Climate Talks at Sharm-El-Sheikh

Uday Kumar Varma

World attention will be riveted to Sharm-El-Sheikh in Egypt where over 90 Heads of State, diplomats, officials, businesses and advocacy organizations will gather for COP27, an annual event under . But the conference seems doomed as the positions of the participants, largely divided between developed and developing countries, or rather the culprits and the victims, become rigid and increasingly irreconcilable.

In a two part article, an attempt is made to understand the background, the challenges and the prospects that relate to this significant and yet frustrating event that many prefer to call a charade. The first part, while, deals with the background and the status so far, the next part would argue why reparations is a legally sound and binding proposition. 

Coming Sunday, November the 6th, over 90 Heads of State, hundreds of diplomats and officials, businesses, and Advocacy Agencies will descend on the Egyptian Resort town of Sharm-el-Sheikh for the 27th annual UN Climate Conference of the Parties (COP) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). 

Ironically, the Conference host is known for its poor Human Rights record, and its sponsors, Coca Cola is world’s largest plastic generating company. Detractors call it a charade, yet this alone seems the only way forward to delay if not altogether evade, a cataclysm.

What  happened at previous COPs?
The UNFCCC has convened a Conference for the Parties (COP) on Climate Change nearly every year since 1995. The first one was at Berlin. The only year without a COP was 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The last COP at Glasgow was set for 2020 instead of 2021.

COP1 set the stage to address the climate crisis by establishing a globally collaborative means for countries to cut emissions. 

COPs 1–3 established the Kyoto Protocol, a binding climate agreement that required developed countries (37 industrialized nations plus the European Community) to cut emissions by 5% below 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012, but made cuts voluntary for developing world’s countries, including India and China. Ultimately, without participation from the United States, Kyoto failed to deliver sweeping emissions cuts and results.  

Since Kyoto, each COP has focused more heavily on voluntary efforts and nationally determined contributions (NDCs). These efforts eventually brought us the Paris Agreement, established in 2015 at COP21. The Paris Agreement is a binding international treaty with voluntary NDC commitments. Countries identify their own NDCs for emissions cuts and have them reviewed independently every five years. 

Also, at COP21 in Paris, developed countries agreed on a new process to expand national and international climate finance for developing countries by $100 billion annually by 2020. That money is meant to focus on mitigation and adaptation in relatively high-emitting countries. But they were not branded reparations.

COP26 Glasgow
At COP26 in Glasgow, countries had to submit their plans—their NDCs—for climate action. In Glasgow, countries also agreed to limit global average temperature increases to 1.5°C. It declared the 2020s as the “decade of action,” and agreed to phase down unabated coal production and fossil fuel subsidies. (Global fossil fuel subsidies were $5.9 trillion in 2020—which was 6.8% of global GDP, likely to increase to 7.4% of global GDP by 2025.) Glasgow was hailed as a success.

COP 27 ,however, begins in a backdrop of failed promises and a global political situation that is barely encouraging. 
The Paris spirit has evaporated. The biggest setback was US’s dissociation with it. Most of the promises made at Glasgow, remain unmet. As the efforts remain unscaled, the world is still on course for at least 2.4 degrees C (4.3 degrees F) of warming by the end of century.

The agreed goal, however, was to restrict it to 2 degrees compared with pre-industrial times, preferably to 1.5 degree Celsius.

The reality of the climate change, though, is shifting from incremental change to shocking disrupting uncertainties.  Devastating impacts of climate change—flooding, crop and food insecurity, biodiversity loss, and life-threatening heat waves, have increased in frequency and intensity with unpredictability becoming its central feature. A new genre of refugees namely climate refugees has sadly emerged.

In Europe, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has given fossil fuels renewed life. Germany, once a trailblazer in adopting renewable energy, is one of several European countries that are reopening coal-fired power plants. Britain, which continues to chair global climate negotiations until COP27 opens, faced with financial and political meltdown, has awarded licences to exploit hydrocarbons beneath the North Sea, promising to resume fracking on land, and even reportedly vetoing King Charles’s plan to attend COP27.
Ruth Townend, climate risk fellow at Chatham House, a London-based think tank, says “food and energy insecurity and dramatic price rises have … pushed climate change down domestic political agendas across the world.”

