Analysis: At UN Climate Talks, a Deal on Reparations, but Failure on Emissions

Egypt's Sameh Shoukry, president of COP27, receives a standing ovation.

Egypt's Sameh Shoukry, president of COP27, receives a standing ovation. UNFCCC

Brinkmanship worked at the UN climate conference. And for once, developing nations won.

Faced with the prospect of a crashed COP27 at the Egyptian resort of Sharm-el-Sheikh, the European Union early on Friday conceded the creation of a new “loss and damage” fund to help poor countries hit by the impacts of climate change to rescue their people and rebuild. During a 40-hour conference overrun that finally ended early on Sunday morning, the United States and other rich nations fell into line. Deal done.

But, this widely heralded triumph for climate justice is locked in a wider tragedy of failed ambition to cut the emissions causing the disasters, say climate analysts. “The real loss and damage of COP27 has been to our chances of meeting the Paris climate goals,” says Dave Reay, director of Edinburgh University’s Climate Change Institute. “The goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius [2.7 degrees Fahrenheit] is all but lost, and the chances of keeping to 2 degrees are badly damaged too.”

The demand from developing countries for a fund to compensate them for the impacts of climate change, for which they bear little responsibility, is long-standing. But it was made with renewed vigor in Egypt in the wake of a series of climate disasters during 2022, culminate in the extensive September floods in Pakistan, which will cost an estimated $40 billion to clean up.

Until now, rich nations have promised money for helping poor nations switch to renewable energy and build defenses against inevitable climate change. But, fearful of conceding formal liability for the damage from their emissions, they have always opposed the idea of a fund to pay for coping with actual climate disasters or compensating their human victims.

In Sharm-el-Sheikh, they finally conceded. Though the deal does not resolve who will put money into the fund (should China contribute?), nor how much, and how it should be divided up. Expect more battles before any cash is handed out.

And the agreement does nothing to pull the planet back from the climatic brink.

The Maldives delegation displayed a clock counting down to the date when warming is projected to reach 1.5 degrees C.

The Maldives delegation displayed a clock counting down to the date when warming is projected to reach 1.5 degrees C. UNFCCC

In the final hours in Sharm-el-Sheikh, the president of last year’s conference in Glasgow, British minister Alok Sharma, angrily listed the failings of its final agreement: “Emissions peaking before 2025, as the science tells us is necessary: not in this text. Clear follow-through of the phase-down of coal [agreed in Glasgow]: not in this text. A commitment to phase out fossil fuels: not in this text … Those of us who came to Egypt to keep 1.5 alive have had to fight relentlessly to hold the line.”

EU officials — who last week promised to achieve a collective 57 percent reduction in emissions by 2030 — had reportedly hoped that their Friday conversion on loss and damage would be reciprocated with improved promises from all nations on reducing their CO2 emissions and ending their addiction to fossil fuels. But the quid pro quo never happened.

“The decision mostly copy and pasted language from Glasgow about curbing emissions, rather than taking any significant new steps,” says Ani Dasgupta, president of the World Resources Institute. “It is mind-boggling that countries did not muster the courage to call for phasing out fossil fuels.”

Some blamed the debacle on oil giant Saudi Arabia and the influence of more than 600 delegates from fossil fuel companies cruising the conference corridors. Many U.S. delegates blamed China. Others pointed out that African countries that pushed hardest for the loss and damage fund remained reluctant to forgo developing their abundant oil and natural gas reserves. Some blamed muddled chairing by Egyptian ministers.

The good news was the event held the world’s attention and many world leaders showed up in Sharm-el-Sheikh with money and promises, including President Joe Biden and Brazil’s new leader, Luis Inacio Lula de Silva, pledging zero deforestation in the Amazon. There will be much less attention at next month’s parallel UN conference in Montreal on saving the planet’s biodiversity, which nearly all heads of state will forgo.

But showing up is not the same as showing leadership. “Our planet is still in the emergency room,” said a doleful UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres as delegates prepared to head home.

Fred Pearce


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