Another year, another UN climate summit. Tom Howarth rounds up the COP27 conference.

You’d be hard pressed to have not heard at least some of what went on at this year’s conference of the parties (COP) event in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. An event like no other, the annual COP summits are an opportunity for delegations from across the globe to come together in an attempt to agree an approach to combat the biggest threat to the global order we have ever faced.

The conference itself is famous for some huge climate wins over the years, most notably the Paris 2015 agreement which brought the nations of the world together around one collective target for the first time – to strive to keep global warming less than 1.5 ᵒC above pre-industrial levels.

Since then, however, the conference format has struggled to achieve anything more than hollow pledges, while the world continues to march towards significantly greater levels of warming than the science tells us is safe.

What, then, of COP27? Could this be the year where implementation of the Paris agreement finally takes shape?

Well, not exactly. As with previous years the negotiations were fraught with sticking points and disagreements that stymied progress. Still, it’s worth discussing what was on the cards this year and where it leaves us going forward.

Loss and damage

The hot topic at this year’s COP was finance. In particular, how those countries responsible for the majority of emissions, and who are developed enough to provide significant levels of international aid, should help those who are on the front line of the climate crisis, battling the forces of nature head on.

Much of this debate began with a pledge made at the Copenhagen talks in 2009, whereby developed nations would establish an annual fund of $100 bn by 2020 to help developing nations adapt to climate change and mitigate further rises in temperature. As of 2022, that target is still to be met, with the fund currently languishing around the $80 bn mark.

This year, developing nations sought to go further on finance. In 2009 the effects of climate change were much less pronounced, now, 13 years later, the time for adaptation has slipped away; climate change is upon us.

For countries like Pakistan, where 33 million people were affected by devastating floods this year, it’s simply too late to prepare. Damage has been done, and they want compensation. Pakistan led the G77 (plus China) bloc of developing countries at COP27, the main proponents of the loss and damage fund. This was not an easy job, given the diversity of needs and economic situations within the group.

In a dramatic U-turn on the final Friday of the conference, the EU came out in support of a loss and damage fund, forcing the hand of other developed nations, like the US, who had long resisted the idea for fear that it could make them legally liable for their historic emissions.

The fund, which will likely not be fully operational for several years, was described as a “historic pact” by UN Secretary General, António Guterres, when he called for countries to sign. Rightly so, this is the first international recognition of loss and damage, and the fund will serve as a lifeline to those most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

However, much like Paris 2015, what really matters is less the agreement itself, but its implementation. It’s great that countries have come together on this, can they now come together and cough up the money?

The coming year will likely see much debate over who should be paying and who should be paid. Under the UN framework India and China, who feel they should not be obliged to pay into the fund, are still considered developing countries, despite being two of the world’s largest carbon emitters. So-called Western countries, who are the largest historical emitters, want a wide contributor base that includes India and China. Neither side seems ready to budge just yet.

Fossil fuel failure

Whilst there was a big win for loss and damage proponents, this year’s climate change conference failed to do anything about, er, climate change.

Many media outlets, including the likes of Reuters, reported that this was the “price paid for a deal on the loss and damage”, a statement that others have pointed out is wholly unfair on those, such as small island states, who emit next to nothing and are already suffering the ramifications of the greenhouse gas effect. It’s quite reasonable to ask that global leaders agree a deal on loss and damage without forgetting that the reason they’re in Egypt in the first place is to put a stop to manmade climate change. After all, failing to cut emissions will only be more expensive down the line.

At last year’s COP in Glasgow, it was widely reported that the 1.5 ᵒC target was on life support, this year was seen by many as a final opportunity to bring it back to life.

A broad coalition, which included the EU and many small island states, came to Egypt calling for a phase-down of all fossil fuels. So too did India, who after pushing back against attempts in Glasgow to phase out coal, argued this year that it was unfair to single it out, especially while developed nations remain hooked on gas. India is heavily reliant on coal power and while this shift in pressure may have been motivated by self-interests, the outcome would have been positive, nonetheless.

“We have failed on mitigation”

– H.E Aminath Shauna

But as India’s position tilted, the oil states stood firm. Meaningful progress was halted by the likes of Saudi Arabia at every opportunity, leading to a final agreement that merely encourages “efforts towards the phasedown of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies” – essentially a cut and paste job from the Glasgow deal.

Incidentally, Saudi Arabia, the world’s second largest oil producer, announced that it continued to see a future in oil production but unveiled grand plans for carbon capture and storage (CCS) facilities designed to prevent emissions from reaching the atmosphere. CCS is an unproven technology which in 21 of the 27 currently operational facilities is used to enhance oil production from declining oil fields, meaning any sequestered carbon emissions are negated by the extra oil pumped out of the ground – not such an eco-friendly suggestion from the kingdom after all.

What was left was a deal that failed to call for a reduction in the use of fossil fuels, resources that most 10-year-olds could inform us are the major driver of climate change.

The climate minister of the Maldives, a country at severe risk from rising sea levels, sums it up aptly: “”I recognise the progress we made in COP27″, referring to the loss and damage fund, but “we have failed on mitigation… we absolutely need to keep 1.5 alive. We have to ensure that we increase ambition to peak emissions by 2025. We have to phase out fossil fuel.”