COP27: Trying to save the planet – or at least stave off catastrophe

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Inside COP27: At the talks, trying to save the planet — or at least stave off climate catastrophe

For all the other global gatherings of the moment — the ASEAN Summit, the G-20, the first face-to-face meeting President Joe Biden has had with Chinese President Xi Jinping as president — one can make the case that nothing matters more than COP27, the latest annual convening of global leaders to assess where the planet stands in terms of the ravages of climate change and to chart a course for dealing with all those problems.

For all their importance, the COP meetings, as they are known (the acronym stands for the forgettable “Conference of the Parties”), have also been distinguished by ambitious pledges and at best an uneven record when it comes to meeting them. This year’s meeting is the 27th — hence, COP27 — and is being held at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. Grid’s Climate Reporter Dave Levitan is there to cover the conference and the various side meetings, and on Wednesday described “a sprint” among negotiators to approve the text of this year’s final agreement. Levitan, who is also the author of the book “Not a Scientist: How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent and Utterly Mangle Science,” joined Global Editor Tom Nagorski for a conversation about the conference, the hurdles negotiators face, and some of the glimmers of hope he has found for the conference attendees and perhaps for the planet as well.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Tom Nagorski: Dave, just to get us started, what’s the latest? What’s been going on there on this Wednesday?

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Dave Levitan: The latest is that we’re in a bit of a holding pattern. The way these meetings work, the second week is sort of a sprint toward a final agreement where basically, the whole world has to agree on whatever the latest statement is. This is the process through which we got the Paris Agreement in 2015. Each one of these COP meetings produces its own cover text, as they call it. These last few days tend to be a whirlwind of negotiation, a lot of them behind closed doors, and the news trickles out as it comes.

But right now, we’re still waiting on full draft texts of that agreement. And we do know there are some really contentious discussions that are happening on a few specific issues.

TN: Let’s get to one of those. When I asked you what we ought to focus on today, you said the “1.5 degree problem,” as in 1.5 degrees Celsius and the goal that we mustn’t let the world get any hotter than a degree and a half above preindustrial levels. I believe last year at the Glasgow meeting, there was a slogan coined — “Keep 1.5 alive.” How is that going?

DL: It’s definitely been the main thing that you’re hearing here — that 1.5 degree target. In the Paris Agreement, the world agreed to try and limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. There are other goals in there, but keeping the rise to 1.5 is the target, beyond which we start to see some even more catastrophic impacts. Obviously, there are plenty of catastrophic impacts already — we are at about 1.1 to 1.2 degrees of warming so far — so 1.5 is really not that far off.

But the thing that’s being discussed here this week, and it’s very contentious, is that some countries are now trying or lobbying to get that 1.5 target removed from the draft text. That’s because it’s becoming less and less likely for the world to actually achieve that goal. There are some big countries, China among them, that have apparently lobbied to get that out of the text. Other countries — the U.S., the European Union and many others — are pushing back. It’s hard to say what’s happening in the back rooms. But that is definitely what’s in the air right now. It would be an enormous bit of backsliding if we actually did see that 1.5 degree target removed from the text of the agreement that comes out of this week. We’ve heard some people say that Egypt does not want to be the country that plays host to that. If I had to guess, I’d say it’ll stay in, but it’s up in the air right now.

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TN: It sounds, in part, like a philosophical argument — as in, why should a big entity like this set goals that clearly cannot work, and why not set a more realistic goal? Is that the framing, or do you think countries are just putting their self-interest and using that as a crutch, if you will?

DL: It’s a good question. It’s hard to say. A lot of people have pointed out if we can’t do 1.5, the fallback should not be 2.0. That’s a very big difference. The fallback should be 1.51 or 1.52. Every little fraction of a degree makes a difference because these are global averages. They can result in some really big extremes. We’ve seen a lot of this in the last six months.

So from the standpoint of “why do you want to have that in the agreement?” I think it’s because it would feel like failure otherwise. It would feel like an acceptance of failure. And while I’m sure plenty of people would say the world is not doing as well as it can, it’s certainly not the kind of thing where you want to come out of this type of meeting that happens once a year and say, “Well, we failed.”

