The latest annual climate conference has begun in the face of a worsening climate crisis and further retreats on climate action by rich nations following the energy crisis induced by NATO’s (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) sanctions after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Copping out again
The 27th Conference of the Parties (COP27) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is now (at the time of writing) meeting in Sharm-el-Sheikh, Egypt, from Nov 6 to 18.
COP27 takes place amid worsening poverty, hunger and war, and higher prices, exacerbating many interlinked climate, environmental and socio-economic crises.
The looming world economic recession will probably be deeper than in 2008. The likely spiral into stagflation will make addressing the climate crisis even more difficult.
Invoking the Ukraine war as a pretext, governments and corporations are rushing to increase fossil fuel production to offset the deepening energy crisis.
Resources which should be deployed for climate adaptation and mitigation have been diverted for war, fossil fuel extraction and use, including resumption of shale gas fracking as well as coal mining and burning.
War causes huge social and economic damage to people, society and the environment. The wars in Ukraine, Yemen and elsewhere impose high costs on all, disrupting energy and food supplies, and raising prices sharply.
Russia’s Ukraine incursion has provided a convenient smokescreen for a hasty return to fossil fuels, as military-industrial processes alone account for 6% of all greenhouse gases.
The future is already here
All these have worsened crises facing the world’s environment and economy. The most optimistic Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scenario expects the threshold for climate catastrophe — a 1.5°C rise in global temperature above pre-industrial levels — to be breached by 2040.
Crossing it, the world faces risks of far more severe climate change effects on people and ecosystems, especially in the tropics and sub-tropical zone.
But the future is already upon us. Accelerating warming is already causing worse extreme weather events, ravaging economies, communities and ecosystems.
Recent floods in Pakistan displaced 33 million people. Wildfires, extreme heat, ice melts, drought and extreme weather phenomena are already evident on many continents, causing disasters worldwide.
In 2021, the global sea level rose to a record high, and is expected to continue rising. UN reports estimate that women and children are 14 times more likely than adult men to die during climate disasters.
Popular sentiment is shifting, even in the US, where climate scepticism is strongest. Devastation threatened by Hurricane Ida in 2021 not only revived painful memories of Katrina in 2005, but also heightened awareness of warming-related extreme weather events.
Stronger climate action needed
In international negotiations, rich nations have evaded historical responsibility for climate debt by only focusing on current emissions. Hence, there is no recognition of a duty to compensate those most adversely impacted in the global South.
Last year’s COP26 Glasgow Climate Pact was hailed for its call to phase out coal. This has now been quickly abandoned by Europe with the war. And for developing countries, Glasgow failed to deliver any significant progress on climate finance.
At COP27, the Egyptian presidency has proposed an additional loss and damage finance facility to compensate for irreparable damage due to climate impacts.
After failing to even meet its modest climate finance promises of 2009, the rich North is dithering, pleading for further talks until 2024 to work out financing details.
Meanwhile, the G7 has muddied the waters by counter-offering its Global Shield Against Climate Risks, a disaster insurance scheme.
Get priorities right
What the world needs, instead, are rapidly promoted and implemented measures as part of a more rapid, just and internationally funded transition for the global South. This should:
• Replace fossil fuels with renewable energy, including by subsidising renewable energy generation for energy-deficient poor populations.
• Promote energy-saving and efficiency measures to reduce its use and greenhouse gas emissions by at least 70% (from 1990) by 2030.
• Implement a massive global public works programme, creating green jobs to replace employment in unsustainable industries.
• Develop needed sustainable technologies, for example, to replace corporate agricultural practices with agroecological farming methods, investment and technology.
Another world is possible
Another world is possible. A massive social and political transformation is needed. But the relentless pursuit of private profit has always been at the expense of people and nature.
Greed cannot be expected to become the basis for a just solution to climate change, let alone environmental degradation, world poverty, hunger and gross inequalities.
The COP27 conference is now taking place in Sharm-al-Sheikh, an isolated, heavily policed tourist resort. Only one major road goes in and out, as if designed to keep out civil society and drown out voices from the global South.
The luxury hotels there are charging rates that have put COP27 beyond the means of many, especially climate justice activists from poorer countries. The rich and powerful arrived in over 400 private jets, making a mockery of decarbonisation rhetoric.
Thus, the COP process is increasingly seen as exclusive. Without making real progress on the most important issues, it is increasingly seen as slow, irrelevant and ineffective.
Generating inadequate agreements at best, the illusion of progress thus created is dangerously misleading at worst. By generating great expectations and false hopes, but actually delivering little, it is failing the world, even when it painstakingly achieves difficult compromises which fall short of what is needed.
Multilateralism at risk
Multilateral platforms, such as the UNFCCC, have long been expected to engage governments to cooperate in developing, implementing and enforcing solutions. With the erosion of multilateralism since the end of the Cold War, these are increasingly being bypassed.
Instead, self-appointed private interests with means, pretend to speak for world civil society. Strapped for resources, multilateral platforms and other organisations are under pressure to forge partnerships and other forms of collaboration with them.
Thus, inadequate ostensible private solutions increasingly dominate policy discourses. Widespread fiscal deficits have generated interest in them due to the illusory prospect of private funding. Private interests have thus gained considerable influence. Thus, the new spinmeisters of Davos and others have gained influence, offering seductively attractive, but ultimately false, often misleading and typically biased solutions.
Meanwhile, global warming has gone from bad to worse. UN member states must stiffen the backs of multilateral organisations to do what is right and urgently needed, rather than simply going with the flow, typically of cash.
Dr Hezri Adnan is the author of The Sustainability Shift: Refashioning Malaysia’s Future. Jomo Kwame Sundaram, a former economics professor, was United Nations assistant secretary-general for economic development. He is the recipient of the Wassily Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought.