Newspapers, television, and social-media networks worldwide rushed to praise the success of the UN COP27 Conference on Climate Change that took place in Sharm El-Sheikh in November last year.
While we do not dispute their assessment, we feel compelled to take a closer look at the accomplishments of the COP27 Conference in the hope of validating its achievements and seeing what must be done next. This falls under Egypt’s responsibility in its capacity as chair of the Conference until the UAE takes over as chair of the COP28 Conference in 2023.
Environmental experts continue to raise the alert about global warming, which is causing severe damage to our planet day by day. Every year since 1994, when the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) came into force, the UN has held global climate summits or “Conferences of the Parties” (COPs) in a bid to minimise harmful human impacts on the climate system.
Though it recognised that there was a problem, the world was not alarmed because of the sparse scientific investigation into its magnitude at the time. It was only when nature began to wreak havoc by devastating countries large and small and rich and poor that the world became more attentive.
People across the globe are beginning to see the impact of natural disasters such as severe flooding, rises in temperature, desertification, sea-level rises, coastal erosion, and frequent wildfires that result in the displacement of millions, the deaths of thousands, and huge financial losses for countries and peoples.
Negotiations have been ongoing in order to meet the challenge of the climate crisis, and the developing countries have long sought compensation from the developed countries for causing the greenhouse gas emissions that give rise to global warming and climate change. In the past, the US and other rich countries have resisted shouldering the financial burden of climate change, but thanks to the efforts of the Egyptian delegation at the COP27 and the support of African and small island countries, the European countries and the US have accepted, albeit reluctantly, to set up a fund to compensate the developing countries for the losses and damage they incur.
This fund, however, lacks financial resources until the developed countries agree on funding levels and identify participating donors. That is the first dilemma emerging from the COP27, as the devil is in the details. Countries like China, India, and Brazil are among the largest emitters of CO2, an important greenhouse gas, today. But these countries classify themselves as developing countries, making them entitled to compensation from rather than contributions to the loss and damage fund set up at the COP27.
They hold that climate change is a result of the Industrial Revolution of which they were not a part, saying that the developed countries alone must bear the full burden of paying for its effects. The problem with this view lies mostly with China, which is highly industrialised and should be on the donor side of the equation.
The second dilemma emerging from last year’s conference is the failure of the developed countries to meet their commitments to pledge $100 billion annually to help the developing countries deal with the impacts of climate change. The COP27, like previous conferences, brought no consequences and accountability for countries that failed to meet their commitments, leaving the timing and payment terms at the discretion of the rich donor countries.
It is now time for the donors to deliver on their pledges, especially given the determination of the president of the conference that 2023 will be the year when the developed countries finally fulfil their commitments. This remains an optimistic position.
The developed countries have also failed to abide by the legally binding principle of “shared but differentiated responsibilities” agreed at the COP21 Conference in the shape of the 2015 Paris Agreement that was hailed as a major breakthrough and the basis for cooperation. Today, however, this principle has become more of a catchphrase than something that is binding and actionable, recognising that while all countries have an obligation to address climate change, inequalities remain according to the capabilities of each.
The third dilemma coming out of the COP27 lies in the failure to reach a consensus to halt the steady increase in the global average temperature and holding it at or below 1.5 degrees Celsius, as was emphasised at earlier COP Conferences. There are now fears that the global average temperature will rise by 2.8 or 3 degrees Celsius in the next few years. Although achieving the 1.5-degree target is an ambitious goal and requires immediate collective action, the outcome of the conference was void of any pressure to take urgent steps to reduce emissions and contended itself with reaffirming earlier assurances.
However, the mere confirmation of earlier promises leaves the world on track for nearly three degrees of warming that experts say will be devastating for our planet.
Concerning the fourth dilemma coming out of the COP27 regarding limits on the use of coal energy and the disposal of fossil fuels, we are seeing significant backtracking by the European countries on this commitment made at the COP26 Conference in Glasgow. Their position is seen as justified given the war in Ukraine and the end of Russian oil supplies, despite calls from the International Energy Agency (IEA) to halt the construction of new coal-fired power plants if we are to contain global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
According to the IEA, electricity generation from coal is increasing and not declining in line with the commitments of those countries that are aspiring to zero net emissions. They continue to consume more than 95 per cent of the world’s coal.
The fifth dilemma signals a climax of discrimination. While the rich countries allow themselves the right to procrastinate on their fiscal obligations and backtrack on their commitments to reduce coal consumption, they are also erecting trade barriers to the developing countries. The developed countries want to reduce carbon emissions by imposing more burdens on the developing countries and finding ways to increase border taxes in a move known as the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism. What makes matters worse is that there is currently no forum to discuss this Mechanism or figure out how best to achieve mutual benefits and avoid unilateral action.
The COP27 Conference ended with flexible wording calling on all countries to increase their use of low-emission and renewable energy. We must strive to live up to our promises, rather than simply arrive with more, because harm will eventually befall us all if we do not do so.
More promises do not mean more progress on climate change, but implementation does mean this, and it was implementation that Egypt dedicated the COP27 Conference to achieving. Let us all work together towards implementing our promises.
The writer is a former assistant foreign minister for international economic affairs.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 12 January, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly