Blog entry: 20th November 2022
COP27: Still on the Highway to Climate Hell
It was Thursday morning on the final week of a COP due to finish the following afternoon. Minister Eamonn Ryan had just completed one of several updates of the negotiations to the civil society groups from Ireland. It was laudable that he had found the time to do this, having recently been appointed as the Lead EU Negotiator on the fraught agenda item of Loss and Damage. This was the principal issue for the countries of the Global South at this COP and the clamour was proving irresistible for the establishment of a fund whereby the Developed World accepted their responsibility for imposing more severe and more frequent deadly climate extremes on poorer and more vulnerable countries. Ethically and morally there was no case to answer. Climate scientists had confidently established that events such as last summer’s heatwave in Europe or the catastrophic floods in Pakistan were events that were rendered much more likely and severe than would have been the case in the absence of human modification of the atmosphere principally by developed countries (including Ireland).
Despite such a demand having featured at COPs for 30 years, little progress had been made. The potential donor countries had been reluctant to sign open-ended cheques and the modalities for establishing eligibility for recipients were not decided. But this was the make or break item for this COP and while other issues, such as the need to hold on to the advances made in COP26 in Glasgow, were also the subject of skirmishes elsewhere, it was clear that progress, or not, in establishing a Loss and Damage fund would define COP27.
As the small Irish group was leaving the Irish government delegation office, another delegation was waiting in the wings. The delegation of the Government of Palau was seeking a bilateral meeting with EU negotiator Minister Ryan. Perhaps most people will never have heard of this small island archipelago of 500 coral and volcanic islands in the Pacific for whom climate change, and especially sea level is a matter of survival. Over the next 48 hours such contacts with large numbers of countries would become more intense and continue day and night in an effort to hammer out an agreement that could stand the test of consensus required by the UN rules.
It is to Minister Ryan’s credit that he successfully brokered the agreement of the rest of the EU and the acquiescence of the US as well as large numbers of the developing countries to a potential deal. The principal components were that finance would be tied to mitigation commitments and priority would be given to the highly vulnerable less developed countries. It became clear by midnight on Saturday, however, that much of these conditional aspects had disappeared from the proposed final text. While EU Vice-President Timmermans threatened to walk away from the negotiations rather than accept a bad deal, compromise was in the air from the exhausted negotiators. Even beyond the loss and damage issues, proposals to increase ambition in line with the scientific needs to radically reduce emissions by 2030 were watered down under the influence of the fossil fuel lobbyists and countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia. When the final plenary was convened at 4 a.m. on Sunday it was clear the Egyptian Presidency had not delivered. No commitment to phasing out fossil fuels was evident. No commitment to achieve peaking of emissions by 2025 was mentioned. No commitment to ceasing subsidies to fossil fuels was forthcoming. The text also included a reference to "low-emissions energy," possibly opening the door to new natural gas developments The only meaningful achievement of this COP was a political decision to establish a Loss and Damage fund. But the wrangling as to whether this should include contributions from major emitters such as China and India, and what constitutes ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ will be argued over for at least the next two years.
The influence of ‘petro-states’ has unfortunately stymied progress at Sharm el Sheikh, and the same influences will be active next year at COP28 in Dubai. As the window to tackle climate change is rapidly closing, the omens for avoiding the tipping point of 1.5oC are looking very bleak indeed. But no alternative to continuing to strive for multilateral engagement has yet emerged and the words of the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres ring true: “We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot still on the accelerator.”
Blog entry 2: 16th November 2022
COP27: Negotiating the Square Brackets
It is often queried why so many people are necessary to attend the COP. The attendance of around 30,000 this year is made up not just of national negotiators from the 197 countries who signed up to the UN Framework Convention of Climate Change but also an army of vested interest groups, mainly from fossil fuel concerns and carbon traders. Though these are not particularly prominent, they are nonetheless active behind the scenes pushing their own agendas, sometimes in collaboration with sympathetic national delegations. A further large contingent comes from civil society groups, the most colourful of which are probably those from indigenous societies. These come complete in their national costume, especially those from the Amazon and South Sea island communities. The plethora of feathers and grass skirts provide a lovely contrast to the sombre suited individuals scurrying from venue to venue to make their meeting deadlines.
