As COP27 opens in Egypt while famine sweeps Somalia, an outcome-based approach to climate change must replace the appearance of action.
Urgent reforms are long overdue to the ‘rules-based regime’ used by governments worldwide to address climate change. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is at the heart of that but the frequency, scope and scale of environmental impacts from climate change make it unfit for purpose. Thirty years ago, when the convention was agreed, it was not common to see recurrent and persistent drought reducing once-lively communities to fields of carcases and corpses.
If the convention aims to save lives by mitigating climate change, it can only do so by reducing what it calls ‘a complex architecture of bodies’, which seem to gain weight as millions in the most at-risk regions face death by starvation. A good starting point would be the flagship Conference of the Parties (COP) of heads of state and government, which kicks off once again in Sharm El Sheikh today.
This is the fifth time that the COP will have met in Africa. The location also provides a chance to reconsider the economic principles underpinning—or undermining—implementation of the convention and in particular the Paris Agreement of 2015, which took 20 years of COP meetings to realise.
Plethora of bodies
The convention has burgeoned into a bureaucratic system which it euphemistically describes as the ‘UNFCCC processes’. This multilayer ‘global environmental governance’ comprises a plethora of subsidiary and advisory bodies, committees and sub-committees of all sorts, consultative, regional, working and expert groups, executive boards, work programmes and an array of climate funds. Out of them come a welter of sometimes-duplicating concept notes, technical reports and assessments.
Meanwhile, the convention’s main objective, to stabilise ‘greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system’, remains elusive. Nor is it able to respond dynamically to constantly changing environmental conditions, which make it difficult especially for vulnerable communities—as the convention also seeks—to ‘adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner’.
Among decisions lauded following COP26 in Glasgow was the launch of ‘a Glasgow–Sharm el-Sheikh work programme’. To listen to the British government talk about that COP a year later, one might be inclined to think another COP unnecessary. The prime minister, Rishi Sunak, who had planned not to attend the successor, described it as ‘one of the most significant COPs in recent times. What we did there was set the target and the roadmap for the world to follow if we’re going to meet our climate ambitions.’ The succeeding work programme does not however bear this out.
Its key aims include to ‘enhance understanding of the global goal on adaptation’. But that was among the tasks of the Nairobi work programme announced in 2005. It should also ‘enable’ countries to ‘better communicate their adaptation priorities, implementation and support needs’. Yet several national plans clearly communicating the priorities of developing countries on adapting to climate change are already at the UNFCCC: a non-exhaustive list includes ‘technology needs assessments’ and ‘technology action plans’ for needs assessments, ‘nationally determined contributions’, ‘national adaptation programmes of action’ and ‘national adaptation plans’. Climate finance is what these have been waiting for—not more communication.
‘Science clearly indicates that the international community is lagging behind the mitigation, adaptation and finance,’ said Sameh Shoukry, Egypt’s foreign minister and the incoming COP27 president, during the African Climate Week supported by the UNFCCC. Pledges masquerading as progress are certain to be an outcome from Sharm El Sheikh—much as a ‘delivery plan’ for the failed yearly $100 billion climate-finance promise, made at COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009 by developed to developing countries, was considered a successful outcome from COP26. Heatwaves across Africa are growing and the plan will remain a receding horizon for those whose need for adequate climate finance increases each rainy season that turns out to be another dry spell.
Meanwhile, the claim that public funding is not enough and that private investments will be key acquires increased currency. Yet sovereign states, not corporations, signed the convention and the Paris Agreement, so they must assume the lion’s share of responsibility in providing public funds for climate actions. Governments must also generate policies for climate solutions, such as the development and transfer of technologies, which will not be thrown up by unregulated capitalism—they are a social obligation, not an economic opportunity.
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It is daunting to imagine how the UNFCCC’s technocratic ‘processes’ could have saved Abdiwali. He is a two-year-old Somali boy who recently died from hunger. He was born into the famine that killed him. Somalia had not seen rains in three rainy seasons. This means life is getting worse for some 22 million facing starvation in the Horn of Africa, with ‘the very real prospect that the rains will fail for a fourth consecutive season’.
Preventing Abdiwali’s untimely death and that of the millions like him he left behind must be a primary purpose of the convention and the Paris Agreement. A complex, process-focused regime of environmental governance needs reform driven by the commitment to save lives everywhere—now and in the future—as the outcome. And the global north, driven by its historic responsibilities for ‘loss and damage’ to the global south, needs to provide the necessary public finance to do so.
The sobering realities of climate change on the ground in Africa provide an impetus for such change to start with COP27.
Michael Davies-Venn is a public-policy analyst and political-communications expert, based in Berlin, focused on issues of global governance, including climate change and human rights. He is a guest researcher in the Ethics of the Anthropocene Programme at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.