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From Finance to Rhetoric: The Aspirations of a Climate Conference

From Finance to Rhetoric: The Aspirations of a Climate Conference
 Joseph Dellatte
Resident Fellow - Climate, Energy and Environment
What major issues will dominate COP28? How does this conference stand out from its predecessors?

Two pivotal topics will be under the microscope: the Global Stocktake and the governance of the loss and damage fund. All eyes will also be on the wording of the final declaration, which will influence future discussions and actions in climate policy.

COP28 is expected to be the most consequential climate conference to date, far more critical than its predecessor in Sharm El-Sheikh, as it will feature the first-ever Global Stocktake, a crucial barometer for gauging the progress of nations against their climate pledges. Established under the Paris Agreement during COP21, this UN-inspired mechanism is designed to recur every five years starting in 2023. It invites countries to submit a report card of their climate change mitigation efforts and adaptation measures, offering a transparent look at their commitment to the 2015 agreements. The Global Stocktake is an unsupervised process. It is a non-binding and multilateral evaluation. But its existence is commendable, and most importantly, it casts the powerful spotlight of public scrutiny on each nation's climate endeavors. The ability to juxtapose the progress of different countries will also be helpful to drive accountability and inspire increased efforts. While France and most European nations are familiar with climate reporting, this will be a new exercise for other countries. The success of the Global Stocktake relies heavily on the goodwill and cooperation of the participating countries. On a different scale, while some coalitions of countries are starting to form (climate clubs) to introduce constraints, such actions are not in the Paris Agreement’s current playbook. Nevertheless, it is important to highlight that the act of reporting alone serves as a form of accountability.

The United States and other Northern countries want the World Bank to steer the ship, a move staunchly opposed by countries in the Global South.

Also high up on the agenda is the issue of climate funds. COP27 had raised hopes among activists from the Global South, who celebrated the announcement of a new loss and damage fund. However, this fund has to materialized, and the nuts and bolts of its implementation remain a battleground of contentious negotiations. These were initially expected to be ironed out before the start of COP28. After complex negotiations, pre-COP meetings have finally resulted in a proposal slated to be discussed in Dubai.

Additionally, once the groundwork is laid out for a loss and damage fund-joining other existing funds, like the Adaptation Fund, set up under the Kyoto Protocol adopted at COP3 in 1997 and rolled out in 2005, and the Global Environment Facility, established in 1991 and based in Washington-stakeholders will need to agree on the amount of money that should be contributed.

Most Northern countries initially had cold feet about financing losses and damages until Frans Timmermans [...] shifted gears at COP27. 

The main sticking point is governance. The United States and other Northern countries want the World Bank to steer the ship, a move staunchly opposed by countries in the Global South. Born from the post-Bretton Woods system that cemented the dollar's dominance, the World Bank is perceived as a puppet in the hands of the North. For the U.S., this arrangement would be like killing two birds with one stone, as Washington wouldn't need to inject new funds but could simply channel them to Southern nations through the World Bank. In contrast, the Global South wants a meaningful seat at the table and demands more freedom in using the fund's resources. Their opposition isn't just about logistics; it's a matter of principle. Southern countries believe they are rightfully owed this money and argue that its disbursement shouldn't hinge on World Bank governance, which they see as a Western stronghold. They fear these funds could be used as leverage by the West to influence or manipulate regimes not aligned with their interests. In the wider climate finance landscape, several other funds exist for mitigation and adaptation efforts, like the Green Climate Fund, an independent entity based in Incheon, near Seoul. However, this fund, established under the 2009 Copenhagen Accord, has been wading through its own quagmire of management and administration challenges since its funding in 2011. Nevertheless, while noble in their intent,  these funds are just a drop in the bucket. They highlight the colossal financial needs brought about by climate change, but the hopes pinned on them sometimes border on wishful thinking.

Finally, the challenges in operationalizing these funds are not just technical and geopolitical but also deeply rooted in the domestic politics of the funding nations. In Northern countries, public opinion constitutes a significant hurdle. Political leaders must be able to justify to their citizens why public funds should be sent to Southern countries, a contentious issue that is not always widely accepted. For instance, in the United States, the decision to release funds is in the hands of Congress, specifically the House, which is under Republican control and staunchly against the idea of funneling money to the South. Most Northern countries initially had cold feet about financing losses and damages until Frans Timmermans, the European Union’s Green Deal architect and a leading voice in its climate policy, dramatically shifted gears at COP27. He managed to steer other Northern nations towards the idea of establishing a fund, aiming to thaw the frosty North-South climate relations. It's a strategy that has so far proven to be quite a gamble. His recent resignation from the vice-presidency of the European Commission in August 2023, just a few months shy of COP28, casts a shadow of uncertainty over the upcoming COP in Dubai. The stance of his successor, Wopke Hoekstra of the Netherlands, is still unclear.

