War Vs Climate: Why The UNFCCC COP Process Needs To Address The War Issue

Published: Wed 12 Jun 2024 05:34 AM
Link to data interactiveUnless this planet of ours can end war – we do not have a hope of addressing climate change.
The UNFCCC (UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) is a remarkably flexible international agreement.
And in theory a work program to end war could be placed on its agenda. While there will doubtless be opposition to this idea among the nations engaged in the Conference of the Parties (i.e. COP) discussions, there is also a crisis in climate finance funding – an ongoing one on which very little progress has been made here in Bonn at this years Mid-COP SB60 meeting.
This article is an attempt to set out an argument as to why the COP should begin discussing addressing the growing cost of both war itself – Gaza and Ukraine, and of the new arms race that is currently underway..Why?
For the simple reason that the global economy cannot afford to be both fighting endless wars, and addressing climate change, at the same time.
It has become painfully obvious since the beginning of the Ukraine War in 2023, that the disruption of war massively undermines efforts to address what many consider to be the greater threat that humanity now faces – that of rising temperatures and sea levels.
Add to this the Gaza War and the new-cold-war+AI arms races and global financial investment in Military is now trending upwards at $2.4 trillion a year and rising.
The most recent estimate of what it will cost to properly address climate change – including development assistance and electrification of the global south/third world – is roughly the same, in the trillions of dollars of expenditure needed every year.
The twin threats of climate catastrophe and rising levels of global conflict are also bound together by the fact that if we fail to address climate issues swiftly enough – conflict will almost certainly increase.
A rising risk of mass human migration following climate disruption may require billions of people begin to move away from uninhabitable parts of the planet in coming decades due to temperature rises making human habitation in some areas hazardous as well as destruction of livelihoods in extreme weather events - like floods & droughts.
And all of these impacts threaten to increase in armed conflict.Ok so why war and not cars or meat?Atomic mushroom clouds over Hiroshima (left) and Nagasaki (right.) Photo: George R. Caron and Charles Levy
Global military emissions (outside of war) are currently exempt completely from emissions reporting requirements.
The best current estimate of what they are at present is roughly 5.5% of global emissions. Which as you can see in the following table would make the standing military emissions costs (i.e. emissions when not at war) the fourth largest emission source in the world.
If it were a country, military emissions would be 1% ahead of Russia’s emissions and with only China, the US and India ahead of it. Military emissions would be the 4th largest source of global emissions. India’s emissions – from a country of 1.2 Billion people are only 1.5% ahead of peace time military emissions.CO2 Emissions by CountryCountryShare of world emissions1China29.18%2United States14.02%3India7.09%Military Emissions5.5%4Russia4.65%
And when you add in the estimates of the emissions costs of the two most recent wars, and the reconstruction which will follow – estimated to be close to $1 Trillion each- the number climbs a lot higher.
The conclusion: Humanity cannot afford to both finance endless war and address climate change.Context (1): The UNFCCC COP process is functioning, the United Nations is not.
The COP negotiations between nearly all nations which began in the 1990s now constitute the most functional part of the post WWII United Nations system.
COP is in practice a body that is something akin to a Global Parliament, one that is now 30+ years old, well respected, one which meets continuously and has done for 30 years, and one which continuously addresses collective global issues on a fully multilateral, sober, fact based and deliberative manner, with near full transparency.
The UNFCCC’s most important feature - consensus decision making is at first glance somewhat counter-intuitive as any nation can prevent progress. But the reason it works - with the benefit of hindsight to guide us - is obvious.
Whilst we tend to think of international deliberations to be a matter of sheer power, economic & military etc., because of the consensus based decision making process the climate negotiations in the COP process are not like this.
The process is collegial, laborious and requires a great deal of patience – but it is also driven by its participants, not great powers, and this has proven itself to work in practice.
COP meets continuously in meetings around the globe discussing different aspects of matters on its agenda.
Its commonly perceived weakness - i.e. that unlike governments it cannot pass legislation make law or fund its decision – is also a feature, in that this makes it far more simple and fact based, and perhaps most importantly, non-threatening to its members.
