After 'disappointing' COP27, calls grow for new approach to fighting climate change

COP27 climate summit in Egypt
John Kerry, U.S. Special Envoy for Climate speaks as he attends the opening of the American Pavilion in the COP27 climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, November 8, 2022. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem/File Photo

November 28 - In the hundreds of pavilions and stalls on the sprawling Blue Zone of the COP27 climate negotiations there was a buzzing trade fair atmosphere, a world away from the rooms where the hard business of negotiating a global consensus for climate action was taking place.

Indeed, the Egyptian hosts had ensured that the government negotiators were physically separate from the 40,000 strong army of what is known as non-state actors: civil society activists, businesses, consultancies, scientists, environmental groups, foundations and sub-national government representatives who flocked to Sharm el-Sheik this year for their annual climate fix, the second-largest Conference of the Parties attendance after COP26 in Glasgow last year.

It was clear that the infrastructure in Sharm el-Sheik was not up to the onslaught. Attendees complained about over-flowing toilets, freezing air conditioning, lack of water and food, unreliable Wi-Fi, and terrible acoustics so that speakers in the hundreds of side-events in the pavilions struggled to make themselves heard.

Added to the infrastructural woes were allegations of price-gouging by hotels, cyber spying on delegates through the COP27 app, and harassment of activists by security staff. But for many the most serious concern was that the presence of 600 fuel industry lobbyists, which outnumbered country delegates from the world’s most climate-vulnerable countries, had influenced what many described as an unambitious final agreement.

After much hard negotiation, which extended until the small hours of Sunday morning, the text retained the wording that emissions should be aligned to keeping global heating within 1.5 degrees Celsius, but watered it down by referring to “low-emissions” technologies, leaving the door open for fossil fuel gas. A proposal to phase down all fossil fuels, led by India, also failed to make it to the final text.

Sandrine Dixson-Declève, co-president of The Club of Rome, blogged: "I fear that COPs are becoming little more than a circus, with the petrostates as the ringmasters and us – civil society, progressive business and financial institutions, heads of state and negotiators from countries wanting climate action – are the clowns. We smile manically as incremental promises and weak pledges are presented as progress."

She and others are calling for fundamental reform of the COP process, something that could well be on the agenda at COP28 next year in Dubai, when the first-ever Global Stocktake of progress on climate action since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015 will be published.

Maria Mendiluce speaking at a meeting of the We Mean Business coalition at COP27. Handout via REUTERS/We Mean Business

Some have suggested that non-state actors should be excluded in future. But others have pointed out that, in contrast to the formal negotiations, it was in those pavilions and side-events at COP27 where Egypt’s promise to deliver an “implementation COP” was actually being realised – despite the efforts of the fossil fuel lobbyists.

This was best seen in the swift action taken by the We Mean Business Coalition, led by Maria Mendiluce, which mobilised 250 companies and civil society representatives by the end of week one to insist that there should be no backsliding on the commitment in the Glasgow Climate Pact to limit global warming to 1.5C.

There was also a statement by 602 investors representing almost $42 trillion in assets under management committing to mobilise finance at the scale needed to achieve the Paris Agreement goals. They called on governments to stay the 1.5C course, and create the enabling conditions, including requiring mandatory reporting aligned with the Taskforce on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) for the largest companies and financial institutions, “backed by a robust global taxonomy” defining what constitutes “green” investment.

Among the many announcements on the fringes of COP27 was an update to the Global Methane Pledge – a multi-country initiative to slash methane emissions by 30% by 2030, first launched at COP26 and spearheaded by the United States and the European Union.

The U.S. special climate envoy, John Kerry, said 150 countries had now signed the pledge, including Australia, Egypt and Qatar, and its scope had expanded to tackle methane from waste and animal agriculture.

“We are turning a methane moment into momentum. This is absolutely critical for keeping 1.5C in reach,” said Kerry.

Shipping containers at a port in Shanghai, China. COP27 saw a progress report on an initiative to establish green shipping corridors, including between Shanghai and Los Angeles. REUTERS/Aly Song

There was a major announcement from the Breakthrough Agenda, a commitment launched at COP26 by 45 countries to make clean technologies as financially attractive as fossil fuels by 2030, setting out 25 collaborative actions they will deliver by COP28 to speed up the decarbonisation of the power, road transport, steel, hydrogen and agriculture sectors.

One private sector contribution to this is the First Movers Coalition, which aims to decarbonise the heavy industry and long-distance transport sectors by making advance-purchase agreements to buy green technologies. Launched at COP26, it’s now made up of 65 companies with a collective market value of $8 trillion, and has expanded to include commitments to source low-carbon cement and concrete.

Another coalition of 40 countries and 14 vehicle manufacturers, called Accelerating to Zero, came together at COP27, committing to making all new car sales zero emission by 2035. Separately, an agreement to make all new trucks and buses zero emission by 2040 expanded to 25 countries, from 15 a year ago.

COP27 also saw a progress report on an initiative launched at COP26 to establish at least six green shipping corridors, zero-emission maritime routes between two or more ports, by 2025. It identified more than 20 initiatives, including between Shanghai and Los Angeles, a route that carries 40% of all the goods that go between China and the U.S.

Among a fleet of commitments to advance the nature-based solutions agenda, the Lowering Emissions by Accelerating Forest Finance (LEAF) Coalition said it had increased the total amount of finance for the purchase of high-integrity emissions reductions credits from tropical countries to over $1.5 billion, a doubling in private sector commitments since its launch at COP26, with Volkswagen Group and H&M bringing to 25 the number of companies committed to buying credits.

Simon Sharpe, director of economics for the Climate Champions Team, a body set up by the United Nations to advance non-state actors’ participation in the COP process, said in a blog: “This is what we need: countries, and companies, getting serious about getting organised. … Support is growing for the idea that we should not be leaving such collaboration to chance. It should no longer be a side-event; it should be the centre of our efforts.”

He referenced an article in Foreign Affairs magazine, on the eve of COP, which said that curtailing emissions doesn’t have to hinge on the COP process. The approach of trying to achieve global consensus for action is “nearly always a recipe for the lowest and slowest common denominator”, the authors said.

They argued for a new approach that focuses, sector by sector, on the technologies, businesses and policies that are essential to creating a cleaner economy. “What matters most in Egypt won’t be big-ticket multilateral diplomacy but, instead, the practical, sideline convenings of governments and firms willing and able to force change.”

This was echoed by former United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) boss Christiana Figueres, in the Outrage and Optimism podcast she co-hosts.

She said the private sector should be brought in from the periphery and fully included in future annual global climate gatherings if the world is going to mobilise to achieve the Paris Agreement.

“They have the capacity to implement, much more than governments do. … I think if we were able to bring down the wall between the two fields (governments and private sector) we’d be able to move further and faster.”

Opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence, and freedom from bias. Sustainable Business Review, a part of Reuters Professional, is owned by Thomson Reuters and operates independently of Reuters News.

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Terry Slavin is editor-in-chief of Reuters Events Sustainable Business, and edits The Sustainable Business Review and The Ethical Corporation magazines @tslavinm