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COP27 Diary: Winding down, winding up

16 November 2022 at 8:00 am

Scenes from the COP27
Scenes from the COP27

CER Climate Advocacy Lawyer, Brandon Abdinor, and CER Head of Communications, Lerato Balendran, will be using a local lens to discuss themes and developments from this year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference, the COP27 summit, taking place from 6 to 18 November 2022 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.

NovEMBER 18:  winding down, winding up

The “climate change trade fair”, which is what the sidelines of COP often feels like, is rapidly winding down, and by late Thursday there was a small fraction of the throng that had been milling about over the two weeks. Side events were sparsely attended and those delegates remaining all look very tired, and for the most part, despondent.

In the negotiating rooms it is a different story, with delegations essentially either fighting for our lives, or standing firm in delaying or avoiding meaningful climate action to protect their vested interests.  Even party negotiators find themselves confused on how issue are progressing, with potential outcomes swinging wildly from good to bad, and back again. There are many complaints about a general lack of transparency from the COP presidency which is tasked with collating outcomes and deciding workflows on a rolling basis.

There has been a lot of debate and analyses around the draft cover text which form the basis of a final cover decision and statement – a high level outcome from Sharm-el-Sheikh. At this stage it is long and represents a wishlist of positions and outcomes that have been proposed and pushed by parties. Much of the remaining two or three days (and nights) will be political negotiation around the final text.

The state of play

  • The G20 Declaration coming from the Bali summit held during COP 27 reaffirmed the commitment to keeping the 5°C ambition alive, giving much needed high level political direction to negotiators in Egypt. While this is useful, the declaration is criticised as being vague and weak overall in terms of solid outcomes to support the climate crisis.
  • Fossil fuels have featured extensively in these final days, with some calling for text to express the urgent need to phase out coal, oil and gas, strengthening the current wording which talks of phasing down coal only. This tussle is arguably the litmus test on how the most fundamental issue of how to slow down global warming is to be achieved. Fossil fuel subsidies get an oblique mention in that the “inefficient” ones need to be “rationalised”.
  • The global goal on adaptation, essentially a workplan and intended pathway for global adaption action, continues to be debated and outcomes are unclear. What is clear is that the ambition to ensure that finance for adaption is brought on par with mitigation finance is almost certain not to be realised.
  • Loss and Damage has moved forward incrementally, with agreement around terms of reference and funding for the Santiago Network being almost finalised. The network is intended to provide technical support (but not money) to countries most vulnerable to climate impacts, and the scope of this support will now start to be debated in earnest as the body starts working. Actual finance for loss and damage will most certainly not be agreed to, but the potential for the establishment of a mechanism at COP 27 still hangs in the balance. A draft text outlines this option, as well as a counter proposal? to establish the arrangements at COP 28.
  • The all-important issue of finance remains a hot topic, with many calling for the reform of the financial system to enable stringer commitment to climate action, but it remains to be seen if, when and how such deep structural reforms will actually take place.

There is still much to be determined and much to be done. For the next two days in Egypt, and for the foreseeable future for all parties when they return home.

 

NovEMBER 16: The dash for gas in Africa

As COP27 enters its third last day, attendees of all kinds engage in a sometime bewildering array of issues, positions, promises, possibilities and blockages, both within the complex architecture of the climate negotiations as well as in the corridors.

Technical working groups continue writing and refining texts even as ministers lead negotiations late into the nights.

Adding another dimension, high level talks at the G20 summit in Bali are focussing strongly on climate change. Decisions reached there on issues such as the status of keeping global warming to a 1.5°C temperature rise (will it remain as an overarching ambition, or be abandoned as being unattainable?) and fossil fuel phase-down will have a strong bearing on the final COP27 outcomes.

Team South Africa

On Monday, Minister Creecy and the negotiating team lead by Maesela Kekana invited South Africans present in Sharm-el-Sheikh to a briefing on the state of play. We continue to be aligned with many other developing nations on calling for increased loss and damage support and adaptation finance. The Minister also spoke of the drive to reform the financial system so that structures like the IMF are better geared towards providing climate finance by being recapitalised and less risk-averse.

The team emphatically confirmed that, along with the African Group of Negotiators (AGN), there is no position to increase the use of fossil fuels, and the bloc continues to support keeping 1.5°C alive. While this is good to hear, it does stand in stark contrast to some of the realities and trends also being highlighted at COP.

‘Europe’s gas station’.

The ‘dash for gas’ on the African continent is receiving much attention in civil society circles. A report released by German non-profit Urgewald reveals which investors and bankers are behind the hundreds of billions of dollars being poured into fossil gas production in Africa.

