Unpacking outcomes of UN Climate Change Conference in Egypt

Incorporating loss, damage in COP27 document is big win but experts see gaps from failure to address payment mechanisms, to absence of policy on fossil fuels.

Unpacking outcomes of UN Climate Change Conference in Egypt

Setting up a fund for loss and damage at the recent UN Climate Change Conference, or COP27, marked a climax of decades-long demands by small island states and vulnerable countries seeking damages from polluting nations.

But experts believe the final document still left big gaps by failing to address the mechanism of payment and not coming out clearly about putting a timeline for the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy.

The formal agenda also did not include issues like how to keep warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius and how to align global financial flows with climate targets. The document did not mention that global emissions have to peak by 2025, barely three years from now.

But a notable factor in the 2022 COP was that fresh from floods, Pakistan’s deft diplomacy unprecedently helped G77 nations put up a united front spurning all allurements from developed nations to press for the incorporation of loss and damage clause.

The grouping of developing nations called G77 which had 77 members when it was founded, now has 134 members but is officially still referred to as G77.

One of the negotiators, Harjeet Singh, who heads Global Political Strategy, Climate Action Network International, said the unfortunate floods that had affected Pakistan, forced the country to launch a diplomatic blitzkrieg at the conference.

“They (Pakistan) had put a lot of capital behind on loss and damage, led the G-77 inside at negotiating tables, and did not allow fractures among developing nations,” he said.

Incremental approaches not helping

While describing the agreement on loss and damage as a solid achievement that civil society was vouching for during the past three decades, Singh, however, maintained that incremental approaches are not helping to reverse climate change effects.

“The COP27 has tackled consequences and not the cause as it did not address the major issue of equitable phase-out of fossil fuels as the environmental activists were pushing for,” he added.

Singh said the EU had insisted that only island nations and 46 least developed countries (LDCs) be classified as vulnerable countries, but it was contested.

“If you look at India and Pakistan, they are not part of the top 10 vulnerable countries and are not also part of the Climate Vulnerable Forum. We took care that developing countries that are practically vulnerable are not excluded from the list. So that way, who will get money is resolved,” he said.

But he agreed that who will pay the money and how much of it is needed and where this fund will be located remains unresolved.

He revealed that there was a push at the negotiating table to place the loss and damage fund under the Green Climate Fund, but it received pushback as this fund comes with conditionalities.

Global energy continues to depend on fossil fuels to the tune of 80%, not by accident, but because not enough was done to move away from fossil fuels and invest in renewable energy, as the Paris COP21 Agreement in 2015 did not mention coal, oil, and gas.

Sunita Narain, director general of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a leading think tank dealing with environmental issues, said incorporating loss and damage was important but a weak step.

“This (loss and damage) issue needs clarity. We have got weak wording. Tomorrow it will be reopened again in terms of who will pay, and who is vulnerable or who is a polluter," said Narain.

She further said that a principle that polluters will pay should have been enunciated clearly and a series of future actions should have been put in the document.

No attempt to club gas with fossil fuels

Further, there was no attempt to club gas in the same league as coal as an emitter under pressure from Europe, which is facing an energy crunch due to the Russia-Ukraine war.

The countries in Africa, with 17% of the world population, contributing less than 4% of emissions and not using a carbon budget, should have first right on the gas. Instead, the EU and US insisted on making a difference between the two fossil fuels --coal and gas. The EU is even returning to coal and is issuing gas licenses.

She insisted that taking just one step at a time is proving too little and too late. Therefore, the climate conference will go down as one of the worst conferences as it failed to deliver justice to the people of Africa, where it was held, and to the planet.

Participating in a webinar arranged by the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research (CPR), another negotiator, Richa Sharma, additional secretary in India’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, who was part of the discussions, recalled that putting loss and damage on the agenda was torturous.

Before formal negotiations could begin, parties had to agree to the agenda for the meeting. After a mammoth “agenda fight” lasting more than 48 hours, parties agreed to include finance for the loss and damage caused by climate change.

It took a continuous stretch of negotiation that went until 5 a.m. local time Nov. 6 to put loss and damage on the agenda as developed countries from Europe to the US were vehemently opposing it, said insiders.

Acknowledging that liability and compensation words are absent in the final document, Sharma said it was quite clear that those who share a disproportionate carbon budget have to pay to the fund.

She said there were differences among participants and finally a four-year work program was agreed upon. But she said this program can be facilitative and will not dictate new targets. It was decided that it will be non-prescriptive, non-punitive, facilitative, and respectful of national sovereignties.

She also contested the impression that COP27 decisions on the mitigation were weaker.

Her delegation emphasized that global energy crises should not be just placed in the current geopolitical context but there needs a recognition that large parts of the world are in a continuous state of energy crises, which Europe is feeling only today. Therefore, there is a need for countries to choose from their energy mix scheme and accelerate the clean energy transition.

“We had proposed phase down of unabated use of fossil fuels with the developed world taking a lead,” she said.

Rule-based order needed

Narain, however, pitched the return of a rule-based system that was removed at the 2015 conference in Paris. Further, there is a need to remove China from the G77 as it is now moving on par with the US.

“It is not China’s fault, but the removal of a rule-based system has allowed it to remain in the G77 grouping. The rule-based order would have automatically moved the countries to the next level, depending on their incomes, emissions and then asked them to pay for loss and damages,” she said.

By 2030, China will be on par with the US on the per capita emission and will occupy the same carbon budget. It is due to this system that China took $100 million from the Green Climate Fund.

Shyam Saran, India’s former foreign secretary and prime minister's special envoy for nuclear affairs and climate change, said about $4 trillion per year was required to be invested in renewable energy until 2030 to be able to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

Furthermore, the global transformation of the low-carbon economy is expected to require an investment of at least $4 to 6 trillion a year. The implementation plan for developing countries to enable them to deliver on nationally determined commitments needs $5.8 trillion ahead of 2030.

Funding is an issue

Taking a pessimistic view, he said developed countries, who were supposed to provide $100 billion annually to support climate action from 2015 - 2025 for the transition of energy from fossil fuels, have failed to keep their commitments.

“When even a modest fund of $100 billion has not been delivered, what is the hope left to get the huge amount of funds,” he said.

During negotiations, US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry also took a stand that there was no money to achieve targets. But countering him, Harjeet Singh said there were trillions available to bail out banks, to fight the coronavirus crisis and now to fight the Russia-Ukraine war.

“So, money is available, but the US has always blocked money going to poor people who are suffering from climate impacts,” said Singh, who has launched the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty to put the issue of fuel on the table.

He said the issue of loss and damage has cropped up because of the inaction of the US in the last 30 years, as it was blocking every discussion on the subject.

But Saran said that having been through such tortuous negotiations in the past, it looks like the loss and damage issue is a clever ploy by developed countries to use up all the oxygen at the summit and deflect attention from the critical issues, including the repeated failure of developed countries to own up to their historical responsibilities for climate change, their refusal
to make deep cuts in their emissions and deliver on commitments to providing adequate finance and technology to enable developing countries to undertake climate action.

On this score, the can have been rolled further down the road, he said.

Hüseyin Demir

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