Averting climate catastrophe: how can civil servants help deliver COP26 commitments?

By on 13/12/2021 | Updated on 13/12/2021
The panellists agreed that citizens are mobilising and putting increasing pressure on politicians to tackle climate change. Photo by Tim Dennell via Flickr

Now the hubbub of COP26 delegations have left Glasgow, pledges made, and deals struck, attention has turned to what happens next. At a Global Government Forum webinar, climate experts discussed the part civil servants must play to ensure the commitments made by world leaders are followed through

The UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) that took place last month in Glasgow, UK, was lauded by some for galvanising real action on climate change. A pledge to reduce global methane emissions, an agreement to accelerate coal phase-out, and a multilateral commitment to end deforestation were big-hitting outcomes, while many countries – including India and Canada – used the forum to announce climate pledges that far exceeded any they had made before.

However, while most agree that progress towards a greener future had been made at COP, many also questioned countries’ ability to achieve what they had promised. At a Global Government Forum webinar, an expert panel discussed what civil servants can do to help governments deliver.

For Tomas Anker Christensen, climate ambassador at Denmark’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Climate, Energy and Utilities, the Glasgow Climate Pact “is probably the most ambitious” to have come out of a COP.

The pact expands on the Paris Agreement by focusing not only on reducing emissions but on adaptation and finance. “It’s a comprehensive, multi-dimensional piece of work that sets new standards for all the major pieces of the Paris Agreement. Now it’s for us to work on implementation,” he said. He made an appeal to the civil servants in the online audience: “You personally, you can take agency, you can break the silos within government and help your leadership to live up to what they’ve committed to.”

Domestic action is critical, yes, but so too is global cooperation, he said. “Climate change is a huge global threat and really the only way to stay below 1.5 degrees [global warming] is to do it collectively.”

Anna Locke, principal research fellow – climate and sustainability, at thinktank ODI, pointed to analysis by Carbon Brief to demonstrate just how important it is for everyone to pull together in the same direction. “Despite all the hard work that went into COP”, she said, the analysis showed that even if all countries met their ‘nationally determined contributions’ (non-binding plans outlining intended actions on climate change) and their long-term net zero promises, global warming would not be kept below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Raising ambition

In Locke’s view, there are two areas where civil servants have an “exceptionally important” role to play. One is in increasing transparency and accountability so the commitments made at COP are fulfilled, and the second is “raising ambition so that we can start really chipping away and making sure we have a buffer, a sort of safety margin, for achieving that maximum 1.5 degrees warming”.

One of the challenges, she said, is that many pledges fall outside the accountability mechanism of COP. “So your job,” she said, addressing the webinar audience, “starts with making sure that the money is actually committed to concrete actions, and that those actions are well-designed, targeted and effective”. To do that what is needed, she said, is an overarching assessment of the value-use and impact of the pledges made, backed by good quality data and analysis.

“I think what can really help is to build alliances and have champions within your departments, across departments and across countries, providing openings to ensure that different voices are heard and that there’s an understanding of the rising public pressure, and then alerting political staff to that pressure so they can be much more aware of how it will affect their ability to do their job,” Locke added.

The point about ensuring a range of voices are heard in the global conversation about climate change was touched upon by several of the webinar’s speakers. Eddy Pérez, international climate diplomacy manager at Climate Action Network Canada, said there was evidence in Glasgow of a “kind of scaling up of the repression of the violation of human rights” being caused by climate change – something the UN has itself drawn attention to.

Many “who are actively participating in the implementation of Paris pledges are at the same time continuously blocking and obstructing [vulnerable countries] in the negotiating rooms,” Pérez said. “Glasgow showed that non-state actors are continuously treated as observers, when indigenous peoples are implementers of the Paris Agreement – it can’t happen unless we engage them.” 

Getting citizens to accept change

Another area where civil servants have a key role to play, according to Annika Christell, UNFCCC negotiator at the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, is to get the public to accept that they will need to change their lifestyles.

She said people in Sweden are thought to be among the most well-informed on climate change. “We have a lot of knowledge here. We have companies talking about environmentally friendly products, kids count how much CO2 they’re emitting through what they’re eating at school, and the media has really picked up on it now.” Yet people “do not understand what the transition comprises”.

To remedy this, she said the conversation about climate change, which is often “quite abstract”, must be made clearer and easier for people to understand.

“Our political systems are perhaps not the best for long-term change. Our governments may be elected for three- or four-year periods. And if politicians want to be elected or re-elected, they might not wish to impose rules that will affect people in negative ways or impinge on their freedom to choose,” she said. People would need to accept necessary changes and for that to happen “we need to try to paint a picture of what the future could look like and highlight the good things that would come out of this transition – the co-benefits we can get from decreasing emissions and working towards a more sustainable way of life”.

Locke agreed. She warned against giving hard-line sceptics “too much airtime”. Instead, she said it was important to focus efforts on persuading the large swathes of the public who question the realities of climate change. And that means listening to them and understanding their concerns “because it’s not just a moral stance, there are people who are struggling to get by and it’s harder for them to change their lifestyles than it is, maybe, for people like you and I.”

Encouraging private sector buy-in

Getting citizens on board with the fight against climate change is one thing. More significantly, perhaps, is encouraging the private sector to take action.

