SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt — The final decision of the U.N. Climate Change Conference on Sunday yielded a breakthrough in addressing the hazards already ravaging the planet but made little progress on emissions-cutting measures that could avert even worse disasters to come.
Even as diplomats and activists at the summit, known as COP27, applauded the creation of a fund to support vulnerable countries after disasters, many worried that nations’ reluctance to adopt more ambitious climate plans had left the planet on a dangerous warming path.
“Too many parties are not ready to make more progress today in the fight against the climate crisis,” European Union climate chief Frans Timmermans told weary negotiators Sunday morning. “What we have in front of us is not enough of a step forward for people and planet.”
The equivocal agreement, reached after a year of record-setting climate disasters and weeks of fraught negotiations in Egypt, underscores the challenge of getting the whole world to agree on rapid climate action when many powerful countries and organizations remain invested in the current energy system.
Rob Jackson, a climate scientist at Stanford University and chair of the Global Carbon Project, said it’s inevitable the world will surpass what scientists consider a safe warming threshold. The only questions are by how much, and how many people will suffer as a result.
A study published midway through the COP27 negotiations found that few nations have followed through on a requirement from last year’s conference to boost their emissions-cutting pledges, and the world is on the precipice of burning more carbon than it can afford — pushing the planet over a threshold that scientists say will lead to the collapse of ecosystems, escalating extreme weather and widespread hunger and disease.
Jackson blamed entrenched interests, as well as shortsighted political leaders and general human apathy, for delaying action toward the most ambitious goal set in Paris in 2015 of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels.
“It isn’t just COP27, it’s the lack of action at all the other COPs since the Paris accord,” he said. “We’ve been bleeding for years now.”
This year’s conference unfolded amid inauspicious circumstances. The ongoing effects of the coronavirus pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had triggered a global economic crisis and sent governments scrambling to provide their citizens with energy and food. The world’s two biggest emitters — the United States and China — weren’t talking to one another.
Developed nations still hadn’t delivered financial support for developing countries that was already several years overdue, undermining the collective trust needed to secure a meaningful agreement.
Civil society activists, who typically serve as the moral compass of U.N. negotiations, also faced unprecedented constraints on their ability to protest because of the host country’s tight restrictions on public gatherings. News conferences highlighting the link between human rights and the climate crisis were disrupted by shouting matches over Egypt’s jailing of political prisoners.
Meanwhile, multiple world leaders, including the conference’s Egyptian hosts, used the event to promote their fossil fuel supplies and forge new energy agreements. COP27 President Sameh Shoukry called natural gas “a transitional source of energy” that could ease the switch from fossil fuels to renewables.
A private meeting of African leaders during the conference showed how hard it is for developing nations to forgo exploiting lucrative fossil fuel reserves, especially when they have trouble attracting investors for other, more sustainable projects.
“Africa needs gas,” said African Development Bank President Akinwumi Adesina, as the room broke out in applause. “We want to make sure we have access to electricity. We don’t want to become the museum of poverty in the world.”
But the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change this year said that to have a hope of meeting the 1.5-degree warming goal, the world cannot build any new fossil fuel infrastructure. Although burning natural gas produces fewer emissions than burning coal, the production and transportation process can lead to leaks of methane, a potent climate pollutant.
In closed-door consultations, diplomats from Saudi Arabia and other oil- and gas-producing countries pushed back against language that called for a phaseout of all polluting fossil fuels, according to multiple people with knowledge of the negotiations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations. Many of those same countries also opposed a proposal that would open the door for nations to set more frequent and ambitious emissions-cutting targets for particular industries and across their whole economies.
“We went into the mitigation workshop, and it was five hours of trench warfare,” said New Zealand Climate Minister James Shaw. “It was hard work just to hold the line.”
Though an unprecedented number of countries — including India, the United States and the European Union — called for the COP decision to reflect the need to phase out polluting oil, natural gas and coal, the overarching agreement only reiterated last year’s pact in Glasgow, Scotland, on the need for a “phase-down of unabated coal power.”
“It’s a consensus process,” said Shaw, whose country also backed the fossil fuel phaseout language. “If there’s a group of countries who are like, we will not stand for that, it’s very hard to get it done.”
China, the world’s biggest annual contributor to planet-warming emissions, remained in the background for most of the conference. The country did not join a coalition of more than 150 nations in pledging to curb methane, which is roughly 80 times more polluting than carbon dioxide in the near term. Its diplomats also balked at suggestions that the Chinese government should join developed nations in providing financial support for more vulnerable countries.
Delegates also rejected a proposal by the E.U. and its allies that would have required all countries to start reducing their planet-warming emissions by 2025.
Outside the negotiating rooms, an analysis by the advocacy group Global Witness showed a record number of fossil fuel lobbyists among attendees at this year’s meeting. Climate justice activist Asad Rehman recalled encountering an executive on one of the conference shuttle buses who told him that COP was the best place to strike deals.
“People think we come to these negotiations and we’re talking about climate. We’re not,” said Rehman, executive director of the anti-poverty nonprofit War on Want, who has called for the United Nations to institute a conflict-of-interest policy at climate conferences.
“The reality is these climate negotiations are talking about the political economy of the future,” he said. “Who will benefit and who won’t? Who will survive and who won’t?”
Yet the historic agreement on a fund for irreversible climate harms — known in U.N. parlance as “loss and damage” — also showed how the COP process can empower the world’s smallest and most vulnerable countries.
Many observers believed the United States and other industrialized nations would never make such a financial commitment out of fear of liability for the trillions of dollars in damage that climate change will cause.
But after catastrophic floods left a third of Pakistan underwater this year, the country’s diplomats led a negotiating block of more than 130 developing nations in demanding that “funding arrangements for loss and damage” be added to the meeting agenda.
“If there is any sense of morality and equity in international affairs … then there should be solidarity with the people of Pakistan and the people who are affected by the climate crisis,” Pakistani negotiator Munir Akram said in the early days of the conference. “This is a matter of climate justice.”
Resistance from wealthy countries began to soften as leaders of developing countries made clear they would not leave without a loss and damage fund. As talks stretched into overtime on Saturday, diplomats from small island states met with E.U. negotiators to broker the deal that nations ultimately agreed on.
Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, climate envoy for the Marshall Islands, said the success of that effort gave her optimism that countries could also do more to prevent future warming — something that’s necessary to keep her tiny Pacific nation from vanishing into rising seas.
“We’ve shown with the loss and damage fund that we can do the impossible,” she said, “so we know we can come back next year and get rid of fossil fuels once and for all.”
Harjeet Singh, head of global political strategy for Climate Action Network International, saw another benefit of requiring payment for climate harms: It might be what finally convinces major emitters to stop making the problem worse.
“COP27 has sent a warning shot to polluters that they can no longer go scot-free with their climate destruction,” he said.
And while many questioned whether Sunday’s deal would make a difference in the overall warming trajectory, U.S. special envoy on climate John F. Kerry — who worked to reach a final deal even as he was forced to isolate after contracting covid while in Sharm el-Sheikh — predicted that it would.
“Every tenth of a degree of warming averted means less drought, less flooding, less sea-level rise, less extreme weather,” Kerry said. “It means lives saved and losses avoided.”
Timothy Puko and Evan Halper in Sharm el-Sheikh and Brady Dennis and Michael Birnbaum in Washington contributed to this report.
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