COP27 could be one of the most difficult climate change summits in history
As climate negotiations commence in Egypt at COP27, the outlook for securing commitments that rise to the global challenge has worsened. Bob Ward outlines the latest climate assessments from the lead-up to the summit and the urgency of delivering the finance required for climate action.
Over the next fortnight, the United Nations climate change summit in Egypt will be an opportunity for countries to confront some tough challenges, particularly on ramping up levels of ambition and delivering climate finance.
It now seems very unlikely that the world can avoid global warming of more than 1.5 Celsius degrees this century. The campaign ahead of COP26 to keep 1.5 alive has largely failed. This will have devastating potential consequences, especially for the world’s poorest people, and will focus discussions on how to limit the overshoot and keep global temperatures within safer boundaries by the end of the century.
Formally the 27th session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), or COP27, the summit takes place in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El Sheikh between 6 and 18 November. The UK officially handed over the Presidency of the UNFCCC negotiations to Egypt at the opening of proceedings, many of the most important pledges made at COP26 in Glasgow in November 2021 still far from being fulfilled.
The most significant part of the Glasgow Climate Pact, as the final plenary decision of COP26 is known, is the request that all countries within the next year ‘revisit and strengthen’ the 2030 targets in their nationally determined contributions (NDCs), which outline individual countries’ pledges for domestic and international climate action, to align with the Paris Agreement temperature goal. This arose from the acknowledgement that the collective pledges to cut greenhouse gases submitted to date were wholly inconsistent with the aim of limiting the rise in global mean surface temperature to no more than 1.5 Celsius degrees compared with its pre-industrial level.
The Pact recognised the need for ‘rapid, deep and sustained reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions’, including a 45 per cent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 relative to 2010 levels, net zero around 2050 and ‘deep reductions in other greenhouse gases.’ However, the aggregate greenhouse gas emission level was estimated to be 13.7 per cent above the 2010 level in 2030, according to a synthesis report on emissions pledges published just ahead of COP26. This disappointing result was despite a huge effort by COP26 President Alok Sharma and his team to persuade more countries to set a target to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
Stalling ambition in climate pledges persist
In June 2022, the Net Zero Tracker calculated that countries responsible for about 83 per cent of current annual global emissions have now set a net zero target. But the latest synthesis report published by the UNFCCC secretariat in October 2022 showed that there had been only a marginal strengthening of 2030 targets over the past year. Collectively, the pledges within the NDCs would result in annual emissions in 2030 that are 10.6 per cent higher than in 2010. This global level of emissions would result in global temperatures being on average 2.1 to 2.9 Celsius degrees above pre-industrial levels by the end of this century.
This grim assessment is echoed in the October 2020 Emissions Gap Report published by the United Nations Environment Programme, which suggests that annual emissions may have reached a new record high in 2021 and describes the progress on 2030 targets since COP26 as ‘highly inadequate’. These analyses follow the publication in April 2022 of the contribution of Working Group III on Mitigation of Climate Change to the Sixth Assessment Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which in its ‘Summary for Policymakers’ stated: ‘Modelled global emission pathways consistent with NDCs announced prior to COP26 will likely exceed 1.5°C during the 21st century.’
The ongoing challenge of climate finance
Unfortunately, the lack of progress on 2030 emissions targets is not the only legacy failure from COP26. Rich countries have still not kept to the commitment made at COP16 in 2010 to mobilise US$100 billion per year by 2020 to help poor countries to cut their greenhouse gas emissions and to adapt to the impacts of climate change that cannot now be avoided.
The Glasgow Climate Pact urged developed countries to ‘fully deliver on the USD100 billion goal urgently and through to 2025’. A report on delivering this climate finance commitment prepared by the German and Canadian governments ahead of COP26 noted that developed countries had made ‘significant progress towards the US$100 billion goal in 2022’ and expressed confidence that it ‘would be met in 2023’. If the US$100 billion target is indeed to be reached in 2023, flows of public and private finance would need to increase by more than 20 per cent compared with 2020, according to the progress report by the UNFCC Standing Committee on Finance published on 2 November 2022.
The failure by rich countries to honour their climate finance commitments has cast a shadow over discussions about the increase in support that developing countries should receive from 2025 onwards. To inform these discussions, the High-Level Expert Group on Climate Finance, co-chaired by Dr Vera Songwe and Professor Lord Stern, was commissioned by the UK and Egyptian Presidencies of COP26 and COP27 to produce a report on ways to increase the flows of climate finance to developing countries, including for loss and damage. Published at the start of COP27, the report calls for international investments of US$1 trillion annually by 2030 in climate action in developing countries and provides a framework for finance for climate action.
Loss and damage a focus issue
Discussions about loss and damage are likely to be a key focus at COP27, with many developing countries pressing for the creation of a new mechanism to channel funding to help them deal with the negative consequences of climate change that are already occurring and likely to worsen in the future.
This issue will take on additional significance in view of the growing recognition that global warming is likely to exceed 1.5 Celsius degrees within the next few decades. However, it will remain divisive as some developed countries with large historical emissions reject claims that they owe compensation to countries most vulnerable to climate change impacts.
The international context
Given the number of significant hurdles ahead, it is not surprising that world leaders, including Joe Biden, Emmanuel Macron and Rishi Sunak, are planning to attend the first few days of COP27 to give added impetus to the negotiations.
The summit will take place against a backdrop of heightened geopolitical tensions. Europe is suffering an energy crisis following disruptions to fossil fuel supplies after Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. It is not clear if President Putin, expected to be absent at COP27, will attend the summit of G20 leaders due to take place in Bali on 15 and 16 November during the second week of COP27 either. Previous G20 communiqués have included commitments on climate action.
China, the world’s largest emitter, has broken off bilateral discussions on climate action with the United States, the second biggest emitter, as a result of the August 2022 visit to Taiwan by Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives. And in the US, President Joe Biden could face pushback on his climate ambitions from Republican lawmakers if they take control of the Senate and House of Representatives in the mid-term elections on 8 November, during the first week of COP27.
With time running out to avoid the worse dangers of climate change and so many barriers to success, this may turn out to be one of the most difficult climate change summits in human history. And the outcome could have profound implications for the lives and livelihoods of billions of people around the world.
A commentary under the same name but with a greater focus on the UK was published on Monday 7 November by the LSE British Politics and Policy blog.