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Between Brundtland and COP 28: Navigating the Climate Action Horizon

Sacaria Joseph Sacaria Joseph
04 Dec 2023

Data from the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service reveals that the average global temperature between January and October 2023 has surpassed all previous records. In October 2023, the global average surface air temperature reached 15.3 degrees Celsius, marking a significant increase of 1.7 degrees Celsius from the pre-industrial period (1850-1900) average. Notably, October 2023 recorded a temperature 1.43 degrees Celsius higher than the global preindustrial average temperature, signaling a disconcerting trend. According to EU scientists, this surge positions 2023 to be the warmest year in the last 1,25,000 years. The anticipated impact of this unprecedented rise in temperature is expected to manifest itself towards the end of 2023 and into 2024. 

The resurgence of El Nino in June 2023, expected to last till April 2024, coupled with ongoing escalation in greenhouse gas emissions has significantly contributed to the remarkable surge in temperatures. El Nino, a natural climate pattern, manifests when the east-to-west trade winds across the equatorial Pacific Ocean weaken. This weakening allows the warm surface waters of the western Pacific to shift eastward toward the Americas. Operating in cycles of two to seven years, El Nino results in higher temperatures and amplified extreme weather events globally. Given that the impacts of El Nino are typically felt in the year following its formation, 2024 is expected to surpass 2023 in terms of temperature, intensifying the warming trend. 

The impact of climate change, stemming from global warming, stands as one of the most crucial topics in today's global discourse. It was in the mid-twentieth century that the global scientific community first voiced concerns about the escalating trend of global warming. Drawing on available scientific data, they argued that the surge in greenhouse gases—comprising water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gases—in the Earth's atmosphere is a direct consequence of human activities. These activities include the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, agriculture, industrial processes, and transportation.

By the late 1980s, increasing scientific research on environmental problems led to a heightened global awareness and concern regarding issues like deforestation, pollution, biodiversity loss, climate change, and global warming. Recognizing the gravity of the situation, the global community felt the need to respond, paving the way for an international effort to address these pressing environmental challenges. 

In response to the escalating environmental concerns, the United Nations (UN) took a pivotal step in 1983 by establishing the World Commission on Environment and Development, widely recognized as the Brundtland Commission. Tasked with addressing global environmental and developmental issues, the commission's extensive study culminated in the landmark report 'Our Common Future' in 1987, commonly known as the Brundtland Report. This influential document introduced and emphasized the concept of sustainable development – an approach that seeks to meet present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Beyond this, the report provided specific policy recommendations for governments, industries, and civil society, urging the promotion of sustainable development by striking a balance between economic growth, environmental protection, and social equity. The far-reaching recommendations of the Brundtland Report laid a robust foundation for numerous subsequent international environmental and sustainable developmental initiatives.

At present, various organizations operating under the United Nations umbrella engage in research, collaboration, and coordinated efforts to tackle the intricate and interconnected challenges of climate change, environmental conservation, and sustainable development. This collective endeavor reached a significant milestone with the convening of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), widely known as 'The Earth Summit,' in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992. Attended by representatives from nearly 172 countries, The Earth Summit resulted in the establishment of a pivotal international treaty known as The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) that took effect on 21 March 1994.  It was entrusted with the crucial responsibility of addressing global climate change and its repercussions stemming from the emission of greenhouse gases. The goals, recommendations, rules, and obligations outlined by UNFCCC were deemed legally binding on the countries that became parties to the agreement. 

The Conference of the Parties (COP), an annual conference of countries that have endorsed the UNFCCC, serves as the paramount decision-making entity within the UNFCCC.  During COP, member countries come together to deliberate on important climate-related issues, formulate strategies to implement the goals of the UNFCCC and assess advancements in their collective efforts.  This annual gathering plays a pivotal role in shaping the global response to climate change and fostering international cooperation on environmental sustainability.

