COP27 recap: Nine of the biggest stories from this year’s UN climate conference

COP27 has finally come to a close after more than two weeks of tense negotiations and countless speeches and side events. Here, we round up nine of the biggest stories, including the key points from the final negotiating texts.

COP27 recap: Nine of the biggest stories from this year’s UN climate conference

Recap on a whirlwind two weeks with us. Images: UNFCCC, top right, CAN International

COP27 will have been a major event in the 2022 diary for anyone in the sustainability space. The two-week summit began on Sunday 6 November and, while it was meant to wrap up by the end of the working day on Friday 18 November, the process over-ran significantly. The gavel finally came down on the closing agreement in the early hours of Sunday 20 November after nations finally reached agreements on sticky issues such as loss and damage and carbon markets.

There have undoubtedly been many lows for climate leaders over the past few weeks, beyond the weakening of some key language in the final agreement. Delegates have said that the fake grass and trees at the venue, coupled with problems accessing food and drinks and the presence of fossil fuel lobbyists, has made for a dystopian atmosphere. There have also undoubtedly been fewer new international initiatives backed with new finance launching this year, compared with last.

But there have been many positive developments, too, from big and bold national and international pledges to leadership at side events from youth and the most-affected regions. Here, we round up nine of the biggest stories from this COP.

1) A historic agreement was reached on Loss and Damage finance… 

… but without strong commitment to 1.5C or language on fossil fuels, will the finance facility need to be ever-growing?

As mentioned above, it was a frought process to get nations to agree on the final agreements from COP27. The EU made a last-minute U-turn on blocking loss and damage efforts on Saturday morning (19 November) and, as the sun set, the US conceded that while it would not support the creation of a fund or mechanism in Egypt, it would not block consensus, either. This was major news after three decades of pressure from the most-affected low-income nations.

The result was an agreement to create a loss and damage finance mechanism in 2023, and for the responsibility of the mechanism to sit with the UNFCCC under the Paris Agreement. There was concern that wealthy nations would try and side-step this form of governance by going solely for an insurance-based model. The fund will help climate-vulnerable countries considered to be developing. As an emerging economy, China likely won’t be receiving payouts.

This may, however, be one of the few wins from the agreement, which some have said barely prevents backsliding from the COP26 Glasgow Climate Pact at a time when significantly increased ambition and action is needed. COP26 President Alok Sharma has stated that the failure to reach an international agreement to phase-down or phase-out all fossil fuels, not just coal, is disappointing. Progress here was blocked by petro-states including Saudi Arabia, who also would not have renewables mentioned as a solution without talk of man-made carbon capture as an alternative. Sharma also voiced concern about fleeting mentions to the latest climate science.

Language was also weaker, this time, about the need for nations to update their Paris Agreement plans within a year. Less than 30 of the 193 nations involved in UN climate diplomacy submitted an update ahead of COP27, as they had promised to do at COP26.

You can read our full story about the final decisions here. You can read our round-up of reactions to the outcomes here.

2) Adaptation played a more prominent role

Many world leaders used their opening speeches at COP27, on 7 and 8 November, to highlight the fact that the vast majority of international climate finance goes to mitigation rather than adaptation. We heard moving speeches from leaders of some of the most-affected nations about the droughts and coastal erosion already gripping their nations, and climate scientists confirmed that there are limits to humanity’s capacity for adaptation.

Pretty soon after COP27 began, the Egyptian Presidency launched the Sharm-El-Sheikh Adaptation Agenda in partnership with the UN Climate Change High-Level Champions, and the Marrakech Partnership.

The Agenda is a comprehensive global to-do list to help improve the resiliency of more than four billion people against climate-related risks. It outlines 30 “Adaptation Outcomes” to help protect those living in the most climate-vulnerable communities by 2030.Actions are divided across five “impact systems” that include food and agriculture, water and nature, coastal and oceans, human settlements, and infrastructure, and including enabling solutions for planning and finance. Read the full story here.

Building on this, the UN launched a new action plan for covering more of the global population with early warning systems for extreme weather events. It is asking governments to invest $3.1bn in the systems between 2023 and 2027 – equivalent to just 50c per person, per year.

Elsewhere, the Race to Resilience initiative announced sign-ups from 17 new cities and regions across India and Bangladesh.

3) Businesses sent strong calls to action

Saturday 12 November may have been the weekend for most, but it was another themed day in the COP27 Presidency programme (food systems being the theme) and another day of work for negotiators.

On this day,  the We Mean Business Coalition issued a declaration on behalf of hundreds of businesses, with the help of some famous faces including former President of Ireland and current chair of the Elders Mary Robinson.

The declaration told delegates at COP27 that 1.5C is “a limit not a target”, and argued the case that negotiators should work with the private sector to avert the worse of the climate crisis. Not enough progress has been made since the commitments of COP26, the businesses note, with the UN having last month confirmed that the current global warming trajectory exceeds the Paris Agreement’s 2C pathway.

An updated call to action was issued this Saturday. The businesses told negotiators that they “stood ready” to “support a just transition away from all fossil fuels”.

4) The mid-summit climate activism was held on UN soil for the first time

The middle Saturday of COPs is usually a time for people across the host city to mobilise for a climate march or demonstration, urging world leaders to reach a strong agreement.

