COP26 in Glasgow was framed by John Kerry, US special presidential envoy on the climate crisis, as the “last best hope for the world to get its act together” and avert climate breakdown. A year later, world leaders gathered once more for COP27, but how much progress has actually been made?
The Glasgow conference drew unified promises by governments to “phase down” coal use, curb deforestation, advance remedial payments to developing countries hit the hardest by floods, heatwaves and droughts, and to return the following year with more ambitious emissions reduction targets.
While clean energy is likely to have averted climate breakdown, where the world heats up by an average of 4-5 °C compared with pre-industrial times, a series of UN reports have made it clear that the world is falling badly behind in its efforts to cut emissions, with “no credible pathway” to avoid breaching an agreed limit of 1.5 °C in global heating.
This century, 2.5 °C is most likely under current pledges, a scenario that would bring, as the UN stated, “endless suffering”.
“The last year has been a missed opportunity by many countries,” said David Waskow, the director of the international climate initiative at the World Resources Institute, which recommends coal be phased out six times faster than it is currently and that people eat no more meat than the equivalent of two burgers a week to help meet the 1.5 °C target.
“There is progress, but there is much to be done, more quickly and deeply,” he said. “We are seeing headway with renewables and electric vehicles – but even with those we are not on track. Everything needs to move at a faster clip.”
Waskow said the world had been gripped in a “polycrisis” of war and rising energy and food costs, as well as severe climate impacts, that was obstructing any focus on global heating. “There has been some modest progress on reducing methane and deforestation since last year, but not as fast as I would like,” he said.
Key pledges made at COP26
COP26 ended with an agreement that governments would revisit and strengthen their plans to slash planet-heating emissions before the 2022 conference. According to the UN, however, just 24 of 193 countries have submitted improved emissions reduction targets since then.
By 2050, the world will have to eliminate its entire carbon emissions from electricity generation, transportation, industry, agriculture and other sources that cannot be offset if disastrous climate change is to be avoided, scientists have warned.
A net zero future was agreed upon by 74 countries, since then, another seven, including Indonesia and South Africa, have pledged to reach this point by the mid-century.
Since 2020, there has been an overdue bill hanging over the leaders of wealthy countries. A total of $100bn (£83bn) a year was pledged to developing countries, many of which are struggling to adapt to damage caused by the climate crisis and need help moving away from fossil fuels.
Despite mounting pressure at COP26, this total target has not been met. Developed countries were still about $17bn (£14bn) short of the goal, a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found in July. A separate analysis released by Oxfam is more damning: only $21bn (£17.5bn) has been mobilised, with 70% of this taking the form of loans, it says.
Also at COP26, 103 countries pledged to collectively cut methane emissions to 30% below 2020 levels by the end of the decade. Over the past year, another 19 countries have joined this pact, which now covers half of the global emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas with around 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide and released via agriculture and gas drilling. However, the largest increase in global methane levels on record occurred in 2021.
In Glasgow, 145 countries promised to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030, and since then, four other countries have joined this pledge. But the target is “hollow” based on current trends of deforestation, with almost 7m hectares of forest razed in 2021, according to the authors of a recent report.
So, how have these pledges been acted upon at COP27?
Calls for structural reform of finance for nature and climate
Finance was a massive conversation throughout COP27. The breakthrough on loss and damage funding made the headlines, but this year there was much attention on structural reform of the financial system as well as the need to create mechanisms that support nature and climate outcomes at national and ecosystem levels.
Before COP27, there was much focus on the need for financing adaptation measures – although, in fact, there was very little progress on this agenda from Glasgow. The multilateral development banks are also under scrutiny – sovereign bonds and sustainability-linked loans and bonds have been high on the agenda. Leading financial institutions from Japan to Norway to Brazil, all signatories to the Financial Sector Commitment on Eliminating Commodity-driven Deforestation, have been moving forward with implementation through the Finance Sector Deforestation Action (FSDA) initiative.
FSDA members have published shared investor expectations for companies, and they are stepping up engagement activity by working with policymakers and data providers. The 10-point plan for financing biodiversity moved ahead at COP27 with a ministerial meeting between 16 countries representing five continents to set a pathway for bridging the global biodiversity finance gap.
Strong signs of political will for forests
There has been significant progress on deforestation at COP27, not least by the creation of the Forest and Climate Leaders’ Partnership (FCLP), which is being driven by the reality that there is no time to lose to reverse forest loss by 2030, with the intent to demonstrate success by COP28.
Starting in 2023, the FCLP will publish an annual Global Progress Report that includes independent assessments of global progress toward the 2030 goal, as well as summarising the progress made by the FCLP itself, including in its action areas and initiatives.
The attendance of Brazil’s president-elect, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, put a spotlight on the Amazon at COP27 – with Brazil promising to prioritise stopping deforestation and offering to host COP30 in three years’ time. Also, an announcement by Brazil, Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo – made in Indonesia ahead of the G20 – signalled their intentions to work together to protect their vast swathes of tropical forests, earning the nickname “the OPEC of rainforests.”
This news comes at a vital time. Coming into COP27, there were clear signs that the global community is not yet on track to halt and reverse forest loss and degradation by 2030. A UN-led report found that for 2030 goals to remain within reach, a one gigaton milestone of emissions reductions from forests must be achieved no later than 2025, and yearly after that, but that current public and private commitments to pay for emissions reductions are only at 24% of the gigaton milestone goal.
