While the COP27 talks in Egypt did not deliver any dramatic new initiatives to address the climate crisis, moving the debate to Africa delivered a more inclusive COP and an agreement to help the most vulnerable cope with the impacts of climate change. Thalia Griffiths asks what happens next.
With so many crises competing for world leaders’ attention, it was gratifying to see most of them turning up in Sharm el-Sheikh for the COP27 talks. Even Rishi Sunak, who had originally claimed he was too busy, was shamed into attending.
Ahead of the conference the UN warned that “no credible pathway” exists to remain within the agreed global 1.5C temperature increase limit. COP26 president Alok Sharma said after the Egypt talks the 1.5C commitment was “on life support”.
But while there was no new impetus to cut the emissions causing climate change, COP27 did see agreement to establish a Loss and Damage fund to help vulnerable countries. Funding arrangements have yet to be settled, but this was the first time the issue had even made it to the agenda.
Billed as the “African COP”, the meeting highlighted the hypocrisy of rich countries that lecture African states on the need to keep their hydrocarbon discoveries in the ground. Tanzania and Uganda are rightly furious that Europe is reopening its coal plants to make up for the loss of Russian gas while the European Parliament tells them they can’t build an oil export pipeline.
And while Africa’s gas will be produced for export to Europe and Asia, so far there is little prospect of Africans getting any help with the energy transition. It remains unclear how the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal of universal access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy can be made compatible with climate targets.
A furious opinion piece by Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari in the Washington Post argued that the West is not doing enough on measures to help African countries adapt to climate change. There is much to be done – a report released ahead of COP co-authored by climate economist Nicholas Stern said developing countries will need $2trn/yr by 2030 to help them switch away from fossil fuels, invest in renewable energy and other low-carbon technologies, and cope with extreme weather.
COP27 was also praised for its inclusivity, unlike COP26, which was criticised for excluding activists from countries at the forefront of climate breakdown, including Pacific Island states that could disappear if sea levels rise.
Oil companies’ presence in Sharm el-Sheikh has been variously interpreted as a bigger push to include fossil fuels in the debate, or as unprecedented lobbying. But oil companies, like cars, aren’t immediately going away, and ignoring them won’t help.
And while it was disappointing (though not surprising) that COP is still talking about the phase down rather than the phase out of coal, COP attendees said the mood was more hopeful, with Indonesia, the world’s largest coal exporter, joining South Africa in obtaining Just Energy Transition Partnership funding.
Reasons for hope
Other glimmers of hope cited by attendees included an emphasis on climate justice – hard to ignore as an issue at an African COP, a Water Day for the first time, and consideration of food security as an issue. On a continent where around 40% of the population in 2021 was aged 15 or younger, young people got a more of a look in for the first time with a Youth and Future Generations Day and a youth-led climate forum.
Yet while it’s easy to be disheartened by the lack of a tough, compelling plan, COP is not the only place where climate policy is made. COP is not just about what is negotiated, and outside in the real world where the weather’s getting steadily weirder, we’re seeing much more focus on renewables to deliver energy security.
The Republicans’ relatively poor showing in the US midterm elections is good news for US climate policy, while the rapprochement between the US and China, the two world’s largest emitters, enabled a strong communique from the G20 summit restating commitment to 1.5C (although it’s not clear how Saudi Arabia will contribute). And the re-election of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as Brazilian president brings some hope for a slowing of rainforest destruction.
So back in southeast England, what can we do? While soaring fuel bills will bring real hardship for many, they may also concentrate attention on efficiency measures. Europe – and especially the UK with its poorly insulated homes — could do so much more to cut demand. The energy crunch caused by the war in Ukraine could finally trigger a sensible conversation about a genuine plan for the energy transition, without over-relying on gas as a “transition fuel”.
Thalia Griffiths is an energy writer and SECA newsletter editor. You can contact her at email@example.com