Given that the Egyptian Government had moved to limit protesting ahead of the summit, and with many attendees reporting enhanced surveillance, this year’s demonstration took place within the conference venue itself. This is so that those participating would be doing so on UN soil, rather than Egyptian soil, by way of technicality. One young activist told Wired that the Presidency was only permitting “meetings, not protests”.

5) The G20 agreement addressed concerns about ‘backsliding’ on 1.5C

The G20 leaders’ summit for 2022 was meant to take place in October. However, hosts Indonesia – the fifth biggest national emitter in the world – opted to move the event to coincide with COP27. Most international media outlets focused on tensions between Russia and other nations, but there were some significant sustainability developments, too.

As leaders gathered in Bali, fears were mounting that they could weaken overall climate ambition from last year’s agreement. The Global Carbon Budget report’s warning that there is a 50/50 chance of 1.5C overshoot by 2030, compounded by the sheer leverage of the coal and gas lobbies, had many experts worrying that 1.5C would not be kept alive.

However, the final G20 communique for this year mentions the 1.5C target and achieving net-zero by or around mid-century, in full alignment with the COP26 pact. It also states that the energy and climate crisis are interlinked and that nations must “rapidly transform” energy systems.

The other big news from the G20 Summit was the $20bn Just Energy Transition Partnership (JET-P) for Indonesia. The initiative will leverage $10bn from government coffers and $10bn from the private sector to help Indonesia move away from coal. Indonesia now has six months to prepare a full plan for how the financing should be invested. Within that same period, funding providers will need to agree specific terms, such as which portion is grant funding and which portion is loans.

6) Global Methane Pledge reaches 150 nations, without China

Action on methane is increasingly being recognized as crucial to limiting the global temperature increase. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has stated that methane is one of the most potent greenhouse gases, but that its atmospheric life is only around 12 years, compared with decades or even centuries for other GHGs.

As expected, the US and EU, as joint leaders of the Global Methane Pledge, announced new joiners during COP27. Now, 150 nations are committed to reducing methane emissions by at least 30% by 2030. Notable absences include Russia, India and China, but the latter has stated that it will publish its first national methane plan in the near future. This could pave the way for future participation.

The Pledge also provided more detail on the exact steps being taken to cut methane from key sources – energy, food systems and waste. Read our full story here.

7) Australia and Brazil are back in the game

If the superstar world leader at COP26 was Barack Obama, the COP27 equivalent was Brazil’s president-elect Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – commonly known as Lula. Lula campaigned on a pledge to dramatically reduce deforestation in the Amazon, which has increased under Jair Bolsonaro.

Lula arrived on the scene on the second Wednesday, 16 November, and provided two public speeches. Both had standing-room only. Lula stated that, under his leadership, Brazil would be keen to host COP, so long as the international community could forgive the nation’s last-minute declination of the offer to host in 2019.

He also confirmed that Brazil is seeking cooperation with Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo on forest conservation, as these are the three largest forest nations in the world. Between them, they host more than half of the world’s primary forests. Additionally, he confirmed the creation of a council of Indigenous Leaders and announced an ambition to collaborate more closely with other South American nations on environmental issues.

Much attention was also given to Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese after many snubbed predecessor Scott Morrison for a handshake in Glasgow last year. Australia joined the Global Methane Pledge and was among the backers of a new green shipping pledge, but has been pushed to be bolder on phasing out fossil fuel subsidies.

8) Big steps are being taken to make net-zero claims more credible

As COP27 began, the UN stated that major focus should be given to the need to ensure that net-zero targets set by nations and non-state actors alike are credible. Net-Zero Tracker subsequently published its latest big global stocktake, evidencing precious little progress in nations and non-state actors backing up long-term goals with science-based, interim ambitions.

The High-Level Expert Group on Net Zero Emissions Commitments of Non-State Entities last week published a new set of recommendations on setting short, mid and long-term commitments. These include prioritising deep emissions reductions, in line with science, over offsetting, and ensuring that any offsets which are used are robust.

Also last week, the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) published a net-zero ‘Guidelines’ paper. The paper is intended to be a “single core reference text” for any organisation wishing to credibly use terminology relating to net-zero emissions and create meaningful targets. It is available for free.

9)There are concerns that not enough was said about nature ahead of biodiversity COP15

There may only be six weeks left in 2022 but we’re not done with COPs for the year. Next month, environment ministers and negotiations (there are still concerns about whether world leaders will be going) will meet in Montreal for the 15th Biodiversity COP. Their primary aim is to agree on a treaty for nature this decade, in Paris Agreement style, that will ultimately bring an end to nature degradation and shift the world into a new era of widespread nature restoration.

Talks have proven fraught so far. Covid-19-related delays and in-fighting have resulted in the final agreement being two years overdue.

Nature NGOs were, therefore, happy to see that this year’s G20 Communique welcomes progress towards the treaty and states that committed nations will work to achieve consensus in Montreal. But that focus on nature has not translated through to the final agreement documents from Sharm. COP26’s focus on nature had many hoping, ahead of COP27, that the appetite for action would follow through this year.

The final agreement does include a section on forests which, unlike the COP26 documents, makes specific reference to nature-based climate solutions. Parties are “encouraged, as appropriate, to consider nature-based solutions or ecosystem-based approaches” in their climate adaptation and social sustainability plans.

Click here to access all of edie’s COP27 content.

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