Climate action, development, and democracy post-COP28 

The COP28 logo on a blue sea background with the figures of two people in front
Commentary

Climate action, development, and democracy post-COP28 

Outcomes of COP28 have substantial implications for the operationalisation of the recent white paper on international development.

The dust begins to settle around the 28th climate COP that closed last week in Dubai. Emerging among the outcomes are some sources of hope for those that realise that the climate crisis is the result of a governance failure. These outcomes have substantial implications for the operationalisation of the recent white paper on international development that the UK Government published on the opening day of COP28, which maintained a focus on ending extreme poverty while adding responding to climate change as an overarching priority.  

COP28 recognised that democracy is indispensable to progress 

The outcome of the first global stocktake of COP28, the report that informed it, and the expected Global Goal on Adaptation provided much-needed recognition, however implicit, that more democracy is indispensable to make progress. 

The text “Reaffirms that sustainable and just solutions to the climate crisis must be founded on meaningful and effective social dialogue and participation of all stakeholders, including Indigenous Peoples, local communities and governments, women, and youth and children” (P. 3, para. 9). It stops short of saying why: because the lack of a broad social consent would make the ambitious, disruptive solutions we need politically impossible. Then it “Underlines that just transitions can support more robust and equitable mitigation outcomes”, because unjust ones would not be politically robust no matter how ambitious; and, because robust mitigation outcomes too need broad and deep social and economic transformations that will only be politically possible if they are fair and democratic.  

At the end of the hottest year on record, at COP28 the world’s diplomats managed to agree on a diagnosis and a treatment, but at the cost of diluting urgency. There was merit in their work, as they represented the interests of autocracies, democracies, OPEC leaders, and clean energy champions, developed countries, and small island states set to disappear under the sea.  

The urgency to implement transformations that scientists scream for will need to come from citizens pushing, and it will only make a difference if democratic institutions can respond to the pressure and translate it into action.  

In short: Deepening democracy is required for successful climate action

Addressing the implementation gap democratically 

The text notes “with concern” that there is an implementation gap between states’ commitments to reduce emissions and the action they have taken.  It “resolves to take action to urgently address this gap”. Well observed. Now, what?  

National parliaments remain the sole enforcement mechanism for international climate pledges, and most of them do not have the capacity to play this role. GLOBE International’s Upcoming research supported by WFD will help assess their current ability and limitations. 

To realise the +1.5C target, parliaments and political parties will need to become central to domestic climate action planning, implementation oversight, and budgeting. Over 2024 they ought to oversee whether their governments get on with their second Nationally Determined Contributions, which must be ratcheted up and ready by November 2024 under the Paris Agreement, and whether in these there are the promised policies, pathways, and actions that transition economies away from fossil fuels, while tripling renewable energy capacity and ensuring protections for nature in a just an inclusive manner – the COP28 promises.  

To achieve the latter, they will need to upgrade their representation role to become engines of citizens’ participation and climate empowerment. 

The conference in Dubai saw the first-ever Parliamentary Pavilion at a COP, sponsored by the UK Government, delivered a programme of events for and with parliamentarians, helping them make sense of the COP agenda and debates in real time. It was a much-needed contribution to empower democratically elected decision-makers.   

WFD is keen to be an enabler of this transformation and collaborates with the parliaments of Georgia and Indonesia with the support of FCDO and other donors to advance climate bills that unlock the potential of democracy to deliver inclusive, just, and open climate action. This is a practical response to the COP28 acknowledgement “that developing country Parties continue to have persistent gaps in capacity and urgent needs for effectively implementing the Paris Agreement, including related to skills development, institutional capacity for governance and coordination, (...) strategic policy development and implementation (...) and recognizes the urgent need to address these gaps and needs that are constraining effective implementation of the Paris Agreement”. We also work to strengthen the capacity of political parties, the media, and civil society organisations to raise awareness and enable an informed national conversation on climate risks and action. 

Democracy is a precondition for successful climate adaptation 

The Global Goal on Adaptation, another key outcome of COP28, also reflects the understanding within the adaptation community that democratic principles around transparency, participation, and accountability are a precondition for successful adaptation outcomes. It “encourages” Parties to consider, “where possible”, country driven, gender responsive, participatory, and transparent approaches; "emphasises" locally led / community-based adaptation; and sets targets for all Parties to have early warning systems, climate information services, and accessible climate data, strengthening transparency. It also calls for participatory and transparent National Adaptation Plans. It will be important to ensure that the policies and programmes delivering these are consistent with these principles.  

WFD has recently published a resource on the overlaps and synergies between democracy-building and successful adaptation, and proposed a practical framework to help leverage these synergies in development, climate action and democracy support programming. 

Democracy, climate change, and development  

The UK Government’s new white paper on international development opens its Open Societies section with the case that deepening democracy is part of development success. And as we have seen, deepening democracy is also required for successful climate action – which is in turn indispensable to development success.  

The overlaps between democracy development, and climate change are particularly clear in the following areas: 

  • partnerships and transformative change: democratic institutions need the capacities and knowledge to respond to the climate crisis – learning from the experiences of others and becoming stronger by doing so; 
  • the threats of polarisation and misinformation: climate action can be caught in the middle of cultural wars often fuelled by malign influences and autocracies; 
  • public finances, debt, transparency and accountability: lack of finance and public debt are massive obstacles for climate action by less-developed countries, and corruption and lack of integrity undermine the effectiveness of market-based mechanisms and nature-based solutions; 
  •  inclusion and rights: 80% of people displaced by climate change are women according to the International Rescue Committee; 
  • conflict: climate change is a major drive of conflict 
  •  technology: artificial intelligence is emerging as a potential ally to respond to climate change. 

Post-COP28 each of these overlaps calls for concerted efforts for development, climate, and democratic governance practitioners to work together, or risk failure in isolation.