Climate: a Point of no Return

A European idea for COP27

Column by Francesco Grillo for the italian newspaper Il Messaggero and Il Gazzettino del Nord Est.

ED 15.11

Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. The United Nations’ 27th Conference on climate. One of the most surprising aspects of these conferences - which were thought to save the world - is that they are often held in some of the most luxurious locations of global tourism. This year, the conference on climate change (COP27) is held in Egypt, which for the last months has been on the verge of a catastrophic food crisis, depending more than any other country in the world on the Ukrainian wheat. Sharm el-Sheikh, in the south of the Sinai peninsula, seems to be far from everything - from Egypt, from war and even from climate change. Perhaps, in the choice of such locations lies the symbolic proof of the need to immediately reform the UN model. Actually, this is what the UN Secretary General Gutierrez has been saying too. However, an interesting idea seems to emerge from the meeting in Sharm.

The desert washed by the Red Sea is one of the few places where temperatures did not change during these years of climate change. In November, they keep fluctuating between 20 and 28 Celsius degrees, attracting Italian tourists who, armed with mask and fins, can find the coral reef at 100 meters from the coastline. This year the bathers are joined by 40.000 delegates who came at COP27 to save the world and the poorest countries, hit by the most devastating damages caused by climate change. The price for a hotel room in Sharm is not usually lower than a thousand euros, and it has been estimated that hosting COP participants alone costs governments and sponsor companies around a hundred million euros. Actually, in a few days the G20 (the meeting between the 20 most important countries in the world) will be held in Bali, which competes with Sharm for the most expensive resorts.

After all, such expensive conferences produce modest results. In the case of climate we really seem to be facing a little mouse.

The graph accompanying the article seems to say that with the succession of the twenty-seven COP the goal of lowering CO2 emissions compared to 1990 has moved further and further away instead of approaching. This year - the year of Sharm - it is almost certain that we will make the historical record both for the amount of CO2 emitted (the input that produces the problem), and for our planet's temperature (the outcome that measures the severity of the disease).

 GRAFICO ED 15.11

The results of these conferences are, however, modest. On the first page of the Economist, last week, COP27 was introduced by the image of a planet pierced by an arrow that missed the target of an apple, which was placed on the melting ice of a Pole. The target was that of 1.5 degrees as the maximum limit fixed by scientists to global warming, compared to the temperatures of 1990. Beyond this red line - as President Biden called it - climate would be out of control and hundreds of thousands of people would have to face catastrophic events.

Can any idea from the participants in Sharm be addressed to a planet that might decide to eliminate its most important species?

At the meeting in Sharm, the most controversial issue was obviously that of the financial obligations that, paradoxically, such expensive conferences cannot generate. After the failure of previous attempts, 77 countries of recent industrialization together with China and India (all together, they represent 6 billion people) ask for the creation of a “loss and damage” fund for the losses already caused by climate change, which would be primarily financed by the countries who contributed most to it. The USA and the European Union (with the exception of Denmark) are opposing this idea. However, this is a mistake as we risk to leave a large space for political consensus to China alone.

The proposal launched in one of the COP side meetings was that of using the European experience to try a mediation. The idea is that of replicating, at a global level, the model that the European Union used to find a common answer to the pandemic emergency with NEXT GENERATION EU. Each country’s contribution to a global fund would be established on the basis of three equally weighed parameters: GDP, past emissions, present emissions. Half of the resources would be invested in projects that could prevent the most immediate disasters (e.g. floods) and the other half in the energetic transition that will reduce emissions faster. Thus, both the financing and the use of resources would involve the whole world. However, the price would be mostly paid by rich and polluting countries, and the beneficiaries of the operation would mainly be the less industrialized and more vulnerable ones. The difference with NGEU would be a more centralized administration (to be entrusted to a new institution or to a reformed World Bank) and a stronger use of private partnerships (banks that might find it convenient to invest in renewable energy or funds looking for high impact projects).  

The estimate made by the most struggling countries is that climate change might cause damages of 600 billion dollars by 2030. An impressive figure, yet lower than the one that the EU decided to raise on financial markets with NGEU. Such ambitious objective seems to be affordable for Europe, which needs to gain back its leadership in the world areas where it disappeared, recovering its strength to mediate between powers on some issues (it happens on climate between China and the US, who are not even communicating). 

The first COP was held in 1995 in Berlin. A young minister of the Environment from Germany, unified only 6 years before, was chairing the meeting. Angela Merkel found a split world and decided to re-aggregate in the same room the parties with similar interests (the countries of most consolidated industrialization as the US; the emergent ones, among which China was making its way; the poorest ones, as India and Africa; the ones risking to disappear as the small oceanic islands). She, on the other hand, would have moved from one room/world area to another. The greatest political mediator of the last decades had to realize that reaching climate agreements overcame even her clever patience.

After 27 years, we are (almost) at the starting point. Stuck in expensive and tired negotiations. What distinguishes the leaderships is the ability to turn problems into opportunities. Climate can force us to change the institutions we used to govern another century. In this game, Europe would have the unique chance to gain back its prestige and meaning.  

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