COP27 climate talks: What happens if nothing happens?

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COP27 climate talks: What happens if nothing happens?

This special COP27 briefing originally appeared on Nov. 18 in our flagship daily newsletter, Grid Today. Sign up for it here to get the context and consequences of the news in your inbox each day.


As the country pavilions were packed up and the crowds thinned out across the grounds here on Friday, the official end of the talks, the word “deadlock” was thrown around like candy. The 6 p.m. official closing came and went with no final agreement — fulfilling what is apparently the irrepressible destiny of all COPs from now until forever and sending negotiations into the weekend.

There was, in theory, progress. One draft proposal released late on Thursday night was actually three proposals, offering up different options for the loss and damage fund to help poor and vulnerable countries that has proven to be by far the biggest sticking point in this round of U.N. climate talks.

  • Option 1: Create a loss and damage fund here in Egypt before the weekend is out
  • Option 2: Push to COP28, scheduled for a year from now in Dubai, to create the fund — but definitely create it then
  • Option 3: Push to COP28 in Dubai, but without any firm promise for one dedicated fund, instead working toward “new and enhanced funding arrangements” for loss and damage

Most countries of the world — the G-77, the Alliance of Small Island States and other groups — want option 1. They feel that the idea of loss and damage has been ignored for far too long and that pushing another year is unacceptable.

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“If it ends without agreeing on a loss and damage fund, it will be a resounding moral failure,” said Yeb Saño, executive director of Greenpeace Southeast Asia and the head of Greenpeace’s delegation here, on Friday afternoon. “That failure will be laid at the feet of blocking countries.”

Though negotiations continue, it seemed on Friday like those blocking countries, which include the U.S., prefer option 3. Meanwhile, the European Union, which negotiates as a bloc, offered up a bargain: create the fund this week, but in return require that all countries begin lowering emissions by 2025. This is likely a non-starter for some very big emitters — China, India — that have agreed to peak emissions later than that and would require some remarkably drastic action to turn things around in barely two short years.

“I have to say this is our final offer,” said EU lead negotiator Frans Timmermans, according to the Washington Post.

Muddy fossil fuel language

Some seemingly minor wording changes in the draft compared with last year’s Glasgow Climate Pact have some observers decrying what appears to be backsliding on fossil fuels. As I wrote about earlier in the COP, some countries want to update the “phasedown of unabated coal” of last year to language on the need to rid the world of all fossil fuel use, but the draft text so far does no such thing.

The coal reference remains, but this time the phasedown appears to depend on whether it would be “in line with national circumstances.” A call to “phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies” now includes the option to “rationalize” them — which certainly sounds less like a phase-out. Nikki Reisch, of the Center for International Environmental Law, criticized the use of these “loopholes and weasel words” during an event on Friday afternoon.

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Catherine Abreu, the executive director of Destination Zero, pointed out that the list of countries preferring the more inclusive “all fossil fuels” language has grown to include not just India and other developing countries but the U.S., Norway, Spain, the U.K., France and others. These rich countries, some of which are huge producers of fossil fuels themselves, are “all coming together to say that we acknowledge that meeting our climate commitments requires us to move away from fossil fuel dependence,” she said. “The success or failure of this COP really hangs in the balance.”

What happens if nothing happens?

Again, almost every COP runs long, blowing past official endpoints into the weekend, and this one will be no exception. But there is a possibility, however remote, that the parties simply cannot agree on the issues up for debate. This has in fact happened once before, in 2000.

“When something like this is killed, it is killed by an alliance of those who want too much with those who don’t want anything,” said one observer of that meeting, COP6, according to an analysis back then in the New York Times. That early version of the talks, held in The Hague in the Netherlands, failed to produce an agreement; the solution at the time was to postpone and reconvene — more than half a year later in Bonn, Germany, when an agreement was reached. By all accounts, the main culprit of this collapse was the U.S. demanding exceptions to emissions reductions goals, among other things.

This week, there has been some suggestion that the G-77 or the Alliance of Small Island States may be willing to simply walk away if the loss and damage fund is not created, but negotiators have tended to downplay the possibility.

“That’s premature,” said Pakistan Minister of Climate Change Sherry Rehman on Thursday when asked about walking out. “We are now in the weeds of negotiations. I certainly am a politician, we don’t walk out of situations, we try to work around them. I don’t think that’s going to be helpful.”

The talks will end one way or another by Monday, when I’ll be back with a wrap-up — or a eulogy.

  • 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.