Good COP, Bad COP: Making Climate Change Summits Matter | Opinion

A new era in the fight against climate change was declared last week in dreary Scotland. The CCOP26 conference brought thousands of bureaucrats, politicians—and yes, Nordic teenage activists—to Glasgow. Yet, famed teenage climate change activist Greta Thunberg may have been on to something when she called the proceedings a PR stunt. There were plenty of accountants and cameras at COP26, but not very much accountability. What global efforts to combat climate change sorely need is a new approach not only to our management of emissions but to the bureaucracies meant to fix it.

The fight against climate change is supposed to be built on transparency. Countries are supposed to be clear and transparent about how much carbon dioxide they are pumping into the atmosphere. A variety of systems, from the simple (tax CO2 to death) to the nuanced (a global system of cap and trade), have been proposed, but implementation has been sorely lacking.

It is true that COP26 offered signs of renewed agreement on environmental issues in the post-Trump era. Yet, for every sincere activist in Birkenstocks in attendance there were many times more grey-suited bureaucrats trying to stay away from the cameras. One must wonder, of course, about the potential climate impact of all that global travel—if the last two years have taught us anything, more can be done on Zoom than ever before.

That might be glib, but, there is a bigger point here. When 154 countries launched the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992, the world was a very different place. There was no Zoom, internet or smartphones. Greta Thunberg wasn't even born. Next year will mark 30 years of the COP-summit format. Little has changed regarding that format, and the faces involved—except for the elected officials—often remain the same. If there is anything to learn from the COP summits, it is how little has been achieved.

Yes, there have been breakthroughs and some countries have slowed their emission rates. But the hard truth is that global emissions have grown tremendously since 1992 and, unfortunately, are likely to continue that upward trajectory for some time.

John Kerry at COP26 summit
GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - NOVEMBER 13: U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry with his team during the stocktake plenary on day 14 of COP26 at SECC on November 13, 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland. On day fourteen of the 2021 COP26 climate summit in Glasgow the focus is on delegations' negotiations to agree the final text for the COP26 Agreement. This is the 26th "Conference of the Parties" and represents a gathering of all the countries signed on to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris Climate Agreement. Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

But, while each system has its merits, the COP format does not place enough emphasis on incentivizing its armies of bureaucrats to implement its promises. A couple of novel bureaucratic reforms could see results. After all, countries are supposed to homogenize their emissions and climate change policies; why not their bureaucracies? Standardized systems of reporting and regulation would make it easier to compel compliance from offenders.

Before the next COP summit, participating countries should put systems in place to reward high-performing bureaucrats and punish those who under-perform. Isn't that why we value the private sector? Public-sector jobs are notoriously impossible to get fired from; we need to change that culture if the public service sector is going to have any hope of tackling climate change. If the biggest player on the block simply won't perform, safe in the knowledge that its bureaucrats' salaries and extraordinarily high pensions are completely immune from their performance, how on earth can we expect governments to be effective in the climate change fight?

An example far from climate change might be instructive. Doping, once an epidemic in sports, has seriously gone on the decline since testing regimes were altered to reward the most aggressive testing campaigns. Similarly, instead of taxing CO2 to death, or regulating it to death (through, for example, cap and trade), governments could pursue a third way that rewards bureaucrats for CO2 emissions they discover or each polluter they catch in the act. It shouldn't be too hard for bureaucrats to find large-scale offenders—state-owned companies are often the worst offenders. (Globally, state-owned companies account for 40 percent of global emissions.) An international fund could be created to reward the top performers. That same fund could create an annual list of countries, departments and even individuals who are falling behind.

The job of everyone at COP summits should be to make sure that his or her government performs—those within government who don't, should be out of a job. The fight against climate change will simply not happen without transparency. You don't need Greta to tell you that.

Dr. Saqib Qureshi is author of "The Broken Contract" and "Reconstructing Strategy." He has advised successive governments and is currently a visiting fellow of the London School of Economics (LSE).

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.