Food and energy crises threaten to distract from climate talks
Delegates will arrive at COP27 in Egypt this week preoccupied. The UN climate summit comes at a time of international tumult, with Russia’s weaponisation of gas supplies as part of its war in Ukraine, and the ensuing food and energy shocks, triggering worldwide price hikes and economic woe.
Some fear the gas and food crises could derail negotiations on carbon emissions, stalling the world’s clean energy transition at a critical juncture.
“So far this year, the geopolitical situation has completely sapped momentum,” says Tom Evans, a policy adviser at climate think-tank E3G. As inflation bites and living standards are squeezed, firefighting at home has distracted governments from the fiercer blaze on the horizon.
Food and energy shocks have caused nations to turn inwards, to shore up domestic energy supplies and protect grain stocks. Evans says the situation is different from that of COP26 last year, when the circumstances of the pandemic fostered a more co-operative spirit. “Back then, we had a much more open geopolitical space.”
Now, war in Ukraine has brought geopolitical divisions and battered a global food system already weakened by Covid. Developing nations in Asia and Africa find themselves at the centre of these shocks, compounded by extreme weather that has seen drought ravage crops and pushed communities in the Horn of Africa and elsewhere to the brink of famine.
But others hope this collision of crises could spur change at COP27. “The fact that this summit is going to take place on the front lines of the convergent climate, food and energy crises in Africa offers an opportunity like never before,” argues Mohamed Adow, director of energy and climate think-tank Power Shift Africa. “This COP is not just a climate conference. It’s a conference to help the world address all these intersecting crises.”
Food has finally been dragged up the agenda, says Agnes Kalibata, president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, having been “the missing piece in climate negotiations for far too long”. This year, a coalition of international food organisations is hosting the summit’s first ever food systems pavilion dedicated to food system change.
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However, while the energy crisis has exposed the fragility of relying on fossil fuels from potentially hostile neighbours and the better longer-term economics of renewables, the immediate reaction of most governments has been to build up fossil fuel resources.
At COP26 last year, the summit’s president Alok Sharma said countries were turning their backs on coal. But he was almost moved to tears by the failure to convince China and India to agree to a phaseout of coal in the final agreement stage of the Glasgow talks.
Some leaders are still not willing to let fossil fuels go. The UK recently tried to lift a moratorium on fracking. President Joe Biden was seen fist-bumping Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, in July, in a plea for more oil. Germany’s chancellor Olaf Scholz also visited the Gulf state in September to secure energy imports. From Japan to the Netherlands, nations are building, reopening or delaying the closure of coal power stations while investing in oil and gas development abroad. Even the UN’s Race to Zero initiative has removed an explicit ban on financing new coal projects from its guidelines. It is unlikely that the words “phaseout” will appear in any COP27 texts.
Although some of these moves may be short-term, they still take countries further from their net zero emissions targets. And the pledges and nationally determined contributions (NDCs) — legally binding targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — put forward at COP26 will not be enough to limit global warming to the redline target of 2C from the Paris agreement, even if met in full.
Only a small number of governments have strengthened their NDCs since then, so negotiations are more likely to focus on getting countries back on track with reductions and implementing plans to turn those pledges into concrete action.
Energy will be one of many faultlines between developed and developing nations, and these divisions will set the tone of all talks. In Glasgow, developing countries argued they should not be denied the opportunity to boost growth by exploiting their natural gas and oil reserves. Now, some western countries, having historically blocked the investment of development funds in these sectors, are trying to establish new sources of fossil fuels in low-income countries, sparking accusations of hypocrisy.
“Due to the current crises, we’re seeing a dash for gas in Africa, effectively turning Africa into Europe’s gas station and hooking us on the dirty stuff,” says Adow. “And we have African leaders who will want to grab that opportunity, particularly given the rise in fossil fuel prices.”
With “together for implementation” as this year’s motto, Adow and others are optimistic that the climate summit will compel global leaders to look beyond domestic concerns and geopolitical rivalries — to refocus on the huge task of reaching net zero.
“In a divided world, where we’re seeing what’s happening with Russia and Ukraine, and between the US, Europe and China. Climate is the thing that may help build the kind of global co-operation we need,” Adow says.
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