Inside Story

What exactly is the point of COP27?

The latest UN climate conference matters, though not for quite the reason you might expect

Michael Jacobs Cairo 4 November 2022 2373 words

Egyptian foreign minister Sameh Shukri (left), Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, German chancellor Olaf Scholz and German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock with representatives of forty countries preparing for COP27 at a meeting in Berlin in June. Christoph Soeder/dpa/Alamy

Around one hundred world leaders — though not Anthony Albanese, Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin or Joe Biden, who is arriving four days later — are converging this weekend on the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh to talk for six minutes each about climate change.

Yes, it’s COP time again: that annual attempt by journalists to persuade their editors that this year’s UN climate conference is genuinely important and they really should give it some coverage.

Is COP27 genuinely important? At first sight it’s hard to make the case. Up to and including the twenty-first of these conferences, in Paris in 2015, COPs really were important. The international community was desperately trying to reach a new international agreement to succeed the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, and every year the torturous negotiations produced another faltering step forward. Paris itself produced a historic treaty: the first genuinely comprehensive global climate agreement, with a built-in mechanism for strengthening itself every five years.

But once we had the Paris agreement, what was there to negotiate about? There was a geeky answer: Paris was a high-level accord and many detailed implementation rules still needed to be worked out. COPs 22 (Marrakech), 23 (Bonn), 24 (Katowice) and 25 (intended for Santiago but actually in Madrid because of some local political difficulties) duly worked on these specifics, with few people outside the climate world taking much notice.

COP26, scheduled for Glasgow in 2020 but postponed for a year because of Covid, was the five-year moment when the emissions targets set in Paris had to be strengthened. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had reported in 2018 that global emissions must be more or less halved by 2030 if the goal of limiting warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels was to be met. Greta Thunberg was leading an increasingly vocal movement of younger climate activists; publics were beginning to mobilise again. Countries would be under the spotlight to respond.

But the conference ran into a huge problem. Yes, many governments brought new emissions reduction commitments (“nationally determined contributions,” or NDCs) to the table, some of them quite ambitious. And many pledged themselves to net zero emissions by 2050 or a decade or two later. But when all these promises were added up, they still fell well short of the cuts scientists said were necessary to meet the 1.5°C goal.

COP26 came up with pretty much the only option it could to “keep 1.5°C alive” and rescue the conference from failure: countries admitted they were not doing enough and promised to come back in a year’s time with stronger, 1.5°C-compatible commitments.

And so COP27 was dragged from post-Paris obscurity and turned into the next critical climate moment. Will those world leaders use their six minutes to announce new targets sufficient to close the “emissions gap”?

Unfortunately we know the answer, and it’s No. Only one major economy has said that it will table a new and stronger NDC — Australia, which for a short time finds itself in the unusual position of being a global climate leader. But the other 195 signatories to the Paris agreement have offered little or no change.

As a result, the emissions gap is barely narrower than it was a year ago. In its latest annual report the UN Environment Programme calculates that current policies offer a two-thirds chance of limiting the global temperature increase to 2.8°C above pre-industrial times. Cuts pledged by governments would reduce this only to 2.6°C.

To limit global warming to 1.5°C, emissions must fall by 45 per cent more than is envisaged under current policies by 2030; for 2°C, a 30 per cent cut is needed. Launching the report, UNEP executive director Inger Andersen warned that “we had our chance to make incremental changes, but that time is over. Only a root-and-branch transformation of our economies and societies can save us from accelerating climate disaster.”

It is hardly surprising, of course, that so little progress has been made over the past year. It’s not been a propitious time to think about emissions reduction plans. In a world still recovering from the Covid pandemic, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has triggered huge global energy price increases, food shortages, generalised inflation and a cost-of-living crisis, not to mention the threat of nuclear war. China and the United States are adopting increasingly belligerent stances towards one another. With the US dollar rising as the Federal Reserve hikes interest rates, many developing countries are seeing trade and growth slow and are falling back into unsustainable indebtedness.

In the meantime, severe climate impacts have become more frequent. After record-breaking heat waves baked India and Pakistan in the summer, monsoon flooding left a third of Pakistan under water, affecting an estimated thirty-three million people and killing more than 1500. As glaciers melted in the Himalayas, extreme heat in Europe led to wildfires. In France, low river levels meant insufficient water to cool nuclear power stations, which had to be shut down, while German barges had difficulty finding enough water to navigate the Rhine.

In the United States, Colorado River reservoirs hit record lows and major flooding occurred elsewhere, from Death Valley to eastern Kentucky. In China, an eight-week heat wave and drought dried up parts of the Yangtze River to the lowest level since the mid nineteenth century — until parts of the same area were inundated with flooding rains in August.

The need for action could hardly be clearer. But if COP27 won’t see any new commitments to cutting emissions, is it even worth holding? Could not the greenhouse gases from all those leaders’ and delegates’ flights at least have been saved?

There are two grounds for saying that, despite all this, COP27 will be a worthwhile event. The first is that climate change is not all about cutting emissions, or “mitigation” as climate negotiators call it. This aspect of the subject dominates the debate in most developed countries because they are responsible for most of the world’s historical and present emissions, and are now more or less all embarked on a difficult process of decarbonisation.

Elsewhere, though, reducing emissions is not the big national issue. Most developing countries produce very few greenhouse gases: their economies are just not large or rich enough. What they are desperately trying to do is cope with the climate change they are already experiencing, and what they want is for the developed world finally to provide them with the financial assistance they have been promised for thirty years to support climate-resilient development.

It is these issues, not mitigation, that will dominate debate at COP27. The agenda has three parts.

