How a low-expectation COP both surprised and disappointed
COP27 may have delivered a fund for the most vulnerable countries, but it also buried the goal of limiting warming to 1.5C and wounded the 2C target too.
The 2022 edition of the United Nations climate change conference, known as COP27 (Conference of the Parties), has finally ended after being extended into the early hours of Sunday morning.
The big success from the conference is an agreement on a fund to address the negative impacts of climate change that are already occurring, what’s referred to as ‘Loss and Damage’ in international climate change policy circles.
This issue has been on the climate agenda outside of the COPs for decades, as a way of providing financial and technical help for those people and nations most affected by climate-related loss and damage, such as through insurance for farmer’s lost crops or the repair of buildings and infrastructure damaged by severe weather events.
At long last, there is going to be a fund to support loss and damage, but there is no detail yet on which countries will fund it, how much money there will be, and which nations will be able to use it. Obviously, rich western countries with large historical carbon footprints will have to contribute, but whether the list of funders will include big so-called transition economies such as India and China remains to be seen.
COP27’s agreement text represents a big breakthrough on loss and damage, and agreement on this issue arguably held the conference together. At some points it looked like negotiations would disintegrate entirely.
Scotland’s leadership on a fund for loss and damage deserves special mention here. The Scottish Government has been closely involved in discussions around loss and damage for years, and has itself committed a total of £7 million to tackle it at this and last year’s COPs. It’s a drop in the rising ocean in terms of the amount of funding that must be mobilised globally to address loss and damage from climate change, but it is a crucial start and one that shows real leadership on climate action.
Concerns on global temperature increase
Despite the breakthrough on loss and damage, there is a fair bit of cause for concern from COP27 and its outcomes. During the negotiations, certain nations tried to backslide on the ambition to limit global average temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. While that ambition does remain in the agreement from COP27, it has been moved to the science section of the cover decision text and is arguably less overt than it was at the end of COP26 in Glasgow last year.
More importantly, there is scant evidence in the text of more ambition and more action to cut greenhouse gas emissions, and so very little to suggest we are any closer to limiting warming to under 1.5C, or even 2C. Though the 1.5 limit is still physically possible – just – we would need a 43 per cent cut in global greenhouse emissions by 2030 just to given us an evens chance of hitting this target. Current climate commitments will result in a cut of more like 0.3 per cent by 2030. If the 1.5C target isn’t already dead in physics, it is probably already buried in terms of policy and action.
So, for Scotland, like every nation, preparing to adapt to climate change becomes more important by the day, especially as international action on mitigating climate change stutters. This includes assessing whether we are ready for warming well above 2C, and if this risk assessment is embedded in all of our planning and investment decisions for the decades and centuries to come.
During the negotiations in Egypt, there was a push, led by India, to agree on phasing down all fossil fuels. This would have been a step further from COP26, where only phasing down coal was agreed, and one that would have spoken much more clearly to the realities of the climate emergency we are in. If we are to achieve the Paris climate goals we simply cannot afford new coal, oil or gas extraction and use. However, the final text failed to embody this need for a wider transition away from fossil fuels like gas and oil too.
It’s also worrying that the use of so-called low emission energy to deliver climate action has slithered its way into the final agreement in Egypt. This could open up the case for more natural gas exploitation and use. Natural gas does have a lower carbon footprint than coal, but it’s still a big footprint. If so, then even the limited progress on mitigation made at COP26 in Glasgow could be lost in a gassy miasma of new fossil fuel extraction and use.
Food, oceans and forests
That all sounds a little bit bleak, but there are some other positives in the COP27 agreement, at least in terms of a system-wide approach to climate action. For instance, there is real acknowledgment that climate change is interlinked with the energy and food crises that the world is facing.
Oceans and forests have dedicated sections in the agreement and that is really crucial, as it exemplifies connections between climate, nature and food security.
This is also really timely because another very important COP, the UN Biodiversity Conference, known as COP15, is starting in Canada next month. There are crucial connections and co-dependencies in addressing the nature and climate emergencies, so the more integrated negotiations are on these issues the better.
On mobilising finance to cut emissions and adapt to climate change there was more disappointment. The target to deliver $100 billion a year of finance for climate action in the developing world still has not been met, despite that being the target from 2020 onwards. There was a loud call for global development banks, like the World Bank, to do much more in terms of switching investment away from fossil fuels and to massively increase financing for renewable energy generation and supply in the developing world.
Arguably the biggest success in terms of climate finance was actually outside of the COP27 negotiations. Indonesia announced its £20bn Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP) designed to provide investment, primarily from the US and Japan, to transition Indonesia away from coal-based energy generation. The Indonesian JETP builds on a similar deal announced at COP26 by South Africa and this model looks set to play an important role in the mosaic of pathways that have emerged to finance climate action.
Hopes for the future
Many went into COP27 with low expectations. The war in Ukraine, Covid-19 and the cost of living crisis around the world all meant an attention crisis for climate change. Reaching an agreement for a fund for loss and damage is therefore way above expectations. It is a real breakthrough and should be celebrated.
Beyond that, COP27 seems to have been more a case of trying to prevent backsliding on what was agreed at COP26 in Glasgow a year ago, rather than getting new and stronger ambition and action on reducing emissions. If we allow the Earth’s temperature to warm above 1.5C, then loss and damage will of course be much worse.
I hope that COP28 next year in Dubai will deliver a lot more clarity on the funding mechanism for loss and damage, but what this coming year really must deliver on is real progress in terms of mitigating greenhouse gas emissions around the world. If not, then that loss and damage fund needs to get a whole lot bigger.
The views expressed in this section are those of the contributors, and do not necessarily represent those of the University.
Picture credits: Antonio Guterres - Sean Gallup/Getty; Pakistan floods - Getty Images/Stringer; Coal loader - Charlie Rodgers; Climate activists - Sean Gallup/Getty