TN: Give us a reality check, then, not from a political but a scientific standpoint. Where is the world right now? What sort of trajectory are we on, relative to the 1.5 goal?

DL: We’re not doing great. We’re at around 1.1 degrees already. There were several reports and analyses that came out, either at the beginning of the COP or just before, that analyze these national pledges — the NDCs, Nationally Determined Contributions. Basically, each country determines how much emissions it will pledge to cut in what time frame and basically if you add all those up, we’re still well short of where we need to be. In fact, all those together would probably put us well past two degrees, not just past 1.5. So we’re definitely not on track.

That’s why another big theme of both last year’s meeting in Glasgow, Scotland, and this year’s meeting is increasing ambition. There was a call last year that countries should come back this year in Egypt with their NDCs updated, so that they better reflect the needs of the world. One year later, before the COP started, we were at 29 countries that had updated their NDCs. Countries can update it next week, and that’s still fine, they’re still good updates. But it does suggest that we’re just nowhere near the trajectory. It’s a bit of a dark situation.

TN: You talked earlier about the “sprint” that is going on in the hallways and negotiating rooms there. Nobody wants a headline, “Sharm el-Sheikh conference dials back from 1.5 pledge” or what have you. But what would be a headline that might be reasonable and achievable as they race toward the end of this?

DL: That’s a good question. Probably one version is just basically, “World leaders reaffirm ambition.” That would probably be considered a pretty good goal or pretty good outcome. Other than the one issue, the other thing that is very much on the table is this idea of loss and damage. The idea that rich countries pay for the damage caused because they are the primary emitters of carbon dioxide over the last 200 or so years. Before the COP started, I would say that was the main issue that was on the table. So another success would be to say the COP actually created a mechanism by which that will happen, what they call here a “facility,” in U.N. legalese. A facility for loss and damage would be considered a success. That’s also pretty tenuous right now.

TN: You’ve done a lot of reporting, deep dives on this whole question of, for lack of a better term, the rich and poor and climate change. As I recall, there was a pretty high figure, $100 billion, that had been agreed on some years ago as an annual fund to help those other nations. Is that still an aspiration? Is it real?

DL: Taking a quick step back, the overall concept here is known as climate finance, which is a very dry-sounding term. It basically is the idea of the developed world, rich countries, providing funding for various things to the developing world. Before this year, there were two main prongs to that. There was “mitigation,” meaning helping the developing world develop in a way that does not increase CO2 emissions. So, helping build a solar power plant instead of building a natural gas one. Then there’s “adaptation,” meaning funding that helps people adjust to the impacts of climate change that are already occurring.


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And then that last dividend for climate finance, for reparations — or “loss and damage” — meaning that it’s not just what’s coming but what has already happened and what is already baked into the system, no matter what happens next. The countries responsible for it, the big emitters, historically, should be on the hook for that damage. So that $100 billion annual fund that you mentioned wasn’t set up to cover loss and damage at all.

The original fund was announced in Copenhagen, Denmark. The idea was that by 2020, the developed world would provide $100 billion in funding finance, mitigation and adaptation by 2020. They have failed to deliver on that amount. There was something like $80 billion in 2019, and the pandemic, obviously, threw things into confusion after that.

But that’s outside of this conversation of loss and damage. Loss and damages need to be totally separate, and additional funds are being discussed to help developing nations pay for all these impacts that have already been felt.

TN: I want to turn to a couple of things that have surfaced that seem to be interesting examples of potential good news on the climate front. And perhaps you can handicap them for us, tell us whether we are right to take these as good news.

I’ll start with an unusual announcement from three countries that are home to some of the world’s largest rainforests — Brazil, the Congo and Indonesia. They are saying that they will form, as I understand it, a three-nation alliance to save the rainforests. How big a deal is this?

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DL: I think it is a big deal, actually. The announcement had less to do with the conference, I think, and more to do with the recent Brazilian elections. And with [President-elect Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva] winning, we have much more of a “save the Amazon” kind of attitude than his predecessor did. That’s just completely flipped Brazil’s narrative on its head. And together with the Congo and Indonesia, these countries combined make up some 52 percent of the entire world’s tropical rainforest. More than half. So it’s a pretty big deal, if it results in actual efforts to save the remaining rainforests. Because saving rainforests could be one of the most impactful things people can do.

