The global climate summit that begins next week in Egypt won’t hinge on backroom discussions among negotiators.
The spotlight instead will be trained on the avalanche of climate disasters that the world has experienced in recent years, and whether wealthy nations will commit to offering financial aid to poor countries that are reeling from those perils.
That makes this 27th Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change different from previous COPs. There is unlikely to be a major outcome, like when the Paris Agreement was accepted in 2015. The issues that currently fill the formal agenda — while important — aren’t calculated to make headlines.
“There’s nothing sexy to wave around,” said Kaveh Guilanpour, a former climate negotiator who is now vice president of international strategies for the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.
Instead, COP 27 will largely be deemed a success or failure based on the quality of its “Action Agenda” — commitments of climate action and aid that flow from the summit of world leaders at the start of the two-week conference.
Developing countries and their champions in civil society are determined that it will also deliver progress in helping them battle the worst effects of climate change — and make them whole when those battles are lost.
“We are looking at a very grim reality,” said Harjeet Singh, head of global political strategy at Climate Action Network International.
While both rich and poor countries have experienced historic climate disasters in the last year, ranging from flooding in Pakistan and famine in Somalia to Hurricane Ian in the United States, “developing countries don’t have resources to deal with that,” he said. “So we have to have a system to help people recover.”
This conference completes the shift from negotiating the Paris Agreement to putting into action. It’s a a sharp departure from the nearly 30-year-old process of haggling over subparagraphs and the placement of commas in negotiating documents.
“If you look at where the energy was in the lead up to Paris, 90 percent of the energy was sitting in the negotiating room trying to finalize the text. And that’s where it had been for multiple decades, right?” said Jake Schmidt, director of the international program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Watchers of the U.N. climate process have been promising that it would enter an “implementation phase” ever since 194 countries came together in Paris seven years ago and launched the first truly global climate agreement. But the years that have followed were consumed by haggling over the Paris deal’s so-called rulebook — a process that went into overtime and only concluded last year.
Now that the rulebook is complete, the focus has flipped from formal negotiations to the work of mitigation and adaptation.
Country negotiators in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, do have some tasks left to them. They must flesh out the Mitigation Work Programme, which was launched last year in Glasgow, Scotland, to help deliver more emissions reductions this decade. Scientists warn that this is necessary to keep the Paris goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius alive.
They also must operationalize the Santiago Network on Loss and Damage, which was created three years ago to connect poor countries with technical assistance and resources to cope with climate impacts. The talks must also make progress on defining the financial support rich countries will collectively provide to the developing world after 2025, and on a process for increasing ambition known as the global stocktake. But both of those items will extend beyond this COP.
A thin formal agenda leaves ample room for this year’s talks to turn on the real-world progress countries are demonstrating seven years after the gavel came down in Paris. There are only eight years left before 2030, by which time scientists warn the world must halve emissions to have a good chance of keeping the 1.5 C target within reach.
So far, that’s not a good news story.
Only 24 countries responded to a request in Glasgow to update their climate commitments. The goal was to bring them in line with what is needed to preserve the 1.5 C target. A U.N. report last month found that 2022 updates barely moved the needle. Altogether, pledges are now consistent with a potentially disastrous 2.5 C of global warming.
“We can’t afford to have more years like this where we’re making incremental progress when what we need is transformational change,” said Alden Meyer, a senior associate with E3G, a think tank based in the United Kingdom.
“That’ll be a big subtext” in Sharm el-Sheikh, he said. “And a lot of people will be saying, ‘Is 1.5 dead?’ You know, basically, last year at Glasgow, [U.K. COP President] Alok Sharma said, ‘It’s in critical care. It’s not doing well, but it’s not deceased.’ And this year, you’re going to get people, I think, starting to say, ‘Has it been moved from critical care to hospice care?’”
Scientists say the window of opportunity to keep warming at or below 1.5 C will close around 2030. While some countries like the United States and Australia have implemented policies recently that should make a meaningful dent in emissions, many major developing countries didn’t heed the Glasgow call to align their Paris pledges with 1.5 C.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin, leaders of the world’s highest- and fifth highest-emitting countries, respectively, will not attend this year’s talks.
Impacts and equity
Meanwhile, the consequences of filling the Earth’s atmosphere with carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases continue to make themselves known. The world has warmed an estimated 1.2 degrees Celsius since the Industrial Revolution, and scientists warn that the increasingly severe droughts, floods, heat waves and storms that have visited virtually every corner of the globe are a preview of coming events.
