The climate has drastically changed. Not only the effects of climate change, such as extreme weather events, accelerated sea level rise and more intense heatwaves, are raging all around the world at a faster pace than previously expected, but the climate that reigns at the level of international relations is dramatically worsening as well. A ‘polycrisis’ marked by increasing energy prices, worldwide rising inflation, growing food insecurity, a deepening global economic crisis, the disruption and redefinition of global value chains and increased geopolitical tensions, including the risk of a nuclear escalation, is overshadowing the COP27 negotiations and threatening the cooperation among state parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Thus, the climate crisis is not only environmental but also political.
From words to action: the legacies of COP26 and the difficulties to maintain them
Last year, COP26 took place amid an atmosphere of great expectations. Although the Glasgow Climate Pact, the final outcome of that conference, had only partially met those expectations, it was still considered by many as a good starting point to boost the political process aiming at Paris Agreement’s objectives and to keep 1.5°C alive by inducing countries to increase their ambition.
As regards mitigation, the COP in Glasgow specified for the first time a concrete figure for the reduction of CO₂ emissions (-45% by 2030 compared to 2010 levels) and explicitly pointed at energy use as the main cause of climate change, stating the need for a phase-down of unabated coal power generation and a phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies. Recognizing the urgency of the challenge, countries agreed to revise their mitigation targets for 2030 by presenting enhanced Nationally determined contributions (NDCs) by the end of 2022, rather than waiting for the usual five-year cycle for them to be revised. This call – coming from the desperation caused by steadily rising emissions, certified by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other agencies – has not had the expected effects so far, since only 24 countries out of 194 have submitted their revised commitments to the UNFCCC Secretariat. Among them, not even one of the major emitters is present.
Other main achievements of COP26 were the finalisation of common rules to measure and report emissions transparently,besides thedefinition of rules for the functioning of international cooperation mechanisms under article 6 of the Paris Agreement, and a series of parallel political agreements such as the Global Methane Pledge, the Global Energy Alliance, the Declaration on Forests and Land use and the U.S. – China Joint Glasgow Declaration on Enhancing Climate Action in the 2020s.
For the first time, during COP26 Climate Action Tracker calculated that if commitments to achieve net zero emissions by mid-century and all the pledges made at the COP were fully respected (including non-binding agreements), global temperature would remain below 2°C. Yet, this illusion did not last long, as emissions kept growing.
For the reasons illustrated above, COP26, with all its shortcomings, represented a progress in global efforts to tackle climate change. In the immediate aftermath of COP26, a widespread impression was that further cooperation was behind the corner, with at least all major players committed to slowly smooth over their disagreements, for the sake of a global common good, tackling climate crisis as a common threat. Within such framework, COP27 was meant to facilitate the actual implementation of commitments and pledges stated in the Glasgow Climate Pact, by turning words into (enhanced) action – as indicated by the slogan under which COP27 will be held: ‘Together for Implementation’.
However, nowadays, the prospect of a successful COP27 is quite limited, due to the challenging global economic and geopolitical contexts, marked by a high fragmentation and a lack of trust among the key players, as signalled by delegates of many (western) countries walking out of a preparatory meeting to the COP in Bonn as a Russian official took the floor for his speech. Furthermore, the trend of global emissions is not encouraging, as certified by the recently published UNEP Gap Emission Report 2022 according to which current policies alone would lead to an increase of global temperature equal to 2.8°C.
COP27: an ‘African Conference’
COP27, scheduled to take place in Egypt in the coastal city of Sharm El-Sheikh from 6 to 18 November 2022, has been nicknamed the ‘African COP’ not just with reference to its location, but also for the relevance of negotiating issues to the continent, among the most vulnerable ones and with limited capacity to tackle the adverse effects of climate change. Such issues are ‘adaptation’ and ‘loss and damage’.
As recently pinpointed by the devastating flooding in Pakistan, there is a crucial and pressing need throughout the world to build capacity to adapt to a changing climate, especially – but not only – in developing countries, provided with less financial resources and narrower fiscal spaces. So far, the (few) financial resources directed to developing countries have almost entirely been destined to mitigation measures. To reverse such trend, at COP26 developed countries pledged to double their collective financial support for adaptation measures in favour of developing countries. It was also established a comprehensive two-year Glasgow-Sharm El-Sheik work programme on the global goal on adaptation (2022 – 2023), that will be at the centre of further negotiations at COP27.
COP27 is also expected to devote special attention to loss and damage, an issue with a high political significance, which is likely to be one of the biggest areas of disagreement during negotiations. While poor and developing countries expect the establishment of a specifically dedicated financial facility as a new fund, many developed countries are concerned to find possible solutions that avoid the admission of their liability. According to the UN Secretary General,loss and damage is ‘the number one litmus test of how seriously both developed and developing governments take the growing climate toll on the most vulnerable countries’.
Polycrisis: the geopolitical mess and its influence on negotiations
The 30 years-long negotiation process leading to the establishment and evolution of the UN climate regime has witnessed many international crises, wars included. Certainly, such process was not always smooth, as there was much disagreement among the parties on many different negotiating issues. However, these divergences among countries were often rooted on different national interests and views, entirely concerning climate issues, while they did not refer to any external divergences among the countries on other areas. This reflected the strong belief among countries that a global common good such asclimate should be an area of cooperation in international relations.
Thus, thirty years of climate summits may suggest that climate negotiations are supposed to carry on in their own diplomatic channels, regardless of external events. In a way, they may follow their own logic. Yet, today, the level of confrontation at the international stage (mainly due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and, to a lesser degree, to US-China confrontation over Taiwan as well) has reached a point where it is difficult that it will have no consequences at the UN climate conference in Egypt. Fairdiplomatic relationships – an essential ingredient for successful negotiations – have been profoundly jeopardized by these two events: as regard the first case by breaking the entire international community while, as regard the second, by freezing relations among the two largest emitters.
Furthermore, both the energy crisis (with the weaponisationweaponization of supplies and rising gas prices, mainly affecting European countries) and the food crisis (mostly concerning developing countries’ net importers of food) could cause a slow-down in negotiations on GHG emissions, postponing the clean energy transition. Certainly, the solutions proposed and/or adopted so far to tackle such crises are taking different directions as to the fight against climate change, though many of them have pushed countries to look inwards, intensifying the fragmentation of the international community. On the contrary, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA) it is a mistake to think that today’s global energy crisis represents a setback for efforts to tackle climate change. In the latest World Energy Outlook 2022 (WEO) it argues that “this can be a historic turning point towards a cleaner and more secure energy system” as signalled by the extraordinary policies responses coming from important players, such as the Inflation Reduction Act in the US, the Fit for 55 package and REPowerEU in the EU, and Japan’s GreenTransformation (GX) programme, including ambitious clean energy targets in China and India.
It remains to be seen whether UNFCCC member States will be able to carry on negotiations to provide solutions to the unfolding climate crisis, despite their divergencies on other geopolitical issues. Acall to ‘put political differences aside and come together’ has come from different sides, including the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and the Egyptian government’s special representative for COP27 Wael Aboulmagd. Should their calls remain unheard, then the most vulnerable, the Earth itself and the future inhabitants of an increasingly ‘uninhabitable Earth’1 will have to pay the worst consequences of inaction.