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The good and bad news for the planet after the latest UN climate talks

COP27, the climate change meeting in Egypt, finally got a deal on one of the most critical outstanding issues.

A participant in a demonstration at the UN Climate Summit COP27 holds a placard reading “Pay up for loss and damage.”
Loss and damage payments from wealthy countries to poorer nations suffering from the effects of climate change were a central theme at this year’s COP27 climate negotiations.
Christophe Gateau/Picture Alliance via Getty Images
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

The latest round of United Nations climate talks closed in the early morning hours on Sunday, November 20 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, overshooting their Friday deadline but finally reaching an agreement on the thorniest outstanding issue: paying for climate change damages.

The meeting, known as COP27, ended with an agreement to create a fund to compensate less wealthy countries already suffering destruction stemming from rising average temperatures. The meeting also secured more commitments to cut methane pollution and addressed a renewed, desperate call to keep the planet from warming more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), one of the targets of the 2015 Paris climate agreement. (COP27 stands for the 27th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.)

“We have literally exhausted all of our efforts here at COP27 to bring home the climate action commitments our vulnerable people desperately need,” said Molwyn Joseph, chair of the Alliance of Small Island States, a group representing 39 island countries at the meeting, in a statement. “Today, the international community has restored global faith in this critical process that is dedicated to ensuring no one is left behind.”

But the agreement, called the Sharm el-Sheikh Implementation Plan, only secured tepid language around limiting the causes of climate change, namely burning fossil fuels. And critical details about how countries are expected to meet their commitments were left unresolved.

More than 35,000 people from every country in the world gathered at the two-week meeting to take this tiny step forward, but it was hard-fought, and the challenge remains in putting all the promises made into action.

All the while, global greenhouse gas emissions are still rising, the planet’s temperature continues climbing, and the window for keeping warming in check is almost closed. “The world is bending the curve of greenhouse gas emissions downward, but these efforts remain woefully insufficient to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C,” UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Simon Stiell told attendees. The COP climate negotiation process once again failed to bring the world in line with this goal, but the commitments secured so far have closed the gap further than ever.

While the agenda was narrower than in previous climate meetings, this year’s negotiations were particularly fraught. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine triggered a global spike in energy prices, igniting rampant inflation and sapping the will to invest more to deal with climate change. Some countries, like Germany, actually increased their fossil fuel consumption this year.

Even as the conference was going on, major players experienced huge political changes back home. The midterm election in the United States, the world’s second-largest greenhouse gas emitter, led to a divided legislature, throttling the potential for more climate legislation. Brazil’s President-elect Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva received a hero’s welcome at COP27 after defeating Jair Bolsonaro, who presided over a massive spike in deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. Then on Friday, US climate envoy John Kerry tested positive for Covid-19.

Many delegates also sharply criticized the host country Egypt for its continued detention of political prisoner Alaa Abd el-Fattah, who was on a hunger strike during the meeting. He ended his strike Thursday after collapsing, but remains in prison.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Samih Shukri makes a speech as part of the UN climate summit COP27 held in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt on November 18, 2022.
Representatives from every country met at COP27 to negotiate details on how they will limit climate change.
Mohamed Abdel Hamid/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

With so many other issues directly or indirectly on the table, it’s remarkable anything got done on climate change at all. On the sidelines, delegates signed smaller deals to end deforestation and invest in clean energy. Wealthy countries also negotiated a massive $20 billion deal to help Indonesia transition toward cleaner energy.

But on the whole, few countries committed to stepping up their efforts further to curb greenhouse gases. And those commitments are growing further divorced from their actions, as global emissions remain at record highs.

COP27 finally got a deal on the tricky issue of paying for climate change damages, but it’s weak and vague

Compared to past climate meetings, COP27 was unusual in that so much of the discussion revolved around one main topic: how to pay for the loss and damages caused by climate change. It’s an acrimonious issue that has derailed past meetings and remained unresolved for years.

Wealthy countries have burned the most fossil fuels and produced most of the greenhouse gases heating up the planet today, but the damage from that warming — things like heat waves and rises in sea levels — is more directly harming poorer countries who contributed little to the problem. The United States accounts for the largest historical share of greenhouse gas emissions.

At COP27, more than 190 countries agreed to establish a fund for loss and damage, built on a previous proposal known as the Warsaw International Mechanism.

“This represents a significant step forward in the global fight against the climate emergency,” Achim Steiner, administrator of the UN Development Programme, in a statement.

However, the language is vague, with no guidance on how much money the fund needs, who needs to pay in, and who is eligible for compensation. Wealthy countries have already failed to meet a commitment to provide $100 billion per year in financing to developing countries for climate-related projects. These are contentious questions, and the discussion will have to continue at the next COP.

The logic behind a loss and damage fund is that while climate change could get worse in the future, it’s already causing destruction now. Island countries, for instance, are facing rising sea levels while other developing countries are suffering from problems like drought worsened by rising temperatures. Climate change has already rendered parts of the world unlivable and by 2030, loss and damage from warming could cost the world anywhere from $290 billion to $580 billion a year, according to one estimate from the 2021 climate summit. Much of that will be borne by developing countries.