But how do the negotiations actually take place? This is usually based on an initial skeletal document that maybe has been developed in advance of the conference. In this the sticking points are identified by means of phrases or sections contained in square brackets. It might be [will][shall] or something more complex. But the objective of the negotiation is to work towards removing the square brackets, at which point agreement can be deemed to have been reached. Some of the initial documents may have over 100 square brackets and these will take lengthy negotiations to remove. Of course the UN works on the basis of unanimity, so progress is slow and sometimes red lines are reached that produce deadlock. That’s where the COP Presidency enter in bilateral discussions to try and resolve things. This process can of course be multiplied across several simultaneous topics such as mitigation, adaptation, loss and damage etc., hence the need for teams of negotiators who can also survive sleep deprivation!
Progress is typically slow here, even to retain the achievements of earlier COPs. Some attempts are currently active in seeking to remove or water down the Paris commitment to commit efforts to avoiding warming of 1.5oC. Admittedly this is an increasingly unattainable target due to the failures of governments to reduce emissions over recent years. But were these attempts successfully reflected in the final communique, however, it would be seen as a failure of the Egyptian Presidency. Clearly, the big issue dominating proceedings here is undoubtedly the clamour for a Loss & Damage facility by the developing countries to recognise their right to compensation of sorts for extreme weather and climate events experienced by them as a result of the historic and ongoing emissions of the developed world. It is hard to argue against this and the EU have moved some way towards supporting such a fund. Individual countries, such as Belgium, Denmark and Scotland have already pledged finances towards this, while Ireland has committed €10M towards a related short term facility known as Global Shield. There are however other countries such as China, Saudi Arabia and US who appear opposed to the implementation of such a scheme at this stage. The EU has also concerns as to how the methodology for distributing funds would be developed. How would the distinction between a ‘natural’ and human-induced climate extreme be established? What about slow onset events such as droughts? Would all countries, including inhabitants of the rich countries, qualify for reparations? Would contributions to the fund be based on current or historical emissions? The complexities would appear to suggest to this writer that the issue will not be finalised at Cop27. But some form of progress on it is going to be necessary in the final communique to keep developing nations on board. The customary Friday brinkmanship evident at COPs may yet materialise.
The usual COP stars are in evidence here. Al Gore and John Kerry attract crowds wherever they show up while numerous recognisable politicians shuttle between venues with their entourage. Later today the newly elected President of Brazil, Lulu Inácio Lula da Silva is expected and this will also draw a crowd to celebrate greater protections for the Amazon than has been evident in recent years. But politically motivated crowds are not particularly welcome in Sharm. Even though security within the campus is the responsibility of the UN, some civil society activists are reporting covert surveillance by plain clothes individuals at some events. Problems with WiFi are also evident. Press reports also describe an officially designated area for protest at a desert location outside the COP where little attention could be obtained and onerous administrative preconditions for participation apply.
Despite such drawbacks, Sharm has its positives. The offshore marine environment is a great attraction of the area with tourists enjoying dives to view the majesty and beauty of the offshore coral reef. On person described the experience to me a a ‘finding Nemo’ moment! Pity it will be gone, like almost all coral reefs, if we continue to warm to 2oC above preindustrial levels, a value we are presently on target to breach during the current generation’s lifetime.
Blog entry 1: 13th November 2022
COP27 : The Latest from Sharm El Sheikh
The Annual Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has largely entered the lexicon as the COP. Now in its 27th iteration, the rotation of locations based on continents has landed 30,000 delegates in the African resort of Sharm El Sheikh at the southern tip of Egypt’s Sinai peninsula.
The first week of a COP is dominated by the arrival of the various Heads of State, Heads of Government, Kings and Queens, Sheiks, and sundry politicians. Each national delegation leader is allowed around 5 minutes to account for their nation’s progress in implementing the 1992 Convention and its later commitments, most notably the Paris Agreement of COP21 in 2015. Carefully pre-prepared speeches emphasise the positive developments that have occurred, and scrupulously avoid the harsh realities of failure to reduce emissions that characterise most of the 197 countries involved.
