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Climate talks, alarm bells and hollow victories

COP27: the summit continued a legacy of failure by not winning a pledge on reducing fossil fuel use

By Hammad Sarfraz |
Design by Ibrahim Yahya
PUBLISHED January 01, 2023

The UN climate talks, known as COP27, concluded in November, last year, with what has been hailed as a landmark agreement to create a fund to aid vulnerable nations harmed by climate change.

While poor countries have every reason to celebrate the promise of financial compensation to deal with the brutal consequences of climate change, that they are barely responsible for, the COP 27 ended without moving the needle on the emissions pledges – the central stalemate that has haunted these conferences.

Ironically, a month before the COP27 talks in Egypt, the UN cautioned that without reducing emissions by 45 per cent, humanity was on a spiral of self-destruction. In its annual edition of the Emissions Gap Report, the UN stated that the “global community was falling far short of the goals set in Paris, with no credible pathway to 1.5°C in place.”

According to the 132-page document, the updated national pledges since COP26 – held in 2021 in Glasgow, UK – make a negligible difference to predicted 2030 emissions and that the world appeared far from the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to well below 2°C, preferably 1.5°C. And yet, despite the huge ramifications, the recent climate talks failed to deliver on reducing emissions and limiting global warming to agreed temperature thresholds.

Since the conference in Egypt, experts have raised several questions over the rhetorical performances, proposals, and promises that usually emerge during every meeting of this nature. Not too long ago, COP26 was presented to the world as a ‘make or break’ moment for humanity. Alok Sharma, the conference president, termed the gathering as ‘our last best hope’. He wasn't alone on the list of performers who came across as hyperbolic; Charles, now King of the United Kingdom and the 14 other Commonwealth realms, called the summit ‘the last-chance saloon’.

One year on, we stand where we were, struggling to reduce the use of fossil fuels – the primary cause of current climate change – that has significantly altered the Earth’s ecosystems.

To learn more about the recent climate talks, the Express Tribune contacted Catherine Abreu, director of the non-profit Destination Zero, which calls for an end to fossil fuel use. According to the award-winning Ottawa-based expert on climate policy, the recent UN climate talks failed to acknowledge the cause of climate change and continued to focus on the consequences. “We saw that this COP continued a legacy of failure of COPs to acknowledge the cause of climate change which is the production and combustion of fossil fuels,” Abreu said by email.

Despite the harm caused due to the production and combustion of fossil fuels, the world seems to have an insatiable appetite for coal. According to a report released by the International Energy Agency (IEA), the Paris-based energy watchdog, the global use of coal is expected to set new records as the conflict in Ukraine and growing demand in India and Europe push consumption of the fuel to new highs. In Europe alone, consumption of coal is expected to increase this year for the second year in a row due to the reduction in gas supplies from Moscow in the wake of the Ukraine war. According to the IEA’s report, three of the world’s biggest coal producers India, China and Indonesia will create new records by the end of this year.

This trend, according to experts, flies in the face of promises made at last year’s climate talks, where more than 190 countries pledged to reduce the use of coal to rein in emissions. Even at last year’s COP27, despite apparent support from the United States, language emphasizing the need to not just phase down but phase out the use of fossil fuels was scuttled by Russia, Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.

Describing the outcome as unbalanced, Abreu said: “More fossil fuels equal more losses and damages and while we a fund has been set to address those damages, we don't yet have the UN climate talks putting forward mechanisms to mitigate the mounting losses and damages and the costs associated with them by eliminating the cause of climate change which is fossil fuels.”

When asked to comment on the next COP that is to be held in the United Arab Emirates, Abreu, who has served as the Executive Director of Climate Action Network, Canada’s primary network of organizations working on climate change and energy issues said: “I think eliminating the cause of climate change which is fossil fuels, will be the big battle heading into COP28 and will likely be a conversation that continues to characterize these talks for years to come. What we saw in Sharm El-Sheikh was a real reckoning and an attempt to wrestle this process into something that can deliver meaningful practical results and that's why countries are pushing for this process to go into the nitty gritty details on the causes and consequences of climate change.”