In the grand scheme of climate finance, developed countries had committed to raising $100 billion per year by 2020 at COP15 in 2009. Fast forward almost fifteen years, and these promises remain unfulfilled. These successive blueprints for international climate funding have continually raised hopes, only to see them dashed time and again. While we inch closer to the $100 billion mark, we still find ourselves far away from meeting the enormous need for climate financing.

Beyond the management of funds, a critical question is the role of countries labeled as developing yet boasting substantial GDPs, like the Gulf nations and China, in the sphere of financial contribution. These nations have the capacity to contribute to climate change adaptation measures and are significant contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. Yet they firmly resist being categorized as "developed" like the Northern states. For Beijing, this stance is rooted in geopolitics, part of a narrative to position itself as a leader in the Global South. China actively engages in bilateral agreements touted as climate financing to extend its influence, exemplified by initiatives like the Green Belt and Road. By continually highlighting the historical responsibility of Europe and the United States in climate change, which is indeed significant, Beijing deflects focus from its own current and future highly alarming emissions. Indeed, there's a real possibility that by the time the world reaches carbon neutrality around 2050, China's historical absolute emissions will have far surpassed those of the United States, making it the top historical contributor to global warming. This strategy of casting guilt on the North, particularly effective with European countries, is well understood by the South. It's one of many tactics used to confront climate change's looming and already manifest impacts.

One of its pivotal challenges is to issue the first official declaration that squarely aims at phasing out hydrocarbons. 

A final objective of the conference could be described as linguistic craftsmanship.Negotiations are fine-tuned down to the very last comma. While this meticulous attention to wording might seem trivial, it sets a precedent that cannot be easily undone: each official recognition spurs action and sows the seeds for tangible, long-term effects. COP27 was a letdown, issuing a final statement that was less impactful than Glasgow's COP26. This time around, there is hope for stronger language, including an explicit declaration that moving away from fossil fuels is the endgame.

The upcoming summit in the Emirates has the potential to mark a watershed moment. One of its pivotal challenges is to issue the first official declaration that squarely aims to phase out fossil fuels. Articulating such an ambition openly would be breaking new ground. Until now, terms like "oil" or "hydrocarbon" have never made it into the COP's official statements, consistently vetoed by Gulf countries, Russia, and other oil-rich countries.

Is the ambition to keep global warming within 1.5° of pre-industrial levels still a realistic target in the crosshairs of global leaders?

This goal carries more than just practical weight; it's a symbol that exerts pressure on nations. While faith in this target is waning, as we are already teetering on the brink of the 1.5° increase, its symbolic power endures. It serves as a beacon, guiding and inspiring nations to reach for greater heights in their climate ambitions.

What is the UAE's climate strategy? Why has the country volunteered to host this conference? How genuine is its approach? To what extent is it purely "solutionist"?

The selection of the United Arab Emirates, a longstanding member of OPEC, as a COP host has raised many eyebrows. In truth, the COP presidency follows a regional rotation. After Africa, it was West Asia's turn to host, but the options for host countries within this region were limited. Given its obvious greenwashing objectives, the UAE stepped forward, and its bid was accepted. The appointment of Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, CEO of the national oil company, to preside over COP28 has also stirred considerable discussion. Yet, he views renewable energies (which he is well versed in) as a valuable diversification strategy for his country. In a nation as rich in sunshine as fossil fuels, he can top off petrodollars with "heliodollars." It would be oversimplistic to dismiss the Emirati stance as mere surface-level commitments. At the same time, it would be equally naive to overlook the clear strategy at play. Long resource-poor and now immensely wealthy, they still view themselves as developing nations and believe nothing should hinder their economic growth. Oil is a critical development resource for the Emirates, who fear that a rapid shift to a decarbonized global economy could leave them with stranded assets. To protect their oil extraction and export capabilities, they aim to slow the mitigation process or seek oil-compatible alternatives, like CO2 sequestration techniques. This aligns with a communication strategy that paradoxically portrays some fossil fuels (like Gas) as a solution, not a problem since they're less polluting than coal. While this isn't untrue, it completely misses the point of climate change! As for climate engineering approaches, they venture into the realm of science fiction, serving only to perpetuate the illusion that oil remains an acceptable energy source.

