Commentary: COP27 marathon summit fails to address the most fundamental questions
A historic deal was made at COP27, but there was little tangible progress on multiple other items, says CNA's climate change correspondent Jack Board.
SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt: As the clock ticked down on the final hours of the annual United Nations climate change summit COP27, the scenes at the Sharm el-Sheikh conference centre seemed symbolic.
With the world’s decisionmakers locked away in plenary rooms, focused on fixing climate change, all around them, things were being dismantled at a rapid rate.
National pavilions started disappearing, just like the food supplies and most of the tens of thousands of people who had attended the summit in the Egyptian desert.
The difference here was that the end time for the summit was arbitrary. The planet may not be so kind on its deadline.
In the end, when it came just before sunrise on Sunday morning, there was a historic agreement reached on the hot topic of COP27, loss and damage. Developing nations rightly celebrated the establishment of a fund to pay for what climate change is inflicting upon them - a situation they have not caused and cannot adapt to.
But there was little tangible progress on multiple agenda items of key importance to the future of humanity. Can you hear that sound? It’s the can being kicked down the road.
The toughest and most fundamental questions were largely not answered here.
Is the 1.5 degrees Celsius climate goal still alive? Keeping global temperature rise within 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels is seen as a red line for the viable future of many vulnerable nations.
The focus of many countries at COP27 was to make sure there was no backslide from agreements made in Glasgow. Yet, updated commitments on mitigation were few and far between in Egypt, and commitments to follow through further on phasing down coal and quickening the rollout of renewable energy sources were watered down in the final agreed text.
The European Union pushed hard to include a 2025 target for the peaking of carbon emissions, but that measure was left on the table. The bloc had threatened to walk out of the talks over this issue, and while that was avoided, emissions continue to rise in this decade of critical action, albeit more slowly than before.
Money that was agreed on back in 2009 for developing nations to mitigate and adapt to climate change - US$100 billion on an annual basis - has still not been delivered. It will need to be re-assessed throughout 2023.
And even on the signature item of breakthrough - the loss and damage fund - exactly who will pay for what and when and to whom?
While the agreement has the potential to redraw relations between the Global North and South, what exists now is akin to an empty bucket. The vessel has been hard fought for but so far, no one has committed to filling it up.
This will supposedly be thrashed out over coming months but there are clear divisions between the rich and poor that only grow deeper as past pledges unfulfilled.
China indicated openness to contributing to the fund, which could give momentum to the concept. The defrosting of its relationship with the United States in the midst of COP27 was an encouraging development for much needed cooperation.
And the re-emergence of Brazil as an active partner in the climate fight, following the election of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, will also provide hope for more progress in the coming year.
Asian leaders were mostly entirely absent from the conference - no ASEAN head of state made the trip; nor did heads of Japan, China, India or South Korea. The needs of Southeast Asian communities, especially for adaptation funding, are still outstanding.
Indonesia made strong progress on its land use agenda, and took concrete steps to wean off coal, following a new US$20 billion agreement with the US, Japan and private finance partners to help shift its economy to renewables.
Singapore too, while acknowledging the difficult circumstances surrounding COP27, and the multitude of global crises that impacted negotiations, used the period to strengthen partnerships and be an enabler of critical private sector climate investments.
“We reached as good an outcome as we can get given the circumstances,” Grace Fu, Minister for Sustainability and the Environment, told media as the summit closed.
PRESSURE MOUNTS ON COP28
The pressure is already mounting on COP28. The failure to make hard decisions now has ensured that would be the case. There will be multiple progress “stock takes” to be taken in Dubai next year, including on loss and damage and deforestation targets.
The fact that the United Arab Emirates will play host puts the negotiating hand, as in Egypt, in the hand of a petrostate.
The opening address at COP27 by the UAE’s president Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, talking up the merits of low-emissions oil could foreshadow the same fossil fuel industry-protecting attitudes that Egypt was accused of here.
That “low-emissions” wording snuck its way into the final text, giving room to the further development and reliance on natural gas as an energy source. The EU will be one to continue the fight against fossil fuels in return for offering up cash for loss and damage, which it will need to pay to cover its historical emissions.
The ratcheting up of ambition, as many had hoped for in Egypt, did not eventuate. Horse trading will not stop however from now until Dubai next November.
If 2023 is anything like this year in terms of the onset of climate-driven disasters, the world will be crying out by then for real results.
Jack Board is CNA's climate change correspondent.