Overview:

COP27 is over. What new intel do we now have to keep pressure on regional officials, and to try to correct for its many failures and setbacks?

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From November 6 to 20, world leaders and representatives met for the 27th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP27), held this year in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. The conference started and ended late due to reluctance around one key initiative: the topic of loss and damage for vulnerable countries hit by climate change events accelerated by more developed countries. The establishment of a global fund to address this issue was widely reported as COP27’s most notable achievement, which is deeply unfortunate for a number of reasons—all of which attest to the work that remains to be done, and our impoverished capacity to do it.

READ: COP27 Climate Conference: The change we need vs. the change we’ll get

Some exceptionally important data points emerged in COP27, and there are promising initiatives with pilot projects and working goals that merit our attention. However, far too much hinges on two limiting factors. One is our global follow-through on the financial investments needed to implement effective climate change mitigation, adaptation, and reduction goals within our ever-tightening window. The other is our global follow-through on transforming the worst of our current emissions economies to date.

Simply put, the world’s worst emitters have not done enough to decarbonize, and the world’s most affluent polluters have not done enough to contribute to financing. To say that we’re in deep peril of failing to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels is an understatement. As COP27 President-Disgnate Sameh Shoukry noted prior to the conference, the synthesis report of country standings coming into COP27 was “a testimony to the fact that we are off-track on achieving the Paris Climate Goal and keeping the 1.5 degrees [target] within reach.”

This year’s Emissions Gap Report went one further, stating that we have “no credible pathway to 1.5 degrees Celsius in place”, and are currently on track for 2.8 degrees by 2100.

Due to our failure to act more comprehensively to date, we now need to get greenhouse gas emissions down 43 percent by 2030, relative to 2019 levels, to have any chance at all of mitigating our current disaster. This goal amounts to the need for a rapid and widespread transformation in our marketplaces⁠—and yes, that includes a cultural shift, even though only Working Group II for this year’s major climate change report, the IPCC Sixth Assessment, even began incorporating degrowth (i.e., the de-prioritization of rising GDP as the primary metric of human wellbeing, to create space for societies predicated on less carbon-costly activities), as a key component of climate change mitigation strategies.

We also now know that we need around 4 trillion USD per year invested in renewable energy before 2030, if we’re going to reach net zero emissions by 2050. And for a full transition to a low-carbon global economy? 4 to 6 trillion per year.

It’s not a complete loss whenever policy wonks, industry reps, and governmental figures gather to exchange ideas around climate change. But the benefits from such conferences lie in how much pressure we’re willing to apply to and around their actors after initial proceedings.

Parsing the legalese

It can be difficult, though, to sift through a body of procedural work that comes with fancy subcommittee names and initiative announcements, declarations and promises of new coalitions and goals, to ascertain what has actually changed in the course of these meetings. What emerges from such UN conferences is a group of draft decisions, none of which have the full force of law, but which different nation-state parties still fight tooth and nail to see use less (or more) binding language so as not to over-commit themselves.

Consider the following segment from the Advance Unedited Version (AUV) of this year’s implementation plan. In it, the Conference of the Parties

  1. Calls upon Parties to accelerate the development, deployment and dissemination of technologies, and the adoption of policies, to transition towards low-emission energy systems, including by rapidly scaling up the deployment of clean power generation and energy efficiency measures, including accelerating efforts towards the phasedown of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, while providing targeted support to the poorest and most vulnerable in line with national circumstances and recognizing the need for support towards a just transition;
  2. Reiterates its invitation to Parties to consider further actions to reduce by 2030 noncarbon dioxide greenhouse gas emissions, including methane;
  3. Emphasizes the importance of protecting, conserving and restoring nature and
    ecosystems to achieve the Paris Agreement temperature goal, including through forests and other terrestrial and marine ecosystems acting as sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gases and by protecting biodiversity, while ensuring social and environmental safeguards;
  4. Recognizes the importance of maximizing the positive and minimizing the negative economic and social impacts of the implementation of response measures, and welcomes the adoption of decisions -/CP.27, -/CMP.2710 and -/ CMA.4.

Item 13 is one clear mark of failure for COP27. The failure becomes clearer when one recognizes this line item as the same as Item 36 in COP26’s decision, the Glasgow Climate Pact. That year, the conference lost its struggle to include the term “phase-out” instead of “phasedown” for unabated coal power, due in large part to pressure from China and India. This year, despite the grave state of all our global indicators around climate change, major polluters still fought hard not to commit to a complete phase-out of coal technologies within our critical timeline for keeping overall temperature increases low in this century.

READ: Latest greenhouse gas stats show COVID impact and challenges ahead

Item 14 also highlights how limited these pacts are in their ability to direct global action. Conference parties can invite countries to consider actions, but even with grim deadlines for quantifiable change, especially around greenhouse gases as critical as methane, their implementation relies on the will of individual countries to take the matter seriously.

The trust system and developed country funding

Therein lies the complicating factor, too, for the most prominently reported “win” of COP27: follow-through on that promise of funding for the loss and damage initiative.

