COP27: too little, too late
The major advance of the COP27 climate summit held in Egypt was an agreement to create a fund to compensate for the loss and damage caused by climate change. This came in response to three decades of advocacy by civil society and global south states, and continued campaigning will now focus on making the fund fair and effective. But apart from this, COP27 made clear the continuing power of the fossil fuel industry, with no new commitment to increase cuts in greenhouse gas emissions and a target for emissions to peak by 2025 dropped. More catastrophic climate impacts are guaranteed – and much more ambition is needed.
On Sunday 20 November, two days after the COP27 climate summit had been due to end, exhausted delegates finally signed off on the meeting’s final statement and went to pack their bags and head home. Perhaps the 636 fossil fuel lobbyists present at COP27 left the happiest: there was nothing in the final text to trouble the power of the deadly industry that continues to prevent the drastic greenhouse gas emissions cuts needed to limit global warming.
Against this shocking omission, there was one main positive: finally, progress came on a key civil society demand, to establish a fund to compensate for loss and damage caused by climate change. If put into practice, it should give much-needed support to countries that are experiencing the worst impacts of climate change but that have done little to cause it. Now much more work needs to be done to make the fund a reality.
Loss and damage: a line crossed
For decades civil society and global south states have been pushing for loss and damage funding, alongside previous financing agreements on emissions cuts – known as mitigation – and adaptation to climate change. And for decades global north states have resisted.
The injustice has always been clear: states that have done the least to cause climate change are generally those experiencing its worst impacts and have the least ability to cope. The politics behind loss and damage have become increasingly hard to ignore too: broadly, global north states are asking global south states not to emulate their carbon-fuelled path to development, but they’ve been offering little help in return.
Resistance was finally overcome at COP27 as global south states – working together in the G77 group, whose original membership has now expanded to 134 countries – made clear this was a red-line issue. They have seen another year of devastating extreme weather, something made far more frequent and harmful because of climate change. The government of Pakistan was at the forefront of the push as the current G77 chair: this year it was struck by devastating floods that submerged a third of the land and killed over 1,700 people.
The first struggle was to get the issue onto the meeting’s agenda. The start of the summit was delayed until it was agreed that loss and damage would be discussed. Then key ground was broken towards COP27’s scheduled end when the European Union (EU) delegation accepted the principle of a loss and damage fund, saying it was doing so in response to the insistence of the G77 group. The reality is that attempts to divide G77 countries failed. Backed by civil society, the group stayed united on the issue. While widely criticised as not going far enough, the EU’s concession ultimately made it harder for other major powers to keep resisting.
But this was just a first step. Now the responsibility falls to a ‘transitional committee’ charged with making recommendations at COP28, a year from now.
One key question is where the money will come from. Global north states have never met the commitment they made in 2009 to provide US$100 billion a year in funding for mitigation and adaptation. A considerable shift is needed if they are to start paying more. The danger is that existing funding, including government aid, could be repackaged as a contribution to the new fund or diverted away from other important causes.
Who contributes also matters. The 1992 United Nations (UN) Framework Convention on Climate Change classes countries as either developed or developing, and that rigid division is applied in the UN’s climate negotiations to this day. China, now the world’s largest current greenhouse gas emitter, remains classed as a developing nation. As a result, despite the great economic power it has developed in recent decades, it isn’t expected to contribute funding. Nor are states that have accumulated vast oil wealth, such as Saudi Arabia. This needs to change. Civil society and many global south states are calling on such states to contribute to the new fund under the ‘polluter pays’ principle.
It should also be clear that these wealthy and powerful states shouldn’t expect to directly benefit from the fund. Funding must be channelled towards the communities that are worst affected by climate change.
The key advance is that the principle of loss and damage has been accepted, meaning the issue will be on the agenda of all future COPs. And for global south states and civil society, the advocacy agenda is now clear: to ensure that COP28 commits to unlocking new resources from a wide range of sources and moves money to where it can make the most difference to the most vulnerable.
Focus on financing
Other sources of climate financing remain largely underexplored. Calls for fossil fuel companies, currently enjoying record profits, to pay windfall taxes to help pay for the harm they cause have so far gone unheeded. UN Secretary-General António Guterres is among those calling for such action. Some global north states have imposed their own taxes, but for their own purposes – generally to subsidise high fuel bills.