Cutting down rainforests and burning rainforests is an enormous source of emissions. Deforestation and other land use change is really one of the biggest categories of emissions in the world. If it actually results in those three countries taking serious steps to preserve the rainforest then yes, I think it’s a great announcement.

TN: It’s an interesting case of where politics and an election, in this case in Brazil, may have been very good news for the planet.

Here’s another: On the sidelines the other day of the G-20 meetings, in Indonesia, we had Joe Biden meeting his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping. That’s a meeting that is consequential for many reasons, but among other things, the two countries announced they will resume cooperation on climate issues. It’s been an accepted wisdom that you’re not going to get very far with this problem if you don’t have cooperation and collaboration from two of the great powers on the planet and two of the great emitters. It’s just words for now, but how big a deal was that?

DL: I would say it’s a pretty big deal. The short story is that Beijing cut off cooperation on climate with the U.S. after the Nancy Pelosi visit to Taiwan earlier this year. So here in Egypt, [U.S. Climate Envoy] John Kerry, he’d been having some informal talks with his Chinese counterpart, but they couldn’t engage in formal negotiations that make up the backbone of these meetings until Biden and Xi agreed face to face.

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So I think the fact that they can come back to the table in a formal way is really big news. China is by far the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. The U.S. is the second biggest. So as you said, in order to make meaningful progress on a host of climate-change related issues, you need both of these countries at the table, and ideally at the table talking to each other instead of passing notes through other countries or some version of that.

TN: One more item — potentially — for the good news category. And it’s not really driven, I don’t think, by a desire to help the planet but, unfortunately, by the war in Ukraine. We had seen what was a snail’s-pace movement among the Europeans to wean themselves off Russian oil and gas — and now it’s become a sprint, really out of necessity. They need all the energy they can find, and that’s leading to a rush to renewables. To green energy, at least for the long term. How important is this from the global standpoint?

DL: I think it’s interesting, as several Grid reporters have written in the last several months, that the war in Ukraine is a really weird confluence of energy-related moves. Rebooting coal, but also moving to renewables. And it’s still tough to say what the long-term effects of are going to be.

At the conference, the European countries and the EU negotiators are pushing for overall promises on emissions that are relatively ambitious. They are relatively good compared to some other countries. Obviously, there’s still room for improvement, but the EU collectively has actually reduced emissions somewhat over the last decade, and renewables will certainly accelerate that. The EU is in some ways on a better track than other places. And it’s obviously a good thing when an area as big as the EU in terms of overall emissions tries to push away from fossil fuels. That will have a good result. I wouldn’t say it’s dominating the conversation here, but it’s one more good thing.

TN: What else have you picked up on in your time in Egypt that we’ve missed here? Any nuggets large or small that would leave us with reason to hope — or the opposite?

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DL: One thing I’ll say is it’s interesting walking around here, it’s almost like there are different conferences going on. There’s the one we’ve been talking about, which is the negotiations largely happening in all these meeting rooms that are basically only for the ministers and diplomats, various other negotiators here. And the news trickles out, and we hear what’s happening.

There’s also the massive area of country pavilions, [nongovernmental organization] pavilions, where there’s, I would say, almost a festive atmosphere. And they have these small events at all these little pavilions, where people talk about the country-specific needs or goals. Or they talk about some of the science that’s come out on a given topic, say, biodiversity in Indonesia. Tons of that happening for two straight weeks, and in general, the mood in these places is very positive. Everyone here is on the same page in the sense that everyone wants the same things, but that doesn’t mean that the negotiation that’s happening in the backrooms are all going to come out with some butterflies-and-rainbows kind of results. But it does feel encouraging, when you’re walking around here.

Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.

  • Dave Levitan
    Dave Levitan

    Climate Reporter

    Dave Levitan is a climate reporter for Grid where he focuses on interconnected stories about climate and science, and politics shaping action around both.

  • Tom Nagorski
    Tom Nagorski

    Global Editor

    Tom Nagorski is the global editor at Grid, where he oversees our coverage of global security, U.S.-China relations, migration trends, global economics and U.S. foreign policy.