Cop27: Burning of fossil fuels relegated to side issue

Primary success is establishment of a loss-and-damage fund; also adapting societies to effects of climate crisis

Recrimination and anger at the weak outcome of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (Cop27) in Egypt should not distract from two big outcomes with real potential to accelerate world decarbonisation while protecting the most vulnerable.

The first win is setting up a loss-and-damage fund. This will finally begin compensating the vulnerable developing world for sins of wealthy countries drunk on fossil fuels for decades and in denial of its environmental consequences. It is a great moment for those on the front lines of climate crisis.

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The detail needs to be worked out, the amounts involved have yet to be determined and, critically, who pays but the direction of travel is clear for donors and recipients. Expect a big battle over who is put into which category. There is an expectation the likes of China, Saudi Arabia and other emerging big economies will have to begin paying their dues.

A marker has also been put down that the global oil and gas industry that has raked in an average equivalent of $1 trillion a year in unearned profits for the past 50 years will have to cough up under this heading.


The second — and less trumpeted — win is commitment to a mechanism to deliver the trillions of dollars needed to help cut carbon emissions and adapt societies to the increasingly severe impacts of climate disruption.

It is flagged in the cover decision by the following lines: “[The world’s nations] call on the shareholders of multilateral development banks (MDBs) and international financial institutions to reform practices and priorities, align and scale up funding ... and encourage MDBs to define a new vision that [is] fit for the purpose of addressing the global climate emergency.”

This is significant because such reforms would scale up finance and change the lending approach of the World Bank. The call adds to pressure from developing countries, under the Bridgetown Agenda championed by Barbados prime minister Mia Mottley, and from G7 and G20 power blocs who are responsible for 80 per cent of global emissions.

The obvious weakness in outcomes relates to the global mitigation programme and addressing fossil fuels; notably, commitments made at Cop26 in Glasgow to scale up ambition on slashing emissions. Even worse, there was a deplorable level of row back.

The final text even offered a tacit blessing of natural gas, which is exacerbating the climate crisis by including a message that “low-emission” energy should be part of the world’s response to rising seas and weather extremes exacerbated by global heating. The ambiguity is deliberate, allowing for multiple interpretations.

One can only deduce the 636 registered fossil fuel lobbyists at Sharm el Sheik delivered handsomely for their bosses, who were already buoyed by the bounty arising from an unrelenting energy crisis. Their continued presence at Cops is one their most odious aspects. But that is only one indicator of increasing gaping flaws in the process.

It was always known that Cops were imperfect agents of change when it came to applying the levers to effect timely climate action but at Cop27 their inadequacy was laid bare. Minister of State for Overseas Development Aid and Diaspora Colm Brophy put it best when warning it risks becoming “an irrelevancy” because of persistent failure to turn promises into action with the developed world most to blame. That is evident, he added, in the climate roots of the unfolding hunger catastrophe in the Horn of Africa.

Disconnect also surfaced in the face of indisputable science. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was set up by the UN to advise on science, yet some countries wished to remove references to its latest findings from the final text.

Instead, a reference to the key finding of “tipping points” was put in — a warning the climate does not warm in a gradual and linear fashion, but we risk tripping feedback loops that will lead to rapidly escalating effects. These include the demise of the Amazon, which could turn the rainforest into savannah, transforming it from a carbon sink to a carbon source; and melting permafrost that releases vast quantities of the most powerful greenhouse gas, methane.

Former Cop negotiator Alden Meyer, known as the “cop whisperer” for his insights on how behind-closed-doors talks are progressing, provided updates throughout Cop27 in podcasts via the think tank E3G. Amid growing despondency in its final days, he said there would be an outcome but the question was: “Will it be sufficient for what the world needs?”

Outside observers often misunderstand what Cops are about and overestimate their influence. They are essential to effective global collective action but this mechanism alone is not going to solve the highly complex interlinked crises of climate breakdown and nature collapse.

That acknowledged, Cop27 has made due recognition of the plight of the most climate-vulnerable countries under the loss-and-damage heading but, regrettably, the sum of commitments is insufficient in contributing to what the world needs right now.

The science was made shockingly clear in the run-up to Cop27; it was reinforced by even more findings during the summit. Effects are getting worse, developed countries can no longer expect they will escape lightly.

And yet the single biggest contributor to this scenario, the burning of fossil fuels, was in effect relegated to a side issue — and in some respects weakened compared to what was promised at Cop26.

Yes, there is an expectation that the fossil fuel, aviation and fossil fuel sectors will pay into a loss-and-damage fund. But it still adds up to another year of nothing done to stop oil and gas expansion fuelling further climate chaos.