11 December 2022
What did we gain at COP27?
By Rahma Diaa
COP27 was the latest UN brokered conference on climate change. Heralded as ‘too little, too late’ by naysayers and seen widely as a litany of impossible pledges, COP27’s agenda was put under the spotlight by Rahma Diaa, in a bid to understand the scope and limitations of the climate change conference for the MENASA region.
In Egypt, the effects of climate change are already apparent. For years, saltwater from the Mediterranean Sea has seeped into the low-lying Nile Delta, destroying the country’s farmland. In Alexandria, massive concrete blocks along the shoreline protect the historic city against the rising tide. By some estimates, the city could be underwater by the end of the century. Fresh water from the Nile, the lifeline of Egyptian civilisation for millennia, is running dry.
The early blow that climate change is dealing to Egypt makes the country representative of the global south. That’s why the hosting of COP27 in the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh was significant: Egypt positioned itself as a staging ground for poorer nations to compel the wealthy, industrialised world to compensate them for the worsening fallout of global warming. On the heels of the flash floods that killed over 1,000 in Pakistan and caused some $40 billion in damage, the issue has never seemed more urgent.
COP27 was widely dubbed the ‘summit of implementation.’ The 2015 Paris Agreement obliged signatories to develop so-called nationally determined contributions (NDCs), which are specific targets for reducing carbon emissions. These were meant to come into effect after 2020, but implementation was delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Sharm el-Sheikh was supposed to be the summit where these pledges were coupled with real-world measures. Did it live up to that promise?
The loss and damage fund
In one way, it did. COP27 broke new ground with the first-ever ‘loss and damage’ fund.
The G20 countries are collectively responsible for three-quarters of the world’s emissions; the biggest polluters are China, the US, and the EU. This is in stark contrast to the lowest polluters, which, according to the United Nations Emissions Gap Report, emit a mere three percent of global emissions. The cruelty of climate change is that the countries least responsible for the problem are the worst hit. Pakistan has produced just 0.4 percent of historical emissions compared to approximately 20 percent by the US. The Pacific islands, which emit practically nothing, are at risk of being swallowed by the sea.
Until COP27, the prospect of rich nations paying for catastrophes striking poorer ones seemed highly unlikely. In the run-up to the summit, US climate envoy John Kerry flatly rejected the idea, saying no government could foot such bills. But at Sharm el Sheikh, a developing country bloc of 134 nations that included China, pushed back. Negotiations delayed the summit’s conclusion for two days, but the ‘loss and damage’ fund was ultimately agreed on.
‘Millions around the globe can now sense a glimmer of hope that their suffering will finally be addressed,’ COP27 President, Sameh Shoukry said at the close of the summit. Climate activists called it a historic step towards climate justice. ‘A mission thirty years in the making has been accomplished,’ said Molwyn Joseph, chair of the AOSIS group of small island states.
As is typical with COP’s more contentious deals, the details were left intentionally vague. The summit’s final communique stated that donors would commit to a global fund ‘to save lives and livelihoods from climate change-related disasters.’ But who will pay? And how much? An even more heated debate awaits COP28 in Dubai in November 2023.
Is 1.5 still achievable?
COP27 reaffirmed what has become an article of faith: temperature rises must be held to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. But how realistic is this? Global temperatures have already risen 1.2 degrees. Alarmingly, although the distribution is uneven, the Middle East is warming twice as fast.
If we fail to curb warming, the fallout will likely be devastating. As temperatures push beyond the 1.5 degree barrier, scientists believe the earth will hit a series of tipping points, or cascading climate disasters that can push us past the point of no return. An early one they cite is the collapse of Greenland’s ice sheet, which will swell sea levels. As tipping points are realised, they say that even the Amazon forest, with all its carbon-capturing ability, will become a dry savannah.
The World Bank estimates that by 2050, 216 million people in six of the worst-hit regions will be displaced by the collective result of intensifying droughts, storms, heat waves, and rising sea levels . The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation predicts that by that time, agricultural productivity will dip 15 percent, pushing food prices up by 50 percent.
