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What would make Cop27 a success?

Climate finance, offsets rules and indigenous rights all need attention at this year’s UN climate summit.

By India Bourke

This year’s 27th annual gathering of parties to the UN convention on climate change, Cop27, is taking place against its toughest backdrop yet. Economic fallout from the war in Ukraine has distracted leaders from the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to limit global warming; some are even promoting the energy “security” offered by gas. Moreover, with the wording of the “rule book” for the Paris Agreement on climate change finalised last year in Glasgow, this year’s agenda is much more nebulous. Will this scupper this year’s talks or spur them on?

Efforts could be helped by an agreement, reached in the early hours of Sunday morning (6 November), the day the conference started, to make “loss and damage” funding part of the official discussion. That helps to break a historical impasse rooted in the fact that less developed nations suffer some of the worst impacts of climate degradation despite contributing least to the emissions that cause it. Yet simply having the item on the agenda does not mean it will be addressed effectively. Even existing pledges of financial support from developed nations, such as the goal of mobilising $100bn a year by 2020, have been missed; a new Carbon Brief assessment shows that the UK, US, Canada and Australia have fallen short of paying their fair share.

Progress towards meeting other goals of Cop26 is languishing, from ending deforestation, to reducing global methane emissions, to the all-important pledge to keep “1.5 alive” (the commitment to make sure global warming doesn’t go beyond 1.5°C over pre-industrial levels). So how exactly can the major promises of the Paris Agreement, made at Cop21 in 2015, now be implemented? And what could these next two weeks of talks contribute to the process?

Close the emissions gap

António Guterres, the UN secretary-general, has warned that the world is heading for “economy-destroying levels of global heating”. Even if countries come up with credible plans to implement their most ambitious plans for net-zero emissions then the average temperature rise is still expected to be 1.7°C, at which point two billion children would endure dangerous heatwaves annually by 2050, according to a report from Unicef. The International Energy Agency has advised that there can be no new fossil fuel investment, while activists from British group Just Stop Oil are calling for all parties to “commit to halting new fossil fuel licensing and production”. Whether leaders listen to them is another matter.

Increase climate finance

Climate finance targets are still nowhere near high enough – and are not being met. To transition away from fossil fuels while protecting citizens from the impacts of climate change, the UN estimates that developing countries will need trillions of dollars of additional finance. The International Energy Agency estimates that annual clean energy investment needs to triple by 2030 to $4.2trn, $1.8trn of which would be in emerging and developing economies.

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Current support includes money for mitigating climate change’s effects (ie: reducing emissions) and for adapting to its impacts (ie: putting up sea walls). Now, under the loss and damage talks to be held at Cop27, financial assistance could also support recovery in the face of disaster. There is still no universally agreed way of accounting for such finance, however, with many developed nations often considering it simply a component of their existing aid budgets. Multilateral institutions (such as the UN’s Green Climate Fund) and development banks are important mechanisms, but have been criticised for not listening well enough to developing nations’ needs. Mia Mottley, the prime minister of Barbados, has called on development banks to expand their lending by $1trn, while Janet Yellen, the US treasury secretary, has said that the World Bank and others need to give more grants and better terms for loans, instead of increasing nations’ burdens of debt.

Gareth Walsh, head of energy and climate at the Tony Blair Institute, told Spotlight: “The global north needs to be more ambitious with climate finance. Africa needs $250bn a year to tackle climate change but they are only receiving around 10 per cent of that. Finance should be targeted in line with needs rather than where a return can be made: 70 per cent of finance went to middle-income countries and only 8 per cent to lower income in 2021.”

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[See also: Cop27: What is on the agenda in Egypt?]

Debt-for-climate swaps, in which creditor nations partially forgive debt in exchange for spending on climate-linked projects, also hold some promise. After devastating floods in Pakistan the UN Development Programme even argued for straight relief of its foreign debt. 

Support women

Once mechanisms for more finance have been agreed, there are also questions about where it should end up. ​A report from Action Aid UK ​has noted how women and girls are disproportionately affected by the devastation and insecurity of climate change, and often lead the way in building climate resilience within their communities. The charity is thus calling for finance to be directed at programmes that are led by women and which are relevant to their experiences. “This can be done by ensuring that climate policies and programmes include social protection, address women’s disproportionate care burden, support women’s leadership in climate action, and address the trauma that women face from being on the front lines of the climate crisis,” Action Aid’s Sophie Rigg said.

Prevent dodgy offsets 

Talks will also continue at Cop27 on resolving “Article 6” – the rules around how markets for carbon offsets should operate. Questions still abound about the transparency of such markets, the integrity of schemes and how they can be implemented without resulting in land grabs ​in which local and indigenous peoples are displaced from their homes and livelihoods after deals between governments and corporations sign the land away from under them.​ “We need stricter oversight and greater transparency of voluntary carbon markets so that they do not become a corporate greenwashing free for all,” said Vladislav Kaim of the UN secretary-general’s youth advisory group on climate change.

Defining what a carbon “removal activity” entails will be key to this, Jonathan Crook of Carbon Market Watch said. “[Countries] must agree on a correct definition, meaning that the activity must remove greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere and store them for at least two to three centuries.” This must take into account the total emissions linked to the project, he added. For example, removal activities should not include the use of carbon capture and storage from power plants or factories operating via fossil fuels.

Rethink nature-based solutions and recognise indigenous rights

Linked to offsetting schemes are “nature-based solutions”, such as protecting and replanting forests, which would remove carbon from the atmosphere by storing it in land or plants. A new Land Gap report, however, has estimated that it would take an area larger than the US to implement all the projects that nations currently have factored into their net-zero goals. 

Jennifer Morris, CEO of the the Nature Conservancy, welcomed some countries’ commitments to align 30 per cent of their climate finance with nature-linked projects, but also warned that “we need to revamp the way the bilateral and multilateral development banks’ work and do a much better job of leveraging private capital for climate action”. Indigenous leaders, meanwhile, are pressing for climate financing schemes to put recognition of rights at their core.

And finally, with more land needed for nature restoration and carbon sequestration, there is even greater pressure on governments to rethink food and farming strategies. As Joel Scott-Halkes of the campaign group Replanet told Spotlight, “1.5°C can’t be reached without a radical downscaling of animal agriculture and yet livestock isn’t even on the agenda at Cop27”.

[See also: Boris Johnson tries to upstage his latest replacement at Cop27]

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