Did COP27 achieve anything significant in the race to net-zero? 

COP27

Another United Nations Climate Change Conference has come and gone, with very mixed feelings about the impact it may have on the global journey toward decarbonisation. 

COP27 was held in Sharm-El-Sheikh, Egypt, and bought together delegates from across the world with the promise of continued action against climate change. Previous COP summits had managed to set targets on limiting global warming to 1.5°C, and last year’s summit, held in Glasgow, set a positive tone for continued collaboration – albeit leaving much of the detail as to how the commitments made would be turned into reality. 

COP27, however, was meant to change that. On the eve of the summit, Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, announced: “I deeply believe that COP27 is an opportunity to showcase unity against an existential threat that we can only overcome through concerted action and effective implementation.” And, in that sense, the World Resources Institute (WRI) argued that COP27’s success would be measured on its ability to deliver on two goals: solidarity and accountability. 

In terms of solidarity, the WRI noted that Egypt was “a fitting location, as it lays bare the inherent inequality of climate change”, the African continent being responsible for only three per cent of global food emissions, yet also finding itself on the front line of the world’s climate, energy, and food crises. Wealthy nations, therefore, should show long-overdue solidarity by addressing the suffering and economic pain that disproportionately falls on vulnerable countries and marginalised communities. 

For the WRI, this meant scaling up support for adaptation, addressing loss and damage, honouring climate finance commitments, and supporting a just transition to clean energy. 

Additionally, the WRI argued that climate plans – not only from governments, but from businesses, cities, and more – are only as good as their implementation. While COP26 resulted in an impressive number of new commitments both inside and outside the formal UN negotiations, COP27 was the time to turn those pledges into progress. This could be achieved, said the WRI, by strengthening national climate targets, and demonstrating progress on COP26 commitments such as the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use, the Global Methane Pledge, and the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero. 

Minor successes 

In an editorial on the Imperial College London webpage, the writers mention that, as COP27 took place in the context of ongoing geopolitical crises, energy security risks, and food shortages, many feared this would lead governments to turn inward and be reluctant to step forward on climate ambition. 

Despite this, while they recognise stagnation on some issues, other routes forward were found. 

The Bridgetown Agenda, for example, spearheaded by the Prime Minister of Barbados, gained traction, calling for reform of the global financial system to enable more and better finance for climate action in low- and middle-income countries. 

Professor Mike Wilkins, executive director at the Centre for Climate Finance, Imperial College London, notes that moves to reform the global financial architecture so that it better aligns with climate goals should be seen as positive.  

“Multilateral development banks such as the World Bank and international financial institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund, need to have their role revamped to ensure greater financial flows to energy-transition projects, especially in developing countries. This is essential if we are to get closer to the three or four trillion dollars per year required in green energy investment, instead of the one trillion dollars expected in 2022, to enable the 1.5°C maximum global warming goal to be met.” 

Significant progress was also made in recognising the oceans as a key ally in fighting climate change. According to Nick Reynard, research postgraduate in the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering, the ocean community definitely made an impact at COP27, and, considering the ocean is the planet’s biggest carbon reservoir, this progress needs to continue to grow in the future. 

COP27 also saw the promotion of technology and data to combat climate change. Ms Hanyuan Wang, research assistant at Imperial’s Centre for Climate Finance & Investment, highlights how COP27 brought a vast group of technology-based initiatives to solve climate change, such as Climate Trace, satellite imagery, and machine learning technologies to offer reliable climate data. 

“We have a limited amount of time; technology is critical to accelerating climate action,” says Wang. 

“Blah, blah, blah” 

However, despite these marginal gains, the mood elsewhere post-COP27 is decidedly sombre.  

“World leaders have an annoying habit of pretending that international agreements achieve much more than they really do. It is even worse with unenforceable promises,” says Richard Smith, partner at Sandstone Law.  

Chief among these promises, according to Smith, is the ‘loss and damage fund’, which was agreed in the early hours of Sunday but only received a lukewarm applause from the delegates in attendance. While some news outlets have described it as a ‘historic breakthrough’, where developed countries will help undeveloped nations affected by flood and drought, it is only the establishment of a fund “in principle”. 

“We will need to wait another year to find out which countries are willing to contribute to it, and by how much, because none of that detail was agreed at all,” comments Smith. “And, if Trump becomes president of the United States again in 2024, would America – the largest economy in the world – even pay anything towards it?” 

Considering commentators such as the WFI had noted the negotiations on loss and damage to be “the number one litmus test for the success of COP27” – where further delays would be indefensible – this is one of the major failures of the conference.

Additionally, while every world leader likes to go home saying that they did their best, Smith argues that their best was “desultory”.  

“Arguably, we have taken a step back from COP26, and the 1.5°C target from Paris has almost been forgotten. The talks in Sharm-el-Sheikh almost came to a collapse toward the end, and, in the final text of COP27, there was no clear commitment to phase-out fossil fuels. There was even a compromise on ‘low-carbon energy’, which could allow natural gas to continue to be burned far into the future.” 

For Molly Cato, professor of Economics at the University of Roehampton, and former Green MEP, this is no surprise, given the presence of fossil fuel lobbyists at the conference. 

“The biggest second ‘country’ at COP27 was not a nation state – it was the fossil fuel industry, who had more than 600 lobbyists present; far more than any other interest or country. As a result, we have ended up with a ‘paper tiger’ agreement, where a conference which focused heavily on phrases such as ‘climate justice’ and ‘climate reparations’ ended up creating a fund with no money in it. 

“Much more disappointing was the failure to advance the targets for CO2 emissions reductions, and the lack of action removing fossil fuels from the global economy. Perhaps this was an inevitable consequence of a COP held in the Middle-East and, given that next year’s COP will be held in the oil-dependent UAE, the signs are not hopeful. 

“The world is still being held hostage by fossil fuel’s interests, and one important principle for future COPs is that fossil fuel lobbyists should be banished from the formal negotiations. While petro-states have a right to defend their economic interests, however destructive, those who work purely in the interests of shareholders in fossil fuel companies have no right to hold the world and out shared climate to ransom, and should be prohibited from future COPs.” 

“Perhaps Greta Thunberg was right to stay away,” concludes Smith. “She predicted more “blah blah blah”, and we certainly got plenty of that. Even Rishi Sunak has now realised that declaring that saying “more must be done” to tackle climate change is a political winner. 

“Not much will be said of COP27 now. We will have to wait until COP28, and hope that come of the predicted consequences of climate change take longer to be felt.” 

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