High hopes, but low expectations on eve of U.N. climate change conference

View of a COP27 sign on the road leading to the conference area in Egypt's Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh town as the city prepares to host the COP27 summit next month, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt October 20, 2022. (Sayed Sheasha/Reuters)
A COP27 sign on the road leading to Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Oct. 20, 2022. (Sayed Sheasha/Reuters)

As representatives of the world’s nations prepare to meet Sunday for the first day of the latest United Nations Climate Change Conference, experts are skeptical that new national actions sufficient to avert catastrophic climate change will be announced during the two-week event.

“I think not likely, for COP27,” Jake Schmidt, who runs the international climate program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Yahoo News about the chance that major greenhouse gas emitters such as China will announce plans at the conference, which is known as COP27, to cut emissions this decade by enough to keep average temperature rise from exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius. “This COP is mostly going to be delivering further actions on the commitments that countries have made, with a little bit on some other countries stepping up.”

Global climate leaders are nonetheless urging nations to increase their pledges to cut emissions and to commit to upping financing for poorer countries to help them reduce emissions and adapt to the consequences of climate change.

“COP27 must be the place to rebuild trust and reestablish the ambition needed to avoid driving our planet over the climate cliff,” said U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said in remarks at U.N. headquarters in New York City on Thursday. “Instead of going down 45% by 2030, as scientists tell us must happen, greenhouse gas emissions are now on course to rise by 10%. Meanwhile, temperatures are on course to rise by as much as 2.8 degrees, with the present policies in place, by the end of the century.”

In order to close the gap between ambition and action, Guterres said the upcoming conference “must put us back on track to cutting emissions, boosting climate resilience and adaptation, keeping the promise on climate finance and addressing loss and damage from climate change.”

But the political environment for meeting those goals has grown even more challenging since last year’s U.N. conference in Glasgow, Scotland, where world leaders reached an accord that laid the groundwork for the most significant new targets since the Paris agreement was adopted in 2015.

Only 24 of the 193 countries that were party to the Glasgow agreement have updated their nationally determined contributions, referred to as NDCs, since the Glasgow climate pact was signed last November. As a result, according to the NDC synthesis report released last week by the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, emissions that were projected to rise 13.7% by 2030 are now expected to rise 10.6% by that same year. The IPCC, meanwhile, has calculated that emissions must drop by half by the end of the decade if the world hopes to keep temperatures from exceeding the 1.5C threshold.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres. (Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The prospect that nations would significantly strengthen their emissions targets just one year after making last year’s pledges was always seen as less than realistic, and world events have conspired to make that idea even harder.

The first blow was struck in the Senate in December, when opposition from Republicans and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., blocked passage of President Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan that was projected to set the United States on course to cut its emissions in half by the end of this decade, as the U.S. had promised to do in the Paris Agreement. The eventual passage of a scaled-down bill known as the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), however, is expected to help cut U.S. emissions by 40% by 2030. While the passage of the first major climate bill in the United States — the world’s second-largest emitter after China — will give the Biden administration some credibility at COP27, it is hardly in a position to credibly promise even bigger emissions cuts than the ones it is already at risk of failing to fulfill.

That is likely to be all the more apparent by the third day of the conference, which coincides with the midterm elections in the U.S. Republicans are favored to win control of at least one chamber of Congress, and GOP congressional leaders have run on an agenda of slashing government spending and increasing fossil fuel production. They very well may use their new power to defund some of the Inflation Reduction Act’s climate provisions, further imperiling U.S. commitments to reducing emissions.

World leaders convene at COP26, Nov. 3, 2021, in Glasgow, Scotland
World leaders convene at COP26, Nov. 3, 2021, in Glasgow, Scotland. (Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

The next major challenge for COP27 emerged in February, when Russia invaded Ukraine. Russia is a major producer of oil and gas, and the supply disruptions caused by the war and its resulting economic sanctions on Russia by the West have exacerbated high oil and gas prices globally and forced some European countries to return to burning coal, by far the worst fuel source in terms of emissions. With Russia having cut off deliveries of natural gas, some European governments are now considering increasing their own oil and gas drilling and have looked to countries like the U.S. and those in West Africa to make up for shortfalls.

In terms of meeting emissions goals, those actions will be problematic, especially if Europe imports significantly more liquefied natural gas, or LNG. A new analysis by Norwegian research firm Rystad Energy, reported by the BBC, finds LNG has 10 times the carbon footprint of piped gas due to the energy needed to freeze gas, ship it across the ocean and then heat it up again. But there has also been a potential silver lining for climate change from the war in Ukraine, as Europe, in its desire to wean itself off of Russian gas, has also redoubled efforts to transition to renewable sources of energy.

The Russia-Ukraine war has also gobbled up attention and financial resources in the West, as supporting Ukraine and stopping Russian aggression has become the top priority for Europe and North America. To provide sufficient financing for climate change mitigation and adaptation for developing countries requires that those same wealthy western nations funding Ukraine’s military effort increase their financial contributions. (Increasing climate finance, like reducing emissions, will also be even harder in the U.S. if Republicans gain control of the House or Senate.)

