Geneva should host future climate summit, says former WMO chief

Michel Jarraud, secretary general emeritus of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). (Credit: Geneva Solutions/ML)

From cartoons against climate change to hosting the climate Cop in 2024 or 2025, the WMO’s former secretary general proposes a series of ways in which international Geneva can up its climate game.

Scorching heat waves, crop-ravaging floods, and menacing sea level rise have propelled climate change to the top of the global agenda. Geneva’s colliding worlds of diplomacy, academics, activism, and technical expertise have helped drive the debate, often from behind the scenes.

It should take things further, according to the World Meteorological Organisation’s former leader Michel Jarraud. At the helm of the UN body as deputy secretary general since 1995 and then secretary general from 2004 to 2015, Jarraud has seen climate change go from a footnote to being described as one of the greatest challenges of our time by the UN.

In a report released today, commissioned by the Fondation pour Genève, the French meteorologist lays out a number of recommendations for international Geneva to follow if it is to become an engine for climate action.

A historically good candidate

The creation of the WMO after World War II in 1950 in Geneva marked the beginning of a booming period for climate observation and modelling in which the diplomatic hub city would play a central role for years to come. It would notably host the world’s first climate conference in 1979, followed by two other summits in 1990 and 2009, and would see the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) come together in 1988.

Fast forward to today, dozens of Geneva-based organisations are helping to shape global climate policy. Listed in the report, the likes of the World Trade Organization and the World Health Organization, where nearly 200 states are represented, have increasingly delved into the topic, long considered out of their scope.

Rights groups have put down roots in Geneva to push for climate action and businesses keen to influence the debate and any resulting policies have banded together through the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD).

The report mentions a number of recent initiatives which could breed solutions to climate challenges, from the Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator to Sustainable Finance Geneva.

Read also: International Geneva, a hub for environmental governance?

Jarraud sees this as the result of a “virtuous circle”. “The ecosystem is so rich that when people want to set up a new initiative, Geneva is a good candidate. There's a lot of institutions and experts to interact with,” he told Geneva Solutions.

“When we deal with climate change, it cannot be solved without taking the multidisciplinary dimension into account.”

Cop and climate cartoons

In his report, Jarraud places international Geneva in the current context and pinpoints key areas in which it can play a leading role.

Bringing back home the climate summit. For Jarraud it is self-evident that Geneva should host another Cop in the near future. “The presence of all the diplomatic missions makes it an ideal place to have negotiations on difficult issues ahead of the conference,” he said. Cop27 is already being hosted by Egypt in November and the United Arab Emirates announced that they had won the bid for Cop28 in 2023 so it wouldn’t happen at least before 2024. Simmonetta Sommaruga of the Swiss Federal Council recently announced that the Council would examine the possibility of bidding for a future Cop presidency – a move welcomed by Jarraud.

He admits that accomodation expenses and hotel capacity in Geneva would have been a barrier in the past to organise an event that attracts between 20 to 40,000 attendees, but the pandemic has shown ways around it for example through hybrid participation.

In any case, Geneva will have to address its rising cost of living if it wants to keep hosting such a wide range of actors and attract new ones in the future, especially in light of other potential hubs in the Global South deploying an “increasingly aggressive approach”.

“We have seen the effects of this in a number of recent decisions on the location of new institutions related to climate change,” the report states.
Jarraud further recommends that a monitoring centre be created in Geneva to follow up on major decisions taken at the annual climate conferences.

Decarbonising health. As the home of the WHO, Geneva could spearhead decarbonisation of the health sector – which contributes up to five per cent of carbon emissions in the world and 12 per cent in the United States, Jarraud points out. At the last climate summit in Glasgow, the WHO promised to help countries to achieve climate pledges to measure and decarbonise their healthcare systems.

Blueprints for a just transition. However slowly, more and more companies and banks are beginning to shift away from their unsustainable ways, with investments in fossil fuels slowing down and investments in cleaner energies going up. While the green transition is what will keep the globe from breaching catastrophic levels of warming, it means shaking entire economic sectors, with the workers at the bottom bearing the brunt.

Jarraud views the International Labour Organization, for its particular way of working in which employers and employees are represented, as a key actor in paving the way for a just transition.

Putting a price tag on carbon. The idea of putting a fee on carbon emissions as a way to incentivise companies to curb their footprint has been floating around climate discussions for quite some time. The economic implications of it all has so far prevented serious discussions from taking off. The WTO could lead these efforts, Jarraud says, which would also benefit from the input of financial and business actors. The International Parliamentary Union could also play a role in preparing representatives across the world to pass necessary tax legislation.

Taking it a step further, Jarraud calls on Geneva to become the first city of its size to indicate the carbon footprint on product labels. The suggestion, he said, came from the initiative 2050Today, a group of 60 institutions in Geneva who have committed to measure and reduce their carbon emissions.

“We cannot go on forever ignoring the cost of transport, production and so on. Geneva could lead by example,” he said, urging the local Swiss authorities to support such initiatives and send a “strong message”.

Cartooning against climate change. In the image of Chapatte’s famous cartooning for peace, Jarraud proposes a similar initiative to raise awareness around the climate threat through humour. He smiles when asked about this particular recommendation. Though certainly not the most transformative initiative, it is likely to be a popular one.

“It’s the first thing people see when you open a newspaper and it can be very powerful,” he said. Cartooning for peace already illustrates the world’s environmental struggles from time to time, as it did last week during Cop15 on desertification.

Untapped potential

For Jarraud, Geneva is an ever growing hub for climate change with enormous potential, albeit a large part of it untapped. “More and more actors are aware of the need to contribute, but this contribution is like a jigsaw puzzle and the pieces don't always fit together as they could,” he said.

One argument often heard is that these multilateral institutions are such mammoths that getting them to take bold decisions takes up a lot of energy and time, rendering them ineffective. Jarraud, disputes the “cliché”, which he says has been proven wrong on several occasions.

He points to a lack of coordination between the different actors, but also to differences in work culture and sees a particular wedge between the multilateral system, and private and NGO actors.

The report calls on multilateral organisations to strengthen the official status of observers. “NGOs could be heard in a stronger way in the multilateral system,” he said. Vice versa, he urges NGOs to include experts from the larger organisations in their events.

“It will create a dialogue and eventually establish more trust, which is essential for cooperation. You need to respect the point of view of others, but before you respect it, you have to understand it,” he said.

War and covid, a double blow for climate action

Getting global climate policy back on track will take some work given the past couple of years. The Covid-19 pandemic forced gatherings to go digital and sometimes even brought negotiations to a halt. As people were returning to meeting rooms, the war in Ukraine summoned back Cold War era tensions.

“Coming to political agreements is probably more difficult right now than it was two years ago,” Jarraud acknowledged. But the meteorologist recalls that scientific cooperation has survived through some of the worst times and Geneva has been at the heart of that.

“At the peak of the Cold War in the 1960s and 70s, the WMO managed to develop what was called the World Weather Watch, to make sure that all organisations exchange all the essential information in terms of weather, climate, and so on,” he said.

“If you want to analyse climate, you need to have global observation, you need to exchange information freely across all countries, irrespective of political tensions and that's been a long tradition in the meteorological community. It is not so strong in the climate domain but it’s getting there.”