Linking arms: How to Harness the Power of the Regions

Can COP26 lead the way to significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions before 2030?

As students of political history know, the best time to bring nations together and agree radical changes to the international order is after a horrific war. From the Peace of Westphalia to the Congress of Vienna, Versailles to Bretton Woods and San Francisco, it seems that continents have to be laid waste before governments are able to see that diplomacy can be more than the pursuit of national interests in international contexts.

Johannes Bell of Germany is portrayed as signing the peace treaties on 28 June 1919 in The Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, by Sir William Orpen. ©Wikipedia  |  No changes were made. License link

It is, of course, different in the present emergency. The option of following a horrific war with visions among the ruins does not exist. Wars eventually end, whereas fundamental shift in planetary physics could, in theory, last forever.

On the face of it, this does not bode well for the possibilities of coordinated international action on climate change, nor the prospects of arriving at a comprehensive and workable plan at the COP26 meeting in Glasgow, now just a few months away.

And it was this concern that haunted the second gathering of the Scotia Group, which brought together some 30 global leaders to discuss how COP26 could lead the way to significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions before 2030 – the year that may well mark the point at which non-linear change in the Earth’s climate becomes unavoidable.

by 2030, non-linear change in the Earth’s climate might become unavoidable

Renewing our Vows

The problem of taking action before the slow-motion disaster of climate change becomes irreversible was the theme taken up by the meeting’s first speaker: Sarah Millar, the COP26 Coordinator for the Climate Emergency Collaboration Group. She made no attempt to downplay the scale of the tasks ahead.


Sarah Millar

Sarah has worked for the Confederation of British Industry, the Greater London Authority and the European Parliament. She was the Head of International Stakeholder Engagement at the Department of Energy and Climate Change between 2009 and 2016. Sarah helped the department prepare for each COP from Copenhagen to Paris, contributed to government publications such as The Road from Copenhagen and The Path to Paris. She is now COP26 Coordinator at the Climate Emergency Collaboration Group and a Senior Associate of the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership.

We are, she said, all struggling to decide what COP26 is all about. We have been knocked off balance by the pandemic, we are unsure about the effectiveness of the all-important United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and we are all grappling with the complexity of the problems that we face and the scale of the solutions required.

There is no shortage of effort or awareness. The G7 summit ended with calls for a “green revolution that creates jobs, cuts emissions and seeks to limit the rise in global temperatures to 1.5°C”. The G20 meeting in November last year called for an “all hands on deck” approach to meeting the Paris targets. Other meetings will no doubt make similar calls, but as Sarah pointed out, they are not necessarily tied into the COP process in a coherent or strategic way.

She therefore issued a call of her own.

“We need a North Star and a rallying call for civil society, parties, businesses, non-state actors”

she said. The navigational image of the star suggests a way of aligning these parallel processes so they form a coherent whole. This consists, firstly, in repairing some of the damage caused by the past four years of unilateral nationalism: trust in the UN process has to be re-established, confidence rebuilt. Secondly, we have to establish accountability. Are national contributions adding up to what is needed?

These two considerations will both be advanced by a move under way to get countries onto the same reporting cycle. If that is achieved then, for the first time, it will be possible to compare what each government has done and judge whether or not it has lived up to spending pledges made at previous COPs.

At present, we have no unimpeachable data source, and therefore no way to make use of shame as an enforcement mechanism.

So, this COP will have the job of resetting the global community in preparation for the next stage of intensifying effort: playing fields will be levelled, apples compared with apples and from this will come – we can only hope – a sense of solidarity and common purpose.

©Gaborbasch  |  No changes were made. License link

Communities of Linked Arms

One issue that came up repeatedly at this dialogue was the question of scale. Climate change is inclusive in a bad way: all of our economic interests are at risk if it accelerates, as is our physical and mental wellbeing. But this also means that every level of society has concrete reasons for striving to keep carbon emissions within bounds.

This then invites the question: what is the appropriate action at each level? How are the levels to be integrated? And: are some levels more important than others for devising, mobilising and sustaining effective action?


Dr Andrew Kerr

Andy Kerr is part of the Scotia Group’s Inception Commission, and the UK and Ireland Director of Climate–KIC, Europe’s largest public–private innovation partnership for climate action. Before that, he spent eight years as Executive Director of the Edinburgh Climate Change Institute and Director of the E3 environment consultancy. In all these roles he was concerned with coordinating public policy, business and research to make climate change action more effective. 

This was taken up by the second speaker at the dialogue: Dr Andrew Kerr. Andy’s contention was that there is a “surge of ambition and action” at the subnational level – roughly speaking, the stratum that covers city–regions, counties and municipalities.

The political bodies that operate here have the money, the staff and the data to connect with people, and do not produce the mere rhetoric we have come to associate with discourse at the national and international echelons. Issues such as affordable net-zero home construction, renovation and insulation, district heating, power generation and local transport can all be dealt with by the governments of cities, counties, provinces and regions.

