COP27 in Egypt — which for many days looked poised to end in failure — ended with an historic breakthrough on long overdue action on loss and damage compensation for developing nations.
The summit cannot be seen as a total triumph. There was a pronounced feeling of disappointment that another year came and went with the elusive $100bn [€96bn] investment target still unmet, and that 1.5 degree commitments were not more robustly defended. There was enough progress, however, for some optimism.
One particularly notable development, which may well have contributed to the success on ‘climate reparations’ has been a real sense that the dial has shifted, and that non-western governments seem now to be driving the agenda on certain climate change issues.
While some of the world’s most climate vulnerable nations, like the so-called ‘Small Island States’, plus Pakistan, and Bangladesh, have increasingly found their voice on a global stage — their activism is nothing new.
What has been particularly striking, however, has been the increased engagement of non-western emerging economies, many of whom have sizeable emissions. These nations are making impressive commitments to improving their position, while urging others to do likewise.
Mexico, for example, is the second largest greenhouse gas emitter in Latin America and has recently increased its reliance on coal power. Yet it announced at COP27 that it was raising its target for cutting its emissions from 22 percent to 35 percent. This builds on targets from its 2012 General Law on Climate Change, a detailed framework for green reform of its economy and practices.
Likewise, South Africa, a nation whose national electricity company — Eksom — has frequently been ranked as the biggest polluter in Africa, has made significant improvements. Efforts are being made to decarbonise the electricity grid and close older coal power stations. President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa made serious commitments at COP27 and was one of the most outspoken voices on loss and damage payments.
Then there is the UAE, the host of next year’s COP28 that brought the largest national delegation to Egypt. As a major oil producer, with an economy that gets 30 percent of its GDP from oil exports, few would expect Abu Dhabi to be a leading advocate on climate change.
Yet the Emirates have invested significantly in green technology, including signing the PACE clean energy deal with the US — which earmarks $100bn towards accelerating the energy transition in emerging economies — hydrogen agreements with Britain, and agreeing to build one of the world’s largest windfarms in Egypt.
At COP27 its president, Sheikh Mohammad Bin Zayed, attempted to position the UAE as a ‘responsible supplier’ of gas and oil, and became the first Gulf leader to commit to net zero by 2050.
Of course, it is easy to dismiss such states’ declarations as virtue signalling rather than a true commitment to more environmental policies.
But the reality is more complex. The leaders of all three states, like those in the west, are reluctant to sacrifice too much of their economic development on the altar of climate change. But they are also at the sharper end of immediate climate threats, especially relative to some of their western counterparts.
No agriculture Mexico
Mexico is already seeing record high temperatures — including a world record 54.4 degrees in June 2021 — which is destabilising its vital agricultural sector and water supply. The worst forecasts predict Mexico will lose almost all its agriculture in the next 80 years. South Africa, similarly, is currently forecast to be among the worst hit countries, with agriculture and water near-disappearing in the interior while the coast will be battered by extreme storms and cyclones.
The UAE, meanwhile, is a highly vulnerable state already given its lack of water and food security, a situation that will get worse with global shortages caused by climate change.
Moreover, the Middle East is one of the region’s most at risk from climate change, with many states like Syria, Iraq and Egypt already witnessing political and economic unrest caused by water shortages and desertification.
The UAE also has an economic logic: investing in renewable energy makes sense. If large parts of the world move away from fossil fuels, as those at COP27 hope, a significant UAE stake in renewables will help transition the economy.
This is not to suggest that all non-western emerging economies will now lead the fight against climate change. Many, in fact, were less than enthusiastic at COP27.
Western governments frequently voiced their frustrations at China’s slow progress, despite being the world’s biggest emitter. Meanwhile, one climate change activist told the Guardian that, “Saudi Arabia was the worst, and they’re the worst at every COP,” for trying to dilute the language on 1.5 degrees.
The fact, however, that environmental advocacy has now become a more global endeavour has drawn attention to the fact that some Western governments are not pulling their weight.
Climate Action Tracker, a website that tracks government climate action, ranks many Western governments, including the US, Germany and the EU, as “insufficient”. The UK, who spearheaded diplomatic efforts highly effectively at COP26 last year, is ranked as “almost sufficient”.
In this context, the fact that new champions of environmental change are emerging, and are able to set a new, faster pace towards change, is particularly encouraging. There are, therefore, clear signs of life, and reasons to be optimistic, despite some clear disappointments at COP27.