As we embark on the second and final week of the Cop27 climate summit, the difficulties of the negotiations are becoming increasingly apparent to observers on the ground like me. From early fights over the agenda to talks stretching into the night, this round of negotiations is slow and difficult, which is no surprise because outside the Sharm el-Sheikh conference centre the world is a congestion of crises. What’s essential now is that those leading the negotiations hold their nerve and stay focused.
The tone for this year’s Cop was set at the opening ceremony when Simon Stiell, the recently appointed UN climate chief, told world leaders they not only needed to stick to their previous commitments but build on them in Egypt. “I will not be a custodian of back-sliding,” he insisted. Amid back-room concerns over whether or not the global temperature increase target of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels is still within reach, Stiell also underscored the non-negotiable nature of the warming limit.
In the realm of global warming, every fraction of a degree matters. The impact of those rising temperatures can be counted in accumulating loss and damage across countries and economies. There’s no denying we are nowhere near close to the right pathway to maintaining a safe planet, and findings published by the Global Carbon Project last week indicate carbon emissions from fossil fuels will hit a record high this year. However, the rational response to finding ourselves off course is not to abandon the journey, but to redouble efforts to get back on track.
It has been important to see leaders show support for urgent action, and they have been forthcoming. For the UK, it was significant that the UK Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, went to the summit. His presence and speech to world leaders reaffirmed a commitment to 1.5°C and the UK target of becoming net zero by 2050. At a time when it is easy for global crises to push the climate conversation off the top of agendas, the UK led by example for countries that may have been getting “wobbly”, as the former prime minister Boris Johnson put it in a speech from a Cop27 side event.
Sunak’s appearance, however brief, went some way to consolidating the UK’s leadership position after the country hosted Cop26 last year. It also indicated that this administration continues to stand by the hard-won progress achieved by the Cop26 president Alok Sharma with the Glasgow Pact. Additional steps forward took place on Wednesday (9 November) when the UK announced it will allow some climate-vulnerable countries to defer debts. This move received praise from Barbados, a nation at the front line of climate impacts and was key to pushing for the 1.5°C limit nearly a decade ago.
The US president Joe Biden, buoyed by the midterm election results that allowed the Democrats to hold the Senate, dropped in at the end of the week to urge leaders to “put down significant markers of progress” in reducing emissions. Biden also unveiled a plan to cut emissions of methane in the US alongside support for new early warning systems for extreme weather events in Africa, and a deal to back Egyptian solar and wind projects if the country decommissions gas power plants and cuts emissions.
But the signals for urgent action go beyond the negotiations. There are many coalitions of the willing hammering out agreements on the sidelines – and they are pushing ahead to implement agreed plans in various sectors. Over the week, announcements setting out the positive actions that countries, businesses and NGOs are taking to implement climate action have come thick and fast: a new global registry of fossil fuels is being developed to provide publicly available data on fossil fuels reserves; the Africa Carbon Markets Initiative was launched to expand Africa’s participation in voluntary carbon markets; nine countries, including Germany, the UK and US, joined the Global Offshore Wind Alliance to accelerate the expansion of offshore wind power; and Israel and Jordan signed a water-for-power initiative under which Jordan will export solar energy to Israel in exchange for desalinated water.
Thursday (10 November) was youth day, bringing with it a range of powerful speeches, performances and art installations from delegates, some as young as eight, who are already recognising the need to call for urgent action. And as the first week closed, activists were allowed the unprecedented opportunity to lead the annual Cop climate march for action on Saturday (12 November) within the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change)-accredited area – bringing their collective voices directly to the heads of delegations.
It is vital this surge leads to action. Countries need to set out plans to both raise ambitions in the near term and lay the groundwork for longer-term projects. Developing countries – those most vulnerable to climate impacts and with the least resources – are looking for long-awaited progress on climate-caused loss and damage and adaptation to climate change. The ongoing debate around mobilising finance needs a fresh approach and reform of the global international finance architecture.
However, if, beyond Cop27, we are to build on this and keep the sense of urgency alive, it is vital the formal negotiations move at the speed of the pack – individual blockers should not be allowed to slow momentum. It is also key that as everyone steps away from Cop, governments, starting with the world’s wealthiest economies, uphold the commitment made last year to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5°C, strengthen their action plans for net zero by the end of 2022, and urgently implement the processes that will keep the planet a safe home.
It’s a Herculean task. But Stiell, who is from Grenada, an island facing extreme climate disturbance, said it well when he quoted Nelson Mandela – “It always seems impossible, until it is done.”
This article is a part of a series exploring what we need from Cop27. See more in the series here.