Since COP 1 in Berlin in 1995 the regular cycle of meetings have resulted in not only continuous negotiating but also continuous training of a large cohort of consensus-familiar global diplomats, media and civil society participants, politicians and activists --- who are not driven by, or particularly familiar with the dark arts of intimidation coercion and corruption, along with other governance pathologies which have been the stock and trade of global politics and international relations for at least the past few hundred years .
In summary the COP process is cooperative in nature. Whilst slow and ponderous at times, and not quick at delivering active outcomes, it is also intensely deliberative & careful, as well as wonderfully networked - and therefore softly powerful. And as climate change itself becomes ever more obvious in its impacts, it has become a process that is vital to human survival.Context 2: …. and the United Nations is not workingA UN weapons inspector in Iraq, 2002. Photo/Petr Pavlicek -
By contrast the post WWII United Nations framework is now failing. Routinely.
The UN’s political teams try to stop wars before they start where they can, but they often fail (the best time to stop wars is before they start).
The UNSC (UN Security Council) which is supposed to be where this peacemaking activity is coordinated and supported has become a great disappointment to humanity. To any informed observer it would appear that the UNSC has no meaningful power to stop wars. This is largely because of the role of the permanent five members of the UNSC (UK US-France-Russia & China) is completely dysfunctional, and riven with great power rivalry.
The only resolutions it can pass about matters not directly, or significantly, concerning the interests of the five permanent members.
The permanent members also all have global reach, and colonial history, i.e. they have deep experience of waging war and taking control of other nations, often for the sake of economic interests – particularly for the purposes of extractive industries: mostly mining minerals and extracting fossil fuels.
All five nations are also arms manufacturers and arms exporting nations and all have large fossil fuel industries mostly in the form of globalised unaccountable corporations. Meanwhile the broader group of European and North American countries and petrostates earns a lot of money from war through ancillary financial activity - through financing arms expenditure and insurance risk premium increases caused by the disruption that war causes. These feedback mechanisms push up both interest rates and insurance costs globally – by virtue of the dominant position of Western Reserve Currencies, these economic sectors are dominated by Global North and Western financial institutions.
The UNGA (General Assembly) is less overtly imperialist, but it has no real power beyond moral authority. Its resolutions can be vetoed by the P5 members of the United Nations Security if they choose to do so. This is why Palestine is not yet a member of the United Nations, even though it is now recognized by 144 of the UN’s 193 member states.
Other agencies of the UN system, the IPO, WTO, UNHRC, WHO, WFP, OCHA,UNDP, UNICEF, IEA all suffer from their own Achilles heel, unreliable sources of funding.
The UN is technically funded by its members, but member nations are not equal in their wealth - and therefore influence. As the vast bulk of the UNs operational budgets comes from wealthy, Western, OECD member nations [Europe, North America & the Anglosphere].
The Anglosphere which includes my home country of NZ is also known as the “Umbrella group” in the COP process.
From what I have observed over my career as a close UN watcher these institutions tend to be closer to, and to focus more on serving the interests of their donor base, than those of the global population.
This effectively means the “old UN” is funded by fairly monocultural set of white European fully neo-liberal group (the Anglosphere group) + a Western European dominated social democratic “neo-liberal lite” (European group).Context 2: The Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)
The Framework Convention (UNFCCC) is a treaty which was drafted in the early1990s by a group of visionaries. It was initially signed in 1992 by 154 nations, came into effect in 1994 and held its first meeting COP 1 in 1995 in Bonn Germany.
At its core it is very different from any of the other UN institutions, and much less siloed.
By its nature its scope covers a very broad range of issues. While its raison d’etre is a focus on Climate the discussions touch on a broad range of subjects including finance, development, education, migration, law, health etc.
Over three decades The UNFCCC’s very regular and consistent meeting schedule has meant that it has now found itself a place at the center of the “functional” part of the UN system .
