Oct 13, 2023 - Energy & Environment

Mideast crisis could alter outcomes of upcoming UN climate summit

Photo illustration of Israeli tanks near the Gaza border with abstract shapes.

Photo illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios. Photo: Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu via Getty Images

A little more than a month remains before the start of the next United Nations Climate Summit, known as COP28, taking place in Dubai. But the already fraught talks are facing another potential obstacle: the threat of regional Mideast instability following Hamas' terrorist attacks in Israel.

Why it matters: At COP28, countries are tasked with weighing actions to close the gap between commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions to date, and what is required to fulfill the aims of the Paris climate agreement.

  • In addition, the COP leadership, headed by Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber, who also heads up the United Arab Emirates' national oil company and the country's renewables ventures, aims to get countries to agree to language regarding a phase down of fossil fuels over time, and to a goal of tripling the amount of renewables deployed by 2030.
  • Delays in agreeing and then implementing these goals would translate into more rapid and severe climate change.

Zoom in: It has only been a few days since Hamas killed more than 1,000 Israeli civilians beginning around dawn on Saturday, and Israel is amassing troops at the border of the Gaza Strip, readying for a possible ground invasion.

  • More than 1,350 Palestinians have been killed and thousands injured by Israeli strikes in Gaza.
  • There is a risk that the conflict won't be contained to Israel and Gaza, however, if other groups decide to enter the fight along Israel's northern border and other countries, such as Syria, get more involved.

Experts told Axios that a regional conflict has a greater potential to affect COP28 attendance and its likelihood of success, though it is too early to tell how this will play out.

Between the lines: One risk presented by the crisis is that it distracts governments, with some senior officials focused on the crucial run-up to COP28. This is when negotiating positions are usually solidified, and the so-called landing zones of a potential agreement clarified.

  • "This war will affect the overall mindshare that can go into the talks.  Days, nights, weekends of top people in government are going into addressing this crisis," Kalee Kreider, president of the public affairs firm Ridgely Walsh, told Axios.
  • Kreider said that, like UBS has done, employers and governments will evaluate travel policies to keep their employees safe. "How many people will attend the talks now?  I suspect we will see decisions made closer to time," she said via email.

Yes, but: There is precedent for a climate summit held in a time of grief due to terrorist attacks: 2015's Paris confab came just weeks after France suffered coordinated and deadly terrorist strikes and produced a landmark agreement.

The intrigue: One thing that developing countries are united on going into COP28 is the need, and the moral responsibility for, industrialized nations to step up their climate aid to poorer countries.

  • While the industrialized world emitted the vast majority of greenhouse gases causing global warming, poorer nations are bearing the brunt of climate impacts to date.
  • Yet wealthy nations like the U.S. have failed to meet their climate finance commitments, creating a major trust deficit.
  • The Hamas-Israel war itself will only make it even harder for many countries to fork over more money, said Kreider, a veteran of the UN climate talks.
  • "If finance is the underpinning for helping the talks to move forward, then one has to think that the number of resources going into the Middle East will change the equation," she said. "The math around foreign aid is getting recalculated."

Context: Increased tensions in the Middle East also could result in increasing oil prices, which may alter the calculus of some countries as they decide whether to push for fossil fuel "phaseout" language, as opposed to "phase down."

  • "A war in Israel puts a thumb on the scale of weaker language," Kreider said.

The other side: "The Presidency is focused on delivering tangible and ambitious climate action," COP28 leadership told Axios in a statement. "We look forward to hosting a safe, inclusive COP beginning at the end of November."

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