COP28: UN official from Yorkshire explains 'self-interest' challenges facing climate negotiators
While a small window of hope remains for meeting the goals of the 2015 Paris climate agreement, the world’s greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. This year’s climate summit, COP28, needs to be transformative.
What will it take to harness a spirit of international cooperation in today’s complex, divisive and volatile world abounding in self-interest?
As a former senior U.N. official, I worked for years in multilateral consensus building among often hugely divergent parties.
To slow climate change, the world must reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But oil producers have resisted phasing out fossil fuels, the largest emissions source. So have nations such as India that rely on fossil fuels to drive economic growth and development.
Wars in Ukraine and the Middle East have further sparked fears about energy security around the world.
Climate change is characteristically more uncertain, global and longer term than other development issues.
In today’s complex global environment, that leads to short-term self-interests often prevailing over the longer-term collective action required to slow climate change.
That’s particularly true when countries also face energy insecurity, disrupted global supply chains, food shortages and increasing geopolitical instability.
Increasing economic interdependence among countries has also increased the complexity of international relations.
So has the growing international clout of middle-income and emerging nations, among them India, Brazil, Indonesia and Nigeria, which adds to a divergent mix of influential voices in a changing political landscape.
The obstacle to reaching agreement on reducing emissions is not about climate science but rather the potential to compromise countries’ positions or expose them to unexpected repercussions.
For example, does agreeing to “phase out” fossil fuels expose those who would continue to produce or use fossil fuels – nearly all countries – to economic disadvantage, competition and new forms of political leverage involving resources during a complex energy transition? Is there a possibility that technological advances will allow for greater future flexibility on a phase-out?
Reaching a global agreement is a marriage of many partners, with largely good intent but fear of commitment. The foundation of solutions lies in understanding national drivers, origins of self-interests and consequent constraints and, hence, not boxing anyone in.
There are a multitude of ways to achieve this during negotiations.
Constructive ambiguity, which allows for agreement based on more than one interpretation, is one way. Finding a path is often more important than spelling out, or agreeing upon, a single reasoning.
The “common but differentiated responsibilities” inherent in climate commitments is an example. Subtle turns of phrase in an agreement – such as whether leading a global drive to cut emissions is seen as a developed-country responsibility or something simply within their greater capacity to do – can allow multiple parties to move toward the same goal by reading their own self-interest into the language used.
Common ground can also often be reached incrementally by building trust, confidence, comfort and eventually clarity over time.
For example, at the G20 meeting of major economies in September 2023 in India, the participants agreed to triple their renewable energy capacity. They stopped short of agreeing to “phase out” fossil fuel use, but their agreement set the stage for future progress by a powerful group that operates 93 per cent of the globe’s coal power plants and is responsible for 80 per cent of global emissions.
True collective action on climate change requires those who govern, represent or influence to respond to universal values, including ensuring a healthy planet for all nations and future generations.
It requires separating climate risks and responses from economic, political and other immediate concerns, and appreciating that critical systems that keep the planet healthy are close to breaking points.
Getting all stakeholders to value the future may take incremental improvement, but there is progress.
For example, soft diplomatic channels between the US and China – currently the world’s top two emitters – have been able to separate climate change from the far more contentious issues of trade, economic rivalry and shifting geopolitics.
To build collective action, the Paris Declaration also sought to capitalise on the potential of well-informed nonstate actors, such as issue advocates, business leaders and city mayors, to work across borders, emphasize ethics as they influence leadership, and fill gaps that governments and institutions remain ill-equipped to resolve.
Asif Husain-Naviatti, originally from Rotherham, has over 25 years of experience at the UN, World Bank and other international organisations on sustainable development. A version of this article was first published by The Conversation.