It is widely recognised that the African ‘dash for gas’ is driven by foreign interests, money and fossil fuel producers, exacerbated by the current energy crisis as a result of the war in Ukraine.

The COP talk … and what goes on back home

The report also lists South Africa as having the highest gas-to-power ambitions on the continent, with over 13 000 GW being planned.

From the report “Who Is Financing Fossil Fuel Expansion In Africa?”, which identifies 200 companies that are exploring or developing new fossil fuel reserves or developing new fossil infrastructure in Africa – and the banks and investors behind these companies.

 

This flies in the face of our stated climate ambitions  and a just energy transition underscoring that, whatever may happen at COP, the war on fossil fuels and environmental and socio-economic destruction back home remains urgent and desperate.

Perhaps as good an illustration as any of the schizophrenic nature of the climate crisis.

 

November 14: Pause to inhale

Week one of COP27 ended with precious few signs of meaningful implementation in sight.

The first week is dedicated to working groups wrangling with technical issues and drafting wording for ministerial negotiations in week two. Separating the two phases, Sunday saw the formal proceedings going into recess for a day, allowing delegates, observers, press and salespeople (many of these) to ostensibly take a break to catch our collective breaths. Not that the work stopped.

A brief visit to one of the Red Sea beaches saw throngs of COPpers networking and exchanging information in between dips in the warm clear waters. Beneath the blue surface the famed coral reef was dead – a grim grey reminder that these ‘lungs of the ocean’ are bearing the brunt of marine warming, as warned in iteration after iteration of IPCC reports.

Over the weekend, Minister Creecy joined her African environmental minister counterparts at a formal meeting to consolidate positions for the upcoming week of negotiations, stating an ongoing commitment to calling for loss and damage support from developed nations.  She also emphasised the need for the developed nations to make good on their commitment to provide the developing world with $100 billion in financial assistance for addressing climate impacts.

A rich discussion on Saturday, hosted by the Presidential Climate Commission, highlighted risks and opportunities relating to adaptation and climate resilience.

South Africa would need at least R866 billion for adaptation between 2022 and 2030 according to a hot-off-the-press World Bank report. According to the world bank some of this money should be funded through carbon taxes.

Dr. Debra Roberts, head of the Resilient Cities Initiative at eThekwini metro and co-chair of the IPCC working group on adaptation, highlighted the need to focus on ecosystem-based solutions (for example maintaining healthy rivers and wetlands which could minimise flooding and practicing agro-ecology for food security). All panelists emphasised that adaptation measures need to be equitable and inclusive to avoid perpetuation socio-economic injustice.

Greenwashing and Net Zero under the spotlight

Established by the UN secretary general, the High‑Level Expert Group on the Net Zero Emissions Commitments of Non-State Entities released the valuable Integrity Matters report on preventing dishonest climate accounting. It sets recommendations and definitions for net-zero, and net-zero aligned pathways, hopefully countering the proliferation of disingenuous claims by corporations that claim they are taking climate action but continue to avoid meaningful emissions reductions.

In the negotiations

There is very little on the table that looks promising after week 1:

  • In terms of mitigation, there is no agreement on establishing a long-term workplan (which would provide additional stability and certainty regarding emissions reduction trajectories), being opposed by nations who generally want to continue exploiting fossil fuel resources and only agree to a one-year plan.
  • While not officially on the agenda, there is a behind-the-scenes tussle around keeping the 1.5°C alive. Civil society, activists and climate vulnerable countries not supportive of fossil fuel production are pushing for this, while others (albeit not officially) are suggesting that this target is no longer attainable and that we should be settling for a 2°C ambition, a climate and human rights catastrophe.
  • In terms of Article 6.4 (carbon credits and offsets), there is increasing resistance to adopting recommendations on carbon removals, a welcome trend as these recommendations were being seen as paving the way for problematic technologies such as unproven carbon capture and storage to have undue influence in emissions reduction pathways and plans.
  • Loss and damage continues to dominate as a key topic, but there is not any real progress towards establishing a facility for financial support. The US and other developed nations continue to stand firm that there will be no entering into any discussions around liability and compensation.

Eyes will now be on ministerial negotiations, to give an indication of what levels of political support there is for the items on the table. At this stage there is widespread concern that fossil fuel interests are gaining ground, and the so-called implementation COP will not see much in the way of meaningful implementation.              

NOVEMBER 11: RECLAIMING THE JUST TRANSITION AT COP27

The just transition is being referred to widely in many of the presentations and debates taking place in and around the climate talks. But one gets the impression that many are thinking and talking about the necessary transition from fossil fuel-based to low carbon energy systems, and the “just” element is glossed over or even forgotten.

