November 24, 2022
In typical COP fashion, world governments seized a last-minute agreement on Sunday in summit overtime, including a breakthrough on the loss and damage agenda.
However, welcome as the new deal is, this was a summit that took one step forward and two steps backward on the overall goal to raise climate action ambition, with the 1.5 degrees Celsius global warming limit agreed in Paris in 2015 now in increasing peril. With the need for much greater results, COP27 has therefore increased calls for fundamental reform of the UN-led climate framework process, which may no longer be fit for purpose.
Disappointing as the overall results of the Egypt event were, the loss and damage outcome was a significant success. The Global South has generally welcomed the move to help developing countries with the damaging impact of rising global temperatures, including extreme flooding, storms, drought and rising sea levels, as they have contributed little to the pollution that caused it.
However, the wider, overarching deal agreed on Sunday after tense, overrunning negotiations offered little progress on cutting the greenhouse gases that actually drive loss and damage. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Sunday: “Let’s be clear. Our planet is still in the emergency room. We need to drastically reduce emissions now, and this is a problem that this COP did not address. A loss and damage fund is essential, but it is not an answer if the climate crisis wipes a small island state off the map or turns an entire African country into a desert … the world still needs a quantum leap in climate ambition.”
The thrust of Guterres’ remarks is entirely right and a key question now is how best to start advancing the agenda for COP28 in the UAE next year. There are several answers to the question, including that negotiations should be started now, with all countries prepared to get a clear agreement in 12 months’ time. This must include pushing key countries to increase their ambition and submit improved pledges so there is a chance of sticking to the 1.5 C limit by focusing on phasing out fossil fuels.
An increasing number of stakeholders believe that only profound changes to our economy and society can avoid the worst-case scenarios
Going forward, however, there is a growing question mark over the future of the COPs themselves and whether they are the most effective way to advance the global climate agenda. More than 30,000 people attended COP27 in Egypt and there are calls for a leaner, more focused forum to address the key issues in hand in the remaining years of what US President Joe Biden has called the “decisive decade.”
There is merit in the UN, and key governments from the Global North and Global South, now considering this issue. The alternative is a type of “Groundhog Day” scenario, reflecting the 1993 hit movie based around the lead character, played by Bill Murray, being caught in a time loop, repeatedly living the same day. In much the same way, there is a danger that the COPs continue to make only incremental progress when what is needed is transformational change. An increasing number of stakeholders believe that only profound changes to our economy and society can avoid the worst-case scenarios.
With the world currently on course for disastrous warming of more than 3 C, this pathway can still be changed through proactive, concerted global action. This includes the world’s very best diplomats taking greater charge and governments throwing their full weight behind delivering stronger outcomes.
It is no coincidence that the most effective COP was in 2015, when France staged the most well-organized event, reaching out to nations up to a year in advance. This included then-Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius showing the full range of his diplomatic skills to ensure the conference’s success.
Even if profound change were to happen, however, at least one other geopolitical requirement is needed. That is for the US and China, as the two most influential players in world politics today, to double down on their climate cooperation, which was thankfully restated earlier this month at the G20 Summit in Indonesia following the bilateral meeting between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
With the US and China now all-powerful on the climate agenda, their cooperation is essential if the pace of climate action ambition and delivery is to be realized. This is not inconceivable, given that tackling global warming is a key political priority for both Biden and Xi, and it is sometimes forgotten that a key precursor to the Paris deal in 2015 was a bilateral agreement in this area.
However, now is the time for all key countries, not just the US and China, to step up to the plate and urgently get around the negotiating table with hosts the UAE so that momentum can build well ahead of COP28. Moreover, the UN and other key actors need to assess the medium-term viability of the COP process and examine how a leaner, more focused forum might address the massive challenges of global climate action in the coming years.
- Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.
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