Did COP 27 really fail? Reflections on the climate summit
London’s Financial Times summed up the widespread response to the COP 27 climate summit held at Sharm el-Sheikh when it suggested the final agreement ‘encouraged some, gravely disappointed others and satisfied none’.
Much of the coverage suggests that the global low carbon agenda is not moving forward and may even have regressed over the past 12 months. Since it ended on Sunday 20th November, COP 27 has been widely described as a ‘failure‘ and ‘an inadequate response‘ to climate issues.
The one substantive achievement reflected in the summit’s closing text ( pdf Sharm el-Sheikh Implementation Plan (195 KB) ) – the decision to establish a global Loss and Damage Fund to compensate poorer countries for climate damage – quite likely only serves to deepen this dark interpretation. The Fund, a last-minute addition after a ferocious negotiating process over the summit’s second and final weekend, shows every sign of being poorly thought through.
The Loss and Damage Fund has no paying subscribers yet and it is not clear who will capitalise it and against what criteria disbursements will be made. Some believe the acceptance, in of the principle of compensation is progress. But sceptics will no doubt point to the pledge made at COP 15 in Copenhagen in 2009, to transfer US$100 billion from wealthy to developing countries every year, as an unfortunate precedent. That pledge has never been met (in full) and there is no consensus on how to account for the transfers that have actually happened.
There was little of the anticipated focus on Africa at COP 27 apart from the continent being an incidental potential beneficiary of the Loss and Damage Fund. But the continent may have dodged a bullet in so far as the summit made no statement against natural gas. Many African leaders (and others) have argued that climate justice requires that the continent be allowed, if not enabled, to extract and use its massive gas resources.
Natural gas is still a hydrocarbon, although it produces lower emissions than coal and oil. It is still widely used in developed countries and, while condemned by some activists, the argument has been made that it should be considered a ‘transition fuel‘ in the journey to net zero. This reprieve may be only temporary. Gas was off the agenda in Sharm el-Sheikh partly because of its high profile in Europe since the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
But the pessimism is misleading. In many respects, climate summits are the wrong place to look in order to understand the global response to climate change. They have a particular character and, with rare exceptions, their achievements will always be limited. As was pointed out in a tralac blog after COP 26, meetings of this sort face a definitive collective action problem. Parties to the agreements may withdraw at no cost other than possible embarrassment, as the Trump administration showed in 2017.
The limitations were demonstrated by the process at Sharm El Sheikh. 190 countries were represented at COP 27 with 90 heads of state and 45 000 registered delegates present. The core purpose of climate summits is to push the world’s political leaders to take binding positions on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It has become a common assumption that each COP would exceed the achievements of the previous summit, a process implied by the term ‘rachet effect‘, introduced at COP 21 in Paris in 2015 to describe what was expected of each country’s Nationally Determined Contribution.
But despite accounts of how intense talks became over the final weekend, COP agreements are not a product of hard bargaining. In terms of the climate summit’s Rules of Procedure (adopted anew at the beginning of each COP meeting), decisions are taken by consensus. The term ‘consensus’ is not defined but seems to mean that decisions stand in the absence of a clear and expressed objection. But the process appears designed to reduce decisions to the lowest common denominator.
This is perhaps the main reason why so much that appeared in the final text is so limited. The statement did not go beyond the 2021 Glasgow agreement to ‘phase down unabated coal power and phase out … inefficient fossil fuel subsidies’ and left that rather ambiguous phrasing intact. India, of all countries, had bounced back from its lacklustre performance in Glasgow (where it only presented its Nationally Determined Contribution at the actual conference) to lead the charge. The Indian delegation argued that the closing text should cover all fossil fuels not only coal. India is the world’s 4th heaviest carbon emitter.
In Glasgow last year, it was India, in alliance with China, who insisted on a weakening of the language around coal by removing the word ‘accelerate’ (as in ‘an accelerated phase down’).
The Indian proposal was defeated by a group of oil-producing countries who have consistently argued in recent years that a heavy focus on greenhouse gas emissions is inappropriate and that more attention needs to be given to carbon capture and storage technologies, including reforestation.
These sorts of close textual readings are characteristic of interpretations of how well or otherwise any particular COP fared. While the language is not unimportant attention needs to be paid to developments elsewhere to understand how the planet is faring in the battle against climate change. The activities of the global private sector, national state-owned utilities, non-governmental organisations as well as national governments within their own spheres, do not feature in the calculus of COP success and failure.
For example, the Biden administration’s US$369 billion Inflation Reduction Act, passed by Congress in September, actually has little to do with inflation but a great deal to do with repositioning the US as a manufacturing hub for the emerging green economy. In power generation, the process of replacing carbon-burning technologies with renewable energy is well under way in developed countries. South Africa is searching for more funding for its transition away from coal. In transport, the transition to electric vehicles is well underway too. Many may feel that none of this is happening fast enough, but business and markets are pushing strongly in a low carbon direction.
Little of this is visible from a COP perspective. Perhaps it would be wiser to understand the limitations of summit conferences of this sort and to keep an eye on the many developments which are moving human activity away from greenhouse gas emissions. COP 27, in short, need not leave observers downhearted.
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