November 28, 2022, by Dr. Hannes Swoboda (President of the Club of Rome – Austrian Chapter)

The climate conference in Sharm El Sheik, COP 27, has come to an end. There is disappointment in many quarters – especially in European Union circles. This applies above all to the lack of anchoring of the phase-out of oil and gas in the final declaration. The – poorer – developing countries, on the other hand, hope that the promises to support them in coping with climate damage will be kept. Which is precisely not the case for the pledges made in Glasgow. In any case, it is too early to weigh disappointments against hopes and, above all, too early to judge the willingness of rich countries to keep their promises. Nevertheless, some remarks about COP 27 and the debates on its occasion already seem appropriate.

New population record

At the beginning of the second half of the climate conference came the news that the world population has reached the 8 billion mark. And the number of people living on Earth will continue to rise, even if – depending on the forecast – the maximum will be reached around the middle of the current century. But until then, we must expect a growing population. This will affect three regions in particular: East and Southeast Asia, Central and South Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa, where the most rapid growth is occurring. In terms of countries, India, Pakistan and Nigeria should be mentioned in this context.

More people mean, above all, growing demands on the earth’s resources. And more people in poor countries means, above all, more people in regions that are more heavily burdened by environmental disasters. And these tend to be the countries where there is still great poverty and where the pressure to catch up economically and socially is great. This means, in particular, that the demand for energy is increasing. The dependence of the catching-up process on energy supply has probably prevented many developing countries from anchoring the phase-out of oil and gas in the final declaration. Moreover, some of these countries have extensive deposits of oil and gas themselves, and the European Union also hopes to be supplied with these resources by these countries in the coming years.

Special case Africa

For Africa, this poses special problems. On the one hand, as Christiane Figueres and Vanessa Nakate write in the FAZ of Nov. 21, Africa can play a special role in climate policy: “A continent like Africa – rich in the world’s best solar, wind and tidal resources and full of entrepreneurial talent and public spirit – can become the world’s renewable powerhouse. Africa has 39% of the world’s renewable energy potential but receives only two percent of global investment.”

A group of researchers coordinated by Yacob Mulugetta looked at potential energy strategies for Africa’s nations and published them in nature Energy magazine (link to article). Ethiopia has opted for a green sustainability strategy. South Africa has opted for a coal phase-out and has geopolitically secured it – not least at the COP in Glasgow. However, the South African government has criticized insufficient financial support from rich countries for the transition. Countries such as Mozambique, Tanzania, Nigeria and Senegal face difficult choices. The short-term increase in demand for fossil fuels in the wake of the Ukraine war could push them into a long-term risky development path. The challenge now is to develop a joint strategy between demand-driven states, especially from Europe – but also from China – and the African states, to link the short-term gas and oil hype with the long-term interests of supplying cheap and sustainable energy.

Because such issues were at the center of energy policy discussions, the COP27 was also referred to by some as the African Climate Conference. However, this is also because climate change is causing a lot of damage with geopolitical consequences, especially in Africa.

Compensation fund

Already in the last report to the Club of Rome – Earth for All – the authors draw attention to the need for a fairer distribution of resources (see my commentary “A World for All” on this website). In this respect, the agreement to support countries that are particularly affected by climate damage is to be welcomed in principle. The scandal is that such an agreement has failed for many years due to the resistance of the rich countries. It must be emphasized again and again that – and thankfully the “Earth for All” report makes this quite clear – without distributive justice and without combating extreme poverty, climate policy will not succeed.

This is not just about moral justice and reparations, but also about forward-looking policy. Various studies show that climatic degradation is one of the causes of conflicts and armed conflicts. They worsen living conditions, especially agricultural opportunities, and increase migration flows. And even if most migration is internal – within national borders or within the same continent – global migratory movements are already posing major challenges for Europe. For example, the willingness – albeit limited – of rich countries, and especially the European Union, to pay for repairing the climate damage they have caused in particular, is primarily an act of self-interest.

If we look at the countries where the link between conflict and climate change particularly threatens food supplies, they are South Sudan, Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, Central Africa, Haiti, Somalia, Madagascar, and so on. But already due to the size of the countries and the population growth mentioned above, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Pakistan should also be mentioned here. The financial support of these countries by means of a compensation fund is a huge task. The compensation fund should, however, provide more in the way of grants and not only loans, which increase the usually already high indebtedness of the recipient countries. South Africa in particular, for example, has complained that the coal phase-out funds promised in Glasgow contain too high a proportion of loans.

And of course, democratic and efficient government and administration are also needed in these countries to ensure that the funds are used in a climate-friendly way. Above all, it is also a matter of designing settlement development in such a way that people are protected as far as possible from climate-related disasters.

Tackle or adaptation

Parallel to the climate conference, a debate has been sparked in the media and among experts about the extent to which we should take note of the fact that the Paris climate targets, especially the 1.5 degree target, are not achievable. On the one hand, the burden on the environment from CO2 – and at the climate conference, particular attention was drawn to the threat posed by escaping methane gas – is already too great. On the other hand, even with optimistic assumptions about the willingness to act quickly – for example, to implement the energy turnaround – it is hardly likely that the climate targets will be achieved. The Economist, for example, headlined its issue at the start of COP 27 with “SAY GOODBYE TO 1.5°C.”

And in a special issue of the New York Times on COP27 titled: “The New World: What Will the World Look Like After Climate Change?” the authors wrote: “The most likely outcome is neither salvation nor apocalypse: a warming of between two and four degrees this century. The planet will be irrevocably changed, but life will go on.” These irrevocable changes include many heat waves with many heat deaths, deterioration of agricultural conditions in many regions due to the heat and lack of rain, but on the other hand, increased severe weather in other regions, increased migration of people and animals and, as a result, the spread of pathogens and, therefore, the emergence of epidemics, etc.

The enumeration of these probable effects of climate change should be reason enough to intensify climate policy efforts. But a certain realism suggests otherwise. And that is why recognized experts warn against abandoning the Paris climate targets too quickly, even if they agree that it will hardly be possible to reach the 1.5°C target and even the 2.0°C target is difficult to achieve. All too easily, this could further undermine already weak climate policy efforts. And in this respect, it was important at COP 27 to prevent a watering down of climate targets.

On the other hand, it can be argued that closing one’s eyes to the realities doesn’t make much sense either. Above all, it can mean exposing people to future climate disasters without protection. So, it’s about how to maintain ambition and focus on combating climate change, but also protect people from the inevitable consequences of climate change.

All the more reason to reiterate Earth4All’s summary: “It seems daunting, but it is possible.”