COP27 keeps hope alive to address climate change — barely

As I queued for an hour-long wait to pass through security at the COP27 venue in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, I was shocked by the silence. Every COP I’ve previously attended hosted a raucous crowd of demonstrators hoisting signs and screaming messages to attendees headed into the secured UN zone. Not so this year!

Leading up to COP27, civil rights groups decried restrictions imposed by the Egyptian government that limited participation of activists and disenfranchised groups. Since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi took power in a 2013 coup, the government has become increasingly authoritarian. Political opposition is virtually nonexistent, and freedom of assembly is tightly restricted. At COP27, a special demonstration zone was reportedly set up at a site far removed from the venue. A UN Human Rights report released just prior to COP27 raised fears of reprisals against activists. The Egyptian government reportedly used security as a pretext to undermine civil society’s participation at Sharm El-Sheikh. Egypt ranks lowest on civil liberties of any country that has previously hosted a COP.

COP27 had been dubbed “The Implementation COP”, meaning this COP was charged with figuring out how to implement actions on the ambitious goals set the previous year at COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland. These actions primarily circle around money — willingness to pay for climate catastrophes and to surrender greed for “seemingly” cheap fossil fuels. Note: fossil fuels are only cheap in today’s dollars if you discount the present and future costs associated with climate disruption.

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Inside the venue, negotiations over the future of our planet were tense and confrontational. I will pick up this story near the closing hours of the summit that witnessed a breakdown in trust between the Global North and the Global South. In brief, vulnerable countries suffering the most from climate disasters demand “Loss and Damage” payments from the countries who became wealthy through consumption of fossil fuels — the root cause of our climate emergency. Wealthy nations resisted “Loss and Damage” because it could make them liable for future costs.

The intensity of these negotiations can be illustrated through profiling the disparate interests of just three Parties: Tuvalu, China, and the European Union.

Tuvalu, an island nation in the Pacific, has called on the UN to negotiate a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty to phase out fossil fuels. Tuvalu, along with its sister island nations, will disappear beneath rising sea levels if our planetary fever surpasses 1.5oC above pre-industrial temperatures. Our fever has already risen 1.1oC. Time and policies are not on their side!

China is a member of the G77 developing countries in the Global South calling on the Global North to finance Loss and Damage. China is also a member of the G20 composed of the world’s largest economies who are expected to pony up the funds. However, China claims exclusion from Loss and Damage liability because it was not listed as a developed economy when it signed the initial UNFCCC climate treaty 30 years ago. China is currently the second largest economy in the world and the largest greenhouse gas emitter.

The EU states that we cannot look at the world as it was in 1992. Developing countries are different now than they were 30 years ago. The EU and other wealthy countries expect now-developed economies such as China to contribute money, not to cop out through language under the original UNFCCC.

Whew! Negotiations are challenging. And, all 198 Parties to the UNFCCC must agree, not just 3 countries!

Negotiators wrangled past the Friday evening closing hours of COP27 into the wee hours of Sunday morning (Nov. 20) before they could agree on the final text — but few were satisfied. Parties finally agreed to recognize Loss and Damage and to establish a fund with details to be worked out over the coming year. This is a historic achievement that had been sought for 30 years and is the most notable positive outcome of COP27.

Regarding fossil fuels, the final text retained the same language as the previous year’s climate pact. Parties agreed to accelerate “efforts towards the phasedown of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.” This is considered a failure by all climate-vulnerable nations. “Unabated coal power” means coal power that does not use technologies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. This language allows coal-dependent countries to continue burning coal, provided they employ technologies to capture some of the emissions. And, fossil fuel producing nations can continue subsidizing the extraction of oil and coal provided they mine it with efficient subsidies. To the dismay of vulnerable nations, this language does little to keep carbon in the ground. The previous three decades have shown us that we cannot arrest the relentless rise of CO2 in our atmosphere by trying to reduce emissions at the smokestack.

Only 22 nations arrived at COP27 with new pledges to reduce their carbon emissions—known as Nationally Determined Contributions or “NDCs”. The foremost priority of countries facing an existential threat due to climate change is to “keep 1.5 alive”! Current NDC pledges could keep us close to the globally agreed aim of staying below 2oC. However, actual policies put us on a path of +2.7oC by 2100.

The Sharm el-Sheikh Implementation Plan “resolves to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5oC.” The Plan recognizes that this “requires rapid, deep and sustained reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions.” The plan therefore keeps 1.5 alive, but our planet is clearly already on life support.

COP26 last year was proclaimed “our last, best hope” for preventing the worst impacts of climate change. We blinked and punted that hope to COP27. Once again, we punted the required “rapid, deep and sustained reductions” to COP28, destined for the United Arab Emirates in November 2023.

We need action now. Contact your legislators. Demand a just transition to a zero fossil fuel energy future. Support businesses with robust climate commitments. You can be part of the climate solution.

Keith E. Peterman is professor emeritus of the Chemistry Department at York College of Pennsylvania.

This article originally appeared on York Daily Record: COP27 keeps hope alive to address climate change — barely