Climate democracy post-COP26: Time to play the ACE

An infographic of the ACE principles
30 November 2021
Commentary
Climate democracy post-COP26: Time to play the ACE
One of the least-trumpeted outcomes of COP26 is the Glasgow work programme on Action for Climate Empowerment (ACE). Its substance is unmissable as countries bite the bullet and start working out how to deliver on their Glasgow pledges. 

One of the least-trumpeted outcomes of COP26 is the 10-page Glasgow work programme on Action for Climate Empowerment (ACE), adopted to replace the ACE work programme adopted in Doha for 2012-2020. That the ACE programme slipped under the radar does not come as a surprise, but its substance is unmissable as countries bite the bullet and start working out how to deliver on their Glasgow pledges. 

What is ACE? 

ACE  is a voluntary work stream under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) that seeks to promote transformative action against climate change across six areas: education, training, social awareness, access to information, citizen participation and international cooperation. Article 12 of the Paris Agreement recognises that climate change education, training, awareness, and participation are key elements to enhance action on climate change, because  these actions are indispensable to scale up climate action. ACE helps people understand the need for ambitious climate policies and consequently the imperative to exert their voting rights in support of political parties with climate platforms consistent with the 1.5C target, and by giving them a say on what climate action should look like. 

The scope of ACE covers two of the three principles of environmental democracy: the rights of access to information and to participation in decision-making on the environment. Access to justice, the third principle of environmental democracy, is the odd one out, though this is being increasingly pursued via other instruments, including regional agreements in Europe and Latin America.  

At COP26, many Parties were in favour of a human rights-based approach to the next phase of ACE, and to climate action more generally, in line with the trend of national courts, the Council of Europe and recent UN-level developments, recognising climate protection as a human right. The expectation that the Glasgow work programme on ACE included a reference to human rights, e.g., notions on what rights can ACE support, was a reasonable one. After all, this was the first ACE work programme adopted since the adoption of the Paris Agreement in 2015, which already included human rights language in its preamble. 

Saudi Arabi, however, managed to get all references to human rights scrapped off the final draft ACE Decision text. Ultimately the text was not reopened in the final countdown for fear of the risk of no deal, but many Parties expressed regret to see the references to human rights removed. These included Mexico, Argentina, the European Union, Costa Rica, Peru, Norway, Bangladesh, Chile, New Zealand, Kenya and Uruguay (the UK could not take a position itself, holding the presidency). The Mexican negotiator, Camila Zepeda, was recorded delivering a heartfelt statement and her words became viral on Twitter: (…) Nevertheless, we want to express our deep concern about the removal of human rights, gender-responsive and intergenerational equity references from the guiding principles of the 10-year-long Glasgow Work Programme of Action for Climate Empowerment. We are extremely disappointed that such an outcome from a late night session yesterday, with very limited time (…)’. On her Twitter account she stressed that ‘effective climate policy is central to protecting #HumanRights, and the protection of human rights is central for ambitious #ClimateAction.’ It has been noted that a lack of observers in the room at COP26 meant that experts were not able to assist progressive negotiators by proposing wording conducive to consensus around specific rights, such as the right to information and participation, women’s rights, etc. Still, observers note that this is the closest that ACE has been to the limelight, and there is a feeling that the true importance of ACE beyond the education and youth siloes to which it has been confined since its inception has been recognised at last.  

 

 

Indeed, there are some silver linings. The COP26 Cover Decision, that is, the outcome text that covers all key issues at top strategic level and provides direction, the Glasgow Climate Pact, urges Parties to swiftly begin implementing the Glasgow work programme on Action for Climate Empowerment, respecting, promoting and considering their respective obligations on human rights (…)’. Democratic countries should not need further guidance to get to work on bringing vitality to ACE as they set out to deliver on their new climate pledges. 

Crunch time: Empower citizens, or else 

Someone’s views on whether COP26 has been a success depend on whether theybelieve that the Parties will keep their promises and deliver their pledges. Let’s assume all parties mean to deliver on their greatest level of stated ambition. How could they do it, politically-speaking, at least those who are democracies? Let’s look at the Glasgow work programme through an environmental democracy lens, focusing on the asks from Parties on matters of access to information (page 9) and to participation (page 10). Parties are encouraged to,  among other things, ‘seek opportunities to widely disseminate information on climate change. Measures could include translating information into other languages, as appropriate, and distributing simplified versions of key documents on climate change, including Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Assessment Reports’and to make scientific information on climate change freely available and accessible to the public and adapted to the differentiated needs of vulnerable communities.  

Parties are also encouraged to  

  • seek ‘public participation and input, including from youth, women, civil society organizations and other groups, in formulating and implementing efforts to address climate change and in relation to preparing national communications’;  
  • hold frequent, inclusive civil society consultations on climate decision-making, ‘including follow-up processes with specific outcomes such as feedback surveys that enable participants to express how they feel their input was used’;  
  • develop guidelines for enhancing public participation in climate change decision-making and for assisting local governments and the public in climate change decision-making. 

The full package of asks  provides a basic but robust checklist of the measures that any national, subnational, or local government keen to a) reinvigorate democracy and b) create the conditions for the sort of turbo-charged climate action that we need to deliver the NDCs should take. Earlier, on page 5, the text encourages Parties ‘to strengthen integration of ACE into the development and implementation of national climate policies, plans, strategies and action (…)’. It does so under a subheading on ‘Policy coherence’, but the stakes are higher than that: post-Glasgow, Parties must include climate empowerment in national climate action plans and laws if they are to have a chance at sufficient ambition and implementation. 

Many countries have reported in their NDCs on how they involved citizens in the formulation of these climate objectives, and how they identified groups that are particularly exposed to climate change risk and should be targeted by climate policies, including women, indigenous peoples, and youth. Ecuador, for instance, advanced a participatory process of unprecedented scale at the national level for the design of its first NDC. It had the support and participation of about 150 institutions from the public and private sectors, academia, civil society, and international cooperation, which provided great legitimacy to the process and its expected results. This is just an example of what real innovative participation in climate decision-making looks like. 

For the Glasgow promises to materialise, this kind of approach will need to become the norm. As countries set out to implement their NDCs in the coming months, they will find themselves having to phase in disruptive policies across many areas of human activity, including economic activity. The current surge in (fossil) energy prices and growing concerns about inflation across the world draw a challenging backdrop for bold action. Although the level of ambition (and therefore of disruptiveness) of NDCs varies widely, for most countries this will require an unprecedented level of consent and ownership from societies.  

Although few will hold governments against the small print of the new Glasgow work programme on ACE, governments would be ill-advised to ignore the need of empowering people for climate action and, in turn, empower themselves to deliver.  

Parliaments, as the institutions representing the people, have their work cut out, even if the Glasgow work programme does not speak to them directly. Parliaments are invisible in the UNFCCC process, and parliamentarians have only recently been recognised as a distinct informal group under the UNFCCC. However, that has not prevented Parliaments from exerting their powers to drive climate action as the ultimate guardians of the Paris Agreement, in multiple, innovative ways, despite the lack of technical support they often suffer. Post-COP26, they will need to play a central role as incubators of climate democracy innovation, that is, as major ACE delivery partners.