One step forward, one step back
This year’s UN climate summit ended two days later than scheduled, as the talks to hammer out the final text dragged on. At last, on Sunday 21 November, agreement was reached. The big breakthrough has come in the form of ‘loss and damage’ – a funding mechanism that guarantees poorer countries relief and repair for damage caused by climate change. Until now, rich countries have paid poorer countries for ‘adaptation’ – long-term preparation for the effects of climate change, which might mitigate future disasters, but not to help when one actually strikes.
Why is the adoption of ‘loss and damage’ so important? It shows that climate change is the whole world’s problem. Creating this mechanism builds trust between the countries that generate most emissions and those that are at greatest risk of the disasters that man-made climate change brings.
Many arguments at COP27 were sparked by accusations from poor countries that rich countries have not been fulfilling the pledges made at previous COPs. These were met by counter-accusations of corruption, and mismanagement of projects by the poor countries. With a new mechanism in place, the mutual interdependence between those who emit most greenhouse gases and those who suffer the consequences become clear.
The new dividing line is no longer rich country/poor country, but greenhouse-gas emitting country and climatically vulnerable country. Adaptation and mitigation – building flood-defence walls, storm shelters and photovoltaic farms is still essential. The big step forward is being able to bring immediate relief to countries hit by floods, drought, storms or famines as climate change starts to really bite.
The bad news from Sharm El Sheikh is that no further progress was made on curtailing the exploitation of fossil fuels. The final text made no mention of a target for peaking emissions, nor of phasing down of coal (agreed at last year’s COP); nor was there any commitment to phase out all fossil fuels.
A central scientific tenet of last year’s COP was that global temperature increase should not exceed 1.5C. This now looks unlikely. Our planet is now back on schedule to pass that watershed temperature within the next nine years, given the final text’s lack of deadlines to stop burning fossil fuels. The text refers only to “low emission and renewable energy”, a loophole allowing for the further development of gas, which produces less emissions than coal, but is still a contributor to climate change.
Whilst there is a sense of disappointment that the wide-ranging progress made at COP26 was not followed up at this year’s climate summit, there is always next year. The fact that the loss and damage fund was finally hammered out, against the odds, suggests that similar efforts will be made at COP28. Returning to the subject of 1.5C means building on the new solidarity between rich countries and vulnerable countries, in face of opposition from countries like China, India, Saudi Arabia and Russia that are less concerned about the goal.
The change of president in Brazil, and with him the diametric change of policy toward protecting the Amazon Basin against deforestation was also seen as a major positive step. Brazil’s president-elect Luiz Ignacio Lula Da Silva promised zero deforestation by 2030. The importance of rainforests to the global ecosystem was underlined in Bali, where the G20 group of countries met while COP27 was taking place – a separate agreement was reached there to help Indonesia, Brazil and the Democratic Republic of Congo to stop deforestation. The three countries are home to more than half of the planet’s rainforests.
COP27 has been widely criticised by delegates for poor organisation, for the powerful presence of the fossil fuel lobby, and for Egypt’s disdain for human rights, with heavy-handed security and all- pervasive surveillance of delegates at odds with the spirit of international cooperation.
Between COP26 and COP27, the world has witnessed the world’s deadliest flood since 2020 and the worst in Pakistan’s history, which killed over 1,700 people and caused damage worth over $40bn. The floods were caused by heavier-than-usual monsoon rains and melting glaciers that followed a severe heat wave, both linked to climate change. It is unlikely that we’ll get to COP28 without a similar climate-change caused disaster. At least now there’s a funding mechanism in place to help its victims.