The 27th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has just begun in Egypt. As the conference’s President-Designate, Egypt’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukry, recently wrote, the meeting is being held “at a critical time of cascading risks and overlapping crises” – including warfare, inflation, an ongoing pandemic, and more.
In short, we are facing a global polycrisis. In that context, it is hard to imagine COP27 will result in a significant ramping up of global climate action. In the long run, though, ambitious climate action now offers the antidote for some of the compounding risks of the polycrisis.
The polycrisis is obviously not an ideal backdrop for a climate conference billed as the “Implementation COP“, the meeting intended to put last year’s Glasgow Climate Pact into effect. The outstanding challenges from last year’s COP26, for instance, include securing $100 billion in climate financing from developed to developing countries, and on top of that figuring out a financing mechanism to cover the costs of loss and damage in poorer nations. The looming threat of a global recession may discourage the pledges necessary to meet those urgently needed funding arrangements.
As Adam Tooze writes, the polycrisis “is not just a situation where you face multiple crises”, but rather a situation “where the whole is even more dangerous than the sum of the parts”. The ongoing pandemic, the inflation crisis (which also compounds global food security and energy crises), the growing numbers of displaced peoples, the risk of nuclear escalation in Ukraine, the consolidation of power amongst authoritarian regimes, the continuing political gains made by right-wing populist movements in the West – these all exacerbate the climate crisis or make climate action more difficult. In some instances (the food crisis and the global displacement crisis), the problems are exacerbated by climate change itself. These concurrent crises are precursors to a future where the risk of interstate war and the collapse of the global climate regime are both increasingly likely.
The irony is that while the contemporary geopolitical and economic situation may make cooperation on climate action more difficult, more ambitious climate action today could help address these interrelated geopolitical economic crises in at least four ways.
First, a more rapid global shift away from fossil fuels would not only mark strong climate action, but it could help to de-finance the Russian war machine. While Russia has benefited enormously from high energy prices, it has already started to face lower revenues from fossil fuel exports relative to before its invasion of Ukraine, thanks to the EU ban on Russian oil. Russia has sought buyers outside of the EU but has had to sell at discount prices. A world with much lower demand for fossil fuels is a world with much less well-resourced petro-despots like Vladimir Putin (or Mohammed bin Salman, for that matter).
Second, the shift to clean energy is an important tool in easing inflation in the long run. In many parts of the world today, renewables serve as the cheapest energy source. By investing in clean energy and storage, we can help defray the costs of energy for everyday people while also tackling climate change through shuttering fossil fuel plants. In addition, we help to reduce the cost of food since a significant driver of global food commodity price increases is higher oil and gas prices, which again would likely see downward pressure if global demand declines.
Third, a successful green transition can alleviate economic grievances that underlie growing right-wing populism in the West by providing well-paying, unionized jobs. A stronger economic base with a ready supply of good green jobs could help stem the growing tide of economic disenchantment. It would, of course, be good for climate change mitigation as well.
Finally, ambitious climate financing from industrialized economies to poorer nations can help bolster climate-friendly development projects and provide new employment opportunities in the Global South, supporting poverty reduction and – if the financing genuinely results in more climate-resilient infrastructure – reducing the extent of loss and damage from extreme weather events. This would all work away at the many forces driving an increase in human displacement too.
We should not be naïve about the future: The global polycrisis is real and does not bode well for a harmonious COP27. It is a dark irony, though, that a fractious COP27 may not necessarily mean failure. If rich polluting industrialized nations, in particular, are compelled to continue to walk the talk on climate action, ambitiously ramp down fossil fuel use, usher in a green transition, and fulfil prior commitments for international climate finance, we could have just enough momentum to start working “backwards” through various nodes of the polycrisis. Rather than a vicious cycle, a virtuous circle of progress for humanity is indeed possible, even though it is hard to imagine it without a major ramping up of climate action at this year’s COP.
Originally published on the McLeod Group Blog on November 7th, 2022