COP27 starts next week, here’s what it’s about

The 27th Conference of the Parties, better known as the UN Climate Change Conference or COP27 will be held in Egypt next week.

But there’s far less fanfare than this time last year when Glasgow hosted the 26th edition of the event, which concluded with a range of positive commitments, and several major disappointments.

Most notable was the last-minute rewrite of the final Glasgow Climate Pact to replace language calling to “phase out” coal with “phase down”. Coal burning is the leading cause of human carbon dioxide emissions.

A quick recap on COP26

COP26 was an opportunity for nations around the world to convene and calibrate their commitments to carbon reduction, climate change mitigation and adaptation.

It culminated with the signing of the Glasgow Climate Pact, which contained decisions and resolutions that follow on from the original Paris agreement, which committed the world to keeping average global temperature increases to a two-degree ceiling, and ideally no more than 1.5 degrees.

Some of the decisions – which aren’t legally binding – include commitments to phase down coal use and phase out fossil fuel subsidies, a call for developed nations to provide US$100 billion in climate finance to developing countries, greater support for adaptation funding, and focus on loss and damage resulting from climate events.

137 nations also committed to halting and reversing forest loss and land degradation by the end of the decade.

103 countries – including Australia – also signed the Global Methane Pledge to cut methane emissions by 30% (on 2020 levels) by the end of the decade. While carbon dioxide is much longer lived in the atmosphere, methane has a much higher global warming potential, trapping around 25 times more heat energy than its carbon cousin.

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How is COP27 different?

COP27 will be lighter on big announcements and big agreements. Instead it’s being called an “implementation” conference.

Whereas COP26 saw delegations negotiate on the language that would appear in the final Glasgow Climate Pact and the practical implementation of those agreements via the Paris Rulebook, COP27 is about working out how nations will implement those agreements.

Enthusiasm and publicity surrounding this event is muted by comparison to Glasgow, partly for this reason.

Another key reason is the call for nations to return to COP27 with more ambitious nationally determined commitments (NDCs) to reduce their carbon output have had a lukewarm response. To date, just 27 nations have updated their pledges. These include Australia’s commitment to reduce emissions by 43% (on 2005 levels) by the end of the decade. Brazil is another G20 nation that has updated its NDC. Independent observers like Climate Action Tracker still consider the submitted targets of both Australia and Brazil as insufficient.

That the conference is being hosted in Africa may mean that developing nations that will disproportionately feel the impacts of climate change have a stronger platform to call for action.

Ultimately though, this COP will serve as a global progress update on climate action, rather than a major revision of commitments amid a time of major climate events – like unseasonable northern hemisphere heatwaves, and southern hemisphere cold snaps and flooding.

“The focus on adaptation is particularly critical this year,” says director of the Australian National University (ANU) Institute for Climate, Energy and Disaster Solutions, Professor Mark Howden.

“Due to the whole raft of different extreme events that we’ve seen: the floods in Pakistan and Europe, big storms in the Philippines, the China heatwave – potentially the worst heatwave [in China] on record – and our floods here in Australia, part of [COP27] will be looking at solutions.”

What will be the big items on the COP27 agenda?

Climate finance and loss and damage remained two large, unresolved issues from COP26 and next week provides an opportunity to resolve these. The impact of the Russia-Ukraine conflict being felt in high energy prices globally means the finance question may have some way to go yet. It has been reported that Ukraine is to make the first ever report to COP on financial and environmental costs of the war against Russia as the centrepiece of its presentation. UK researchers publishing in Nature have called for a decarbonisation of the military.

“We’ve got an energy crisis, and most governments of countries that are not fossil fuel exporters have, as an absolute priority for them: dealing with the high energy prices,” says Professor Frank Jotzo, director of ANU’s Centre for Climate and Energy Policy.

“That places enormous short term strains on government budgets and bodes quite badly for climate finance, when we understand [it] as we do in the UN negotiations to mean transfers from rich countries to poor countries for climate action.

“I think its fair to expect that will be an even more difficult topic this time around.”

The other topic left open from COP26 is one of “loss and damage”.

What does this mean?

In a nutshell, this refers to the consequences of climate change related events: heatwaves, wildfires, flooding, storms and cyclones, sea level rise, ocean acidification, land degradation and biodiversity loss among them.

In the Paris outcome on loss and damage, nations formally recognised the importance of “averting, minimizing and addressing loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change.”

Loss and damage has been on the agenda since the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage was established a decade ago, at COP19, but it should be one of the most important topics of discussion in 2022.

“We’ve had so many climate related disasters occurring across the world this year, so it’s very much at the front of many countries’ minds,” says Professor Jackie Peel, director of Melbourne Climate Futures.

“Credible progress on [loss and damage], I think is going to be seen by many developing countries, in particular, as a litmus test for the success of this COP.”

Australia's climate change minister chris bowen speaking at a lectern
Australia’s climate change minister Chris Bowen / Credit: Brook Mitchell AAP, Getty Images

And who’s going to COP27?

Greta Thunberg’s out, and Coca Cola is in. Before COP27 has even kicked off, there have been criticisms of corporate greenwashing. Coke is one of the largest producers of plastic – which is manufactured using oil – globally. Petrochemical use for plastic manufacturer accounts for almost 15% of world oil use. Coca Cola’s financial support of the event has been criticised by the likes of climate action campaigner Thunberg and other environmental organisations.

COP is a gathering of a range of organisations, including government delegations and observer organisations like charities and not-for-profits and businesses. One that won’t have a presence in the Australian pavilion is the oil exploration company Santos. It was invited by the Australian Government to have a centrepiece display at COP26, which was widely condemned by the likes of former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Peel says the Australia display will have a very different feel in 2022.

“This year, it’s going to feature digital artworks from First Nations artists. So the contrast, I think, speaks loudly.”

World leaders attending the event include US President Joe Biden, UK prime minister Rishi Sunak are among confirmed attendees. Anthony Albanese is a non-starter for the trip to Egypt, with the Australia’s climate change minister Chris Bowen to lead the nation’s delegation instead.

COP27 takes place in the Egyptian resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh from 6-18 November.

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