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COP27: Breaking the cycle of previous COPs

3rd Nov, 2022

As I sat in the SEC centre in Glasgow last November in what was described as the ‘most important COP since Paris’, negotiations were being made as if disasters are to come in the far future. A year on, we’ve had the record-breaking heat temperatures and subsequent forest fires in Europe; the monsoon flooding in Pakistan and Hurricane Ian in Florida and Cuba. This list continues, and it has become impossible to see an end.

Now, I am not sure anyone needs a reminder; even those living in isolated cabins in the woods are aware. In fact, they might have it worse than others. What has changed is that these disasters are no longer just something that appears in the news. It has become a first-hand experience for all including developed countries, even if the degree continues to vary unequally across the globe. This has showed that the timeline is contracting and COP27 will have to address a sense of urgency and give momentum to the execution of climate action.

As we accelerate on action, I keep asking myself – how can we act fast but with precision?

What was COP26 able to achieve?

The achievements of COP26 can be separated in two large groups. The first group being common principles of mitigation:

  • The finalisation of the Paris Agreement Rulebook, the first legally binding treaty on climate change, which includes the conclusion of Article 6 on mechanisms and standards for international carbon markets.
  • The adoption of the Glasgow Climate Pact.
  • The launch of the Clydebank Declaration.
  • The commitments by 137 countries to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030 and by 190 countries to phase down coal power

With more attention finally brought to the climate hazards that have been and will continue to unfold unequally across the world, Glasgow went further by discussing the second group, adaptation:

  • The launch of the Glasgow-Sharm el Sheikh work programme on global goal on adaptation.
  • The operationalisation of the Santiago Network.
  • The launch of the Glasgow Dialogue on loss and damage.

Despite the relatively progressive movement of negotiating on adaptation, these two sets of achievements still fit in the grand tradition of what COPs know how to do: negotiating principles. The problem is that with the contracting timeline, there is a risk of falling into what I will call the vicious cycle of COPs. As climate hazards approach faster, and progress towards mitigation and adaptation is too slow, parties are left with no choice but reviewing their objectives, wasting time on establishing action plans. In other words, future COPs are at risk of being stuck in a loop of renegotiating for targets because the ones set a year before keeps getting too hard to meet.

As we step out of this cycle and face all the actions we have yet to implement, our natural response may be to rush. The risk here is that acting fast can also mean high levels of uncertainty and lack of detail.

So how do we find the balance?

  1. One size does not fit all, and we need to localise the solution. Research frequently tells us that developing countries are likely to suffer most from the negative impacts of climate change (IPCC). Local communities understand their culture and their land at first-hand, so if we need to develop a solution that is tailored and resilient, it is only right that it is curated with the society that it will affect.
  2. We need to remember that humans innovate and create when challenged but run or freeze when frightened. At a panel event I attended in early October, I heard Yousef Nassef, Director of Adaptation at UNFCCC, suggest something which struck me: Climate change is a risk to humanity that is different to one like COVID-19. Like frogs in the boiling pot that don’t notice the change of temperature, one day still looks the same as the other and it takes a change over a year for us to notice even slightly. Clearly many years of conveying the doom and gloom narrative hasn’t worked and it is time we find a different angle. We must motivate more people by focusing on the challenge and fascination of creating a better future.

This year has made it apparent that the objectives of COP require urgent revision now that the context has changed. COP27 has the potential to step away from the vicious cycle of COPs and update the purpose of COP into a platform of collective planning to deliver climate action. In the process of accelerating action, we must ensure that this is met with precision by working with local communities who have the knowledge base build over many years and who are the ones that the solution will directly affect. We must revise our messaging of the climate crisis away from the doom and gloom which has only endured fear in us. To boost our collective action, we still have the opportunity to motivate everyone to collaborate in create our future, whether it be ecomodernist, degrowth or somewhere in between.