What happened at COP27

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COP27, in Sharm El-Sheik, Egypt, finished at the end of last week. This blog summarises two of the major talking points from this year’s negotiations – funding for loss and damage from climate change, and the viability of the 1.5oC target.

Negotiations at this year’s COP were anticipated to be in part shaped by the tumultuous geopolitical events of 2022. While some predicted the war in Ukraine (and the resultant impact on energy prices) would ultimately accelerate decarbonisation, others thought it would hinder multilateral negotiations. At COP27, the national leaders of wealthier countries typically assumed an optimistic stance, asserting that the war would not undermine climate change efforts, e.g. French President Macron and UK Prime Minster Rishi Sunak.  

Much of the build up to the event focused on the fact that the issue of loss and damage (from climate change) was on the formal agenda for the first time, that wealthier nations had failed to follow through on their $100billion annual climate finance pledge and that overall national commitments to decarbonisation were still far from enough to minimise global warming to close to 1.5oC.  

Funding to compensate for loss and damage from climate change

The headlines following COP27 mainly focused on the founding in principle of a loss and damage fund, provided by wealthier countries to the less wealthy countries most affected by the impacts (loss and damage) from climate change. The idea that compensation should be paid for climate change impacts has been raised by various parties for years, but it gained much more attention at COP26 in Glasgow and finally reached the formal agenda for negotiations at this year’s COP.

It is not yet known the exact list of countries that will contribute to the fund and those that will be in receipt of funding. The USA and the EU are the two largest bodies that have committed to paying in but a big question mark relates to what role countries such as China – the world’s biggest emitter and second largest economy – and others (e.g. Middle Eastern fossil-fuel rich nations) will play. A key condition that allowed the agreement to be reached was the stipulation that those in receipt of funding would be the ‘most vulnerable countries’ as opposed to any of the developing countries making up the G77 group (a coalition of 134 developing countries). Following the example taken by the Scottish Government last year, many more countries have announced their own unilateral contributions to loss and damage funding. For more on this see the SPICe blog on the concept of loss and damage.

While the fund’s agreement in principle is significant there is still much scepticism toward how valuable it will be. Not least because of the unmet commitments to climate finance (for mitigation and adaptation) that have come before. A coalition of the most climate-vulnerable countries have estimated that they incurred damages of the value of $525bn in the last 20 years from climate related impacts. With emissions still increasing and climate change impacts due to get much more intense, this amount is anticipated to rise significantly in the coming decades.

Is the 1.5C target still relevant?

The acceptance of the principle of funding for loss and damage was a relatively new part of the COP agenda. At previous COPs most of the focus has been on getting the biggest emitters to commit to emission reduction. While most have made some sort of commitment it is still not thought to be enough to avoid damaging levels of climate change.

A prominent talking point at COP27 was the viability of the 1.5oC target. In Glasgow, last year, the COP26 president said that the target of no more than 1.5oC of global warming was still alive but that the pulse was weak. At the beginning of COP27, the UN Secretary General put forward that the target was ‘on life support – and the machines are rattling’. Regardless of how useful the medical metaphors are, there has undoubtedly been much discussion as to whether the 1.5oC target was still achievable.

Various current political leaders (including the UK Prime Minster and the French, Dutch and Senegalese Presidents) and former leaders (the Elders Group of former global leaders) stated that they consider 1.5oC to still be possible, with some believing that optimism has a critical role to play in climate negotiations.

The UN Environment Programme does not, however, see a ‘credible pathway to 1.5oC’ , with average global temperatures thought to be regularly above 1.5oC by 2035. The World Meteorological Organisation suggests there is a 50 / 50 chance that 1.5oC will be breached (in at least one year) in the next 5 years.

While current trajectories are much higher than 1.5oC it is worth noting that prior to the Paris agreement (2015) 3.5oC of warming was projected and latest UN analysis concludes that the world is on track for between 2.6-2.9C (if all current policies are effective). While it is far from certain that these policy ambitions will be realised (with the more complicated areas of mitigation naturally left until last)  there are some optimistic voices that suggest that for some of the biggest emitters – China, the EU and India – the combined effects of current policies, commercial decisions and personal choices may be emission reductions at a faster pace than predicted.

A different angle (from Bill McGuire, Prof. Climate Hazards, University College London) is that not only is 1.5oC unachievable but that it should be retired, with the ‘problem with targets …  is that they are always still reachable – until they aren’t’ and that they ultimately ‘justify inertia right up until it is too late’.  

In the end, a commitment to 1.5oC was retained at COP27 with groups such as the G20 reaffirming their commitment during the discussion. Aside from national political leaders, however, there aren’t many that hold out much optimism for 1.5oC. The UN’s own emission gap report from earlier this year puts that chance of staying below 1.5oC at 1%, if all current policies are implemented.

Summarising what it means for Scotland

Momentum to create a loss and damage fund was partly built at COP26 in Glasgow with the Scottish Government’s payment proving to be the first of many more committed since. The commitment to a loss and damage fund this year was beyond the expectation of many with the inaugural Scottish pledge vindicated by the multilateral commitment this year.

The lack of movement on emission reduction and the realistic predictions of at least 2oC of warming may result in a shift in attention towards the consequences from global warming in Scotland. Climate change adaptation has played second fiddle to mitigation around the world but as the impacts of climate change become more visible and predictable more attention may need to go toward the changes that are necessary to make Scotland resilient to a world of at least 2-3oC of warming.

While there are many interpretations of what has been decided at the COP, overall the mood  generally was one of pessimism. Global climate negotiations are subject to a shifting baseline, with every year that passes less time is left for commitment to the major changes needed. The growing urgency heightens the expectations each year and with no new commitments to further emission reduction this time, expectations for COP28 – taking place in Dubai – will be great.

Niall Kerr, Senior Researcher – Climate Change and Net Zero

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