One of our aims should, therefore, be to put these bodies at the centre of COP26.

As Andy phrased it: “We are seeing city–regions take on more ambitious targets and enact climate action far more readily than national governments. They’re driving practical change in ways that are engaging people on the ground. We’re trying to make our complex societies alter their behaviour in a very short space of time, and this can’t be done with a single policy framework or technology. It has to involve civic legitimacy. But at the moment there’s a disconnect between subnational action and COP processes.”

Another advantage of subnational action is that it can improve on the default hub-and-spoke model of organisation, in which responsibility and knowledge is held by central bodies that always seem to fall short when it comes to putting plans into action.

Andy argues that transformative change requires the harnessing of local cultures, markets and supply chains and their connection with the citizenry.

So we’re talking knowledge exchanged through P2P networks, catalysed by shared experience and diffused through local markets. The point is to work with the grain of society, delivering things that individuals already want, whether that is an subsidised roof insulation, electric vehicle charging points, hydrogen filling stations or a light rail system. So, by meeting these existing needs, we get carbon action almost as a by-product.

All of which leads to a concrete proposal: why not capitalise on subnational governments’ knowledge of how the world works by asking each to commit to a Paris-aligned, science-based target, and then commit to supporting two other cities states regions or counties – a simple partnering and twinning approach?

The Delegates Debate

The “linked arms” proposal, as Andy titled it, was taken up with enthusiasm by the attendees to the dialogue.

Victoria Preston

Victoria, a board member of the Innovation Platform for Global Change (iPlatform), saw it as exciting and practical, since it connected people at the “same level of intentions”.

David Kariuki Muigua

David, a leading Kenyan lawyer and academic, pointed to the need to ensure that communities in southern countries, who are most affected by – and most vulnerable to – climate change have a voice in the local debate. This would be best achieved by actively engaging with community groups and eliciting their opinions.

Anybody following the discussion thus far might be tempted to assume that it was urban networks that were being relied on for the resources and intellectual firepower needed to make a carbon cutting strategy work. This raises a question as to what role, if any, is envisaged for the agricultural industry and its workers. After all, this is the sector of the economy and the segment of the population that will be first to suffer from climate change.

Baroness Kingsmill

Denise, a lawyer, peer and economist, warned that the natural focus on energy tended to push agriculture to the bottom of the agenda. “I come from New Zealand,” she said, “and we’re conscious about climate change, but also dependent on cows and sheep, which have huge impact on the environment. How are we going to include ruminants in the debate?”

Jyotsna Puri

Jyotsna, a director at the International Fund for Agricultural Development, argued that one key to the success of policy at subnational level was understanding which incentives worked for small farmers. “We are dealing with people who are busy with life and we are asking them for more,” she said. “We must ensure an energy transition has at its core the small-scale farmers who produce a third of food on our tables.” And, for good measure, we should also rectify the imbalance of wealth caused by previous transitions that favoured urban areas.

The bullet points

The Majlis that followed the open session gave the delegates a chance to chew over some of the implications of what had been said.

As these remarks were not for formal attribution, what follows are some of the arguments that were raised, presented as talking points, which the reader is respectfully invited to chew over, too.

  • Climate change is regarded by many voters as an issue that allows social elites to signal their virtue. Therefore, some politician will support climate action if, and only if, they are fairly sure it won’t cost them their careers. For this reason a broad political campaign is needed to ensure voters can see that climate change threatens their livelihoods. It should feature farmers, nurses and other key workers who inspire public confidence. In this way politicians could be persuaded to show a little more courage (putting it politely).
  • On a similar theme, the question arose as to the difficulty of motivating politicians to think about climate change when that may not be a top priority for voters. One possibility is to attach a green rating to manifestos in much the same way as a calorie count appears on food packaging or an energy efficiency rating on electrical goods.
  • Staying with politicians, it was suggested that they conduct negotiations with the aid of a kind of shadow-team of experts from NGOs, business and unions. These would be installed in a convenient room so that politicians could consult them during breaks in the formal talks.
  • Environmental activists should be aware that many of their concerns are shared by other activists in different, but related, areas. In the US, for example, climate workers have found common cause with groups working for social justice and equity. As an example, a Kansas non-profit focused on climate and energy built coalitions with public health organisation, low-income advocacy groups and NGOs arguing for protection for low-income households whose energy bills are affected by excessively hot or cold weather. This can be seen as another manifestation of the linked-arms concept, not to mention the formation of peer networks.
  • Moving to the higher policy level, it was argued that one area where national governments could be effective is trade regulation. The technology exists to give goods a “carbon passport” stating the amount of greenhouse gases embedded in them.
  • At present, public companies are legally required to act in the interest of their shareholders, which means their main duty is maximising profit. Perhaps legislation is needed to create a duty towards other stakeholders.
  • Pressure could be put on large shareholders – meaning, in effect, pension funds – to promote sustainable behaviour in large corporations. This would amount to enlightened self-interest in some cases, since consumers are known to favour sustainably produced goods and services.