“We’re going to look back at what’s happening this year as the good old days,” said Meyer, “because it’s going to get worse for a while.”
“I think this COP is likely to shine a spotlight on climate impacts in a way that we have not seen with any other COP,” said David Waskow, director of the World Resources Institute’s International Climate Initiative. “We are living in the impacts now. So it’s not like how it was 10 or 15 years ago.”
While all countries are experiencing losses from climate change, poor nations are suffering the most after contributing least to the problem. That fact, combined with a resurgent global awareness of racial and social injustice in the wake of George Floyd’s killing in 2020, has catapulted the needs of the Global South higher on the political agenda of this COP than ever before.
Vulnerable countries have insisted that this COP grapple with issues that weren’t originally scheduled for decisions in Sharm el-Sheikh, including finance for adaptation and the establishment of a funding stream for loss and damage.
Loss and damage is a set of issues within the U.N. climate negotiations that deals with making victims whole for climate-driven disasters that can no longer be avoided. It is distinct from adaptation, which seeks to avoid climate damage in the first place through hardening of infrastructure or climate-resilient farming or building methods.
Loss and damage is sometimes referred to as climate reparations. But advocates say rich countries have used that framing to stall progress by professing worry about liability and demands for compensation — even though the United States succeeded in adding language to the Paris Agreement that rules out both.
“That’s been a fig leaf for a long time that some countries, including the United States, have hidden behind. That is not the question at hand here,” said Rachel Cleetus, policy director for climate and energy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It’s very easy for decades to go by being caught up in legalese. Meanwhile, real people are suffering, literally dying.”
While the Santiago Network on loss and damage is on the agenda for COP 27, actual finance for climate damages wasn’t supposed to be.
Last year’s summit set up a two-year “dialogue” to discuss what to do next on finance for loss and damage that wasn’t slated to conclude until June 2024. But developing countries note that the issue has been front of mind for them for decades and a formal pillar of the U.N. climate talks since 2013, when the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage was established.
It’s past time, they say, for the developed world to start offering concrete pledges of finance to help victims of climate-fueled disasters that are now unavoidable.
Denmark became the first nation to pledge money for loss and damage in September, with a commitment of $13 million. Scotland and the Belgian region of Wallonia have also put forward small pledges.
But the United States and European Union have remained skittish about settling on a structure for loss and damage finance too quickly. U.S. climate envoy John Kerry angered advocates in September by suggesting that calls from the Global South to establish a new finance facility in Sharm el-Sheikh were not “serious” because too little time had been allotted to design it.
The blowback from Kerry’s remarks was intense and included many allies of the Biden administration. One hundred advocacy groups signed a letter last week asking Kerry to back the creation of a new facility on loss and damage. And in remarks in Washington last week ,he seemed to soften his tone, saying the United States was “very supportive” of aid for climate victims (Climatewire, Oct. 27).
Developing countries want loss and damage finance to be on the formal agenda for negotiations at Sharm el-Sheikh, and experts think the United States and European Union won’t stand in their way.
The question will be how far negotiations in Sharm el-Sheikh go in terms of creating a loss and damage finance facility or a timeline for pledges of support.
Guilanpour of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions said a realistic “landing zone” for this year’s meeting might be an agreement to strengthen the Glasgow Dialogue “to make it linked to the political process and so that it results in clear recommendations on loss and damage finance that would then be acted upon.”
Few advocates predict that this year’s conference will end with a newly minted fund devoted to making climate victims whole.
For one thing, Kerry has said repeatedly that a host of design issues have yet to be ironed out that would inform how loss and damage is addressed. For another, a Republican takeover of the House, at least, is looming and could have grave implications for U.S. climate finance writ large, but especially finance that could be cast as reparations.
But Singh of Climate Action Network International said anything short of an agreement on loss and damage would be a failure at Sharm el-Sheikh.
He has one question for the leaders of rich nations: “What should I tell people who have just lost their homes, who don’t know whether they will be able to have the next crop or the next meal?”
“You know, the problem is that these negotiations are so far from reality that we think that everything is a bargaining chip, and we need to just do some incremental progress so that we can make some lofty statements and claim ourselves to be climate leaders,” he said. “That’s not going to work anymore.”