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Friday, February 23, 2024
NEW YORK, Nov 22 2023 (IPS) - Climate change has been a source of concern among the international community since the 1970s. Yet, almost fifty years since the issue was first raised in international diplomatic circles by prominent scientists, the situation continues to deteriorate, with rises in temperatures and extreme weather causing ever-magnifying problems around the world.
What has the global community done to date to deal with what many consider an existential threat to humanity’s future? And what needs to happen next in the UN negotiations as diplomats and other key stakeholders head to Dubai for COP28? This briefing provides a short history of global cooperation to date, then looks towards Dubai and beyond for what needs to happen next.
A Brief History of the International Community’s Response to Climate Change
The United Nations first began to set out the case for action on climate change in the late 1970s, with the First World Climate Conference in 1979. Sponsored by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), it brought together scientists from various disciplines to explore the issue.
This led in 1988 to the establishment by the WMO and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which took scientific consideration of climate change to a new level. The research-based warnings presented by the IPCC strengthened the case for action (and continue to do so today).
Initially, a Second World Climate Conference was held in 1990 and this set the agenda for negotiations on a global treaty. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was agreed by the UN General Assembly in time for the June 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. The agreement entered into force in March 1994 when 50 countries had ratified the convention through their legislatures. It now has 198 Parties.
The UNFCCC is sometimes criticized for being weak or ineffective. However, as a “framework” convention, it should really be considered a foundation or starting-point for further agreements that build upon it. In this respect, it models earlier agreements, including the ones that have so successfully tackled the ozone crisis.
The Vienna Convention, which was the first treaty on ozone, was itself quite limited. However, subsequent agreements, including the Montreal Protocol, built a strong and ultimately successful structure upon this early foundation.
Furthermore, the UNFCCC does include some strong and important concepts and commitments, including the need to limit climate change caused by humans to a level that is not dangerous. It also recognizes that some countries are better placed than others to do this work, and that many, such as those in the Global South, will need support and assistance.
The UNFCCC led rapidly to the Kyoto Protocol, which was agreed in December 1997. It, too, recognized the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” between different groups of countries, with developed countries to take the lead and carry the most responsibility for emissions in the atmosphere.
The Kyoto Protocol was innovative in several ways.
First, it included specific targets for many countries from the Global North. While not all governments took these as seriously as they might, in many countries it started an ongoing and detailed policy response from governments, including greater investment in renewable energy and other policy shifts to begin to decouple economic growth from the growth in fossil fuel emissions.
These efforts have enjoyed some success, and per capita emissions have dropped in many industrialized countries even as rising populations and economic growth elsewhere mean global emissions have continued to increase overall.
What’s more, the Kyoto Protocol provided a catalyst for private sector engagement. Government policies that encouraged corporate investment in new technologies, emissions trading, and other innovations began to make the climate response look more like a “whole-of-society” effort than one involving sequestered government departments.
However, as the economies of the Global South grew and prospered in the 2000s, it was clear that Kyoto, with its focus squarely on actions in the Global North, would not be enough.
Hopes were high that the Copenhagen Climate Conference in 2009 would replace the Kyoto Protocol with a more ambitious approach that would come into effect from 2012.
Ultimately, it failed in its immediate goal of securing a new, legally binding agreement. However, as we note in our book, Heroes of Environmental Diplomacy (Routledge, 2022), although the meeting did not secure a new deal, President Obama did manage to float some new concepts in a weakened outcome known as the Copenhagen Accord. The ideas it contained included a $100 billion climate fund to help the Global South and, even more significantly, a need for all countries to be a part of the solution to climate change.
In 2015, the seeds sown at the disappointing meeting in Copenhagen finally bore fruit. The Paris Agreement took on the ambitious aim of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of this century. It requires countries to take on targets and to report back to the UN on progress.
While some criticized these targets for being voluntary rather than mandatory (as was the case with Kyoto), many praised the fact that the commitments were to be taken on by all countries. What’s more, the Paris Agreement provided flexibility so countries could take on what was best fitted to their particular circumstances and level of economic development. This made it possible for all countries to agree on the way forward, since it continued to respect nations’ sovereignty rather than trying to impose specific emissions targets on them.
One sign that Paris has had a positive impact has been forecasts for future global temperature rise by the end of the century. Before 2015, various predictions based on emissions trends suggested rises of upwards of 4, 5, and 6 Celsius, or even higher.
This would be utterly catastrophic for humanity. Today, forecasts trend somewhere between 1.8C-3C, depending on the assumptions in the model. To be clear, these are still very bleak numbers. They signify likely outcomes that are highly dangerous and may even be calamitous. But it does show an encouraging trend.
The next significant UN climate conference was COP26 in Glasgow. Held in 2021 as the world was still reeling from the COVID pandemic, the outcome from COP26 included the Glasgow Climate Pact, which sought to promote the reduced use of coal and other sources of emissions.
