This year’s COP27 took place in Sharm El Sheik, Egypt, at a time of multiple threats facing the international community.
Things do not look good. A fossil fuelled war continues in Europe; the global economy is all but assured to stutter into recession this year, countries like the UK face the prospect of stagflation; a returning sovereign debt crisis threatens to engulf low-income nations, with 60 percent already in or near debt distress; inflation is set to push 95 million people around the world into extreme poverty; while persistent pollution and biodiversity loss are pushing natural systems and human health to the edge. All of this is unfolding against the backdrop of a deepening climate crisis, with violent floods decimating Pakistan and life-threatening drought threatening 50 million people in the Horn of Africa.
Some believe this is a moment of polycrisis, where simultaneous shocks across the globe are colliding and intensifying, not unlike 2008 when banking and energy crises overlapped a global wave of extreme weather events. The interaction of these crises and shocks has created a new sense of global risk and uncertainty, where charting a clear path forward seems a herculean task. In fact, an earlier draft of the COP27 Decision Text acknowledged the polycrisis, noting that “overlapping crises of food, energy, cascading risks, geopolitical, financial, debt and economic challenges, compounded and coupled by more frequent and intense climate impacts, all having negative impacts in particular on developing countries.”
Despite these stark reminders of what is at stake and what is to come, humanity is still woefully off-track when it comes to addressing the climate crisis. The UN Emissions gap report, released before COP27, put it bluntly: there is currently “no credible pathway to 1.5°C in place”. In fact, global emissions from fossil fuels hit a record high in 2022. You would be forgiven for thinking the sewage that ran through the COP27 conference centre was a metaphor.
But out of COP27 have sprung announcements, pledges, and shifts that could provide some evidence-based hope for rapid transition. Or, at the very least, provide more fertile ground from which hope can grow. The usual COP conference dynamics were inescapable. There is still an open reluctance from wealthy historical polluters to accept liability for their role in creating the climate crisis and for naming the root cause of the crisis: fossil fuels. The power of the fossil fuel industry within the COP process remains ubiquitous and the largest polluters continue to prioritise politics over the planet.
Here are some of the main highlights and challenges that emerged from COP27, and what they mean for the “urgent system-wide transformation” called for by the UN “to avoid climate disaster”:
After COP26 ended with the language in the final communique around fossil fuels being softened, there were renewed hopes that all fossil fuels – not just coal – would be included in the final agreement at COP27, with India instrumental in crystallising support around this proposal while EU climate chief, Frans Timmermans, stated that the bloc was supportive of “any call to phase down all fossil fuels”. Around 80 countries made public statements in Sharm El Sheik calling for a transition away from all fossil fuels, yet this failed to translate across to the final, decision text. This merely re-emphasised calls for the “phasedown of unabated coal power” and the “phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies”.
When the stakes are so high, language matters. Despite popping up in numerous communiques and cover documents, there is still no clear definition of what ‘unabated’ means within the UNFCCC. This creates significant wriggle room for fossil fuel interests and producer nations to continue expanding coal production. And the same is true for ‘inefficient fossil fuel subsidies’. Although the term was first used by the G20 back in 2009, there is yet to be any agreed criteria over what constitutes an ‘efficient’ fossil fuel subsidy (despite claims this is an oxymoron). Ambiguity ultimately gives rise to further fossil fuel expansion.
This comes as no surprise given the scale of the lobbying operation at COP27. Approximately 636 fossil fuel lobbyists descended on the conference, a 25% increase on the number that attended COP26 in Glasgow and more than the entire delegations of climate vulnerable nations. More than one in five of Russia’s 150 strong delegation worked directly for the fossil fuel industry. The push for fossil gas was a dominant theme, with chaos in commodity markets leading many high consumption nations to rush to secure ‘dirty deals’. The dash for gas in Africa is case in point. African civil society, however, launched a series of push backs against this, labelling it as neo-colonialism in new clothes, and some African leaders, like Kenya’s William Ruto, reaffirmed their commitments to turn their backs on fossil fuels and pursue a clean energy future.
Some of the most climate vulnerable nations on earth used COP27 as an opportunity to endorse a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, a proposed treaty to halt the expansion of fossil fuel production and support a just transition internationally towards low carbon energy systems. The Pacific island nation of Tuvalu joined Vanuatu as a nation demanding a Treaty. Other notable endorsements during COP27 came from the Brazilian city of Belém, in the heart of the Amazon, Massachusetts senator and Green New Deal pioneer Ed Markey supporting a call for an international treaty, and the World Health Organization (WHO) ramping up its support.
Finance for loss and damage, to cover the costs of adapting to climate impacts already baked into the climate system, was a central pillar to COP27 after three decades of demands from developing nations. And, finally, the COP process achieved an agreement around a ‘Loss and Damage’ fund, which has been hailed as a major inflection point for a just transition.
But, as is the case with most distributional mechanisms that seek to re-balance the climate scales away from the Global North towards the South, conditions abound. The amount of capital that the fund will mobilise, how funds will be raised, and how the financial support will be distributed to those nations that need it most has been pushed back for agreement at next year’s COP in the UAE. After a year of devastating climate impacts, where damages hit $200 billion, waiting another year to get loss and damage finance flowing is perilous. Plus, for as long as fossil fuel production and consumption continues, and wealthy nations fail to face up to the role of fossil fuels in exacerbating climate impacts, further loss and damage is all but guaranteed.
