Najib Saab
Secretary-General of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) and editor-in-chief of Environment and Development magazine

Summit of Implementation or Postponement?

After long rounds of negotiations following the Climate Summit in Glasgow last year, world leaders will meet tomorrow in Sharm El-Sheikh at the 27th summit (COP27).

After two days of speeches, in which states present their visions and set their conditions, with leaders setting the stage for negotiations, delegations will continue their discussions, until ministers meet during the last days of the second week to announce the outcome.

These will be compromises that respond to some of what science says, restricted by conflicting interests and what can realistically be implemented.

The summit will be held this year under the slogan "Together For Implementation", which expresses the urgent need to stop talking and begin serious action which corresponds to the urgency of the matter.

The coronavirus and the war in Ukraine are not the only major events since the Glasgow summit that will have huge implications on climate action.

The 2022 summit convenes as unprecedented climate disasters strike the world, with losses mainly hitting developing countries: from the floods that inundated Pakistan, leaving thousands dead and displacing tens of millions who lost shelter and livelihood, not sparing the American continent either, to the drought that left millions facing starvation in the Horn of Africa, which did not spare Europe and China.

Will the sense of urgency lead to placing pressing climate concerns as a priority, rather than burying it under economic downfalls, political disagreements and wars? Or is this wish no more than a summer night's dream?

Tomorrow, the real intentions will be set in the speeches of country leaders: either they give priority to climate action and protect it against conflicts, or they bring their disputes to Sharm El-Sheikh, using the platform to inflame differences and widen discord.

Unlike previous summits, we may quickly discover the predisposition this time, in the first procedural session, which usually goes smoothly, by adopting a pre-agreed agenda.

Will there be an agreement to include an item on historical compensation under the title of Losses and Damages? Will Russia, for example, use the agenda adoption as a pretext for obstruction? This becomes a more serious matter, noting that all resolutions of climate summits require consensus.

Everyone agrees that voluntary commitments, whether related to cutting emissions or financing climate action, are no longer adequate. Until today, countries have been left with the freedom to set their own national climate goals, with weak monitoring mechanisms, and donor countries are left to determine the size of their pledges, which are often not fully paid.

Since the summit is held under the slogan of implementation and real achievements, its priority is to agree on minimum commitments and strict mechanisms to monitor implementation and make figures public. The goal is to make governments liable, by properly identifying shortcomings.

Disagreements remain over the independent body that can undertake the task of verifying implementation, as well as possible measures against violators. Developing countries, in particular, still refuse to accept external monitoring, under the pretext of protecting national sovereignty.

Only one day before the opening of the conference, negotiators have not yet agreed on a specific mechanism for the issue of Losses and Damages, and how to distribute liabilities, according to each country's extent of historical responsibility for carbon emissions responsible for climate change.

Rich industrialized countries avoid opening the door wide to compensation, lest the claims expand and extend back for decades. They have therefore been opposing the creation of a special fund dedicated for compensation, demanding incorporating it into the existing financing mechanisms.

If the summit is expected to reach an understanding on increasing the share of adaptation measures, covering preparedness to face the effects of climate change, compared to the funds allocated to reduce emissions, it is likely that the limits of the agreement will not exceed the redistribution of allocations within existing budgets, while what is required is to increase them exponentially.

On the agenda of the current summit is increasing contributions to finance climate action. But while the speakers will remind of the pledges of rich countries to pump $100 billion annually exclusively for climate, the numbers will reveal that this fund is still suffering from a large deficit. It is not a secret that even if the full amount is paid, it remains only a small part of what is required to adequately address the problem.

In addition to reviewing funding pledges made in Glasgow a year ago, the Sharm El-Sheikh summit should raise the level of national targets to achieve greater and faster emissions reductions until 2030. The reason is that voluntary pledges up to now, even if fully implemented, will lead to over 2.5 degrees increase in temperature, while it is required to keep it below a degree and a half, to avoid catastrophes which are beyond control. But after a year of Glasgow, only 30 countries raised their commitments to cut emissions, including Egypt, India and Indonesia.

The Sharm El-Sheikh summit may not succeed in achieving all the goals that were expected of it, before the intensification of international geopolitical conflicts and economic collapses. But it can affirm a number of basic principles, foremost of which is that it's imperative to maintain a minimum level of international cooperation on climate issues.

If it is not currently possible to achieve the required increase in the volume of climate finance, the summit can, at least, agree on a series of measures to redistribute the available funds in a more effective manner, to serve climate action, whether to reduce emissions or adapt to the changes.

The international financial institutions must also pledge at the summit to allocate the bulk of their funding to support projects and programs compatible with climate goals, even if they are not able to increase their budgets at the required level.

One of the possible goals, despite the world's tense and gloomy atmosphere, is to agree on a precise mechanism to assess progress in achieving voluntary pledges to reduce emissions, and to publish the results openly as a tribute to those who complied and a moral punishment to those who missed.

The implementation of unfulfilled pledges must also be required, before any additional funding is approved. But if this condition can be imposed on the poor countries that need assistance, who will hold the rich countries that fail to implement their commitments accountable, whether in reducing emissions or paying their share in climate finance?

Egyptian diplomacy will be facing a major test in the next two weeks. Will it succeed in reconciling conflicting interests and making compromises that take climate action a step forward? On the other hand, the growing international conflicts and aspirations of control and expansion, from old and new empires, might make this task impossible, thus limiting the goal of COP27, in the best case, to achieving a passive delay instead of agreeing on an active implementation plan.