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Egyptian police outside the Sharm el-Sheikh International Convention Centre during the COP27 climate conference, on Nov. 17.MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images

Most delegates at the faltering climate conference in Egypt are struggling to ensure that COP27 is not the event where 1.5 dies in a cauldron of ever-rising, heat-trapping carbon emissions.

The figure refers to the goal, set out in the 2015 Paris climate agreement, to limit global average temperature increases to 1.5 C above preindustrial levels. Most climate scientists agree that allowing temperatures to rise beyond that level will destroy some low-lying countries as polar and mountain ice melts and water levels rise – and even pose an existential threat to the whole planet.

In Paris, the Foreign Minister of the Marshall Islands said allowing temperature increases to surpass 1.5 degrees would deliver a “death warrant” to his Pacific island country. The floods that inundated Pakistan this summer, wrecking a third of the country and some eight million homes, show that severe damage can be inflicted by just a 1.1-degree rise – the level average temperatures have climbed already.

The calls to keep 1.5 alive have been repeated endlessly at COP27. On Thursday, the day before the official end of the conference, Fernanda Carvalho, the Brazilian head of climate and energy policy for WWF International, said: “This cannot be the COP where we lose 1.5. … It is in danger, and we need an energy transition fast.”

The question is whether reinforcing the 1.5-degree goal in COP27′s final statement will carry any significance, given the bleak outlook for decarbonization efforts. Its inclusion might take on the pretense of a mere political statement, one that will prove meaningless as the energy crisis triggers a global rush for new supplies of oil and natural gas.

Keeping the 1.5-degree goal alive received a double dose of good news in the waning days of the conference – and one dose of exceedingly bad news.

The world is making progress on climate, despite the COP27 doomsayers

The first bit of good news came out Wednesday, when G20 leaders in Indonesia pledged to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees. Their statement acknowledged that the damage inflicted by global warming would be “much lower at a temperature increase of 1.5 C compared with 2 C.”

The timing of the statement suggested that the G20 wanted to encourage the authors of COP27′s final statement to deliver a similar message, all the more so since Chinese negotiators had resisted reaffirming the 1.5-degree goal. While China has not said so directly, some delegates and environmental groups said Beijing feared the expense and potential economic damage of cutting emissions fast to keep 1.5 alive.

At the same time, Brazil’s president-elect, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (universally known as Lula), used his appearance at COP27 to say that his government would end the destruction of the Amazon, the world’s largest rain forest and one of its most important carbon sinks.

The assumed quid pro quo was that the developed world has to make good on its pledge to provide US$100-billion a year to finance climate mitigation and adaptation measures, plus launch a “loss and damage” fund to pay reparations for catastrophic climate events such as the floods in Pakistan.

The bad news? It was a biggie.

A Thursday morning draft proposal from COP27′s Egyptian presidency of the so-called cover decision largely kept intact last year’s pledges, made at the COP26 conference in Glasgow, to phase out fossil fuel subsidies and “unabated” coal power – those coal plants whose emissions cannot be neutralized by injecting them underground.

The draft came as a disappointment to the European Union and climate-vulnerable countries, including India, who wanted wording that would pledge the phase-out of oil and gas as well as coal. Canada was among the energy powerhouses that did not call for the end of all fossil fuels.

In the past, Steven Guilbeault, Canada’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change, has said Ottawa cannot do so because natural resources are a provincial, not federal, jurisdiction.

Nor did the draft – subject to change by Friday night – contain any details about the funding mechanism that would bring the loss and damage fund to life.

Environmental groups who saw the COP27 draft say the 1.5-degree goal is included but question whether it can be taken seriously as long as coal is the only fossil fuel facing a death sentence. Canada’s Environmental Defence said: “A climate plan that doesn’t include a phase-out of oil, gas and coal isn’t a climate plan.”

Environmental Defence also said that financing fossil fuel projects remains a key part of many banks’ core business, another sign that the 1.5-degree goal is in jeopardy (the latest Banking on Climate Chaos report, written by the Sierra Club, Oil Change International and other environmental groups, says Canadian banks boosted their fossil fuel financing to US$54-billion in 2021, up 70 per cent over 2020).

The 1.5-degree goal will almost certainly make it into COP27′s closing statement (the draft even says developed countries “should attain net negative carbon emissions by 2030″ to help prevent temperature rises). At the same time, its inclusion might be more symbolic than practical or substantive.

Vulnerable countries and climate groups insist that decarbonization progress needs targets, because targets theoretically have a galvanizing effect. Perhaps. The reality is that the targets have not stopped the rise of carbon emissions. They are set to reach a record high this year, inevitably making the 1.5-degree target harder to hit.

The 1.5-degree goal may be officially alive even if a substantial temperature overshoot now appears inevitable. The next COP, or the one after it, may declare it dead because the will, the money and the time to prevent the warming crisis from intensifying still appear to be lacking.

“There is a sense on the ground that this COP could be the end of 1.5 degrees,” said likof the University of Oxford’s energy and power group.

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