Climate change will accelerate humanitarian crises around the world in 2023, adding to the issues created by armed conflict and economic downturns, according to a study by the NGO International Rescue Committee (IRC). The agency, based in New York and led by former UK politician David Miliband, flagged that the number of people in humanitarian need has skyrocketed in the last decade, approaching 339.2 million versus the 81 million seen in 2014. The IRC also flagged the need to more "proactively invest in climate change prevention and mitigation."
The study - titled "Emergency Watch list 2023"- also highlighted that the number of people forced to flee their homes has risen to more than 100 million in 2022, up from 60 million in 2014, with Venezuela among the biggest drivers.
Climate change is among the key factors accelerating humanitarian emergencies, the IRC noted, despite the fact that the 20 countries on its emergency watch list - like Haiti and Afghanistan - contribute just 2% to global CO2 emissions. "2022 has shown that the role of climate change in accelerating the global humanitarian crisis is undeniable," the report noted. It pointed to record-long periods of rains, which has "brought catastrophic food insecurity to Somalia and Ethiopia," and killed thousands in Pakistan.
The report also drew attention to the fact that food insecurity is already rife due to growing conflict as well as the economic crisis sparked by Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the coronavirus pandemic. In addition, the gap between humanitarian needs and its financing has apparently grown to a global deficit of $27 billion as of November 2022. "Donors are failing to respond proportionately," the report said. "The result is that communities affected by the crisis are unable to access the services they need to survive, recover and rebuild."
Within this matrix of rising anxiety has also surfaced another dimension. Climate activists have already demonstrated their anxiety in this regard through violent demonstrations in France.
There is renewed attention on the need to escalate world attention and financial support towards the creation of a greater percentage of investment on solar and renewable energy over the use of fossil fuels. There is still a lack of full clarity with regard to the current evolving process. However environmental analysts are carefully following the situation.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) following the unfolding scenario very carefully has disclosed in a recent report that investment in solar power is expected to overtake oil for the first time this year as clean energy spending might outpace that for fossil fuels. The IEA Executive Director has also observed that “this is clear technologies are pulling away from fossil fuels.” While that is a welcome development, the International Energy Agency has pointed out that investment in fossil fuels is also rising when it should be falling fast to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.
Annual investment in clean energy is expected to have risen by 24 per cent from 2021 to more than US Dollar 1.7trillion in 2023 according to the IEA. The gain for fossil fuels was 15 per cent over the same period. It may however be recalled that it was almost equal only five years ago.
High oil and gas prices and a worry about supplies has seen spending on renewables surge ahead. One shining example has been investment in solar power. The IEA expects investment in solar power, essentially in photovoltaic panels, to hit USD 380 billion this year, while investment in oil exploration and extraction to be around USD 370 billion.
The IEA has also alleged that the major energy companies are not putting considerable funds into the generation of green energy. Just five per cent of their cash flow last year apparently went to low carbon and renewable energies or carbon capture projects that were paid out overall to shareholders.
It is believed that the low price of solar power generation will help decarburization efforts as electric car adaptation gathers pace. However, concern has also been expressed that if solar power implementation is not undertaken in a coordinated manner then investment in fossil power could increase further by 2030.
The IEA has also noted that clean energy investment was concentrated in advanced nations and China. On the other hand the biggest investment in fossil fuel was taking place in the Middle Eastern countries. The UAE which is going to host the next climate negotiations this year and Saudi ARAMCO have however indicated that the time is coming for required change to facilitate the use of green energy as an important aspect in our lives.
Such a scenario underlines that we, all over the world need to understand the need to carefully transform our economy and power generation towards renewable energy. Right now the growth in producing and using renewable energy sources is not near the required paradigm that could reduce global warming. However, analysts have pointed out that the latest G7 Summit while addressing many issues related to geo-politics appear to have disappointed the world and environmentalists by not underlining the need to further tackle climate vulnerability by setting deadlines on the use of fossil fuels- gas and coal. It has also been noted that while the G 7 energy and environment Ministers pledged to decarbonize the power sector they were unable to reach a consensus as to whether this could be brought about by 2035. They agreed on the need to end the construction of new coal fired power plants but could not clearly agree on the “rollout of renewable sources”.
The Group however backed the adoption of international standards for calculating the carbon intensity of hydrogen – which is considered as green when made using renewable energy. G 7 nations have however asked the IEA to make recommendations by the end of this year on how to diversify the supply of energy and critical minerals associated with clean energy manufacturing. The G7 participants also thankfully, while discussing the role of the private sector, backed the work being done by the International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB) in drawing up climate related disclosure rules for companies. The ISSB is now expected to issue the first set of standards in June. This will underline the “important role of high integrity carbon markets and carbon pricing”.
It would also be pertinent here to refer to another report that refers to “Climate Change Gets Its Day in Court “by Research analyst Pousadela . Reporting from Montevideo, Uruguay on 25 May he noted that “as a matter of global justice, the climate crisis has rightfully made its way to the world’s highest court”.
On 29 March 2023, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) apparently unanimously agreed on a resolution asking the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to issue an advisory opinion on the obligations of states on climate change.
The initiative was led by the Pacific Island state of Vanuatu, one of several at risk of disappearing under rising sea levels. It was co-sponsored by 132 States and actively supported by networks of grassroots youth groups from the Pacific and around the world.
It may be recalled that since 2019 law students from the University of South Pacific teamed up with other activists from Fiji, the Solomon Islands, Tonga and Vanuatu to draw attention to the deteriorating conditions emerging because of climate change. They also advocated that the Pacific Island Forum – a key body should persuade the ICJ to give an opinion on their issue.
This also led the government of Vanuatu to announce in September 2021 to form an alliance with the Pacific civil society organisations (CSOs) that has gradually expanded to also include UN Special Rapporteurs and global environmental experts.
The campaign made diverse use of social media, with people sharing their stories on the impacts of climate change and emphasizing the importance of an ICJ opinion to help support calls for climate action, including climate litigation. In the run-up to the UNGA session that adopted the historic resolution, several CSOs from around the world also supported the cause through letters calling for governments to back the vote in the UNGA.
It is understood that the questions posed to the ICJ aim to clarify the obligations of states under international law to protect the climate system and environment from human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. They also ask about the legal responsibilities of states that have caused significant environmental harm towards other states, particularly small islands, and towards current and future generations.
To provide its advisory opinion, the ICJ will have to interpret states’ obligations as outlined in the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the 2015 Paris Agreement as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and a variety of international covenants and treaties.
In this context, the ICJ may also refer to previous UNGA resolutions on climate change recognizing access to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a universal human right, and other resolutions by the UN Human Rights Council and reports by the Office of the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights and its independent human rights experts. It may also take into account decisions by UN treaty bodies and its own jurisprudence on climate and environmental matters.
According to its statute, the ICJ can also seek written statements from states or international organizations likely to have relevant information on the issue. It has been reported that the ICJ has already got in touch with some UN member states ‘likely to be able to furnish information on the questions submitted to the Court’. Consequently, climate activists are urging their governments to make strong submissions that will lead to a progressive ICJ estimation.
One can only hope that the ICJ with their efforts will not just reiterate the content of existing climate treaties. The world will wait and analyze their opinion to discern how we will be able to advance climate justice that meets the scale of the crisis. All states need to work together in this regard.
We also need to remember that ICJ advisory opinions are not binding and do not impose obligations on states. However, they shape the global understanding of states’ obligations under international law and can motivate states to show their compliance with rising standards.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst
specialized in foreign affairs