COP28: How the Wars in Ukraine and Gaza Affect Climate Action

Bomb explodes in Gaza
La Nacion
United Arab Emirates
COP28: How the Wars in Ukraine and Gaza Affect Climate Action

Although climate discussions get most of the attention at COP28, it is impossible to ignore the palpable tension that hovers over the pavilions and auditoriums of the Dubai Expo convention center. And the main reason is because of the war between Hamas and Israel.

Almost two months have passed since the militant group's massive attack in southern Israel, where it killed 1,200 people and kidnapped 240. The Hamas offensive triggered Israel's response with a ground invasion and airstrikes on the Palestinian enclave, in one of the worst escalations of violence in the Middle East in decades.

Presidents of France and Brazil smile and shake hands in front of a COP28 photo backdrop
Emmanuel Macron and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, in a meeting on the sidelines of COP28, in Dubai / Credit: Ludovic Marin for AFP via LA NACION.

In the United Arab Emirates, within the framework of the most important climate negotiations on the planet, this issue led several groups and leaders to position themselves in favor of one or the other, although so far the balance leans more towards support for the Palestinians, as happened with the Colombian president Gustavo Petro, the Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and the king of Jordan, Abdullah II, who also called for a ceasefire.

“The fate of the Palestinian people is what awaits the south and the victims of the climate crisis. Most of the victims of the climate crisis will occur in countries that do not produce CO2. The exodus will be billions and will have terrible reactions in the northern countries,” Petro warned last Friday.

Another reaction, even more extreme, was that of the Iranian delegation, which not only refused to take a photo with all the world's representatives due to Israeli presence, but also left the conference. And even with support from players such as the United States and the European Union (EU), Israel's representation in these negotiations was affected by the war; the plans they had before the attacks changed completely.

The Israeli government stated that its delegation to the conference was significantly reduced due to “current events” and that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his top ministers would not be present. However, Israel reportedly still has a pavilion at the conference that will be used to promote its new businesses and environmental initiatives, especially those from the war-affected southern regions. Some visitors who enter that pavilion arrive in a confrontational mood, and although those there respond with diplomacy, tension remains.

It is a situation that has rarely been experienced at conferences like this one.

“There is a topic that is talked about a lot in these negotiations and that is trust between the parties. And this situation can undermine everything,” says Antonio Hill, an expert in climate negotiations at the Natural Resource Governance Institute (NRGI).

According to Hill, wars like this cause changes in the way countries come together to negotiate climate policy. However, he believes that in this particular case, it will not be as decisive as last year's war between Russia and Ukraine. “They are completely different cases if we talk about the impact on climate change negotiations. Due to the invasion of Ukraine there was an increase in the prices of fossil fuels, which are the root of the problem if we talk about the climate crisis,” he explains.

Price chain

Unlike the Palestinian territories or Israel, Russia and Ukraine were part of a fundamental energy market chain for several countries, especially the EU. There was a sudden shortage where there had not been for decades. This led to a series of changes, first in the prices of hydrocarbons, then in food and in the rest of the market chains, because almost everything requires these fuels to be produced.

Three Ukrainian soldiers run along a dirt path in a wooded area
Ukrainian soldiers in an operation in Kreminna / Credit: Bram Janssen for AP via LA NACION.

Europe was forced to take quick action, but rather than only turning to other fossil sources, Hill explains that they bet even more on the energy transition. “They stressed their commitment to addressing the climate crisis. They committed not only to increasing energy efficiency levels in the EU to replace the energy that was no longer coming from Russia, but they renewed investment in renewables,” he adds. However, this was not the only thing that happened.

In other parts of the world, the effect of that war pointed in the opposite direction. In cases such as Colombia, Brazil and even Argentina, they gave hope to companies and countries that export fossil fuels such as coal, oil or gas. The United States agreed to a pact to export and supply a large part of European demand with liquified gas. Three months after the outbreak of war, President Joe Biden even eased the trade sanctions he had imposed on Venezuela. And by the time COP27 arrived in Egypt, the climate agenda had a different tone.

