High-income countries – like Switzerland and other European countries, as well as the United States – should approach the United Nations climate conference (COP27) in November with ambitious agendas, because global climate protection is also in their best interests. However, the urgent shift to renewable energy and sustainable business practices must be made with socially responsible financing, globally fair perspectives and with an eye on persistent conflicts. Below are five important facts to keep in mind during the conference.
1. The world is heading for an existence-threatening 2.7 degrees
According to the latest global climate status report from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere reached a record high in 2020. The past seven years have been the hottest since weather records began; 2022 is also expected to be one of the hottest years on record. In 2021, the average global temperature was 1.11 degrees above pre-industrial levels. The Paris Agreement calls for limiting global warming to well below two degrees and preferably to 1.5 degrees. Once we exceed 1.5 degrees, the tipping points of irreversible developments move from "possible" to "probable." At present, the world is heading for a serious warming of 2.5 to 2.9 degrees by the year 2100. The 1.5-degree threshold could be exceeded as early as 2026.
From 1993 to 2002, sea levels rose by only 2.1 millimeters per year. Since 2013, they have risen by an average of 4.5 millimeters each year because the ice sheets are melting more rapidly. This has dramatic consequences on low-lying cities and islands worldwide. At the same time, according to the WMO report, the oceans are becoming warmer and more acidic – with serious consequences for fisheries and the coral reefs that protect the coasts. Finally, devastating extreme weather events are occurring with increasing frequency. These include heat waves (e.g. in India), floods (Pakistan), droughts (Mali), forest fires (Congo Basin), cyclones (Bangladesh), and hurricanes (US/Caribbean).
2. The effects of the climate crisis are particularly dramatic for the poorest people
Climate change is making water scarce, threatening food security and causing ever-greater economic damage. Particularly affected are poor populations, minorities and women in developing countries who lack the resources and resilience to adequately protect themselves against climate-related natural disasters. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2022 (IPCC) report, 15 times more people died in poorer regions over the past decade due to floods, droughts or storms than in affluent areas. Already, 3.3 to 3.6 billion people are so vulnerable that they can barely protect themselves from the effects of climate change.
This year’s record monsoon in Pakistan, which was exacerbated by global warming, flooded a third of the country. 1,500 people lost their lives; over 33 million people have been affected by this disaster and have lost their livelihoods. 1.7 million homes were destroyed, as well as hundreds of bridges, roads and hospitals. The financial damage is estimated at 30 billion USD. Meanwhile, people in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa have been struggling with extreme drought and water shortages for years. More than 60 million people spread across 13 countries are affected by the current hunger crisis, which is attributed to dramatic climate change as well as rising food prices linked to the Ukraine war.
3. Early industrialized countries bear responsibility
According to a 2020 report from Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute, the poorer half of humanity produces only about 10 percent of global greenhouse gases. At the same time, the richest 10 percent of people are responsible for half of global emissions due to their lifestyles. The "top" percent alone is responsible for 15 percent of emissions, nearly twice as much as the world’s poorest 50 percent.
This extreme discrepancy is the result of political decisions over the past 20 to 30 years, the report says, and a direct consequence of the decades-long fossil fuel economic system, at the expense of nature, biodiversity and the climate. Often, when we think of “the rich,” we envision billionaires with private jets and multiple mansions. However, an income of approximately 40,000 USD is already sufficient to put someone in the world’s richest 10 percent, and approximately 110,000 USD puts them in the top 1 percent.
4. Poorer countries receive too little support
Because the global community has so far done too little to combat the climate crisis, the cost of adapting to the negative consequences of climate change is already rising rapidly: In developing countries alone, the necessary adaptation costs are estimated at around 70 billion USD per year. By 2030, the need will rise to between 140 billion and 300 billion, and by 2050 to between 280 billion and 500 billion, although the latest UN "Adaptation Gap Report 2021" now considers the higher figures to be more likely.
Back in 2009, wealthy countries set a target of providing at least 100 billion USD per year by 2020 to help poorer countries finance climate mitigation and adaptation measures. But the industrialized countries are not keeping their promise and have been falling short of the 100 billion target for years. Current figures from the OECD's report on international climate finance offer confirmation: In 2020, only 83 billion USD were used for climate measures in developing countries; far too little of this was for adaptation, and only a quarter was in the form of grants. With the large remainder in the form of repayable climate loans, this exacerbates the debt that poorer countries are already struggling with.
5. Sustainable change is urgent, but must involve everyone
The global impact of the Coronavirus pandemic and now the Ukraine war – including rising health and living costs, economic slumps or faltering supply chains – must not distract from the ongoing environmental crisis. On the contrary, the confluence of overlapping (environmental, security and health) crises is creating a dangerous mix of new types of threats.
Governments need to work urgently and collaboratively on fundamental solutions that incorporate all crises equally: It will take far-sighted policies, combined with swift and decisive action, to trigger the necessary investments required for sustainable change. This is the only way to avoid ecological tipping points and new conflicts, while creating local value and jobs, for example in the renewable energy sector, to simultaneously reduce fossil fuel dependencies.
The urgently needed transition must be rapid, but also socially just and peaceful. Risks that could fuel new conflicts must be considered and avoided from the outset so as not to repeat past mistakes. For example, the agrofuel hype, which promoted monocultures and thus had a negative impact on climate, biodiversity and food security in poorer countries. Or huge dam projects that destroyed flora and fauna and led to displacement and human rights abuses. The booming reforestation promises of many companies and countries or the new biodiversity targets to put 30 percent of the earth's surface under nature conservation are important, but must not be at the expense of indigenous peoples and local populations. And the mining of resources such as lithium or bauxite for renewable technologies still far too often leads to environmental pollution and exploitation in poorer countries.
A "peace project for the 21st century"
Worldwide, subsidies for fossil fuels exceed government support for renewable energy many times over. The money should be invested more wisely – for example, in the renewable transition or to benefit poorer and marginalized people and countries. In promoting sustainable solutions, all stakeholders must be meaningfully involved in planning and decision-making; not only to ensure their support and reduce future resistance, but because it is simply more purposeful and efficient.
The necessary change requires a new spirit of cooperation to address common threats – and to avoid falling into nationalistic patterns, such as in the response to the Covid crisis, where countries too often retreated into counterproductive protectionism and self-interest. There is a need for transboundary agreements on the shared and sustainable use of resources.
At the presentation of the new WMO status report, UN Secretary-General António Guterres found clear and forceful words: "We must prevent fossil fuel pollution and accelerate the shift to renewable energy before we burn down our only home. [...] If we act together, the transformation to renewable energy can be the peace project of the 21st century." It is hoped that the countries at the climate conference will move together in accordance with the seriousness of the situation – and devise and resolutely tackle joint and sustainable solutions in response to the world's increasingly complex crisis situation.
Co-author Juerg Staudenmann is an environment, development and security expert at the Stockholm Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).