COP26: Disappointment and Hopes for a New Multilateralism

Roberto Palea 
Member and former President of the Centre for Studies on Federalism

Are there scientific “truths” in the area of climate change?

The answer to this question is needed to have a yardstick, a touchstone; reliable even if not absolutely certain.

The characteristics of “scientific truth” can all be found in the periodic Reports of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), founded by the UN and made up of 1,400 scientists from 196 countries.

We must acknowledge that, as stated by the Sixth Assessment Report [i]1 of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), COP26 in Glasgow failed to limit global warming that “unequivocally”, “without margins of uncertainty” results from CO2, and other greenhouse gas emissions (including methane) produced by mankind’s combustion of fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas).

Forecasts of the International Energy Agency (confirmed in COP26 by the declarations of the participating States) assert that current emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, estimated at 40 bn tons per year, could increase, in the current post-pandemic economic recovery phase, to 50 bn tons and more per year.

The inference here is that, beyond the known increase of 1.09°C in the average temperature of the planet since the beginning of industrialization, in the most favourable scenario this would exceed 2°C in 2050, and 2.7°C in the "long term" (years 2080 / 2100) with an upward trend in the subsequent years. Moreover, in the most likely scenario, by 2050 the increase in the average temperature of the planet would reach 2.2°C, and 3.6°C in the "long term", with a continuing upward trend.

Either of the 2 scenarios under consideration would involve an upheaval in all the main environmental balances, engendering high levels of suffering, and harm for mankind, especially for the countries of Africa, the Far East and South America.

The goal of eliminating climate-changing emissions by 2050, and, consequently, of never exceeding the maximal limit, an increase of around 1.5°C (to permit a reduction from then on), stated in the 2015 Paris Climate Treaty, has been disregarded and shown to be unattainable.

However, it would be short sighted to deny that, especially in the G20 in Rome, but also during and after COP26, new developments have provided the grounds for a little hope. To start with, the European Union (EU) has been given a leadership role, thus becoming a driving force for the rest of the world in the transition to a sustainable future based on renewables and hydrogen, as well as electric mobility, the electrification of every sector of human activity, and to a digital economy.

In effect, the EU has not only fulfilled its commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement, but also has cut its emissions from 1990 to 2019 by 24%, whereas the EU economy grew by 60% over the same period.

Furthermore, a propensity for a “new multilateralism” has emerged among all countries in the world which aims at cooperation between sovereign states, at least in certain areas, without demanding extensive integration.

This new multilateralism is based on the awareness that epochal interconnected emergencies have a global dimension, and can only be addressed by all states acting together. This awareness has become a general belief regarding the climate and natural environment, pandemics such as COVID-19 (and others reported in various areas of the world), and economic and social inequalities that have not been reduced but rather increased – between states, but also and especially within them.

This new multilateralism has not only involved the United States and the EU, but also other major powers, including India and China, and should now be extended to Japan, Turkey and Iran (with a participation from China).

The relationship with Putin's Russia remains essential in order to build that European Common Home proposed by Mikhail Gorbachev, in 1989, to definitively overcome the Cold War and establish a lasting peace order from Brest to Vladivostok.

American foreign policy turns out to be a failure, also with Biden, towards Russia (and beyond), as the threat from the United States and NATO to install missiles with nuclear warheads aimed at Moscow in Ukraine and in other Eastern European countries provoked Putin's violent reaction. The Russian reaction is aimed at creating difficulties in the supply of natural gas, with a consequent, sudden increase in energy costs, then by increasing pressure from Belarus on the border with Poland; and, again, by resuming military incursions in Ukraine. That reaction can be contained and, later, overcome through the force of diplomacy, with the mediation of the European Union.

As for its relationship with the African continent, the EU has planned, under its Green Deal, to produce renewable energy and hydrogen in the sun-rich countries of Saharan and sub-Saharan Africa within the framework of an agreement with the African Union[ii]2 (which now includes 55 states and whose creation was based on the European model); this should provide for the transfer of technologies in the "green" and digital energy sector to African countries. The endogenous development of African countries should be its main objective through the required availability of energy (also used to extract drinking water from the subsoil and to desalinate seawater), and the export of surplus green energy and hydrogen to Europe, through existing pipelines.

Europe’s vocation is to address sustainable healthcare and economic development throughout the African continent in partnership with the African Union, which in 2021 launched the African Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). The African Union aims to adopt a common currency, possibly linked to Special Drawing Rights (SDRs), and to strengthen the existing African Central Bank.

The EU would thus ensure that CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions from Africa are limited, while helping curb migration flows to Europe through new jobs created by sustainable economic development.

A second factor pushing towards this new multilateralism is the existence of copious public and private financial resources – during the G20 Mario Draghi spoke of $130 tn – which could be used in the most underdeveloped and fragile countries. The EU has taken on the task of spreading vaccines around the world, guaranteeing global vaccination coverage of 40% in 2021 and 70% in 2022.

The EU’s global commitment should be medium-term, ambitious and tackle a number of fronts.

It should:

  1. promote a new World Energy and Environment Organisation (WEEO), under UN control, to tackle climate change (and allocate the $100 bn pledged during the G20), managed by a High Authority (based on the European model of the ECSC);
  2. revitalise the World Trade Organization (WTO) to negotiate a fair carbon price for all countries (which could in part finance the WEEO) and support a global tax on multinational enterprises’ activities, which was already decided by the OECD;
  3. push the World Bank to issue SDR-denominated Green Bonds in agreement with the International Monetary Fund (which has already done its part with the allocation of $650 bn, denominated in Special Drawing Rights in favour of disadvantaged states);
  4. task the I.M.F. and the World Bank to:
    1. utilise the large amounts of financial resources available in public and private investments, denominated in Special Drawing Rights, having as their object sustainable development in Africa and the Middle East;
    2. recapitalise local investment banks in Africa, Latin America and India (if possible by meeting the requests of the second-industrialization countries, such as India, to be compensated for the environmental and climatic damage caused by the industrialization of the West from 1850 to today, the advantages of which they have not had the possibility to profit from).

The US-China Joint Declaration[iii] at COP26, on a common plan to cut polluting emissions, followed by meetings between Joe Biden and Xi Jinping and between John Kerry and the leaders of the Chinese climate diplomatic mission, are a step in the right direction. Likewise, in recent days the open attitude of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a good sign for the future when faced with the pandemic deaths, and the air pollution in Indian cities caused by coal factories.

Humanity would obtain much greater benefits, and incur much lower costs, if it acted immediately to reduce climate-altering emissions and swiftly addressed the very high investments required, rather than bearing mitigation and restorative costs afterwards (even without taking into account the deaths and the suffering of the people). However, cooperation between sovereign states, as Jean Monnet has taught us, needs common institutions: this is also an inescapable problem, when attempting to launch the “new multilateralism” the world needs.

[i]             https://www.ipcc.ch/assessment-report/ar6/
[ii]             https://au.int/
[iii]            https://www.state.gov/u-s-china-joint-glasgow-declaration-on-enhancing-climate-action-in-the-2020s/

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