The Environment

What does an increasingly divided world mean for climate action?

September 15, 2023  • María Ortiz Pérez

During his opening remarks at the G20 Summit in Delhi on September 8, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres said “Divisions are growing, tensions are flaring up, and trust is eroding – which together raise the specter of fragmentation, and ultimately, confrontation”. 

Certainly, President Xi of China and President Putin of Russia’s absence from the G20 Summit was interpreted by many in the West as a desire from these two countries to weaken what they consider a pro -West platform, or at least not wanting to give Prime Minister Modi- the Summit’s host and their geopolitical rival- a diplomatic win at a time when he seeks reelection.

This feeling of division was compounded by the meeting of the BRICS, a bloc of countries of emerging economies, last month in South Africa. On this occasion, BRICS members- Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa- welcomed for the first time in 13 years new members, namely Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (joining the group officially in January 2024). This was also interpreted by many as another signal of fragmentation of the post-World War II world order, and an aspiration from the Global South to create an alternative to platforms like the G20 that are neither adequate to reflect the power and influence of emerging economies, nor inclusive of Global South actors in their decision-making processes.

In contrast, in his Letter to the parties last July, Dr. Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, President-Designate of COP 28 UAE said “This year, more than ever, unity is a prerequisite for success“ and “Together, we must unite, act and deliver”, reiterating the motto for the convening. Dr. Al Jaber mentioned “together” 11 times, and “collective action” 7 times in his letter. These days one wonders what “together” or “collective” he is referring to.

In this current global context, what do these “fragmentation” and seemingly contradictory “togetherness” narratives mean for climate action?

During international negotiations, it is very common for countries to form blocs to either further their agenda, strengthen their position or weaken another’s. In the months leading to COP28, all eyes will be on other international platforms- such as the United Nations General Assembly and related events in September in New York- that may signal how new alliances shape up, or how old ones prevail. Balances of power are currently being questioned and some change, although no one is clear at what scale, is to be expected. 

But this is not necessarily a bad thing, at least as it pertains to climate action. One must acknowledge and find some comfort in the fact that during both BRICS and G20 summits, climate change featured prominently in the agenda. Participating countries recognized this existential threat and committed to sustained action to address it. 

For example, during the BRICS meeting, participating countries recognized the need to defend, promote and strengthen the multilateral response to climate change and to work together for a successful outcome of COP 28. They also stressed the importance of disaster risk reduction measures towards building resilient communities and the exchange of information on best practices, adoption of climate change adaptation initiative, among other things. In fact, the outcome document of the BRICS meeting mentions climate 26 times.

In the G20 New Delhi Leaders’ Declaration, an entire section was devoted to a “Green Development Pact for a Sustainable Future”. Leaders committed to “pursue low-greenhouse gas/low-carbon emissions, climate-resilient and environmentally sustainable development pathways by championing an integrated and inclusive approach”, and “endorsed the multi-year G20 Technical Assistance Action Plan (TAAP) and the voluntary recommendations made to overcome data-related barriers to climate investments”, among other commitments.   

Both meetings should instill some hope in country delegations attending COP28 that the event taking place in Dubai could be a  platform free from current geopolitical fragmentation altogether and be a place in which common ground can be found. 

As we prepare for COP28, it is important not to fixate on “togetherness” but to actually acknowledge existing differences and needs, while identifying key areas for joint action that we can agree on. After all, climate change affects us all, differently, but all. It is through this “incremental diplomacy” that we will find productive dialogue, sustained progress and (most desperately) solutions to the greatest challenge of our time. 

Perhaps upcoming climate negotiations can help us transition from an era of fragmentation, towards one of productive “compartmentalization”?