By which I mean the part of the UN system that works. The part of the UN system which interacts with other global institutions in a comparatively “functional” manner. This includes unofficial interaction with global leadership via non-UN international coordination organisations like the G20 and G7, which increasingly in recent years have scheduled meetings to address pressing climate related issues, and keep them at the top of the global agenda in the lead up to the annual COP meetings.
Some COP meetings also have leaders summits including the last three held respectively in the UK, Egypt, and Dubai.
The UNFCCC like other UN agencies is funded by national donations to support for its operations, but these are comparatively small compared to the the operational cost of other components of the UN systems such as The UNDP, OCHA, WHO and the WFP.
The most expensive part of UNFCCC work - hosting the annual COP meetings is funded by the hosting nation states. Meanwhile COP’s outputs are for the most part all intellectual outputs, texts and drafts of texts and meetings about texts – things that are not expensive to maintain.
During COP meetings the attendance costs are met by the parties themselves.Context 3: Why COP is the best place to address the rising global costs of warfareRussia deploys military fighter aircraft to Libya. By Courtesy Photo of U.S. Africa Command
When it comes to addressing the issue of the cost of war financing and its impact on climate funding, the key feature of the COP process that makes the idea theoretically possible is that the COP process has a remarkably flexible form of agenda setting, and in theory can adopt any cause of action and place it on its agenda, provided it agrees to do so collectively.
COP is also pretty patient and at times things that are not initially popular with nation states can take a while to percolate through the global public square and gain interest and then bubble back to the surface inside COP.
This is because COP operates by consensus. Nothing is agreed until all nations agree, or at least agree not to disagree and then block decisions being made.
Whilst blocking is theoretically possible, it is discouraged in the practice of negotiations that has developed over the past three decades, not that that stops it happening altogether though.
The consensus decision making approach gives all nations some agency and power.
In practice the process operates with discussions between nation states who then vote in constituencies, groups of nations who develop common cause on issues.
There are many constituencies but a few of the well known ones are : LDCs (Least Developed Countries), SIDs (Small Island Developing States), & the Arab Group & the Africa Group.
The biggest voting block by far is the G77+China (which as the name says consists of the 77 largest economies after the G7 + China) this group is also very open and includes in all 135 countries, including many of the poorer nations of the world including the Africa Group) There is also SIDS (Small Island Nations), , the Umbrella Group (Anglosphere NZ/Aus/US/UK/Canada) .The EU that also votes as a block and a group called the LMDC “Like Minded Developing Countries” is at times also influential.
In summary, in order for COP to agree on a course of action – e.g. like beginning “a work program to end war”- the UNFCCC framework requires a consensus decision to be agreed to do so, which is a high bar.
Another obstacle to addressing the “Cost of War” undermining to climate action is the view of some participants in the UN system that there is a presumptive “firewall” between the UNFCCC which works on Climate and other UN institutions that address peace and security issues which are (supposedly) the domain of the UN Proper. However, as climate is increasingly itself becoming a security issue also, perhaps this reticence will break down.
Publicly whilst the UNFCCC is not necessarily respected by all the folk of every nation (and some nations clearly not) – it is definitely considered very useful by the vast majority of national governments.
That being said it is not a bed of roses.
There are also some spoilers in the system, and the divide between the spoilers – mostly western nations who do not want to honor the commitments that they made in the Paris Climate Agreement/Treaty with the nations of the global south - who agreed in Paris to the in part because of the commitments made there by rich nations to help them to transform and achieve the 1.5o warming global climate goal.
This tension between the North Western rich countries and the global south was well bedded in to the COP process before I started working in the field, and in at all the COPs I have attended, 3 so fat, it has been the most contentious issue. COP SB60 at which I am writing this commentary (in Bonn Germany) is no exception.
We are currently a little over hallway through the meeting, having just had Sunday off over the nearly 2 week period. The SB is scheduled to finish this Thursday in 2 days time. But not a great deal of progress has been made from the look of things – and many delegates and observers who I have spoken to here are clearly frustrated.Context 4: So can anything be achieved on this issue at SB60? And or COP29
The short answer to this question is, maybe.
In May the incoming COP Presidency of Azerbaijan announced that it wanted to hold a “PEACE Themed COP” this coming November.
What exactly this means is a bit of a mystery. The most reliable report on this is a news report by The Guardian’s legendary climate reporter Fiona Harvey, who travelled to Azerbaijan with a group of journalists in May and wrote this article in the Observer “COP29 summit to call for peace between warring states, says host Azerbaijan”
From The Observer Article:
“Organisers of this year’s environmental conference hope cooperation on green issues could help ease global tensions…This year’s COP29 UN climate summit will be the first “Cop of peace”, focusing on the prevention of future climate-fuelled conflicts and using international cooperation on green issues to help heal existing tensions, according to plans being drawn up by organisers.
Nations may be asked to observe a “Cop truce”, suspending hostilities for the fortnight-long duration of the conference, modelled on the Olympic truce, which is observed by most governments during the summer and winter Olympic Games.
COP29 will be held in November in Baku, the capital city of Azerbaijan, amid two big wars – the Ukraine invasion and the Israel-Gaza conflict – raging in neighbouring regions and worsening geopolitical tensions.
But the host country’s top national security adviser said that the climate summit, which 196 governments are expected to attend, could become an engine for peace, by finding common ground among countries in the urgent need to tackle global heating.
“Azerbaijan continues and will exert additional efforts to make Cop yet another success story with regard to peace, and to make COP29 a Cop of peace alongside the climate action issue,” said Hikmet Hajiyev, foreign policy adviser to the president, Ilham Aliyev, in an interview with the Observer in Baku. “We are working on the advancement of the peace agenda.”
Whilst this does not explicitly open the door to a discussion on the opportunity cost of expanding war and military expenditure at the expense of addressing the climate emergency . It is an opening of sorts.
On Tuesday last week day 2 day of this year’s Bonn SB60 meeting this Azerbaijan proposal took on a little form, as a meeting of delegates to have “A dialogue on peace” was convened by Azerbaijan.
The event was technically open, but as it was in a small room, media did not get to attend. And it appears the event was also not recorded. I have reached out to the incoming Presidency of Azerbaijan for a briefing but they appear to be fairly shy.
But given that peace is the theme, it may be hard for this year’s COP to ignore the subject of war altogether, especially as there as the issue is arguably linked to the discussions currently underway in preparation for the Paris Climate Agreement mandated COP29 text deadline for a text and ideally a number for a “New Collective Quantified Goal on Climate Finance“
2024 is the hard deadline for a decision by the parties on defining this goal and how it will be paid for. The new finance goal will be a replacement number for the rather controversial US$100 Billion finance goal which has only just been achieved.
Because Finance is perhaps the most difficult issue at this coming COP, it will also be the main issue on the desk of the incoming Azerbaijan presidency for the remainder of the year.
Back in Paris in 2015, the forging of the Paris Agreement consensus on this issue was hard fought. This new goal was timetabled with a deadline of 2024, but talks did not really begin on it till 2022. The existing $100 Billion goal in annual financial assistance was agreed in 2009 in Copenhagen but not achieved until 2022 according to the OECD – by which time it was worth a fraction of what $100 Billion was worth when the promise was first made.
So far here in Bonn substantive talks on the goal appear to be deadlocked . The rich Western Annex 1 countries (those who are obligated to contribute) are all under economic pressure. Pressure which is not helped by the deteriorating security situation and especially the Ukraine and Gaza Wars.
Nor is much progress is expected to be made during the remainder of this meeting which ends on Thursday 13th June. As a result, as of now, not much is currently expected in terms of actual funding agreements later this year in Baku either - but we will see.
The reason for this however connected to war as the rich & powerful world (the West + China & India) does not have a lot of spare money to invest in helping with climate finance as it is spending so much on war.
Interesting the world’s largest emitter, China, which is in fact investing quite a lot already in climate adaptation infrastructure funding through its “Belt and Road” initiative (e.g. the Addis Ababa Djibouti rail link) is not obligated to contribute at all as China , along with Saudi Arabia, is technically an annex 2 developing country, and therefore not required to help.
In September a global financial needs assessment process which commenced in 2022 is due to report back on what the COP parties considers their needs are – and this may be the first time we start to see some actual new Climate Finance numbers being discussed.
There is a theoretical possibility some nations within the dialogue might then push for language within the NCQG section of the Azerbaijan declaration - to address the issue of the rising cost of war and its negative impact on the availability of climate finance for developing nations is possible.Context 5: Background to the last three years
The current finance work program was avoided for years after Copenhagen and Paris because western nations which industrialized in the 19th century and historically contributed the most towards the climate issues we now faced. They are therefore worried about being asked to pay up on this damage and stalled the talks in this area for several years – and as well on the subject of Loss and Damages which is related.
The work for the finance program finally began in earnest at COP26 in 2021 in Glasgow amidst very large protests about climate justice, just transition and loss and damages. Egypt’s COP27 in 2022 put more meat on the bone of the two negotiation streams which were launched in brief texts agreed in in Glasgow on Climate Finance and Loss & Damages.
New texts in Sharm-el-Sheikh expanded on these, and then to their great credit the Egyptian Presidency immediately started hosting a series of negotiating meetings to get the negotiations on both Finance and Loss & Damages down to business. These texts fed in to more work at Dubai on both as well as the NCQG and “Adaptation Goal” which also needs funding. This eventually resulted in some very long rather rambling texts being delivered in Dubai.Context 6: Why rich nations do not wish to pay for climate finance.US soldiers at the Hands of Victory monument in Baghdad. Photo/Technical Sergeant John L. Houghton, Jr., United States Air Force -
Providing finance to assist developing countries is not very politically palatable among the rich north western nations. When they discuss the issue publicly which is not often, the fear of being asked to pay “reparations” for their outsized contribution to the climate crisis is often raised as a key objection to the subject.
Over the four years I have been attending these meetings the lack of tangible progress on climate finance is perhaps the most obvious and important feature/failure of the talks.
The West’s failure to live up to this promise has been a primary media target for stories critiquing the rich west for many years - but until fairly recently had very little impact. Now however urgency is rising. The anticipated climate change consequences which everyone is now familiar with – i.e. extreme weather events - were not that apparent until 2021.Context 7: The Financial consequences of Ukraine and Gaza WarsTents in crowded al-Mawasi, following the forced relocation of families from Rafah. Photo/Save the Children
The issues of Climate Finance and war are intertwined as growing expenditure on military expenditure on the Ukraine and Gaza wars is one of the most significant causes of the lack of money to address climate crisis finance for the developing world
The Ukraine War has arguably cost Europe including the UK $2 Trillion so far, $1 Trillion roughly on the war itself and related costs and another $1 Trillion on the cost of energy subsidies to get through the 2022 winter.
The total cost of the Gaza War is likely to be a similar number. Both wars have also resulted in massive spikes in emissions as well as monetary cost.
Meanwhile the annual investment in Military budgets around the world is currently around 2.44 Trillion and growing. And all of this is on top of the unmitigated (outside the UNFCCC process) 5.5% of the world’s emissions which can be attributed to the military as described earlier in this piece.
Finally war also causes damage which needs to be repaired & estimates of the carbon emission costs of rebuilding Gaza and Ukraine after the current wars end – if they end - are also estimated to be huge in the many many billions, not to mention the cost of the construction itself which will also be in the 100s of billions.
As noted at the beginning of this piece, we, humanity simply cannot afford to address climate change and continue to fight needless wars. We need to try to get on better with each other – to be fairer in our dealings with each other, and ideally return to arms reduction talks, reversing the current build up in armament and military equipment sales.
Alastair Thompson
Scoop Publisher
Alastair Thompson is the co-founder of Scoop. He is of Scottish and Irish extraction and from Wellington, New Zealand. Alastair has 24 years experience in the media, at the Dominion, National Business Review, North & South magazine, Straight Furrow newspaper and online since 1997. He is the winner of several journalism awards for business and investigative work.
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