Over 120 heads of state are expected to attend this year´s UN Climate Conference (COP 27), which begins Sunday, raising hopes that global leaders will at least give a nod to the most existential crisis facing humanity by bothering to attend in person.
But in a world paralysed by the Ukraine war, inflation and deep North-South divides, the chances of bold climate action continue to appear grim – even as the warnings of climate catastrophe and real life damages incurred in human lives, livelihoods and health continue to increase exponentially.
The hard decisions on the Cop27 table include demands from developing countries for formal recognition of the rising toll of ´loss and damage´ sustained by their economies due to climate events fuelled by decades of emissions they had little to do with.
Rich countries will also face calls from low- and middle-income countries to commit trillions more dollars in climate finance – a sentiment echoed by multiple recent UN reports – to assure their green transition. But they have yet to even reach the $100bn annually in support for the green climate fund goal agreed to in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.
Only 26 countries have made new climate mitigation commitments since the 2021 Glasgow Climate Conference (COP 26), a testimony to the lack of ambition displayed by the international community at a time when experts warn the possibility of keeping warming to 1.5 C is increasingly distant – or perhaps impossible.
Neither China’s president, Xi Jinping, head of the state of the world's second largest emitter, nor Indian prime minister Narendra Modi – who forced a last minute change to the language of the Glasgow Cop26 outcome statement from “phase out” to “phase down” of fossil fuels – are expected to attend, admitted Egyptian Ambassador Wael Aboulmagd, special adviser to the incoming COP presidency in a press briefing Friday morning.
Russia´’s Vladimir Putin, whose war in Ukraine has exacerbated the climate impacts of a global food crisis, is preoccupied. Besides, his country is perhaps the only one that stands to win from the climate crisis.
Agenda on opening day could be first point of dispute
The deep discord could already surface in opening day talks on Sunday, when an agenda for the 12 day-long meeting will need to be approved. This will require broad agreement with developing country demands to at least convene formal negotiating sessions on provisions for loss-and-damage compensation, as well as negotiations over a “just energy transition” – code words for continued fossil fuel development in the global South.
Speaking at a press briefing Friday, Aboulmagd said he hoped the agenda would be quickly finalised thanks to the ongoing intensive talks between COP parties this weekend.
He urged rivals like the United States and China to put aside their bilateral tensions, and countries more generally to “rise to the occasion” by aligning technical negotiating positions with public statements.
“The threat is real, none of this is about getting a few gains out of a negotiated text, it is about real lives that are being lost,” said Aboulmagd. We cannot continue on a path where pledges are made in front of cameras and then in the negotiating groups, we are back to an adversarial approach.
The world is at a tipping point, and Egypt hopes to be the unlikely hero to mediate conversations between world leaders to set the world on track to a climate recovery.
The urgency, the gravity of the challenge necessitates that we all show a spirit of compromise, show a little more empathy and understanding of the predicament of the other, Aboulmagd said. “Only when we do that and rise literally to the occasion that is before us, will we be able to meet the climate challenge.”
Egypt poised to play its role
If Egypt is facing criticism of its human rights record, it also has the unenviable task of bringing the very disparate and, in some cases, warring parties together.
But as the third most populous country in Africa and the biggest country in the Arab world, Cairo also has the potential to play a pivotal role in the talks, based on its record as an able player in regional and global diplomacy.
Official statements in the lead up to this year’s Cop have underlined that Egypt wants to push “win-win” achievements and practical implementation plans.
Aboulmagd stressed Cairo’s support for developing countries’ demands, as expressed recently by the G7, to finally tackle the mounting losses that poor countries are facing due to climate-related weather extremes.
He also reiterated a point made by the United Nations’ Environmental Programme’s (UNEP) Adaptation Gap report, released last week, that climate finance needs to increase from billions to “trillions” if developing countries are to afford the shift to more sustainable energy sources.
“$100bn is not going to even come close to addressing actual needs,” Aboulmagd said. ¨The overall finance landscape has to be revisited.
Stinging series of UN reports set the stage for COP 27
The start of the conference follows the release of a series of gloomy reports about the world’s current warming trajectory. UNEP’s
Emissions Gap report found that the world has both no credible pathway to 1.5ºC, and is on track for warming of 2.8ºC if current policies persist.
Without a historic pact between rich and poor countries, the planet is doomed to experience the worst of the climate crisis, warned UN secretary general Antonio Guterres on Friday ahead of Cop. His remarks were the latest in a string of stark warnings on the crisis, which world leaders have so far largely ignored.
There is no way we can avoid a catastrophic situation, if the two [the developed and developing world] are not able to establish a historic pact, he told the Guardian in an interview, because at the present level, the planet will be doomed.
