The world leaders’ meeting on climate change and other Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) ended disappointingly at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) last week. This adds another set of obstacles to be faced by the UN Conference of Parties (COP28) to be held in Dubai in November. SDGs include combatting climate change, wiping out hunger and battling extreme poverty around the globe.
Almost everybody at the UNGA meeting warned of the dangers the world faces if those goals are not met by the set deadline of 2030. A summit before the UNGA meeting issued a declaration about climate change and other SDGs agreed on in 2015. It mentioned 17 goals, besides cutting greenhouse gases, which included matters relating to water and reducing inequality. The declaration reads: “The achievement of the SDGs is in peril… We are alarmed that the progress on most of the SDGs is either moving much too slowly or has regressed below the 2015 baseline.”
The irony is that those are the same countries either not doing enough to achieve the commitments they signed to and or backtracking on some of their legally binding targets. Most remarkable are the government policies in developed countries which are not focused on cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Developed countries are slashing international aid to the developing world, or even scrapping it all together. The commitment to provide assistance to developing countries financing energy transformation is not met and only a small fraction of the agreed sum is promised.
The latest sad news was an announcement by British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak that watered down the UK’s commitments to fighting climate change. The move included extending the deadline to ban new gasoline and diesel cars and new natural gas home heating to 2035 instead of 2030. That backtracking might lead to environmental groups taking the government to High Court for violating a legal commitment.
When the UK hosted COP26 in 2021, the government boasted of Britain being a leader in cutting carbon emissions. A couple of months ago, government climate advisers warned that the pace of action is actually “worryingly slow”. A month after that warning from the independent Climate Change Commission (CCC), Sunak’s government approved more than a hundred permits for oil and gas drilling off the coast of Scotland. That bluntly contradicts the promised policy of energy transformation away from fossil fuels to renewables and clean sources.
The UK government is not alone in reneging on climate change goals’ fulfilment. The Paris accord of 2015, signed by 193 countries, stipulated limiting the earth’s temperature rise to 1.5 degree Celsius by 2030. Rich industrialised countries that emit more than three-quarters of global greenhouse gases are in fact not reducing emissions at a fast enough rate to reach the Paris accord goal. On the contrary, they are increasing fossil fuel production and reliance on it as a source of energy.
This spring, the American administration approved drilling in vast areas of Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico – concessions in the Gulf cover an area the size of Italy. According to a tally by biologicaldiversity.org earlier this year, Joe Biden’s administration approved more oil and gas drilling permits than the previous administration of Donald Trump. This is diluting the slogan championed by the US which is pioneering the fight against climate change. In the first two years of his presidency, Biden’s White House approved 6430 permits outpacing Trump’s 6172 drilling permits in his first two years as president.
Other major economies, from Australia to Germany through to China and India are backtracking on promises to limit greenhouse gas emission. The increased use of coal-powered stations is one huge factor, since coal emits far more carbon into the atmosphere than oil and gas.
The developed world’s regressed action on climate change poses a serious challenge to COP28 in Dubai in a few weeks. Though the Western media are focusing on the person that will lead the summit and the fact that he is a CEO of the Emirati oil and gas company, the policies of Western countries are more frustrating to UN environmentalists. The head of COP28, Dr Sultan Al-Jaber CEO of Abu Dhabi energy giant ADNOC picked up on the lack of progress by developed nations in fulfilling climate change goals, in an article in Fortune this week. He chose the issue of “climate finance”, which dominated COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh last year. Trying to take the heat out of the fossil fuel debate, he stressed: “It is time to transform climate finance and bridge its 2.4 trillion dollar gap.”
The Loss and Damage Fund launched in the last conference in Egypt is meant to aid vulnerable nations in responding to climate-related crises along with financing energy transformation in the developed world. The cost is almost two and half trillion dollars, but commitments by rich nations so far are at a hundred billion dollars a year up to 2030. Even this fraction of the whole sum is not yet guaranteed.
Al-Jaber wrote: “Is the world capable of mobilising the trillions of dollars necessary to fund the climate transition? I believe the answer is yes – but not without concerted effort from governments, international financial institutions, and the private sector to reform the current financial architecture and better align global and domestic financial flows with the world’s climate goals.
Will the divided attention in COP28 on climate finance conceal the world’s backtracking on the main issue of emissions? As many analysts point out, even diverting attention will not address the main obstacle of more and more countries reneging on targets set by the Paris agreement to reduce emissions by 2030.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 28 September, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly