COP26 outcomes: Multilevel action is the beacon of hope to keep the 1.5 degree goal alive

Leaders returning home from Glasgow will be feeling many mixed emotions on how COP26 concluded.

In a fraught two weeks, where the worst case outcome of a failed agreement was possible at many moments, to have achieved a global agreement at the global climate conference at all is a muted success.

As many have noted, however, the final agreement, called the Glasgow Climate Pact, failed to capture the “emergency mode” that the moment called for, even as it incrementally moved forward climate action in several areas. The Pact did succeed in kicking off the second phase of the Paris agreement, including a clear vision for “multilevel and cooperative action” and finally agreeing to all outstanding items in the Paris rulebook.

Agreed on by nearly 200 countries, the Pact – as well as other COP26 outcomes and pledges – contain ingredients that could be used to move the world into emergency mode. Large-scale agreements like those on methane, deforestation, fossil-fuel phase-out, a leveling up of the Marrakesh Partnership, including Race to Zero and Race to Resilience, as well as a net-zero commitment from India, and a climate agreement between the U.S. and China, can now be captured in future iterations of countries’ national climate goals (known as the NDCs). Additionally, the Pact “requests Parties to revisit and strengthen the 2030 targets… to align with the Paris Agreement temperature goal by the end of 2022,” (para. 29) an important quickening of the pace of goal-setting.

The Local Governments and Municipal Authorities Constituency (LGMA) went to Glasgow with a four-point roadmap for “Implementing Multilevel Action in the Age of Climate Emergency.” While the work still goes on, we feel we were able to make substantive progress across all four of these goals, which were:

– Multilevel action as the new normal for the next phase Paris Agreement

– Localizing national, global and private finance to seize urban opportunities for bold action in cities and regions

– Just climate action for all

– Stepping up subnational engagement in the UNFCCC processes

Local and regional governments enshrined in national goals, climate finance and UNFCCC processes

The Pact explicitly called out multilevel, cooperative action, and the role of local and regional governments in advancing and implementing climate goals. The preamble of the Pact makes this explicit reference, “Recognizing the important role of indigenous peoples, local communities and civil society, including youth and children, in addressing and responding to climate change, and highlighting the urgent need for multilevel and cooperative action,” (preamble, Glasgow Climate Pact) which builds on what the Paris agreement also laid out.

This recognition was cheered by local and regional leaders around the world. In a strong statement at the High Level Segment, Mayor Andy Burnham, Greater Manchester, UK, laid out the need for this outcome. He said, “Left to its own devices, the market will not get us there. So we will need our Governments to have the courage to regulate… We also need them to have the courage to let go where they can – to hand the baton to cities and regions, as this is a race which can only truly be won from the bottom up… Let’s leave Glasgow on the right path. Free up your cities and regions to lead this revolution. Let’s achieve climate justice and social justice together – not just a greener world, but a fairer one too.”

Local leaders showed up at COP26 to lay claim to their place in the global climate fight. “It is now clear more than ever; in our urban world of the twenty-first century, multilevel collaboration, underpinned by a circular culture is one of the few, if not the only, inspiration of hope to respond to the age of climate emergency. This era of multilevel action can only be durable if it fully embraced and developed with the lawmakers and other members of legislative bodies at the local, subnational and national level. Such collaborative efforts between legislative and executive bodies can ensure that these transformative visions can be sustained through long-term political consensus,” noted Tunç Soyer, Mayor of Izmir Metropolitan Municipality, Turkey, and ICLEI´s Co-Chair on Climate Action, in his address to the COP26 Legislators Summit at the Scottish Parliament hosted by GLOBE International.

Article 6 on finance also contains references that open the door for future sustainable, integrated urban and territorial development in financing mechanisms, including advocating for “integrated and holistic actions”, the inclusions of “public authorities” and “replicat[ing] successful NMAs [Non-Market Approaches], including in the local, subnational, national and global context.” Throughout COP26, the LGMA community also provided important contributions in the climate finance architecture such as a climate investment report by UK Core Cities, the launch of a global subnational fund by R20, as well as a global alliance of subnational development banks led by the Global Fund for Cities Development (FMDV).

The Glasgow Work Programme on Action for Climate Empowerment was also released, and it introduces a broad vision for engagement of local and regional governments in education, training, public awareness, participation, public access to information and international cooperation on climate change.

Glasgow marked yet another turning point for local and regional governments in the climate process. In a year where COVID-19 requirements and uncertainty could have dampened the appetite to participate, the LGMA fielded over 400 delegates, including mayors, governors and councilors, from all regions of the world, making it the second largest delegation, as compared to national delegations.

João Doria, Governor, State of Sao Paulo, Brazil, spoke about how Brazil’s subnational governments are acting on and holding true to their nation’s commitments. “We have come to COP26 to honour the commitments made by Brazil in the Paris Agreement in 2015. We are 10 governors right now here in COP26, and San Paolo reaffirms its leadership position in the face of global warming challenges and announces an ambitious agenda to come back to climate change with our common and shared responsibilities,” said Governor Doria.

Local leaders showed up in force to show how they are making global goals local. “Local governments are on the frontlines of the climate emergency, and the bold actions of local communities like Miami-Dade are crucial to building a more resilient planet and securing a 1.5-degree future. I was proud to join cities and counties from around the world at COP26 to share Miami-Dade’s far-reaching climate action strategy to cut our emissions in half by 2030, as we press for net zero by 2050. The most ambitious national climate plans rely on local benchmarks in order to meet their goals – it’s time for our global processes to reflect this reality and fully embrace the impact of local leadership,” said Daniella Levine Cava, Mayor, Miami-Dade County. Additional announcements centered around local action, like Glasgow Food and Climate Declaration and Edinburgh Biodiversity Process, demonstrated depth of subnational contributions to the COP26 agenda.