Local solutions for capturing greenhouse gases exist and form part of the technological arsenal we might consider, but they are only practical for certain emission-intensive industrial activities. However, the Gulf countries treat these carbon capture methods as a silver bullet, which is wildly unrealistic. Still, Al Jaber has made some rather interesting statements, highlighting the unsustainable nature of current fossil fuels usage and emphasizing that the rampant use of these resources cannot continue.

[Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, CEO of the national oil company] views renewable energies as a valuable diversification strategy for his country. 

Who are the key players in this COP? What roles do civil society, lobbyists, and scientists play?

The more open and democratic the host country, the stronger the presence of civil society. During COP26, NGOs exerted substantial pressure on Northern countries, fueling high expectations for positive outcomes. There's a stark contrast between the deeply pessimistic view of COP27's results in Europe and the optimism prevalent in the Southern countries. This disparity reveals the profound misunderstandings surrounding the loss and damage agreement. If no real progress is made on this issue, the legitimacy and success of the conference could be seriously compromised.

How does the resurgence of geopolitical tensions impact this conference, whose success hinges on the cooperation between parties?

This is always a major concern. These conferences are never immune to tensions of this nature, but the extent of the impact of today’s crises should not be blown out of proportion. Ever since the inaugural COP in 1995 (where 197 signatory states of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change convene annually), navigating through the ebbs and flows of geopolitical tensions has become the norm. Issues involving Ukraine, Israel, and Russia will be addressed, and these countries will participate, but they will not derail the conference. These same crises, however, influence the energy cost, which is crucial in steering the course towards or away from accelerated decarbonization. And as the negative impacts of fossil fuels become more evident, pushing for their carbon-free alternatives becomes easier.

What are the primary internal conflicts within the Western bloc?

Frans Timmermans had a knack for helping different parties get along and adeptly managed negotiations over several years. He had built personal connections with key figures like John Kerry of the United States and Xie Zhenhua of China (who has led all official delegations since the Bali COP in 2007). The significance of these informal relationships in steering major diplomatic meetings cannot be overstated. Today, with Timmermans no longer at the helm and Xie Zhenhua set to step down at the end of the year, the future landscape becomes murkier. The new EU representative, hailing from the European People's Party, historically less active in climate matters than Timmermans, heralds a potential shift in the European stance on climate matters.

In June 2023, France co-hosted a summit in Paris with the Prime Minister of Barbados, Mia Mottley, aiming to forge a "new financing pact" with vulnerable countries. Did this initiative imprint a distinctively French perspective regarding the financial support for the energy transition of Southern countries?

France's contribution to this matter was appreciated. Although the financing pact did not yield many concrete outcomes, it laid some interesting foundations. The challenge of establishing effective financial mechanisms to support the most needy countries remains pivotal. From this standpoint, the summit brought an innovative approach to negotiations, emphasising the involvement of all parties, particularly smaller nations, in these discussions. However, any significant reform of the global financial system, including multilateral development banks like the World Bank and the IMF, must take into account key geopolitical issues, such as the relationship between major powers like the U.S. and China, as well as the need for greater representation and voice for countries based on their political and economic standing, a move that the U.S. opposes.

True to diplomatic form, France aims disproportionately high for its stature but made its mark in these discussions and initiatives. Nevertheless, the Paris summit brought to light, once again, the deep-rooted divisions between the approaches of Northern and Southern countries.

Does France stand out from the crowd with a unique approach to addressing global warming?

France actively participates in climate finance and shoulders its responsibilities with genuine commitment. Pointing fingers at it is often unjustified. The issue lies less in the amount that is contributed and more in "how and where" the funds are allocated: what money goes where? What is being labelled as climate finance but perhaps shouldn't be? Transparency in climate finance is an area that France should pioneer and where it needs to demonstrate accountability.


The issue lies less in the amount that is contributed and more in "how and where" the funds are allocated: what money goes where? What is being labelled as climate finance but perhaps shouldn't be?

Yes, there is no denying that France reaped the benefits of industrial revolutions, and in terms of historical responsibility, the country is one of the "bad guys." But in the past fifty years, France has been among the "best of the worst" with its decarbonized power grid, and it is far behind the front runners in global emissions. Thanks in large part to its reliance on nuclear power, France's greenhouse gas emissions are lower than those of the United States, Germany, and Japan, and as of 2023, its per capita emissions are even lower than China's.

However, France still lags in adopting renewable energies, and its imports (consumption-based emissions) continue to add to its share of historical responsibility. Nevertheless, national and European-level initiatives are now in motion to tackle these significant challenges.

Interview by Hortense Miginiac

Copyright image : Ryan LIM / AFP

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