For almost three decades, world governments have met nearly every year to forge a global response to the climate emergency. Under the 1992 UN framework convention on climate change (UNFCCC), every country is treaty-bound to “avoid dangerous climate change” and find ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally in an equitable way.
Cop stands for Conference of the Parties under the UNFCCC, and the annual meetings have swung between fractious and soporific, interspersed with moments of high drama and the occasional triumph, the Paris agreement in 2015, and disaster, Copenhagen in 2009. This year is the 27th iteration, and promises to be a difficult follow-up to the landmark summit last year, Cop26 in Glasgow.
The Cop27 talks began on November 6 and are due to end on November 18, but past experience of Cops shows they are likely to continue until November 20.
However, to meet those goals, countries also agreed on non-binding national targets to cut – or in the case of developing countries to curb – the growth of – greenhouse gas emissions in the near term, by 2030 in most cases.
Those targets – known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs) – were inadequate to hold the world within the Paris temperature targets. If fulfilled, they would result in 3Cor more of warming, which would be disastrous.
Everyone knew at Paris that the NDCs were inadequate, so the French built into the accord a “ratchet mechanism” by which countries would have to return to the table every five years with fresh commitments. Those five years ended on December 31, 2020, and at Cop26 in November 2021, countries assembled to set out new targets.
The most important development at Cop26 was that countries agreed to focus on the tougher 1.5C aspirational goal of the Paris agreement, acknowledging that the 2C target would allow massive devastation to take place. Research conducted since the Paris agreement was signed has shown a temperature rise of 2C above pre-industrial levels would cause changes to the climate system that would be, in many cases, catastrophic, and some of them would be irreversible, so switching the focus to a 1.5C goal represents vital progress.
Several countries also updated their NDCs at Cop26, and countries responsible for about three-quarters of global greenhouse gas emissions set out long-term targets to reach net zero carbon by about mid-century.
And to stay within 1.5C, the world must not only reach net zero by about 2050 but also halve greenhouse gas emissions, compared with 2010 levels, in this decade. However, the emissions pledges at Cop26 were not adequate to meet that goal.
That’s why at the Glasgow summit, countries also agreed to hasten the ratchet mechanism, decreeing that progress on NDCs should be updated every year, and countries were encouraged to come forward this year, and as often as necessary, with new NDCs until they are adequate.
At Glasgow in 2021, none could foresee what a changed world we would live in today. Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was not only brutal but has sent shockwaves around the world.
Even before Putin’s invasion, energy prices were rising as the world recovered from the Covid-19 shock, but the Ukraine war has sent gas prices soaring. Putin found it convenient to use European dependence on Russian gas as a weapon.
In 2021, the International Energy Agency opposed new fossil fuel development if the world was to stay within 1.5C.
Food prices soared due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as both are massive producers of grain, sunflower oil and other staples, and fertiliser prices increased as Russia and Ukraine are big producers of fertiliser.
This has resulted in the possibility of food shortages, particularly for the vulnerable, and to a cost of living crisis in developed as well as developing countries.
To add to the geopolitical woes, the ties between the US and China, world’s two big emitters, plunged to a new low.
In 2021, at Cop26, China and the US surprised diplomatic observers by signing a new bilateral deal to cooperate on tackling the climate crisis.
Now, China and the US have virtually stopped discussing the crucial issue.
Egyptian foreign minister Sameh Shourky, who is chairing the Cop27 talks, has offered his services as mediator between the US and China, though his task has been made very difficult by the tense geopolitical situation.