Even as diplomats and activists 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?
“It isn’t just COP27, it’s the lack of action at all the other COPs since the Paris accord,” Jackson said. “We’ve been bleeding for years now.”
He blamed entrenched interests, as well as 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.
An analysis by the advocacy group Global Witness showed a record number of fossil fuel lobbyists among attendees at this year’s conference. Multiple world leaders, including this year’s Egyptian COP hosts, held events with industry representatives and spoke about natural gas as a “transition fuel” that could ease the shift to renewable energy. Though burning gas produces fewer emissions than burning coal, the production and transportation process can lead to leaks of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
In closed-door consultations, diplomats from Saudi Arabia and other oil- and gas-producing countries pushed back against proposals that would allow for nations to set new and more frequent emissions-cutting targets and call for a phaseout of all polluting fossil fuels, according to multiple people with knowledge of the negotiations.
“We went into the mitigation workshop, and it was five hours of trench warfare,” said New Zealand Climate Minister James Shaw, referring to discussions over a program designed to help countries meet their climate pledges and curb emissions across economic sectors. “It was hard work just to hold the line.”
Humanity’s current climate efforts are wildly insufficient to avoid catastrophic climate change. 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 warming well beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius — crossing a threshold that scientists say will lead to collapse of ecosystems, escalating extreme weather and widespread hunger and disease.
Sunday’s deal also fails to reflect the scientific reality, described by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change this year, that the world must rapidly reduce its dependence on coal, oil and gas. Though an unprecedented number of countries — including India, the United States and the European Union — called for language on the need to phase out all polluting fossil fuels, the overarching decision only reiterated last year’s pact in Glasgow 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.”
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 half 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 developing country leaders 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 European Union 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.”
And Harjeet Singh, head of global political strategy for Climate Action Network International, saw another benefit of requiring payment for climate harms: “COP27 has sent a warning shot to polluters that they can no longer go scot free with their climate destruction,” he said.