Cities and regions also elevated their engagement to new heights at COP26. Local and regional representatives met several times with the UN Secretary General, the UK Prime Minister, the UK Prsidency and the UNFCCC Executive Secretary.

In a closed meeting with UN Secretary General António Guterres and UN-Habitat Executive Director Maimunah Mohd Sharif, and other representatives of local and regional governments, Minna Arve, Mayor of Turku, Finland and First Vice-President of ICLEI, said, “Even COP26 fails, or the outcome is not as ambitious as we hoped for, local and regional governments will not give up and will continue to act on climate emergency. We did not give up Local Agenda 21 in 1992, and this enabled the world to adopt Sustainable Development Goals in 2015. We did not give up after Copenhagen in 2009, and this paved the way for the Paris Agreement in 2015. [We] welcome and endorse your proposals for Our Common Agenda, including advancing collaboration with local and regional governments.”

At critical moments in the negotiations, LGMA delegates were able to reach out in a coordinated and multifaceted way to their respective parties to advocate for advantageous outcomes relating to multilevel action. The LGMA harnessed the power of delegates who participated both in-person and remotely to advocate on behalf of the constituency.

“We are very excited to see the Biden Administration step up and say that not only are they in, but they are willing to work in a multilevel fashion for all of us to succeed in this. And I think that this really excites us, that we can make progress, that from the national level, to the state level, to the county level to the local level, we’re all in this. We all see the opportunity. We need to share our best practices, we need to declare a climate emergency at all levels,” said Frank Cownie, Mayor, Des Moines, US and ICLEI President.

On World Cities Day, which opened COP26, Apostolos Tzitzikostas (EL/EPP), President of the European Committee of the Regions (CoR), Governor of Central Macedonia Region, Greece and Greek Ambassador of the Covenant of Mayors, recognized the specific role that local and regional governments can play.  “The world is simply off track to avert the climate emergency. Subnational governments’ climate commitments must be taken on board in the Nationally Determined Contributions, and they must be given a formal seat in the UNFCCC negotiations. We can no longer afford to ignore the fundamental role of every region, city and village in delivering climate action, or we will continue to fail our young people and our planet,” he said.

Frustrations towards a just transition continue but surprises also arose

One of the biggest frustrations of COP26 was the continued failure to address loss and damage, which is the collective term for the societal and financial costs of climate impacts that can no longer be avoided in the most vulnerable nations. The final text eliminated a “facility” – which would have eventually included funding for loss and damage from world’s largest emitters – and replaced it with a more vague “dialogue” between nations at a later COP.

But here too subnationals stepped up, to fill the void that nations have left gaping open for so many years. Scotland was the first to move, breaking the “taboo” of loss and damage to announce a symbolic contribution of 1 Million GBP to a loss and damage fund (and later upped it to 2 Million GBP). The region of Wallonia in Belgium soon followed suit with their own 1 Million Euro pledge.

“Developed countries can no longer in good conscience ignore this pressing moral issue. The demand for financial support for loss and damage must be met and I am determined that the Scottish Government will continue to support countries to achieve a financial outcome on this issue ahead of COP27,” said Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

The speakers also emphasized that cities need to approach climate action in an inclusive way.

At the World Cities Day press conference on the first day of COP26, Susan Aitken, Council Leader, Glasgow City Council, Scotland, UK, emphasized that her government is learning from history to transition her city in a just and equitable way.

“True leadership is bringing our citizens along with us on every step of the journey, and helping them to understand why bold actions, which are sometimes taking place at a pace and a scale that we’ve never really done before, why it’s so relevant to their everyday lives. And that is absolutely true of leadership, whether it’s at a city level here in Glasgow, whether it’s Scottish, or at the supranational level across the United Kingdom. It’s about identifying solutions, but also ensuring that we’ve got partnerships and collaborations in place to deliver those solutions. None of us are going to be able to do this on our own.” said Ms. Aitken.

The Multilevel Action Pavilion – LGMA in the Blue Zone

At COP26, subnationals, including cities, towns and regions, had a home in the Blue Zone – the Multilevel Action Pavilion. The Pavilion – for the first time ever – was also an online pavilion to ensure everyone could attend regardless of travel restrictions, funding and summit accreditation requirements. Members attending virtually had direct access to all of the same events throughout the two-week COP. The Multilevel Action Pavilion was generously hosted by the Scottish Government, convened by ICLEI and supported by more than 30 partners globally.

Looking towards COP27 – a different COP in a different context

In just 12 months, a very different COP will take place in a very different context. COP27 is scheduled for 7-18 November 2022 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. As the host country moves from the Global North to the Global South, we expect to see resilience, nature and loss and damage to be much more highly prioritized as core elements of the substance of the conference. We can also expect that multilevel action and urbanization will be important in this rapidly developing continent.

“We are disappointed and concerned about the fact that this COP26 did not result in a meaningful outcome on loss and damage. COP27 should consider the aspects of demographic dividend, sustainable urbanization and adaptation to focus on the role of cities in climate change and how they can finance their green plans,” said Ngendahimana Ladislas, Secretary General of the Rwanda Association of Local Government Authorities (RALGA), speaking on behalf of the LGMA, at the closing plenary at COP26.

COP27 feels just around the corner, and while COP26 did not provide a silver bullet to the climate crisis, we are moving forward. The work continues.

See the complete list of COP26 interventions by the LGMA here.

 Photo courtesy of UN Climate Change