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UN climate talks: What are the top priorities?

November 4, 2022

As Egypt gets set to host what's been described as Africa's COP, energy challenges related to the war in Ukraine and COVID recovery efforts continue to overshadow climate commitments. A look at what's at stake.

The sun rises in an orange and hazy sky next to a coal-fired power plant in Germany
Faced with energy shortages due to the war in Ukraine, Germany and other countries have restarted old coal power plantsImage: Julian Stratenschulte/dpa/picture alliance

With Russia's war in Ukraine and protests in Iran dominating headlines ahead of the COP27 climate summit in Egypt, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned that world leaders are losing sight of the "life-or-death struggle" of climate change.

Speaking with reporters in New York in October, he said leading industrialized nations needed to step up and fully deliver on their collective commitments, including the $100 billion (€102 billion) per year pledge to support climate action in developing countries, set to expire in 2025. That target, originally set to start in 2020, is still out of reach.

"The actions of the wealthiest developed and emerging economies simply don't add up," said Guterres. "Taken together, current pledges and policies are shutting the door on our chance to limit global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius [3.6 degrees Fahrenheit], let alone meet the 1.5-degree goal."

Following the recent devastating floods in Pakistan and record heat waves and drought around the globe, "loss and damage" is set to take a central role in negotiations in the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh in November. The idea of providing compensation to vulnerable countries for losses, both economic and cultural, linked to climate catastrophes was first broached at the 2013 climate summit in Warsaw.

But progress has been sluggish. Rich nations like the United States and European countries have been reluctant to commit to a dedicated fund, which could amount to hundreds of billions annually by 2030, offsetting the heavy cost of their high greenhouse gas emissions.

Why is loss and damage important?

It's an especially pressing issue in low-lying island states, nations which are the most vulnerable to rising seas and increasingly destructive storms.

"We have run out of time to waste — our islands are being hit with more severe and more frequent climate impacts and recovery comes at the cost of our development," said Walton Webson, chair of the Alliance of Small Island States, at the UN General Assembly in September.

Webson said solely focusing on adaptation efforts isn't enough. "Where are we finding the money to rebuild? Why must our islands, which contribute the least to the emissions that cause this crisis, pay the highest price?"

A teenager swims through a flooded area to reach his home in Aberao village
Tiny Kiribati, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, is one of the countries most affected by sea level riseImage: Sokhin/UNICEF/ZUMA Press/picture alliance

Wael Aboulmagd, Egypt's special representative for the climate summit, told reporters earlier this year that COP27 would prioritize the issue and "find financing for countries who are in extreme need to address the immediate losses and damages that wipe out a significant part of their annual GDP."

Shift to renewables amid energy crisis

This climate summit will be the first to take place since Russia began throttling its supply of natural gas and other fossil fuels earlier this year, in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine. Russia's retaliation against punishing global sanctions have sparked an energy crisis, particularly in Europe, and highlighted the need to transition to renewable energy.

The COP27 Egyptian presidency has made "the promise of innovation and clean technologies" a key part of the agenda, with several days devoted to green hydrogen and the decarbonization of energy.

At last year's climate summit in Glasgow, a major focus was on ending fossil fuel use, especially when it comes to generating electricity. One outcome saw more than 30 countries pledge to end direct public support "for the international unabated fossil fuel energy sector by the end of 2022," estimated at around $24 billion annually.

But war-induced energy shortages have undermined efforts to increase the share of renewables in the mix, with some countries — including Germany — looking back to coal and oil to make up the shortfall. How this new uncertainty will alter the goal to speed up the transition to renewable energy is set to be a key discussion in Sharm el-Sheikh.

Developing world needs climate financing

African environment and finance ministers, however, have spoken out against a swift move away from fossil fuels, citing the risk to their economic growth. While many scientists, climate activists and the UN have said renewable energy is the only way forward, Nigerian Finance Minister Zainab Ahmed pointed out that some countries don't have a choice.

"If we are not getting reasonably-priced finance to develop gas, we are denying the citizens in our countries the opportunities to attain basic development," she said at the Cairo meeting of the African ministers in September. Many African countries also rely on oil and gas exports to fund climate adaptation measures, such as the expansion of renewable energy projects or energy efficiency measures.

With Egypt focused on championing African interests during COP, a "just and affordable energy transition" for the continent will also be a central theme. Africa's climate financing gap is roughly $108 billion per year, according to an estimate by the African Development Bank — it receives less than 5.5% of global climate financing, partly due to risk perception and underdeveloped green finance markets.

"The truth of the matter is that the resources that we need, need to be leveraged. They need to be de-risked," Amina J. Mohammed, the UN deputy secretary-general and Nigeria's former environment minister, told DW in September. "They need solutions that come to the table that allow these resources to flow. That's not happening. And it needs to happen yesterday."

Africa 'totally distressed' by climate change

Debt relief could also feature heavily in the discussions at COP27, especially in the wake of the economic crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. A recent analysis by the International Institute for Environment and Development said immediate debt relief for 58 developing countries — more than three-quarters of them in sub-Saharan Africa — could liberate some $105 billion in government finance for climate efforts.

"With millions of people in the most indebted countries already suffering flooding, wildfires and scorching heat, a scheme addressing sovereign debt, alongside the climate crisis and biodiversity loss would bring three times the benefits," said Sejal Patel, an environmental economist at IIED. "Well-designed climate and nature programmes would strengthen the economic resilience of those countries and therefore their future debt carrying capacity."

"This is an implementation COP. It's happening in Africa," said Mohammed. "If we can't demonstrate commitments to Africa at this time, then really the promises are broken."

Edited by: Tamsin Walker

Martin Kuebler Senior editor and reporter living in Brussels, with a focus on environmental issues