Climate Policy

Our First Climate Report Card: A 'C' just won’t cut it

Caitlin McConaghy
By Caitlin McConaghy 23PH
19 Sep 2023
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Caitlin McConaghy, SB58 DelegateThis past June in Bonn, Germany, I found myself amid sticky United Nations climate negotiations, known as SB58, that laid the groundwork for upcoming COP28 talks in the UAE. As an Emory representative, I observed delegates wrestle with issues such as greenhouse gas mitigation, funding to cover climate loss and damage, phase-out of fossil fuels, and protections for workers in moving to a low-carbon economy. The discussions were so contentious that the Bonn official agenda wasn't adopted until the penultimate evening of the conference, highlighting divisions that could hinder progress in Dubai.

For a climate diplomacy newbie such as myself, I realized the need to prioritize among the many issues and discussions. For me, the process known as the global stocktake, in which countries set and assess goals for reducing emissions and climate impacts, took the driver's seat. Importantly, the stocktake offers us the chance to course-correct our global emissions trajectory and build momentum to achieve Paris Agreement goals.

The global stocktake is an "official" report card, the first one ever for nations across the globe. Countries are evaluating the success of their climate action plans, known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), in limiting global warming to 1.5C, as called for in the Paris Agreement. This year's COP will be special since the 198 signatories of the Paris accord will be seeking to turn the data evaluation into political action. The Bonn talks sought to accelerate collective action to implement the stocktake more effectively. However, opinions on how to proceed varied.

For instance, the Group of 77 coalition, involving more than 130 developing countries and China, pushed for the transfer of climate finance and technology from developed countries and more equitable allocation of the remaining global carbon budget. The G77 also underscored the role of historical emissionsa principle that includes past with present emissions to determine how much countries can produce and discharge in the future. Developed countries and major emitters such as the US and Australia want to eliminate historical emissions from the stocktake process. These economic powerhouses, however, did acknowledge that developed countries should take the lead in cutting emissions, and this should be reflected in their NDCs.

Global Stocktake SB58 posterThe stocktake was also discussed outside of Party negotiations during the many side events hosted by non-Party stakeholders. This group includes activists, businesses, financial institutions, local governments, communities, and indigenous peoples. Of particular interest to me, given my public health background, was an event organized by the World Health Organization, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the Wellcome Trust, and the Global Health Alliance, which focused on integrating health into the stocktake.

During this session, I was disheartened to learn, though we know mitigation could prevent millions of deaths annually, health is still not fully reflected in global stocktake discussions. Nova Tebbe, a doctoral student from the University of Wisconsin, urged COP28 delegates to include health co-benefits in the stocktake to encourage their integration within NDCs.

Caroline Voûte, a panelist from Médecins Sans Frontières, admitted that inability to value health losses for the stocktake remains a major issue. Not only is quantification of health losses unclear, but doing so arguably demeans the human aspect of those losses. However, quantification is necessary, as data drives cash flows, and including health as a non-economic loss in vulnerability assessments could help inform financing for NDC action.

Not only was this event enlightening, but I was able to integrate myself within the relatively small climate and health group at SB58. From clinicians and NGO professionals to policy advisors and fellow students, this group was incredibly welcoming. I enjoyed our daily garden gatherings, as well as our group dinner where we stuffed ourselves with pizza and chatted the night away. After all, this is the bread and butter of UN negotiations – getting to meet incredible people along the way.

This experience reminded me that our roles as individuals are not negligible. As academics, scientists, activists, and responsible citizens, we should not only advocate for climate action, but do so in a way that provides actionable steps for decision-makers to then translate into policy. Pointing fingers won’t solve much, but fostering collective action among civil society and national and international leaders can drive tangible, systemic change.

Rather than comparing where we are now to where we were yesterday, we must, instead, consider where we should be. It is imperative that action taken this decade be swift and equitable, as it will impact generations to come.