The energy transition is challenging and complex from a political and financial point of view.

Vested interests from the fossil fuel sector are fighting tooth and nail to prevent meaningful progress on the phasing out of the use of coal, oil and gas, and many of these interests have direct or indirect support from their governments.

There is an ongoing struggle at COP 27 to ensure that progress made at COP 26 in achieving a commitment in the Glasgow agreement relating to the phase-down of coal-based energy does not regress. Climate activists and concerned nations are in fact pushing for this commitment to extend to oil and gas, but the COP presidency has expressed doubt about finding agreement about such a controversial (yet very sane and vital) agreement. Such is the power of this sector which has sent over 600 lobbyists to Sharm-el-Sheikh to try and influence outcomes.

Climate justice, youth, indigenous rights and other activists, and trade union representatives, are taking every opportunity to remind audiences and negotiators that the transition must be just.

It must address the concerns of workers who stand to lose jobs in the transition. It must address the long-standing suffering of fossil fuel-affected communities, whose experiences of being at the receiving end of pollution, detrimental health impacts and land dispossession amount to no less than human rights abuses.

South African campaigners remind and impress on role-players from around the world that the justice element of the just transition must focus on these and other at-risk individuals and groupings. We are also raising awareness of and distributing the progressive Life after Coal Just Transition Open Agenda which lays out a vision for how a successfully transitioned society, economy and political system could look.

We are also drawing on South Africa’s Just Transition Framework, which speaks of the elements of justice that must inform all just transition initiatives and decision-making:

  • Procedural justice means that everyone has a voice and is at the table to participate in shaping the just transition;
  • Distributive justice means that both the risks and opportunities of the transition is equitable borne by all, and that those who are historically responsible for causing the problem bear the costs of the adjustments; and
  • Restorative justice means that historical harms against individuals, communities and the environments are rectified or ameliorated.

When taking these principles into account, far too much of what is being talked about as just transition at COP 27 is in fact anything but that.

NOVEMBER 10: An existential battleground

Beneath the festival-like trappings, COP27 feels like a warzone. Not a physical one, but one which will determine physical realities in a potentially devastating way.

It is a war between climate, biodiversity, life and wellbeing on the one hand, and predatory fossil fuel, financial and exploitative power structures and interests on the other.

That is not to say that the tens of thousands of people here can or should be labelled as being in one camp or the other. Here, unrepentant carbon criminals rub shoulders and share platforms with desperately concerned youth activists. Indigenous spiritual leaders, scientists and experts, resilience practitioners and just transition advocates engage, sometimes amicably, sometimes heatedly.

But beneath it all, it is very clear that fossil fuel interests are defending their windfall profit-making activities with no regard for people or planet. There is a 25% increase in the presence of fossil fuel lobbyists at the climate talks this year. Capital markets and investors are drawn to the energy transition as being the next big opportunity and they are not known for giving away money with no return.

And government negotiators and leaders? Unsurprisingly, those from the most at-risk regions are passionately calling for action, for much needed funding for the phase-out of fossil fuels. The developed world – which got rich and continues to do so from carbon intensive economic activity – not so much. There has been a dearth of meaningful implementation commitments from most developed world leaders.

Yet there are thousands who are earnestly working on solutions, navigating the tricky journey of a transition to a better world for all. It is no exaggeration to call this an existential power struggle.

The Justice in the Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP)

The South African JETP understandably got a lot of airtime, in halls, meeting rooms, closed sessions and corridors. The International Partners Group (IPG) of France, Germany, UK, US and the EU, chaired by the UK, welcomed and endorsed South Africa’s JETP Investment Plan released by President Ramaphosa on the eve of COP 27.

Official circles saw many celebratory announcements and panel discussions being held, but civil society has some concerns. The just transition must be about affected workers and communities. While sound and healthy economic development is a necessary ingredient to alleviate poverty and unemployment, there is a risk that climate finance ends up perpetuating an extractive and exploitative system that benefits a few and marginalises the many who are already living in apocalyptic conditions. This must be watched.

Monitoring these types of deals is extremely difficult to do in an environment of inadequate transparency, and there are concerns about the investment plans such as this one being formulated behind closed doors, with perfunctory consultation with civil society and communities happening after the fact as a tick-box exercise.

State of the negotiations

US Climate Envoy John Kerry, on the overdue $100 Billion that the developed work had pledged to assist the developing world with climate response aid, said that “’governments’ don’t have the money,” a sobering, unpopular and perhaps questionable admission.

