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

Climate, a Step Forward 

Now that the dust of the climate battles in Sharm El-Sheikh has settled, it is time for a level-headed assessment that helps draw lessons and morals. It is also necessary to rectify some assumptions adamantly describing the summit as a failure, based on an elusive set of unrealistic goals.   

No one expected that hundreds of billions in aid would flow in this stressful economic environment. However, other things have been achieved, beyond accepting to set a Loss and Damage Fund, the most prominent of which may be the strongest commitment ever to climate action, and the absolute absence of skeptical voices.  

Since no one was willing to take responsibility for obstruction, "blocking alliances" were rare compared to previous summits, and when they occurred, they were veiled by slogans of justice and humanitarian causes.   

Also noted was the absence of negotiators who traditionally claimed that climate change is a fictitious issue aimed at imposing restrictions on some countries to prevent them from progressing. A few public relations groups, funded by polluting industries, adhered to an alternative line of defense based on the theory that climate change is a natural phenomenon that recurs every thousand-odd years, regardless of human activity.  

In recent years, science has ascertained that what's happening is not natural climatic cycles, but rather a rapid change that is occurring in a matter of few decades whereas it used to take thousands of years. While slow change gives nature systems and humans enough room to adapt, rapid climate change caused by exponentially increasing gas emissions leaves no room for a controlled shift. The extreme natural disasters that have recurred at a rapid pace in recent years are testament to this.  

The Sharm El-Sheikh summit signaled the end of one stage and the beginning of another: We agree on the enormity of the problem and the need to address it quickly, but how do we distribute the burdens and costs? Those who have followed climate action since its inception three decades ago know that this consensus cannot be simple.  

Claiming that the agreement to establish the Loss and Damage Fund as an independent entity was expected is not true, for few days before the conference kicked off it was not on the agenda. And when the Egyptian presidency succeeded in introducing it, industrialized countries agreed on the condition that negotiations to establish it continue in the coming months, to bring it up again at next year's summit in Abu Dhabi. The unexpected approval of the fund was an achievement for Egyptian diplomacy, through a conciliation offered by the European Union.  

It is also not true that the summit abandoned the goal of putting an end to the maximum increase in the average temperature, as the parties agreed that "limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees requires a rapid, significant and sustained reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent by 2030 compared to 2019." No one expected the meeting to establish climate police to enforce implementation.   

The end resolution left the door open for agreement on the details of the fund, which will not be to compensate for the losses historically caused by industrialized countries, but rather to contribute to addressing the effects of major climate disasters in the poorest developing countries, such as floods, hurricanes, droughts and fires. This will open the door to difficult negotiations over who has the right to benefit from the fund.   

It was clear that Western countries would not accept that aid include countries that were given mitigating conditions and a grace period when they were classified as developing and poor at the time when climate negotiations were launched decades ago, and have become rich and major polluters today. In addition to who is entitled to benefit from the fund's contributions, it will be necessary to negotiate who will finance it and how will the shares be divided. There is also a demand to expand the circle of shareholders to include countries that have entered the club of "emerging economies" in recent years.   

While a major country like China has the full right to progress, it should announce its intentions clearly, while not continuing to hide behind poor countries in order to seek exemptions and special treatment with unlimited grace periods. Although China today is one of the largest providers of loans to poor countries, it opposed, at the most recent G20 meeting, cancelling part of their debts. This threatens the emergence of a new colonialism, imitating old imperialists, while what is required is to abolish them all.  

When time comes to set the Fund's tasks and structure, it is necessary to avoid overlapping with the Adaptation Fund, lest it be limited to transferring budget items from one item to the other.  

What is required is a major increase in the resources allocated to Climate Adaptation Fund, which already exists, and to limit its tasks to financing preventive projects, in preparation for adequately dealing with the effects that cannot be stopped. As for the Loss and Damage Fund, it should be allocated to financing the handling of climate disasters after they occur, and therefore it can be considered a body specialized in financing climate emergencies.   

One of the most prominent outcomes of COP27 is that it gave clear signals to international financing institutions and the private sector that they will no longer be able to ignore putting climate action at the core of their programs. The required amendments by the World Bank and other funding bodies became inevitable.  

Among the regional ramifications is the announcement by the Arab Coordination Group, comprising 12 regional and country development banks and funds, in addition to the Islamic Bank and OPEC Fund for International Development (OFID), to allocate $24 billion until 2030 for climate action. This covers the transition in energy, water and food, with programs for countries most vulnerable to climate impacts, especially the low-lying islands.  

As for the private sector, which has announced projects and partnerships worth hundreds of billions, especially in the fields of clean and renewable energy, it has become certain that this is the only way to survive in the competition.  

It is true that public money did not flow in Sharm El-Sheikh, but the explicit political signals issued by the summit resulted in multiple programs, investments and partnerships. However, it is required that all of these be structured into integrated national policies and plans, so that they do not remain mere fragmented initiatives with short-lived and limited impact.  

A journalist in Egypt objected to my suggestion that developing countries take their fate into their own hands, by putting in place laws capable of attracting investment, and organizing their own house to enhance efficiency and oversight and put an end to waste and corruption. He wrote: "What right does the West have to demand from us democracy, transparency, good governance and combating corruption, as a condition for aiding in climate action and financing development?"  

Well, the fact is that carrying out these reforms is the duty of governments towards their people before being an adherence to external stipulations. And this shouldn't be disregarded merely because former US President Barak Obama demanded it before, as my friend quoted him. Good governance is a basic condition to sustainable development, including climate action.  

Another journalist from Lebanon refuted what I wrote once that "compromises make agreements", calling for radical solutions that do not give up on any demands. My answer was that I long for such an ultimate solution too, and respect steadfastness on principles, but when negotiating international agreements, I prefer to keep walking, albeit slowly, rather than standing still. In this regard, the Sharm El-Sheikh summit took climate action a step forward.