Climate and Us | The fine print of the hits and misses of COP27

ByJayashree Nandi
Jan 02, 2023 08:39 PM IST

As the 1.5°C goal becomes nearly impossible, what then becomes imperative and urgent is just and equitable energy transition. HT dives deep into what COP27 did, and didn't do.

On December 1, HT reported that the latest science is indicating the window to keep global warming under 1.5° Celsius (C) has now nearly closed.

While covering COP27 at Sharm El Sheikh, the effort to evade a just transition and the principles of differentiation among developed and developing nations was very apparent. (Reuters) PREMIUM
While covering COP27 at Sharm El Sheikh, the effort to evade a just transition and the principles of differentiation among developed and developing nations was very apparent. (Reuters)

Hans-Otto Pörtner, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) co-chair told HT: “Co-chairs do not hold a crystal ball, but clearly, the chances are already high and increasing daily that we will miss holding warming to that important limit. Only a massive mobilisation towards the transformation of energy use, industry, infrastructure, society and how we deal with ecosystems will keep that limit within reach. With unabated emission, 1.5°C warming will be passed around the end of this decade and may be reached during individual years even earlier.” The IPCC’s Synthesis Report of Assessment Report (AR) Six due to be released later this year is likely to throw more light on the 1.5°C threshold.

The effort to curb unabated emissions cannot come at the cost of development and meeting basic needs such as energy access, housing, and affordable transportation in developing and least developed countries. And while covering COP27 at Sharm El Sheikh, the effort to evade a just transition and the principles of differentiation among developed and developing nations was very apparent.

Equity and Common but Differentiated Responsibilities

Several developing country negotiators informed journalists during the second week of negotiations that developed nations — particularly the United States (US), the European Union (EU), and Switzerland — were contesting principles of equity, Common but Differentiated Responsibilities and respective capabilities in the cover decision through different proposals.

More importantly, the call to expand the donor base by developed countries for climate finance including for Loss and Damage, Mitigation and Adaptation grew loud. EU climate chief, Frans Timmermans called for China and other developing “high-income” countries and “parties with capacity” to contribute to the Loss and Damage Fund more than once, proving what negotiators had been sharing with journalists off the record.

The US, in particular, questioned “equity” during discussions on the second periodic review, negotiators said. During the second periodical review (to track progress on the implementation of the Paris Agreement goal) developed countries bracketed equity and Common but Differentiated Responsibility, a negotiator from the Like-Minded Developing Countries (LMDC) informed me.

There was high drama at COP27 as the politics over the climate crisis among developed and developing country groups that spilled into public view. The European Union warned that it was prepared to walk out from the negotiations if a satisfactory outcome could not be reached.

(Read about the developments that culminated in the Sharm El Sheikh Implementation Plan here)

The EU pushed for emissions to peak by 2025, which may be ideal to keep global warming within the 1.5°C threshold but it cannot be pushed through in an unjust manner. The science is clear on which group of countries has contributed to global warming of 1.1°C so far and what their respective responsibility is regarding emissions. This principle of mitigation should, therefore, be based on historical responsibility, as the 1.5°C goal slips away.

The cryosphere and climate tipping points

For the first time, the Sharm El Sheikh Implementation Plan has recognised the impact of the climate crisis on the cryosphere — an all-encompassing term for those portions of the earth's surface where water is in solid form — and the need for further understanding climate tipping points. A global team of senior climate scientists who are part of the Climate Crisis Advisory Group (CCAG) have flagged that the Arctic is facing a series of potential tipping points, each causing chaotic weather and climate patterns.

These include the distortion of the Polar vortex and Jet Stream bringing “never before” weather events to the globe. Due to global warming of 1.2°C already above the pre-industrial temperatures, there is the prospect of rising sea-levels of well over 1 metre by the end of the century under high emissions scenarios. Methane emissions from the thawing permafrost regions of the Arctic Circle could lead to temperatures considerably greater than 1.5°C above the pre-industrial levels. All of this arises from what is happening, right now, in the Arctic Circle, the report released during COP27 said.

