problems related to overcapacity and dispute settlement under WTO rules. Joe Biden’s USA has begun its journey to a zero-emissions economy.
To paraphrase an Italian philosopher, “the old world is dying, while the new struggles to be born.” It might have been the time of monsters. Since yesterday, we seem to be ready to fight them back.
The author is a leading strategy, innovation and sustainability expert specializing in EU China environmental cooperation. She is a partner and board member of management advisory company Brainscapital and serves as a European Commission expert for the European Innovation Council.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.
HONG KONG NEWS