COP27 Didn’t Make Enough Progress to Prevent Climate Catastrophe
The UN climate summit delivered on a loss and damage fund, but it fell short on goals to reduce emissions and avoid the worst consequences of climate change.
SHARM EL-SHEIKH, EGYPT—This year’s UN climate conference, COP27, ended with a whimper. Organizers billed it as the conference for implementation and adaptation. However, COP27, like many prior climate convenings, was long on discussion and short on progress.
Representatives from countries worldwide arrived with mixed agendas to Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, a Red Sea resort town lined with water parks at the southern tip of the bone-dry Sinai Peninsula. After two weeks of negotiations, countries found little common ground to halt global average temperature rise, which keeps the world on a path for more extreme heat, extended drought, raging wildfires, and sea-level rise.
Was there an agreement on funding for loss and damage?
In the Sharm el-Sheikh Implementation Plan [PDF], nations agreed to create a loss and damage fund for the most vulnerable nations. The exact details of the fund, however, remain undefined.
The question that has dogged COP negotiating rooms for decades is: “Who will pay for the consequences brought by climate change?” The developing world has long sought what is known as loss and damage—payment for the damages that richer nations’ greenhouse gas emissions have caused. The United States and other wealthy countries had long opposed creation of a compensation or liability fund. But at COP27, this opposition crumbled.
The COP27 agreement also urges multilateral development banks to reform their practices and priorities. It called for greater use of a range of financing instruments, including grants and guarantees. This is a response to a long-standing complaint from developing nations that multilateral banks have not adjusted banking practices to address the added financial burdens resulting from climate change.
Despite this progress, wealthy countries still fall short on financing both adaptation and mitigation efforts. Particularly irksome is the failure of these countries to deliver on their 2009 commitment to provide $100 billion per year to developing countries by 2020. The president of last year’s conference pegged 2023 as the year in which developed nations would finally fulfill this pledge.
Is the 1.5°C target still possible?
The COP27 agreement embraces the goal set in the Paris Agreement to limit the rise in the global average temperature to 1.5°C. It acknowledges that “the impacts of climate change will be much lower” at a 1.5°C rise as compared to those at a 2°C increase. Though it also notes that achieving that goal “requires accelerated action in this critical decade,” the agreement offers little to drive momentum, particularly on reducing emissions. The commitments made and reaffirmed in Sharm el-Sheikh leave the world on track to experience temperature rise well above 2°C and edging toward 3°C.
Is the language in the final agreement to phase down coal meaningful?
The agreement repeats compromise language from last year to phase down unabated coal power and phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies. But coal remains a major source of warming. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), coal-fired electricity reached an all-time high in 2021, with more than 95 percent of global coal consumption taking place in countries with net-zero emission pledges. Reaching global climate goals requires rapid reductions in emissions from coal.
Weaning the world off all fossil fuels did not make it into the agreement, and fossil-fuel exporting nations lobbied heavily against it. The final text called for countries to boost “low-emission energy,” which could allow for the continued buildout of natural gas infrastructure.
The IEA has warned that to give the world “an even chance of limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5°C,” the development of new oil and gas fields, as well as the construction of new coal-fired power stations, should end this year.
What’s the outlook for future climate summits?
COP28 will take place in Dubai next year. There will surely be calls for faster, bigger action. Countries and organizations will announce new programs and initiatives. More promises will be made. The developing world could be asking yet again, “Where’s the money?”
Like the climate summits before it, COP27 featured a kaleidoscope of new initiatives. But, as some delegates grumbled, the COP process has offered little evidence that this ritual of announcing new endeavors yields necessary progress on climate goals. To be sure, COPs have initiated progress. They have bent the curve of expected temperature rise; a decade ago the world’s temperature was predicted to rise by 4°C–5°C by 2100, and today the projection is less than 3°C. But nations are still far from grabbing the brass ring of 1.5°C.
So far, the UN approach to climate change—the only one that virtually all nations have embraced—has not yet set humanity on a course to avoid dangerous levels of heating. Right now, emissions are rising. That the developing world finally won its battle on loss and damage is evidence that climate harms are real and costly. Unfortunately, the desultory efforts to address climate change could lead to a world so hot that no amount of money can compensate.