Confusion, Disillusion, yet a glimmer of hope – COP27 at a glance

A gruelling final 48 hours of near-constant debate and diplomacy, saw several agreements signed and witnessed in Sharm-el-Sheikh, just not as many as were predicted. However, with several new agreements, and the reaffirmations of key targets achieved last year in Glasgow, COP27 can provide a measure of hope that greater global cooperation on this existential crisis remains achievable. 

Treating the symptoms, not the causes

“COP27 marks a small step towards climate justice but much more is needed for the planet. We have treated some of the symptoms but not cured the patient from its fever.”

This was part of the COP27 closing statement from President of the European Commission, Ursula Gertrud von der Leyen. An apt remark, President von der Leyen highlighted what will likely remain the key concern levelled at those who laboured to secure the kind of “highly ambitious carbon emission reduction agreements” deemed essential by the likes of UN Secretary-General António Guterres.

Observers from across the political, scientific and business spectrum have remarked that without swifter, bolder and more broad-ranging action on climate change, the goal of keeping global warming below 1.5C (in line with the Paris Agreement) will become increasingly challenging. Should that happen, greater feedback loops of ecological disaster become exponentially more likely. Another notable insight that came to light, was the emphasis on holding to previous commitments made at COP26 and the work done in Glasgow last year. 

Fighting tooth and nail not to lose ground

While the ‘forward steps’ on the response to climate change were fewer than hoped, key diplomatic efforts across the board were successful in making sure that we did not, as a global community, step backwards. Remarkably, despite a year of surging environmental catastrophes from Pakistan to the Caribbean, nations across the world ran the risk of rolling back on the agreements made in previous years. While they all remain in place, the need to keep the momentum going was stressed across the board.

The 1.5C Goal: Astonishingly, some countries attempted to abolish the most simple, direct and pivotal climate change goal as agreed by practically the entire global scientific community as being essential to staving off complete climate disaster. The COP26 agreement to revisit this goal and strengthen efforts to achieve – the ‘ratcheting’ agreement – was also under threat. While both remain in place, the global resolution to hit peak emissions no later than 2025 was taken out, a significant weakening of the overall goal.

Fossil Fuel Phase Downs: The ‘Phase Down of Coal’ resolution of COP26 was itself a watering down of initial plans to phase out Coal completely in the coming decade. This year, India led a broad coalition of countries to commit to a complete phase down of all fossil fuels. They were ultimately unsuccessful, and plans to eliminate fossil fuels from the global energy mix remain the same as they were at the end of the Glasgow conference.

Gas gets favourable language treatment: One of the most controversial and confusing elements of the final wording of agreements made at COP27 is the provision to boost “low-emissions energy”. This resolution is incredibly vague, perhaps deliberately so in order to make it pass, and already it is being criticised as meaning ‘all things to all people’. Low emissions can be claimed by any interested nation to include anything from genuine renewables to coal-fired power plants fitted with carbon capture solutions. Perhaps most meaningfully, this provision seems to have thrown the use of natural gas into a more favourable and acceptable light. Although gas is a hydrocarbon energy source with attendant CO2 emissions, those are significantly lower than coal or oil-based power generation. 

Loss and Damage Fund addresses a historical shortcoming

The stand-out moment of COP27 came almost right at its conclusion. After dramatic about-turns and constant behind-the-scenes negotiation, 20th November saw the historic agreement of a global fund for loss and damage caused by climate change.

The fund envisages an annual $100 billion commitment from the world’s richer (and more polluting) nations to support and compensate those poorer nations stricken by climate-related disasters. A running source of discontent from the latter and embarrassment to the former, the lack of progress on this issue of global justice was finally rectified at the eleventh hour. While nations across the world rejoiced at what looks to be a pivotal agreement in redressing historical imbalances regarding climate change burdens, it will likely be at least a year before we see how the fund will operate in reality. Long and detailed negotiations are still to be thrashed out regarding the mechanisms for filling the fund and, more pointedly, who will contribute what.

Disappointment and Determination – The Struggle Continues

As another closely watched COP conference ends, delegates and climate activists return home with a sense that this year’s efforts represent more of a collective holding of breath than a marked step forward or backward. Despite struggles to either advance or unpick the commitments made at COP26, COP27 is emblematic of just how complicated these talks are, despite the severity of the shared threat.

For now, holding on to the gains made in Glasgow can be viewed as a sign of determination for the world’s leaders to keep talking and keep inching towards our common goal. If not an outright victory, the institution of a formal loss and damage fund is another sign that the conversation is moving, perhaps not as fast as it could be, towards a mutual understanding between rich and poor nations that only a truly global response will be enough to forge a global solution to climate change.