It won’t be the first UN Climate Change Conference to take place amid an emerging-economy crisis. Nor will it be the first COP defined by tensions between “developed” and “developing” countries over questions of fairness. But COP27, scheduled for Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in November, is almost guaranteed to showcase the Global South’s frustration with Western climate hypocrisy and its impatience for the rich world’s excuses. The West’s poor climate track record is threatening to harm its interests in other policy fields and undermine any reputational advantages it has over authoritarian states like China.
The economic crisis for developing countries is a serious one: global food prices reached record highs in March, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine disrupted markets already scrambling to make up for failed harvests. High costs for gas and oil are creating further problems, especially because natural gas is a key ingredient in nitrogen-based fertilizer. High commodity prices and supply chain problems, exacerbated by the direct and second-order effects of Russia’s war and trade restrictions like Indonesia’s ban on palm oil exports or India’s ban on wheat exports, are driving inflation and hunger across the world.
This is all happening at a time when many governments are saddled with huge debts from the coronavirus pandemic. Sri Lanka has already defaulted. A number of other emerging economies—from El Salvador to Ghana to Pakistan—could be next. IMF director Kristalina Georgieva says 60 percent of low-income countries are in or near “debt distress,” a threshold reached when debt payments equal half the size of a national economy. Rising interest rates in the United States will make developing countries’ debts even more onerous.
These immediate economic problems are arriving just as the slow-motion crisis gets worse, and at a time when climate diplomats were trying to shift attention to poorer countries. In his closing statement at COP26 last year, UN Secretary-General António Guterres emphasized developing countries’ struggles with COVID, debt, and natural disasters, noting that “a climate of mistrust is enveloping our world.” Egyptian Foreign Minister and COP27 President Sameh Shoukry has called for the world to focus on implementing its commitments to cut emissions, deliver climate finance, and phase out fossil fuel subsidies, adding that he feels a responsibility as an African host to “highlight the priorities of the continent which has suffered the most, and which has contributed the least to the problem.”
If COP26 in Scotland was primarily about making new emissions pledges, COP27 in Egypt is meant to be primarily about implementing old pledges and delivering climate aid to vulnerable countries. But on both counts, Europe and the United States are failing to live up to their rhetoric.
While the war in Ukraine should catalyze Europe’s energy transition in the medium term, Europe’s immediate response has been to prioritize energy security and price stability over the climate crisis. COP26 president Alok Sharma of the United Kingdom was moved to tears by his failure to persuade India and China to agree to phase out coal in the Glasgow Declaration, but the UK government is considering opening a new coal mine in 2022 on the dubious grounds that the coal could replace Russian oil and gas imports. Meanwhile, Europe’s scramble to buy up the global supply of liquified natural gas to replace Russian gas has left fuel-starved Pakistan and India with little choice but to burn more coal for air conditioning amid a record-breaking heatwave. The same wealthy Europeans who have been promising to remove fossil fuel subsidies since 2009 have shown little compunction about subsidizing oil and gas in 2022.
Gas subsidies were the subject of tense negotiations at the EU-African Union summit in February. European countries had announced at COP26 last year that they would no longer spend public funds supporting natural gas in poor countries with tiny emissions. But when African countries sought exemptions for the financing of natural gas projects at the summit, they could not get a firm commitment from the Europeans. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa was candid afterward, saying that previous COPs had left him skeptical that Europeans would deliver on their pledges to invest in Africa: “Will this really be done? Because we remember what was not done in the past.”
The United States’ climate track record in 2022 is even bleaker—the charges of hypocrisy and broken promises even more convincing. The year began with the now-dashed hope that the Biden administration might still pass a Build Back Better package that included massive clean energy tax credits, which would give the country a chance to achieve the emissions reductions it proudly promised in 2021. But it now looks likely to end with the political party that cares about the climate crisis losing its congressional majority, just as COP27 gets underway.
In the meantime, the U.S. administration is breaking a promise to stop selling leases for new oil and gas drilling on public lands and crossing its fingers in hopes that the Supreme Court does not gut the executive branch’s authority to regulate power plant emissions.
In addition, Congress has failed to appropriate the funds required for its share of the overdue $100 billion per year in climate finance that developed countries pledged back in 2009. Though rich countries will discuss the climate reparations known as “loss and damage” funding in the coming month, it is impossible to imagine the United States (or Europe) writing the big check that vulnerable countries will push for at COP27. If the United States could somewhat credibly host a Leaders Summit on Climate in April 2021 during the post-Trump honeymoon phase, that goodwill has dissipated now.
The point is not that these energy and climate policies are necessarily evidence of bad faith. The optics, however, are terrible. What does an Egyptian diplomat hear when the United States warns about new natural gas capacity “lock[ing] in decades of new emissions” when the Biden administration cannot prevent its own postal service from spending billions on new fossil-fueled trucks in 2022? A number of African leaders have recently written op-eds in Western newspapers lamenting the missing money and double standards, calling on the West to “finally fulfil its obligations.” Unfortunately, however, concrete agreements where wealthy democracies pay to help countries like South Africa phase out coal remain rare bright spots in a murky picture.
One reason this poor climate track record could hurt Western interests in other areas is that complaints of Western hypocrisy are already a factor in global diplomacy. Many countries wonder how, for instance, the United States can demand that Russian President Vladimir Putin stand trial before the International Criminal Court, which it refuses to recognize, or how it can insist that China abide by the UN Convention on Law of the Sea that the United States itself has not ratified. Some make flawed if plausible comparisons between Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the Western invasion of Iraq in 2003, which the UN Security Council did not authorize. A perception of Western dishonesty is among the varied economic and historical reasons why forty countries—including large democracies like India, Brazil, and South Africa—declined to condemn Russia’s invasion at the UN.
Admittedly, domestic politics and a hard-nosed perception of the national interest are the main drivers of policy everywhere—Global South countries expect the West (and others) to think of itself first and global public goods second. Yet Western claims to uphold the “liberal, rules-based international order” are undermined by repeated failures to protect that order from climate stress. When the United States, Europe, and the institutions they largely control break climate promises, it enfeebles their warnings about the dangers of turning to China-dominated institutions like the Belt and Road Initiative or of beginning to exit the Western-dominated order altogether.
One of the few certainties in international affairs is that, over the coming decades, climate impacts will get worse, climate policy more salient. The United States, Europe, and other high-carbon democracies must consider that their poor climate reputation will increasingly weigh them down in other policy areas.