COP 27: tamed expectations

Going into Sharm el-Sheikh, the rich world’s apathy towards developing countries will be a huge sore point

COP 27: tamed expectations


oday, delegates representing 197 countries that are party to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) are congregating in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh for the 27th annual Conference of Parties or COP27. The way forward for three broad objectives will be intensely debated and discussed in COP27. These are: reducing greenhouse gas emissions to contain global warming; mobilising climate financing for mitigation, adaptation and loss and damage; and ensuring the multilateral system delivers on the world’s collective climate goals.

This is the first meeting after COP26 in Glasgow, where governments were given one year to present their renewed pledges and plans (nationally determined contributions or NDCs) that they will carry out by 2030 to ensure that the rise in world’s temperature remains well below 2oC (preferably below 1.5oC) of what it was in the mid-Nineteenth Century. This 1.5oC limit is considered crucial because of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s report in 2018, which stressed that climate change beyond that level would be very damaging.

Cutting greenhouse gas emissions was always considered a prerequisite to achieving the 1.5oC limit. However, the UN Environment Programme’s latest Emission Gap Report reveals that progress on this front has been disappointing, yet again. The report concludes that translating all new (upward revised) national climate promises and policies since COP26 into actions will still lead to an average global temperature rise by 2.4oC by 2100.

Climate modelers foresee that the world in 2026 will be 1.5oC warmer than the pre-industrial level. A 1.2oC increase in global temperature has already contributed to heatwaves in Europe and South Asia, forest fires in North America, flash floods in Brazil, super floods in Pakistan, drought in China and cyclones in the US; imagine the weather extremes with world temperatures warming up further.

Despite realising that the 1.5oC target was a “mission impossible,” the objective in COP26 at Glasgow was to keep this goalpost insight. To do the needful, Glasgow delivered three ways to speed things up: changing timetables, tweaking financing arrangements, and allowing for greater multilateralism.

Changing the timetable in the form of an accelerated turn of the NDC ratchet means translating the promises made in Glasgow into policies in an expedited manner. It also means seeking new ways to hasten the transition away from fossil fuels by 2030. This is easier said than done as it is linked to the second pathway of the Glasgow climate pact: financing arrangements.

Climate financing worth $100 billion per annum by 2020 for the Global South was promised by rich countries in 2009. By 2019, the annual flow (after double accounting and relabeling of existing pledges) had reached only $80 billion. In came Covid-19 in 2020, and the US managed a $5.2 trillion fiscal response for its citizens. Other OECD countries, too, spent trillions in Covid-19 fiscal response. However, all of them, together, cannot spare $100 billion for climate financing in developing countries. The rich world’s apathy towards developing countries is a huge sore point going into Sharm el-Sheikh.

Developing countries are not asking for charity or a mere show of solidarity from the rich world. They are asking for climate justice. The West has grown wealthy by burning fossil fuels harming the planet and the developing countries that were not responsible for the original damage. Thus, developing countries have a moral claim to assistance.

If rich countries resist the inclusion of “loss and damage” on the agenda, there could be moral outrage that might pollute the political environment.

Also, developing countries don’t have the means for energy transition. Without financial and technological assistance, they cannot phase out fossil fuels and decarbonise. Mindful of this fact, in Glasgow, the US, the UK, the EU, France and Germany agreed to mobilise a pot of $8.5 billion over the next three to five years for South Africa. In exchange, South Africa had to decarbonise its coal-dependent power sector while protecting the livelihoods of the 100,000 or so people who work in the industry. Progress on this approach will be monitored in Sharm el-Sheikh. If the results are promising, proponents hope it could be a template for other countries.

The G77 plus China (a coalition of 135 countries led by Pakistan in 2022) has been reminding the developed world that its commitments to climate financing and support for decarbonisation should not be confused with the compensation for the impacts that climate change is already having and will have in the future. This group lobbied very strongly in Glasgow for a fund, in line with what was recognised in Article 8 of the Paris Declaration, to pay for climate change-related “loss and damage.”

With devastating super floods at home, Pakistan, as a current chair of G77 plus China, would have a strong moral case for pressuring the rich countries to finalise the modalities of loss and damage funds.

It is pertinent to mention that the United Nations secretary-general, in his September 2022 address to the General Assembly, supported the case of developing countries for climate justice and emphasised that it was the right time to move beyond endless discussions [on tweaking loss and damage fund modalities] as [climate] vulnerable countries require meaningful action. He urged G20 countries, responsible for 80 percent of existing atmospheric emissions, to come up with a loss and damage fund to compensate the climate-vulnerable countries.

G20 countries, especially the US, are not only reluctant to operationalise a loss and damage fund because of its fiscal implications but also because of its legal implications. Just as the modalities of loss and damage fund need to be finalised, so does its definition. The West would like to restrict the scope of what can be attributed to “loss and damage” before accepting the responsibility to pay for it.

The COP27 agenda will be announced on the first day of the conference, when it is formally approved for discussion. One hopes that a debate on “loss and damage” will be a part of the agenda.

Keeping our expectations low from COP27, one may expect three possible outcomes from Sharm el-Sheikh. One, no tangible change. In the business-as-usual scenario, the world will continue to suffer from climate change. The early victims will be the most vulnerable, but no one will remain safe from it.

COP27 may also turn into a diplomatic disaster. It is the “African COP,” and Africa is among the most vulnerable hotspots of climate change suffering due to the climate sins of others. If rich countries resist the inclusion of “loss and damage” on the agenda, there could be a moral outrage that will vitiate the political environment.

The most probable scenario is that COP27 will take us inches closer to some progress on innovative financing and a mechanism to direct much-needed resources to the developing world for adaptation and renewable energy transition.

Multilateral processes do not deliver much, but they deliver some things. For me, the fact that the international community congregates in COPs to discuss climate change issues is quite an achievement. 1.5°C is not the target itself but the efforts that must be pursued towards it. Finally, developing countries, including Pakistan, while advocating for climate justice on the multilateral front, should ensure the delivery of climate justice on the domestic front too. We, in the developing world, cannot absolve ourselves of our responsibilities and ask the rich countries to take all the burden. Climate change can only be restrained in a bottom-up fashion. All of us will have to play our role in it.

The writer heads the Sustainable Development Policy Institute. He tweets @abidsuleri

COP 27: tamed expectations