Since the first COP was held in Berlin, Germany, in March 1995, there have been 27 COPS so far, the last one being at Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt in 2022. COP 28 is scheduled to be held in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE) from 30 November to 12 December 2023. 
COP 3, held in Kyoto, Japan in 1997, stands as a pivotal moment in the global battle against climate change, chiefly for the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol. This landmark agreement established concrete and binding targets compelling developed nations to limit their greenhouse gas emissions. The targets were set based on historical responsibility, acknowledging their significant contributions to past emissions. In the initial commitment period spanning from 2008 to 2012, these developed nations collectively pledged to reduce emissions by an average of 5.2% below their 1990 levels.

Moreover, the Kyoto Protocol underscored the ethical obligation of these developed countries to provide financial and technological assistance to their developing counterparts in addressing climate change. COP 3 not only solidified these commitments but also played a crucial role in shaping the trajectory of discussions and negotiations in subsequent COP meetings.

COP 15, convened in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2009, yielded the Copenhagen Accord, representing a significant milestone in the worldwide endeavor to tackle climate change. This accord recognized the imperative to cap global temperature increases at 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, a threshold beyond which the consequences of climate change intensify. While the Copenhagen Accord lacked legal binding force, it established a framework for nations to voluntarily submit their targets for reducing emissions.

The Copenhagen Accord encountered criticism for its perceived incompetence in achieving its goals, primarily due to its nonbinding nature and the absence of enforcement mechanisms. Nevertheless, it played a crucial role as a precursor to the Paris Agreement, which was adopted in 2015 during COP 21 in Paris, France, and came into force the following year.

The Paris Agreement established an important mandate to restrict the global temperature increase to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, with a preferred target of 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. An integral component of this mandate was the commitment to achieve net-zero emissions, wherein emissions are counterbalanced by removing an equivalent amount of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, achieved through methods like carbon capture and storage or reforestation.

In pursuit of these ambitious goals, the Paris Agreement required all member countries to submit their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). These NDCs outline their committed actions and targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change. Importantly, the agreement mandates a regular revision of these contributions every five years. 

The concept of the pre-industrial average global temperature, while not precisely defined, is commonly estimated to be around 13.6 to 13.7 degrees Celsius by most sources. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the present average global temperature exceeds this pre-industrial baseline by approximately 1.1 degrees Celsius. Should the global temperature increase by 1.5 degrees Celsius above this pre-industrial level, severe consequences are anticipated. These include the alarming melting of ice sheets and glaciers, leading to rising sea levels, coastal erosion, heavy rainfall, floods, heat waves, droughts, storms, and wildfires. These adverse effects pose significant threats to ecosystems, biodiversity, wildlife habitat, crops, infrastructure, the economy, and human health, and may result in human displacement. Mitigating climate change and limiting temperature increases are crucial endeavors to avert these catastrophic impacts.

As the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, India has demonstrated a commitment to ambitious climate action through its Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC). In the revised NDC submitted in 2022, India outlines key targets, including a commitment to reduce the emissions intensity of its GDP by 45% by 2030 compared to 2005 levels. Additionally, India aims to generate at least 50% of its electricity from non-fossil fuel sources such as solar, wind, hydropower, and nuclear power by 2030. The country also plans to establish an additional carbon sink of 2.5-3 billion tons of CO2 equivalent through afforestation and reforestation.

India's progress towards these NDC targets is notable, with significant strides in the installation of renewable energy sources and the creation of additional carbon sinks through afforestation and reforestation initiatives. In a noteworthy announcement at COP 26 in 2021, India revealed its ambitious plan to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2070. However, this objective would necessitate a substantial investment of USD 10.1 trillion. 

The concept of achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions, wherein the total emissions are balanced by the removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, underscores India's commitment to mitigating climate change. Notably, while China, the largest emitter, aims for net zero by 2060, and the USA, the second-largest emitter, plans to achieve the same by 2050, India's target of 2070 reflects its commitment to a sustainable and low-carbon future.

