Progress doesn’t follow a straight line. The outcomes from most-recent United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow – dubbed as COP26 – have disappointed climate activists. The climate change issue is a major, era-defining test of the multilateral system that has been in place for many decades. But major powers have competing interests, which complicate reaching a consensus.
What has been lately ignored by pundits and analysts is that climate discussions have been taking place under an environment of fatigues and constraints brought on by the pandemic. Countries are focusing more on Covid-19 mitigation and economic recovery at the moment. The medium-to-long-term consequences of climate change are, unfortunately, not on the top of their mind, despite a growing number of heatwaves, wildfires, urban flooding and other cases of abrupt temperature shifts.
Then there is the issue of global leadership over climate change. It is amply clear that America, under Joe Biden, is back on the table by re-joining the Paris Accord – but doubts persist on that country’s long-term commitment to the climate issue. Even allies are concerned over US ability to lead on climate if a Republican President won in 2024 and followed down the footsteps of one Donald Trump.
Furthermore, it is hard to ignore the perception that geopolitics has affected yet another round of climate talks. The US-China strategic rivalry in economic and defense matters – dubbed as ‘great power competition’ – has led to the consequence where the two countries find themselves with limited policy space to engage and cooperate on climate-related discussions. This affects other nations, too.
In addition, the recent pandemic-era economic difficulties have necessitated that the developing and poor countries double down on their dependence on traditional, unsustainable modes of economic recovery. Those countries that are heavily dependent on indigenous coal will find it extremely difficult to let go of this fuel, especially at a time when prices of imported hydrocarbons have been on the up.
There is also this argument that while Western countries with their advanced systems and high purchasing power have the luxury to implement and afford sustainable supply chains, poor countries are not yet at a stage where they can make the pivot. The fear is that doing so fast and soon would disturb the latter’s farming economies and urban trade markets, creating shortages and inflation.
For the next round of climate talks – COP27 in Egypt – to succeed, a lot is riding on US and China, as well as India and other major polluters among developing countries, to agree on bold proposals to cap CO2 emissions and boost climate-related finance for vulnerable countries. Considering the nightmarish forecasts of temperature rise, the climate issue has the potential to unite countries. Yet, it is hard to imagine what will be different in 2022 that could lead to a better outcome than COP26.