COP27 wrap up: funding the end of the world and other thoughts

World flags in a tight row

All international climate talks begin with high hopes, and this meeting of the United Nations Climate Change Conference—known as COP27—in particular was being held up as the moment for implementation and climate justice. Instead, it appears that COP27 will be remembered as the COP of unmet expectations. Entering the COP, developing countries were calling for concrete help in bearing the brunt of climate impacts generated by carbon pollution from high-emitting nations like the United States.

They achieved a key step forward through a last-minute pledge of a “loss and damage” fund, in which developed nations provide financial assistance to developing nations affected by climate disaster. Whether this fund ends up being more symbol of progress on climate justice rather than a substantive solution remains to be seen. It’s important that high-emitting nations are willing to agree to some level of financial responsibility for the impacts to vulnerable populations, however, the fund remains ill-defined, with no specificity on when it will become operational or how it will be funded—or even deadlines as to when those things might be decided.

Funding adaptation without a strong accompanying commitment to mitigation places all of us, but particularly developing countries, on a very expensive and dangerous hamster wheel, trying to keep pace with costly and deadly climate disasters that will only become worse and more frequent unless we do something to address the emissions that cause climate change in the first place. The hope at the end of last year’s COP was that countries would come back to COP27 with stronger climate action plans to cut emissions and adapt to climate impacts. Not only did this not occur, and no additional mitigation steps such a phasing down of all fossil fuels made it into the the final declaration of agreements from the conference. As WWF Global Climate and Energy Lead Manuel Pulgar-Vidal starkly put it, “without additional commitments to put the world on track for 1.5 degrees Celsius, the loss and damage fund becomes a fund for the end of the world.”

An additional concern coming out of COP27 is that without a clear commitment from advanced economies to support a just energy transition to renewable energy, African nations may well give in to the incentives that encourage developing new gas infrastructure on the continent—both for its own energy needs and to export to Europe. Climate finance needs to be scaled up everywhere, but especially in developing countries, to support renewable development instead of a rush to gas. One piece of good news was the announcement of the Just Energy Transition Partnerships by the G7 countries, led by the US and Japan, to help India, Indonesia, Senegal, and Viet Nam to accelerate decarbonization in those countries. The first of these partnerships with South Africa was announced last year at COP26.

This conference also saw heightened awareness of the impact that both food and nature can have on addressing the climate crisis. However, the Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture—a 2017 decision that recognizes the potential of agriculture in curbing climate change—chose to further its work by setting up a new joint work program that again narrowly focuses on agriculture and food security, instead of considering food systems as a whole.

Nature fared somewhat better, receiving recognition in the final agreement from the conference, with announcements earlier in the climate talks by 26 nations to conserve woodland ecosystems, and with a promise from Brazil’s president-elect to reach zero deforestation in the Amazon by 2030.

Indeed, the now inextricable link between the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss seemed like a natural talking point throughout COP27, especially considering that countries will meet to discuss biodiversity in December, less than three weeks from the close of the climate talks. Nature is an essential ally in assuring a livable future for our planet, and the rapid loss of nature not only exacerbates climate impacts but detracts from our ability to supply solutions.

During the second week of the conference, WWF released its report, Climate’s Secret Ally: Uncovering the story of nature in the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report, which draws upon the International Panel on Climate Change’s work to highlight the interlinked emergencies of human-induced climate change and biodiversity loss and makes the case for better integrating nature into our response to the climate crisis.

At the same time, however, we’re seeing that in some quarters, big announcements don’t necessarily result in ambitious action. The Commodity Traders Roadmap, an effort released during the COP by various commodity industries to voluntarily outline their path to net zero, offered viable solutions for the palm oil industry but proved disappointing with respect to beef and soybeans.

And then there’s the ongoing question of climate finance and carbon markets. Week one of COP27 saw a number of groups announcing initiatives related to harnessing the power of the marketplace to increase the use of nature-based solutions through carbon credits, including an announcement by Special Envoy on Climate John Kerry of an Energy Transition Accelerator that would allow companies to purchase carbon credits to phase out coal-fired plants in developing countries. While these announcements are promising, the fact remains that we must do more to drive the still-nascent carbon credit market towards high-integrity carbon credits that secure real emissions reductions and carbon removals, and real benefits for nature and local communities. The longer that marketplace is allowed to develop without effective guardrails, the harder it will be to ensure that the capital it brings is really working towards our climate goals, and not just providing cheap credits for corporations.

Much discussion also focused on the need to reform multilateral institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. For the first time, a draft political decision published at the climate talks calls on multilateral development banks and international financial institutions to be reformed and align their spending with climate goals.

COP27 also shone a light on equity and justice, particularly for Indigenous peoples, frontline and fenceline communities in the US, and abroad For the first time at COP, there was a dedicated space for climate justice, and as part of the negotiations, representatives from both Indigenous peoples and local community groups have launched a detailed vision of what direct access to financing should look like based on guiding principles, guidelines, governance mechanism, actions, and indicators.

Other good news included the US arriving at COP27 with a legislative victory on climate at is back—the Inflation Reduction Act—and an election that produced better-than-expected results for climate solutions advocates. President Biden said as much in his speech at the end of the first week. The Biden Administration released more proposed rules and aid packages that aimed strategically at some important goals: committing to the reduction of methane emissions, mobilizing the federal government’s vast purchasing power to promote SBTi commitments, and deploying more than $150 million in capital towards a resilient Africa.

One of the highlights of COP27 for me personally was moderating a panel at the America Is All In Action Center including White House’s Chair of the Council of Environmental Quality, Brenda Mallory, Governor Jay Inslee of Washington, and Mayor Libby Schaaf of Oakland, California. We’re seeing a strong commitment from non-federal leaders across state and local governments, academic, cultural and religious institutions, and Indigenous peoples to take the resources they can get and turn them into effective and equitable climate action. In the US, we look forward to seeing how the Inflation Reduction Act unleashes climate action.

As for the proposition for global action on climate, COP27 ends with a feeling of stagnation and a lack of progress on needed outcomes. As this “decade of implementation” ticks by, we desperately need more ambition, more commitment, and more action. We cannot be left with creating a fund for the end of the world. It must become the beginning of us taking hold of our future.