Glasgow also witnessed the first review of countries’ voluntary commitments under Paris (known in UN-speak as “Nationally Determined Contributions”). Glasgow also promoted the idea of ‘coalitions of the willing’ to advance ideas that might not have enough support to find consensus among all 198 countries that belonged to the UNFCCC, but that were nevertheless considered by some to be worth pursuing.
In spite of some skepticism at the time, some of these coalitions do promise positive results. For instance, the Methane Pledge now has 111 countries committing to a 30% reduction in methane on 2020 levels by 2030. If countries honor their promises, this could bring down climate projections by 0.2C by 2050.
Another coalition of the willing was the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ), which brought commitments from over 650 global financial institutions from banking, asset owners and managers, insurers and financial service providers committing to support the transition to net zero. Again, promises only matter if they are kept. However, if they are honored, then the impact of GFANZ will be significant.
In 2022, the UN Climate Conference, COP27, was held in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. There, the major breakthrough was the agreement on the need for a fund to help developing countries suffering loss and damage caused by climate change. Such a fund has long been a rallying cry for negotiators from the Global South, as well as their allies.
What Next? Looking towards COP28 in Dubai
COP28 is being held against a complicated global backdrop. With conflict and turmoil in Europe and the Middle East, tension among the great powers and economic uncertainty around the world, how realistic can our ambitions be for COP28 and what does it need to deliver for us to consider it a success?
Progress on Loss and Damage
The run-up to COP28 in Dubai has seen significant work by a transitional committee deliberating on the infrastructure of a future Loss and Damage Fund. It was meant to have three meetings between the COPs and ultimately needed more before a compromise was found on where such a fund might be situated. In the end, the agreement was for the World Bank to act as an “interim” host for four years.
The decision to set up a similar governance structure to the Green Climate Fund has perhaps given it a heavy bureaucracy, which might be a problem in the future. However, the forward momentum and growing certainty on how it will be organized has encouraged a number of countries to put funds into the nascent Loss and Damage Fund. This includes the European Union, which is pledging “substantial” contributions. Meanwhile, the host country, UAE, is looking at making a contribution, The US has also said it would put “several millions into the fund”. While modest in size, it is at least a start.
A key issue in Dubai will be who will get the money. The agreement at COP27 was to assist “developing nations, especially those that are particularly vulnerable”.
The EU is suggesting this means the least developed countries and small island developing states. Developing countries have so far resisted reducing it to those groups. Some point to situations such as the terrible floods in Pakistan before COP27 as an example of how funds might be allocated. Pakistan is neither a least developed country nor an island state. Does that mean it would not have been eligible had such a fund existed at the time, in spite of its clear and obvious need?
In spite of these kind of uncertainties, COP28 is expected to advance work on the Loss and Damage Fund. Failure to do so would be judged harshly, given recent momentum.
Beyond Loss and Damage – Boosting Funding
The commitment proposed back in Copenhagen in 2009 for US$100 billion a year for climate finance by 2020 was not achieved until 2022. In part, the blame for this can be placed on COVID 19, which caused disruption in aid and climate budgets, among many other problems.
While the $100 billion goal has now been attained, it is important to remember that this was intended as a floor and not a ceiling. Furthermore, much of the money is being distributed as loans rather than grants. As a consequence, it has actually had a negative impact on the indebtedness of some least developed countries.
The reality is that we need trillions, not billions, to address climate change and that government aid will not be enough. As a reference point, Official Development Assistance (ODA) reached a new high of US$204 billion in 2022. While welcome, this is wholly inadequate for the climate crisis, for which funding should be additional to ODA in any case.
COP28 marks a staging post on the path to developing a new collective quantified goal on climate finance, which is slated to be agreed in 2024. In Dubai there will be a High-Level Ministerial Dialogue on 3 December. This discussion should send a strong signal that any new goal in 2024 will be ambitious, innovative, and at a much higher level than in the past. Anything less will invite criticisms that COP28 was a missed opportunity.
Looking Back to Leap Forward?
A major component of the talks at COP28 will be what insiders call the “global stocktake”. Held every five years, it presents delegates with an opportunity to assess their collective progress in delivering on the Paris Agreement. How has the world performed in terms of climate mitigation, adaptation, and implementation?
Participants in this year’s stocktake have before them the worrying fact that the world is already nudging close to the 1.5C warming limit governments pledged to stay within. Optimists are hoping COP28 catalyzes the beginning of more ambitious Nationally Determined Contributions in the next two years, and a strong collective undertaking by governments to redouble their efforts.
The signs so far are not positive. Since COP27, only 20 countries have increased their pledges, including Egypt, Mexico, Norway, Thailand, and the United Arab Emirates.
While this should be welcomed, none of the major emitters has stepped forward. Recently, the head of the UN’s climate office, Simon Stiell, labeled efforts as “baby steps” rather than the “bold strides” that are needed. If COP28 does not yield a satisfactory outcome on this topic, many are likely to see it as a missed opportunity, or even as a failure. At the very least, major emitters should step up at COP28 and indicate that they will be announcing much more ambitious goals sooner than later.