The appearance of President Biden, and the non-appearance of Presidents Putin and Xi Jinping provided most of the talking points of week 1. Essentially, the early days of a COP are about posturing, and once the big guns depart, the officials get down to the hard business of bargaining. It is rather sad that at this stage we should be bargaining at all, looking for concessions in return for tackling climate breakdown. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres put things bluntly when he said: “The world is on the highway to climate hell with our foot still on the accelerator”. Sharm El Sheikh is a good example of the multiple reasons that climate change concerns tend to play second fiddle to more immediate day to day concerns for the person in the street. Architecturally, it is a curious blend of late 20th century Las Vegas and 21st century Egyptian buildings. Large, self-contained, ‘resorts’, with their manicured lawns and flower beds, exist side by side with barren desert spaces frequently populated by the skeletons of unfinished structures. Clearly, even with 30,000 people for the COP, the town is not by any means exceptionally busy. The European tourists hoped for have largely stayed away since the terrorist attacks of 2005 which killed 88 people, despite the recent completion of a wire fence, extending over some concrete columns, 36km long and 6m high, completely surrounding the town. Similarly, although many of the shops and restaurants have bilingual signs in Arabic and Russian, the latter are also largely absent this year for obvious reasons.
COPs provide an opportunity for civil society groups to meet directly with their Heads of Government and the relevant Ministers, and to convey to them their priorities. This is an important conduit to counter the huge vested interest groups that have come with alternative priorities, often bluntly opposed to tackling emissions and usually dressed up in greenwashed projects. Parsing the language used, ‘food security’ often really means ‘feed security’ and ‘net zero’ sometimes means hypothetical offsets or technological advances that may never materialise in time. The Taoiseach and Minister Coveney however made the time during their visits to talk freely with the large Irish civil society present. Their willingness to do so was widely welcomed. Indeed from tiny numbers in earlier COPs, this civil society contingent has now swelled into a sizeable and well informed group. It is especially characterised this year by the presence of many young people who see the path ahead much more clearly than older heads overly conscious of the complications and obstacles involved.
A stalwart of the COP, former President Mary Robinson once again said it like it is at an inspirational side event co-hosted by the Irish Government and herself in her capacity as Chair of the Elders. Pointing the finger fairly and squarely at the developed nations for failing to come forward with sufficiently ambitious proposals, she introduced her good friend Constance Okollet from Uganda who appealed for directing funds to community level as opposed to governmental level where they are frequently choked off. But for this writer the highlight of this meeting was the poignant story told by Tina Steege, a young woman from the Marshall Islands. Tina told how their homeland was steadily disappearing. Their springs had become salinized and they had to rely on rainwater alone. But she was now having to tell her children that the places that had names, the names of familiar fields and paths that her parents had passed on to her would be soon obliterated on that low lying coral island. She had to tell her children that their home would be gone and that they probably would have to find another place to save their culture. This brought the abstract concept of climate change, one that many people in Ireland still cling to, down to the human level of cultural loss. Tina related how it was largely at the behest of her uncle that the Paris Agreement included the objective of avoiding warming of 1.5oC, something now unlikely to happen without radical steps being taken. Minister of State Colm Brophy also picked up on the tragedy now unfolding across the world. In his case, he related the heart wrenching scenes he had witnessed on a recent visit to the Horn of Africa and called on the G20 countries, shortly meeting in Bali to take urgent action. Curiously however, like most Irish politicians, he never mentioned Ireland’s contribution to the problem, however small, as a country with currently increasing greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, many of the commitments made at COP seem to apply to other countries and not Ireland. Ireland signed up at COP26 in Glasgow to support a 30% reduction in methane emissions by 2030; but this is not a feature of our Climate Action Plan. Similarly as one of a small cohort of nations that founded the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance to facilitate the managed phase-out of oil and gas production, we are now intending to construct new gas burning power stations. While excellent work is being done in enhancing Ireland’s financial support for developing nations, especially in the field of adaptation to the current and coming extremes, the country’s credibility is damaged by its failure to put it own house in order.
Much of the coming week will be dominated by the Loss and Damage issue. What reparations should the developed world make to those developing countries at the sharp end of extremes? An interesting comparison of relative capacity comes from the recent catastrophic floods that submerged one third of Pakistan. Pakistan’s per capita emissions of greenhouse gases are around 1 tonne per person. The comparable figure for Ireland is 12. Pakistan has a per capita GDP of around $1,250. The comparable figure for Ireland is $83,000. We cannot expect poor nations to develop sustainably without recognising in real financial terms the burden we historically have imposed upon them. Loss and Damage negotiations are ultimately about climate justice.
MGC on behalf of the author, Emeritus Professor John Sweeney