COP27 will be remembered as a failure: here’s what went wrong

Billed as ‘Africa’s COP’, the 27th United Nations Climate Change Summit (aka COP27) in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt was supposed to promote climate justice, as this is the hardest hit but least responsible continent of the climate crisis. Negotiations for a fund that would compensate developing countries for the loss and damage caused by climate change dominated the negotiations. In the early hours of Sunday morning, well past Friday’s deadline, member states agreed to set up such a fund – a win for developing countries.

However, next year, it remains to be negotiated who will pay and how this financial assistance will be provided to help countries like Pakistan recover from climate disasters.

The COP27 deal failed to go beyond the 2021 Glasgow Pact promise to “phase-down coal power unabated”, despite India’s proposal that all fossil fuels should be phased out. The text also did not announce new targets or commitments, threatening the goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C set seven years ago in the Paris Agreement. Instead, there was a call for new national commitments, or Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), for COP28 – another year late.

Subsequent conferences have done little to arrest the upward trajectory of emissions and temperature.
Marco Maslin, Author provided

Developing countries entered COP27 hoping for progress on three fronts: climate finance and the delivery of $100bn (£84.6bn) a year as promised in 2009, global decarbonisation and recognition of responsibility of developed countries to pay for losses and damages. Only one of these has been achieved to any extent.

So why did COP27 fail? And what can be done before the next summit – COP28 in Dubai – to ensure progress?

1. Geopolitics

COP27 has been overshadowed by Russia’s war against Ukraine, which has strained pipeline gas supplies, prompting many countries to expand domestic reserves of fossil fuels.

The invasion caused oil and gas producing nations to become more influential at COP27, undermining negotiations. World leaders concerned about spiraling energy prices and rising costs of living were reluctant to act boldly on fossil fuels. This was reflected in the watered down text where the Egyptians inserted a provision to promote “low carbon and renewable energy”, which nods to natural gas (cleaner than oil and coal but still a fossil fuel). .

2. Time and place

The timing of COP27 was unfortunate. The first week occurred during the US midterm elections, when much of the world’s media was scrutinizing his finely balanced result. The second week coincided with the G20 summit in Bali which further distracted attention and caused many world leaders to not attend.

To make matters worse, negotiations dragged on into the weekend, just as attention turned to the World Cup and related disputes in Qatar. This is very different from COP26 when the world stayed busy throughout the summit.

The only protests allowed were those sanctioned by the Egyptian security forces inside the venue. With media attention already reduced, the limited but important civil society presence at COP27 struggled to keep pressure on the hosts.

Protesters with placards and banners.
The protest was reduced during the Egyptian summit.
EPA-EFE/Khaled Elfiqi

During the summit, the movement of local residents was restricted by numerous road checkpoints. Holding a COP meeting in a military dictatorship in a region of the country where security is tightly controlled and the local population is oppressed and frightened would probably always have hindered effective negotiations.

3. Lack of leadership

International diplomacy is difficult and requires an enormous amount of time, effort and skill. The reason COP26 2021 in Glasgow yielded deals on deforestation, methane emissions and other issues was partly because hosts in the UK and Italy worked hard to build consensus during the extra year provided by the pandemic.

People in the conference room
The authors participated in the negotiations in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt.
Simon Chin Yee, Author provided

The Egyptian presidency of COP27 underestimated this task. As negotiations continued into the early hours of Sunday morning, Egypt’s COP27 chairman Sameh Shoukry said: “It really depends on the parties [countries] to find consensus”. This is in stark contrast to COP26, where the conference chairman, Alok Sharma, fought to the bitter end to get an agreement. Negotiations were accelerated only in the last 48 hours to get an agreement on losses and damages, and even then some of the largest emitters (China and India) refused to contribute to the fund.

4. Lack of trust

The biggest failure was the lack of trust. This is mainly because the promised US$100 billion a year has yet to fully materialize. This is a relatively small amount of money when you consider that Qatar has spent just $220 billion hosting the 2022 World Cup. Money to support climate change adaptation has also not been forthcoming. The money is there, the problem is the will to allocate it where it is really needed.

And the biggest sticking point was the loss and damage. At COP26, the US, EU and UK, with the support of China, blocked the establishment of the Glasgow Damage and Loss Facility, as they did not want to be responsible for the effects of climate change.

In Egypt, a statement was released at the last minute stating that such a loss and damage fund would be established after all. It’s a step in the right direction and has been celebrated by developing nations. But there was no agreement on how big the funding flow would be, who pays for it and, critically, who controls and manages these funds. Currently, only 10% of climate finance reaches local communities and the new facility will need to address this disconnect.

Countries like China and India have declined to contribute to those funds. India objected to the inclusion of terms such as “current high emitters” in the text as it expects historically high emitters to contribute to the funds. This may also have been the case in China 30 years ago. But now China’s historic emissions are almost as high as the EU’s, so it points to per capita emissions and reaffirmed its status as a developing country.

A line graph comparing the cumulative emissions of different countries.
The US and the EU bear the greatest historical responsibility for climate change.
Global Carbon Project, Author provided

There are several lessons for COP28 and Dubai. First, start negotiations now and work hard over the next 12 months so that all countries are ready to reach a clear agreement by the end. And the next COP must conduct an open and transparent process so that all countries understand what is being negotiated and trust can be restored.

In Dubai, countries with relatively low-ambitious pledges need to be pushed to increase their pledges, so there’s the option to stick to the 1.5°C limit with a focus on phasing out fossil fuels.

Finally, high-income countries and wealthier emerging economies need to contribute funds for adaptation and a transparent and effective loss and damage framework. As an African COP, COP27 wanted to focus the negotiations on climate justice. This idea will have to be at the heart of the COP28 negotiations, as it will be necessary to put money on the table for adaptation, loss and damage and a rapid increase in renewable energy.

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