The role of parliamentarians in climate action, international climate agreements and COP26
Last month, all eyes were on Glasgow, where the UK hosted the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) to tackle climate change. In the context of COP summits, the spotlight is often on national governments, who are the official negotiators and actors with ultimate responsibility for the implementation of any pledges and agreements made at COP. However, parliamentarians also have an important role to play when it comes to climate action. Reflecting this, many parliamentarians from different political parties travelled to COP from the UK and across the globe.
But what exactly is the role of parliamentarians when it comes to COP, international climate agreements and national pledges made to contribute to them? Based on Policy Connect’s work on COP26, Ágnes Szuda reflects on this question.
COP26 was a decisive part of our climate policy work over the past two years. As Secretariat to the All-Party Parliamentary Climate Change Group (APPCCG), we held the COP26 Inquiry with five cross-party co-chairs, exploring the UK’s preparations for COP26. Further, we developed the Climate Policy Dashboard, helping parliamentarians and anyone with an interest in climate policy to track the UK Government’s policy progress to net zero. We collaborated with other All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs) on briefing parliamentarians on key issues related to COP26, and co-organised a panel discussion event at COP26, entitled ‘Strengthening Parliamentary Consensus for Global Change’ with UK and international parliamentarians.
During my time at COP, I found three main themes that encapsulate the key role parliamentarians have when it comes to COPs, international climate agreements and national climate action for fulfilling them.
1. Make sure international climate agreements are translated into national law
While international climate agreements are prominent signs of progress when it comes to tackling climate change, in most cases they cannot be successful until they are ratified, in other words transcribed into national law. In most countries, parliaments have the ultimate responsibility to ratify international agreements and enable governments to start implementing the international pledges. Whether agreements made at COPs bear fruit thus depends on the ability and willingness of national parliaments to ratify them.
2. Scrutinise national government’s implementation of pledges made to contribute to international agreements
Once international agreements are transcribed into national law, under many political systems, it is the responsibility of parliaments to hold government to account on implementing them. Accountability and transparency provided by parliaments is key to making sure climate pledges are implemented successfully on the domestic level. In the UK, Select Committees have a fundamental role in the process.
“Our focus following COP is going to be on what we do to scrutinise the Government’s commitments made here to deliver net zero Britain.” Philip Dunne MP, Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, at COP26
“…] the role of parliaments is so important. Both in terms of scrutinising our governments, but also […] by providing a channel for voices, communities and stakeholders in our countries and around the world to hold our own governments to account through our select committees as well.” Darren Jones MP, Chair of the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy Select Committee, at COP26
3. Build consensus on climate change
Beyond all of this, however, we should not forget the contribution parliaments can make to building political consensus.
As the event we co-organised at COP26 spotlighted, it is political consensus that gives the bedrock for long-term, consistent climate action. In the UK, political consensus has been a vital enabler for governments to take action towards achieving net zero and has acted as a basis for the UK to host COP26.
“[In] Parliament, you have to get consensus on big issues like climate change. The reason is that governments can come and go, and on an issue like climate change, you need a long-term policy. So if you went out as one government, and just did something that was radical [on addressing climate change] that no else agreed with, the danger is that it wouldn’t have the credibility with the private sector and the credibility internationally. So building consensus on something like climate change is absolutely essential.” Sir Ed Davey, Chair of the APPG on Sustainable Finance, at COP26
Parliamentarians have a vital role in building this consensus. This can be manifold, from parliamentary debates to discussions and engagement with constituents, or from building consensus for ambitious climate action within their own party to initiatives such as the Climate Assembly UK.
As our event highlighted, APPGs are key platforms for parliamentarians to build this consensus in the UK. Bringing together parliamentarians from different political parties and both Houses, they are vital platforms for parliamentarians with different party-political views to come together, discuss topics they all care for, and act for positive change.
“All-party groups I think play a really important role, not only in bringing all parties together for that consensus, but also reach it out to organisations, to businesses, to communities to commission reports, to commission inquiries, to really get into the nuts and bolts sometimes of some really important issues. And those can be used then on the floor of the House […] in debates […] to lobby government, because essentially, […] what we want it to be is not just a talking shop to have some nice things to say and some nice reports to present. What we want to do is change and bring about action. That’s why we are all here, we want urgent action on climate change. So that’s what I think an all-party group can do. And having all-party representation there gives us a stronger standing to do that and engage out there.” Anna McMorrin MP, Vice-Chair of the APPCCG, at COP26
At Policy Connect, our mission is to support building that consensus for climate action by bringing together cross-party parliamentarians, policy-makers, academia, businesses and civil society to find solutions together for climate policy that protects us and the planet. We strive to provide the best support for this process as secretariat to APPGs and improve public policy.
Note: Quotes from parliamentarians cited in this blog are from the events ‘Strengthening Parliamentary Consensus for Global Change’ and ‘The Role of Parliaments in Climate and Nature Policy’ which took place during COP26. The recordings of the events are available via the following links: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kSsa4mhrCd8 (accessed on 16 December 2021) and https://unfccc-cop26.streamworld.de/webcast/presidency-event-the-role-of-parliaments-in-climat (accessed on 16 December 2021)