Criticism grows about climate summits

Published : 08 Nov 2022 08:32 PM

Environmental analysts and socio-economists have been making less than positive observations about the forthcoming United Nations Climate Summit (COP 27) scheduled to be convened in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt from November 6 to November 18 this year. Last year COP 26 was held in Glasgow, UK.

This summit has already drawn the attention of world leaders, high-ranking United Nations officials, and thousands of environmental activists worldwide. The COP27 summit is an annual gathering of 197 countries that is expected to discuss climate change and what each country is doing to limit the impact of human activity on the climate. About 90 Heads of State have already confirmed their attendance according to the special representative of the Egyptian Presidency.

As Prince of Wales Prince Charles had planned to go to November's COP27 conference but after ascending the throne as King Charles he decided not to attend on the advice of the then Prime Minister Liz Truss. The current British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak after initial uncertainty about his participation in COP 27 has made a U-turn and has announced on 2 November that he will attend the COP Climate Summit in Egypt. The UK will apparently also be represented by other senior ministers, as well as by COP26 President Alok Sharma. A Downing Street spokesperson has however pointed out that “the British government is absolutely committed to supporting COP27 and leading international action to tackle climate change and protect nature.”

US Secretary Kerry, President Biden's climate envoy has however suggested that King Charles should reconsider his decision not to go to the UN climate conference in Egypt. He has also underscored that as Prince of Wales, Charles had spent decades campaigning on environmental causes- which was not a political issue. According to him, climate change and its effect " is a generic broad, based, existential issue for the world, and his continued leadership” will be “very important". One has to wait and see what happens.

Amr Abdel-Aziz, Director of Mitigation at Egypt’s Ministry of Environment has noted that while the central theme for COP27 is implementation as host, Egypt is also looking forward to “demonstrate what that looks like in terms of mitigation and adaptation. If the summit can address the topic of implementation in all of its discussions, it will be a sign of its success.” The primary objective of COP27 will apparently be directed towards analysis of the steps that have been undertaken since COP26 to achieve positive results in terms of emissions reduction. It will also evaluate the impact of financing losses and damage. In this matrix, Egypt plans to also facilitate discussion on “doubling climate adaptation financing by 2025 and reaching an agreement on the unfulfilled US Dollar 100 billion financial pledges from developed countries.”

It appears that the overarching goal during the forthcoming COP27 will be to strike a balance between all parties’ interests. It is being expected that the mitigation program, for example, will primarily be driven by developed countries and small island developing states, which are currently experiencing severe climate change impacts. On the other hand, emerging markets will principally be accountable for adjustments, losses, and damages.

Many like Professor Felix Dodds and Chris Spence -who have attended many of them- have however gone to the extent of questioning as to whether such Climate Summits are a “waste of time”. Queries are also emerging as to how Simon Stiell, the UN Climate Chief will resolve the various issues that have surfaced since the last meeting in Glasgow. Some of the anxiety that is slowly surfacing requires serious thought.

It needs to be mentioned that since 1995, there has been a climate COP (short for “Conference of the Parties' ') every year except 2020, when it was postponed due to the Covid pandemic. Over the years, the COP meetings have traveled from Berlin to Buenos Aires, Kyoto to Cancun, and Bali to Marrakesh. It has gone round the world with the aspiration of finalizing new agreements to see off the apparition of climate change. Effects of climate vulnerability have also repeatedly drawn attention to its effect regarding achievement of Sustainable Development Goals.

In this context I am reminded of my attending the 1992 Climate Conference that was held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and the creation of a UN Climate Treaty. This triggered a wave of national laws, policies, and regulations that have rippled out across every country on earth. This initiative created a consensus among nations that the modern socio-economic system needed to not only seriously monitor the evolving dynamic being brought about through climate change but also determine the least common denominators and agree on how to tackle the intractable problem. This process started to shift almost every aspect of our modern economic system away from 200 years of reliance on fossil fuels.

The most recent Climate Summit held in Glasgow attracted tens of thousands of participants and generated a lot of interest. World leaders and celebrities joined the multitude, while the global media reported every move in the corridors of power and to concerned citizens protesting outside the meeting areas.

