COP27 began in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, yesterday. It begins inauspiciously, set against the global impacts of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the resulting food and energy insecurity and dramatic price rises which have pushed climate change down domestic political agendas across the world and increased demand for new sources of fossil fuel to reduce reliance on Russian gas. By the same token, the Russian aggression creates a lever that presents COP27 with a rare, perhaps unique, opportunity to accelerate the energy transition.
Furthermore, since the effects of climate change are non-discriminatory, the need to tackle it is a genuine global need: a visionary take on COP 27 is that it could offer a ‘safe haven’ for international dialogue and collaboration where world leaders can find effective pathways forward on food, energy, nature and security. However, the augurs are not positive…
Billed as the ‘Implementation COP’ it was designed to require countries to improve their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) to reducing climate-change inducing emissions. However, the tussle over the agenda, which began at 1300 on Saturday and did not conclude until midday on Sunday, suggests that the alternative name for this COP – ‘The African COP’ – is more appropriate and that the focus and key to its success lies elsewhere.
Why Does COP27 Matter?
COP27 marks 30 years since the adoption of the UNFCCC[i] and seven years since the 2015 Paris Agreement of COP21[ii], which was the first legally-binding global treaty on climate change. It was the Paris Agreement that introduced NDCs which require countries to set out by how much they will reduce their national emissions each year, with a target of limiting global warming to 1.5°C by the end of the century. The Paris Agreement also imposed a requirement to improve ability to adapt and build resilience to climate change; and to align finance flows with ‘a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development’.
NDCs are supposed to be revised every five years in the form of updates to the UNFCCC.
Last year’s COP 26 was the first test of this ‘ratchet’ mechanism. The next test was therefore not due according to the original Paris timetable, for another five years. However, progress at Glasgow was adjudged not to be sufficient to address the urgency of climate change (even had all NDCs been fully-implemented, the world would still have warmed by 2.4°C by the end of the century: the UN estimates we are currently on-track for warming of 2.8°C) and so countries were required to return at COP27 with improved NDCs.
For mitigation purposes, therefore, COP27 has more significance than previous COPs: every fraction of a degree that the world’s temperatures rise risks increases the likelihood of reaching irreversible tipping points[iii]. Only reducing emissions urgently can avoid hitting those tipping points: indications of success are not good – only 24 countries have submitted revised NDCs, with most countries (including Egypt and the UK) having failed to strengthen their NDCs.
But Adaptation May Grab Centre Stage at COP27…
2022 has seen extreme weather across the globe, with historic flooding (in Pakistan and Nigeria), wildfires (in Australia and the US) and drought (in Europe and China). In the UK, temperatures reached 40 degrees Centigrade – a heat not predicted to be reached under most warming scenarios for another decade at least. These extreme weather events underline the vulnerabilities set out in the IPCC report ‘Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability’, according to which half the world’s population is ‘highly vulnerable’ to the impacts of climate change and those living in highly vulnerable regions already 15 times more likely to die due to floods, droughts, and storms. Those ‘highly vulnerable’ regions tend to be in lesser developed parts of the world. And this is the root of the contention that may well overshadow this COP.
Adaptation – adjusting to current and future climate change impacts – has long been the poor cousin to mitigation, receiving less attention and less funding. COP26’s Glasgow Climate Pact attempted to redress this imbalance, seeking a doubling of adaptation financing and setting out a two-year programme on the global goal on adaptation (GGA). But with climate change now having a visible impact, in particular on countries that historically have been less responsible for global emissions, there is growing pressure to do more to address adaptation[iv].
Loss and Damage…
However, some climate impacts are so severe they cannot be adapted to, and vulnerable nations are increasingly demanding progress on “loss and damage” funding to rebuild after disasters. Essentially, this is a call, to quote the ex-President of the Maldives, for ‘basic climate justice – that those most responsible for causing the climate crisis should financially support those who are suffering most on the frontline of climate change’.
COP27 is a potential flashpoint on loss and damage as it will host one of three ‘Technical Dialogues’ as part of the 2021-23 ‘global stocktake’ (GST). The GST will assess global progress on mitigation, adaptation. But importantly, it will also consider the social and economic consequences of measures taken to address loss and damage.
And so, Back to the Agenda…
To return to the issue of the agenda…the major sticking point was argument over whether to include an agenda item on loss and damage. Developed countries have resisted these calls out of a concern that accepting this historical responsibility could give rise to legal claims[v].
In the end, agreement was reached and, for the first time ever, an agenda item directs the COP to discuss “matters relating to funding arrangements responding to loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change, including a focus on addressing loss and damage.”
The IPCC requires emissions to peak by 2025 and halve by 2030. But global emissions are still rising fast and, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, coal use is increasing. Agreement on the objective of reducing emissions is essential to avoid further climate change impacts. But that agreement is only likely to be achieved by demonstrating a clear commitment to addressing the objective of climate justice and loss and damage. Fail to address the second objective and this COP risks failing on both.
[i] United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
[ii] We missed a year because of Covid
[iii] Irreversible thawing of glaciers and permafrost and of ocean acidity.
[iv] It seems probable that COP27 will see a big focus on richer countries fulfilling their historic promises including meeting the $100 billion annual climate finance fund which was due to be available from 2020 to 2025, but which so far has not been met (the US share is $40bn yet it provided only $7.6bn in 2020; Australia and Canada paid only a third of their contributions and, while the UK paid three-quarters, it still fell $1.4bn short. At the other end of the scale Switzerland’s contribution was more than four times higher than the amount required; France and Norway’s was more than three times the required amounts and Japan supplied $13bn, more than double the amount indicated). The IMF estimates that developing countries need $2.5 trillion of annual financing annually to meet the Paris Agreement and Sustainable Development Goals.
[v] Recently, Scotland and Wallonia were followed by Denmark in breaking ranks and making token payments towards that historical legacy.