Climate Change Negotiations: A Talking Shop?

by Rudra Sen

While the previous year witnessed an increase in disruptive protests led by climate activist groups such as Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion primarily in Europe, several crucial steps were taken in the mitigation of climate change by the international community. Most significantly, the United Nations Climate Change Conference held in Egypt or commonly referred to as COP 27 concluded with developed states agreeing to pay for the loss and damage incurred by those developing states who are vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Developed states acknowledged that those states who were least responsible for this crisis were affected more than others. For example, in 2022, Pakistan suffered severe floods that the United Nations has touted as it is the state’s ‘greatest climate disaster’. The floods in Pakistan affected over 33 million people and washed away more than 27,000 schools. Additionally, developing countries rely heavily on its agriculture sector which has suffered significantly due to the adverse effects of climate change. In South Asia for instance, the agricultural sector is predicted to be hit with extreme levels of precipitation, unseasonal rain, and increased levels of humidity that will negatively affect crop yields and threaten food security too.

Developed states reaffirmed the notion of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ by agreeing to pay for the losses and damages incurred on account of climate change to developing countries. The norm of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ was first adopted in the Kyoto Protocol in 1992 to highlight the fact that sovereign states in the international arena had varied capabilities and therefore differing responsibilities towards achieving the shared objective of combatting climate change. This notion stems from the rationale that developed states had the opportunity to advance their economies through the process of industrialisation and developing states should not be deprived of the same by the imposition of stringent environment regulations and standards. This norm reiterated the need for developed states to do more than developing states in the mitigation of climate change. However, critics of COP 27 argue that though there is an agreement to pay for the losses and damages to vulnerable states, there is no clear consensus as to which states should pay and to what extent. The damages caused by the increase in surface temperatures and rising sea levels are estimated to be over $500 billion in the last two decades and it is set to increase as well. Although, these compensations are a crucial step towards achieving climate justice and promoting equity in this sphere, the absence of a comprehensive framework around the same discredits its efficiency.

Though the calls for collective and coordinated global action has been echoed across the aisle to mitigate climate change, security and economic goals have instead been prioritised by states. For instance, the Russia-Ukraine war has transcended into a global energy crisis that has led to a sharp rise in energy prices and uncertainty. Such an energy crisis has emerged as several countries and regional blocs have decided to boycott or phase out Russian energy exports in the form of oil and natural gas as a response to Russian aggression in Ukraine. Moreover, Russia is among the world’s largest exporters of oil and its natural gas supply powers a significant part of Europe. Retaliation to the Russian aggression can be noted in the Versailles Declaration of the European Union that seeks to phase out their dependence of Russian fossil fuels as soon as possible. The reliance of energy on a limited number of countries has also revealed the increased degree of foreign dependence that states have for energy security. Concerns over this issue and in the pursuit to decrease foreign dependence has led to states embracing renewable sources of energy more rapidly than ever before. States like France have already pledged to increase their solar capacity and build fifty offshore wind farms to reduce Russian dependence. Nonetheless, the energy crisis has also prompted states like Germany to ramp up their coal power generation capabilities and mark a reversal to their energy policy.

Whilst states such as Germany are widely criticised for embracing coal which is considered as one of the dirtiest fuels in the energy market, civil actors shy away from such a degree of scrutiny. Multinational companies are cognisant of stringent environmental regulations in the West and are trying to diversify their operations by investing in fossil fuels in the Global South. International discussions on the increased use of renewable energy or becoming carbon neutral holds no value when there are parallel discussions to finance and expand efforts for oil and gas exploration in the African continent.

On the other hand, the role of developing countries in mitigating climate change when they are still reeling from the economic effects of the pandemic more so than the West is somewhat of a slippery slope. In COP 26 held in Glasgow, developing states agreed to ‘phase out’ fossil fuels but did not commit to completely reduce reliance on the same to meet their energy needs. That said, the capabilities of developing states to mitigate climate change is lower than that of developed states. It is argued that the losses and damage fund can be the steppingstone for climate finance which can help in enabling developing states to effectively tackle this challenge. Nevertheless, there are positive signs in the energy transition in developing states such as India. The Indian Prime Minster, Modi has recently announced that India aims to reach net zero emissions by 2070 and will try to meet half of their energy requirements from renewable sources. Yet it can still be contended that these announcements relating to India’s energy transition is a pragmatic response to achieving self-reliance on energy security in times of global uncertainty.

The UN (United Nations) COP conferences have taken place every year since 1995 and have not yielded any international consensus that significantly reduces fossil fuel production and consumption. These conferences as a whole have contributed to mitigating climate change as much as a Model UN conference has helped promote global peace. Although states have ambitious targets in the area of sustainable development, they are often side-lined for economic and security objectives. For instance, a report by Climate Action Tracker found that almost every state is not meeting its commitments as per the Paris Agreement and will fall short of realising them by 2030. Even the targets adopted by states are not in line with scientific advice to stop irreversible climate change. The lack of significant action to combat climate change can also be attributed to factors on a more microscopic scale such as the relentless and perpetual election cycles faced by politicians which require them to primarily address the concerns of today’s generation rather than tomorrows. Also, it is far easier to place blame on the past generation for this anthropogenic crisis.

A question that appears in this conjecture and often resonates with climate activists is that “Are we doing enough to save the planet?” The clear and obvious answer to this question is no. The COP process, which is considered as the most important forum to reach global consensus to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and have binding and ambitious targets, has failed in 2022. The conference scheduled in 2023 in Dubai does not look promising either. This process has certainly raised a lot of awareness about environmental issues that threaten our shared future but has been extremely slow in reaching consensus among various states and to set up an effective framework to mitigate climate change. Whilst throwing soup cans on paintings is not the answer to this multidimensional challenge, the intertwining of energy security issues with that of climate change may be a beacon of hope in this tragedy of the commons.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.

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