Cop27 explainer: Big winners and losers

Significant emitters will make payments to poorest states, but activists unhappy at pace of change

What happened at Cop27?

Parties to the Paris Agreement, almost 200 of them including the EU gathered in Sharm El Sheik, agreed a historic move to scale up payments for climate vulnerable countries under a “loss and damage” fund.

In short, after a tortuous two weeks and often bitter final 48 hours, they agreed on a way forward on the key agenda item.

This was apposite as it was held in Egypt; an “African cop” on a continent already being ravaged by climate-driven extreme weather events.

If a deal had not been secured, Cop27 would have been deemed a failure, marking a fundamental falling out between rich and developing countries, thereby fuelling mistrust already evident around the negotiating tables.

What has been agreed?

In short, they have agreed that the world’s biggest emitters in the form of spewing carbon into the atmosphere will have to make payments to the poorest states. That means the wealthy countries of the global north (including Ireland) helping the poorest countries of the global south.

This is a landmark recognition of the historical emissions generated by big economies that got rich on the back of fossil fuels. And they must support in a major ongoing way those least responsible for a worsening climate crisis. It is the culmination of a 30-year campaign by developing countries.

Not only that, they have to pay for the inevitable impacts — economic and non-economic — into the future because of their emissions that are responsible for an overheating Planet Earth. It even takes into account impacts that will be inevitable even if the world manages to peak its emissions in coming years.

That includes funds to help with disasters in the form of extreme weather events including storms, droughts and floods made worse by climate disruption.

Make no mistake this is big; a warning shot to polluters they can no longer go scot-free with their climate destruction. “A stunning breakthrough,” is how Jean Su of Climate Action Network International put it. In a tweet, she called the brokered deal “a testament to the incredible mobilisation of vulnerable countries and civil society ... A dam has broken.”

What hasn’t been agreed?

The question of who pays will be ironed out next year, while “vulnerable developing countries” — as proposed by the EU — will benefit. Who falls into that category, however, is based on criteria of 30 years ago, ie criteria that would not stand up in real terms now. So expect big tensions over who benefits and who pays at Cop28. Will China, India and petrostates such as Qatar now have to contribute?

Loss and damage dominated so progress under other headings was modest and falls short of what is needed.

“Too many parties are not ready to make more progress today in the fight against the climate crisis,” concluded EU climate chief Frans Timmermans.

Last year’s key outcomes came under sustained attack by some countries. Commitments were removed at the behest of laggard countries and fossil fuel producers.

Peaking emissions by 2025 is not in the text. Follow-through on the phasedown of coal is not in this text. The phasedown of all fossil fuels is not in this text. Undertakings on energy were weakened but are at least in and renewable energy is singled out as the route to addressing the energy crisis.

A proposal from India to stipulate the phasing down of all fossil fuels, backed by the EU, was also mauled by oil-producing countries at the talks, and watered down to a phasing down of coal, reflecting exactly the commitment made in Glasgow — no increased ambition here. The wording was the subject of furious discussions in the early hours of Sunday morning.

Is it enough to meet Paris targets?

Everyone now recognises we must address the impacts already visible and are hitting hardest among communities that have contributed the least. There remains a critical need to raise ambition by reducing emissions, especially up to 2030, and this Cop does not deliver on that front.

All told the sum of actions and commitments don’t add up to keeping 1.5 degrees alive. And that matters because going beyond this warming means reaching climate tipping points, irreversible impacts across the planet and great uncertainty over the extent of livability on Earth.

Every increment of global warming matters to save lives and livelihoods and, therefore, is critical to keeping global temperatures below the 1.5 degree limit.

The Paris pact has stood the test of time and climate science delivered through the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change could not be clearer, especially on what cutting emissions will achieve by way of solutions.

Cop27 helps in going down that road but does not catalyse the scale of actions, timelines and road maps to ensure key 2030 targets and net zero by 2050 will be met. All told, 1.5 degrees is at death’s door.

Who will be happy?

Developing countries are the happiest. They won on an issue that has raged since the 1992 Rio summit.

Sherry Rehman — climate change minister of Pakistan where suffering in record floods became emblematic of the devastation developing countries are facing — hailed the “historic” deal to applause in the conference hall. “This is not about accepting charity,” she said. “This is a downpayment on investment in our futures and in climate justice.”

It is a big victory for civil society groups and international aid organisations — and especially those in Ireland as they have campaigned tirelessly on the issue and are already delivering loss and damage support on the ground.

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Those campaigning for a radical overhaul of the global financial system will mark down Cop27 as progress, especially prime minister of Barbados Mia Mottley, chairwoman of the Elders leaders group Mary Robinson and countries supporting what is known as the Bridgetown initiative. There were strong calls to reform international financial institutions to unlock more finance for developing countries.

Who will be unhappy?

Those campaigning for a much faster pace in responding to an existential threat to humans and nature will be deeply unhappy. Okay, the world has to address a multitude of compounding crises at present amid geopolitical instability, but the climate/nature problem trumps all that a thousand times and is far from being resolved.

Among parties to Cop, the European Union is probably the most unhappy. It had a radical plan to inject more urgency. It was the single most significant intervention but failed to get sufficient backing. Its lead negotiator, Frans Timmermans, did not hide his upset and frustration.

The advocates for stepped-up commitments and, most especially, timely delivery will be profoundly unhappy. It is blatantly clear the Cop process under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change — albeit the only mechanism for collective action globally — is unsuitable and needs a reboot.

Even those leading negotiating teams say it is too cumbersome. The lack of urgency is palpable in the face of a climate emergency that will ultimately devastate not just poor developing countries but also the smug rich states of the western world — including Ireland — if business as usual, protecting self-interest, and undue influence of climate-denier states that block anything threatening their fossil fuel assets is allowed to hold back a large majority of participating countries.

Cops are far from being an annual jamboree but nothing is beyond reform in the face of acute need.

The global climate movement will have a lingering sense of dismay. Their collective voice was suppressed by staging Cop27 in an autocratic state. It is having a bad run of late, having been blunted by Covid, while its cause is being undermined by pursuing the wrong kind of protests.

A rethink is needed to put a fire under the rear ends of overly cautious, slow-acting politicians stuck in fatal short-termism.

That approach has worked in the past and is essential more than ever. The message has to change too, especially to a public distracted by current horrible realities of grossly expensive energy and food shortages.

The balance needs to be tipped from simple condemnation to pushing known solutions, reinforced by a communications strategy that gets buy-in and provides reassurance at every turn.

What does it mean for Ireland?

Despite everything, Cop27 sets a clear direction of travel, particularly on embracing renewables as a means of addressing the current energy crisis and ending fossil fuel reliance that is tied into aggressive emission reductions. This should be the lighthouse for future direction of the Irish economy.

As evident on the Cop27 floor, Ireland is among the more ambitious in pursuing this course and is getting recognition for that. This is the club of those wanting to go further and faster in delivering climate action.

But credibility will be quickly undermined if as a rich country we do not peak our emissions sooner rather than later.

On a happier note within the Cop process, there is a clear indication Ireland has the ability to contribute to the global effort to address the threat of climate breakdown with the blend of skills within its national delegation feeding in effectively at the highest level on the EU side.

This was well illustrated in negotiations on loss and damage. The fact that Ireland is already delivering on this front in the developing world, reinforced by a record on climate justice, was a great enabler and trust builder with those countries already suffering enough from a blatantly unjust crisis which unfortunately will get worse before it potentially transitions into a sustainable world.