Across the globe, politicians’ minds are on other things, their priorities consumed by national ambitions, their own survival and unwillingness to cede space to others. Paris Agreement could be reached because US and China came together. Such possibility in near future seems ruled out.

Bleak Prelude

The commitments made in Glasgow are mostly languishing. All nations pledged to “revisit and strengthen” their 2030 emissions targets by the end of 2022 in order to better align them with the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement to limit warming to close to 1.5 degrees C. But by mid-October, only 24 mostly small countries had submitted new targets. Of industrialized nations, only Australia, under a new government, has significantly upped its commitments, analysts say.
Meanwhile, the many national pledges that made headlines in Glasgow — on restoring forests, cutting methane emissions, phasing out coal, decarbonizing shipping, and more — have had few tangible outcomes. For instance, only 15 of the 119 nations that signed the pledge on methane have yet produced quantified reduction targets. There isn’t even a whisper on how many of the pledges will be audited or measured.

COP27 Goals
COP27’s goals officially include: 
Mitigation: Keep the 1.5°C target alive and keep global warming below 2°C. 
Adaptation: COP27 hopes to build on The Global Goal on Adaptation set at COP26 including  doubling the  funding to developing countries for adaptation by 2025.
Finance:  To address the reality that climate finance and transparency are essential to achieve the goals of The Paris Agreement. The Paris goal of delivering $100 billion annually in climate finance is woefully short till now. 
Collaboration: COP27 aims to have governments, civil society, and businesses work together to help the world transition toward a green economy and alleviate the worst impacts of our climate crisis.
Finance will be essential to address mitigation, adaptation, and, most vital for rebuilding after environmental loss and damage. Finance will make or break emissions-reducing NDCs for developing countries. Money must be provided and by those countries who are primarily responsible for the crisis. 

But the way to hell is paved with good intentions. There is a looming catastrophe. Two and a half decades ago the world decided to restrain its greenhouse gas emissions. In absolute terms however, the annual global emissions are still rising, now touching almost 50 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. Moreover, even if the growth in emissions is halted immediately, or is made to decline, it does not solve the problem. This is because the warming of the planet is the result of accumulated emissions in the atmosphere and not the current emissions. Carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, remains in the atmosphere for about 100 years, so that the effect of any immediate decline in emissions would have an impact only after several decades.

The average global temperatures have risen faster in the last one decade than anytime earlier. This trend is only likely to accelerate in the coming years.

Inadequate Response 
The response in terms of emission cuts has been far from adequate. The rich and industrialised countries, which were the main polluters and hence mainly responsible to bring down emissions, have not met their collective targets. China, not a major emitter till some time back has seen emissions rise steeply by almost four times..

For a realistic chance to keep global warming within 1.5 degree Celsius, annual emissions would need to drop from the current level of about 50 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent to about 33 billion tonnes by 2030 and 8 billion tonnes by 2050, according to the newest Emissions Gap Report. Even for meeting the 2-degree target, emissions have to come down to about 41 billion tonnes by 2030 and 20 billion tonnes by 2050.

In the last one year, just about 25 countries, mostly small, have strengthened their 2030 climate action plans. Sadly they carry  minimal potential to bend the emission curve.

The United States, the world’s leading emitter till it was overtaken by China in the mid 2000s, has been a major laggard, cutting its emissions by only about 7 per cent from 1990 levels.

So What Next?
Notwithstanding its bleak prospects, COP27 could be different, though, in one respect. Glasgow lacked commitments to address ‘loss and damage’, but COP27 in Egypt will likely centre a serious discussion on reparations as also to renew and expand commitments to finance climate resiliency, mitigation, and adaptation efforts for developing countries. While COP26 saw a commitment by 21 countries, including the U.S. and UK, to stop financing fossil fuels abroad, COP27 could see similar commitments regarding finance for loss and damage. Will developed countries led by US bite the bullet?

The mood is downcast and the prospects bleak.

Yet, the hope must be kept alive.

(To be Continued)

Uday Kumar Varma, a 1976 batch IAS officer of Madhya Pradesh cadre, was Secretary Information & Broadcasting, member of the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) and member of the Broadcasting Content Complaints Council, a self-regulatory body for general entertainment channels. As Secretary I&B, he spearheaded the nationwide digitisation programme.

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