The COP27 climate talks went to overtime. Did they deliver?

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The COP27 climate talks went to overtime. Did they deliver?

SHARM EL-SHEIKH, EGYPT — The mood was grim on Saturday afternoon. The United Nations climate talks, known as COP27, had already shot past their theoretical Friday evening deadline. The latest available draft of an agreement still contained only placeholders on some of the most pressing issues, most notably the creation of a fund for climate change loss and damage, the term for compensation to developing countries for the devastating climate impacts. Some major players, including the European Union, threatened to walk away from the negotiating table.

“From what I ascertain, there is equal dissatisfaction in all quarters,” said Sameh Shoukry, Egypt’s minister of foreign affairs and president of COP27, during a news conference that day. “The issue now rests with the will of the parties.”

But as has happened virtually each year at these talks, a late-night, overtime agreement did eventually emerge from the rubble of two weeks of negotiation. Talks stretched through the night into Sunday, but finally all parties agreed to the somewhat dryly named Sharm el-Sheikh Implementation Plan. While some aspects of the final text offered cause for celebration, primarily the establishment of a loss and damage fund, others left the world much where it was before — in a spiraling climate emergency without a clear path to meeting goals set forth in the Paris Agreement seven years ago.

Crucially, the new agreement makes no progress at all on eliminating fossil fuels from the global energy mix, an obvious imperative over the coming decades to actually achieve the world’s midcentury net-zero ambitions.

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“Though it makes some important advances, the final COP27 decision falls well short of what the science shows is needed,” said Rachel Cleetus, policy director for the climate and energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, in a statement. “The global emissions trajectory is dangerously off course from where it must be to keep the global average temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius [2.7 degrees Fahrenheit] above pre-industrial levels and countries’ current emission reduction commitments are nowhere near sufficient.”

From new agenda item to new dedicated fund

The issue of loss and damage dominated the final week of COP27. The idea stems from the fact that the developing world has contributed very little, historically, to the emissions that are causing climate change and its attendant devastating impacts. There is now widespread consensus that they deserve what amounts to reparations from the perpetrators — rich countries.

The concept has been in the air for three decades but gained steam as a realistic possibility only since COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, last year. When the talks in Egypt started two weeks ago, loss and damage was accepted as an official agenda item for the first time. Simply getting it on the agenda, though, was not a victory — developing countries and activists made clear that only officially establishing a loss and damage fund, even if the details of money flows and other logistics come later, would constitute success at COP27.

“If it ends without agreeing on a loss and damage fund, it will be a resounding moral failure,” said Greenpeace Southeast Asia Executive Director Yeb Saño on Friday.

Several major countries, the U.S. chief among them, spent much of the negotiations blocking such a fund. Though American negotiators, including special climate envoy John Kerry, expressed support for the general concept of loss and damage, the obvious political difficulty the U.S. would have in actually appropriating climate reparations for other countries made it a difficult ask. But by late on Saturday night, that dam had apparently broken.

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The new agreement establishes a loss and damage fund, as well as a “transitional committee” that will meet to hammer out some of the details of the fund’s “operationalization.” That committee’s work, which includes “identifying and expanding sources of funding,” will in theory be discussed and adopted at next year’s gathering, COP28 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

“At the beginning of these talks loss and damage was not even on the agenda and now we are making history,” said Mohamed Adow, the director of Power Shift Africa, in a statement. “It just shows that this UN process can achieve results, and that the world can recognize the plight of the vulnerable must not be treated as a political football.”

Stagnation on fossil fuels

Last year’s Glasgow Climate Pact made history by calling for a “phasedown of unabated coal” as well as a phaseout of “inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.” This year, there was hope from the start that such language could be expanded and strengthened; India in particular, followed by other countries including the U.S. and the European Union, began pushing for language on phasing down all fossil fuels rather than just coal.

In the end, though, nothing changed: The paragraph on coal and fossil fuel subsidies is word-for-word the same in this year’s agreement as it was in last year’s. Meanwhile, an analysis released last week at the talks found that greenhouse gas emissions are set to rise this year, driven in part by greater use of coal and other fossil fuels.

“Countries’ refusal to phase out all fossil fuels undermines any shot we have to limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius,” Jean Su, the Center for Biological Diversity’s energy justice director, told Grid on Sunday morning. “Science is crystal clear that any new fossil fuel development is incompatible with the 1.5 degree target, yet world leaders continue to deny science and condemn the planet to an unlivable future.”

The lack of progress on fossil fuels is difficult to separate from an outsized industry presence in Sharm el-Sheikh, which Grid reported on last week. A report from Global Witness and partners found that more than 600 people with ties to fossil fuel companies were in attendance at COP27, an increase of more than 100 from the previous year.

Alex Scott, a program leader with climate think tank E3G, told Grid that the High Ambition Coalition, a group founded by the Marshall Islands in 2015, made a late push for a stronger commitment on a fossil fuel phaseout.

“But leaving it to the final hours of negotiation after multiple late-night rounds meant they couldn’t overcome the objection of a few petro-state laggards,” she said.

There is now a clear directive to increase the ambition of countries’ climate goals over the next year. In a potential bright spot, India took over the presidency of the G-20 on Wednesday, and the world’s third-largest emitter was among those pushing for the overall fossil fuel phasedown; it could use its central position on the world stage to further that goal. On the other hand, next year’s COP will be hosted by the United Arab Emirates, a top-10 producer globally of both oil and natural gas.

“COP28 will exponentially magnify the need for the immediate fossil fuel phaseout because it will be held in a top petrol state,” Su said. “With major oil and gas producers like the U.S., Australia and Canada supporting phasedown language at this COP, we are seeing the pressure of civil society and all climate-frontline communities bear fruit, and we will keep fighting the fossil fuel industry until its demise.”

Thanks to Lillian Barkley 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.