When commenting on the emission reduction targets and pledges that world leaders brought to the COP26 UN climate conference in Glasgow in November 2021, UN Secretary-General António Guterres did not mince his words. “There is a deficit of credibility and a surplus of confusion,” he said. This statement indicates the prevailing and rapidly growing expectations on climate policy. It is no longer enough to deliver targets and glossy strategies. The world now expects hard results and credible action. It is time to move forward.
In 2022, we can expect the climate policy discourse to shift gears accordingly. Calls for “climate action” and “climate ambition” will begin to seem so yesterday as these escalate into demands for “climate accountability”. This will be the refrain heard at the COPs and shareholder annual general meetings, in courtrooms and halls of government, from national capitals to city halls and on the streets as protests carry on. Different actors in society will hold each other accountable for different reasons, but they will increasingly unite in the overarching insistence on demonstrated action and clear responsibilities. At the end of the day, climate change is not mitigated by targets, but by actions.
Though far from closing the emissions gap to limit global warming to 1.5 or 2°C, updated national targets announced this year have collectively put humanity on a better path than was the case in 2015 when the Paris Agreement was adopted. However, the agreement’s logic rests on sometimes fragile promises and strong assumptions. Without effective accountability mechanisms – as well as actors who actually use the available mechanisms – there is a risk of stopping short. We risk creating a reward culture centred on ambitious promises, rather than one characterized by bold and ambitious actions.
Why will gears on climate accountability shift in 2022? In many ways, it is an entirely expected consequence of the Paris Agreement architecture. COP26 marked the finalization of the Paris Rulebook to ensure that the agreement can track progress to meet its goals and the start of preparations for the 2023 global stocktake, which will actually monitor progress. This process will enable Parties to the agreement to hold each other to account for collectively achieving its goals and will increase the demand for accurate and effective data, evaluation and communication. However, potentially equally or more important may be the informal deliberations and shadow stocktakes by non-state actors and media reporting on progress to assess whether actions align with goals and principles of fairness.
It is also more than this. Increased pressure is coming from the climate itself, with changes now so visible far and wide, and responses starting to emerge from virtually all corners: new climate science findings and observational data on the urgency of action (likely to be reinforced by the 2022 synthesis report (AR6) of the International Panel on Climate Change), rising public awareness and opinion globally on the need for climate action, increased media interest and reporting, the changing business playing field in the race to net-zero emissions, a powerful and vocal youth movement and growing climate litigation.
What concrete outcomes can we expect in 2022 and beyond? We highlight three areas.
Better information. Data on climate action and emissions are getting better. Satellites and artificial intelligence offer new approaches and technologies for collecting primary emission data. The data science revolution means that information is no longer the sole responsibility of national statistics offices. Instead, third-party platforms offer “radical transparency” on emissions and about who is responsible and when and how. These data can and should be harnessed for effective progress tracking of pledges – with work being undertaken by the analytical experts who have forged the Camda community and new efforts made in the Global Climate Action portal within the context of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Though some emission reductions take time to materialize, proxy indicators, such as the acceleration of investment and deployment of technologies, will grow in importance.
Faster tempo. Assessment and evaluation cycles are becoming shorter, and the climate regime is likely to see a tempo switch. The Paris Agreement’s five-year cycle still stands, but the Glasgow Pact already has invited new commitments for next year and set in place annually recurring high-level ministerial roundtables and annual synthesis reports to evaluate progress. Advancements in near-real-time assessments of collective ambition level – such as those done by Climate Action Tracker and others during the two-week COP – create shorter feedback loops and enables answerability.
Greater accountability. Data and evaluation are essential inputs to accountability mechanisms, which also require actors, decisions and consequences to come alive. Arguably, the ultimate accountability mechanism is climate litigation, which has continued to increase globally. In the scientific community, including at SEI, we are noting how scientific evidence is increasingly used as legal evidence. Demands for accountability are also likely to increase in the corporate and financial spheres, from investors, shareholders, stakeholders, and regulators. Multiple efforts are now creating robust standards for companies’ and asset owners’ climate targets, with potential material and legal consequences. There is also the accountability that comes through national and local elections, yet another mechanism for citizens to hold their political leaders to account for delivering credible timetables and climate results.