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By Roger Highfield on

COP27: Disappointing, despite historic loss-and-damage fund

Roger Highfield, Science Director, rounds up the reaction to the latest UN Climate Change Conference, COP27.

The UN’s COP27 summit has agreed a deal that will see rich nations pay poorer countries for damage and economic losses caused by climate change. However, their commitment is likely to grow given the failure of the summit to curb the emissions that cause global heating. 

As greenhouse gases continue to rise, and the global population reaches eight billion, the COP27 summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, came close to collapse, and overran by two days because of a marathon final negotiating session, with the ‘loss and damage fund‘ agreed in the early hours of Sunday. 

Crucially, however, the final overarching deal at COP27, which brought together 112 heads of state and over 46,000 delegates, did not include commitments to ensure emissions peak by 2025 to achieve the Paris climate agreement that requires we limit warming to 1.5 to 2 degrees C

In the run up to COP 27, the UN environment programme had warned that there is ‘no credible pathway to 1.5C in place’, and it added that ‘only an urgent system-wide transformation can avoid climate disaster.’ 

Germany’s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock was among many who expressed frustration that at COP27 emissions cuts and phasing out of fossil fuels were ‘stonewalled by a number of large emitters and oil producers’. 

‘They did not come forward with strong enough pledges,’ commented Bob Ward of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, based at the LSE.

‘We are now facing the prospect that we will breach that 1.5-degree threshold and struggle to bring temperatures down again by the end of the century to avoid devastating impacts such as the potential destabilisation of the polar ice sheets, which would mean several metres of sea level rise.’ 

The failure to do more to curb emissions means ‘rich countries will pay more to deal with loss and damage at home and overseas,’ added Ward, who is advising the Science Museum on its upcoming Energy Revolution gallery. ‘It would have been far cheaper to invest in a faster transition to clean energy.’ 

The fund is seen as a significant milestone given that developed nations have long worried about signing a blank cheque for climate impacts, and could cover drought and flooding, such as the summer deluge in Pakistan which affected more than 30 million people and killed about 1,700, with estimated damages of $40 billion. 

However, the most controversial decisions on the fund were delayed until next year, when a ‘transitional committee’ will make recommendations for countries to then adopt at the COP28 climate summit in Dubai Expo City, November 2023. Dr Ed Atkins, Senior Lecturer, Cabot Institute for the Environment, University of Bristol, commented: ‘Whilst there is now a loss and damage fund, it needs money and commitment to work. The real test is what richer countries do next.’

‘A fund to address “Loss and Damage” may be the headline maker for COP27 but, in reality, this COP means the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C is all but lost, and the chances of keeping warming to 2 degrees C are badly damaged too,’ commented Prof Dave Reay, Executive Director of Edinburgh Climate Change Institute, University of Edinburgh. 

I’m incredibly disappointed that we weren’t able to go further,’ commented UK lead negotiator Alok Sharma, who served as the President for COP26 from 2021-2022. ‘I said in Glasgow that the pulse of 1.5C was weak. Unfortunately, it remains on life support.’ 

His frustration was clear, as he outlined what the COP27 agreement did not contain: ‘Emissions peaking before 2025, as the science tells us is necessary – not in this text. Clear follow through on the phase down of coal – not in this text. A clear commitment to phase out all fossil fuels – not in this text,’ he said. 

The final text even contained a provision to boost ‘low-emissions energy’ which could mean many things, including gas, a major fossil fuel. 

Research by Tim Lenton of the University of Exeter and colleagues, published in the journal Science in September, suggests that even global warming of 1°C, a threshold that we already have passed, puts the planet at risk by triggering tipping points, where the global climate system irreversibly and abruptly changes.  

These tipping points were mentioned for the first time in the COP27 cover decision text and are significant because, beyond a tipping point, climate change becomes self-sustaining: even if temperatures stop rising, once the ice sheet, ocean or rainforest has passed a tipping point it will carry on changing to a new state. 

There are signs of such destabilisation already in the Amazon rainforest. However, Brazil’s President-elect Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva told COP27 that he would end deforestation and restore the Amazon.We will prioritise the fight against deforestation of all of our biomes and reverse damage done in recent years by the previous government,’ Lula said. 

Despite this one piece of good news, it is hard to conclude anything other than COP27 was yet another missed opportunity to advert climate catastrophe.

Dr Bethan Davies, Senior Lecturer in the School of Geography, Politics and Sociology at Newcastle University, commented: ‘We are on target for 2.2-2.9C of warming by 2100, with the 2030 commitments having a mean of 2.4C. This is catastrophic for the world’s glaciers and ice sheets, for the world’s mountain glaciers.’   

‘Fighting to keep the 1.5C goal alive is critical, and this requires deep and sustained cuts in emissions. However, we should not give up; if 1.5C is unattainable we should strive to limit warming to 1.6C, not 2C. Every tenth of a degree of global heating contributes to the destruction of our cryosphere with long lasting and global impacts.’

Discover more about the science of climate change in our short animated series.