06.02.2023

COP27: Climate Justice without Climate Action

Before the summit, the COP27 presidency declared its goal to achieve progress on all major issues of climate action: Mitigating climate change and reducing carbon emissions, adapting to climate change impacts, financing climate action in developing countries.

The 27th Conference of Parties (COP) in Sharm El-Sheikh last month was never expected to be milestone climate summit. It was not anticipated to be one where major outcomes are announced either. Following the COP26 Negotiations in Glasgow the year before, which saw the conclusion of the Paris Agreement’s rulebook, there was little climate governance architecture left to negotiate in 2022. This meant that COP27 was the first climate summit where the attention started shifting from target setting to implementation of what has been agreed upon so far. The COP27 Presidency capitalised on this shift and branded the summit as an ”Implementation COP”, a climate summit that lacks headline grabbing announcements but one where the first steps are taken towards delivering on the Paris Agreement.

Before the summit, the COP27 presidency declared its goal to achieve progress on all major issues of climate action: Mitigating climate change and reducing carbon emissions, adapting to climate change impacts, financing climate action in developing countries, and compensating countries affected by climate change for their loss and damage. Yet most of the focus has been on the financial aspects of these issues. The focus on implementation of what has been agreed also meant less focus on accelerating mitigation and increasing ambition in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Ahead of COP27, just 30 countries updated their National Determined Contributions, which are their climate action pledges under the Paris Agreement.

Given the goals of the COP27 Presidency and the UNFCCC agenda already for the summit, adaptation was expected to make some progress in the development of the Global Goal for Adaptation due next year. Climate finance was also expected to advance in developing a new global finance goal due in 2024. Less progression was expected on the Mitigation work programme, due in 2026, while Loss and Damage was not expected to make any progress especially given that it was not on the UNFCCC negotiation agenda.

A Surprising Compromise

To the surprise of many observers, the COP27 Presidency managed to include Loss and Damage on the agenda on the first day of the summit. More surprisingly, the summit negotiators managed to reach an agreement during the final hours of the summit on the need for a mechanism to compensate countries for loss and damage caused by the climate change. This agreement came following a round of difficult negotiations between developed countries which feared legal responsibility for climate change, and developing countries which demand compensation as soon as possible.

The Loss and Damage agreement still lacks critical details. In fact, one could argue that it could only be reached because it avoided all contentious issues including the size of the Loss and Damage fund, contributing countries, funding mechanism, and countries eligible for compensation. These issues were all delegated to a specialised committee to agree on, with its recommendations expected to be ratified at COP28 in Dubai. Despite such lack of details, the unexpected breakthrough on Loss and Damage will remain the summit’s defining legacy.

The failure of COP27 to make progress on reducing emissions has also contributed to this legacy. The summit’s final statement barely reconfirmed the promises made in at the previous summit in Glasgow which focused on the “phase-down of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.” It failed to go beyond this despite demands by 80 countries for a promise to phase down the use of all types of fossil fuels.

This outcome did not come as a complete surprise given the strong opposition from some countries to attempts to change the voluntary nature of national commitments. The role of the Egyptian COP27 presidency in drafting the final statement shouldn’t be overlooked either given how Egypt has become a producer and proponent of natural gas in recent year, and given concerns by some delegates on the transparency and organization of the process.

From this perspective, COP27 could be considered the first round of the global push-back by the support of natural gas. The arena, timing, and conditions for this round could not have been better. Not only was the summit hosted by a rising natural gas producer and regional export hub, but it comes at a time when the world is struggling with high energy prices and reduced energy security due to the war in Ukraine. Calls for a just energy transition in Africa, where 43% of the population lacks access to electricity[1] and 900 million use biomass and oil cooking stoves[2], have also lent more moral legitimacy to the extraction and the use of natural gas in developing economies, especially that Egypt has branded the summit as an African COP.  In addition, the larger than usual presence of more than 600 fossil fuel lobbyists at the COP27  [3] led to a disproportionate focus on the oil and gas sector. Some observers described the COP27 as partly a gas trade fair.