Developed countries entered COP27 in arrears, having failed to meet their 2015 Paris Agreement goal of 100 billion USD in annual contributions to global climate fund initiatives by 2020. Maybe because they were too busy putting that money to work reducing emissions in their own, worst-offending economic sectors? Not really: this year’s Global Stocktake of national progress toward Paris Agreement metrics showed that, while some countries are “bending the curve” toward better outcomes, most still need to halve their emissions by 2030 in order to meet original goals.

(And we’re not even going to get into how Russian lobbyists attempted to use this conference to barter for sanctions relief in the middle of Putin’s war. There are too many levels of bad faith actor here to cover effectively all at once.)

Financial figures shared in COP27, with respect to the global investment required to help all countries meet their transformational goals, don’t particularly instill confidence in the wake of this past financial negligence. Neither does Item 31 on the AUV, which

[a]lso highlights that delivering such funding will require a transformation of the
financial system and its structures and processes, engaging governments, central banks, commercial banks, institutional investors and other financial actors.

(In short, admitting that the capacity and will to change are not yet effectively developed and mobilized on the international banking stage, to ensure the delivery of financial support in a timely fashion even if individual nations can be moved to put up the funding at all.)

Developed countries also committed to mobilizing 100 billion between 2020 and 2025, and the EU renewed related pledges this year, primarily in the form of grants that will make up nearly a quarter of the overall ask. But the proof of their stated commitment (to say nothing of the rest of the world’s financial giants) will only emerge in follow-through.

And that goes doubly so for this loss and damage fund, the supposed crown jewel of COP27, which could come with a price tag of anywhere from 160 to 340 billion USD by 2030. Despite broader media acclaim for this formal concession at the tail end of conference proceedings, even the UN’s own press pages paint a more sobering picture of what actually transpired. Yes, the conference saw leaders agree to start such a fund for the countries most susceptible to climate change disasters. But also,

[w]hile the negotiated text recognized the need for financial support from a variety of sources, no decisions have been made on who should pay into the fund, where this money will come from and which countries will benefit. The issue has been one of the most contentious on the negotiating table.

“COP27 ends with announcement of historic loss and damage fund”, UNEP

Notably, too, this is not the first time that the international community has attempted to tackle the issue of loss and damage. The Santiago Network was established in 2019, during COP25, to provide the technical support required to match funding agencies with communities in need in the aftermath of climate crises. Since then? The team at Carbon Brief perhaps put it best when describing the network as having “largely languished as a mere website set up by the UNFCCC, although last year in Glasgow some initial money was pledged to get it off the ground”.

Gee, that sounds familiar.

So what tools did COP27 actually provide?

It’s not a complete loss whenever policy wonks, industry reps, and governmental figures gather (this year, with pavilions for youth, Indigenous, and gender issues as well) to exchange ideas around climate change. But the benefits from such conferences lie in how much pressure we’re willing to apply to and around their actors after initial proceedings.

In particular, COP27 gave us the names of many active working groups we need to be uplifting and monitoring in the years ahead. And that’s not nothing: empowering ourselves with key names, concrete goals, and quantitative intel gives us the means to write to our politicians, pressure our local media, and shift the conversation in immediate communities.

In the US, folks should especially mark the work of the First Movers Coalition, which expanded its membership this year to include ETEX, General Motors, PepsiCo, and Rio Tinto, among others, to accelerate industrial decarbonization projects. The coalition committed 12 billion USD to commercializing zero-carbon technology for two of our worst emitting sectors, heavy industry and long-distance transport, which together account for 30 percent of global emissions. It also launched campaigns targeting the cement and concrete sector for at least 10 percent near-zero carbon by 2030.

Also of note, in Houston, Texas and Los Angeles, California, are commitments to scale decarbonization projects by The Mission Possible Partnership, which set 2030 milestones for seven “hard-to-abate” industrial and transport sectors, with the endorsement of over 200 industrial companies. These projects will shape the “next wave of green industrial clusters”, via trucking powered by batteries or hydrogen fuel cells (“zero tailpipe”), retrofitted “sustainable aviation” fuel plants, deep-water net zero shipping, and “green steel” plants.

COP27 also saw the formalization of a $3.1 billion USD plan for an early warning system in the next five years. This is both low hanging fruit in the climate change policy spectrum, and also extremely important, because reaching humans around the world with news of emerging climate events is a prevention measure that cuts overall costs, saves lives, and habituates humans to better data-sharing practices on a global scale. It’s a network that’s relatively cheap to produce, but with significant qualitative and quantitative benefits for how we view ourselves as a globally integrated species.

COP27, and what comes next

When faced with the sheer callousness of many high-emitting industries, along with the inefficacy and ineptitude of many human organizational systems to date, it’s easy to dismiss conferences like COP27. In light of the Herculean labor needed to mitigate the impact of all three, the inclination to suggest that these meetings are useless is understandable.

But they aren’t useless. At bare minimum, they’re very good litmus tests for the state of our financial and governing structures. The sheer transparency they provide, with respect to good and bad faith actors, also offers critical intel for determining how to go forward as individuals, and within the global-local communities where we have the most agency.

So rather than dismiss or despair, let’s look unflinchingly at the hard reality that our species is collectively failing to prevent even worse outcomes from ongoing climate change.

What can and what will we do now, to mitigate that hard fact’s impact closer to home?

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GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.