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Russia’s invasion & Pakistan’s floods defined 2022 in climate

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After an avalanche of climate pledges last year, 2022 was when governments and corporations started to grapple with implementation

In 2021, governments and corporations got drunk on net zero hype. 2022 was the year when the hangover kicked in and they started to grapple with what their promises meant and whether they were actually prepared to follow through.

Cop26’s slogan of “coal, car, cash and trees” was replaced by Cop27’s sober “together for implementation”. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sent fossil fuel prices soaring and governments scrambling to secure them in the short term while moving off them in the long term. Many pledges made in Glasgow slipped off the top of governments and CEO to-do lists.

But the changing climate kept making the case for action. With large parts of Pakistan underwater and its people living for months by the side of the road, the case for loss and damage finance for climate victims finally became impossible to ignore. Here’s our run-down of what defined 2022 in the climate world.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

On Thursday February 25, Russian troops advanced towards Ukraine’s capital Kyiv. The invasion had huge global implications, particularly for energy. But its immediate impacts were local and personal. The day after the advance on Kyiv began, Climate Home spoke to a climate campaigner stuck in a huge traffic jam as she fled the city, a climate scientist who had to debate the IPCC’s summary for policymakers under rocket fire and a green energy promoter who feared that investment in Ukraine would now disappear.

The war highlighted how dependence on fossil fuels makes you vulnerable. Europe had to scramble to replace Russian gas with renewables and non-Russian gas. The latter sent energy prices around the world soaring and damaged the continent’s credibility as a self-styled climate leader. For the rest of the year, Europe tried not to pull a muscle pursuing a dash for gas at the same time as a renewables marathon. European divisions on whether to back foreign gas were laid bare at the G7 in June.

In September, two pipelines carrying Russian gas exploded in suspicious circumstances. Experts said this highlighted the inherent vulnerability of an energy system which relies on moving large quantities of stuff across the world rather than relying on the sun and wind, which are harder to disrupt.

Ukrainian climate scientist Svitlana Krakovska debated an IPCC report while under bombardment in Kyiv (Photo: Svitlana Krakovska)

Fossil fuel crisis

The economic impact of the invasion of Ukraine spread far beyond Europe. Countries like Sri Lanka, which has neglected renewables and relies on imported fossil fuels, were particularly vulnerable to the spike in the oil and gas price.

About month after Russian troops marched towards Kyiv, protesters in Colombo advanced on the presidential palace of Gotobaya Rajapaksa. A few months later, on 9 July, he fled to Singapore, although his disciple Ranil Wickremesinghe remains in charge.

Analysts told Climate Home that reliance on fossil fuel imports had contributed to the crisis. But that neither the government nor ordinary citizens have the money to invest in renewables and fix the problem. So Sri Lankans face power cuts, tourists stay away and the country struggles even more for foreign currency.

Loss and damage breakthrough

This year saw huge advances on the issue of loss and damage, which is UN climatespeak for funding for victims of climate change. Developing countries have been pushing for a loss and damage fund for decades – to firm opposition from rich polluters.

The issue was not even on the agenda at Cop26 last year or at the annual Bonn interim climate talks in June. But the Egyptian presidency backed its inclusion at Cop27. It became the main issue for climate campaigners and the global press.

And on 18 November, the European Commission’s Frans Timmermans ended the rich world’s blanket opposition when he said the EU would support a fund on certain conditions. Two days later, the EU and developing countries struck a deal. The US went along with it. Details – like who pays and who benefits – will be worked out by Cop28 next year.

In parallel, a handful of countries volunteered to show the way. Germany promoted its insurance-focused “global shield”. In September, Denmark became the first UN member state to promise bilateral loss and damage finance.

Climate disasters escalate

Climate disasters are so common now that we at Climate Home only cover a fraction. But we reported on the destruction caused as storms hit southern Africa, Florida and Cuba. Drought dried up rivers across the world. Heatwaves baked Europe and China. Floods sunk Bangladesh and parts of India in June.

Most devastating was the monsoon on steroids that hit Pakistan in August. Nearly four months on, the waters have still not fully receded, homes have not been rebuilt, winter is here and many Pakistanis are still living under tarpaulins by the side of the road. Promised aid from rich nations has showed up too little and too late, leaving aid agencies to have to make hugely difficult decisions about who can get food and shelter.

With Pakistan’s environment minister chairing the G77+China group of developing countries this year, this all lent incredible moral weight to calls for loss and damage finance.

Corporate greenwashers feel the heat

In 2021, corporations were setting net zero targets left, right and centre. In 2022, they started to be questioned on what exactly that meant.

The main body judging whether these targets are valid is the Science Based Targets Initiative. It came in for criticism in February as the New Climate Institute questioned its methods. In response, the Science Based Targets Initiative said they’d tightened up their criteria since the New Climate Institute did its research. In March, they stopped validating oil companies.

Also in March, UN boss Antonio Guterres appointed Canadian former minister Catherine McKenna to head a taskforce drawing up standards for corporate net zero pledges. At Cop27 in November, it launched these standards and they were strong.

They excluded companies that are looking for or investing in new fossil fuels. They said companies should set interim targets, should align their lobbying with their green ambitions, should count the emissions from the use of their products and should only use offsets as a last resort. The report was officially “welcomed” by all governments at Cop27.

The guidelines could empower other initiatives like the UN’s Race to Zero campaign to take a stronger stance. The co-chair of its advisory group wrote for Climate Home in September that lawyers advised it couldn’t even say that digging up coal is incompatible with the Paris Agreement.

US fails on finance…

The US ended 2021 with climate envoy John Kerry making a “moral commitment to Africa” to increase finance for adapting to climate change. That helped get the Glasgow Pact over the line at Cop26.

So it was seen as a “betrayal” in March when the US Congress approved just $1bn in climate finance for the fiscal year and nothing for the the UN’s flagship Green Climate Fund. The fund’s director warned that projects would have to be delayed at its meeting a few weeks later.

The US was absent from the list of self-styled “champions” on adaptation finance who gathered in Finland in April to try and make rich countries’ promise to double adaptation finance by 2025 a reality.

Instead of public money, the US and some developing countries have looked to alternatives or supplements. John Kerry touted corporate carbon offsets as a solution. The state of Massacheusets enabled its citizens to voluntarily donate. Vulnerable nations and UN boss Guterres called for a tax on fossil fuels.

Climate finance was not exactly high priority for Europe either, despite its better record. When several African leaders travelled all the way to Rotterdam in September to discuss adaptation finance, most European leaders didn’t make the shorter trip to meet them. The UK froze “non-essential” new aid spending.

…but breaks through on emissions cuts

After coming to power promising to cut emissions, US president Joe Biden battled all year to follow through on that promise. For months, it looked like he would be stopped by one of his party’s own senators – West Virginia’s Joe Manchin.

But, after some watering down and sops to the fossil fuel industry, Manchin finally said yes to the Inflation Reduction Act in August. The bill contains $370bn in green spending pledges and gets the US within striking distance of meeting its 2030 climate pledge.

Although some of its measures have since been criticised as protectionist, it was broadly welcomed by climate-watchers around the world.

World Bank and IMF under scrutiny

In July, the prime minister of Barbados Mia Mottley hosted philanthropists, politicians and UN officials to her Caribbean nation’s capital Bridgetown. The outcome was the “Bridgetown agenda” which was much talked about at the United Nations General Assembly and Cop27.

The main demand is reform of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to unlock the trillions need for the developing world to move away from fossil fuels and to prepare for climate change impacts.

These institutions have been dominated by the US and Europe since they were set up after the second world war. So the US and Germany’s backing of reform of the World Bank, announced in September, was crucial. Questions have been raised over whether the bank’s president, Donald Trump appointee David Malpass, is the right person to oversee reform – particularly after he cast doubt on climate science in September. He hastily rowed back and looks likely to stay in his job until his term ends in 2024.

Underwhelming climate plans

At Cop26, all countries agreed to “revisit and strengthen” their climate plans by the end of 2022. Barely any followed through. Australia was the exception. After electing a more climate-friendly government in May, it caught up with the rest of the rich nations in August by improving its 2030 climate target.

Indonesia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, the European Union and the United Kingdom slightly improved their climate targets. Brazil and Mexico submitted new ones which were worse than the old ones. In June, Chile, Turkey and Vietnam promised new pledges by the end of the year but – with just over a week left – we’re yet to see them.

Coal to clean deals

A group of wealthy countries promised finance to coal-reliant emerging economies South Africa, Vietnam and Indonesia to move from coal to clean energy.

The year was marked by wrangling over the amount of money and the terms. Contributor countries offered loans – including from the private sector – while the recipients wanted grants. The contributors largely got their way. Similar talks with India are still at an early stage.

Hope for the Amazon

Deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest and Cerrado grassland has soared under far-right president Jair Bolsonaro. At the start of 2022, it looked like Bolsonaro would be a one-term president as his nemesis Lula da Silva was far ahead of him in the polls. That gave hope to environmentalists as former president Lula has a much better record on curbing deforestation.

Throughout the year, polls narrowed. In October elections, Brazil’s congress swung to the right and Bolsonaro did better than expected, leading to a runoff with Lula at the end of October. But Lula narrowly won and Bolsonaro accepted the result. A few weeks later, Lula came to Cop27 and was hailed as a hero. He takes over the presidency on 1 January.

Taiwan hits US-China relations

In August, the US and China were weeks away from a meticulously planned series of meetings on climate topics like methane, forests and urban climate action. Then US congress leader Nancy Pelosi visited the island of Taiwan and China called the talks off. They started arguing on Twitter instead.

That deterioration of relations rippled into Cop27 with climate envoys John Kerry and Xie Zhenhua unable to officially talk to each other until their bosses had got together at the G20 summit in Bali, which overlapped with the climate talks.

After that meeting, relations improved. Xie even made a surprise visit to a US and EU-led methane event at Kerry’s invitation.

Breakthrough in nature talks

Throughout 2022, there wasn’t much hope for UN nature talks. With their host China locking the country down over Covid, there was a lot of doubt whether they would even take place. In the end, Canada stepped in to co-host and delegates gathered in a snowy Montreal in December.

But despite divisions over finance, a deal was done. Governments agreed to mobilise $200bn for nature protection, set up a new nature fund, protect 30% of land and sea by 2030 and get rid of at least $500bn worth of nature-harming subsidies.

Plastics treaty talks begin

With the world shifting away from fossil fuels for electricity, the oil and gas industry sees making plastics as its “plan B”. That plan took a major hit in March when governments got together at the United Nations Environment Assembly in Kenya and agreed to set up talks on a global plastics treaty.

The first session of these talks took place in Uruguay at the start of December where we got a good look at where divisions will be. The world’s two biggest fossil fuel producers – the US and Saudi Arabia – want a bottom-up deal focused on recycling, while a “high ambition coalition” wants top-down curbs on plastic production. The next round of talks is scheduled for Paris in May and governments hope to land a deal by 2024.

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