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Sunday, April 14, 2024

5 Good Ideas From COP27—and How Likely They Are to Happen

Things didn’t look particularly good at the start of COP27. The word on everyone’s lips was “trust”—specifically, the lack of it. Since the last UN climate meeting, many rich nations hadn’t made good on their emissions pledges. Meanwhile, poor nations arrived angry at past failures to put their issues on the negotiating table—particularly plans for rich polluters to pay for damage caused by climate change. Add to that the venue: Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, where protesters were banned but tens of thousands of consultants and lobbyists were welcomed, and it could be concluded that COP, as a vehicle for progress, had stalled. 

Those things may all have been true. But some good did still come out of COP27. Big announcements were made, debates were held in front of the cameras, and in the final moments, the negotiators produced an agreement that contained some very good ideas for the planet and the people who live on it. The next step is making those ideas actually happen. Here are those that are likely to be successful—as well as those that aren’t.

On the Table

Getting Polluters to Pay Up

Call it what you will—loss and damage, liability and compensation, climate reparations—the idea that polluting countries should pay for the damage inflicted on others by the worsening effects of climate change was the animating issue of COP27. But developing nations, which have historically pumped little carbon into the air, came in with little faith in a process that has pushed the issue off the negotiating table year after year. 

The first step was getting it on the table at all. Delegates worked late into the night just before COP began to get to a point where they could even talk about the issue. When they did, the reaction from vulnerable nations was jubilant. Then the outlook soured, as wealthy countries pushed instead for schemes that would exist outside of the UN framework rather than a UN-based fund specifically dedicated to loss and damage. 

But eventually, it happened. First opposition from the EU and Canada fell. Then, in the final hours of the meeting, US opposition fell too. However, the victory for developing nations may be less than sweet. There’s no detail on where the money will come from, or how much, or where it will go. Difficult negotiations on those issues lie ahead. Some groups, like the EU, want to stipulate that big current polluters, like China and perhaps India, will also have to contribute to a fund, and hope to restrict its money to only the poorest nations. That would potentially block access for some of the wealthier islands that have been advocating for loss and damage funding from the start. 

All that is to be discussed later. As Saleemul Huq, a climate scientist who has long advocated on behalf of vulnerable nations, told me amid the negotiations: “We can leave here saying we have the Sharm el Sheikh facility for loss and damage. That’s the goal.” Having only a high-level plan might look disappointing, but to Huq, a veteran of the process, it is just the way things work. A firm intention, even without details, is exactly what loss and damage advocates were hoping to have when they left Egypt.

Making Sure Emissions Can’t Hide

It’s easy for countries to make climate commitments—that they’d like to cut X percentage of their carbon emissions by Y year. But then they’ve got to be honest about how their emissions are actually changing. And for countries to be honest, the people and companies inside them need to be honest too. The problem is not everyone is. Countries like Malaysia and Vietnam have been accused of putting forward pledges that are essentially fantasies, based in part on flawed assumptions about the polluters within their borders.

Emissions watchdogs have gotten a lot better over the years at keeping tabs on those pledges, using satellites and better scientific methods that estimate emissions through certain types of land use or industrial processes. But there are still plenty of gaps, which is why a nonprofit climate data effort called Climate TRACE, announced by former US vice president Al Gore at COP27, is a pretty big deal. Essentially, it’s a way for climate watchdogs to consolidate those tools, whether it’s satellite measurements or emissions datasets, to create a more granular database of where emissions are actually coming from. The top 15 culprits are all oil and gas fields. But then the rankings get more diverse. A steel plant in China. A highway in Los Angeles. The point is to make it harder for polluters to hide. “You are making it more difficult to greenwash or, to be more clear, cheat,” said UN secretary-general António Guterres at the launch event. 

Cutting Back on Methane

Since COP26 in Glasgow, the US has used the negotiations to marshal action on the second, often forgotten greenhouse gas: methane. Humans put far less of it into the air than they do carbon dioxide, but the gas is eight times more potent at trapping in heat. Methane presents a good opportunity for quick climate action, as it breaks down much faster in the air than CO2. Cut back methane emissions, and the impact of the gas will soon diminish.

But it’s tricky. It’s possible to get countries to say yes to cutting planet-warming emissions, but harder to get them to agree to the specific path they’ll take to achieve those cuts—including which specific gases they’ll tackle. Many nations are incentivized to ignore the outsize role that methane plays, especially if they rely on natural gas extraction or rice farming or cattle, all of which release methane. Still, there’s been some success. More than 100 countries have signed the US-led Methane Pledge, aiming to cut emissions of the gas by nearly a third from 2020 levels by 2030. 

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This year, the US upped the ante. New methane rules announced in Sharm el Sheikh will require oil and gas companies in the US—including some of the smaller firms that were excluded from past regulations—to more closely monitor their wells and pipelines and quickly tighten leaks. The Biden administration argues companies can afford it, and that it may even be a boon for US natural gas if it can bill itself as more climate friendly to international buyers. The point is to show the other Methane Pledge countries, dozens of which were added at this COP, how the cuts can be achieved.

In Your Dreams

Reining in Fossil Fuels

There was plenty of chatter about whether the COP27 agreement might at long last mention the centrality of burning oil and gas to our current climate debacle. Maybe it would even put in place a goal to wind down their use. After all, how long can the process of international climate talks go without acknowledging the core of the problem? 

Turns out a little longer. COP27 (brought to you by Coca-Cola, by the way, the world’s biggest plastics polluter) saw the inclusion of hundreds of lobbyists from the industry and a major push by countries like Mauritania and Qatar to position natural gas as a transition fuel for nations moving off even dirtier energy sources like coal. But the biggest theme by far for fossil fuels was the European hunt for new sources of them. With Russia no longer a viable source of gas and oil, European nations have instead struck new deals in Africa, where climate activists fear the fossil fuels industry will become entrenched. And no, language about fossil fuels didn’t make it into the final agreement.

Still, there were small signs of progress. A diverse set of voices—from youth activists to small island prime ministers to US president Joe Biden—have been calling for windfall taxes on companies, which would restrict runaway oil and gas profits. It’s not likely that the UN would try to push for some kind of coordinated global effort, as some small island nations have hoped for, but a piecemeal effort to rein in oil and gas profits has clearly begun. 

Keeping 1.5 Alive

Sure, no one is saying this isn’t the goal anymore. But the pledges made going into COP27 suggest that many nations aren’t in a hurry to make the cuts scientists say are necessary by 2030.

Goals set by nations last year in Glasgow were good progress toward limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, but came up short—putting the world on track for something more like 2 to 2.5 degrees of warming. So many had hoped that this year would see further action—more ambitious promises before it’s too late. In truth it’s been a mixed bag. 

There are some bright spots: Countries like the US have seen massive progress in meeting their climate goals due to legislation like the Inflation Reduction Act, and Brazil and Australia have come back into the climate action fold with new, progressive governments. But the story is much more on the side of weakening ambitions due to post-pandemic supply crunches and the energy crisis sparked by the war in the Ukraine. The language on emissions in the final COP27 agreement was essentially a carbon copy of the Glasgow text, when many hoped it would be strengthened.

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