Make COP26 the Conference for a Green Recovery

A guest contribution by Wolfgang Obergassel and Lukas Hermwille, Research Unit Global Climate Governance, Wuppertal Institute


2020 was supposed to be the year of climate ambition. While the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement established ambitious long-term objectives, the emission reduction contributions countries have so far put on the table fall far short of what would actually be necessary to achieve these objectives. Instead of keeping the rise in the global mean temperature since the start of industrialisation well below 2 degrees Celsius or even below 1.5 degrees Celsius, the pledges made by the countries so far – the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) – would take global warming to between 3 to 4 degrees Celsius. 


According to the rules of the Paris Agreement, countries are required to present new or revised NDCs by 2020. The climate conference in Glasgow this November was supposed to be the culmination point of an intensive diplomatic process on ratcheting up climate ambition.


The Corona crisis has now cast all plans into disarray. COP26 has been postponed to a date that is yet to be determined. Preparatory meetings have similarly been pushed back substantially.


The first order is now to protect the health of as many people as possible. But after relief, there will be recovery. Planning the further climate policy process and staying engaged may seem difficult as long as the new date for COP21 is not set. However, while the conference has been shifted, the deadline for submitting NDCs has not. And the progress of climate change is not going to wait for the resolution of the Corona crisis, much of the Northern hemisphere just had its warmest winter on record. Policy-makers therefore must not lose sight of the long-term climate crisis while dealing with the Corona crisis.


The Corona crisis demonstrates that governments are indeed able to take far-reaching action on short notice. Governments are now preparing vast economic stimulus packages to cushion the impacts of the Corona crisis. The question is, what will these stimulus packages look like? Will they try to re-establish old structures, or will they be used as an opportunity to chart a new course? The IEA and other experts have urged governments to put clean energy at the heart of these stimulus plans. The Wuppertal Institute has developed a three-phase model for dealing with the Corona pandemic.


Could COP26, and global climate governance in general, play a role in promoting a green recovery? Oberthür et al. (2017) identify five functions international governance institutions may perform in general to help tackle a certain problem:

  • Guidance & Signal: International institutions can signal the resolve of members to pursue a certain course of action such as decarbonisation. 
  • Rules & Standards: In addition to signalling the desired direction of travel, international institutions can also require certain actions from countries in order to achieve the objectives commonly agreed on. 
  • Transparency & Accountability: International institutions may enhance the transparency of the actions taken by their members by collecting and analysing relevant data, and identifying and addressing problems in implementation of agreed rules/standards.
  • Means of Implementation: International institutions may organise the provision of capacity building, technology transfer, and financial resources among members, including coordination efforts for effective allocation. 
  • Knowledge & Learning: International institutions may create knowledge as well as platforms for individual and social learning. The aim is creation and diffusion of scientific, economic, technical and policy-related knowledge on the understanding of and/or possible solutions to the problem at hand. 

Reflecting on these functions, the Glasgow conference could promote green recovery in several ways: 

  • Guidance & Signal: The UK COP presidency could enhance the impetus for green recovery by requesting Parties to seize the day and bring not only better NDCs, but also transformative green stimulus packages to Glasgow - and to refrain from supporting emission-intensive technologies and practices with their stimulus money. Such a call may be of help to pro-climate stakeholders in their respective national discussions on shaping recovery packages. Furthermore, at the end of the COP, the conference as a whole could strongly urge all Parties to put green recovery at the heart of all stimulus packages and to refrain from supporting emission-intensive technologies and practices. The COP could also adopt principles on what this should look like in practice.
  • Knowledge & Learning: Following up on such a call from the presidency, the COP and the diplomatic process running up to it could be used as an opportunity to showcase and exchange on best practices and thereby promote mutual learning. 
  • Rules & Standards: International institutions will not lay down binding rules on how to do green recovery. The UNFCCC has not even managed to lay down binding rules on how to do NDCs. Still, Parties could perhaps deliberate on a kind of voluntary “gold standard”, a list of best practice dos and don’ts for how to design green stimulus packages. 
  • Means of Implementation: Developed countries could target financial and technological support they are providing specifically to a green relief and recovery in developing countries. For example, investments in health systems could provide particularly strong synergies between corona disaster response and climate change adaptation.
  • Transparency & Accountability: As there will be no international rules for how to do green recovery, there also will be no dedicated transparency provisions. The actions countries are taking will show up in their overall transparency reports, but these will take years to be produced and reviewed internationally. Still, COP26 and the public attention it will generate may be used as an opportunity and “echo chamber” for faming and shaming – to celebrate countries that are using the opportunity to accelerate on a green trajectory, and shake the finger at those that do not. Perhaps, as part of thematic sessions on green recovery, the UNFCCC could also organize a process of voluntary peer review of stimulus packages and their implementation, similar to the Voluntary National Reviews on how countries are implementing the Sustainable Development Goals.  

Given the lacklustre results of most COPs so far, the Wuppertal Institute and others have for a while suggested (e.g. here, here, here and here) that the COPs should shift their focus “from pledging to action”. While emission targets are important as they determine the level of ambition subsequent policy needs to follow, the COPs should also organise exchanges on specific thematic issues. The design of the upcoming recovery packages will be crucial for all subsequent climate policy and should therefore be at the heart of the climate diplomatic process up to Glasgow and beyond.