A Host of Problems?
In recent months, there has been considerable criticism of the incoming UAE Presidency. Many media commentators have asked why an OPEC member should be hosting a climate COP? Does this not send a bad signal, they ask?
Many of these talking heads may not be aware that UN Climate Summits are rotated around the five UN regions, and that this was Asia’s turn to host. Furthermore, there was little appetite from other governments in the region to host it.
Critics have also pointed out that the President of COP28 will be Sultan Al Jaber, who has a history in the fossil-fuel industry. The counter-argument is that he has also been prominent in promoting the UAE’s work on renewable energy. He was the founding CEO and is the current Chair of Masdar, a UAE-owned renewable energy company. As we write this article, the United Arab Emirates has launched the Al Dhafra solar farm. It is now the world’s largest single-site solar farm, powering 200,000 homes.
Rather than engaging in these debates, we would argue that the host government should be judged on whether COP28 is a success. The UAE Presidency has identified its own priorities where they will push for major progress: mitigation, adaptation, loss and damage, innovating the UN process by engaging more with the private sector, and pushing for greater inclusion, accountability and transparency.
These are worthy goals and it should therefore be possible to judge them based on these topics once the meeting ends. If they deliver, it will show that a fossil fuel producer is capable of promoting progress on climate change. If it does not, then the UAE will certainly come in for criticism.
It is also worth noting that, although the UAE is a prominent fossil fuel producer, many previous hosts have also been in the same camp, even if some are less well known for this. For instance, Poland, South Africa, India, and Indonesia have all hosted COPs in the past (Poland has actually hosted three), and yet all four of these countries line up among the world’s top ten coal producing countries.
Meanwhile, Qatar, another former host, is a major oil and gas producer. Should they not have hosted the COPs? Again, we feel hosts should be judged by the results they achieve.
Ramping Up the Carbon Market
The Paris Agreement included use of carbon markets to reach our emissions targets. A rulebook for this was largely completed at Glasgow in 2021. This should open the door to many billions of dollars of investments (in 2021 it was $2 billion). The rules set at Glasgow should help ensure that offsets are of high “quality” (meaning they genuinely help reduce and offset emissions).
COP28 will provide an opportunity to assess early progress as we move into an implementation phase. Are the markets ramping up? Who is using them, and how can we encourage them to grow? COP28 needs to address these issues.
Global Goal on Adaptation
The world is so far down the climate change path that adapting to its impact is already happening and will be unavoidable in future. A review under what is known as the Glasgow–Sharm el-Sheikh work programme (GlaSS) will be presented at COP28, and clear targets, indicators, and financing options are expected by COP29.
There was also a commitment in Glasgow to double adaptation funding by 2025. If this happened, it would raise the amount to US$40 billion annually. Again, COP28 provides an opportunity to give some early signals this goal will be achieved.
Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero
Outside the government negotiations, observers at COP28 will also be looking for progress by other stakeholders. For instance, the Glasgow Finance Alliance for Net Zero referred to earlier represents two-fifths of the world’s financial assets, $130 trillion, under the management of banks, insurers and pension funds that have signed up to 2050 net-zero goals, including limiting global warming to 1.5C. The potential of such a group is enormous.
At COP28, this group should report back on progress, and other stakeholders should be ready to hold it to account to ensure these goals are real and are being actively pursued, rather than just being empty promises.
COP28 has a number of key outcomes it needs to deliver, as well as being an important stepping stone to further COPs that will also have to deliver specific outcomes that are ambitious and commensurate with the scale of the challenge we face.
If delegates in Dubai are to declare success, they will need to finalize the Loss and Damage Fund, advance the Goal Global on Adaptation, and pack a real punch with the Global Stocktake, with concrete outcomes to help us limit global temperature rise. Do this, and COP28 stands a good chance of being hailed a success. Fail to deliver and observers will view it rightly as a missed opportunity not just for diplomacy, but in guiding us towards a more sustainable future.
Felix Dodds and Chris Spence are co-editors of the recent book, Heroes of Environmental Diplomacy: Profiles in Courage (Routledge Press, 2022). It includes chapters on the climate negotiations held in Kyoto (1997), Copenhagen (2009) and Paris (2015). Felix is also Director, Multilateral Affairs. Rob and Melani Walton Sustainability Solutions Service (RMWSSS) at Arizona State University
UNFCCC (2023) Nationally determined contributions under the Paris Agreement. Synthesis report by the secretariathttps://unfccc.int/documents/632334
UNFCCC (2023) UN Body agrees vital carbon crediting guidance ahead of COP28, UNFCCC. Available online here: https://unfccc.int/news/un-body-agrees-vital-carbon-crediting-guidance-ahead-of-cop28
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