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COP in . . . .COP out.

Nik Gowing, Founder & Co-Author, Thinking the Unthinkable

by Nik Gowing, Founder & Co-Author, Thinking the Unthinkable

Filed under Climate Emergency

What was achieved (or not) at COP27, the global climate change conference at the Sharm el Sheikh resort in Egypt? Nik was there, moderating for Climate Action’s 3-day Sustainable Innovation Forum. These are his take-aways.

The UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres opened COP27 with a brutal warning. “We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator.” He added: “We are in the fight of our lives and we are losing … And our planet is fast approaching tipping points that will make climate chaos irreversible.

Did this brutal warning galvanise the action needed? No, it did not.

When COP closed 16 days later the foot was still on the accelerator and pressing down even harder. COP had agreed nothing of the dramatic substance needed to ease the throttle and speed of travel towards “climate hell”.

Formidable scale of challenge

Halfway through the two weeks I had watched a weary John Kerry, the normally indefatigable US Presidential envoy for climate change, give this warning in the US pavilion. His body was stooped. Black sacks hung under is eyes.

“We need to kick butts on how the hell we speed at up to six times the current pace. We have to realise this, folks.”

Yes, he did say speeding up by a factor of six!

Were butts kicked, and the pace increased dramatically? Again, the answer is ‘no’.

So many of the 35,000 at COP echoed Kerry’s fears and urging for dramatic action. This came in particular from the scientists, NGO’s, and many governments. But shamefully the imperative for action was overwhelmed by the political need to achieve a consensus and accommodate foot dragging objections, especially from a handful of powerful nations.

That – as always – meant finding the lowest common denominator. Too much was stacked against decisive progress being achieved.

Tipping the Tipping Points

On this next stage of his unrelenting zigzag quest around the world to help lead efforts to save our planet Kerry was crystallising the desperation so many felt at COP27.

The science is scarily and unambiguously clear. The realities of what looms on climate and biodiversity are ever starker. They are now frightening even the scientists who together compile the warnings of what we face in the very near future. Why? Tipping points are being passed much faster than expected, and in doing so are creating new threats.

The EU’s climate policy supremo described a “yawning gap” between climate science and climate policies. “What we have in front of us is not enough of a step forward for people and planet,” bemoaned Frans Timmermans. “Too many parties are not ready to make progress in the fight against the climate crisis. Some are afraid of the transition ahead and the cost of change”.

One agreement - in principle at least

There was at least - and at long last - an agreement on an outline “loss and damage” text. The aim is to compensate the developing world for the huge damage done over the decades by the rich world’s love affair with fossil fuels and the black stuff.

The agreement was warmly welcomed by the developing world as achieving the “impossible”. But a deal in principle is not the same as a clear commitment on how funds will be raised then paid. So despite that warmth, the potential for prevarication by funders and likely disappointment remans huge. Delivery on the scale needed is nothing like guaranteed.

1.5 degree limit – is it lost?

We are also nowhere close to achieving what is needed to preserve a comfortable human presence on our planet. We are doing the opposite. Making achievable the 1.5 degree limit to temperature rises now seems a lost ambition.

And I must add – it is “lost” by design! It is as if those forces with the greatest power to influence and achieve what must be done either don’t care or don’t want to respect the dire alerts of science.

This was just at the moment when the 1.5 degrees upper limit could and should have been secured. Instead 2.4 degrees seems more likely, which the scientific consensus warns will have acute consequences for all we take for granted. That is why the UN Secretary General said “We are in the fight of our lives and we are losing”.

Others said the same in different ways.

“Emissions peaking before 2025, as the science tells us is necessary. Not in the text” complained an anguished Alok Sharma, the UK minister whose relentless efforts had shepherded the diluted Glasgow agreement of a year ago through to COP27. “Clear follow through on the phase down on coal. Not in this text,” Sharma emphasised.

Investment community double speak

There is no doubt that many in business have made irreversible commitments to move to green. But the evidence also shows that while many talk about the commitment, they are not really committed.

I had several impromptu conversations in queues and waiting for food or transport which confirmed that a fast increasing number of investors is exerting pressure to maximise returns by demanding their money be put into fossil fuels. A senior figure in one very large asset management firm which has faced huge negative pressure recently for being too ‘woke’ on green told me they had modified their policy. Now clients have a “choice” not an imperative to go green. This trend is growing.

Fossil Fuel Lobby – hyperactive

The fossil fuel lobby – allowed into COP in big numbers for the first time – had brilliantly used their power and financial muscle to throttle any commitments to go further than last year’s commitments to ‘phase down’ fossil fuels. They had wielded their huge and intimidating clout to block what the science warns is so urgently needed. ‘Phase out’ never got close to making it to the final agreement.

And they wielded it in multiple ways. Their presence made the COP feel more like a “fossil fuel trade fair”, complained participants. Later in the fortnight it was even reported that Saudi Arabia had “deposited $5 billion in Egypt’s Central Bank” to help the struggling host nation’s national liquidity. Egypt was both host and presidency guiding the whole COP process.

Saudi Arabia is newly promoting huge green investments to generate sustainable power at home in the kingdom. But it is also pushing ramping up the vital importance of oil globally. Participants at COP said the KSA’s influence on the Egyptian presidency’s chairmanship and direction of travel was like an arm lock.

Clean energy world - still possible?

Was COP a disaster?

Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland, said not. She remains a consummate international player and tireless campaigner on sustainability. She is now chair of The Elders - “I wouldn’t call it a disaster having really been there, being immersed in what was going on, and seeing on the climate action side more coalitions for clean energy. [There was] more linking of governments with industry, more linking with understanding what the indigenous peoples are doing globally. There was a real move that we’re on the cusp of a clean energy world”.

And how could cash be raised for the new Loss and Damage fund?

“I made the point that 4.4 billion people in 2019 went on aeroplane flights. If you put $1 on every aeroplane flight, that would be $4 billion roughly. We’re almost back to 2019 levels of flying, and flying is polluting, so it makes sense. We could also do the same thing on shipping” said Mary Robinson.

In other words, it could be that straightforward, if there is the imagination and commitment needed.

The nature we must preserve

Finally, at these conferences, personal impressions and memories carry enormous weight. They certainly do for me.

For John Kerry, a diving expedition on the mid-COP ‘off day’ to Egypt’s glorious coral reefs with Johan Rockstrom the brilliant climate scientist from the Potsdam Climate Institute plus Keith Tuffley Vice Chair for sustainability and corporate transition at CITI Bank, will have confirmed all too graphically the stark urgency for achieving the dramatic outcomes that COP27 dodged.

In a few years the Red Sea reefs are likely to be depleted or even be lifeless.

That is the scale of challenge. But must we really wait another year for COP28 in Dubai before there is any chance of the massive progress which our planet needs?

And it has to be asked: is the COP process now really a Cop Out for tackling the climate emergency with the energy and urgency so desperately needed?

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