You asked: Do big climate conferences work? And if not, what are the alternatives?

The 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) held in Paris was a success. The ‘Paris Agreement’ was remarkable insofar as the participating 196 countries agreed, by consensus, to reduce their carbon output “as soon as possible“.

So, whether you think climate conferences work or not is more about the enforceability and accountability of any measures that are agreed.

For example, climate activist Greta Thunberg called the UN climate conferences last year as opportunities “for leaders and people in power to get attention, using many different kinds of greenwashing”, adding that the system “was not really working.”

So, let’s imagine that the UN climate conferences go the way of the dodo – what other options does the world have to try and tackle a collective action problem like climate change?

  1. 🧑‍⚖️ Litigation in international (and national) courts: In March, the International Court of Justice said it would consider Vanuatu’s complaint that countries weren’t acting quickly enough to respond to climate change. The ICJ will likely issue its non-binding, advisory opinion in late 2024.
  2. 📛 Other, less headline-grabbing conferences: There are plenty of local, national, and regional climate conferences (many organised by the UN) that help stakeholders align their policies. Without the glaring spotlight of the world’s media, these conferences have the benefit of allowing negotiators more political wriggle room.
  3. 💪 Good ol’fashioned activism: This includes everything from individual boycotts of products (think plastic straws), activist investing that seeks to increase representation on corporate boards, to lobbying domestic governments for faster action. The jury is out on whether any of it is effective.

Intrigue’s take: Many people are understandably frustrated with what they perceive as a lack of climate action and the lip service world leaders seemingly pay to climate issues.

But when facing a long-term collective action problem (like climate change), countries need to create a shared global vision for the future. While the other methods mentioned above have their merits and are part of the solution, global conferences like COPs – replete with their grandiose speechifying – are probably still the most effective way to change the global narrative.

Also worth noting: 

  • This year’s COP will be the first ‘Global Stocktake’ to measure progress towards the Paris Agreement’s goals.
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