Sharm-El-Sheikh and After

Uday Kumar Varma

COP27 has concluded. The agreement reached in the wee hours of 20th morning, predictably offers little in substance, except for a tentative promise of establishing and operationalizing a ‘Loss and Damage’ Fund, a long standing and increasingly trenchant demand of developing countries. However, the modalities of its quantum and operation remains to be fleshed out. Except this, rest remains merely optics. This article attempts to analyse the outcome of COP27 and how actually they stand a chance of implementation.

COP27 at Sharml-El-Sheikh concluded in the wee hours of 20th November, two days beyond the scheduled day of conclusion. The outcome is predictably vague, inconclusive, an agreement to save faces.

The most significant achievement at COP27 is the decision to establish and operationalise a ‘loss and damage’ fund, with a commitment to set up a financial support structure for the most vulnerable by the next COP in 2023.  Welcoming this decision, Antonio Gueterres, UN Secretary General called it an important step towards justice. “The world still needs a giant leap on climate ambition. We can and must win this battle for our lives.”, he hoped.

The other reported outcomes include focusing on post-2025 finance goal, and the so-called mitigation work programme, that would reduce emissions faster, catalyse impactful action, and secure assurances from key countries that they will take immediate action to raise ambition on the path towards 1.5°C.

A new term, ‘low emissions energy’ has been introduced alongside renewable, as the energy source of future. Observers, however, warn that the new language  is a significant loophole, as the undefined term could be used to justify new fossil fuel development against the clear guidance of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the International Energy Agency (IEA).

While agreement on these issues may offer some comfort, there appears to be little forward movement on most other key issues, particularly on the phasing out of fossil fuels, and tightened and binding language on the need to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.  

Limiting Global Warming to 1.5 degree
The most crucial of all issues and the one on which nations stand committed i.e. limiting warming to 1.5 degree, saw no progress. The declarations on this aspect rings hollow and seems a reiteration of an impossibility, that everyone knows but ostrich-like not ready to accept. The world is destined to heat beyond this limit.

“A year on from the Glasgow Cop26, a further 40bn tonnes of carbon dioxide has been spewed into the atmosphere”, says Professor Kevin Anderson, Manchester University.

“I struggle to understand how anyone can continue to argue that 1.5C is still alive,” argues another expert.

Despite a unanimous conclusion that there is no way the 1.5-degree climate target will be met under any circumstance, the COP27 reiterates it without telling how, corroborating the criticism that the talks are a charade, a farcical charade. The impression is not without truth.

To see why 1.5°C is dead, one needs to invoke the concept of carbon budget, the amount of cumulative carbon-dioxide emissions associated with a specific amount of warming. Such budgets can be estimated pretty well from climate models. According to the IPCC the budget for a 50% chance of avoiding more than 1.5°C of warming is 2,890bn tonnes of carbon dioxide. Some 2,390bn of this had already been emitted by 2019. That left a pre-pandemic carbon budget of 500bn tonnes. Since then, a further 40bn tonnes has been emitted each year, roughly, leaving less than 400bn tonnes in the budget. Can someone still argue that 1.5 degree is plausible?

Someone called this target a ‘totem’. And this totemism is over. The world needs to face up to the reality that the well- intentioned 1.5-degree target stands missed. This miserable facade of climate concern grinds to its ‘groundhog’ end.

Limiting Fossil Fuels
On fossil fuels, the agreement is as elusive. Hopes were raised at Cop27 that serious reductions could be made in humanity’s burning of coal, gas and oil, the major causes of climate change. This optimism sprang from India’s call for fossil fuel burning to phased down – though not phasing out. The silence of the agreement on this crucial issue is loud and uncomfortable.

India at COP27
Two things stand out from the perspective of India. India’s call for phasing down all fossil fuels caught traction but failed to carry the day. Its logic was impeccable but short term economic interests overawe reason and logic. It is a reality that the world has faced in the past, continue to face and will continues to face.

India’s pledge to prioritize a phased transition to cleaner fuels and slashing household consumption to achieve net zero emissions by 2070, has been well received. It is far more specific and reflects the commitment made by Indian Prime Minister at Glasgow last year. The report for the first time sketches out how the world’s second-biggest consumer of coal will meet its decarbonisation pledge made in 2021 as part of international efforts to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial temperatures.

“This is an important milestone,” said India’s Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav at a COP27 event marking the report’s launch. “Once again India has demonstrated that it walks the talk on climate change.”

These plans are known as a Long-Term Low Emissions and Development Strategies(LT-LEDS). Despite a 2020 deadline for the plans, just 56 countries have so far submitted one. Although the last of the world’s five largest economies to do so, India’s LT-LEDS is specific and credible. It zeroes in on six key areas to reduce net emissions, including electricity, urbanization, transport, forests, finance, and industry and proposes increasing the use of biofuels – particularly ethanol blending in petrol – boosting the number of electric vehicles on the road, alongside expanded public transport networks, and using more green hydrogen fuel.

Unlike Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), which are also mandated under the Paris Agreement, LT-LEDS focus on a longer time horizon and don’t require countries to report progress.

India updated its NDC in August, committing the country to reduce the emissions intensity of its GDP by 45% from its 2005 level in the next 7 years – a 10 percentage point increase over its previous 2016 pledge.

India and other developing countries have long resisted calls for a rapid move away from fossil fuels that could undermine their economic growth and impose big costs.

 ‘Loss and Damage’ Fund – Its Future?
 While the declaration of an intent to establish and operationalist a ’loss and damage’ fund may bring some comfort particularly to developing country, there is not a whisper as to the actual amount that would be set aside for this fund nor the modus of contribution. And there is no guarantee that wealthy countries will deposit money in the fund and if yes, when? The declaration talks of a committee with representatives from 24 countries to hammer out the next step, a sure indication of the reluctance and hedging of rich countries. For the US, acceptance of the proposal for creating such a fund was a tactical compulsion and necessity, lest she was blamed for the complete collapse of any progress in COP27. But substantially, it seems merely a face saving optics, in view of the fact that the earlier promise of  $100 billion a year for adaptation and mitigation remains woefully breached, many magnitudes off, given the requirement of at least $2.5 trillion by 2030

The loss and damage deal agreed is a positive step, but it risks becoming a ‘fund for the end of the world; if countries don’t move faster to slash emissions.” says an expert. The rich countries may still use this fund as an excuse to delay and stagger their emission cutting commitments. 

On climate crisis the planet is on a wing and a prayer. It urgently needs a new totem for the charade to continue.

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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