Attention is increasingly falling on the need for debt forgiveness for global south nations and the role of the international financial institutions set up in the wake of the Second World War: the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.
The World Bank came in for particular criticism during COP27. Its head, David Malpass – appointed by Donald Trump – has been accused of being a climate denier. The bank continues to provide funding for new fossil fuel projects and is criticised for failing to offer adequate financing for renewable energies and adaptation to climate change.
Mia Mottley, the Prime Minister of Barbados, used COP27 to make clear the injustice of climate change and launch a stinging attack on the current system. She is prominent among a group of leaders currently calling for an overhaul of the global financial system to expand the ability of institutions including the World Bank to finance climate resilience.
COP27 was never going to come up with a plan for change, not least because the World Bank and IMF are governed separately from the UN – but it at least offered a platform for debate that pointed the spotlight on the big question of how to get the climate financing the world needs. These discussions may have helped build momentum for change. If global north states want to show they’re serious about climate financing, they should start by making clear they’re hearing the calls for reform of the World Bank and other international financial institutions.
Spotlight on Egypt
Each COP takes on unique characteristics, determined by its choice of host. In the case of COP27, the summit was sadly influenced by Egypt’s authoritarian context.
Ahead of COP27, civil society raised the alarm about the Egyptian government’s systematic suppression of activism through criminalisation, detention, imprisonment and torture. Protests are severely restricted and brutally suppressed, and people who organise them are liable to prosecution. The state has vast powers to control and close civil society organisations (CSOs) – including environmental groups.
Civil society had two concerns about Egypt’s hosting of the summit: that the government would use it to greenwash both its dreadful human rights record and its broad inaction on the climate crisis, and that Egypt’s closed civic space would make it much harder for civil society to mobilise to seek to inject ambition into the negotiations.
Fears of civil society restriction were unfortunately borne out. Many Egyptian activists were absent simply because they are in jail or have been forced into exile. Numerous Egyptians who called for protests were arrested ahead of the meeting. At least one international activist was denied access to Egypt. Four US Indigenous activists who briefly interrupted President Joe Biden’s speech were thrown out of the meeting. There were long waits to get official approval to hold a protest in the meeting’s designated protest area.
The official conference app was criticised for giving the Egyptian government incredibly broad provisions to access user information, enabling surveillance; some states told their delegations not to use it. The meeting’s wifi blocked access to major news websites and Human Rights Watch’s site.
Security officials were a highly visible presence inside the conference venue. People from international CSOs complained about harassment and intimidation. UN independent human rights experts reported that several civil society members were interrogated and photographed by security officers.
But Egypt’s hosting of the event also backfired: the Egyptian government’s appalling human rights record has never received so much global coverage. Attention focused on imprisoned activist Alaa Abdel Fataah, whose hunger strike piled the pressure on the government. He became a powerful symbol of the tens of thousands of political prisoners jailed by the repressive state. During COP27 one of Alaa’s sisters, Sanaa Seif, led a protest calling for him and all other political prisoners to be released, making the point that climate justice is inseparable from human rights.
Egypt’s handling of the negotiations was also called into question. Its foreign minister and president of COP27, Sameh Shoukry, was accused of being a largely absent figure. The presidency was criticised for being slow and disorganised, hindering the development of consensus on a final text through a deliberately opaque process. Egypt was accused of being influenced by its regional alliances, notably with Saudi Arabia, to water down the text. Delegates complained that this was the worst-organised COP in years.
Egypt’s authoritarian government hasn’t emerged from COP27 with its image improved. But unfortunately, its influence will be lasting – not least because Shoukry will chair the COP process all the way up to COP28.
No progress on emissions cuts
Apart from positive movement on loss and damage, this was a failure of a summit. Fossil fuel representatives, including Russian oil lobbyists, made their presence count: they collectively outnumbered the delegation of any state apart from the COP28 host, the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
The implication of COP27 is that neither states nor the fossil fuel industry will take adequate action to cut emissions; at best, rich states may pay for some of the harm this will cause.
Keeping global warming within 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels requires a 45 per cent cut in global emissions by 2030. COP26 recognised the need for greater action. The climate plans every state is required to submit, known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs), were deemed insufficient to fulfil that goal. States were told to come back to COP27 with stronger NDCs – but hardly any of them did. In October the UN assessed that, if implemented, changes in the latest NDCs would result in less than one per cent of additional emissions cuts.