The Paris Agreement includes a provision for periodic assessments of collective progress by the signatories to the UNFCCC towards achieving the agreement's objectives. COP 28 will mark the second such assessment since the inception of the Paris Agreement. This evaluation will focus on each country's advancements in terms of 'Mitigation' and 'Adaptation' as integral components of climate financing.  

'Mitigation' denotes actions taken to diminish greenhouse gas emissions and decelerate the progression of climate change. 'Adaptation,' on the other hand, encompasses actions implemented to assist both people and ecosystems in coping with the impacts of climate change. This dual evaluation framework reflects the multi-faceted approach required to address the challenges posed by climate change and underscores the commitment of the international community to comprehensively assess and enhance its efforts towards a sustainable and resilient future.

Climate financing includes the crucial ‘Loss and Damage’ program as well. The concept of 'Loss and Damage' gained traction during COP 19 in Warsaw, Poland, in 2013, when member countries reached an agreement to establish the 'Loss and Damage' (L&D) fund. This fund was designed to offer financial and technical support to developing countries facing the most severe impacts of climate change.

The establishment of the L&D fund occurred during COP 25 in Madrid, Spain. However, at that time, member countries did not make specific commitments to the fund. This lack of commitment stemmed from disagreements on several issues, including the identification of donors and beneficiaries.

However, during COP 27 held in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt in 2022, they agreed to set up a Transitional Committee (TC) tasked with addressing the logistical aspects of launching the 'Loss and Damage' fund. This committee, convened in Luxor, Egypt, in March 2023, made progress on issues such as governance structure and mode of fund allocation. The latest consensus emerging from the TC meeting in Luxor anticipates that the finalization of logistical details for the 'Loss and Damage' fund could occur during COP 28 in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). 

In the meantime, the G20 countries, in their September 2023 meeting held in India, acknowledged the substantial financial requirements for developing nations to fulfill their emission reduction commitments under the Paris Agreement. It was emphasized that, for developing countries to implement even less than half of their emission reduction programs by 2030, they would need a substantial sum of USD 5.9 trillion. Additionally, an annual investment of USD 4 trillion in clean energy technologies, including solar, wind, hydroelectric, and biomass energy, is essential for these countries to achieve a net-zero status by 2050.

During the meeting, the developed countries committed themselves to generating an annual sum of USD 100 million to help the developing countries meet their emission reduction target. While it is a significant step forward, it is important to note that this is just a fraction of the amount that developing countries need to implement their emission reduction programs and transition to clean energy. As per the estimate of IPCC, developing countries require $100 billion per year in climate finance. 

It is indeed noteworthy that COP 28 is being held in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a country characterized as a petrostate and an OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) member. The UAE's economy has traditionally been heavily reliant on the extraction and export of oil and natural gas, positioning it as a significant player in the global fossil fuel market. However, the UAE has made significant commitments to reducing its reliance on fossil fuels and transitioning to a clean energy economy.

COP 28 meetings are being presided over by Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology and the CEO and Managing Director of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), one of the world’s largest oil companies. A strong advocate of climate action, he is also the UAE Special Envoy for Climate Change. His dual role as a leader in the oil industry and a climate advocate highlights the complexities and nuances involved in navigating the transition to a more sustainable and low-carbon future.

Al Jaber has the challenging responsibility of presiding over and navigating through COP 28. He has to build consensus among parties on complex and contentious issues and arrive at definitive commitments towards climate action while balancing the economic interests of ADNOC as well as the UAE’s commitment to climate action.  

Pope Francis received a special invitation to COP 28, due to his unwavering commitment to environmental causes, exemplified through his encyclical 'Laudato Si' (Praise Be), published in 2015 ahead of the Paris Conference, and his apostolic exhortation, ‘Laudate Deum’ (Praise God) published in anticipation of COP 28 in 2023. He had to unfortunately pull out due to his ill health.

The very invitation of Pope Francis underscores the significant intersection of religious and ethical dimensions within the context of climate change and the broader global effort to combat environmental challenges. His presence was sure to add a unique and influential dimension to the discussions at COP 28.

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