After two weeks of challenging negotiations in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, this year’s annual UN Climate conference, COP27, has concluded. Its outcome: bleak. Following last year’s COP26 in Glasgow, many hoped this would be the year in which ideas centered around justice would produce the solutions needed to combat climate change. Unfortunately, many of the COP27 goals were met with dispute and inaction.
The biggest outcome of COP27 was the establishment of a new loss and damage fund to be used to provide financial aid to countries being harmed by the effects of climate change. Across the globe, the most vulnerable communities are being disproportionately affected by climate change, whether it’s through extreme weather events like floods and forest fires or stress on water supply amid drought. Failure to move on these issues is something we cannot afford.
What is loss and damage?
A landmark decision on ‘loss and damage’ was finally reached on Sunday, November 19th, after negotiations had already poured over by 36 hours. The decision states that a common fund would be established that prioritizes aid to vulnerable nations and allows for voluntary commitments from those still considered to be developing countries.
The decision comes after more than 30 years of deliberation between nations due to the divide between developing countries and developed countries. While the effects of climate change are felt across the world, some countries are bearing the brunt more than others. Rich countries have spent decades, if not centuries, developing their economies by emitting greenhouse gasses. As a result, they’re now responsible for 86% of global emissions, but also have the financial capabilities to more adequately deal with negative effects of climate change.
Alternatively, poor and under-developed nations are only responsible for 14.5% of global emissions, and lack the financial resources to deal with the climate hardships they are currently facing. Aside from economic ability, geographical disadvantages also make certain countries more vulnerable to extreme weather events and therefore more negatively affected by climate change. Countries with more advantageous or resilient locations are less affected and up until now, had failed to see the urgency and importance of addressing loss and damage.
Tuvalu, a country that accounts for less than 0.03% of global emissions, is a devastating example of this reality. The small island nation is sinking due to rising sea levels and scientists have predicted that within the next 50 to 100 years, sea levels will rise by 20-40 centimeters, making the country literally inhabitable. In order to combat these effects, countries like Tuvalu desperately need the financial infrastructure that would be provided by a loss and damage fund.
Who should foot the bill?
One of the reasons why loss and damage became such a sticking point is because although the importance of addressing climate finance was widely understood, no one could agree on who should be responsible for providing that funding. Many developing countries and climate justice proponents believe that those who historically have contributed more to greenhouse gas emissions and have a larger hand in causing climate change should pay the most. However, not everyone agrees with that reasoning.
China, for example, is one of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gasses. However, it still considers itself a developing country, and therefore not responsible to pay for the negative repercussions of their emissions. “There is not an obligation on China [to contribute funds] but we are willing to make our contribution …. Our attitude [to loss and damage] is very supportive and understanding,” said Xie Zhenhua, the head of China’s delegation. Larger nations like Brazil and India, as well as smaller developing nations in Africa backed China’s stance and spent most of the conference blocking negotiations and making it difficult to pass any implementation plans on loss and damage.
Despite its historic passing, it is important to note that so far there are very few nations that have committed to contributing to the fund. Without an adequate number of countries significantly pledging their contributions, it is likely the goal of helping the most vulnerable nations will fall short.
The fossil fuel industry’s seat at table
Another shortcoming of the conference was its inability to come to agreement on the phasing out of fossil fuels, an undeniable step towards effective climate change action. Many climate activists believe this is because of the 636 lobbyists for the fossil fuel industry who were present at the conference. The industry’s increased participation prompted widespread backlash and angered activists who believe their involvement will only slow effective climate action.
Even Greta Thunberg refused to join COP27 this year, calling the fossil fuel industry’s engagement in the conference “a form of greenwashing.” A similar sentiment was echoed by Nigerian activist Nnimmo Basse who argued that allowing fossil fuel representatives to participate was a “form of colonialism [that] cannot be tolerated.” The concern is that their continued involvement will prevent the parties from being able to come to an agreement on phasing down of fossil fuels and perpetuate the existing issues of fairness, equity, and responsibility.
Despite its notable shortcomings, COP27 did make efforts to push the needle on climate change action. Its final production of a deal on ‘loss and damages’ saved its reputation from being seen as another COP26, which lacked progress and action. There were also crucial moments for women and young people that inspired hope in a more inclusive climate future. One day of the conference was centered around ‘Women and Water,’ which acknowledged the crucial role women play in climate crisis solutions, specifically in regards to water scarcity. Additionally, for the first time ever, youth activists were given their own pavilion to engage in discussion and offer a fresh perspective to this year’s negotiations.
It is expected that the biggest hurdle for next year’s COP28 will be determining how exactly diverging groups (eg., developed vs. developing countries) will collectively act to implement the agreements made this year: the loss and damage fund, continual commitment to capping global warming at 1.5 degrees, the integration of non-state actors, and an increased focus on nature-based solutions. In regards to loss and damage, it will also be important to determine who among countries and industries will be expected to contribute. Given the continued question of responsibility and equity, next year’s negotiations will likely not be easy.
Unfortunately, climate models predict that extreme events like the ones seen in 2022 – namely the floods in Pakistan, droughts in Africa, and heat waves across the globe – will only increase in frequency and intensity. It is important that these inevitable effects of climate change spur action and pressure major states to listen to vulnerable communities and act now, while we just barely have time.