The first is adaptation, climate-speak for the things countries have to do to adjust to a warming world: building flood defences, planting drought-resistant seed varieties, and so on. The Paris Agreement decided that there should be a “global goal on adaptation” in the same way that there is a global goal (1.5°C) for cutting emissions.

It seemed clear to scientists and to many developing countries that the adaptation goal should logically be the obverse of the mitigation one, since the more emissions are reduced, the lower the global temperature rise will be, and therefore the less adaptation countries will have to undertake. But the developed world has so far resisted any attempt to define the adaptation goal in this way: it would cast an unforgiving light on their failures to mitigate enough. Negotiators will have another go at COP27.

Second, the subject of “loss and damage” will take centre stage. This is the term used to describe the economic costs developing countries experience from climate impacts. Such costs are in many cases large and growing, not least because of more frequent and more severe extreme weather events.

But the concept of loss and damage unnerves developed country negotiators. It looks far too close to the idea — increasingly being tested in the international courts — that the rich world is legally liable for such costs, and could therefore be forced to pay practically unlimited compensation. The Paris Agreement did recognise that loss and damage occurs but included an explicit clause ruling out any legal liability.

This has not stopped developing countries — particularly the small islands and low-lying states most vulnerable to climate impacts — from pushing for more financial aid. At COP26 they demanded a new financial facility be created for this purpose. The knockback by developed countries nearly brought the conference to a halt; a last-minute compromise in which a “Glasgow Dialogue” was established did little to assuage the vulnerable countries’ anger. They pointed out grimly that the Glasgow Dialogue on Loss and Damage could now be added to the list of futile non-negotiations that already included the Warsaw Mechanism for Loss and Damage and the Santiago Network for Loss and Damage created by previous COPs.

A new financial facility for loss and damage will therefore be back on the agenda in Sharm el-Sheikh; it will be the developing world’s single biggest demand. Recognising the Paris clause, many are now insisting that what they want is specific and automatic help when they are hit by an extreme weather event. They are not seeking reparations for historical emissions. Some developed countries may in turn be relenting: Denmark recently announced the first-ever pledge of specific loss and damage funding. If the financial facility is not agreed — or explicit talks are not at least promised towards it — the vulnerable countries may well walk out.

In the end, adaptation and loss and damage both come down to the third key agenda item, which is finance. Once again, the developed world will be in the dock: it has still not organised the $100 billion per year in financial flows to developing countries it promised at COP15 (Copenhagen, 2009) and again in Paris. Although the funds were meant to be secured by 2020, only $83 billion was provided that year, and the latest review suggests the $100 billion won’t be met till 2023.

The consequence is not just that insufficient money is flowing. It’s the disastrous loss of trust that the shortfall has caused. If developed countries can’t keep to their most straightforward promises, developing nations are little inclined to make commitments of their own.

At the same time, though, the $100 billion is not really the issue. That sum doesn’t get anywhere close to the trillions of dollars now needed for global investment in climate mitigation and resilience. Governments don’t have that kind of money; it’s going to have to be raised from the private sector. Intense discussions are under way looking at how this can be done.

In Sharm el-Sheikh these discussions will take place away from the formal negotiations. Veteran climate economist Nicholas Stern of the LSE will publish a new report with the executive director of the UN Economic Commission for Africa, Vera Songwe, on how much money is needed for different purposes, and how it can be mobilised. Banks, insurers and investment funds will be out in force, proclaiming their commitment to net zero and green growth, while trying to defend their continued financing of fossil fuels.

The World Bank, meanwhile, will come under renewed attack for inadequate climate commitment. The International Monetary Fund will look good by comparison. Even the world’s central banks will be in on the debate, now committed to assessing their financial systems’ stability in terms of “climate risk” as well as the usual capital adequacy.

And this is where COP27 will prove itself worthwhile after all. It’s not really about the formal negotiations. COPs are the annual gatherings of the world’s climate industry. That’s not a term of abuse: acting on climate change is now a major driver of economic growth, of investment and trade, of urban regeneration and rural land restoration, and of civil society mobilisation.

People come from all those sectors: from city authorities and sub-national states, from multinational corporations and green technology innovators, from impact investment funds and academic research institutes, from non-government organisations from both the North and South of the world. They come to announce their new projects and commitments, to network and plan, and to discover what’s happening elsewhere.

And those government leaders will have to make a speech about climate change when they come to the COP. For many of them it may be the only one they make on the subject this year. Oddly enough, none of them will say “actually, you know, this climate change thing is not really happening, so we’re doing bugger all about it.” Each of the six minutes will force leaders’ attention onto the global crisis and what they should at least say they are doing in response. And most importantly, each of those speeches will be covered by those leaders’ national media outlets. They will appear to be talking to the international community, but that’s just the backdrop (and an important one). Each will be talking primarily to their national media and public.

This, in the end, is the justification for the annual UN circus. Progress on climate change will ultimately come because publics the world over will demand it from their governments. They will do this when they are better informe, and the challenge gets a higher profile in each country’s political debate.

Political leaders need to be forced to say they will act, and to be held to it. In a world where so much else is happening, that’s hard to engineer, either for civil society or for the media. Climate change is not news: it’s been the same story now for many years, and if it can be reported on any day it can always wait for another one.

So the point of COPs is to provide a focal point, a moment: one fortnight a year when climate change is unequivocally on the political agenda, and on the news. This year NGOs will find it harder than usual to make their voices heard: the Egyptian government has notoriously been cracking down on dissent and demonstration, and hotels in Sharm el-Sheikh are too expensive to allow most activists to attend.

Nevertheless, for a couple of weeks, climate will come into focus. Political leaders will make speeches, and they will be covered on the main TV news. Broadcasters will run climate change features. Editors will commission articles. •