Beginning of the End or End of the Beginning? Exploring the UN Climate Change Regime through the Lens of Ukraine

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The latest study from January 2024 indicates that we are not on track to meet the goal of the Paris Agreement and predicts global warming to reach 2 degrees Celsius by 2050. Continuing substantial fossil fuel use for decades longer constitutes a tragic moral failure of immense proportions. The narrow chance remains to correct course by radically transforming global energy systems. Does this signal the inadequacy of COP28 outcomes and international climate governance as a whole? Furthermore, what are the limitations of the UNFCCC regime face in addressing challenges experienced by countries like Ukraine grappling with an ongoing war?

Beginning of the end for the fossil fuels era’?

For the first time in 28 years of UN climate negotiations, the COP28 final text – UAEConsensus included the language calling on nations to:

“transition away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly, and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science.”

While explicitly mentioning fossil fuels can be called a historic moment, one should acknowledge there have been too many “historic” moments in climate negotiations. The litmus test going forth should match rhetorical ambitions with real actions. Keeping in mind that COP decisions, as well as pledges and declarations, are not legally binding, their implementation into national policies and revised NDC submissions relies heavily on the political discretion of individual countries.

Thus, the critical imperative remains the adoption of precise and effective rules, encompassing national climate laws and policies, as well as international initiatives, to facilitate the transition to a net zero. Despite the increasing number of climate-winning legal cases, such as the Oslo district court decision from 18 January 2024, challenging the legitimacy and legality of fossil fuel extraction, this is not merely an easy task. Implementation of states’ obligations to move away from fossil fuels should happen in the context of decreasing geological stability, ongoing energy crises, and businesses pushing back on commitments despite the research-proven economic benefits of the green transition.

Stress Testing International Climate Governance: The Case of Ukraine

COP28 has left a significant number of unaddressed issues, such as the Global Stocktake lacking a full set of actions needed to close the emission and adaptation gaps and a failure to reach a deal on carbon trading mechanisms to endorse standards for the carbon credit market. However, these are not the only shortcomings of the UNFCCC regime, as evident from COP28 outcomes. The case of Ukraine highlights the constraints of the current climate governance, even as Ukraine demonstrates commitment to global climate goals and green energy transition in the face of existential threats.

In particular, Ukraine stands in a distinctive position, grappling with ongoing war and an unparalleled reconstruction challenge. The imminent task involves rebuilding nearly half of its energy sector infrastructure and assets, coupled with a substantial share of industrial assets, ushering in a transformative phase unparalleled in the experiences of most other countries. Thus, the question is whether the UNFCCC regime can effectively facilitate Ukraine’s green transition, and what priority spheres and actions are imperative to ensure this transformation.  

The response to this question is multifaceted. Initially, the classification of Ukraine as a developed country within the UNFCCC driven by historical considerations, introduces a nuanced challenge. Notably, Ukraine’s per capita GDP, particularly post-war, places it lower than many lower-middle-income and even lower-income countries classified as developing nations globally. This circumstance restricts Ukraine’s access to specific instruments outlined by the convention and the Paris Agreement, such as the Green Climate Fund, Least Developed Country Fund, and the Special Climate Change Fund—resources currently unavailable to Ukraine. Despite the Global Environment Facility allocating funds at a limited scale, it is evident that the existing framework, based on a paradigm from three decades ago, no longer aligns with the contemporary need for global decarbonization and the unique national circumstances in countries like Ukraine, particularly amid the challenges of the war. While there is mounting pressure for a recalibration of this framework, the process is gradual. In the interim, the focus should shift towards exploring regional or national instruments.  

On the other hand, as a developed country, Ukraine is mandated to take accelerated action to expedite efforts beyond those of developing countries, ensuring emissions balance for neutrality by the early stages of the second half of this century. Within this context, the Paris Agreement assumes a pivotal role, potentially exerting a more significant influence in steering Ukraine towards a trajectory where reconstruction prioritizes green, sustainable, and low-emission practices. In essence, Ukraine’s commitment to climate action amid the war can illustrate that even in challenging circumstances, sustainable practices can be integral to recovery and development. It underscores the idea that prioritizing climate action is not only an environmental imperative but also a pathway to building a more resilient, prosperous, and sustainable future for nations emerging from conflict. 

Meanwhile, the energy transition in Ukraine is not just a national concern but a significant component of the global climate agenda. On COP28 Ukraine reaffirmed its deep commitment to achieving net zero, phasing out coal by 2035 and supporting the global ambition to triple renewable energy capacity and double the rate of energy efficiency improvements. The Ukrainian government presented scenarios and plans for decarbonization of its energy system based on decentralised renewables, the case of 450 million euros of private financing attracted for the development of wind energy and Ukraine’s ambition to emerge as a “green energy hub” of Europe.  