At COP27, delegates agreed that by 2030, emissions must be reduced by 43 percent to keep to the 1.5 degree threshold. But worryingly, no specific country commitments were made on this occasion to achieve this. ‘We need to drastically reduce emissions now—and this is an issue this COP did not address,’ said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
Progress since the 2021 COP26 in Glasgow has not been encouraging. In Glasgow, countries were asked to submit new, nationally-determined contributions (NDCs) with tougher emissions cuts. But according to Climate Action Tracker, an independent watchdog that tracks government implementation of climate pledges made in the Paris Agreement, only 29 countries have done so. The UN Environmental Programme chief Inger Andersen called it ‘a year of climate procrastination.’
Climate Action Tracker says the latest NDCs will still see the planet warm by 2.4 degrees, and that current policies — which disregard many of the pledges made in the Paris Agreement — will warm the planet by 2.7 degrees.
And what about fossil fuels?
Most worryingly, COP27 concluded with no mention of fossil fuels.
India, along with 80 countries including the UK and member states of the EU, pushed to include language about phasing out fossil fuels — this was shot down by oil and gas producers. Greenpeace complained that COP27 was ‘hijacked’ by oil lobbyists; according to their count, 600 such lobbyists were present, a 25 percent jump from the previous year. But even without their influence on policy, the war in Ukraine and energy price hikes have hushed any discussion of scaling down fossil fuel usage.
The major achievement in 2021 at Glasgow was the inclusion of a call to phase down the use of coal. But even with this, compliance has been spotty. In a UN General Assembly address in 2021, China vowed not to build coal power plants outside its borders, yet it has built at least 14 more. China accounts for 27 percent of global emissions, more than all developed countries combined—but its industrial revolution came late, so it argues it needs more time. At Glasgow, Beijing pledged to reach peak carbon emissions by 2030 before scaling down to become carbon neutral by 2060.
Adapting for the future
Modest progress was made on so-called ‘mitigation and adaptation policies’ that would aim to prepare vulnerable countries for the effects of climate change. Back in 2009 at COP15 in Copenhagen, rich countries committed to mobilising $100 billion a year to help poorer countries adapt. But that money simply never materialised.
At COP27, the EU announced a €1 billion programme to finance climate change resilience. A small share of it, about €60 million, was earmarked for ‘loss and damages.’ The US said it will provide $150 million as a ‘down payment’ to support African countries facing the fallout from climate change. The G7 also launched an insurance system called Global Shield that will provide aid to vulnerable countries with €200 million in initial funding. The first recipients include Pakistan, Ghana and Bangladesh.
Development banks and international financial institutions like the IMF and World Bank were called on to increase their climate finance three-fold by 2025. The lenders are supposed to focus on generous grants and guarantees that will help vulnerable countries without increasing their debt burden.
How far off the mark is the funding? The UN’s latest Adaptation Gap report estimates that developing countries will need $160-$340 billion per year by 2030. African Union chief Macky Sall said the $100 billion figure agreed upon in 2009 now needs to be doubled to $200 billion.
Glimmers of hope
Outside the main COP27 hall at the Pakistan Pavilion, a written message warned conference goers of what’s to come if progress isn’t made: ‘What happened in Pakistan will not remain in Pakistan.’ The coming year is a crucial test of the world's political will.
At COP28, parties will finalise a so-called Global Stocktake. It will be the first progress report on how well countries are doing to cut emissions since the 2015 Paris Agreement. They have their work cut out for them. At COP27 only a handful of countries, notably Turkey, Australia, and the EU, committed to stronger reductions in emissions.
It is important, however, to look for glimmers of hope. The ‘loss and damage’ fund, which was thought improbable before COP27, shows what a unified front can achieve. The same must now be done with fossil fuels, especially when you consider oil and gas account for around 40 percent of climate-warming emissions. The key to phasing out fossil fuels is the rapid deployment of finance for green projects. As host of COP27, Egypt signed a staggering $119 billion worth of initial agreements for green hydrogen and wind power projects, but how many of these deals ultimately materialise depends on whether development banks and other lenders get on board.
In all, with an increasingly warming planet, the writing is on the wall for countries facing the beginnings of climate disaster. What remains to be realised is the universal will and ability of governments and institutions to prioritise averting climate disaster while it is still possible.
Banner Image Illustration Credit: Amitabh Kumar