Kerry then went on to unveil the Energy Transition Accelerator intended to leverage carbon offsets to raise funding for climate aid to the developing world.  

Polarised debates around the future of fossil fuels continue. Certain groupings from Africa are pushing for endorsement of the continent’s exploitation of fossil fuel resources, particularly gas. And the EU seems to be supporting this.

Middle Eastern oil and gas producers unashamedly tout fossil fuels as an integral part of the energy transition. On the other hand, low island nations such as Tuvalu and Vanuatu are calling for a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty to speed up the accelerated phase-out of fossil fuel use.

Technical workgroups engage with Loss and Damage details, drafting proposals on how to create the necessary institutions to provide support to countries experiencing the most severe impacts of climate change. Decisions will be made at ministerial level next week.

Nations and structures are moving forward with the creation of systems to manage carbon offsets and carbon credits, much to the concern of many who view these as a means to avoid actual overall emissions reduction, the only way to slow down and halt global warming.

The protection of human rights defenders are spoken of widely … by human rights defenders. Little institutional support to alleviate the danger to these activists has been forthcoming so far.

There is a lot of talk about financial system reform to unlock money flows for loss and damage and enhanced mitigation, among others, without the creation of additional unsustainable debt burden.

All in all, COP 27 at this stage does not look like it’s going to deliver the implementation needed. But it’s not over by any means.   

NOVEMBER 8: ADDRESSING THE ELEPHANT IN THE OVERHEATING ROOM

Day 2 of COP27, and the first day of formal proceedings, started with a vivid reminder that world leaders had arrived for a two-day climate related summit. Heavily armed and balaclava-clad security personnel were present at every intersection of the gleaming six-lane road leading to the convention centre.

At the venue, there was an increased air of expectation. Some still wandered around smiling and chatting, greeting old comrades and new friends. But there were many more furrowed brows dashing off to the myriad of meeting halls and pavilions.

The opening of the summit was watched by most on big screens in various halls and rooms, concerned humans hoping to hear something different. Something that underscored the ambition of this being the Implementation COP, where agreements reached and pledges made in the preceding years would be populated with commitments and actions that would advance on-the-ground climate actions and enable authentic climate justice.

Speaking truth to power

Egyptian President El-Sisi said all of the right things. President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, president of the United Arab Emirates (the hosts of next year’s COP 28), hinted more than strongly at that nation’s view that oil and gas are viewed as an integral part of an energy transition, and technologies such as carbon capture and storage (CCS)* were being heavily banked on.

It was UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres who really said it like it is. In a short but devastatingly powerful speech he reminded us that “We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot still on the accelerator.”

He was also one of the few to address one of the elephants in the overheating room. “I am asking that all governments tax the windfall profits of fossil fuel companies.” There was a spontaneous eruption of applause by all who recognise that this is where so many of the financial resources sit and grow.

Other than that, there were tragically few announcements of real implementation at world leader level.

And in the negotiations

Most of the talks have yet to get meaningfully underway, but initial observations include:

  • There is very little sign of any increased mitigation ambition, and the gap between current targets (which will lead to a 2.6°C to 2.8°C temperature increase) and the need to get on to a 1.5°C trajectory is not being meaningfully addressed so far.
  • There is very little talk about the direct need to phase-down and then phase-out fossil fuels.
  • Some negotiators are pushing hard to increase and even double adaptation finance, even though this specific drive did not formally make it on to the agenda.
  • Talks around loss and damage are focussing on institutional arrangements to enable the provision of technical support. The thorny discussions on finance for loss and damage are yet to come.
  • There is an interesting increase in announcements relating to ecosystem protection and restoration.
  • The issue of protection of human rights and environmental protectors is arising numerous times and is expected to remain a lively topic as these people face increasing danger around the world.

And the clock still ticks. As Guterres also reminded us: “But that 1.5 degree goal is on life support – and the machines are rattling.” His full speech is highly recommended, it’s a frighteningly rare voice of sanity from the circles of power, and very thorough despite its conciseness.

*Carbon capture and storage, for all practical purposes, is a false hope for meaningful emissions reduction. The technology does not exist at scale, and cannot be guaranteed to do so even when looking decades ahead. These potential technologies are used by emitters to avoid meaningful emissions reduction in this the decade when most needed to avoid runaway global warming.  

 

NOVEMBER 7: calm and colourful but where is the climate emergency?

The opening day of COP27 in Egypt’s resort town of Sharm el Sheikh was, certainly from a logistical point of view, calm. Friendly United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) staff ensured that registration of the thousands of delegates, whooshing up to the venue in electric buses, was efficient and welcoming. More than 45 000 government negotiators, scientists and other experts, activists, journalists and business role-players are expected to officially attend the global climate talks over the next two weeks.

