COP27, the latest UN climate change summit which was held in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, has been condemned for failing to summon an adequate response to the escalating climate crisis. Negotiators did manage to preserve a commitment made in Paris in 2015 to limit global warming to 1.5C. But emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, which rose by 1% globally in 2022, mean the temperature at which Earth will eventually stabilise is slipping out of humanity's control.
"The world could still, theoretically, meet its goal of keeping global warming under 1.5C, a level many scientists consider a dangerous threshold," says Peter Schlosser, a professor of Earth and environmental sciences at Arizona State University. "Realistically, that's unlikely to happen."
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"Attempts at the climate talks to get all countries to agree to phase out coal, oil, natural gas and all fossil fuel subsidies failed. And countries have done little to strengthen their commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions in the past year," Schlosser says.
The burning of fossil fuels accounted for 86% of all greenhouse gas emissions between 2011 and 2021 according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC. The consensus on eliminating them at Sharm El-Sheikh remained frozen from negotiations in Glasgow a year earlier, where countries could only agree to "phase down unabated coal power" and "eliminate inefficient fossil fuel subsidies".
Fossil fuel industry dominated
The stalemate over addressing the primary cause of climate change is partly a result of developments which have strained energy supply and affordability during the past two years, say Fergus Green, a lecturer in political theory and public policy at UCL, and Harro van Asselt, a professor of climate law and policy at the University of Eastern Finland.
But more significant is the entrenched power of the fossil fuel industry, which was well represented in Egypt, the pair say.
"Large oil and gas producers are profiting handsomely from current market prices and have lobbied governments to permit them to explore and drill for yet more oil and gas. At COP27, there were more oil and gas industry lobbyists than the combined number of delegates from the ten countries most affected by climate change. Little wonder COP27 did not yield consensus on phasing down all fossil fuels."
Alix Dietzel, a senior lecturer in climate justice at the University of Bristol, was in Sharm El-Sheikh as an academic observer and saw how many of those attending were shut out.
"Observers have access to the main plenaries and ceremonies, the pavilion exhibition spaces and side events. The negotiation rooms, however, are largely off limits. Most of the day is spent listening to speeches, networking and asking questions at side-events."
Conference organisation made things worse
Dietzel studies how decisions are made as part of the transition to low-carbon societies. She argues that the UN negotiations privilege the most powerful people and groups to produce treaties such as the Paris agreement.
"At last year's COP26, men spoke 74% of the time, indigenous communities faced language barriers and racism and those who could not obtain visas were excluded entirely," she says.
"Despite being advertised as 'Africa's COP', COP27 further hampered inclusion. The run up was dogged by accusations of inflated hotel prices and concerns over surveillance, and warnings about Egypt's brutal police state. The right to protest was limited, with campaigners complaining of intimidation and censorship."
Mark Maslin, a professor of Earth system science at UCL, was also at COP27. He and fellow researchers Priti Parikh, Richard Taylor and Simon Chin-Yee say the Egyptian presidency underestimated the task of hosting:
"When the negotiations carried over to the wee hours of Sunday morning, Egyptian COP27 president, Sameh Shoukry, said: 'It is really up to the parties [countries] to find consensus'. This is in stark contrast to COP26, where the president of the conference, Alok Sharma, fought to the bitter end to secure an agreement."
Rare victory on loss and damage
Developing countries overcame these disadvantages to secure an important victory at the summit after 31 years of campaigning: wealthy parties, including the US and the EU, finally agreed to the establishment of a loss and damage funding facility. This would pay the world's most vulnerable regions for the ravages of climate change that they cannot adapt to, such as mounting storms, droughts and floods.
"It was an important and hard-fought acknowledgement of the damage - and of who bears at least some responsibility for the cost," says Adil Najam, a professor of international relations at Boston University. "But the fund might not materialise in the way that developing countries hope."
Najam explains that the agreement, which eschews any notion of liability on the part of rich and historically high-emitting countries, promises to begin the process of establishing a fund which will be made up of voluntary contributions.
"Given that the much-trumpeted US$100 billion a year that wealthy nations promised in 2015 to provide for developing nations has not yet materialised, believing that rich countries will be pouring their heart into this new venture seems to be yet another triumph of hope over experience," he says.
There is no guarantee the fund will generate new sources of finance - it may repackage existing aid. Najam says the question of who will pay and who will be paid awaits an answer at next year's set of negotiations: COP28 in Dubai.
Yet, the agreement means that who is responsible for the climate crisis and who deserves restitution will remain at the centre of all future conferences. "That is big," Najam says, and testament to the organising of developing countries - as well as the egregious outlook for many as the world heats up.
"The [Pakistan] floods, in addition to a spate of other recent climate calamities, provided developing countries - which happened to be represented at COP27 by an energised Pakistan as the chair of the 'G-77 plus China,' a coalition of more than 170 developing countries - with the motivation and the authority to push a loss and damage agenda more vigorously than ever before."
How to keep the pressure building
Even the inclusion of fossil fuels in the agreed text, as underwhelming as the language is, hints at the pressure slowly building on governments, Green and van Asselt argue.
"International conferences such as COP27 catalyse emerging norms by specifying them in formal declarations," they say. The result is "a growing sense among governments that certain activities relating to fossil fuels (like generating electricity from coal without capturing the CO₂ and policies which make fossil fuels cheaper to extract and consume) are becoming illegitimate".
Outside of the UN summit cycle, campaigners and diplomats from the most vulnerable states should seize opportunities to undermine the fossil fuel industry's grip on the world's response to the climate crisis, the pair say.
"Building on a global campaign for such an agreement, the small island nations of Tuvalu and Vanuatu have called for a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty. We suggest two ways to advance these efforts which draw on our recent research."
"First, Tuvalu and Vanuatu could encourage their Pacific Island counterparts to create a regional fossil free zone treaty that prohibits the extraction and transportation of fossil fuels throughout the territories and territorial waters of members.
"Second, more must be done to name and shame governments, especially rich ones, who are expanding how much fossil fuel they extract and burn."
Author: Jack Marley - Environment + Energy Editor, UK edition