While clarity regarding Ukraine’s commitment is paramount, the most significant challenge is that Ukraine has to rebuild quickly and whether this can be executed in a ‘green’ manner aligned with climate goals and net zero targets is the foremost question raised by many experts.  In July 2022, during a head-of-states conference in Lugano, Switzerland, the Ukrainian government presented the initial version of its 10-year national recovery plan, outlining proposed recovery pathways for major sectors at an estimated cost of $750 billion. It showcased that green, inclusive, low-carbon, and sustainable post-war reconstruction for Ukraine is feasible. Provided the right political decisions are taken, Ukraine can become a role model, demonstrating that decoupling economic growth from carbon emissions is possible even in the most extreme circumstances and recovery scenarios and a front-runner in the global energy transition.  However, little can be achieved without international financial and institutional support. 

For this purpose, for instance, the new collective quantified goal for climate funding for 2024, discussed at COP28, must address the requirements for both rapid recoveries during the war and long-term post-war reconstruction, supporting post-conflict regions and aiding these nations in rebuilding destroyed assets and infrastructure in alignment with the Build Back Better principles.

Additionally, there is an urgent need to develop international legal instruments to hold aggressor nations accountable for war-related GHG emissions. One viable approach is formulating a liability mechanism under the UNFCCC regime to formally assess and attribute responsibility. Total emissions linked to Russia’s war on Ukraine are estimated to have already amounted to 150 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent as of September 2023 – representing $9.6 billion in global climate damage. This could be claimed as a breach of the global climate commitment tied to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Integrating quantified climatic harm into the registry of losses under the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage would enable economic valuation and claiming of wartime losses and damages. Concretely, the expenses associated with Russia’s invasion-attributable excess emissions could be documented and claimed based on global cost estimates. Constructing formal attribution and liability systems through UNFCCC processes or loss/damage registries will help discourage environmentally destructive warfare while promoting climate accountability.

End of the beginning?

Merely two months later, the concerns over loopholes posed by ambiguous UAEConsensus are coming true – none of the major historical emitters is implementing policies to move away from fossil fuels but actively expanding production. Canada is launching the $23.05 billion expansion project to triple the flow of crude oil to 890,000 barrels per day, the UAE state oil company ADNOC is expanding its oil production capacity from four million barrels a day (bpd) to 5 million bpd by 2027 and the UK adopting Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill to boost oil and gas extraction in the North Sea.

Meanwhile, the Russian war against Ukraine continues to serve as a compelling case study that demonstrates the broader implications of fossil fuel dependence. Beyond its apparent role in contributing to a temperature rise, the conflict underscores that reliance on fossil fuels is a matter of global security and a fundamental determinant of life and death on a global scale. There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that the devastating war in Ukraine was, to an extent, enabled and financially supported by the fossil fuel industry.

This calls for the development of comprehensive policies that seamlessly integrate climate and conflict considerations, aligning energy policies with climate objectives while addressing geopolitical vulnerabilities and reducing dependence on specific regions or fuels that may contribute to geopolitical tensions. 

However, with COP29 set to be hosted by Azerbaijan, such seamless integration raises concerns. Azerbaijan’s fossil fuel production represents 40% of the nation’s GDP, accompanied by expansion of oil and gas exploration in the Caspian Sea and limited progress on renewables, accounting for just 17% of domestic energy consumption as of 2018. Though the government set a target for 30% renewable energy integration by 2030, one can argue this paradoxical embrace of production growth alongside green pledges echoes the UAE’s contradictory climate positioning at COP28. Compounding concerns, Azerbaijan saw 30 wrongful dissident imprisonments in 2022 amid strained human rights conditions, displacing tens of thousands in renewed conflict with Armenia, undermining its credibility in “convening different players in a spirit of inclusion and compromise” on the world stage.

The influence of fossil fuel interests, combined with the support of authoritarian regimes and dictatorships so far has been diluting global climate action. The substantial financial investments in the expansion of oil and gas infrastructure worldwide exacerbate the situation. Establishing universally applicable and impactful mechanisms for international climate action remains elusive unless decisive measures are taken, including possibly considering the suspension of countries like Russia from the UNFCCC process.

The First Global Stocktake presentation had a very strong message: “We aren’t where we should be, and we do not have the luxury of (merely) incremental action on climate.” 

For war-ravaged nations like Ukraine, the cost of inaction is far too high.

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