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The Paris climate summit presents us with a historic opportunity

It may not be perfect. But the COP21 model – and the democracy principle on which it rests – may just be our greatest weapon in the fight against climate change. 

Barry Gardiner
11 December 2015
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COP15 | Copenhagen, Denmark. Mat McDermott/Flickr. Some rights reserved.In 2009, as I stood in the Copenhagen winter outside the failure that was COP15, I swore we should never make the same mistake.  

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) had failed to respect the fundamental principle of sovereignty. COP15 was an autocratic, anti-democratic model where wealthy nations hypocritically wagged their fingers at developing countries and told them to reduce their emissions to solve a problem they hadn’t caused, but were feeling the sharpest edge of.    

That top-down model had not been what we in GLOBE (the Global Legislators’ Organisation for a Balanced Environment) had wanted, and we knew it had to change. We knew we needed a bottom-up approach. One month before Copenhagen, GLOBE had developed what was, then, a radical idea: countries should propose their own emission reductions via their own people through their own parliament, where they could be held accountable by the democratic process.

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Protests at COP15 | Copenhagen, Denmark. Mat McDermott/Flickr. Some rights reserved.At first, the idea was met with incredulity; dismissed as naïve. The diplomatic corps said countries would only ever act in their own self-interest. We understood the reservations – but we also understood that the stark reality of climate change meant countries needed to, and ultimately would, act to protect their own people. 

I swore we should never make the same mistake.  

Six years on, we’ve just concluded another GLOBE Legislators’ Summit. It took place in the middle of the Paris COP21. And this summit has felt different. There’s a greater sense of urgency than before, of determination and confidence – and a feeling that climate change is a problem the world has finally decided it wants to tackle together.

186 nations have come forward with their pledges (known as INDCs – Intended Nationally Determined Contributions). Promises they first made to their own people.

Governments will be held accountable on their promises by their own parliaments and legislators. The truth though, is that for this to work, it does require a well-functioning democracy. Countries are not being told what to do. For the first time, each country has committed itself to a contribution of its own accord, in its own people’s interest.

Take the US. Obama is battling a powerful Congress and, if the Republicans’ legal challenge to block his Environmental Protection Agency policies were to succeed, we might have to concede that the most powerful democracy on earth was not up to the challenge of delivering on climate change.

The Paris model is the right process. But it will also be critical for governments to be held to account on the promises they’ve made there. That means robust, independent and universal methods to ensure transparent recording, monitoring and verification of the emissions levels in each country.

There’s a greater sense of urgency than before, of determination and confidence.

Of course some will point out that the total pledges don’t yet reach far enough. In fact they only get us halfway to the reduction in emissions necessary to avoid the two-degree threshold of dangerous climate change. That is why we need a clear review mechanism whereby current promises can be tightened or ratcheted up. But the pledges are the start of a bold new process that is responsible, transparent, accountable – and, crucially – democratic.

Legislators are the essential guarantors of the process. Whereas governments have executive power to take decisions, it is legislators that lend them the authority to do so. They are the ones who raise with government the need for coastal defences to protect their districts; the duty to protect their constituents’ lungs from smog. But more than this, they are the ones who ratify the deals that governments sign. They are the ones who hold governments to account on their promises. They are the ones who approve budgets and audit government performance.

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Solutions COP21 at Grand Palais. Mark Dixon/Flickr. Some rights reserved.Governments pass laws and make treaties, but it’s the legislators who vote on the money and scrutinise programmes.

The GLOBE legislators know they have a shared responsibility to act on climate change. They know that whatever agreement their governments sign in Paris, it is they, back in national parliaments, senates, and chambers of congress who will have to ratify, implement and monitor those agreements. It is they who will have to approve the budgets and notify their governments if they fall short.

The summit presents both a monumental challenge and historic opportunity.

As the Speaker of the French Senate, Gérard Larcher, put it: “The best international agreement would not be worth the paper it was written on if it was not implemented and followed up on the ground. It is, therefore, imperative that parliaments take action. Otherwise, decisions taken internationally will never become a reality at the national level.”

The summit presents both a monumental challenge and historic opportunity.

It may not be perfect. But the COP21 model – and the democracy principle on which it rests – may just be our greatest weapon in the fight against climate change. 

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