By: Louise Brown

The COP27 climate change negotiations in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, ended on 20th November, two days after their scheduled closing, with a decision that could be best described as an abdication by governments globally of responsibility for addressing the climate change crisis; in other words, a multilateral cop-out.

Dubbed an “implementation COP”, the Sharm el-Sheikh Implementation Plan is anything but. Two weeks of haggling by 197 Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) led to an outcome that fails to move to world closer towards limiting global temperature rise to the 1.5°C that would avert climate catastrophe. With current global climate commitments putting the world on track for 2.4°C of warming and no clear roadmap for overcoming the gap,  the agreement fails to hold large emitters accountable. In a context plagued by distrust following the continued failure of developed countries to provide the USD 100 billion per year by 2020 goal that they committed to in Copenhagen, the agreement also makes limited progress on mobilizing the climate financing that is a prerequisite for developing countries to make the costly transition towards low carbon, climate resilient growth. Globally, the investments needed to reach the Paris Agreement target for the energy sector alone are estimated at USD 4 trillion per year, with current climate finance flows at USD803 billion per year, significantly less than the global investment in fossil fuels. Despite this, efforts led by India and the EU to include language on phasing down fossil fuels were unsuccessful. One of the three core goals of the Paris Agreement  – aligning financial flows with low emissions, climate resilient development pathways (Article 2.1c) – did not even find its way into the agenda.

Despite being weak on ambition and accountability, there were a few reasons for optimism in the Sharm el-Sheikh deal. Most notable is a decision to establish a fund that will support vulnerable countries to cope with loss and damage associated with climate disasters. This represents a key victory for vulnerable countries, in particular small island developing states and least developed countries, for whom climate change represents an existential threat and who have been calling for support for loss and damage for decades. It also likely represents a tacit concession on the part of all parties that we have collectively failed so dismally to reduce emissions, that widespread compensation for loss and damage has now become inevitable.  Nonetheless, the decision defers progress on the real need: urgent and significant commitments of funding from developed countries to address the losses and damages that are already being felt in vulnerable countries with alarming frequency. Much disagreement remains on where the funding will come from.

Another reason for optimism in the agreement reached in Egypt is the call for transformation of the global financial system, including the need for action by central banks, commercial banks and institutional investors, and a call for the reform of multilateral development banks (MDBs) and other international financial institutions. This too reflects leadership by the most vulnerable countries, who through the V20 have been calling for such reforms for years. The recent launch of the Bridgetown Agenda by Barbadian Prime Minister Mia Mottley, which makes a set of specific demands of the International Monetary Fund and the MDBs that would enhance liquidity and access to finance by vulnerable countries, has gained traction with world leaders. The proposed reforms are long overdue and could be transformational. However, we must not lose track of the fact that MDBs are owned and controlled by governments – the very same governments gathered around the negotiating table at COP27 – who must turn rhetoric into action to implement these reforms.

Beyond the negotiations, the COP27 was characterized by a frenzy of activity. With close to 100 pavilions in the official “blue zone”, each with its own full schedule of events in addition to the official side events, as well as a multitude of events in the unofficial “green zone” and offsite, the noise levels and competition for attention were overwhelming for COP novices and seasoned delegates alike. Many valuable dialogues and events showcased new studies and reports (such as the UN report on net zero commitments of non-state entities), shared lessons and good practice from implementors driving climate action on the ground (such as the Environmental Investment Fund of Namibia’s event on experiences with the Green Climate Fund), launched new partnerships and initiatives to drive action (such as the launch of the Global Shield), and exchanged bold ideas and innovations (such as the Future Economy Forum’s solutions dialogues). However, there was a marked disconnect between the frenetic but sometimes unfocused activity on the side, aimed primarily at achieving visibility, and the negotiations, where parties bartered bargaining chips of text that seemed very distant from the needs, realities and solutions on the ground.

27 years of global climate multilateralism have failed to avert a climate change crisis which is economically, technically and technologically well understood and highly solvable, due to a lack of political will to take the action needed. But climate change is a global problem that requires a global solution, and the UNFCCC process is the only process that we have to bring all countries around the table to seek the solutions that will leave us all better off. There is an urgent need to reform the process. The governments that we entrust to negotiate our collective future are often driven by short term, political agendas in which climate change is not a pressing priority. But for some countries, the climate crisis is more immediate and more existential than for others. These governments need to step up and take leadership – as many such as Bangladesh, Barbados and Ghana, are already doing. Other vulnerable countries, including Namibia, should join them.  We need to amplify the voices of the communities and citizens on the ground who bear the brunt of the climate change crisis, and are the leaders in devising innovative solutions. We need to empower the youth, who face the real possibility of inheriting an unliveable planet, to take leadership across all spheres of society. We need to share, support, finance and scale up the solutions and actions that are being taken by communities, cities, businesses and civil society organisations around the world. We need to forge alliances, especially among developing country stakeholders, to enhance our collective impact.  We need to bridge the divide between negotiators and practitioners. And we need to hold our governments to account.

The COP28 will be held in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, a petrostate that has little economic interest in an ambitious climate change agreement but that nonetheless wants to position itself as an influential actor in multilateral affairs. The chances of achieving an ambitious outcome in Dubai, the likes of the “climate solidarity pact” called for by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, will depend in part on the expectations that governments, civil society, businesses and communities set for the COP presidency. We must all play our part in providing climate leadership, and demanding climate accountability.