A headshot of President Joe Biden at the White House
US President Joe Biden at the White House / Credit: Andrew Harnik for AP via LA NACION.

Russia's absence from the plenary echoed the geopolitical situation, which was amplified by the presence of the Ukrainian president, Volodomir Zelensky. “There can be no effective climate policy without peace,” he said, highlighting the impact of Russia's invasion of Ukraine on global energy supplies, food prices and his country's forests.

For Hill, this situation only accentuated a discussion that climate scientists raised decades ago, but gained special relevance only a year earlier, at COP26 in Glasgow. Today, in Dubai, this discussion arrived with much more force, although it is still too early to know what will happen on December 12, when the conference ends and the agreements discussed are published.

But this year, Hill suspects that in the case of the war between Hamas and Israel there will not be changes of that magnitude. On the other hand, the greatest impact on this matter does not occur in high-level debates or press conferences in a convention center, but on the ground in Gaza, the West Bank and Israel.

War, occupation and climate risk

The entire region that makes up Israel, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank is one of the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. They are predominantly hot areas with a large part of the territory arid or semi-arid. And with climate change, the rise in temperatures and lack of water are becoming more extreme.

Palestinians carry belongings and push wheelchairs down a dirt road strewn with wreckage
Palestinians on Salah al-Din road in central Gaza flee south on the third day of a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas on November 26, 2023 / Credit: Hatem Moussa for AP via LA NACION.

Both countries have developed strategies for the mitigation of greenhouse gases, and also for adaptation to new conditions. In the Israeli case, the lack of water for agriculture was skillfully resolved. Advanced technology options such as drip irrigation are already recognized worldwide, in addition to the fact that the country is aligned with the objectives of the EU and the US perspective on climate policy: it seeks a progressive decarbonization of all sectors and adaptation to the world crisis. Before the war, Israeli water desalination or waste collection companies even saw Gaza as a place to implement new technologies and improve quality of life, but all of that was stopped.

At COP28 there is silence on the part of the representatives at the conference when talking about war and the effects it has on climate action. LA NACION repeatedly tried to contact the Israeli delegation at COP28 to discuss this issue, but did not receive any response.

On the other hand, the Palestinian representation, whose office is located just a few steps from Israel's at Expo Dubai, was not shy about explaining its vision of things. Hadeel Ikhmais is a young Palestinian who heads the climate change section within the Palestinian government's Environmental Quality Authority. She lives in the West Bank and explains that the Palestinian situation, in terms of climate action, has been weakened by the war.

Since 2016, the government developed a climate change mitigation and adaptation plan. “We started with a climate strategy to improve Palestinian capacity on climate change and then moved into the adaptation plan and NDCs. But when we did the expert evaluation, it says that the occupation exacerbates climate action,” Ikhmais denounces.

The activist explains that, even before the war, the truncated relationship between the Palestinian authorities and the State of Israel made it difficult to approve those projects. “When we have to propose a project we always have to obtain Israel's approval and 90% of the time it is denied,” she adds, detailing that after the Hamas terrorist attack and Israel's response, the situation slowed down climate action in West Bank and ended up dismembering any similar project in Gaza.

“We began to develop actions with experts and actors in Gaza. And we started working in different sectors. We even had projects funded by the Global Environmental Facility (GEF). We had an evaluation and diagnosis of what was happening in Gaza, but now we have to redo it after all the destruction. We have to think about what to do after the war, because we don't have any communication with anyone in Gaza,” she noted.

There is no dialogue between the two parties, and concern regarding climate action is growing on both sides. However, for now there is no goal bigger than that of accountability and addressing the dispute of a territory faced with violence.

This story was produced as part of the Climate Change Media Program 2023, a journalism fellowship organized by Internews' Earth Journalism Network and the Stanley Center for Peace and Security. It was first published in LA NACION on December 2, 2023.

Banner image: A strike by Israel in Gaza city / Fatima Shbair for AP via LA NACION.

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