The vibes heading into COP27 are not good.
There are many reasons that this year’s edition of the United Nations climate summit, which starts on Sunday in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, is widely being pre-emptively cast as a failure. Not least is that the repressive host government seemingly chose the remote location largely to avoid protesters, some of whom it’s rounding up in advance anyway.
The biggest cause for pessimism about the conference itself is that it appears destined to widen a major geopolitical fault line. Partly because it’s being held in Africa, developing countries disproportionately experiencing climate-change impacts have long looked to COP27 as a crucial moment in getting richer countries that have mostly caused the problem, through their emissions, to take greater financial responsibility. Few now expect that to happen anywhere near the scale they want.
Add in the lack of tangible large-scale progress toward other climate-policy goals anticipated in the summit’s final agreement (if one is reached) and it’s a far cry from the mood surrounding COP26. That gathering last year in Scotland, where countries arrived with ambitious new climate targets and exited with as much sense of common purpose as these events can produce, could soon feel like it happened in a different era.
There’s no sugar-coating it: If participants can’t salvage this gathering, it will mark a major setback in forging the international co-operation needed to minimize climate-related disaster.
But it could also mean that the entire premise of making COP the fulcrum of that effort needs to be revisited.
That’s because what the failings of the event should not be mistaken for, no matter how dire reports out of Sharm el-Sheikh get, is a sign that the world is otherwise incapable of collective climate action. Nor that momentum has necessarily been set back by the current global energy crisis, when the opposite is true.
Despite a steady drumbeat of punditry suggesting that ambition to transition off fossil fuels has been replaced by realism about oil and gas remaining essential, during fallout from Russia’s war on Ukraine, the evidence points in the other direction.
The European Union, dealing with energy shortages as directly as anywhere, offers the best example.
While trying to secure new gas supplies (and falling back on coal) to meet immediate needs, the EU is showing that it sees the situation as cause to hasten its shift toward renewable power, electrification of transportation and buildings, hydrogen as an industrial fuel source, and other pillars of a cleaner economy. Binding targets for those scale-ups could be finalized as early as this winter, through green-deal legislation beefed up since the war started.
Underpinning that strategy is a growing recognition that, because renewable electricity can mostly be produced domestically rather than depending on unreliable trade partners, there is a strong correlation between sustainability and energy security. That perspective isn’t limited to Europe; Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida drew the same connection earlier this year when proposing to issue 20 trillion yen ($185-billion) in green bonds.
Not that it’s only countries trying to wean off Russian exports that have accelerated action. The world’s largest oil-and-gas producer, the United States, is now spending US$370-billion on climate-related measures through the Inflation Reduction Act.
The U.S. was motivated partly by another energy-security consideration: playing catch-up with China in developing clean-technology supply chains. Their arms race should lead to scale-up of decarbonization tools that can be used around the world – and that’s after costs of solar and wind power, lithium batteries and other technologies have plummeted in the past decade.
All this contributed to last month’s World Energy Outlook by the International Energy Agency – an organization long accused of playing down climate risk – predicting that clean-energy investment will rise 50 per cent by 2030 and fossil-fuel demand could peak sooner.
If all that progress is difficult to reconcile with likely frustrations at COP27, some of the blame simply goes to rich countries for failing to match heightened domestic ambition with equally urgent help for others.
They have already accumulated bad will by repeatedly failing to meet their pledge of US$100-billion in annual climate finance for developing countries – a relatively modest sum supposed to be a show of good faith, with more to follow.
If they couldn’t fulfill that promise, there are slim chances of a new one around loss-and-damages funding. That’s a form of reparations that countries particularly vulnerable to climate-related natural disasters want high on COP27′s agenda, in recognition that they’ve historically contributed minimal emissions, reaped limited benefits from the fossil-fuel economy, and now have to suffer massive human and infrastructure costs.
Too few governments of developed economies seem confident about getting new funds for loss and damages approved domestically for a firm commitment to find its way into COP27′s final text.
But the improbability of getting buy-in from enough countries also points to where COP may be increasingly ill-suited to the climate fight.
Negotiations at these conferences operate on a consensus model, which requires near unanimity for anything to get through. While that’s produced the occasional landmark deal (most obviously the Paris Agreement in 2015), it’s never been a recipe for easy success.
Now, at a time of rising economic nationalism, right-wing populism and authoritarianism – plus a U.S.-China cold war and a Russian hot war – getting everyone onto the same page is even harder.
Meanwhile, the bar for what constitutes a successful agreement has gotten higher. There is fatigue with aspirational goals and toothless targets, not only among countries still waiting for their US$100-billion. This is supposed to be the implementation period of international climate relations, where countries lend each other support and hold each other accountable as they drill down into sectoral transformations.
Realistically, COP’s formal negotiations are probably not the vehicle for that sort of multilateralism. And other options, bringing together groups of countries rather than the entire world at once, have started to emerge.
Germany, for instance, has used its G7 presidency this year to promote the idea of a Climate Club, which would try to align carbon pricing or other policies for large-emitting sectors in major economies. It’s also trying to bring together the G7 and the V20 (a group of countries particularly vulnerable to climate impacts) in a new insurance-based disaster-response program called the Global Shield.
Another example is a new climate-finance model called a Just Energy Transition Partnership, in which a few developed countries partner with an individual developing country to provide emissions-reduction funding tailored to its economic needs.
While there are drawbacks to these narrower approaches, including the risk of some countries being on the sidelines, they offer a nimbleness COP lacks. It wouldn’t be surprising to see more take shape, as the UN process’s limitations become inescapable.
None of that means that COP is at risk of total redundancy yet, no matter how badly this one goes.
Its profile compels world leaders to show up every few years with newly ambitious national emissions-reduction targets, as in Glasgow, though that’s not expected of them at Sharm el-Sheikh.
There are some forms of systems building, such as governance of a global carbon credits-trading market, to which its negotiations are uniquely suited.
And getting everyone in one place actually leads to some of the smaller alliances that may be supplanting the more formal proceedings.
It just shouldn’t be seen as the be all and end all of climate diplomacy.
And if COP27 does more harm than good, it will be cause to downgrade its place in countries’ pursuit of their climate agendas, and in the public’s perception of what the path to a sustainable planet looks like.