The main headline from COP27: after twenty-seven years of climate negotiations, progress on actually cutting emissions is as painfully slow as ever. Meanwhile the chance of staying under 1.5C of warming is rapidly disappearing, and the impacts of climate breakdown are devastating communities around the world.
The Egyptian government saw hosting the summit as an opportunity to enhance prestige, but the international attention also shone a spotlight on its human rights abuses, with a crackdown on protesters ahead of COP27. The most powerful voice at the summit was arguably a man who who was not even in Sharm el-Sheikh, but in prison. Alaa Abd El Fattah, a British-Egyptian pro-democracy activist and writer, who has been in prison for most of the past nine years, escalated his ongoing hunger strike to stop drinking water as COP27 began.
Due to the restrictions imposed on protest in the streets of Egypt , for the first time ever, climate activists marched within the Blue Zone (governed by UN rules). Their slogan, “We have not yet been defeated” echoed the the title of Alaa Abd El Fattah’s book of essays, You Have Not Yet Been Defeated. Solidarity climate protests around the world called for the freeing of Alaa and the many other political prisoners in Egypt, that there could be no climate justice without human rights.
Loss and Damage fund finally established
COP27 did produce one big win for countries on the frontline of climate breakdown. After decades of blocking by rich nations, a loss and damage fund was agreed for countries most affected by climate change to cover devastating impacts like flooding and drought. In the run up to COP27, negotiations had been needed to even get loss and damage onto the agenda. This fund is a significant win for powerful advocacy by climate-vulnerable countries and the global climate justice movement, and one which was fought over all the way.
But the new loss and damage fund is, for now, empty. The track record of rich nations on climate finance is not encouraging. Thirteen years ago in Copenhagen, rich nations pledged to provide US$100 billion a year to less wealthy nations by 2020, to help them adapt to climate change and develop sustainably. That promise was broken, not just falling short on the total amount, but also in the substance of what has been provided, which has overwhelmingly been given as loans only, rather than grant funding.
Last year in Glasgow, the final text urged developed countries to “urgently and significantly scale up” funds provided specifically for adaptation to climate change, and to at least double adaptation funding from 2019 levels by 2025, which would take it to $40 billion (developing countries already face $70 billion a year costs for climate adaptation alone, estimated to reach $140-300bn a year by 2030). Little progress was made on this at COP27.
The challenge will be to ensure the new loss and damage fund is filled according to justice and equity. This means not loans or recycled pledges but new, public money, not through carbon markets, loans, or insurance only. There are also open questions for COP28 about who pays into the fund and who is eligible to benefits. Rich countries are pushing for the donors to include China.
A fossil fuel free for all
Extraordinarily, before the COP26 summit in 2021, there had never been any formal agreement at climate talks that the world should reduce fossil fuel use. At Glasgow a small step was taken towards this but with the final statement only saying that there should be a “phase down of unabated coal power”.
The signs for further progress at COP27 on challenging fossil fuel dependence were from the start unpromising, with 18 out of 20 sponsors having some tie to the fossil fuel industry, including the world’s top plastics polluter, Coca Cola. In the run up to the talks, the host government Egypt, and 16 other gas-exporting governments pledged to promote fossil gas as the ‘perfect solution’ to climate change and energy security. A firm well known for its lobbying work on behalf of the oil industry was hired to lead the PR for COP27. At the summit, oil and gas industries had an unprecedented 636 delegates in total, with other delegates commenting that the event sometimes felt like a fossil fuel trade fair.
In Egypt, the Indian delegation, supported by around 80 countries, argued that the COP26 call to phase down coal should be extended to all fossil fuels. But the Egyptian presidency did not include this call in any of the draft texts. Reports from closed meetings were that Saudi Arabia and Russia made any reference to oil and gas a ‘red line’, As letting all fossil fuels apart from ‘unabated coal’ off the hook, the final text also swapped references to renewable energy for language referring to “low-emission and renewable energy”, a potential loophole for gas.
Fossil fuel deals were also made on the sidelines. Rishi Sunak, who had been reluctant even to attend the summit, returned from COP27 allegedly ‘close to clinching’ a new gas deal with the US. Many African countries were also keen to use the COP as a platform to promote new oil and gas initiatives in their countries, to the alarm of African civil society. In the words of Babawale Obayanju, from Friends of the Earth Africa: “We don’t need more gas extraction in Africa, devastating our communities for the benefit of rich countries and corporations. What we needed from COP27 was agreement to a rapid, equitable phase out of all fossil fuels.”
Inadequate emissions targets leaving us on a ‘highway to climate hell’
At COP26, faced with the clear inadequacy of current national targets on emission cuts compared to what must be done to avoid catastrophic global heating, all countries agreed to “revisit and strengthen” their 2030 climate plans in the coming year. However by the deadline of 23 September this year, just 23 out of 200 countries, had submitted updated 2030 climate plans, and most of these only offered more policy detail rather than strengthening headline targets.
The IPCC’s 2018 report indicated that CO2 emissions would need to be cut by at least 45% by 2030, compared to 2010 to avoid the worst impacts of climate breakdown. But the UN’s analysis of current pledges found that even if they were all met, emissions would still increase by 10% by 2030, compared to 2010. Antonio Guterres, Secretary General of the UN, opened COP27 by warning “We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot still on the accelerator.”
Alok Sharma, outgoing President of COP26, criticised the lack of progress on emissions cuts at COP27 in his final speech. Critics argued that he would do better to focus on his own government’s plans to expand oil and gas drilling and the UK’s failure to match climate targets with policies to meet them, and that this was a typical example of rich nations deflecting responsibility for the clmate crisis.
Carbon trading dangers
Article 6 of the Paris agreement concerns carbon trading, a highly contentious area because of the danger that it can be used to hide, rather than cut, emissions and the negative consequences of some offsetting projects for the environment and human rights. A briefing issued ahead of COP27 on carbon markets and false solutions gives a sense of the complexity and high risk of harm.
COP27 was supposed to determine the definition of carbon “removals” for the purpose of carbon markets. However the recommendations submitted were clearly inadequate in environmental and human rights safeguarding, so these were knocked back for further consideration, and will be on the table at next year’s COP28.
One thing which was agreed at COP27, worryingly, was that in bilateral carbon trading between two countries, they can keep any of the details they wish confidential, avoiding all scrutiny – opening the door to secret carbon market deals between countries with little oversight.
In an attempt to reduce double counting of emissions, a new category of credits was created. Carbon credits bought by a company or country to count towards their own targets mean the host country for the project should adjust its own measurements for emissions cuts. “Mitigation contributions” however, can be paid for by a company but they remain attributed to the host country and should not be used as an offset.
We have not been defeated
The UN climate negotiations are protracted and arcane. In large part this is because they are tied in knots avoiding the simple fact: to avoid catastrophe we all need to keep fossil fuels in the ground, and those nations with historical responsibility for the climate crisis should lead the way.
A simple fact that the UK government also ignores with its plans to expand oil and gas drilling, their refusal to invest in insulating homes or to tax oil companies’ excess profits. In challenging their hypocrisy and campaigning here in the UK, we stand in solidarity with those around the world on the frontline of climate change, in those countries which have done least to cause the crisis and are suffering most.
The clearest message that remains with us from COP27? There is no climate justice without human rights.
Photo via FoE International