Threading the Needle at COP27

Almost nothing – but something real – changed at this year’s climate conference

There is something in the modern radical mind that wants the climate negotiations to fail. Such a failure, after all, would seem to prove that this wretched system cannot be reformed, that only a revolutionary break can re-open the human future.

COP27, the climate conference in Sharm El Sheik in Egypt, was not, however, a failure. I say this despite the fact that my inbox contains, among much else, an alert from an international organization I generally support (and will not name) that tells me that “For the 27th time in its history, COP, the United Nations Convention on Climate Change, has failed. The rapid degradation of our planet by our industrial economy will not be held in check.”

Alas, this email’s date stamp, November 18, places it two days before COP27 ended. During those two days, the rich countries that had blocked the establishment of the Loss and Damage fund folded under immense political pressure, thus allowing COP27 to finally create the fund.

The United States, the greatest of the miscreants, was the last to stand down. By some reports, it only did so after a last-minute threat by European negotiators to abandon the talks. But despite this win, the endless U.S. stalling did immense damage. In particular, it allowed the Egyptian presidency, no friend of humanity and nature, to play out an end-game gambit in which, finally, the core mitigation text—which is far too weak—couldn’t be challenged without putting the new fund at risk.

This was a failure, no doubt about it. But it was not a systemic failure. It wasn’t the fault of “the COP”—as in “COP27 is a COP out,” one of the least inspired of the recent headlines—unless this accusation extends to the UN system itself, which condemns the climate talks to consensus decision-making. This might be fair enough, save for one thing – blaming the UN lets the governments themselves off the hook, and this will not do, because the governments could yet change the rules.

Still, the Loss and Damage fund is a very big deal, or will be if we manage to provision it – to fund it adequately. As Mohamed Adow, the executive director of Power Shift Africa, put it, “What we have is an empty bucket. Now we need to fill it so that support can flow to the most impacted people who are suffering right now at the hands of the climate crisis.”

This is exactly right, and not just because a great deal of loss and damage finance is needed. So too is a great deal of mitigation finance. And adaptation finance. And just transition finance. But after COP27’s loss and damage finance battle, something very large has shifted. Back in the old days, when it was still possible to honestly imagine that mitigation alone would be sufficient, it was also possible to argue that the redirection of private capital flows would more or less suffice. But those days are over. Today, no one honestly believes that a meaningful flow of loss and damage finance will come through private channels, and this realization spills over to the transition portfolio as a whole.

The decision to create the loss and damage fund has thus queued up the real financing battle, in which international public finance takes center stage. Further, it did this even while it pushed the linked battle to phase out fossil fuels to a qualitatively new level. That battle was lost at COP27, but this was just an initial skirmish. Indeed, at COP27, the government of India, which will soon hold the G20 Presidency, came out, again and unambiguously, for the “phase down” (not “out”) of all fossil fuels, not just coal. The politics here are complex and fraught, and they promise to remain so, but this was unambiguously good news. The old days in which all major G77 politicians could be expected to reflexively argue that fossil energy is essential to development are, it seems, over.

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The Imperative of Cooperation

This year’s Civil Society Equity ReviewThe Imperative of Cooperation: Steps Toward and Equitable Response to the Climate Crisis — builds on previous years’ elaborations of fair shares and its many meanings and implications, elaborations that have focused on emission reductions, adaptation, loss & damage, and fossil fuel phase out.

Unlike previous reports, this year’s is a bit of a compendium. It focuses on international cooperation as such, discussing and surveying key areas where international cooperation is both possible and necessary. In so doing, it presents opportunities for international cooperation that very explicitly apply to all countries and continents, though it also pauses to recognize how the particular situation in Africa – the host of COP27 – crystalizes some of the key inequities of the malfunctioning world order.

This report outlines areas of potential international cooperation across four broad areas:

  • International Cooperation under the UNFCCC
  • International Cooperation through initiatives and multilateral platforms to address financing, renewable energy and fossil fuel phase-out
  • International Cooperation to manage energy price instability and a fair share phase out
  • International Cooperation Towards Changing the Rules and Architecture of Global Trade, Investment, Finance and Technology

Needs-based Assessment — A Negotiator’s Brief

Just before COP27, the Equity Working Group of the Independent Global Stocktake organized a workshop entitled “Enabling a Needs-Based and Equitable Climate Regime”. It was extremely illuminating, because — as it happens — needs based assessment is fated to be key to any international effort sharing system that is scoped to include more than mitigation alone.

Consider adaptation need, or loss and damage need, or just transition need in general. All countries have such needs, and many countries require support if they are to have any real chance of meeting them, and thus successfully rising to the climate challenge. But how can such support be assessed, relative to the scope and nature of these needs? And how can this be done in any sort of meaningful way?

The challenge here is fundamental to any true global stocktake. For this reason, we distilled the takeaways from the needs-based assessment workshop into this Negotiator’s Brief, which was widely distributed, at COP27, among developing country negotiators. It was, by all accounts, quite helpful.