The need for climate adaptation funds in the developing world is growing every year as extreme weather events become more frequent and severe. For instance, Pakistan was submerged in floods in late July, causing mass displacement, a surge in waterborne diseases and leaving behind an estimated $30 billion in economic losses. In October, the European Union pledged assistance of 30 million euros ($29.57 million) while Guterres pleaded with the international community for $816 million. Meanwhile, in East Africa, a drought intensified by global warming is contributing to widespread food insecurity and a potential famine affecting the lives of millions of people.

Sen. Joe Manchin
Sen. Joe Manchin. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

On Thursday, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released a report that found a growing disparity between what developing countries need to adapt to climate change and what they are getting. “International adaptation finance flows to developing countries are 5-10 times below estimated needs and the gap continues to widen,” the report stated.

In the 2009 Copenhagen accord, a precursor to the 2015 Paris Agreement and the Glasgow climate pact, developed countries pledged to mobilize $100 billion in climate funding annually by 2020, half which would be for adaptation measures. That funding has lagged, especially on adaptation. In 2020, it only reached $83 billion, of which only $29 billion was for adaptation.

That shortfall is expected to be a sticking point in negotiations between developing countries and developed countries over the next two weeks at the U.N. conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, as developing countries have historically resisted making stronger commitments to emissions reductions unless their funding needs are met.

“The U.S. has not put on the table the kind of climate finance that is credible for such a large economy and that is so central to helping the rest of the world cope with the impacts of climate change, but also speed up the transition [to clean energy],” Schmidt said.

In addition, developing countries and climate justice activists want COP27 to come up with a mechanism for collecting reparations — known as “loss and damage” in climate diplomacy-speak. As poorer countries already are suffering the worst consequences of climate change, some of which will not be preventable by any adaptation measures, they are calling on wealthier countries, which got rich in part by burning fossil fuels, to pay them for the damage caused. Guterres has asked for loss and damage to be on the agenda at COP27, but historically this has been a red line that the United States has not been willing to cross.

“The number one thing we are pushing for at COP27 is for the U.S. to stop blocking loss and damage,” Rev. Dallas Conyers, justice, equity, diversity and inclusion manager at the Southeast Climate and Energy Network, told Yahoo News. “Please stop actively blocking this topic from being developed by other countries that have recognized that people are living in climate catastrophe right now.”

Destroyed Russian armored vehicles line the street in Bucha, west of Kyiv, on March 4
Destroyed Russian armored vehicles line the street in Bucha, west of Kyiv, on March 4. (Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images)

Other tensions between key nations are also already flaring. Cooperation between the U.S. and China is essential to climate diplomacy, but the two nations are at loggerheads over a host of issues, including China’s desire to reclaim sovereignty over Taiwan.

Climate activists also worry that by choosing Egypt, a country with a record of human rights violations, to host the COP 27, dialog will be limited. Renowned climate activist Greta Thunberg said last week that she won’t attend the conference because of its location. "The space for civil society is going to be extremely limited," she said. “It’s important to leave space for those who need to be there. It will be difficult for activists to make their voices heard."

Last month, the U.N. issued a statement decrying Egypt’s preemptive suppression of climate activists, citing “a lack of information and transparent accreditation criteria for Egyptian NGOs, a coordinated increase in hotel room rates, undue restrictions to freedom of peaceful assembly outside the COP27 venue, and unjustified delays in the provision of visas to those traveling from abroad.”

Guests enter the convention center hosting the COP27 U.N. Climate Summit, Friday, Nov. 4, 2022, prior to the start of the summit on Nov. 6, which is scheduled to end on Nov. 18, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. (Peter Dejong/AP Photo)
Guests enter the convention center hosting the COP27 U.N. Climate Summit, Friday, Nov. 4, 2022 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. (Peter Dejong/AP Photo)

Nonetheless, there are a few rays of sunshine peeking through the clouds that loom over COP27. Recent election results in Australia and Brazil have ushered in new governments that support much bolder climate action than the ones they have replaced. Australia has increased the strength of its NDC and Brazil’s president-elect has said he will do the same. The prospects of a strong outcome at COP27 would have been even worse had Congress not passed the Inflation Reduction Act, and experts such as Schmidt say that nations will have good news to share about the policies they are adopting to limit emissions even if they aren’t changing their NDCs yet.

The U.S. is certainly not giving up on getting more progress out of COP27. It will be sending four Cabinet officials to Sharm el-Sheikh: Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. Biden will be addressing the conference in person on Nov. 11.

Ever hopeful, Guterres closed his remarks Thursday with a call for more nations to step up with funding and emissions reductions commitments.

“COP27 must lay the foundations for much faster, bolder climate action now and in this crucial decade, when the global climate fight will be won or lost,” he said. “We need all nations and all people on board in these make-or-break next years, starting at COP27.”