Tan Strehler-Weston, head of operations and policy at Thrust Carbon, assesses developments at COP27
With COP27 coming to a close, you could be forgiven for feeling a sense of déjàvu – ‘another year, another COP’. We continue to hurtle through the climate crisis, while politicians and civil society go through the motions yet again.
I’m going to surprise you, I’d agree! But it’s because of this that I’m actually looking forward to the next COP already.
Let me paint you a picture – one that starts with a giant cable tie. Cable ties, such is their design, can only ever be made tighter. Now imagine a giant cable tie sitting around the outside of the biggest car exhaust pipe you can imagine – one so big that it’s pumping out over 40 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide every year.
It’s the job of COP to pull that cable tie slightly tighter every year until it stops the exhaust spitting out its fumes altogether.
In fact, a key success of previous COPs was to formalise the ‘ratchet mechanism’ (Paris) and move it from a five-yearly cycle to an annual event (Glasgow). This keeps nations having to come back with new carbon budgets until it is judged, according to the IPCC’s scientific guidance, that global emissions are on track to drive no more than 1.5 degrees of warming.
But even so, speed is of the essence if we’re not to overshoot 1.5 degrees. So what were some of COP27’s notable themes? Let’s take a look before returning to our analogy.
• Loss and damage: A hot topic for well over a decade, a plan to establish a ‘loss and damage’ fund was finally agreed at COP27. This will compensate the poorest nations that are least responsible for causing climate change, but which will experience the greatest impacts which cannot be fully mitigated or adapted to.
• Corporate net zero and greenwashing: The UN led a crackdown on greenwashing from non-state actors, defining some necessary rules for companies and other organisations to follow when claiming net zero goals. All targets should be accompanied by a clear plan with interim milestones every five years as well as being accountable and transparent. And those companies may not invest in fossil fuels.
• A bigger, broader church: Some media outlets have chosen to focus on the mixed standard of organisation at COP27, with insufficient food supplies and the irony of freezing air-conditioned temperatures at the convention centre where the event was held in Egypt. But what’s far more important is the attendees themselves. This was the second best-attended COP on record, with the highest ever number of delegates from Africa and small island states. More diversity of thought and connections made across nations as well as academia, government and the private sector can only be a good thing.
• Keeping within 1.5 degrees looks tougher than ever. National commitments to reduce emissions – the core bread and butter of COP – remain far short of what’s needed to limit warming to 1.5 degrees centigrade, and at present the world is on a pathway to warming by over 2.5 degrees. This will likely become a huge focus at COP28.
• Fossil fuels stagger on. To the disappointment of many, there was no agreement to phase out fossil fuel use. This issue had been a key focus for certain national delegations throughout the event, with the leader of the UK’s delegation, Alok Sharma, voicing his disappointment at the final outcome: “A clear commitment to phase-out all fossil fuels? Not in this text”.
• Carbon accounting and offsets have some way to go. Numerous concerns remain around international standards for carbon accounting. Offsets and other forms of carbon credits can have a role to play when other options are genuinely lacking, but only if regulations are watertight. Rules around double counting and transparency remain a long way from being robust and widely agreed upon. Perhaps this isn’t all bad, since the focus between now and 2030 must absolutely be on genuine emissions reductions.
It’s worth considering the cable tie analogy because it can mean that seemingly small victories add up over time. They are cumulative and become greater than the sum of their parts. African nations attending in greater force than ever is not progress we’ll see reversed. Loss and damage is on the agenda to stay. And eventually humanity will call time on fossil fuels.
And (the importance of) everything in between
But the fact is that the prospect of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees is looking even more challenging than ever. By some estimates the global carbon budget for 1.5 degrees – supposed to last until 2050 – could be breached within 6.5 years if current emissions rates don’t fall soon.
This is extremely important, because the impacts on humanity and nature become disproportionately worse after this point. Two degrees of warming will be twice as bad for loss of plant biodiversity and expose nearly three times as many people to extreme heat. And beyond two degrees, the impacts become more devastating still.
The target has to remain 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees is not the fallback. As we pull on that
cable tie we can’t overlook the value of locking in every possible bit of
progress in between 1.5 and 2
degrees. The target becomes 1.51 degrees, then 1.52 degrees and so on.
So there you have it: ops, downs, cable ties and giant exhaust pipes,
and the real world ramifications that affect people in their billions.
We must keep going, and there’s so much our own industry can
do – and is doing – to reduce emissions. So when the going gets tough, remember – just
as with many other great social causes – progress can feel difficult, but the
direction of our journey is only one way. And we can help accelerate it.