COP27 will take place in a bleak geopolitical context. Yet there are reasons for cautious optimism. Broad mobilisations of civil society offer glimmers of hope, building networks and alliances across borders, and exerting a growing power that is becoming harder to ignore. Rather than proclaiming the failure of climate diplomacy, we should seek to redefine it, argues Lucile Schmid. A new climate agenda must extend to all areas of politics, society, and the economy.

As COP26 drew to a close on 13 November 2021, its president, British minister Alok Sharma, fought back tears. The pact’s ambition had just been significantly watered down. At India’s insistence, the text now spoke of a commitment to “phase down” rather than “phase out” coal. The Indian government had prevailed in Glasgow with the support of its Chinese rival, while the divergences between countries of the Global North and Global South remained unreconciled. Whether on priorities – mitigation, adaptation, loss, and damage – or financial commitments, the gap had widened. Despite a 4 per cent increase since 2019 – including an extra 40 per cent for adaptation – in 2020 there was still a 17-billion-dollar shortfall in the Green Climate Fund for developing countries. The delay in putting this solidarity mechanism in place is serious in light of the growing scale of loss and damage[1].

COP26 thus cruelly laid bare the reluctance of Western powers to honour their obligations towards the Global South. While Joe Biden’s United States has re-engaged with these obligations, this has primarily been motivated by the opportunities that climate ambition offers for the American economy and jobs. The relatively low profile kept by the European Union highlighted the challenges of turning the Green Deal into a tool for external influence; it disappointed developing countries who expected more support with financing. And by offering a high-quality nationally determined contribution, China almost made up for the absence of Xi Jinping.

Geopolitical complications

Since then, a series of events have illustrated both the need for a new model and the impossibility of achieving it through state policies. The war in Ukraine has exposed EU countries’ dependence on Russian gas in particular, and fossil fuels in general, as well as developing countries’ vulnerability to famine when global food markets are disrupted. Many of these nations have sought to avoid taking sides in this conflict. More than ideological non-alignment, this caution betrays their distrust of the West. At the same time, the United States and China, the two main greenhouse gas emitters, have been openly hostile to one another since the visit of House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan this summer (In response, China announced the suspension of cooperation between the two countries on climate.)

But while a hot war and a new cold war are being fought, climate catastrophes continue. In Pakistan, record-breaking monsoon rains have turned the lives of 33 million people upside down and left one third of the country under water. This disaster is a tipping point. For a regional power with 225 million inhabitants and almost 800,000 km2 of territory to be plunged into catastrophe starkly resonates with the appeals made at COP after COP by small island states (Tuvalu, Kiribati, the Maldives and others). As for biodiversity, it has continued to collapse. WWF’s latest Living Planet report, published in October 2022, highlights the increasingly strong links between climate change and species extinction.

How can we imagine COP27 being even a partial success like Glasgow?

In this new global landscape, the EU’s commitments to phase out fossil fuels and to end international public finance of this industry, which were confirmed at COP26, have been eclipsed by the urgent search for new or strengthened fossil-fuel partnerships (with the likes of the United States, Israel, Algeria, and Egypt) to wean itself off Russian gas. Since the end of 2021, the majority of American LNG exports have been destined for Europe rather than the Asia-Pacific region. And in France, fallout from the controversy surrounding Total’s partnerships with Russia has continued. When will there be a genuine change of model?

“Getting through the winter” seems to have become the goal that trumps all else in Europe, as Vladimir Putin resorts to nuclear blackmail and governments fear the continent-wide spread of movements inspired by France’s gilets jaunes. How then can we imagine COP27, which will take place at Sharm-el-Sheikh in Egypt in November 2022, being even a partial success like Glasgow?

A foregone conclusion?

The first African country to host a COP meeting for six years, Egypt — which has also been heavily criticised for its repressive policies on human rights — wants to focus on climate finance, particularly loss and damage. Countries from the Global South are pushing for a new financing facility to be launched at COP27. The summit’s other main objective is to raise climate ambition to stay on course in limiting global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees. “No backtracking on commitments and promises will be permitted,” declared the Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sameh Shoukry. But the script appears to have already been written: a dialogue of the deaf between a North committed to increasing defence spending and fearful of shortages and social unrest, and a South just trying to survive. And, in the middle, giants China and India, opportunist referees acting in their own self-interest. Will climate diplomacy be stillborn as war and geopolitical tensions encourage a return to the traditional view of power?

When they are democratic, governments cannot remain unmoved by society’s determination.

