After the tumult of Cop27 it is hard to resist dread overwhelming the impulse to hope. Yet as exhausted and parched negotiators return home from the UN climate conference in Sharm el-Sheikh that is what each and every person alive must do. And there are still legitimate grounds for doing so.
First, the damage. Ambition to end the world’s fossil fuel addiction was not increased in this year’s final negotiating text. A proposal to include a commitment to phase down “all fossil fuels” (as opposed to last year’s “phase down coal” only) was scuppered by the Opec+ oil producing nations. The pledge to keep alive the all-important target of 1.5°C of warming compared with pre-industrial levels also only just struggled across the finish line after some countries opposed its inclusion.
The Guardian columnist George Monbiot has consequently summed up the process, in which the host nation, Egypt, openly conducted gas deals on the sidelines, as “a death cult”. The surrounding geopolitical picture not much brighter: as the philosopher John Gray warns in our pages, “the Cop27 meeting in Egypt has been a festival of fantasy and denial”. Fossil-fuel dependent states such as Saudi Arabia and Russia risking implosion and anarchy if they lose their oil and gas revenues.
All is not yet lost, however: 1.5°C may soon be overshot, but it could be returned to, and there are forces aligning to keep that possibility within reach.
Within Cop27 itself, nations pledged for the first time to establish a fund to compensate vulnerable nations for “loss and damage” incurred from climate disasters. Negotiators now have a year to work through the details of what the fund will include and look like, but the principle has been acknowledged that addressing climate change’s injustices requires rebalancing some of the world’s wealth. Even big but still developing economies such as China have agreed, after much resistance, to voluntary contributions. “A mission 30 years in the making, accomplished,” said the chair of the Association of Small Island States.
There is even momentum behind mechanisms to reform the world’s skewed financial infrastructure. Calls are growing to restructure the World Bank and International Monetary Fund so that they can help to “de-risk” investment in renewable energy in developing nations. The Bridgetown Initiative, by the Barbadian prime Minister Mia Mottley, for example, is pushing for the IMF to boost climate-linked investment in the Global South. An insurance scheme called the Global Shield Against Climate Risks, set up by Germany, could help nations in the aftermath of calamity. And the idea of a global debtors’ strike, in which climate-vulnerable nations would stop paying interest to wealthy nations that continue to pollute the atmosphere, is gaining traction. For the first time, the final Cop text also included the term “nature-based solutions” and a section on forests, recognising the importance of investing in nature and reforming the world’s polluting agricultural systems.
Outside Sharm el-Sheikh’s sand-blasted walls, the US midterm elections have given climate hopes a tentative boost. That Joe Biden’s Democrats did so much better than expected, just months after securing the passage of the country’s most momentous climate change legislation (The Inflation Reduction Act), sends an important signal that voters in the world’s second largest emitter won’t punish their government for taking action to protect the climate.
None of this changes the fact that the world is still behind on its $100bn a year pledge of financial assistance for developing countries to help with climate action. Nor that failure to reduce emissions will only push the cost of damages ever higher. But the multilateral diplomatic process did not break down entirely in its most difficult geopolitical context to date, and that is something to hold on to tightly.
With Cop28 taking place in the oil-rich United Arab Emirates next year, the embattled Cop process arguably has its greatest challenge still to come. Fossil fuel interests will fight ever harder to survive. Yet Cop27 has shown that, even in the desert, the tide of time is not in their favour. In the words of Alok Sharma, president of Cop26 in Glasgow, “if we do not step up soon, and rise above these minute-to-midnight battles to hold the line, we will all be found wanting”.