Climate tipping points are conditions beyond which changes in a part of the climate system become self-perpetuating. CCAG’s recommendations are three-fold.

One: Reduce emissions urgently, deeply and rapidly, while ensuring an orderly, just transition.

Two: Remove CO2 from the atmosphere in vast quantities.

Three: Repair broken parts of the climate system, starting with the Arctic, to try and reverse local changes and stop the cascading impacts.

For repair interventions, the report has proposed biomimicry — the emulation of the models, systems, and elements of nature to solve complex human problems — which can be reversed if needed.

Climate tipping points are conditions beyond which changes in a part of the climate system become self-perpetuating. (AP File Photo)
Climate tipping points are conditions beyond which changes in a part of the climate system become self-perpetuating. (AP File Photo)

For example, it has argued for small-scale experimentation with marine-cloud brightening. In this, a fine mist of sea water is sprayed upwards throughout the Arctic summer to help create brighter, whiter clouds that can reflect the energy of the sun away from the surface of the ocean, allowing new ice to remain throughout the summer. Such interventions, though, are fraught with challenges and uncertainties that can delay action further. For example, during COP27, the issue of geoengineering was discussed following a proposal by Article 6 (under Paris Agreement) Supervisory Body.

“The Article 6.4 Supervisory Body released recommendations that potentially throw open the door to geo-engineering schemes that risk undermining the integrity of the Paris Agreement and setting the world on a course to blow past 1.5°C. Betting on these activities will delay the much-needed climate action necessary to present catastrophe and impact human rights,” said the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), senior attorney Erika Lennon, in a statement on November 7.

The Global North and the Global South

But CCAG, led by Sir David King, former chief scientific adviser to the United Kingdom (UK) government has underlined that mitigation action should be equitable. “Rich countries have benefitted from the last 200 years of emissions, but they have been slow and unreliable in reducing their emissions. Against this troubled historical background, recent unmet pledges of climate finance and the deeply concerning situation in Ukraine, trust in the Global North is rightly low,” the report states, adding that it is impossible to reach net-zero emissions without restoring the trust deficit between the Global North and the Global South.

“This has been compounded by the refusal of wealthy countries to contribute sufficiently to addressing and adapting to the consequences of climate change in the poorest areas, as well as continued underinvestment in technologies to reduce or remove GHGs. In effect, there is a double debt: the debt of insufficient investment and roll-out in technological solutions; and the debt of failing to commit finance, and thus delegating the financial burden of adaptation to poorer nations already bearing the brunt of climate externalities.”

The near impossibility of 1.5°C

Though the chances of keeping global warming under 1.5°C over pre-industrial levels is seeming nearly impossible, the blame game at COP27 was around meeting this unrealistic goal, without specifying how such a transformation will be achieved immediately.

The Sharm El Sheikh Implementation Plan reiterates (the Glasgow Pact from COP26 also did) that the impacts of the climate crisis will be much lower at the temperature increase of 1.5°C compared with 2°C and resolves to pursue further efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C. The agreement made in the early hours of November 20 does capture the scale of what is needed to achieve the goal. It states that limiting global warming to 1.5°C requires rapid, deep and sustained reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions of 43% by 2030 relative to the 2019 level. In comparison, emissions, if accounted for based on the implementation of all latest nationally determined contributions, are estimated to be 0.3% below the 2019 level, the plan states.

Climate activists take part in a protest inside the Sharm el-Sheikh International Convention Centre, during the COP27 summit. (AFP)
Climate activists take part in a protest inside the Sharm el-Sheikh International Convention Centre, during the COP27 summit. (AFP)

The 1.5°C global warming threshold is likely to be breached in the next 10 to 20 years (by 2040) in all emission scenarios, including the one where CO2 emissions decline rapidly to net zero around 2050, the IPCC said last year. “From a physical science point of view, it is still possible to limit global warming to 1.5°C and that would mean these changes (climate impacts) could be slowed. If we reduce GHG emissions to net zero by 2040 there is still a two-thirds chance to limit global warming to 1.5°C and if we manage to reach net zero emissions by middle of the century there is still a one-third chance,” Friederike Otto, associate director, Environment Change Institute, University of Oxford had said last August when IPCC’s Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis report was released.

