I’ll admit to being a bad climate change specialist/professional and I did not pay a ton of attention to COP27 while it was going on. The U.S. Midterms, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and some skullduggery around union rights in my home province of Ontario dominated the news during COP, and I didn’t see much coverage of it in the publications I follow. Going back and reading about what was and wasn’t accomplished, the general sense I have of COP27 was that it was a standard COP in that there was some exciting progress on several fronts, while it also only just barely achieved the primary objective COP27 was intended to solve.
The overall achievements of COP27 include some major investments in helping developing economies get off of coal, new technology to pinpoint exactly where emissions are coming from in what quantities to identify the world’s most hazardous emitters, and The United States and China restarting climate change talks and cooperation in spite of the neo-cold war we seem to be in. These are all good things. However, none of these issues are what COP27 was meant to address, which was the problem of who pays for losses and damages caused by a changing climate.
Compensation and reparations for climate change has long been a thorny issue. While the idea floated by climate activists that the Global North should pay compensation to poor countries affected by climate change is growing increasingly popular, the devil has been in the details: who exactly should foot the bill (Governments? Fossil fuel companies? The ultra-wealthy?), how much to pay, and if payment implies liability, which could be meaningful when climate change damages reach an international court of law. While it is shameful that more funds have not been directed at struggling countries, there was some progress at COP27, and there are additional, novel ideas about reimagining the World Bank and IMF to provide trillions in adaptation funding to poor countries. This is progress, and as mentioned previously, a tentative deal has been hashed out for funding losses and damages, which is great news, but the details and methods of implementation remain to be seen. Still, an agreed upon framework is a remarkable breakthrough compared to where this issue was two weeks ago, and this new agreement could have major impact on the health and safety of millions. It is difficult to know, however, what will happen over the course of implementation.
While the Loss and Damages progress was lukewarm, one very real gem from COP27 was the proposal of a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, proposed by Vanuatu & Tuvalu, two Pacific Island states, which has been taken up for examination by the European Union. This is an intriguing idea, as a treaty to end fossil fuel development is likely to be more effective than taxes or cap and trade methods, which increase the price of pollution but don’t expressly forbid it. Treaties or laws that criminalize fossil fuel usage are the most surefire way to bring emissions down to zero, and to have a treaty to end fossil fuel usage in the works is astonishing progress. Keep in mind that it was only last year at COP26 that reducing fossil fuels was explicitly noted in the draft agreement. The discussions and mood around fossil fuel phase outs are changing dramatically, and a fossil fuel phase out seems to be gathering steam. So this is progress, and if the EU gets fully on board and proposes a treaty, halting climate change with zero emissions (instead of the foggy net-zero we see mentioned so often) could be a very real possibility by 2050.
However, I am one person who gleaned the progress of COP through the news, so I’d recommend doing further reading on COP27 to get more of a sense of it. Which brings me to another problem regarding the media’s coverage of COP, which can range from insightful, thoughtful, and reassuring to an abysmally God-awful slap in the face to journalism. COP is incredibly hard to cover in news format, because it is a colossal, sprawling, multi-faceted event with hundreds of panels and thousands upon thousands of attendees (just shy of 30,000 according to one count) and usually results in incremental progress rather than sweeping victories or defeats. The sexy topics, loss & damages or emission cuts, get lots of coverage. But lots and lots of unsexy topics get discussed at COP between high-level and influential industry leaders of all stripes. Some of the unsexy stuff is very important, such has hammering out regulations and standards for reporting climate data, but won’t get mentioned much. So just know that a lot more probably happened at COP that will get mentioned, and some of the deals or discussions hammered out at COP might not be seen for a couple of years.
One last thing to keep in mind is that COP isn’t the alpha and the omega of climate change discourse these days. The Montreal Climate Security Summit has also grown into a heavy-hitter that attracts an international audience concerned with climate change. Discussions around climate change are no longer fringe and occur not just at COP, but in national, regional, and international spaces all the time. COP has sometimes been painted as humanity’s best and last hope to manage climate change, but that’s not quite the case anymore. COP is important, to be clear, but it’s non-binding and doesn’t have much in the way of teeth. So if a COP is disappointing or underwhelming, which it usually is, that’s not reason for despondency. There is an entire world of climate action happening outside of COP, and the strands of progress COP reveals can be picked up by governments around the world who do have teeth and enforcement power to push for very real and long-lasting climate action.