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New York Soft Dreams Crushed by Hard World Realities

New York Soft Dreams Crushed by Hard World Realities

Sunday, 10 October, 2021 - 04:30
Najib Saab
Secretary-General of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) and editor-in-chief of Environment & Development magazine

Those who thought that declaring new climate commitments, whether to cut emissions or increase finance, would suffice to resolve challenges, discovered that the issue was more complicated than that. While pledges of rich countries during the recent United Nations General Assembly in New York were a step in the right direction, unsolved problems are still there; in regard to the environment and climate, as well as politics and the economy.

As was expected, climate was prominent in world leaders’ speeches, even though the session was not dedicated to the topic. But convening on the eve of COP26, which will soon be held in Glasgow, turned it into a competition arena for putting forward voluntary promises preceding the summit, with the hope that they become commitments and facts later on.

This time, the General Assembly witnessed a consensus on diagnosing the problem of climate change and ways to confront it. But the dispute remains over distributing the huge costs, within the framework of the same question persisting for 30 years: Who will pay the price? Reducing gas emissions and switching to clean and renewable energy will have great repercussions on the economy, because no matter how creatively we embellish the advantages of “green economy”, its costs remain high as long as the cost of pollution is not fully charged. That is why negotiations focus on simultaneous measures between industrialized countries, to reduce emissions together at the same time, in such a way that one country does not benefit at the expense of another.

Rich countries are able to pay the costs of climate measures within their borders, and no one will prevent them from reaching an agreement on the distribution of quotas amongst themselves, if the political and popular will to accept painful fiscal measures was there. But emerging economies, led by China, which is the largest emitter of carbon in the world today, still maintain that they deserve a grace period before stopping emissions completely. While other industrialized countries have committed to a “zero emissions” target in 2050, China has delayed its commitment to 2060, keeping its specific targets vague until that date. It is as if China is demanding the right to pollute, to fill the progress gap achieved by rich countries since the Industrial Revolution, when they drained energy sources and grabbed nature resources without restrictions, causing a huge rise in emissions over the past century.

If China's demands are limited to the “right to pollute” through a grace period, the involvement of poor developing countries in programs to address climate change is not possible without direct financial support to cover the costs. That is why rich countries pledged ten years ago to establish a special fund with annual contributions rising to $100 billion in 2020. However, most countries did not fulfill their obligations, which kept the funding ceiling well below the set target. The fund is supposed to help poor countries reduce emissions by switching to cleaner production and consumption methods, as well as building infrastructure capable of adapting to those unstoppable effects of climate change.

US President Joe Biden pledged in his speech to the UN General Assembly that his country will double its contribution to climate finance, to exceed $11 billion annually, making it the largest contribution after the European Union combined. Thus, the goal of raising $100 billion annually became closer than ever before, even though the US contribution still needs congressional approval.

So far, the countries most committed to climate finance in the G7 have been Germany, Japan and France, and the worst have been the United States and Italy. But most of the promised funding comes in the form of loans that must be repaid, even if they are soft and long-term, while a large part of them should be grants that do not burden poor countries with additional obligations.

Chinese President Xi Jinping announced at the General Assembly that his country would stop building coal-fired power plants outside China. Within the framework of the Belt and Road initiative that China is undertaking in developing countries, especially in Asia and Africa, it has built in recent years dozens of electricity plants operating on coal, one of the most polluting fuels. But it is not clear whether the decision also includes the previously scheduled coal plants whose construction has not yet begun. The announcement did not also mention the suspension of new coal plants within China itself, which is the main fuel driving its industries. It is noteworthy that the Belt and Road initiative, which includes financing and building infrastructure such as roads, ports, airports, dams and power stations, in turn burdens poor countries with debt, placing them between the hammer of the West and the anvil of the East.

While leaders were competing to display good climate intentions at the annual UN gathering, the political and economic realities were revealing a different truth on other fronts. China considered the new strategic security pact between the United States, Britain and Australia, named AUKUS, which includes providing the latter with advanced nuclear submarines, a military challenge. China is mainly worried about the impact of the new alliance in Asia-Pacific region on its economic ambitions, through the Belt and Road initiative, which is based on utilizing its growing power to expand its influence. As for France, and behind it the European Union, it considered the alliance to be marginalizing, especially as it caused France to lose a contract worth tens of billions to sell Australia conventional submarines. This coincided with the continuing shock caused by the repercussions of the random US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the fear of its uncalculated effects on neighboring countries and the rest of the world.

While the General Assembly in New York was discussing raising climate financial commitments, Europe was hit by a huge wave of high energy prices, due to sharp fluctuations in global gas markets and diminishing supplies from Russia, the main source of gas in many European countries. Whereas some considered that this situation should provide strong incentive to accelerate and expand electricity production programs from renewable sources to reduce dependence on gas, the reality remains that the high cost of electricity and heating, which will double many folds during winter months, will exhaust a large part of the money that was allocated to climate issues. This refutes the assumption that the age of fossil fuels is already over, and confirms the inevitability of a smooth energy transition, for the benefit of producers and consumers alike.

China, as well as the US, Europe and Russia, called during the General Assembly for international cooperation and peaceful resolution of conflicts. But achieving this will not be easy, in light of the frantic struggle for economic influence. We have to watch closely whether climate action, and the environment in general, will fall victim to these conflicts, or benefit from a situation which can be transformed into a competition among super powers to display good intentions as a way to gain hearts, alongside making money.

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