2023 was the warmest year on record. Levels of global heating we expected in 2040 have arrived much earlier. The prolonged heatwaves, devastating fires and biblical floods we experienced this summer are conclusive proof that human development has now exceeded nature’s limits. The climate crisis is now testing both the resilience of democracy and the cohesion of society through its impact on food security, migration, water scarcity, biodiversity, natural disasters and social inequalities.
Three decades on from the signing of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, we know what is required to bring climate change back under control: cooperation and coordination, bold financial support–for the vulnerable, in particular–, and an immediate end to our fossil fuel addiction with a rapid shift to clean energy. We also need to be better prepared to adapt to the new conditions the destabilization has introduced, and to enhance the resilience of society, cities, infrastructure and the productive sectors of the economy to climate change.
The annual global climate conference (COP 28) which took place a few weeks ago in the United Arab Emirates, a predominantly oil-producing country, failed to include a robust commitment to the phasing out of fossil fuels in its final text. The text calls for “Transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050”. Which is to say it reinforces the go-slow approach to fossil fuel decoupling, which has long been the default position of countries that continue to produce fossil fuels. The text makes particular reference to low-emission technologies and renewable energy sources, saying they should be generating three times the power they are now by 2030, but also to nuclear energy and low-carbon hydrogen as means for boosting efforts to replace the energy currently produced from fossil fuels.
This weakened compromise confirms the pessimistic forecasts we made last year. Trust in multilateral diplomacy had already been shattered when political priorities changed after the Russian invasion of Ukraine and energy security and climate change mitigation became conflicting goals. Now the new war in Gaza has come along to disturb our already fragile global diplomacy still further, with many countries rushing to secure their fossil fuel reserves rather than eliminating their dependence on them. But if we really do want to limit the rise in the Earth’s average temperature to 1.5 degrees, which is the key goal of the Paris Agreement, we will have to admit to ourselves that there is no longer a place for new fossil fuel extraction.
Global climate cooperation under the auspices of the United Nations is important, but it is not a panacea. Nor does it provide comprehensive and holistic solutions to the climate crisis. Insisting on continuing to pursue a global agreement serves only to lower the bar to the level of the lowest common denominator.
Climate diplomacy could pay dividends if it were focused more on action and less on setting targets. If we explored ways in which we could implement concrete solutions for the future in practice. In each of the economy’s polluting sectors, fossil fuels will have to be replaced by clean technologies and practices. It is a process of transition. New technologies have already been developed and markets, infrastructure, business models and jobs are remoulding themselves so they can adapt to them. Cooperation in specific areas, coupled with the provision of coordinated support for the right actions, could contribute to further progress. For example, if the use of renewable energy is to become more widespread, our electricity grids will have to be upgraded first. Coalitions of the willing can initiate change, and coalitions of influential actors can help them take off.
However, there can be no climate transition without an equally profound change in society. The implementation of certain policies exacerbates inequalities, as the economic burden is shifted onto the weakest. Solutions to the climate crisis should not be limited to technical issues, and need to have a social dimension. We need to look seriously at how we can protect the most vulnerable. We also need to enhance society’s resilience, so it can deal with interconnected simultaneous crises in the years ahead. It is clear these changes cannot be achieved by the “invisible hand” of the market. We need a stronger state which is capable of fulfilling the state’s role responsibly, serving the needs of the most vulnerable, providing the necessary safety nets, and cutting funding to activities which impede our well-being. If well-being is not shared, if it is not affordable and attainable for all, the ensuing large-scale social unrest could bode ill. Worse still, the disruption would come about through radicalization and a turn towards extremism. The rise of populism in Europe and elsewhere is extremely worrying, especially as the European elections draw near. Can the populists do what needs to be done? How can they deal with the climate crisis if they don’t believe it is real?
*Emmanuella Doussis is Professor at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, UNESCO chairholder on climate diplomacy, and Senior Policy Advisor and Head of the Climate and Sustainability Programme at ELIAMEP
This article is part of the annual Special Edition “ELIAMEP Outlook – Predictions for 2024”, where ELIAMEP’s leading analysts and associates share their predictions for the year ahead. They assess the main challenges, trends, risks, potential opportunities and inflection points of 2024 for Greece, Europe, the Mediterranean and the world.