The sun above Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh cast a searing reminder as to the increasing importance of the COP events as the 27th instalment of the conference got underway in November.
Following the disappointment of COP26, during which a late amendment was added to the draft text by China and India, weakening a move to end coal reliance and fossil fuel subsidies, there appeared to be a renewed vigour towards making greater progress this time around.
As the last airplanes carrying delegates back to their home countries departed the Sharm el-Sheikh International Airport, the autopsies began. But before we look at what progress was and wasn’t made in Egypt, let’s remind ourselves what the COP events are all about.
Officially dubbed the United Nations Climate Change Conferences, COP events are an annual meeting of global leaders that serve as a shared forum for making progress on the issue of climate change.
With COP1 launching in Berlin in 1995, attending nation states signalled their first formal commitment to bringing down global greenhouse gas emissions. Arguably, the most notable development to arise from a COP event was in Paris in 2015 when negotiations resulted in the adoption of the Paris Agreement.
In total, 197 countries committed to keeping global temperatures from rising above 2°C, with the goal of limiting them to a maximum of 1.5°C.
In terms of logistics and itineraries, COP27 followed a fairly conventional format. What did make it different was the scale of expectation.
Anger at perceived inaction resulting from previous conferences reached boiling point in Glasgow during COP26. As the event progressed, protests outside grew to become the largest of their kind in Glasgow since the anti-Iraq War marches of 2003. With other rallies taking place in around 100 other countries, the conference ended with COP President and UK cabinet minister, Alok Sharma, fighting back tears at the late amendments tabled by China and India.
In short, people wanted to see real, tangible progress at COP27 and were unlikely to settle for anything else.
Broadly, there were six key outcomes to emerge from the conference, ranging from compensation packages to countries most affected by climate change to further moves on 1.5°C.
Loss and Damage
COP26 ended with cries of dismay at the lack of progress on a ‘Loss and Damage’ fund to provide financial support for those developing countries facing the most serious impact of climate change.
The mood was much improved this year. An agreement was settled that the fund finally be established to rescue and rebuild the physical and social infrastructures of regions ravaged by extreme weather.
However, crucial questions remain unanswered. As yet there is no news on how the fund will be set up or the amount contributing nations will donate. There is also no agreement on what will even constitute ‘damage and loss’.
The future of gas
The conference’s final text contained a provision to increase “low-emissions energy”. As with many phrases within COP literature, “low-emissions energy” is open to interpretation and could refer to any number of energy sources from wind and solar to nuclear reactors, and even coal-fired power stations that have been retro-fitted with carbon capture and storage.
As such, the phrase could equally be interpreted to comprise gas, which, though a major fossil fuel, releases lower emissions than coal. The problem here is that many of the countries at COP27 possess large gas reserves and came to Sharm el-Sheikh not to find ways of moving away from gas but rather to secure new gas contracts.
Other fossil fuels
Despite three decades of COP events, it was only at Glasgow in 2021 that an agreement was reached to phase down the use of coal.
At COP27, a selection of countries – remarkably, led by India – pushed for a commitment to phase down all fossil fuels, not just coal. The move triggered such furious debate that it was one of the reasons the conference ran into an extra day.
Unfortunately, sufficient common ground could not be found and the resolution that made the final text was worded no differently to the one in Glasgow.
Adaptation to changing environments
While the planet inches closer to net-zero, adaptation initiatives can help those countries suffering the worst excesses of climate change to become more resilient in the here and now.
As effective as the likes of flood defences, wetland preservation, mangrove swamp restoration, and reforestation projects can be, poor countries often struggle to secure funding for their completion.
In Glasgow, countries agreed to double the $20bn ringfenced for adaptation initiatives, but in Egypt, some sought to remove the commitment altogether. However, after much wrangling, the commitment was eventually reaffirmed.
World Bank reform
The World Bank and other publicly funded finance institutions came under renewed pressure from an assortment of developing and developed states.
Calls were made for urgent changes to policy and to provide more funding to help poorer countries reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and make progress with adaptation initiatives.
Former US vice-president, Al Gore, claimed that fundamental reform of the World Bank could even be completed within a year. Indeed, the long-time climate crisis campaigner went as far as to say the World Bank should end its contribution to what he described as “fossil fuel colonialism”.
The focus on 1.5°C
One of the big topics in recent conferences, the focus on keeping a global temperature rise to a maximum of 1.5°C gained particular traction when it was recently revealed that the previous target of 2°C was not sufficient for avoiding widespread devastation.
With the commitments on cutting greenhouse gas emissions made at COP26 deemed too weak, a compromise was reached that each year commitments would be incrementally strengthened – a process known as the ratchet.
At COP27, not only did some countries attempt to renege on the 1.5°C target, others tried to have the ratchet abolished too. The attempts failed, but to widespread anger, a resolution to set 2025 as the year at which emissions would peak was removed.
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