That was especially evident this year. Pakistan suffered extensive flooding that left one-third of the country underwater, fueled by rapidly melting glaciers. India and Pakistan also baked under a massive heat wave this spring. In Africa, droughts afflicted the eastern part of the continent while floods drenched western and central regions. These disasters brought huge humanitarian and economic burdens.

Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif told attendees the floods caused $30 billion in damage. “This all happened despite our very low carbon footprint, and yet we became a victim of something with which we had nothing to do,” he said.

A sign reading “climate reparations” outside the COP27 venue in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.
Climate activists held demonstrations in front of the COP27 venue to protest the negative effects of climate change, as the UN climate summit continues in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, on November 18, 2022.
Mohamed Abdel Hamid/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

That’s why many developing countries are so intent on getting more money through the loss and damage mechanism, which can serve as a form of reparations.

But wealthy countries like the US have long resisted such a program. They worry it would open the door to liability claims, putting them on the hook for more money over time. Instead, they prefer to fund programs that look forward, helping developing countries adapt to climate change and reduce emissions, while avoiding any language that assigns responsibility for climate change.

What else happened at COP27?

A big agenda item at the meeting was the Global Methane Pledge, which aims to cut human-caused methane emissions by at least 30 percent by 2030, compared to 2020 levels. It was initially launched at COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, and since then more than 150 countries have signed on. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, but it tends to come from distinct sources, mainly leaks from natural gas production. That’s unlike carbon dioxide, which is emitted when anything burns. As a result, targeting methane emissions could potentially lead to greater climate benefits at lower costs. If met, the methane pledge on its own could avert 0.2°C of warming by 2050 (0.36°F).

The five largest methane emitters in the world are China, India, the United States, Russia, and Brazil, accounting for half of the global share. The US and Brazil have signed on. China’s climate envoy Xie Zhenhua made a surprise announcement of new efforts to curb methane at COP27, but stopped short of signing the pledge.

Environmental campaigners are now arguing that a promise is not enough and that countries need to draft a treaty to phase down methane. “We need a binding global methane agreement inspired by the world’s most successful climate treaty — the Montreal Protocol,” Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, said in a statement.

Another big development was a $20 billion financing deal between Indonesia — one of the world’s largest coal consumers — and a group of wealthy countries including Japan, the US, Canada, the UK, and Germany. The deal was announced at the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, which took place concurrently with COP27, and it’s the largest effort to date to persuade a developing country to give up coal. It echoes the $8.5 billion clean energy finance deal with South Africa announced at the last COP.

Activists protest and demand phasing out of fossil fuels on the final day of the COP27 UN Climate Change Conference, in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt.
Activists at COP27 called for a phaseout of all fossil fuels, but some countries are resistant.
Dominika Zarzycka/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

President Joe Biden also announced new US funding commitments for international climate change projects, but the US has struggled to meet its existing promises. Biden last year promised more than $11 billion for global climate finance by 2024, but Congress only approved $1 billion. With the House now under Republican control, the prospect of any more money going abroad has grown dimmer. The US has also proposed more investment in nature-based solutions, but was vague about the details.

COP27 also fleshed out more details about international carbon credit trading, but failed to achieve a full agreement on the rules. Under Article 6 of the Paris climate agreement, countries can trade carbon emissions credits and offsets to help meet their climate goals. But credits and offsets are only as good as the accounting behind them, and few have actually delivered the emissions reductions that were promised. Establishing rules around these markets is tricky and the negotiation will resume at COP28 in Dubai.

As for fossil fuels, the COP27 agreement calls for “accelerating efforts towards the phasedown of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies,” but not the outright end of coal, oil, and natural gas burning as activists and some delegates demanded.

“I wish we got fossil fuel phaseout,” said Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, the climate envoy from the Marshall Islands. “The current text is not enough.”

The COP process remains deeply flawed and frustrating

The inherent problem of international climate negotiations is that limiting rising temperatures requires everyone to act aggressively — and quickly — but no one can force anyone else to do anything. The commitments to curb greenhouse gas emissions are self-imposed. And the rules around meeting these targets are established by consensus, so major oil producers like Saudi Arabia and countries like Tuvalu, losing land to sea level rise, have to agree.

It makes for a slow and tense negotiation process. And as the COP meetings have grown in profile over the years, they’ve become a more difficult forum to make progress on climate change. The meetings have developed a festival-like atmosphere with actors and musicians stopping by to lend their celebrity to the cause. But the resulting agreements from recent meetings have become narrower and weaker, leaving few happy.

Plenary Session of the UNFCCC COP27 climate conference on November 20, 2022 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt.
The COP27 meeting, like many before, dragged on well past its deadline.
Thomas Trutschel/Photothek via Getty Images

Environmental activist Greta Thunberg, who famously sailed across the ocean to attend a COP meeting in order to avoid the greenhouse gas emissions of flying, decided not to attend COP27. Neither did the leaders of China and India, the largest and third-largest greenhouse gas emitters. But fossil fuel companies sent more representatives than ever.

This year, even representatives from developing countries were calling to develop more of their fossil fuel resources as frustration mounts with the unmet commitments from wealthier countries for international clean energy financing.

But without everyone working together, there is little hope of slowing the warming of the planet, and the UN climate negotiations are one of the few venues where representatives from different countries can sit down face to face, eye to eye, and hammer out difficult details of how they will curb climate change and adapt to it. It’s necessary, but clearly, it’s not enough.