COP 26: Climate, the Commonwealth, and Security
The 26th Conference of Parties (COP) came to a close on 13 November as the Glasgow Climate Pact was agreed upon by 196 nations. Against the backdrop of the 2015 Paris Agreement - known for its flagship aim of keeping global warming “well below” 2 degrees celsius and to aim for 1.5 degrees by the end of this century - the COP 26 negotiating teams agreed to further pledges on several areas critical for the Paris goals to be achieved. Here we explore the key headings from the conference, the role and resonance of the Commonwealth in mitigating the impacts of climate change, and the relationship between climate and security.
Key takeaways from 26th annual Conference of Parties
A landmark commitment to “phasedown” the use of coal was included in the pact for the first time. Adding to this, over 40 countries – including many high coal consuming countries - pledged to completely phase out coal for electricity production in the 2030s and 2040s.
The combined financial pledges made for developing nations to adapt to the effects of climate change amounted to approximately $96 billion by the end of 2022. Rules have also been agreed for the creation of carbon markets that allow countries to trade emissions, something the Paris Agreement had failed to establish.
In a substantial outcome of the conference, over 100 countries, including 26 Commonwealth member states, as well as Russia and Brazil – the two countries with the highest and second highest forest area respectively - pledged to stop deforestation by 2030. Taken together, the signatories possess around 85% of the world’s forests.
The Global Methane Pledge committed more than 100 countries to cut global methane production - a gas around 25 times the global warming potency of carbon dioxide - by 30% from 2020 levels. Reducing methane is significant given how quickly it can reduce global temperatures.
Finally, countries agreed to publish an updated climate action plan by the end of next year, when COP27 will be held in Cairo, Egypt.
Overall, The Climate Action Tracker, which conducts independent analysis of government climate actions against the 2015 Paris Agreement, estimates the pledges made in this year's COP amount to 2.4 degrees celsius of temperature rise above pre-industrial levels by the end of this century. This reduces estimated rises before this year’s COP by around 0.2 degrees celsius, providing these pledges are met.
The Commonwealth and environmental commitments
The Commonwealth, both as an association of member states as well as the wider community of business, civil society, and individuals, has been at the forefront of climate action for decades. In 1989 the Langkawi Declaration, agreed at the 11th Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Kuala Lumpur, committed its members to promote sustainable development, develop forest management programmes and reduce harmful greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Of particular significance, its acknowledgement of GHGs and their threat to the environment had hitherto seldomly been outlined in international declarations, establishing the Commonwealth as a vanguard of climate change mitigation. Such a status is not without reason. More than half of the countries in the Commonwealth are categorised as small states, with many of these being island nations as well. Climate change poses a disproportionate threat to those nations with reduced economic capacity to adapt to its effects, as well as low-lying nations, meaning much of the Commonwealth faces extreme climatic risk. For some, including islands in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, this translates to confronting increasingly severe cyclones, frequent crop failures and drought. Even more starkly, rising sea levels have made the effective disappearance of whole nations a very real possibility. This includes low-lying Tuvalu, which has recently begun exploring the possibility of retaining its statehood and maritime zones should future sea level rises make the island uninhabitable.
Against such a serious context, nations of the Commonwealth have harnessed the global stage to shed light on the critical situation they already find themselves in. Of note, Mia Mottley, the Prime Minister of Barbados, used her platform at COP 26 to highlight what she sees as the inadequate measures taken by nations deemed most responsible for climate crises. Referring to some nations’ so far unfulfilled financial commitments to small island nations for climate adaptation, Mottley asserted the consequences are “measured in lives and livelihoods… we must act in the interest of all our people who are dependent on us”. These messages are being heeded, and measures are being taken within the Commonwealth community. India declared it would become net zero by 2070, an ambitious target given how quickly its economy is expected to grow in the next few decades. Meanwhile, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau committed to a cap on emissions for his country’s oil and gas sector, which is currently responsible for 26% of its emissions. The United Kingdom also announced a new programme, named Climate Action for a Resilient Asia (CARA), that will devote £247 million to projects to foster climate resilience across the Indo-Pacific. Taken together, the voices and actions of Commonwealth members have been central to a shift in urgency at COP26, though there is still work to be done in a number of areas to help address the causes and impacts of climate change.
The security consequences of a changing climate
Dramatic changes to the environment should be of significant concern to those conscious of security issues. For one, this is because the impact of climate change - crucially working with a complexity of factors such as a region’s political stability, demography and economy - has the potential to actively cultivate conflict. This was highlighted in the World Bank Group’s Strategy for Fragility, Conflict, and Violence, which identified climate change as a ‘driver of fragility’ that could exacerbate pre-existing tensions between groups. In Nigeria, for instance, testing environmental conditions linked to climate change have amalgamated with population rises and migration (itself often borne of a changing environment teamed with population growth), causing ‘fierce competition and violent conflict’ between farmers and herders over the use of land and water resources.
Here, climate change can be viewed as a ‘threat multiplier’ that interacts with a region’s unique characteristics to produce security issues so severe it is thought deaths from farmer-herder tensions in Nigeria are greater than those linked with the rise of Boko Haram. As resources become stretched with increasing demand, the risk of competition and conflict grows ever higher. It is notable that, according to a study by the Stockholm International Research Institute, 8 of the 10 countries subject to the largest peace operations in 2018 were also areas ‘highly exposed to climate change’.
There are concerns too, that natural disasters - the occurrence of which have already increased five-fold over the last 50 years, and are heavily attributed to a changing climate – have been exploited by extremist and criminal groups. An example of this can be found in the reported spike in popularity for extremist groups in Pakistan. Support for Lashkar-e-Taiba – the perpetrators of the Mumbai terrorist atrocities of 2009 - rose in response to their distribution of supplies and setting up of relief camps in the wake of devastating floods that hit the country in 2010. These measures occurred in tandem with the reported failure of state and multi-state actors in effectively implementing their own disaster response programmes. Meanwhile, a surge in criminality took hold in Dominica following the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria in 2017. Describing the “human hurricane” of looting that swept the country, the Dominica Association of Industry and Commerce called for a public enquiry into a perceived inadequacy of the security infrastructure to prevent such unrest. Natural disasters, therefore, can lead to a security void; without resilience in the security sector and integrated rapid response these voids will be exploited by nefarious actors.
Conflict, criminality, and the spread of extremism are conventional security consequences of a changing climate. Whether through the direct exploitation of a security void caused by a natural catastrophe, or the by-product of sustained environmental degradation and competition for ever more in-demand resources such as food, water and energy, climate change is an immediate security concern. Efforts to address climate change should be welcome to the wider security community, but also consider the importance of that very community in helping mitigate the logical consequences of environmental devastation.