One of the scenarios that the IPCC report projected is that the planet will warm by 1.5°C in all scenarios. “In the most ambitious emissions pathway, we reach 1.5°C in the 2030s, overshoot to 1.6°C, with temperatures dropping back down to 1.4°C at the end of the century,” a note from IPCC’s AR-6 said.

To keep global warming under 1.5°C or net-zero CO2 emissions globally by 2050, CO2 emissions need to fall by 1.4 GtCO2 each year, comparable to the recorded fall in emissions in 2020 due to Covid-19 lockdowns, the Global Carbon Budget report said. It projected that total global CO2 emissions fuelled by fossil fuel consumption will rise by 1% compared to 2021, reaching 36.6 GtCO2 — above the 2019 pre-Covid-19 levels, indicating that global CO2 emissions continue to increase, with no sign of abatement anytime soon.

"The current commitments by global nations are not sufficient to keep the global temperature change under 1.5°C by 2040 or even 2°C by 2060. As three decades of negotiations pass by, we have so far not seen any substantial reduction in emissions or flattening of temperatures. What we need is strong collective action urgently for mitigation. While mitigation efforts are going on, we should not wait for it to work out as it is too late already. In India, we also need to focus on urgent adaptation measures tailored to local changes, as we are already facing the wrath of 1°C in the form of intense heat waves, floods, droughts and cyclones that are threatening the lives and livelihoods of more than a billion people," said Roxy Mathew Koll, IPCC author and climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology.

Rich countries postured to champion the cause of 1.5°C at COP27 and rued that developing nations were not doing enough to keep global warming under 1.5°C. On November 20, at the closing plenary of COP27 after nightlong negotiations to reach compromise, EU climate policy chief, Frans Timmermans made a long and emotive speech about his disappointment in pushing through stronger mitigation. “The European Union tried to bridge these gaps as we showed ambition by being fully aligned with the 1.5°C scenario. We have a clear statement of our intention to phase out unabated fossil fuels; 80 countries now support this goal. Sadly, we don't see this reflected in the mitigation work programme. It doesn't refer back to the 1.5°C goal. But it certainly puts unnecessary barriers in the way and allows parties to hide from their responsibilities. But we will not stop fighting for more. And nothing hurts us from doing more. We will be holding ourselves and everyone here accountable. But last night, we saw that too many parties are not ready to make more progress today in the fight against the climate crisis. There were too many attempts to even rollback on Glasgow. Some are afraid to transition ahead,” he said.

However, experts say that to say developing nations are not showing ambition to meet the 1.5°C goal is wrong on two key counts, among others.

One: The remaining carbon budget for a 50% likelihood to limit global warming to 1.5°C has been reduced to 380 GtCO2, which may be exceeded in the next nine years and needs to be divided equitably because most of the carbon budget has already been consumed disproportionately by the rich countries.

Two: A related argument put forward by developing countries is that based on fair share, rich countries must achieve carbon neutrality well before 2030 to facilitate equitable distribution of the remaining carbon budget.

Make room for equity

It’s important to recollect that the Paris Agreement of 2015 is guided by the principles of equity and common but differentiated responsibility and respective capabilities (CBDR-RC). “In every negotiating room, equity has been questioned and efforts were made to delete the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities,” said Diego Pacheco, lead negotiator for Bolivia and spokesperson of LMDC during the closing plenary of COP27.

“I was expecting a lot more from COP27 which happened in Africa, a continent so badly affected by climate change. But there were attempts of diluting or erasing differentiation. Tomorrow, these issues will be reopened again,” said Sunita Narain, director-general, the Centre for Science and Environment last week in a webinar organised by the Centre for Policy Research. “Unless the issue of equity is at the core, we cannot have ambition. We need a rule-based system as we move ahead. The Paris deal removed the differentiation and the rule-based system. We should demand that this comes back,” Narain added.

From the climate crisis to air pollution, from questions of the development-environment tradeoffs to India’s voice in international negotiations on the environment, HT’s Jayashree Nandi brings her deep domain knowledge in a weekly column

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