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From Glasgow to Geneva: reflections on Cop26 so far

The facade of the United Nations building in Geneva, promoting a joint cultural campaign with the Natural History Museum to raise awareness of the need for urgent climate action, on 3 November. (Credits: Geneva Natural History Museum/Philippe Wagneur).

The urgent climate issues being discussed at Cop26 this week touch almost every area of work in international Geneva, from health to human rights. But we need to break down the silos between them, says Simon Manley, the UK’s Permanent Representative to the UN, WTO and other international organisations in Geneva.

Well over 100 world leaders gathered in Glasgow this week to launch the Cop26 climate conference, kick-starting a fortnight of negotiations.  I will admit that it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the headlines surrounding Cop26. But, in amongst the fanfare, it’s important not to lose sight of the task facing leaders and their negotiating teams: to determine whether, collectively, we can take the urgent action needed to avoid the irreversible effects of climate change.

There is no denying that the task at hand is monumental.

From evidence to action

In the run up to Glasgow, new reports were published – sometimes it felt like almost every day – detailing the catastrophic impact of climate change. We have known this for some time, but the evidence is now too vast and compelling to ignore. And, increasingly, we are seeing it with our own eyes.

First came the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the world’s leading scientific body on climate change – who sounded the alarm bells for humanity (again). It is now unequivocal that by burning fossil fuels and cutting down trees we have caused a dangerous rise in global temperatures.

Then came the World Meteorological Organization – another expert body based in Geneva – who recently declared that record levels of greenhouse gas emissions have led our planet into “uncharted territory”, which impacts food security, crucial ecosystems, and human displacement.

I could go on, but you get the picture. All of it points toward the same conclusion. That we cannot continue on this unsustainable path. As the UN Secretary General said bluntly, we are “digging our own graves”. When it comes to explaining why action on climate change is needed, it isn’t a case of politicians employing hyperbole for dramatic effect. It’s the real deal.

Of course statements and speeches aren’t enough. We need to see concrete action from every single country to rapidly cut emissions this decade and achieve net-zero emissions – ideally by about mid-century. So far, nearly three quarters of global emissions are covered by a net-zero target. But it is crucial that the level of ambition lines up with the scale of the crisis we face.

The UK is calling for targeted action on four key areas: coal (phasing out its use completely); cars (speeding up the switch to electric vehicles); cash (raising urgent climate finance for vulnerable and developing countries); and trees (reversing the loss of trees and biodiversity).

Already leaders have made encouraging progress this week, including improved national climate action plans and a landmark new declaration committing to end deforestation by 2030.

Why Cop26 matters for Geneva

As negotiations continue, I urge you to keep following the developments in Glasgow closely.

Home to the largest concentration of international organisations and diplomatic missions, Geneva is a hub for global climate research and action. And after all, the climate crisis is not only an environmental issue.

It’s an economic issue. Greenhouse gas emissions have expanded alongside global trade. That has to change. We want to work with the WTO to ensure that trade rules can now enable the greening of the global economy. The next stop after Glasgow for doing so is the WTO Ministerial Conference (MC12) in December.

The climate crisis is a human rights issue too. Climate change impacts on a range of human rights — including rights to food, water, and health. Home to the Human Rights Council, Geneva has to be the place where we marshal our efforts to promote and protect these rights.

And it’s a humanitarian issue.  We know that climate-related disasters could double the number of people needing humanitarian assistance to over 200 million annually by 2050. That is why we are working with the humanitarian community in Geneva to reduce humanitarian need, including helping the most vulnerable communities with adaption and mitigation measures.

Finally, the climate crisis is also a public health issue. In fact, according to the WHO, climate change is now the biggest global health threat facing humanity. It is therefore vital that the health agencies in Geneva are part of the response.

It is clear that the climate and environment agenda touches almost every area of work in international Geneva. But we need to break down the silos between them. As British naturalist Sir David Attenborough said earlier this week: if working apart we are a force powerful to destabilise our planet, surely working together we are powerful enough to save it.

So let us make a collective pledge to be stewards of the Paris Agreement wherever we work in Geneva – from trade and health to human rights and humanitarian and everything in between. That’s not just in our professional interest. It’s a moral responsibility, to our children and to our planet.

The UK is currently hosting COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland. For the latest updates, follow @COP26 on Twitter.