In the years since the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015, the defence line in the fight to reduce greenhouse gas emissions has weakened. The world is now further off target towards the goal of carbon neutrality, jeopardising the aim of keeping the Earth’s temperature below 1.5 degrees Celsius above its average temperature which was the case before the first Industrial Revolution. New breaches in the frontline defences occurred when European countries reverted to coal as an alternative to less pollutant Russian gas following the outbreak of war in Ukraine. Nor was the necessary support forthcoming to shore up the second line of defence: measures to adapt to the adverse impact of climate change. Funding remained lacking for essential projects to counter desertification and coastal erosion, while vast expanses of forest fell victim to fires and exploitation. Mechanisms for ecologically upgrading irrigation systems, water management, agricultural protection and utility maintenance have begun to fall apart.
If efforts to support the second line of defence have slackened because of over optimism in the international resolve to support the first line of defence, the third line of defence - addressing losses and damages related to climate change - remains a mirage. Industrialised countries continue to ignore the appeals of developing countries, especially from the island nations existentially threatened by rising sea and ocean levels. This is despite the explicit provisions in the Paris Agreement, initiatives and symbolic solidarity funds that acknowledge the demands of the most vulnerable victims of climate change.
Against a fraught geopolitical backdrop that is at its tensest moment since World War II and in which are interwoven the worldwide impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, the dangerous economic repercussions of the fourth wave of external debt, and the mounting strains of both industrialised and developing nations under the pressures of inflation, unemployment and “stagflation”, COP27 convened in Sharm El-Sheikh with the aim of steering the world back to rational behaviour to enable the welfare of humanity to prevail amidst the abundance of crises and deficit of mutual trust.
The organisers had prepared well for the UN’s greatest annual political developmental event. It opened with a summit of world leaders, before a plenary session that addressed the priorities of climate work. There followed two days of discussions on such crucial issues as just transition, funding, green hydrogen energy and food security. In tandem, there were discussions on international and regional climate action initiatives, attended by international financial organisations and a large turnout of representatives from the private sector, civil society and NGOs and scientific research institutions. All events were covered by media from every corner of the earth. Throughout, Sharm El-Sheikh shined with its renewed youthful energy as it displayed its added ability to become a permanent destination for major international conferences in the enthralling natural surroundings that have long since made it a major landmark on tourist maps.
COP27 planners applied a distinctly comprehensive approach to discussion sessions and the topics. Their guiding principles were inclusivity and promoting cooperation over the every-island-to-itself approach. The agenda thus included such vital climate change related issues as energy, decarbonisation, water security, agriculture, food, environmental diversity, rising ocean and sea levels, urban spaces and development, transport, financing, the role of women and youth in climate action, and the contributions of science, technology and research and development. This thorough agenda was complemented by the vibrant discussions among non-governmental entities in the framework of the Marrakech Partnership. The conference hall in the Green Zone rivalled that of the Blue Zone in the dynamism of discussions and activities. There were lively seminars, workshops and displays brimming with the exuberance of the young attendees and the knowledge and expertise of researchers of diverse disciplines from around the globe. One moment you could view the results of a study published in one of the most prestigious scientific periodicals in the world; the next you could be introduced to the invention of a scientist who boasts an international award for his work. Then, you might watch a presentation on the evolution of an environmental project in its country of origin and then abroad. No government agency, industrial or commercial enterprise, agricultural entity, bank, civil society organisation or research centre missed out on the opportunity to share the latest developments in their work, to seek out partners in investment or funding, and to explore ways to collaborate with others.
What most impressed me was the spirit of the once sidelined young people and women from developing nations who presented practical proposals inspired by their own environments and then engaged in exchanges of knowledge and expertise. The proactive attitude was refreshing after a long time in which they had little alternative but to complain of the injustices done to their societies and sources of livelihood. Some participants failed to appreciate the difference between the discourse, actions and activities one might find in a protest march or demonstration, and the more dispassionate tone needed in discussion sessions on scientific advances or public policies. However, this phenomenon is to be found wherever such gatherings occur. Some people are simply eager to show off or draw attention to themselves regardless of whether they have anything original or useful to contribute.
Like others, I was delighted by the contributions from the children hosted by the Climate Pioneers from the Dominican Republic, Columbia, Armenia, Ghana, Australia and Egypt. Each of those kids boasted a success story that spoke of their awareness of and involvement in climate affairs. Some wrote a book on the danger of climate change. Others developed smart phone apps and still others presented radio or TV programmes on the subject. All such efforts and more are needed when you consider that if you conducted a worldwide survey on climate change and how to deal with it, you would find that half the population is unaware of the danger and how to deal with it. Indeed, a recently published Gallup poll found exactly that. Other studies conducted in industrialised and developing nations came up with similar results, which reminds us that victory in the war against climate change, like any legitimate war, requires both awareness and determination.
However, will and awareness are not enough without the necessary science and technology and without the funds to support the third line in the defence. Science and money are needed to produce the mechanisms for the first line of defence, namely the projects and technologies to reduce harmful emissions, and to produce new and renewable energy from the sun, wind and green hydrogen. Without science and money, the environment and natural resources will not be spared the ravages of climate change. Recall that a major requirement of the second line of defence is an integrated early warning system, as the UN secretary-general has urged repeatedly. But this costs money. The Egyptian COP27 presidency has incorporated discussion of this into its agenda. Such measures are costly but the returns justify the expense. Without science and money, the question of the harm and damage sustained by countries most vulnerable to climate change will remain in limbo. The victims’ proof of damage will go unanswered and they will remain uncompensated. The summit in Sharm El-Sheikh has taken it upon itself to find a solution to this problem.
I will conclude this with a specific proposal that I believe is compatible with the initiative proposed by Barbados Prime Minister Mia Motley. It is also based on the report on financing action for climate and development by the economists Vera Songwe and Nicholas Stern, and it is consistent with the economist Jeffrey Sachs’ call for an economic mechanism to accelerate the realisation of sustainable development before 2030. Simply put, it calls on all international development funding institutions to finance climate action projects through long-term facilitated loans extended to all low and middle income countries without exception. The terms would include a grace period of no less than 10 years, a repayment period of no less than 20 years, and an interest of no more than one per cent which would cover administrative expenses, in exchange for technical assistance and capacity building in developing countries.
Implementing this proposal is all the more urgent in light of the failure of most developed nations to meet the commitments they made in the Copenhagen and Paris agreements to provide $100 billion a year to support climate action in developing nations. The private sectors in developing nations are unable on their own to fill the funding gap for mitigation projects because they generally need risk support from international funding institutions. So far, private sector investment in accommodation projects does not exceed two per cent of the actual needs.
If some tangible progress could be made on this practical proposal for financing climate action and promoting international technical cooperation, and if the appropriate common resolve and general awareness of the dangers of climate change can back up the practical resolutions of the Sharm El-Sheikh summit, the world will be on the threshold of the path to victory in the war on climate change.
*The writer is UN climate change high-level champion for Egypt.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 November, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.