Five burning climate issues for the 2022 UN General Assembly

Pakistan’s catastrophic floods and soaring energy bills shape the UN agenda – for leaders running

More than 150 world leaders are due to gather in New York next week for the UN general assembly.

The annual event takes place against a backdrop of growing uncertainty, divisions and eroding momentum for climate action.

Russia’s war in Ukraine has heightened geopolitical tensions, skyrocketed energy and food prices, and deepened inequality.

In the aftermath of a pandemic, global inflation increases the debt burden of vulnerable developing countries, leaving no fiscal space to invest in resilience.

After an extraordinarily hot summer, Pakistan is reeling from one of the worst weather disasters of all time. Unprecedented monsoon floods have left the country with an estimated $30 billion recovery bill, highlighting the shortfall in humanitarian assistance.

Meanwhile, rich countries are seeking alternative gas supplies, increasing fossil fuel production at home, and supporting gas infrastructure abroad.

China, India and Russia are too preoccupied with domestic concerns to send their presidents, based on a draft schedule dated September 2 and seen by Climate Home News. The new Australian Prime Minister is also not expected.

But for those who show up, energy and climate concerns shape the agenda. As world leaders take to the UN podium from Tuesday, here are five things to watch out for.

Climatic repairs

The scale of the damage in Pakistan has led developing countries to cry loudly about the need for funding to help victims of climate change recover.

Rich countries have opposed for years the opening of a new funding channel to pay for losses and damages caused by climate-related disasters.

The tragedy in Pakistan could be a turning point in this conversation. Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif is about to ask the question to at the top of the political agenda.

Sharif was asked to share the magnitude of his country’s financial needs at a leaders’ roundtable on climate action convened on Wednesday by UN chief António Guterres.

Pakistan, a strategic ally of wealthy countries in the region, also chairs a group of 134 developing countries, known as the G77, which is calling for a loss and damage financing facility.

Small island states are organizing intergovernmental meetings on the sidelines of the UNGA to mobilize support for a fund. Expect sharp speeches from the leaders during the debate.

Rachel Kyte, dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University, said the events in Pakistan will “open up a new political space” on loss and damage. The question is whether the rich countries are ready to change their position.

“Maybe this tragedy is the one that could do it,” she said.

People displaced by heavy monsoon floods rest in a temporary tent camp organized by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in Sukkur, Pakistan, Saturday, September 10, 2022 (AP Photo/Fareed Khan )

Remaking the financial system

Closing the financing gap for vulnerable countries to address climate impacts and build resilient economies requires more than a quick fix.

“It has to be the UNGA where we highlight the fact that there has to be systemic change in how we find resources for resilience and adaptation, for loss and damage and crisis responses,” Kyte said.

This means linking climate finance to debt relief and cancellation and other forms of economic support, such as the IMF’s Special Drawing Rights (SDRs).

Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley has led the way by proposing a new financial settlement for the climate frontlines. She argues that vulnerable countries cannot repay growing debt as they face rising costs to recover from climate disasters.

His speech, scheduled for Thursday afternoon, is one to watch.

Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley addresses world leaders during the Cop26 climate talks in Glasgow (Picture: UN Climate Change/ Kiara Worth/ Flickr )

Clean energy transitions

In response to soaring energy bills, governments are conveniently forgetting about promises to end fossil fuel subsidies. Some have adopted a windfall tax on oil and gas profits. Others effectively subsidize the sector by lowering consumer bills and supporting gas developments to increase supply.

Bill Hare, managing director of Climate Analytics, told Climate Home that rising fossil fuel prices should create an opportunity for faster deployment of renewable energy.

“But the fossil fuel industry is taking advantage of the situation,” he said, citing momentum for gas in Africa and Australia. And high energy prices are driving down access to energy in developing countries.

As Cop27 approaches, the UNGA could signal that for some developing countries, the energy transition is “a development prospect”, said Laurence Tubiana, CEO of the European Climate Foundation.

In developing coal-dependent economies, partnerships for a just energy transition, modeled on the agreement with South Africa reached at COP26, are a means of financing the transition to clean energy. This new funding model could get a lot of air time. So far, donor countries have focused on five countries.

The UK has been negotiating with South Africa and Vietnam, together with the EU. The United States and Japan have taken the lead in Indonesia. The United States is working with Germany on a similar deal in India, and Germany and France are in talks with Senegal.

Pakistani PM promises compensation for flood victims

Closing the 1.5 C gap

Countries’ climate plans do not put the world on track to limit global warming to 1.5°C by the end of the century.

To close the gap, governments agreed at COP26 in Glasgow to “review and strengthen” their 2030 climate plans by the end of this year.

Few major issuers have responded to this call. Australia, Egypt and the bucket updated plans make slim choices. India formalized the commitments made at COP26.

Despite positive political developments in the US and EU, “we don’t see the international push we need… Not at the G7 level. Not from the G20, and it’s really those big emitters that need to come to the table,” said Climate Analytics’ Hare.

With a September 23 deadline for the plans to be included in a UN progress report on climate change, the UNGA is an opportunity for nations to show how they will step up action.

But the leaders of Indonesia, Mexico and Vietnam, who promised to intensify their plansshow few signs that they will make it to New York.

This “lack of momentum” only increases the pressure on Cop27 to make greater progress, Hare said.

Vanuatu’s quest for climate justice

A family stand next to what was once their outhouse after Cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu’s capital, Port Vila (Picture: Silke von Brockhausen/UNDP/Flickr)

Vanuatu is rallying support for the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to give an advisory opinion on countries’ legal obligations to protect people from climate damage.

Under the proposal, the ICJ would be tasked with interpreting what international human rights and environmental laws mean for states’ responsibility to act on climate change.

Vanuatu is hosting a high-level event on the sidelines of the general debate as “a political moment to garner support from member states,” Kevin Chand, legal adviser at Vanuatu’s permanent mission to the UN, told Climate Home.

Expect some countries to declare their support for the initiative during the debate.

A resolution should be presented to the general assembly at the end of October, with a vote after the Cop27 at the end of 2022 or the beginning of 2023.

Teresa H. Sadler