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

Did the Climate Summit Succeed?

By the time the climate summit in Sharm El-Sheikh concludes, the outcomes will be classified under metaphors, ranging from failure and weakness to glorious victory. This is often due to unrealistic perceived goals or excessive hostility on one hand, and passionate national pride on the other. Some of the loudest voices attacking the summit came from persons who were begging for an invitation to Sharm El-Sheikh, as a touristic opportunity, while not making any positive contribution to the conference itself. On the opposite extreme, some voices, particularly in the host country, have been exaggerating in describing the summit as "the greatest victory in the history of climate negotiations."

In fact, the summit did not fail, nor did it achieve its utmost ambitions. Egypt performed its duty to the fullest extent, as a host country that assumed the tasks of chairing the conference and championing the plight of the African continent, ultimately succeeding in endorsing the African Carbon Markets Initiative. What was achieved was probably the best possible outcome under the current sizzling international circumstances. It is obvious that Egyptian diplomacy succeeded in managing differences, preventing obstructive confrontations, and kept the door open for future discussions whenever an immediate agreement was unworkable. Perhaps the most important achievement is that Egypt took advantage of its moderate position to prevent the transfer of exacerbated geopolitical differences, from Ukraine to Taiwan, to the conference halls. In addition, the introduction of Loss and Damage as an item on the agenda, even if it was through a compromise that did not directly link it to the principle of compensation, hindered plans of some parties to obstruct proceedings, as early as the opening session.

Leaders of the world's largest economies were in attendance, bringing strong messages, despite the multiple problems facing their countries, which go beyond inflation and economic slump. This contradicted expectations that most of them would be absent, to avoid embarrassment as they were not prepared to announce significant increase in financing. This was a sign that stepping back from climate commitments is not an easy undertaking. From German Chancellor Olaf Schulz to French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to US President Joe Biden, all renewed their commitment to climate action, in their countries and around the world. Schultz emphasized that the Russian war in Ukraine, despite its negative impact on financing climate action, will enhance energy efficiency measures and rationalize consumption in the short term, besides accelerating the transition to clean and renewable energy in the medium term. Still, differences continued on cost distribution.

The second climate week opened with a pivotal message from the G-20 summit in Bali, where US president Biden and Chinese president Xi announced the resumption of cooperation on climate action. This gave considerable impetus to the negotiations in Sharm El-Sheikh, as there is no room for progress without the collaboration of the world's two largest polluters. However, the chief Chinese negotiator in Sharm El-Sheikh made it clear that China would not participate in financing. Also from Bali, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese announced that the shortest way to recover from global crises, including the effects of the coronavirus pandemic and inflation, is the cooperation of all countries in confronting the climate crisis. Like other leaders, he reaffirmed the commitment to reduce emissions according to an agreed timetable and to shift to clean and renewable energy and a zero-carbon economy by mid-century. This was a remarkable reversal of the stance adopted by the foregoing Australian regime.

While it is true that the issue of Loss and Damage was included in the agenda for the first time as a stand-alone item, it has actually been under discussion since the start of the climate negotiations three decades ago. Rich countries considered that existing mechanisms, especially the Adaptation Fund, are adequate and faster to address the issue, whereas developing countries insisted on an independent fund. This initiated the EU compromise to establish a fund restricted to the poorest and most vulnerable countries, based on current classification, not that used when negotiations started 30 years ago. One of the implications is that countries like China and other emerging economies have now to be contributors to the fund rather than recipients of aid. However China, presently the world's biggest source of emissions, still tries to get concessions as part of developing countries in the Group of 77.

Increasing funding for adaptation, as a preventive measure, was a priority for the Egyptian presidency, because it is the most prominent issue facing the African continent and other developing countries. Deadly droughts and floods are not fears for the future, but rather facts facing African and Asian countries now, which they are unequipped to address. The conference made progress in recognizing that funding for adaptation should be increased, but this was mostly limited to redistribution of funds within the existing pledges and mechanisms.

The interactive Arab presence was a prominent feature in Sharm El-Sheikh, encompassing multiple initiatives and programs. While in the past the Arab reaction to ignoring some legitimate concerns and reservations was either to hold back or obstruct resolutions, this time concrete schemes were put forward, especially in the framework of the Saudi and Middle East Green Initiatives, which combined afforestation, enhancing energy efficiency and carbon capture, reuse, and storage, with specific timeframes to reducing emissions and switching to clean and renewable energy. UAE and Saudi Arabia have entered into major financing and partnership programs for hydrogen and renewable energy. Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, and Jordan also announced concrete projects that combine mitigation and adaptation.

The Sharm El-Sheikh summit achieved the best possible at the time being, and demonstrated the continued commitment to deal with climate change, in spite of all hurdles, as an inevitable and irreversible goal. The dearth of new financial commitments was expected, but has been partially offset by investments and partnerships with the private sector, which require developing countries to enact appropriate laws to attract more investments in climate-friendly projects and establish guidelines to regulate and monitor them. A clear demand was also made, that international development finance institutions, led by the World Bank, revise their rules in such a way to prioritize climate and environment-friendly projects, with better concessional terms for poorer countries, whenever access to grants is insufficient. This should certainly apply to international, regional, and country development funds active in the Arab region, which are expected to activate and expand their climate finance commitments.

It is true that scientific evidence demands, in order to avert bigger disasters, an immediate cessation of carbon emissions. However, controlled gradual transition is what can be realistically achieved, allowing time for placing alternatives in action at large scale. That explains why the negotiations at the end centered around 'phasing down' or 'phasing out' of fuels causing harmful emissions, and whether this should be restricted to coal or all types of fossil fuels, considering the vast implications on different groups of countries.

The summit succeeded in keeping the door open for more forceful operational solutions. But we have to wait for quite some time before hoping to get real financial commitments involving new investments, not just recycling and redistributing the scanty sums available, under whatever name or mechanism. Perhaps the climate summit in Abu Dhabi next year will embrace a formula to activate the principle of Loss and Damage, which is the only way to transform climate funding from voluntary charity to deserved compensation, with fair contributions from the emerging group of newly rich and top polluting countries. But developing countries have to respect their responsibilities and execute their part of any deal; one prerequisite is to stop considering requests for good governance and fighting corruption as an attack on their national sovereignty.

Ultimately, boosting funding for adaptation and responding to climate disasters, under Loss and Damage, should not be taken as an excuse to slow down or abandon mitigation measures meant to keep temperature increase below the threshold of 1.5 degrees. For if this is allowed, scientific evidence states that the impact of climate change will be many times more costly to deal with, if not entirely unmanageable.