Jonas Dennler, global head of sustainability go to market at multinational software company, SAP, the webinar’s knowledge partner, described civil servants as the “enabler for sustainability”. He said many businesses and industries had started to act, driven by the recognition that failing to take action on climate change would put their businesses at risk and that “sustainability can be linked to business opportunity”.

Of course, legislation is crucial here too. Dennler said that international collaboration is needed so that sustainability legislation is aligned in different parts of the world and that a proactive role for civil servants, therefore, is to motivate active cooperation.

Businesses, he added, could play a part in tackling climate change not only by addressing their own impact but by being part of ‘mission-based ecosystems’, whereby diverse players are bound by a shared mission to solve a complex problem. Dennler gave an example of one such mission that SAP had contributed to. It, other businesses, governments, and non-governmental organisations such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, worked together on a mission to achieve plastic-free oceans.

“We helped to develop the technology, the software solution, and also to provide feedback to policymakers on what could be adopted, changed and rolled out further,” Dennler explained. “We see these mission-based ecosystems, and other initiatives to have come out of COP, developing. They’ll play a key role.”

On the issue of transforming major industries like shipping and aviation, Christensen agreed with Dennler that, as well as national actions, necessary regulatory frameworks would need to be agreed. “We have to agree on a new set of standards collectively and stick to them, and unfortunately, those things take quite some time.”          

Moving heavy machinery at pace

He added: “When I think about Glasgow, I wonder whether we can really translate that collective political will into the urgency of action that is needed. My fear is that our systems, our civil servants, and our public organisations won’t adjust in time and that the next COP [in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, in 2022] will be a big disappointment because we’re already running behind on taking the action that’s needed.”

What is clear, he said, is that if we fail the ambitions of world leaders and of the most vulnerable, “the trust that we managed to regain at Glasgow will be squandered very easily and very fast”.

Locke agreed. She said she left COP with mixed emotions: “I think like everybody I came away from COP feeling energised but also fearful that we won’t make it and that the systems won’t work fast enough.”

Public pressure

Nevertheless, there was cause for optimism, she said, not least the “unprecedented” level of engagement by the private sector at COP, and fast-mobilising citizens who were beginning to put real pressure on governments.

“I attended the Futures March in Glasgow and there were primary school children there and young activists from all over the world, and the energy and the anger in that group was tangible,” Locke said. “I was struck by something that president Barack Obama had said about making sure people feel their vote counts – it comes back to trust and I do think that civil servants have a role to play there.”

Pérez has also witnessed rising mobilisation back home in Canada. “Canada came to Glasgow with an enhanced nationally determined contribution; a doubling of its climate finance pledge; a net zero accountability law; a carbon pricing mechanism; the ability to sign on to the global methane pledge; and the ability to speak about fossil fuel subsidies at the international level. All things that were not expected years ago. And I feel that part of the reason why that was possible is because there is a rising mobilisation at the domestic level that is pushing the country towards those goals.”

He advised civil servants to keep track of the various domestic climate change movements, interpret citizen sentiment and think about the ways in which its political leaders could act.

Christensen gave another example of pressure being applied by the public. “The reason I’m in this job is because of a culture change,” he said. “We had a national election [in Denmark] two and a half years ago which everybody thought was going to be about all sorts of other issues. I was one of the few public servants in the country who said ‘no, the youth is going to turn this election into a climate election’. And in the last week before the election, you suddenly had young people with their parents and grandparents mobilising in big numbers – suddenly, all of the parties had to face up to their lack of action on climate change.

“It was a groundswell towards green, and within six months, we had political agreement with 95% of parliament behind a very ambitious climate law taking us to a 70% reduction [of greenhouse gases] by 2030.”

Room for improvement

Such pressure is likely to be applied to an even greater degree at future COPs. And while the panellists agreed that progress had been made, looking ahead to future conferences, there is much room for improvement too.

Pérez said one of the biggest disconnects is that the level urgency needed to tackle the climate crisis was not on show in Glasgow. “It does seem that we’re prioritising COP26 and that we’re talking about climate diplomacy as a critical cross-cutting issue but we’re not talking about the climate emergency – it doesn’t reflect the level of urgency that we’re hearing on the streets.

“What’s needed when it comes to mitigation, adaptation, and ‘loss and damage’, is partnership, Pérez said, yet “those things were not given the same level of prioritisation that climate vulnerable countries in many communities wanted. We have an opportunity to correct that as we move forward to COP27”.

What he sees civil servants doing moving forward, is to take into consideration “the beauty of being guardians of public trust. Because if you take that role seriously – and I’m sure you do – it is a matter of accountability, it is a matter of cooperation, but most of all it is a matter of radical solidarity.” 

No pressure, then. There was good and bad to have come out of COP26. And what panellists agreed is that, now the dust in Glasgow has settled, civil servants have a crucial and varied role to play in ensuring that the pledges made come to fruition. With COP27 on the horizon, no doubt many will be setting forth with renewed vigour.

The Global Government Forum webinar Responding to COP26: the tasks facing civil servants was held on 23 November, with the support of knowledge partner SAP. You can watch the 75-minute webinar via our dedicated event page.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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