COP27: Time to reignite our sense of purpose
The latest UN summit has failed to divert the world from its path to climate hell. But the worst outcomes are still avoidable if we act now, says former government environment and energy policy adviser, and Lewes resident, Dr Martin Meadows.
“…..we are on a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator”.
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, opening statement at COP27, 7 November 2022.
I’ve been asked to write about the outcome of the latest UN global climate summit – COP27 – and what has changed since COP26. I wrote about COP26 for Transition Town Lewes in 2021 and concluded that we had much more to do to avoid global climate disaster.
When writing this current article, I again needed to face my feelings of despair, frustration and loss associated with the climate crisis. But, in doing so, I’ve regenerated my own clarity of vision and sense of purpose, which has helped to balance my feeling of loss.
Aiming to be objective and realistic, I hope this article can illuminate and provide insight – and maybe leave you with a similar sense of clarity and purpose.
A brief reminder of what happened in 2021 at COP26
At COP26, nearly 200 countries reached an agreement that average global warming of more than 1.5°C was a guardrail that should not be breached. That was a ground-breaking political outcome. It brought global politics more in line with the epistemic understanding that climate change is a grave threat to human well-being and the health of our planet.
Countries also recognised that plans and actions to tackle the main cause of climate change – carbon dioxide pollution from fossil fuel burning – were insufficient. The COP President requested that countries most responsible for carbon pollution return to COP 27 with more ambitious committments. In other words, they were asked to show their commitment to keeping the 1.5°C goal alive.
Countries have failed to show that commitment
A United Nations (UN) report published just before COP27 nevertheless concluded that progress is woefully short. No country in the world has plans or actions to sufficiently cut carbon dioxide emissions. On the other hand, financial support for fossil fuels almost doubled in 2021 and countries are projected by 2030 to produce more than twice the amount of fossil fuels that would be consistent with 1.5°C of warming. To put it even more starkly, the same UN report concluded that there is no credible pathway to limit global warming to 1.5°C.
We’re heading for a radically different future
Average global temperatures are now around 1.1°C warmer than in the 19th century. The world hasn’t been this warm for 125,000 years. Our current civilization developed during 10,000 years of a stable climate. We are catapulting ourselves into a radically different climate, with average warming ten times faster than at any time in the past 65 million years.
The world’s leading diplomat has seen enough. At the launch in 2022 of a major assessment of the impacts of climate change, António Guterres said that the report was “an atlas of human suffering” and that the world’s most vulnerable people are “on a frogmarch to destruction”.
In 2021, Venessa Nakate, the Ugandan climate activist, said of the severe drought in Madagascar, “How long are we to watch them die of thirst in the droughts? And gasp for air in the floods? What is the state of the hearts of the world leaders who watched this happen and allow it to continue? Our leaders are lost and the planet is damaged.”
The UN says that famine in Madagascar has been magnified by climate change. We are all living with climate change now. Here are more examples of suffering in 2022:
Devastating flooding in Pakistan caused ‘climate carnage’. One-third of the country was under water and half of its crops were washed away. The floods, made much worse by climate change, affected 33 million people and caused ‘unquantifiable depths of human suffering’. More than 8 million displaced people face a health crisis and up to 9 million people will be pushed below the poverty line because of loss of income.
The Pakistan floods followed record-breaking extreme heat in the region during the earlier part of 2022 that killed people and caused crop failures and increased food prices. The heatwave was made up to 100 times more likely by climate change.
More than 2.8 million people have been impacted by West Africa’s worst floods in a decade, with 1.3 million displaced and hundreds of lives lost. The floods were made 80 times more likely by climate change.
Summer 2022 was Europe’s hottest on record, with record fire damage. The average temperature over Europe in 2022 was the highest on record for both August and June. Europe had a record-breaking fire season, with twice the previous record area burnt. At least 15,000 people died specifically due to heat in Europe in 2022.
In July the UK recorded 40°C for the first time. The Met Office Chief Scientist said the heatwave would have been virtually impossible without climate change. More than 3,200 people died in the United Kingdom because of the heat.
Fifty million people in East Africa are facing famine. The current food security situation across the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia) is dreadful. Four consecutive rainy seasons have failed, a climatic event not seen in at least 40 years. Climate change and particularly long La Niña have caused an unprecedented multi-season drought, punctuated by one of the worst March-to-May rains in 70 years.
Key outcomes of COP27
Tackling climate change requires unprecedented global cooperation. The United Nations process, in the form of COP meetings, is the process and forum to enable that cooperation.
Negotiators however arrived at COP27 in the midst of the world’s first truly global energy crisis, a global hunger crisis, a war in Europe, geopolitical tensions between China and the USA and a bleak outlook for the global economy.