“It's not until we see the process achieving that balance of being able to address both sides of the problem that we'll get to a place where it is delivering that implementation space that countries so desperately need to cooperate on delivering their Paris agreement commitments,” she added.

The climate conference in Egypt, last year, was always going to be a struggle, experts had no doubts about that. The ongoing Ukraine-Russia conflict that has resulted in an energy crisis, simultaneously triggered global inflation, food shortages and all of this was never expected to mean well global climate agenda and the uphill task of reducing emissions.

But for developing nations, COP27 offered a glimmer of hope – the creation of the loss and damage fund, something they have struggled for decades. On this, Abreu shared a straightforward assessment: “There is nothing yet that developing countries can count on beyond the idea that a loss and damage fund will be created.”

The real money, she said, hasn’t been placed on the table yet. “So, for developing countries to be able to count on this process they need to see real money being delivered. Unfortunately, we have seen a long history of financial commitments made under this process being walked back from or long delayed, in particular the 100-billion-dollar pledge from Copenhagen that hasn't yet been delivered.”

“So, the big question now is will real money be put on the table for loss and damage that developing countries can count on as they move forward dealing with multiple compounding crises and attempting to meet their countries' energy access needs and development goals without further expanding fossil fuel.”

Can funds cope with the demand?

The climate crisis is unfolding at a greater pace than expected. Given the rise in consumption of fossil fuels, and the decarbonisation strategy being sidelined by some, the chances are that the world will witness more climate-related disasters than before.

According to UN estimates, the ongoing degradation of the ecosystem would cost a whopping $3tn every year by the end of this decade.“The loss of nature and biodiversity comes with a steep human cost – a cost we measure in lost jobs, hunger, disease and deaths,” UN chief António Guterres cautioned in a speech this week. Taking an aim at governments and companies, Guterres urged both sectors to move away from nature-destroying activities.

Commenting on the fund created to compensate countries for the damages caused by climate change, Abreu said: “Any one fund is not going to be able to deal with the multiple compounding crises that countries and communities around the world are dealing with and we need a fundamental reconfiguration of our financial infrastructure in order deal with those multiple compounding crises, find solutions and provides support to those who are experiencing the biggest impacts from those crises.”

COP27 – the agreement

Most experts view the agreement reached in Egypt as vague on all key points: who will cough up the cash for the fund and who will receive it.

David Wallace-Wells, an American journalist known for his writings on climate change, described the loss and damage agreement — as vague and toothless in a recent New York Times article. “It represents a remarkable step forward following decades of desperate advocacy by the world’s climate-vulnerable countries and decades of indifference exhibited by the world’s historic polluters,” the journalist wrote.

Other experts have termed the agreement as an escape route for developed nations, allowing them to abdicate their main responsibility, which is to focus on lowering emissions to prevent climate change.

Describing the agreement as a huge win for vulnerable countries who had been asking for the UN climate talks to acknowledge the true consequences of climate change which are losses and damages for three decades, Abreu said: “It is true, however, that the details of what the loss and damage fund is going to look like, how it will operate, who will be able to access it, what kinds of support it will offer, how much support it will offer, what kinds of conditions countries will have to meet in order to access that support - all of these questions are up in the air.”

The language and ambiguity, the Ottawa-based expert noted, would become a major source of contention and need for negotiations in the year ahead.

“The COP agreements are always a consensus-based document. So, yes there's often constructive ambiguity that is built into the language of these agreements in order to achieve consensus and leave the door open for further negotiations and positioning,” she explained.

What’s in store for the future?

According to data from the Global Carbon Project, a coalition of international climate science bodies, carbon dioxide emissions are expected to rise 1 per cent, crossing the 37bn mark this year. And the highest increases, Global Carbon Project said, will come from India and the US. Both countries have set net zero targets but no coal commitment, according to data published by the IEA, the Paris-based energy watchdog.

Similarly, according to projections from Climate Action Tracker, an independent research group, which rates countries’ climate finance pledges, every rich nation’s funding promises are inadequate. That coupled with the changing geopolitical landscape, the climate agenda, many experts believe is expected to face tough days ahead.