Reviews |  The world has taken a bold, toothless step forward on climate justice

Reviews | The world has taken a bold, toothless step forward on climate justice

The UN climate conference that wrapped up last weekend in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, did not initially look set to deliver a major breakthrough. Unlike last year’s meeting in Glasgow, this year’s was not designed to produce new emissions pledges, and so the countries that pollute the most were not put under particular pressure to offer new promises.

Beyond Secretary-General António Guterres’ fiery opening remarks, there were few high-level rhetorical performances at COP27 from world leaders like those last year from Boris Johnson and Prince Charles of England of the time, who engaged in a sort of Olympiad of climatic hyperbole. Prime Minister Mia Mottley of Barbados presented an exciting set of proposals to this year’s conference aimed at reshaping the institutions of development and climate finance, at a time when the global community had been moved, particularly by the floods of the monsoon in Pakistan, to consider the injustices of global warming and the need for “loss and damage” payments to vulnerable countries. But it didn’t seem so likely that the familiar dam of resistance from wealthier countries would actually break – indeed, ahead of the conference, US climate envoy John Kerry had dismissed the goal as unrealistic.

Instead, the actual outcome of COP27 was not only remarkable; it was surprising, delivering a historic “loss and damage” deal without really moving the needle on emissions promises – producing no gain on those cheap promises that have traditionally been the bread and butter of these conferences and a serious leap forward on what had always looked perhaps like their central and intractable geopolitical stalemate.

I want to be careful not to overstate either story. There are still encouraging signs about the direction of global decarbonization, broadly speaking. Momentum is far from sufficient to meet the world’s ambitious climate goals, and the past year has generated many new hurdles: the energy crisis, supply chain issues, trade tensions with the largest manufacturer world of solar panels. The “loss and damage” agreement reached in Egypt was also vague on all the important points: who will contribute to the fund and how much, who will distribute this money and to whom. The deal alone does not produce a new World Bank or a now business-friendly International Monetary Fund against climate damage or, for that matter, significantly reform these institutions, as Mottley had proposed in what we called the Bridgetown Agenda.

Nevertheless, even this agreement – still vague and toothless – represents a remarkable step forward after decades of desperate advocacy by the world’s climate-vulnerable countries and decades of indifference shown by the world’s historic polluters, whose emissions of carbon are largely responsible for the state of the planet. today’s world and the now inevitable messy future.

It is also quite striking that in the text of the agreement reached in Egypt, the references to these more ambitious targets of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius – increasingly at the heart of these agreements since the agreement of Paris in 2015 – have been reduced almost to invisibility. . And it is perhaps even more striking that despite apparent support from the United States, language emphasizing the need not just to phase down, but to phase out the use of fossil fuels, has been scuttled by states oil companies like Saudi Arabia and Russia.

Taken together, the two developments — progress on justice but not decarbonization — suggest the possibility that the geopolitical climate story is changing, with the project of reducing emissions increasingly falling to industries and states. -nations to undertake them alone. The task of tackling climate injustice, on the other hand, falls to international institutions, such as the United Nations, which not so long ago seemed somewhat incapable of fulfilling this mandate.

One of the central themes of the overarching essay on the state of climate change that I published a few weeks before the conference was that the way forward on emissions seemed clear and somewhat encouraging, and that the Emerging story about climate justice and brutal warming inequalities seemed far uglier and harder to deal with.

The most obvious narrative was that encouraging global momentum was ultimately moving the decarbonization project forward a bit fast, but not fast enough to avoid difficult distributional questions about who would face the most intense climate impacts and what others countries could do to help those on the front lines. the lines survive them. And if you had asked me what that implied about the outlook for COP27, I would probably have predicted a simple extension of both narratives: a limited but insufficient amount of good news on emissions and a flagrant and infuriating inaction of justice. climate, climate finance and loss and damage.

Instead, we got, basically, the opposite.

UN conferences no longer represent the full breadth of climate geopolitics – indeed, they seem less critical in a new era of self-serving decarbonization than in those years when the task of reducing emissions was seen as a problem of heavy collective action. But they’re still where much of our climate framing is chopped up. And the text of this agreement, at least, is a sign that world powers are beginning to look beyond the decarbonization project, to the difficult challenge of what lies beyond – and more so, what is due to those who will suffer.

David Wallace-Wells (@dwallacewells), writer for Opinion and columnist for The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Uninhabitable Earth”.

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