Given that background, I didn’t expect COP27 to make a great progressive leaps. The global situation is too unstable for one meeting to solve the crisis.
Carbon Brief has published a detailed record and analysis of the outcomes of COP27. I won’t repeat that excellent coverage.
In my view the two key outcomes of COP27 are:
- No stop to climate change. There was no agreement to increase ambition or take action to cut carbon pollution to meet the 1.5°C goal. Earlier in 2022, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that it was “now or never” to cut emissions sufficiently to meet the 1.5°C goal. The consensus of world leaders at COP27 seems to be that it is “never”.
- Loss and damage. There was a landmark moment as COP27 agreed to a new fund to support the victims of climate damage. Many vulnerable nations had been trying to get this agreement for 30 years. The creation of this fund is notable, as it for the first time signals that wealthy nations are prepared to compensate victims of their carbon dioxide pollution: in effect to pay reparations. Only time will tell though if countries will actually contribute in a fair and timely way to the fund. Failure however to deliver on previous financial commitments doesn’t give me confidence that this time will be different.
Where does that leave us?
We have clarity about the 1.5°C goal. World leaders have reached a consensus – by failing to commit to phasing out fossil fuels – to condemn the world to dangerous global warming for thousands of years.
The COP27 outcome means that fossil fuels will continue to dominate world energy. There is no agreed global ambition, credible plan or pathway to solving climate breakdown. Meanwhile, countries with oil and gas reserves, including the UK, continue to exploit existing oil and gas resources and seek new oil and gas resources.
Leaders did however agree to a fund for the victims of climate disasters. After over 30 years of negotiations it’s been easier to agree to pay reparations to victims of climate change than to commit to halting the cause of the suffering. What will history make of us?
The climate negotiations continue. There will be a COP28 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
What can we do?
I don’t intend this article to be an exercise in futility. Now, more than ever is not the time to give up. 1.5°C is probably lost. But that doesn’t mean the fight to avoid global catastrophe has been lost. Every fraction of a degree matters. The second Paris temperature goal is still alive. If (and it’s a big IF) countries keep to their current commitments there’s some chance of global warming staying below 2°C (the other key goal of the Paris Agreement). The challenge is to make countries fulfill their commitments.
The lack of global consensus on necessary climate action does not mean that the United Kingdom, our cities and towns, our community, our businesses and individuals cannot do meaningful things to respond to the crisis. For example in our community, Transition Town Lewes, Lewes Climate Hub, and Seaford Environmental Alliance Climate Hub publicise, coordinate and lead actions to tackle the climate crisis.
Moreover, I’ll repeat what I said in my article about COP 26. Our role as citizens is to keep the pressure on government and businesses to increase their ambition on climate and most importantly match their ambition with effective action.
There is still everything to play for.
Adapt to the inevitable
The world is now and will be very different from the pre-climate change world. We will all too soon be living in the 1.5°C world. It could be as soon as 2026. Furthermore, our descendants will be living in the warmer world for many thousands of years.
We are all vulnerable to climate change. We owe it to our descendants to stop further warming but we must also adapt to the changing climate to reduce our vulnerability. Adaptation to the effects of climate change is also an important part of our radically different future.
For example, our homes, other buildings and transport and other infrastructure need to be fit for more extreme heat, floods and storms. They are not. The UK is failing to keep pace with climate change impacts. We need to prepare better and demand more of our politicians to protect us from the inescapable effects of climate change.
There is a lot that can be done. In Lewes and surrounding areas, responses such as the Sussex Flow Initiative and Ouse Valley Climate Action are helping our community cut carbon dioxide pollution and become more resilient to the effects of climate change.
COP27 failed to take the foot off the accelerator to climate hell. But that doesn’t mean the future is set. The worst outcomes are still avoidable if we act now. We can play our part in the rapid and radical transformation that will save humanity from the worst outcomes. The means to consume energy better, cleanly and safely already exist. Let’s use them.
In the same speech that I quoted at the start of this article, António Guterres ended by saying:
“A window of opportunity remains open, but only a narrow shaft of light remains. The global climate fight will be won or lost in this crucial decade – on our watch. One thing is certain: those that give up are sure to lose. So let’s fight together– and let’s win.”
His words have even more significance after COP27.
 As with all United Nations outcomes – except for Security Council resolutions – the outcomes of COP meetings are not legally binding on member states. Consequently any agreements reached are more likely to be implemented if countries agree through a process of consensus. That is why votes are usually avoided at COP meetings. If any country votes against a resolution, then there isn’t a consensus and therefore no agreement and the meeting ‘fails’. This is a key reason why COP outcomes are often frustrating and overall progress is at best incremental. See this article for an explanation of United Nations model.