Just a year ago, I assessed the outcome of the Glasgow COP26 climate conference, and concluded that the outcome was fairly positive. Nations that emit greenhouse gases were at last making the right noises – that they understood the problem and the need to cut emissions to net zero in order to stabilise the climate. The pledges they made to cut emissions were not enough to keep warming below the Paris agreement limits of 1.5 or 2°C, and it was unclear how they would meet their pledges, but still they were moving in the right direction.
Now a year later, COP27 in Egypt had a difficult task to keep the momentum going. Later on, I will discuss how it did, but first it’s worth considering some events of the last year.
Firstly, the IPCC has completed its latest trio of reports that describe the state and prognosis for our climate, discuss how to mitigate climate change by reducing greenhouse gases, and examine how to adapt to the changes that are going to happen anyway. The IPCC reports emphasised how urgent action in the next few years is, if we are to restrict warming to less dangerous levels. At the Royal Society we have produced a briefing that distils the reports into a few pages and discusses what they imply for the UK. If I had to summarise the IPCC reports and our briefing in one sentence it would be “You know the problem, and we know what the solutions are, now get on with it!”
A second major event was the energy crisis brought on by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and subsequent events. As nations have looked for quick fixes towards energy independence, some, including the UK, have paradoxically proposed actions that have called their COP26 pledges into question. Reducing dependence on suppliers of fossil fuels requires aggressively building alternative energy supplies. Unlocking new supplies of coal, oil or gas can only increase the total emissions of greenhouse gases, while being too slow to solve the immediate problem. In any case, any nation aiming for net zero needs to explain what else it will do to counterbalance the new emissions. For the UK, which claims leadership in climate action after COP26, the need to set an example to other countries makes the extra emissions implied by new coal, oil and gas particularly counterproductive.
So, it’s against this backdrop that COP27 needed to focus on building the ambition of Glasgow and turning it into delivery. I should say now that I didn’t attend COP27, so I am simply assessing how it looks from the outside. Unfortunately, instead of making progress, it seems to have cut back on ambition. On the key task of reducing emissions of greenhouse gases in order to restrict climate impacts, COP27 achieved little. Few nations set themselves more ambitious emissions reductions targets. The inclusion in the agreement reached at Sharm el Sheikh of language
implying that “low emission” fossil fuels are part of the road to net zero showed a lack of ambition. Burning of all fossil fuels, whether it is coal, oil or gas, turns carbon into carbon dioxide, and if you do that without capturing the carbon, you are not contributing to reaching net zero: you are just adding to the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and making the problem worse.
The one apparent success of the conference was the agreement to establish a new loss and damage fund to provide financial assistance to the most impacted nations for the damage that climate change does to them. While this was certainly seen by affected nations as progress towards a fair and just transition, it plays no part in actually solving the problem of climate change. In fact in some senses this is surely just an admission of defeat - how much better to avoid loss and damage than to pay for it.
So, I’m afraid that COP27 is a serious disappointment that makes achieving a goal of limiting global temperature rise to less than 2° compared to its pre-industrial level increasingly unlikely (with 1.5° starting to look physically impossible). The next COP in 2023 will be in the oil-producing United Arab Emirates (UAE). The host nation plays a big role in determining what is agreed, and if they are to make progress, negotiators will need to challenge the UAE to look to a future when they lead the world out of fossil fuels, rather than clinging on to such a dangerous source of energy.
In order to stabilise the climate, global emissions of CO2 have to reach net zero. Far from reducing to zero, 2022 emissions are projected to be the highest ever. Every COP that fails to reduce them means that the temperature we reach will be higher, with the associated extra harmful impacts that brings.
Find out more about climate change and COP at the Royal Society.