However, Nature4Climate’s new joint commitment tracker found that 55% of the commitments tracked are demonstrating substantial signs of progress. For example, tropical Asia is on the path toward reversing forest loss by 2030: Indonesia’s deforestation rate dropped by 25% last year, and Malaysia also reported a fall of 24% in the pace of forest loss last year.
Forest pledges made in Glasgow at COP26 were also in the spotlight. In 2021, $2.67bn (£2.2bn) was put towards forest-related programmes in developing countries – 22% of the $12bn (£10bn) pledged at COP26, meaning that donors are on track to deliver by 2025.
So far, commitments have risen from $3bn (£2.5bn) to $4.2bn (£3.4bn) and disbursements are expected to exceed $100m (£83m) this year. Similarly, the public-private LEAF Coalition has mobilised an additional $500m (£416m) in private finance, bringing a total of $1.5bn (£1.2bn) in support of tropical forest protection. This is part of $3.6bn (£3bn) of new private finance announced at the climate summit.
Nature of negotiations
In the negotiations, nature-based solutions were included in the COP27 text for the first time, with forests, oceans and agriculture each having their own section. The Koronivia Dialogue – the track where food and agriculture is discussed at the UNFCCC – has finally been included in the text, but all eyes turn to COP28 for the focus required to truly transform food systems.
At COP26, countries decided on the basic framework of Article 6, focused on supporting the transfer of emission reductions between countries while also incentivizing the private sector to invest in climate-friendly solutions. Throughout 2022, countries have been focused on how to operationalise the Article 6 mechanism that allows countries to actually begin trading. In Egypt, the discussions were very technical – such as how registries are going to work, how countries will report on the trading, and what information should be submitted – with the aim of making things easy to track.
For nature, it was decided at COP26 that land use emissions were part of Article 6 – as it includes all sources and sinks. The focus in Egypt has been on article 6.4 – a mechanism for developing guidance on activities involving removals which includes reforestation, restoration, afforestation etc.
Indigenous peoples and local communities
The critical role that Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) play as guardians of the forest is now firmly established and beyond question. At COP27, there was a polite but palpable frustration from IPLCs that climate funds are not reaching them. This massive deficit is increasingly being acknowledged by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous actors, with a wide range of events dedicated to this topic.
While COP27 was a good space for Indigenous and non-Indigenous representatives to share knowledge and experiences, it clearly can’t be the only space. While there are a number of encouraging signs of progress, including linking IPLCs with high-integrity markets, it’s clear the clock is ticking and IPLCs are getting impatient.
African-led initiatives take centre stage
While this was not the “African COP” that many hoped it might be, there was still a range of significant announcements coming out of Egypt that highlighted the continent’s potential as a natural capital powerhouse. These included the launch of the Africa Carbon Markets initiative, the Declaration for the Africa Sustainable Commodities Initiative, the launch of a $2 billion (£1.5bn) African restoration fund, a funding boost for Africa’s visionary Great Green Wall initiatives, and the announcement by the Global EverGreening Alliance and Climate Impact Partners of a new partnership to up to $330 million (£274m)in community-led removal programs across Africa and Asia.
65 countries committed to phasing out coal, with all major coal financing countries agreeing to end international coal finance by the end of 2021. An $8.5bn (£7bn) South Africa Energy Transition Partnership was also established at COP26, with the UK, Germany, France and others agreeing to support South Africa in transitioning to green energy.
Since then, the transition to renewable energy has accelerated, with the International Energy Agency (IEA) calling the increased investment in renewables ‘historic’. The Agency believes the Russian invasion of Ukraine was a catalyst for this, as rising gas and oil prices are forcing countries to look elsewhere for their energy supply.
There has also been a range of ambitious renewable energy policies put in place, including the US Inflation Reduction Act, the EU’s Fit for 55 package and Japan’s Green Transformation (GX) programme. China, India and Korea have also set progressive energy targets.
However, there has been a bit of a back step too, as the UK has announced 100 new North Sea oil and gas licenses and China, Vietnam and Indonesia are looking to increase coal production.
More than 1,000 cities and local governments joined the UN Climate Champions Race to Net Zero, committing to halving emissions by 2030 and reaching net zero by 2050.
The Race to Zero Progress Report released in September found membership has almost doubled since the same time last year, with a 30% increase in Asia-Pacific representation. However, the report does not clearly show how much progress has been made in response to the climate crisis, just highlighting how action is being taken across the world. Authors called for more and better public reporting to inform further action required.
Hanging over COP27 was the feeling that despite decades of meetings and accords, like the Paris Agreement, the world was still not doing enough to slow the climate crisis. UNEP’s Emissions Gap Report 2022 found that policies currently in place point to a 2.8 °C temperature rise by the end of the century, a number that could lead to catastrophic consequences for the planet.
“As the world looks to step up efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions – efforts that are still not anywhere strong enough – it must also dramatically up its game to adapt to climate change,” said Inger Andersen, executive director of UNEP.
COP27 has seen the global leaders take desperately needed action to address loss and damage – the symptoms of climate change – but still refuse to go after and address the root cause.
A chorus of voices rose at COP, sometimes from unexpected quarters such as the EU, UK, Colombia, and Kenya, calling for the burning of all fossil fuels to end. World governments have, at most, three years to bend the curve on emissions, and nothing short of transformational change to energy, transport, and food systems and the global financial architecture can achieve this.
Despite progress in the areas already mentioned, this year’s event in Egypt wasted precious time and opportunity to prevent the worst effects of climate change. But just like after COP26, governments can still heed the signals of change coming out of COP27 through ambitious national action in the year ahead and come into COP28 next year prepared to take transformative multilateral action where it matters.
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