COP26 claimed to have kept alive the 1.5-degree target, the most ambitious goal of the 2015 Paris Agreement. But in COP27 negotiations some states, among them China, pushed to emphasise instead the two-degree target also mentioned in the 2015 text. This conveniently overlooked the fact that the Paris Agreement urges that warming be kept ‘well below’ two degrees, and that since it was signed the science has become even clearer that every fraction of a degree of further warming will bring more catastrophic impacts.
The 1.5-degree target just about survives in the text – but the lack of serious attention to fossil fuels makes it impossible to achieve. An extraordinary 30-year-long act of conscious denial continued at COP27: once again, the text lacked any commitment to reduce fossil fuel use.
Fossil fuels weren’t even mentioned until the COP26 agreement, and a further year brought no progress. Despite an effort by a group of states led by India to commit to a phase down of fossil fuels, the text merely copied and pasted COP26’s reference to phasing down coal and phasing out ‘inefficient’ fossil fuel subsidies. Powerful petrostates, including Saudi Arabia, blocked any greater ambition. Meanwhile a COP26 target that emissions should peak by 2025 simply vanished.
The text’s reference to prioritising ‘low-emissions energy’ offers another potential danger area. This undefined phrase could be interpreted as including fossil fuel gas, a lower source of greenhouse gas emissions than coal or wood but one that offers no route to cut emissions by the level required. Several African states went into COP27 seeking to strike deals to exploit their massive fossil fuel gas reserves, an economically attractive prospect at a time when energy costs are high and western states are seeking alternatives to Russian gas.
Fossil fuel gas is being marketed as a lower-emissions ‘transitional fuel’ that can give people in African countries reliable power, but it’s hard to see the motives as anything other than financial. The logic of the global fossil fuel industry is that any extracted gas would be sold on the wholesale market to the highest bidder. African nations are already among those experiencing the worst effects of climate change, and greater extraction just means more impacts. Instead, campaigners are calling for adequate investment to realise the abundant potential for African countries to benefit from renewables such as solar power.
The fossil fuel industry walked away from COP27 confident its power to prevent action on climate change remains. The implication of COP27 is that neither states nor the fossil fuel industry will take adequate action to cut emissions; at best, rich states may pay for some of the harm this will cause.
At a time when every second matters, a whole year has again been wasted. And it would be foolish to hope for any decrease in the fossil fuel industry’s malign influence at COP28, hosted by the oil-rich UAE. The UAE delegation to COP27 included numerous fossil fuel lobbyists, and its leader recently said the country will continue supplying oil and gas ‘as long as the world is in need’ of it.
Next year’s COP will again be held in conditions of closed civic space by an autocratic government with a dismal human rights record, once again making it hard for civil society to mobilise for climate action.
Even when civil society is free to organise around them, annual COP summits will never be enough. They offer an important regular rallying point for advocacy, as a place where all nations come together, from the most powerful economies to the smallest islands in danger of disappearing from the map. The government of Pakistan showed the value of this interaction when it laid bare the reality of its devastating floods, helping unlock progress on loss and damage.
But response to the climate crisis is too important to be left exclusively to COPs. Action on many other fronts is needed too. Individual states can show leadership by submitting far more ambitious NDCs – and implementing them. Other key annual meetings, including the G7, G20 and the peak summits of regional intergovernmental bodies, need to commit to taking a much stronger line on climate action, ramping up the pressure on COPs. The powerful states that control the purse strings of the World Bank and other international financial institutions need to respond to pressures for reform and refocus their considerable resources on funding climate transition.
Civil society advocacy will focus on all these areas – and on using street protest and non-violent direct action to keep climate change on the political agenda, and increasingly, deploying legal action to force governments and the fossil fuel industry to adhere to international human rights law and fulfil their commitments.
Civil society will continue to engage in every way possible to try to ensure that loss and damage funding becomes a reality and serves the cause of climate justice – while pressuring for drastic emissions cuts to stop further loss and damage happening.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
An ambitious agreement for a well-resourced loss and damage fund that meets the real needs of vulnerable communities must be struck at COP28.
States responsible for the greatest greenhouse gas emissions should urgently commit to much more ambitious plans to cut their emissions.
The government of the United Arab Emirates should commit to respecting civic space and not putting into place similar restrictions as Egypt when it hosts COP28.
Cover photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images