And it was colourful. People from virtually every country and corner of the globe. Some wearing breathtakingly beautiful traditional garb. Some in denims and t-shirts with climate justice messaging or newsroom logos. Many in expensive tailored suits. Many others, from the hordes of security personnel, wearing less expensive and more ominous black suits alongside their uniformed and armed colleagues.

The aircraft-hanger like convention centre rooms are filled with state-of-the-art pavilions showcasing countries, organisations, initiatives and funds. Not entirely unlike a climate change extravaganza. Deadly climate emergency? Not a very tangible sense of that. It certainly feels galaxies away from the informal settlements in Durban, decimated by the climate change aggravated flooding that occurred in April this year.

The town itself is also colourful. Dozens of outrageously flamboyant hotels behind steel gates. Fountains, lawns and palm trees. Shops, tour operators, restaurants, casinos and more shops promise rewarding consumption and air-conditioned entertainment on every corner of the sprawling concrete playground. Climate action, in real terms, does not seem to be a huge consideration here. The colour is in stark contrast to the almost monochromatic and rugged beauty of the Sinai desert with its sharp mountains.

Loss and Damage? On the agenda, but T&Cs apply!

Negotiators worked into the early hours of Sunday morning, fighting (literally for dear life, all things considered) to include a meaningful discussion of loss and damage (L&D) on the agenda.

Led largely by developing countries and most vulnerable nations (and generally opposed by those who have caused most of the global warming through their current and historical greenhouse gas emissions) L&D funding became a sub-agenda item under finance. Specifically, “funding arrangements to respond to the adverse impacts of climate change” will be discussed with a view to arriving at a decision by 2024.    

But (and this is a “but” that just won’t go away), there is a footnote that says that such discussions do not involve liability or compensation.

Quite simply, emitters are still not intending to pay for the damages that they have caused. A stance that has been strongly present since L&D was first raised as an emergent issue almost at the outset of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).*

Carbon markets and “removal”

The Supervisory Body overseeing carbon trading has finalised high-level recommendations for carbon removal standards. These open the way for ocean geoengineering and technologies such as carbon capture and storage (CCS) – methods intended to remove and store human caused GHG emissions from the atmosphere. None of these methods can realistically be guaranteed to be viable or available at scale, and are likely to have enormously destructive social and environmental consequences. They also provide an effective licence to continue GHG emitting activities, as polluters defer emissions reduction claiming that future removals will offset current emissions.

Civil society, activists and indigenous rights groups vigorously oppose this thinking and these are grounds of growing struggle which will dominate this aspect of the negotiations.

About the money

Climate finance issue continue to be a thorny and critical issue. The African Group of Negotiators attempted to formally include a specific agenda item that would see adaptation finance being brought to a par with mitigation finance. This was rejected but the topic will continue to be discussed in principled terms.

Developing nations are concerned that much of what appears to be climate finance is no more repackaged commercial loaning, adding to already crushing sovereign debt burdens.

Many eyes will be on announcements relating to South Africa’s JET-P – an apparent $8,5 billion package of loans and grants intended to assist with the country’s transition away from coal. There are grave concerns about how this will work, and if it will indeed be true to the “just” aspect of a Just Transition.

The perennial issue – emissions reduction

A United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) emissions gap report released two weeks ago has shown that current pledges and policies by nations will lead to an temperature increase of between 2.6°C and 2.8°C, dangerously far away from the 1.5°C that science tells us in necessary to avert exponential damage and risk.

Will the necessary actions to increase reduction ambition be seen, or is the global energy crisis and near universal economic volatility continue to be used to water down ambition?

A captivating fortnight ahead

COP27 is hailed as the ‘accountability’ COP, where action is now necessary to make all the agreements and pledges meaningful. Most emitters, particularly from the fossil fuel sector, seem to be digging their heels in and avoiding meaningful emissions reduction. Most state decision-making on the ground supports this in reality, talk aside. Activists and vulnerable groupings are feeling desperate and angry.

It’s a volatile and heady mix against the backdrop of the loudly ticking clock.

*Loss and Damage refers to the needs of addressing those impacts of climate change that are already occurring, or will occur regardless of what adaptation measures are put in place. It is quite distinct from climate adaptations, but those in opposition to such measures have tried to group it with adaptation for many years. The concept includes compensation and reparations, technical support and establishing institutional arrangements to facilitate the support. It embodies the globally recognised principle of “polluter pays” which states that those who cause the damage must pay for it.