Let us not write it off just yet. That would be to ignore what it is built on. This is by no means to absolve countries of all blame. But governments are not the only players. And when they are democratic, governments cannot remain unmoved by society’s determination. Since the COPs began, they have evolved, gradually moving beyond the realm of “ordinary” international negotiations. The expression “climate diplomacy” emerged from this evolution. While conferences continue to separate spaces for official discussion from those for side events led by civil society organisations, meetings and conversations between these two sides of COP are frequent during the two weeks it is in session. Indeed, the success of a COP is judged in part on the expertise brought by NGOs, scientists, and activists, not just on the official communication. These conferences are an opportunity to consolidate, regain momentum, dive deeper, and exert pressure for a community that keeps growing. The climate agenda cannot be reduced to COPs and preparations for them.

The power of social movements

Ever since the foundations were laid at COP21 in Paris-Le Bourget, a hitherto unseen landscape has slowly taken shape before our eyes. With the creation of fora for discussions on specific industries or geographic areas (regional COPs), the success of climate lawsuits and alternative economic models (the circular economy, degrowth), activism that is as strong as ever, and environmental disasters forcing developed countries to adapt too, a green wave has been sweeping across the world. In the midst of environmental crises, an international society and a new culture are emerging in which the players are forging new ways of collaborating, negotiating, and decision-making.

This does not mean that societies are already united and that this green society has no enemies:[2] the NGO Global Witness revealed that hundreds of fossil fuel lobbyists were present in Glasgow for COP26, well aware of the threat hanging over their livelihoods. Neither does it mean that tensions over social and territorial justice are palpable everywhere. Or that the citizens of the Global North and South are experiencing the climate emergency to the same extent. Nevertheless, climate diplomacy no longer consists solely of nationally determined contributions and official climate negotiations. Today, it is non-state actors who are pushing for greater ambition. Whether it is through the pressure they exert, the commitments they make, or the role they play in democratising complex issues, as the scientific community and increasing numbers of media outlets are doing (notably with the Charter for green journalism published in France on 14 September 2022). Talking about climate diplomacy means envisaging the prospect of a green society.

But there are also non-state actors working against the climate, chief among them the fossil fuel industry, while the global energy crisis has allowed some companies to make record profits. In the energy sector, there is a real risk of a rolling-back of environmental obligations and decarbonisation objectives. The rise of renewable energies is weakened. With restrictions on access to Russian gas, for example, we are witnessing a European campaign in favour of the exploitation of shale gas in the name of innovation and national independence.

Joining the dots between the climate and the economy

The growing success of calls for energy saving and degrowth, and the concern this is causing among people living in poverty and economic insecurity, as well as those who profit from this, underline the urgent need for a new climate agenda on transforming the economic model. This is undoubtedly what climate diplomacy lacks most today: a forum for openly discussing this new green economy, of which there are growing signs locally but which remains far too unambitious when it comes to global implementation. The three existing COPs cover the climate, biodiversity, and desertification. When will an economic COP be created that is not just a pale imitation of the World Economic Forum, but an alternative G20 that brings together countries from the Global North and South? The success of world social forums has shown the way. But the urgency of today’s situation requires first and foremost that economic actors, primarily businesses, to switch from one model to another. An economic COP should not hesitate to bring together yesterday’s adversaries, so long as their commitments to building a shared future converge. 

The urgency of today’s situation requires economic actors, primarily businesses, to switch from one model to another.

Today, the proliferation of proposals in the energy field is primarily in the name of the short term and relegates ecological concerns as secondary. Such a forum would provide a framework for articulating coherence between ecology and economy and pointing out the inconsistencies of the flood of proposals being churned out every day.

Clearly, climate diplomacy frames the link with democracy differently from diplomacy in its traditional sense, where diplomats, plying their trade in secrecy, report to their governments and express official positions. Are we not all climate diplomats in our own way?

What will happen in Sharm-el-Sheikh in a world where wars, geopolitical tensions, and climate catastrophes are intertwined? At these conferences that drag on for two weeks, sudden bursts of activity, surprises, and plot twists are inevitable. Where will they lead? Can we expect raised ambitions for nationally determined contributions when the energy crisis has put fossil fuel producers centre stage again, including Saudi Arabia, which sought to derail the Paris Agreement? We should prepare for further disappointment on this front. But above all, we must focus on assessing the Global North’s ability to finally respond to the humanitarian emergency caused by the environmental crises in the South. The EU will have a major role to play here. As in Glasgow, it is by opening up this conference as widely as possible to the outside world and by giving voice to the concerns, activism, and initiatives of non-state actors, that genuine international solidarity can emerge.

[1] According to a report from the Climate Vulnerable Forum published in Bonn in June 2022, climate change has caused a 20 per cent loss in growth for the most exposed countries in Africa, the Asia-Pacific region, Latin America, and the Caribbean since 2000, a loss valued at 525 billion dollars. And the most exposed 10 per cent among them have seen their growth cut by 50 per cent.

[2] A reference to Serge Audier’s book La société écologique et ses ennemis, La Découverte (2017)

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