Tens of thousands of people are gathered for a major United Nations climate summit in Egypt, where world leaders will spend the next two weeks discussing international efforts to slow climate change and adapt to a warming world.
The conference, known as COP27, is already delving into huge questions, like who should pay for the costs of climate action, and how to grapple with what’s already been irreversibly lost to the climate crisis.
Here are three big things to watch for at the negotiations.
Loss and damage: The irreversible effects of climate change on poorer nations
In a major breakthrough on the first day of COP27, delegates agreed to put the long contentious issue of loss and damages on the official summit agenda for the first time.
The term refers to the irreversible changes that climate change has already wrought on poorer nations that had very little to do with contributing to historic planet-warming pollution, and more specifically, how richer countries will help them grapple with those changes.
The topic has been a major flashpoint in climate negotiations since at least 1991. Back then, the Pacific island of Vanuatu, which is responsible for just 0.0016 percent of all historic greenhouse gas pollution, submitted a proposal to the UN calling for a plan to channel money to island nations for devastation caused by sea level rise. Developed nations rejected the proposal, but it kicked off a years-long campaign.
In the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, countries finally agreed to address the issue, but wealthy countries like the United States — which is responsible for more historic greenhouse gas pollution than any other country — have repeatedly blocked efforts to create a fund for loss and damage, arguing that doing so could be seen as an admission of liability and therefore invite legal battles.
This year, calls to take up the topic reached a fever pitch as climate-change fueled monsoons flooded one-third of Pakistan. The country is one of the most climate-vulnerable in the world, yet it’s responsible for less than 1 percent of the world’s planet-warming emissions.
COP27 delegates finally agreed to talk through funding arrangements for loss and damage, aiming to hammer out a final plan by 2024. There are caveats — the discussion precludes any consideration of liability or binding compensation — and climate advocates don’t expect a loss and damage fund to be set up by the conference’s end. Still, the decision is being called a win for countries on the frontlines of the climate crisis.
“Vulnerable nations have tirelessly appealed for help to cope with the alarming and damaging climate impacts that they hold little responsibility for causing,” Ani Dasgupta, President and CEO of the World Resources Institute said in an emailed statement on Sunday. “Today, countries cleared an historic first hurdle toward acknowledging and answering the call for financing to address increasingly severe losses and damages.”
Africa’s energy future
In a continent responsible for just a fraction of historic carbon emissions, leaders are facing criticism for fossil fuel exploration — including from rich countries that have failed to transition away from polluting energy themselves. That tension is on display at COP27, raising key questions about Africa’s energy future.
UN scientists have made clear that to achieve a livable climate future, the world must quickly phase out of using coal, oil, and gas, and must also protect forests, which help fight global warming by sucking carbon from the atmosphere. Despite this, in July, the Democratic Republic of the Congo announced plans to auction off oil and gas permits in the Congo basin rainforest, which is the last rainforest on Earth that sequesters in more carbon than it produces.
Many have slammed the decision. Last month, US climate envoy John Kerry called on the nation to drop some of its auctions. But Democratic Republic of the Congo officials have defended their plans, noting that the United States and other rich nations have failed to halt fossil fuel expansion, and asserting that fossil fuel exploration will help boost the economy of one of the world’s poorest countries.
While some officials argue that African countries should be able to expand polluting energy in pursuit of economic development and energy security, experts argue that those nations could “leapfrog” fossil fuel development and, unlike rich countries, skip directly to expanding clean energy.
For that to happen, however, Africa will need financial help. Right now, African nations receive just $30 billion in climate finance from wealthier countries, which is just 11 percent of what they need to carry out a green energy transition and adapt to climate change, according to research published in September by the nonprofit Climate Policy Initiative.
The issue is complicated by the energy crisis in Europe that’s resulted from the war in Ukraine. As the publication Grist noted, as they struggle to replace Russian gas, European leaders are currently eyeing Africa’s fossil fuel reserves.
Keeping the goals of the Paris Agreement alive
In the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, nations promised they’d attempt to keep global temperature rise to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) compared to pre-industrial levels, and preferably to limit it to 1.5 degrees Celsius. For context, the world has warmed by 1.2 degrees so far, and that has triggered devastating shifts.
Countries participating in the Egypt climate talks have pledged to cut their greenhouse gas emissions in compliance with those goals. Now, they’ll have to demonstrate that they can meet those commitments, but right now, most nations are not on track to do so.
The United States has officially pledged to cut emissions by between 50 and 52 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. Whether it does so remains to be seen. The Inflation Reduction Act, which included the biggest climate investments in American history, is expected to take the country part of the way there. But other policies could usher in more oil and gas and thereby blunt those successes.
To achieve a livable future, nations will have to not only meet, but also exceed, their climate pledges. A recent UN report showed current national pledges would set the world up to warm by between 2.4 and 2.6 degrees Celsius (4.3 and 4.7 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100, unleashing climate catastrophe.
But according to top scientists, it’s still scientifically possible to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement.
“A window of opportunity remains open, but only a narrow shaft of light remains,” UN secretary general António Guterres told leaders in Egypt on Monday.