COP talks as ambition police

Part of what makes Greta Thunberg such a powerful voice in climate activism is her no-nonsense communication.

Yesterday, for example, she called the impending COP27 climate talks, to be held in Egypt on November 6-18, an opportunity for “people in power” to “greenwash”, “lie” and “cheat”. Her words are presumably referring to the world’s wealthiest nations resisting efforts by the less, and in fact the least, wealthy nations to secure more funds to adapt to the climate crisis, research and implement new technologies, resettle vulnerable people and safeguard threatened livelihoods and geographies.

In the past, wealthier countries – as well as the institutions that sustain their wealthy status – have also been reluctant to take responsibility for historical emissions and for the role of their colonialist or imperialist policies, as the came may be, in perpetrating inequity.

At the COP21 in Paris six years ago, the famous Paris Agreement was signed after intense day/night negotiations, only to come to a weak agreement on the 1.5º C threshold, and even without any legal bindings. Last year’s COP26 in Glasgow ended as a disappointment, with negotiators’ focus squarely on climate finance. At the upcoming COP27 in Egypt, the talks will take off on this point.

At this juncture, and in fact against the backdrop of the UK having defaulted on a $288 million commitment to the Green Climate Fund, Thunberg’s comments must be welcome for all the less-than-rich countries. However, the unqualified nature of her statement – painting COP27 in toto as something resembling a sham – should be unwelcome for the same group for a few reasons.

Apart from providing an arena in which nations on the roughly two sides of the climate finance crisis can meet, these climate talks, organised under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, also provide a stage on which countries forge alliances and where – with the advantage of uninterrupted media attention – lesser known voices from remote parts of the world can make themselves heard.

But perhaps most importantly, here, less-than-wealthy countries can cooperate and squeeze just a little more commitment from the wealthier ones – because outside of these forums, negotiations are one-to-one, ad hoc and scattered, and often combine political considerations with climate-related ones in a way that could be detrimental to the latter.

For example, at COP26 last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced India’s intention to become ‘net-zero’ by 2070 as well as called on wealthy countries to step up their financial support for climate mitigation activities worldwide, joining a chorus of voices making the same demand as well as responding to international pressure to declare such a target.

At the same time, India is one of Asia’s fastest-growing oil markets, and whose government has projected oil and gas demand in the country to grow 8-11% through this decade despite a lack of clarity on what these fuels will be used for. As a result, several international energy corporations are expanding their foothold in India, capitalising on the country as one of the world’s last major markets for fossil fuels. The government is encouraging this trend for the investments it brings.

At the Conference of the Parties (i.e. COP), thus, we can expect a check against our own government’s ambitions – as well as where the clout of individual governments fructifies as part of a collective bargaining enterprise. (Why not take advantage of the fact that the current Indian government is sensitive to how it’s perceived in the Western press?)

So dismissing the talks as a whole – as Thunberg has done on more than one occasion – and expecting the world’s wealthiest nations to step up is, for better or worse, not going to get us anywhere. That said, recasting the talks as a forum that works in favour of the world’s economically developing and least developed nations, by allowing them to function as a single bloc, may serve us all better. The governments of these countries also need to be held accountable after all.

Featured image: Greta Thunberg in Montreal in September 2019. Credit: Lëa-Kim Châteauneuf/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.