For over two weeks last month, 35,000 attendees representing governments, businesses, civil society and activists, gathered in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm El-Sheikh for the 27th Conference of the Parties (COP27) to discuss progress on tackling the global climate crisis.
As we have learned from prior COPs, international negotiations on how to reign in greenhouse gas emissions are protracted, often contentious and rarely yield watershed moments. So I did not get my hopes up too much this year either. But, after a frenzy of negotiations stretching into a second day of overtime, there was a small glimmer of hope on one particularly fraught issue—the question of compensation for climate change related losses and damages. After years of side-stepping and outright rejection by wealthy countries responsible for much of historical GHG emissions, the European Union was the first to step up and agree to establish a fund for compensating poor countries that contributed little to the problem but are highly vulnerable to climate change impacts. The United States reluctantly relented as well.
Is it a breakthrough concession? Not really, but it is progress because up to now the industrialized countries rejected any form of damage and loss compensation, afraid that doing so would open the door to being held legally liable. The EU would instead have preferred to use existing means such as insurance markets, technology transfer, and financial assistance mechanisms, but poorer countries hit hard by climate disasters drove a pressure campaign that ultimately proved successful.
The agreement still requires many details to be developed, including who will pay and how much into the fund, how it will be governed and the policies specifying the rules for the distribution of funds. The EU, for example, wants China (still considered a developing country by the World Bank) to pay into the fund and wants emerging economies with high and rising emissions to step up their emission reduction plans.
Prior COP meetings also have a history of ending with statements that remain aspirational, including the commitment of wealthy countries in 2009 to provide $100 billion annually by 2020 to assist poorer countries in climate change mitigation and adaptation, a pledge that they have fallen short of every year since. The climate envoys negotiating at the COP meetings are also not necessarily the ones controlling countries’ purses. In the U.S., for example, any money for the fund will need to be appropriated by Congress, which the recent midterm elections have made more doubtful.
On other climate issues, COP27 continued negotiations but made little new progress, including on crucially needed increases in national emission reduction commitments and the need to phase out, not just phase down, fossil fuel energy use. Discussions also continued on topics such as reducing methane emissions and so-called Border Carbon Adjustments (BCAs), which addresses issues of carbon-intensive industries moving from carbon-regulated countries and regions to those with more lax regulations. The EU has a proposal in the final stages of development and the U.S. is expected to release one soon. Although the Russian invasion of Ukraine caused turmoil in energy markets and concerns about an increase in fossil fuels by countries like India, its effects on the transition to a global low-carbon energy economy remain somewhat unclear and it was not a key discussion point at COP27.
That leaves me with two concluding observations: The UN is finally getting serious about calling out greenwashing. Releasing a new report on the dubious decarbonization claims made by businesses and other actors on the opening day of COP27, UN Secretary General Guterres lamented that the gap between claims and actual reality of carbon neutrality and net zero statements is wide enough to “drive a diesel truck through”. The other is that the typically raucous civil activism atmosphere at COPs was markedly muted by Egyptian security at Sharm El-Sheikh, which should remind everyone that any equitable and socially just path toward climate stabilization must include the right to free speech and assembly. Sharm El-Sheikh was mostly devoid of this expression of civil rights and I hope that COP27 next year in Dubai will not be a repeat but lead the path towards stepped up international action to a just and fast transition away from fossil fuels.
Tanja Srebotnjak is the Director of the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives at Williams College.