However, it needs to be understood that discussion on the evolving circumstances related to climate change, variability and the required response needed for adaptation and mutation also takes place before and after the COPs, every year, through UN-sponsored technical group preparatory climate meetings and workshops. These events are supposed to help us move the needle on climate change, keeping our warming world within the 1.5 degree Celsius threshold beyond which we face potentially catastrophic consequences.

The question that has slowly surfaced after Glasgow is whether the world, particularly the developed countries, addicted to fossil fuel have abided by the required measures that are needed to control climate change. Felix Dodds and Chris Spence have warned us that climate scientists have been expressing scepticism as to whether we have been really able to, despite our many meetings, to get off our dangerous path.

In this regard environmentalists and climatologists associated with efforts related to tracking carbon action estimate that we are currently on track for somewhere between 1.8-2.7 degree C, with the lower number representing their most optimistic—and least likely—scenario. This is clearly well above where we need to be.

Climate activists think that there are words exchanged and views expressed but in most cases it ends in acrimony with very little agreement between parties. Even when accord is reached, there is no guarantee that governments and other stakeholders will keep their pledges.

Nevertheless, some activists and environmentalists disagree with such pessimism. They underline that despite flaws and weaknesses these summits have actually played a significant role in the paradigm of energy. They point out that within our global energy systems, from being a niche market in the 1990s that could not compete on cost with coal, oil and gas-generated electricity, in 2020 solar power became the cheapest source of electricity in history. The technology behind both solar and wind have since moved on since then in a positive manner - thanks in large part to the flow-on effects of international lawmaking. 

The much-criticized Kyoto Protocol of 1997, now largely superseded by the 2015 Paris Agreement has also brought the private sector firmly into the equation, launching carbon markets and spurring private sector investment that has begun to reshape our global economy away from its reliance on fossil fuels. There has also been some influence in terms of manufacturing electric vehicles, power generation and also with regard to building design. 

It also needs to be acknowledged that despite pessimism among certain quarters many new pledges and promises are slowly surfacing on the sidelines of the official negotiations. This is emerging through “coalitions of the willing” who are wishing to make progress in specific sectors like- green investment, electric vehicles, reducing methane emissions or halting deforestation. This can only be termed as positive. Analysts F. Dodds and C. Spence have in this context correctly observed that these alliances of governments, private companies and other stakeholders have been able to make advances in specific sectors where the official UN negotiations—which require consensus among more than 190 governments—could not.. The groups involved in such coalitions subsequently choose to network, negotiate, and announce their plans during the COPs because of the public interest in these events.  One should not deny that the benefits of such initiatives and collaborations are certainly considerable.

Many are consequently hoping that the COP27 in Egypt will be an “implementation COP” where we will seriously try to turn pledges and well-laid plans into action. This time it is being expected that there will be pressure for countries to come with bolder measures to reduce their national emissions and for wealthier nations to bring more money to the table when it comes to supporting the developing world with regard to urgent measures not only associated with both adaptation and mitigation- but also financial help pertaining to the loss and damage incurred through climate change. Time has come where participants in the coming COP need to try and make efforts similar to the dedication demonstrated by a handful of scientists and diplomats who helped create the Montreal Protocol and save the ozone layer.

Environmental activist A. Fathy has also astutely observed that the most significant obstacle to developing countries achieving their climate goals has been a “lack of adequate and adequate financing from developed countries. Despite years of neglect, adaptation financing remains a top priority for developing countries”. He has drawn attention to the fact that Egypt is also one of the few nations that actually struggle with water scarcity and has expressed hope that COP 27 will also focus on this aspect. Without it, developing countries cannot combat and mitigate the effects of climate change.

We have also noticed on the other hand the opposite side of this equation in the last few months through the massive flooding that has taken place in Bangladesh, some parts of India and also in Pakistan. Africa is also facing similar problems in Nigeria. There have also been cyclones which have wrecked devastation in parts of North America, the Caribbean and also in parts of South East Asia. 

Discussion in recent past COP meetings have generally been somewhat flawed, frustrating and at times agonizingly slow. Nevertheless, it is still without doubt our last best hope of success. We have to rise above national interests and look towards global good. We need to remember that our next generation should not inherit an impaired world that we leave behind. Instead of disagreements we need to undertake cooperation. That is the only way to go forward.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance