An editorial on COP27 in L’Osservatore Romano

Gaël Giraud, Director of the Environmental Justice Program and Loïc Giaccone, Research Fellow, published an editorial in L’Osservatore Romano assessing COP27 outcomes. Below is a translation of the full text.

COP27: Some progress and some disappointments while the planet is burning

Gaël Giraud SJ, Director of the Environmental Justice Program and McCourt School of Public Policy Professor at Georgetown University
Loïc Giaccone, Research Fellow, Environmental Justice Program, Georgetown University

After the end of the 27th United Nations Climate Change Conference, it is time to take stock of the latest negotiations held in Sharm-el-Sheik, Egypt.

First, the good news. Most observers welcome the creation of a fund for Loss and Damage, which is supposed to help countries from the Global South that are particularly exposed to the impacts of global warming. Developing countries have succeeded in putting the creation of this fund on the agenda of the conference on the first day of the Conference. In reality, this demand is old: it has been the subject of struggles for three decades, particularly from Small Island Developing States, some of which are in danger of disappearing in the next few decades due to rising sea levels. Negotiations went beyond the scheduled time because of opposition from the European Union and the United States, who wished in the first place to make their support conditional on other large emitters participation to the fund, such as China. Since the mid-2000s, China has been the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, but the United States is still the largest emitter of cumulative CO2. Some of the Small Island Developing States have supported similar claims, targeting China or even India[1]. This is one of the first times that the group of the Global South countries has seen such a divide during UN negotiations, some of them accusing the developed countries of exacerbating this division. Chinafavors the Loss and Damage fund, but the country seems reluctant to participate in the funding, preferring direct and bilateral help to developing countries[2]. In the end, the European Union made a U-turn at the very end of the negotiations, accepting the creation of a new fund, and pushing the United States to join this position. The details of the new fund will be discussed in the coming year. Which countries will contribute? For how much? And who will benefit? Will the funds allocated be in addition to the funding already provided by the North under, for example, development aid, or existing and already planned climate finance? Or will the rich and emitting countries simply reallocate some of their existing spending? These are all issues that remain to be determined.

UN Parties have agreed that at least $4 trillion a year, an amount equivalent to about twice the GDP of Italy, should be invested in renewable energy through 2030, and more in the next decade. Estimates we have conducted at the Environmental Justice Program suggest that this is probably an optimistic underestimate. We estimate that $90 trillion in green investments are needed by 2035[3]. On the other hand, and this is a first, the COP27 final declaration makes it clear that this financing “will require a transformation of the financial system and its structures and processes”. Indeed, the global financial sphere today represents more than 476 trillion dollars (about 4.7 times the world’s GDP), most of which is not flowing into the real economy, let alone the world of green energy. There will probably be no redirection of these colossal masses of money towards green investments that are useful for our future without a vigorous regulatory takeover of the financial sector, and in particular of shadow banking, which developed considerably after 2009 precisely to escape any form of regulation.  

The following news should not be considered as “good” but rather as the bare minimum: the +1.5°C warming target is still mentioned in the final declaration. Some diplomats feared during the negotiations that it would be dropped. Not that anyone is still under the illusion that we could stay below this threshold: it is likely that we will unfortunately exceed this level of warming around the beginning of the 2030s. Maintaining this target is simply a relative guarantee for island countries that they will be able to demand financial compensation and help when their territory disappears. It becomes clear that the international community has not done what it should have done to respect the main goal of the Paris Agreement. On another side, this is the first time that the risks associated with climate tipping points are mentioned in an agreement. This is a step forward, at least in the UN discourses: these tipping points (e.g., the thawing of permafrost) are probably the greatest geological threat to humanity today. Another step forward taken by COP27 is establishing a Just Transition Work Program. Environmental justice is finally entering the UN agenda. Some hoped that COP27 would finally dare to demand a ban on coal. They were disappointed. COP 27 aims for a “phasedown of unabated coal power ” and a “phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies”, the same wording as in the Glasgow Pact, adopted at COP26. Due to the blocking of several countries frightened by the energy crisis caused by the war in Ukraine, the withdrawal of gas and oil was not included in the final declaration.

Overall, it remains that national commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are still not enough to respect the threshold of +2°C warming by the end of the century, not even to mention +1.5°C[4]. Assuming that the current policies are implemented in full – for example, that the partial victory of the Republicans in the midterms will not prevent the execution of the Inflation Reduction Act by the Biden administration -, we are still on course for close to +3°C warming by the end of the century. Our projections suggest that at these warming levels, whole areas around the equator could become uninhabitable for humans, which means hundreds of millions of climate migrants within a few decades. Moreover, there is a gap between the long-term commitments to carbon neutrality by mid-century and the promises made by the countries meeting in Egypt for the “short term”, i.e. by 2030. Under these conditions, what credit can be given to the long-term promises of polluting countries?

The next COP will take place in Dubai. It is possible that the number of lobbyists specializing in the defense of fossil fuels – which exceeded the number of diplomats in any delegation in Egypt and was already a record this year – will be even higher there. During COP28, the first assessment of the Paris Agreement implementation, the Global Stocktake, will have to be made. Until then, civil society, NGOs, businesses, and of course, governments, must work and fight to implement the necessary climate policies for mitigation and adaptation. While Qatar is organizing a soccer World Cup in total disregard of the ecological constraints we face, some climate scientists are now talking about the extinction of humanity due to our inaction in the face of global warming and the destruction of biodiversity[5].

[1] Reuters, COP27: Island nations want China, India to pay for climate damage
[2] The Guardian, EU reversal of stance on loss and damage turns tables on China at Cop27
[3] Martin et al., Environmental Justice Program Working Paper 2022-3, Extreme Climate Risks and the Financial Sustainability of Adaptation
[4] Climate Action Tracker, Massive gas expansion risks overtaking positive climate policies
[5] Kemp et al. (2022), Climate Endgame: Exploring catastrophic climate change scenarios