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Striking messages from COP27

A sombre shift in the way the world is addressing the climate crisis

On a “highway to climate hell,” world leaders were warned to “cooperate or perish” in the opening of the Conference of the Parties (COP). The vocabulary used to paint the picture of what is needed and why only gets punchier each year.

COP is always full of headline statements, words crafted by leaders - largely politicians - who the cynics would say turn up to express their own leadership, manage foreign relations, and drape their speeches with all the usual political flare. The not-so-cynical would say the leaders come together to reflect and refresh their Paris Agreement commitments and seek cooperation to address the climate crisis. It has seemed that for the 27 COPs we have had, the language stays strong and then all the leaders go home, remembering they have x number of months before the election and the short-termism that is politics limits the long-term steering of our globe.

But this year, there is a rising call for action in two areas.

The call for payment for loss and damage (L&D) caused by climate change and increased climate finance is dominating COP27. This represents a significant shift and marks the beginning of what many already knew, that 1.5 degrees was always just the stretch goal and we are in a climate crisis now. For many of those who argued for a 1.5 degrees target back in 2015 when the Paris Agreement was written, the developing nations are already facing the consequences of climate change. These countries have stepped into COP27 with loud voices, calling for global action and asking for increased climate financing and L&D payments.

L&D is not a new COP topic but it has previously been relatively muted. L&D reparations are politically problematic, as governments essentially have to up their aid budgets, and legally problematic as there isn’t any requirement explicit in the Paris Agreement. At COP19, held in 2013 in Warsaw, Poland, countries established the Warsaw International Mechanism for L&D associated with climate change impacts. The importance of addressing L&D is highlighted in Article 8 of the Paris Agreement, however, the clause specifies that the inclusion of L&D in the agreement "does not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation". Last year at COP26 leaders announced the opening of the loss and damage Glasgow Dialogue – hardly any use for countries who went on to experience massive climate change related devastation in the 12 months that followed.

Climate finance, another hot topic addressed at COP27 and an explicit part of the Paris Agreement, has been a severe letdown to date. The Paris Agreement requires developed nation signatories, through Article 9, to give developing nations finance to assist them to meet their adaptation and mitigation goals (which are expressed through Nationally Determined Contributions “NDCs”). (This climate finance is distinct from L&D payments - L&D sits outside of climate finance intended in the Paris Agreement and is essentially why the Warsaw International Mechanism was established). The NDCs of developing nations always rest their success on the delivery of climate finance for meeting those goals. Furthermore, the Paris Agreement requires mobilisation of other (private for example) finance (‘crowding in’). In 2009, developed nations pledged USD $100bn per year in climate finance. This has never been met. This year at COP27, the calls for climate finance are loud and clear, but how a world that couldn’t deliver $100bn per year since 2009 is supposed to deliver the trillions that reports released this week are touting is anyone’s guess. Even if the money is there, delivering the spend in a world constrained by technical and human resource, trade rules and regulations, and changing politicians, is a whole separate, massive, issue.

The climate change conversation for many countries will now become one where adaptation challenges rise to the forefront, where climate finance to support developing nations will be needed in buckets, and loss and damage reparations to those severely impacted will either be blockaded or will challenge international law and state boundaries in ways never seen before. While the developed nations worry about reporting and greenwashing, small developing nations are already living in the crisis without the means to respond.

COP27 marks the beginning of large humanitarian crises, starting with the developing world. If global leaders don’t cooperate – through exercising what they committed to in the Paris Agreement – the developing world will perish first.