Richer nations are still – despite the overwhelming evidence – unable to accept that a substantial flow of finance from North to South is vital for any kind of fair or just strategy to address climate change. “With $468 trillion in assets around the globe”, Nick Robins reminds us ,”there is no shortage of cash”. Yet only €340 million in new finance for loss and damage were pledged at COP, mostly going towards Global Shield and the UN early warning systems, with some commitments to the Santiago Network and country-specific projects. This level of finance is far less than what is required, let alone what is fair.
Despite the broken promises on finance for adaptation and loss and damage, there is clearly momentum behind clean technologies. Energy transition investments in 2021 hit $705bn, up by 25% on 2020’s numbers. Electric transport investments were up $100bn in 2021 compared to the previous year. And, now, one in ten cars sold worldwide is electric. Renewable technologies are cheaper than fossil fuels in 66% of countries, and 86% of new installed power capacity in 2021 came from renewables. The transition is on – but the real question is whether it will be just and rapid.
Out of COP27 have come a series of promising and potentially impactful bilateral and multilateral agreements that could give rise to frameworks or potential blueprints for accelerating action.
A $20 billion Just Energy Transition Partnership, known to policy wonks at JET-P, was launched with Indonesia to help the emerging economy transition away from coal. The funds will be mobilised over the next three to five years. This announcement is the second of its kind, after the first JET-P was launched last year at COP26 in Glasgow where a $8.5 billion deal was struck with coal-dependent South Africa which has given rise to a series of policy announcements and developments. Similar JET-P deals are being floated with Vietnam and Senegal, amongst others.
COP26’s Breakthrough Agenda was given added momentum in Egypt. Nations representing over half of global GDP agreed on a set of priorities and immediate actions they would jointly pursue in the sectors of power, steel, road transport, hydrogen and agriculture to help direct billions into their decarbonisation. Morocco, Canada and France suggested adding buildings and cement – both of which are huge emitters – to this list of industries targeted by the Breakthrough Agenda. This momentum, as Simon Sharp puts it, will engender ‘Moore of the Wright stuff’, where reinforcing technological feedbacks bring down costs and accelerate deployment.
Despite the presence of the fossil fuel lobby at COP27, the offshore wind industry made clear inroads. According to BloombergNEF, offshore wind is less than two-thirds of the price of energy from gas stations that are currently operational. Within the first week of the conference, Belgium, Colombia, Germany, Ireland, Japan, the Netherlands, as well as oil and gas producers Norway, UK and the USA, all joined the Global Offshore Wind Alliance (GOWA) initiated by IRENA, Denmark and the Global Wind Energy Council. The second week of COP27, saw Australia sign up to the alliance – a notable shift given the nation’s historic climate denial. GOWA aims to scale up offshore generation from the current capacity of 60GW to 380 GW by 2030.
Beyond these bilateral and multilateral deals, the thawing of geopolitical stalemates may suggest a clearer path to accelerated action in 2023. With the re-election of Lula in Brazil, the Amazonian nation is once again back in the international climate fold, with the president-elect greeted in Egypt “like a rockstar”. Also, the climate rapprochement between China and the USA at COP27 offers some hope.
There were a series of promising announcements made at COP27 to protect and restore the natural world, but all eyes will be on COP15 of the Convention on Biodiversity, taking place in Montreal in December 2022. It is hoped that COP15 will deliver where Egypt did not, providing concrete targets, timetable, and significant funding.
The return of Brazil’s President Lula to climate diplomacy was most apparent in the joint statement made between Brazil, Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo to launch a partnership on ending deforestation and protecting rainforests. These three nations are the largest rainforest nations on earth, holding 52% of all tropical rainforests between them. The partnership, dubbed OPEC for rainforests, could be vital to turning the tide on rainforest loss, and perhaps preventing a tipping point occurring.
There also appears to be a growing acknowledgement of the importance of protecting and restoring peat bogs and peatlands around the world, with the leadership of the DRC, France’s Macron, and President Biden of the USA all highlighting the benefits of bogs in their official addresses and within plenary discussions. However, the positive language around protecting peatlands and bogs did not make it into the final decision text.
Despite COP27 being dubbed the ‘COP for food’ as several of the world’s regions face acute food insecurity, very little progress was made. Much like the fossil fuel industry, the agribusiness lobby was out in full force in Sharm El Sheik pushing ‘climate smart agriculture’, nitrogen fertiliser, and the expansion of livestock grazing. According to Desmog, the number of agribusiness employees and lobbyists at COP27 doubled compared to those that attended the COP26 in Glasgow last year. The lack of progressive and concrete outcomes relating to food at COP27 is understandable given the sheer scale of the lobbying effort from agribusiness.
The Koronivia Dialogue, the primary initiative to shape global responses to agriculture and climate change, just about survived but is hanging by a thread. The dialogue successfully created a new mandate but failed to expand its reach to related issues beyond the farm, such as diets, food waste and transport, which were all put on hold. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) will unveil a 1.5°C roadmap for global agriculture at COP28 next year that should identify a range of key milestones for the sector. But, in the meantime, humanity can only hope that real progress is made next month in Montreal.
While COP27 provided ample evidence-based hope for rapid transition, the true impact will only become apparent in the coming months, once the noise has subsided and the real work begins.
Freddie Daley is currently working as a researcher at the University of Sussex exploring sustainable behaviour change, supply-side policies and the political economy of the climate crisis. He is also an activist with Green New Deal UK and has published opinion pieces on UK climate policy in OpenDemocracy and Tribune, amongst others