A Step Towards Climate Justice

The COP27 presidency could plausibly claim that it has fulfilled its promise to advance the priorities of African and other developing countries during this round of negotiation, by moving the needle of the climate action compass, albeit slightly, towards developing countries and those most affected by climate change.

This course correction and the increased focus on adaptation, finance, and loss and damage rectified a long-standing imbalance in the implementation of the climate deal between developed and developing countries.

According to this informal deal, developing countries promised to work with developed countries to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases despite their lack of historical responsibility, and the developed countries promised to provided technical and financial support for climate change adaptation and to consider providing compensation for losses and damages incurred as a result.

 Yet developed economies appear to have failed to hold up their end of the bargain. As developing countries began working to reduce their carbon emissions - albeit at much slower pace than developed economies - they have often complained about the inadequacy of the financial support provided, especially for adaptation. They have also voiced concerns about the stalled negotiations on Loss and Damage compensation.

Kicking the Can Down the Road

While the Loss and Damage agreement initiated at Sharm El-Sheikh is a positive step towards climate justice, yet it cannot mask the fact that reducing emissions is the only way to avoid the worst effects of climate change. If we cannot all reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 43% before 2030[4] and reach carbon neutrality before the middle of the century, we will fail to curb global warming to 1.5°C. This is likely to set us on a course towards dangerous climate change for decades to come, with devastating and more costly climate change impacts, leading to bigger bills for adaptation and loss and damage compensation. For the Middle East region, this scenario is expected to cause an increase in average temperature as high as 5 degrees Celsius, the highest increase in temperatures in all inhabited parts of the world, and almost twice the global average.[5]

With each passing year in which greenhouse gas emissions increase, the chances of reaching those emissions reduction targets diminish, and the need to redouble efforts in the following years increases. The world has three years at most to start reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and only a transformational change to global energy, transport, and food systems, as well as consumption patterns can make this possible. Thus, the lack of progress on increasing commitments for greenhouse gas emission reduction makes the challenge more difficult in subsequent years and places additional responsibility on the upcoming conferences of the parties to drive climate action faster. COP28 will be the first opportunity to catalyse this transformation.

COP28 and Beyond.

The effort required may find support in the COP28 host country and in the approach of the UAE presidency in terms of vision alignment. The UAE already plans to reach carbon neutrality by the middle of the century and, through its foreign investments, participates in renewable energy projects around the world.

COP28 in Dubai is also expected to face other challenges. The upcoming summit is entrusted with reaching an agreement on a Global Goal for Adaptation, the Global Stocktake of the Paris Agreement, and approving the Loss and Damage funding mechanisms.

In addition, as the climate summit moves to Asia, the needle of its compass could move again to reflect the continent’s priorities as well as the vision and approach of the UAE’s COP presidency. This includes UAE plans to continue oil production and exports. It also potentially includes the adoption and promotion of the Circular Carbon Economy approach as a global method for managing carbon emissions.

COP27 has exceeded most expectation but let's not celebrate as yet. A year was lost in the race to reduce emissions and the road ahead looks bumpy. If 2022 ended up being the year in which work began towards climate justice for the most vulnerable countries, the challenges of the coming years require us to unite and address the causes of climate change to achieve another form of climate justice. Future generations deserve climate justice too, they deserve to inherit a safe planet and standard of living like the one previous generations enjoyed. As we embark on the global economic transformation required, this universal and moral obligation is a cause we can all rally behind.

[1]https://www.iea.org/reports/africa-energy-outlook-2022

[2]https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/jun/07/let-africa-exploit-natural-gas-reserves-mary-robinson

[3]https://www.euronews.com/green/2022/11/10/fossil-fuel-lobbyists-outnumber-almost-every-national-delegation-at-cop27-data-shows

[4]https://www.ipcc.ch/assessment-report/ar6/

[5]https://www.reuters.com/business/environment/climate-change-could-devastate-mideast-east-mediterranean-scientists-2022-09-06/

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