As after every climate summit, the air is filled with shouts of rage and despair. What was agreed was unclear and inadequate and what was left undecided or simply ignored was vast and terrifying. For example, they still haven’t managed to agree that the world needs to stop burning fossil fuels.
What? Isn’t that what this whole travelling circus is about? The climate is getting hotter because we are burning fossil fuels for energy; soon people will be dying in large numbers — in 20 or 30 years, entire countries will become uninhabitable, so stop! Alternative energy sources are available! Act now, or global disaster will happen!
Yes, that’s what it’s about and every year tens of thousands of politicians, experts, campaigners and lobbyists trek to a different location — Glasgow last year, Sharm-al-Sheikh this year, the United Arab Emirates next year — to debate and decide how to deal with this literally existential threat.
And in all those 27 years, they haven’t even managed to mention the name of the threat? No, they haven’t. Last year, for the first time, they actually inserted the word “coal” into the final report — we will eventually “phase it down” (not “out”), they said — but the words “gas” and “oil” are still taboo.
This is what you get when a global institution is ruled by consensus. Everybody has a veto, including the coal, gas and oil-dependent countries — and the short-term interests of some (money and rapid fossil-fuelled economic growth) clash with everybody’s long-term interest in not experiencing a huge population die-back and civilisational collapse.
Oh, well. This is the price you pay for belonging to a species still emerging from a long tribal past that has developed a high-tech, high-energy civilisation before it was culturally equipped to manage it. Do the best you can and hope that it will be enough.
So much for the philosophy. What actually happened at Sharm-al-Sheikh?
After the inevitable all-night negotiations (two all-nighters, in fact), they managed to agree on a new fund that will recompense poor countries that suffer “loss and damage” from extreme climate events. The money will come from the developed countries whose historic and current emissions are the reason for the damage.
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Pakistan’s catastrophic floods made it this year’s poster boy. Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif told the conference: “Despite seven times the average of extreme rain in the south, we struggled on as raging torrents ripped out 8 000km of (paved) roads, damaged over 3 000km of railway track and washed away standing crops on four million acres.
“We became a victim of something with which we had nothing to do and, of course, it was a man-made disaster ... How on Earth can one expect from us that we will undertake this gigantic task on our own?
“‘Loss and damage’ is not charity; it’s climate justice,” said Pakistan’s climate envoy Nabeel Munir, and this time the message got through. That’s about par for the course: if you bring up the same obvious injustice at the climate summits every year for a decade or so, eventually those who did the harm and should pay the price will admit that you have a case.
It should now take only two or three more years to set up the new “loss and damage” agency and agree on the rules for who pays how much into it each year and exactly what qualifies as climate-related damage eligible for compensation.
The biggest remaining question by far is what about China? It is still classified as a developing country and therefore automatically a victim, but actually it is a middle-income country and the world’s single biggest emitter of carbon dioxide. It’s bigger than all the rest of the developed countries together and almost three times bigger than the United States.
Should it be paying into the “loss and damage” fund, rather than claiming money from it? And how about India? It’s only third in total emissions now, after the US, but it will also probably overtake America in the next 10 years.
So the titanic struggle over who pays for the climate-linked loss and damage inflicted on the poorest countries will continue, but at least the next climate summit can also focus on other things. Just as well, because stopping at the “aspirational” target of no more than a 1,5°C rise in average global temperature is probably a lost cause by now.
The “never-exceed” hard target is no more than +2,0°C, because after that we lose control. The heating we have already caused will trigger warming “feedbacks” in the system that we cannot turn off and away we go into the nightmare future.
So it’s good to see them getting a little more reasonable each year at these summits. There is still a very long way to go, but at least we are moving in the right direction.
Dyer is a London-based independent journalist. His new book is titled The Shortest History of War.