Why Peace Should Matter for the COP, and Why COP26 is Important for Peace

UN Peacekeepers and POC site residents at the Bentiu IDP camp in South Sudan wade through the floodwaters towards available shelter, August, 2014. (UN Photo/JC McIlwaine)

Over the past two weeks, the world’s attention was on Glasgow where the COP26 summit has brought the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) together to accelerate action towards the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement. As the summit draws to a close today, it is clear that significant amounts of funding will be directed towards climate adaptation over the coming years. The European Union (EU), France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States (US) have agreed to help South Africa end its reliance on coal in a first-of-its-kind deal worth $8.5 billion. In another announcement, the EU and 11 countries have committed to funding $12 billion for forest-related climate finance between 2021-2025. While it was disappointing that the $100 billion per year that developed countries pledged towards climate adaptation was not met before COP26, pledges made in the run up to and at the COP26 may see this goal reached in 2022 or 2023.

While these and other commitments fall short of what is needed, and while some of the announcements may amount to greenwashing and should be regarded with caution, the take-away from a climate-peace nexus perspective is that millions of dollars of climate adaptation funding is going to be spent in the coming years, and the critical question is whether these funds will be spent in ways that contribute to peace. In the medium to long-term, the most effective prevention against the worst effects of climate change—including violent conflict over scarce resources—is the reduction of carbon emissions. However, how we go about reducing emissions, and how we choose to adapt and mitigate, can either cause harm, including potentially triggering conflict, or it can contribute to sustaining peace.

The climate-peace nexus is not formally on the agenda or otherwise acknowledged in the COP process. This is a bizarre, but not unexpected, omission. On the one hand, the interlinkages between climate change and human security have been established by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations (UN) body for assessing the science related to climate change. The frequency, intensity, and duration of extreme weather events are increasing under the influence of climate change. These extreme weather events are exacerbating unprecedented levels of migration and displacement. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reports that over the past decade, weather-related events triggered an average of 21.5 million new displacements each year. COVID-19 has further worsened the situation of refugees and displaced communities and made the world more food insecure. On the other hand, hard security issues such as military emissions have, for example, always been treated differently in these processes, even though the US Pentagon emits more greenhouse gases than Portugal.

As these trends show, the interdependencies between the environmental and social dimensions of our ecosystems generate complex cascading and compounding effects. This means that although the climate-peace nexus is neither linear or pre-determined, there are however multiple pathways through which climate change can interact with political, social, and environmental stresses to compound existing vulnerabilities and tensions. At the same time, the severity of climate change effects can be mitigated by measures to increase disaster preparedness and other adaptations and mitigation strategies.

Why Peace and Conflict Should be Important for the COP

While climate adaptation financing is much needed, it can also be a double-edged sword. Injecting significant amounts of money into societies with fragile institutions and low absorbing capacity is likely to generate a number of negative side effects. South Africa is a good example. The country is still recovering from the devastating effects of systemic corruption and state capture during the Zuma presidency, and its state-owned electricity utility ESKOM is struggling with crippling debt and weak governance capacity. While the coal deal is certainly much needed, its success will depend on whether it contributes to social cohesion or further worsens inequality and undermines public trust. It is important that those responsible for climate adaptation initiatives are aware of the risks, are guided by the precautionary principle, take proactive steps to monitor for and mitigate against causing harm, and ensure that their programming is conflict-sensitive. It is surprising that these risks, while well-known and understood, did not attract more attention in Glasgow, especially as the urgency with which these initiatives are being planned significantly increases the risk of maladaptation and risks to broader peace processes. As such, exploring pathways for policy and action that mitigate these risks, for example via the Environment of Peace initiative, will be critical. 

Why the COP Process Should Be Important for Peace and Conflict

At the same time, not using the millions of dollars earmarked for climate adaptation to contribute to social cohesion and sustaining peace would be a huge lost opportunity. Done right, climate action is development and peacebuilding. All programming involves myriads of choices that can either potentially contribute to sustaining peace in a society or contribute to marginalization, exclusion, and even conflict. Every element of the project cycle, from assessments, through planning to evaluation involves prioritizing, choosing partners, and selecting beneficiaries. The flip side is that some people or communities can be excluded in the process. This can often mean that women, the youth, or certain ethnic, religious, or other identity groups can be marginalized.

It would not surprise anyone if those elites that are currently in power use the climate financing on offer to strengthen their positions and reward their followers. Nor that those that oppose them would discredit and attack such projects. The question is whether those responsible for climate adaptation programming will repeat the mistakes of the past, or whether they will be sensitive to the opportunity to use these funds to also contribute to social cohesion and peace. Chances are that this is unlikely to happen unless the peace and development community proactively engages with those that will be responsible for implementing these initiatives. We are long aware of the separation that persists—especially between adaptation and development communities. Overcoming this divide will be critical, so that positive contributions to social cohesion and sustaining peace become part of the goals of these initiatives from the outset. This has to start as early in the process as possible, including as part of the COP process.

Peace should matter at COP27 and, in all its imperfections, the COP process should matter for those responsible for maintaining international peace and security. How we go about reducing emissions, and how we choose to adapt and mitigate, will define if we cause more harm, or if we realize an opportunity to contribute to social cohesion, public trust, and sustaining peace.

This article is part of a series reflecting on global climate action in the wake of COP26.

Cedric de Coning is a research professor with the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs’ (NUPI) Center for UN and Global Governance and a senior advisor for the African Center for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD). Florian Krampe is senior researcher and director of the Climate Change and Risk program at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).