Good COP, bad COP?

by Matthew Scott

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Over the next few weeks, the SPA is partnering with the Climate Justice and Social Policy Group to publish a series of blogs reflecting on the importance of COP26 to social policy, and of social policy to COP26. In this introductory blog, Dr Matthew Scott of National Energy Action sets out the scale of the challenge facing policymakers at the summit, and what the blog series will be focusing on.

On October 31st , Glasgow will host the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26). It is expected to draw 30,000 people to the city and will be attended by representatives of over 200 countries, as well as by industry representatives, unions, NGOs, and many more. COP26 is the latest in a long line of international summits focusing on climate and the climate crisis, with a key recent milestone – the signing of the Paris Agreement – at COP21. The Paris Agreement signatories ratified the goal to limit global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees, Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels, and this target remains legally binding for the signatories.

This imperative has been reinforced by the publication of the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which emphasises that every additional 0.5 degrees of warming causes discernible increases in the intensity and frequency of hot extremes, including heatwaves, and heavy precipitation, as well as agricultural and ecological droughts in some regions. However, despite some positive progress and ambitious commitments, limiting global heating to 1.5 degrees remains a difficult challenge, most obviously because it requires a combination of government policy, international cooperation, industry investment, and societal change to a degree that we have rarely seen. Practically, limiting global heating will not take place without the deep decarbonisation of almost every aspect of the global economy – from transport to heating, agriculture to forestry, aviation to maritime shipping.

Towards this aim, COP26 has four main goals:

  • To achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, to keep a 1.5 degrees reduction within reach.
  • To foreground adaptation and mitigation to protect livelihoods and natural habitats.
  • To mobilise unprecedented investment in green infrastructures and economies.
  • To establish or reinforce collaboration to deliver all of the above.

The summit also comes at a time where some, if not all, of these goals have a renewed intensity due to the ongoing impacts of the covid-19 pandemic, and the widely touted ambition of building back better, greener, fairer, or a combination of all three. COP26 is therefore, as ever, a promising opportunity for crystallising global policies and agreements to end global heating.

But, beyond these high-level ambitions, commitments and aspirations, what exactly would a good COP look like, and how might we distinguish it from a bad COP? Whilst offering the collective expertise of a wide range of expert contributors we ask which tools does social policy have to contribute to this dilemma?

Climate justice and social policy

The Social Policy Association’s Climate Justice and Social Policy Group (CUSP) was formed to critically assess questions like these, whilst placing an emphasis on groups that may be marginalised, under-recognised, or otherwise negatively impacted by the climate crisis and climate policies.

As set out in our introductory blog from the inception of this working group, we start from the premise that social policy has a critical role to play in ensuring that climate policy and its implementation is fair, just, and equitable. There is a considerable danger that many of the groups and communities most at risk from global heating – locally, nationally, and globally – will be detrimentally affected by adaptation and mitigation policies. Moreover, there is a further risk that the adverse impacts of global heating – such as more intense and spatially dispersed heatwaves and hurricanes, to name just two – will create new vulnerable groups across the globe.

Climate justice is therefore both a recognition of the injustices and inequalities latent within the climate crisis, but also a vehicle for advocating positive change. In the words of Gordon Walker, “a low-carbon future could be a more environmentally and socially just one – however these terms are conceived – and advocating climate justice necessarily has to work towards such an objective.” COP26 has a potentially pivotal role to play in advancing this objective, precisely because international conferences, from Versailles to COP, shape the contours of wider political discourses and the extent of systemic change that is deemed appropriate and acceptable, often for years to follow. To paraphrase Walker, COP26 will help to determine what our shared environmental and social futures will look like – however those terms are conceived.

Introducing our guest blog series

Part of CUSP’s work is concerned with exploring the existing links between social policy and climate justice – a process of mapping that will help us collectively gain our bearings and reveal new opportunities. To help us achieve this objective, in collaboration with the SPA, CUSP will be publishing a series of blogs in the run up to COP26 that will reflect on the possibilities and pitfalls of the summit in the context of climate justice and social policy, establishing its unique contribution. They will, in other words, use COP26 as a departure point for probing the connections between climate justice and social policy whilst considering the nature of both.

The blogs will be published on a biweekly basis, and after COP26 has concluded, we will write a concluding piece reflecting back on the summit as well as the blog posts in this series in order to synthesise their perspectives. If you’d like to find out more, or join our network, you can do so by emailing or by following us on Twitter @CUSP_SPA. We look forward to hearing from you.

Dr Matthew Scott, National Energy Action, on behalf of the Climate Justice and Social Policy Group.

Blogs give the views of the author, and not of the Social Policy Association.