the police27 The climate summit ended in a desperate and confused flurry more than 40 hours late with a qualifying victory snatched from the jaws of utter failure, but with the big issues unresolved.
If this sounds familiar to you, like so many climate summits before it, well… yes. There have been genuine developments over the past week, some of which could reshape the global response to the crisis. But there was also intransigence and blockade where it mattered most. Some of it is getting worse.
Here are five takeaways from the conference, including Australia’s role.
The good news: a loss and damage response fund
For more than 30 years, developing countries have been demanding that the rich take responsibility for the costs of bailing out and rebuilding after climate disasters fueled by skyrocketing emissions. For more than 30 years, the rich have resisted.
That changed in Sharm el-Sheikh, and it is a genuine and amazing step forward. It was not confirmed that what is known as loss and damage would be on the agenda until the eve of the conference. Two weeks later, there is an agreement to establish a response fund to help vulnerable countries rebuild social and physical infrastructure after extreme weather events exacerbated by greenhouse gas emissions. The example cited over and over again in Egypt was the devastating floods that ravaged Pakistan this year, affecting 33mn people and causing an estimated US$30bn in damage. Pakistan’s climate minister, Sherry Rehman, was a quiet and powerful advocate for change.
Loss and damage negotiations were generally tense, and the fund’s design is not yet finalized. Australia got involved as part of a group that lobbied for a fund that would be paid through a “patchwork” of channels, meaning multilateral. existing development banks and climate funds, as well as rich countries.
Contentiously, it also brings in emerging economies like China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and other OPEC members who are now among the biggest historical and current contributors to the problem. None of them think they should pay, and the final wording of the agreement leaves that point open to interpretation, for now.
While details are yet to come, developing countries ended the conference in a rare moment of genuine celebration. If you believe in an equitable response to the climate crisis, this keeps that hope alive. But the tough decisions are yet to come.
The bad news: lack of ambition to reduce emissions
Cop27 continued with the fundamental failure of the UN process: the refusal to accept that fossil fuels are driving the climate crisis and must be stopped.
The final hours of the conference were in chaos, as developed countries and small island states fought in the rear to uphold the previously agreed target that the world would try to limit global warming to 1.5°C. As Australia’s Chris Bowen argued, removing it would have been a major setback from Glasgow Pact last year and a statement that countries were prepared to accept a substantially worse climate breakdown.
In the end, 1.5C survived in text, but the target was only acknowledged and there is no plan for the world to get there. We are already at 1.1C.
Dozens of countries have advocated for a longstanding recognition that all fossil fuels, including oil and gas, must be phased out. They also wanted a statement that global emissions would peak in 2025. Both were blocked.
Instead, the conference simply repeated a previously agreed upon and weakly worded statement that “relentless coal power” must be phased out (but not necessarily phased out). The need to accelerate renewable energy received a few mentions, but alongside it was inserted a new reference to “low emissions” energy. It was widely interpreted to mean gas, which is not actually low-emissions.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the Egyptian hosts welcomed more than 630 fossil fuel lobbyists, many from the gas industry, to the conference, and a number of new gas deals were signed during the fortnight.
New Zealand’s climate minister, James Shaw, summed up the views of many, including Australia, when he blamed the “petrostates” (Saudi Arabia and other OPEC members) for trying to “undo” the Glasgow pact.
Bowen took advantage of his moments under the Egyptian sun to argue strongly in favor of maintaining the 1.5 °C target and the need to invest in renewable energy. He did not directly address the need to phase out fossil fuels before leaving the conference on Saturday morning, but the Australian delegation backed the failed push for their inclusion in the last few hours.
The old divisions remain
The divisions preventing further action at climate summits are not new, although some of them may be growing stronger. Because the UN operates on a consensus model, Anyone can stop progress, and the Saudis and their allies remained determined to block any progress on fossil fuels, arguing that the focus should be on emissions, not energy sources (apparently those two things are not connected). They are not alone, but they were the biggest obstacles to a better deal, along with the hosts’ apparent unwillingness to bring urgency to the agenda.
The basis of the talks is the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, under which it was agreed that rich countries should act first. The list of developed nations did not include China, India, Saudi Arabia, Russia or Brazil. That clearly doesn’t make sense now, but the support persists. That is why China can argue that it should not be expected to pay into a loss and damage fund, even as it spends large sums across the developing world through its Belt and Road program.
The counterargument is that the developed world has never lived up to its part of the bargain. The emissions targets of the rich have now improved, but they are still not where they should be to meet the targets agreed in Paris in 2015, and it has taken decades to get to this point. Similarly, commitments to increase climate finance have not been met. And some, notably Australia, remain large producers of fossil fuels.
Australia is back. But what does that mean?
It was a common refrain, heard on buses, in coffee queues, and in ministerial speeches.
After years of Australia blocking and criticizing the weather, Bowen and the Australian delegation received a warm welcome from the global community, including their Pacific neighbors. In the words of Vanuatu’s climate minister, Ralph Regenvanu, the new government was “a breath of fresh air” after the Scott Morrison era.
The US special envoy for climate, John Kerry, was singled out for presenting Bowen as “doing an incredible job of Demonstrating the difference a choice makes”. And the Egyptian presidency recruited the minister to co-lead a negotiating stream dealing with climate finance. It’s safe to say that wasn’t happening last year. Even observers often critical of Australia’s climate targets and the continued growth of fossil fuels said they had been constructive and bona fide players in the talks.
But the delegation clearly benefited from following an administration that was seen as lagging behind. Labor’s new goals and policies are a significant improvement, but they still don’t match Bowen’s rhetoric about the 1.5C target. The government came to the conference with no new commitments on climate finance or money for loss and damage. Meanwhile, the country’s fossil fuel exports remain world-leading.
Privately, there is a view in the government that the investment shift towards cleaner energy will mean that most proposed fossil fuel developments will not go ahead. Bowen says there will be no more subsidies. It will be noticed internationally, and particularly in the Pacific, if this is not the case.
There was a remarkable speech by Australia’s chief negotiator, Sally Box, at the final plenary in Egypt when, addressing the conference on behalf of a bloc of developed countries known as the umbrella group, she said she was “deeply disappointed” and called for a “an urgent intensification of our efforts,” as countries “must go further in light of the compelling findings of the latest science.”
It is the correct rhetoric and the standard by which the Albanian government along with all others should be judged.
Pac Cop may be on his way
Australia seems to be well positioned with its offer to co-host the 2026 climate conference, Cop31, with the Pacific countries. Switzerland, a potential rival, has withdrawn and backs Australia. Turkey is in the running, but Australia is seen as more likely to win the support of the “Western Europe and Others” group that will decide hosting rights that year.
While it has yet to pierce public consciousness, hosting a UN climate summit with tens of thousands of delegates and observers could be a genuinely transformative moment in the way Australia thinks about climate change. There would be a greater focus on policies, targets, green energy potential and plans for fossil fuels. The Pacific countries would like to have a say in how it is managed. We should know if the Albanian government has been successful before the next elections.