Disease outbreaks and climate change go hand-in-hand
The secretary general´s warnings were echoed by WHO officials in a series of statements this week. In the Greater Horn of Africa, disease outbreaks and climate-related health emergencies are at their highest-ever level this century, WHO´s African Regional Office warned on Thursday.
Most of the region is battling its worst droughts in at least 40 years, with an unprecedented fifth rainy season failure now anticipated. And countries spared from drought face flooding and conflict, and 47 million people are already facing acute hunger.
The WHO analysis of the seven countries – Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Uganda – recorded 39 disease outbreaks. These included anthrax, measles, cholera, yellow fever, chikungunya, meningitis, and other infectious diseases, compounding the toll exacted by the droughts, flooding and other disasters that have struck this year.
Millions of children under the age of five in the region are estimated to be facing acute malnutrition, increasing their risk of not only starvation, but also of more severe outcomes from common childhood diseases, the WHO analysis reported.
And these figures are just a glimpse of the global situation, WHO´s Maria Neira and Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum noted at a Thursday Geneva press conference focused on health and climate.
In Pakistan the floods affected about 33 million people, but also impacted about 1500 health centres, Campbell-Lendrum said. Climate change and extreme weather are actually destroying our capacity to protect people from their impacts.
Climate change also is affecting water access and food security. As the important natural water reservoirs for countries from the Himalayas to Europe contained in glaciers melt, and once fertile ground across Latin America and Africa becomes unlivable, the health consequences are projected to be as extreme as the climates that catalyse them.
A few years ago, WHO estimated that we would be experiencing a minimum of 250,000 additional deaths from climate change by the 2030s, Campbell-Lendrum said. Everything that we’re now observing in the real world suggests that those impacts will either hit that number, or exceed it.
Health consequences still not featuring in core negotiations
While the health impacts of climate extremes have started to grab more headlines, it has not been enough to place health at the centre of Cop27 talks. The WHO has its own pavilion but as in previous years, official talks will continue to be dominated by climate conversations driven by energy, environment and foreign ministers, as well as heads of state.
This year’s Cop conference will feature the most extensive centering of health in its discussions, but the bar was low: the word “health” was not even mentioned in the final outcome document of Glasgow. And with no dedicated thematic day, health continues to rank outside of the key issues of finance, youth, science, agriculture and other topics.
Governments still sometimes think that climate action competes with saving money and other priorities, Campbell-Lendrum said. “In many cases, I don’t think it is that government’s don’t care, but that they don’t realise health does not compete with these priorities, it reinforces them.”
The case of fossil fuels, renewable energy and air pollution
As one case in point, the war in Ukraine has led to a renewed push for more fossil fuel development, particularly in Africa, as energy ministers in rich countries scramble to make up for shortfalls left by sanctions on Russian oil and gas.
At the same time, the lack of metrics to quantify the health impacts of fossil fuel use in climate and carbon accountancy means that the real costs of fossil fuels, including some $5.9 trillion annually on fossil fuel subsidies and dependency continue to be drastically undercounted.
Those costs include not only seven million lives lost to air pollution every year, but also related healthcare costs and loss of economic productivity.
“The most common objection to taking climate action up until now is the idea that it costs us money, that it’s too expensive to protect the global climate,” Campbell-Lendrum pointed out.
“That never made much sense. And it makes even less sense now as we’ve seen the prices of fossil fuel energy spike around the world to the extent that in Europe, at least gas is about nine times more expensive than renewable energy.
Solar energy, now the cheapest energy in history, Campbell-Lendrum remarked, is a quintessential example of how progress on health can go hand-in-hand with financial savings.
Solar is the healthiest form of energy because it doesn’t produce the air pollution that currently causes about one death every five seconds, he explained. This has started to raise awareness around the world that there are many reasons why we should get off our addiction to fossil fuels: they are killing us through air pollution, killing the planet, and draining our financial resources.
Costs of investments to transition nothing compared to benefits
¨If we are able to transition to renewable sources of energy, the cost of the investment you need at the beginning will be nothing compared with the benefit that we will obtain in terms of health and the cost for the health system, Dr Maria Neira, director of WHO´s department of environment, climate and health said in concluding Thursday’s press conference.
Reducing the reliance on fossil fuels will decrease the mortality and morbidities caused by air pollution. That means reducing asthma, lung cancer and other chronic pulmonary disease cases. It means reducing strokes. These are directly linked to exposure to the pollution resulting from the combustion of fossil fuels,¨ she pointed out.
Cutting carbon emissions will also provide benefits in tackling food insecurity, water- and vector-borne disease spread, and reducing health care costs, Neira continued. For every $1 invested in renewables, they generate four times more than fossil fuels in terms of jobs.
There are so many wins we can obtain by doing just one thing: cutting carbon emissions, Neira concluded – the question is why we are not doing more.