At the end of 2021, as the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) drew to a close in Glasgow, none of those present could have guessed that a war in Ukraine would throw the world economy into turmoil and convince many nations to suspend their commitments to a low-carbon economy , as they strove to reduce their dependence on Russian oil and gas supplies and secure fossil fuel supplies elsewhere.
Meanwhile, a plethora of studies pointed to the continued warming of the planet and humanity’s failure to cut carbon emissions and tackle the existential threat of the climate emergency.
Nonetheless, the United Nations continued to lead the slow, arduous, but essential task of reaching international climate agreements, exerting sustained pressure on major economies to make greater efforts to reduce their fossil fuel consumption and supporting developing countries whose citizens endure it must bear the brunt of the droughts, floods and extreme weather events resulting from human-induced climate change.
© Unsplash/Patrick Perkins
Record heat waves, droughts and floods
The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) issued a litany of stark reports throughout the year. A January study that announced 2021 would be among the seven warmest years on record set the tone for the year.
As record-high heatwaves hit several European countries over the summer, the agency warned that we should get used to more consequences over the next few years, while Africa faces a worsening food crisis, which is centered on the Horn of Africa and millions of people will displace people: Four out of five countries on the continent are projected to have unsustainable water resource management by 2030.
While some regions suffered from water shortages, others were hit by catastrophic flooding. A national emergency was declared in Pakistan in August after severe flooding and landslides caused by monsoon rains submerged around a third of the country at the height of the crisis. Ten million were displaced.
More than 340,000 people were affected by unprecedented floods in Chad in August, and in October the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said around 3.4 million people in west and central Africa needed help amid the worst flooding in a decade.
© Unsplash/Ella Ivanescu
A “delusional” addiction to fossil fuels
In its October Greenhouse Gas Bulletin, the WMO detailed record levels of the three main gases — carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane — which saw the largest annual jump in concentrations in 40 years, and identified human activity as a key factor in the changing climate.
But despite all the evidence that a transition to a low-carbon economy is urgently needed, the world’s major economies have responded to the energy crisis triggered by the war in Ukraine by restarting old power plants and looking for new oil and gas suppliers have searched.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres condemned their response at an Austrian climate summit in June as delusional, arguing that if these countries had invested in renewable energy in the past, they would have avoided price instability in fossil fuel markets.
At an energy event held in Washington DC that same month, Mr. Guterres compared the behavior of the fossil fuel industry to the activities of large tobacco companies in the mid-20’s, he said.
Clean, healthy environment a universal human right
The decision by the UN General Assembly in July to make access to a clean and healthy environment a universal human right was hailed as an important milestone and builds on a similar text adopted by the Human Rights Council in 2021.
Mr Guterres said in a statement the landmark development would help reduce environmental injustices, close protection gaps and empower people, particularly those in vulnerable situations, including environmental human rights defenders, children, youth, women and indigenous peoples .
The importance of this move was underscored in October by Ian Fry, the first UN Special Rapporteur on protecting human rights in the context of climate change. Mr Fry told UN News that the resolution is already having an impact and the European Union is discussing how to incorporate it into national legislation and the constitution.
© Ocean Image Bank/Matt Curnock
Groundbreaking agreements reached at UN climate conferences
The year was punctuated by three key climate-related UN summits – the ocean conference in June, the COP27 climate conference in November and the much-delayed COP15 biodiversity conference in December – which showed the organization achieving far more than just announcing the dire climate situation and demand change.
At each event, progress was made in promoting international commitments to protect the environment and reduce the damage and destruction caused by human activity.
At the Ocean Conference, critical issues were discussed and new ideas were generated. World leaders acknowledged their deep concern over the global ocean emergency and renewed their commitment to take urgent action, work together at all levels and fully achieve the goals as soon as possible.
More than 6,000 participants, including 24 heads of state and government, and over 2,000 civil society representatives attended the conference, calling for urgent and concrete action to tackle the maritime crisis.
They stressed that science-based and innovative action, together with international cooperation, are essential to provide the necessary solutions.
“Loss and Damage” financing agreed to benefit developing countries
COP27, the UN climate conference held in Egypt in November, appeared doomed to end with no deal as talks dragged on well past the summit’s official end.
Despite this, negotiators somehow managed to agree not only on the wording of an outcome document, but also to set up a funding mechanism to compensate vulnerable nations for the losses and damage caused by climate-related disasters.
These nations have spent decades arguing for such a provision, so inclusion has been hailed as a major step forward. Details on how the mechanism will work and who will benefit from it will now be worked out in the coming months.
But little progress has been made on other key issues, notably phasing out fossil fuels and tougher language on the need to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
We need nature if we want to build a more prosperous world
Improved biodiversity protection promised in Montreal
After two years of delays and postponements as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the fifteenth UN Conference on Biological Diversity, COP15, finally took place in Montreal in December, with an agreement to protect 30 percent of the country, coastal areas and inland areas the earth ended waters by the end of the decade. Inger Andersen, the head of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), described the result as “a first step in restoring our relationship with the natural world”.
The biodiversity of the world is in a dangerous state, around one million species are threatened with extinction. UN experts agree that the crisis will increase, with catastrophic consequences for humanity if we do not treat nature more sustainably.
The deal, officially the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, includes impressive commitments, but these must now be translated into action. This has been a major sticking point at previous biodiversity conferences, but it is hoped that a platform launched at COP15 to help countries accelerate implementation will help turn the blueprint into reality.