What to expect from COP 27?

Professor Bronwyn Hayward (MNZM), an expert on sustainability, youth, climate change, and citizenship at the University of Canterbury (UC), comments on the 27th Conference of Parties (COP 27) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) that is now happening in Sharm El Sheikh. Professor Hayward is one of the leaders of the Pacific Ocean and Climate Crisis Assessment (POCCA) project at UC.

As a political scientist, I am very concerned about the precarious position of international climate negotiations going into COP27. In a highly distracted and dangerous world, still coping with the ongoing effects of the global pandemic and its economic and social impacts there is little visible political leadership among governments of the Global North to galvanize international cooperation for climate action.

While the previous COP 26 was also held in highly fraught times, the former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson took a strong position on climate change and the UK’s chief negotiator Alok Sharma (who was the President of the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference) was able to form international alliances to push for progress, resulting in a raft of agreements ranging from better methane management and forest protection to greater ambition for emission reductions.

This time around however it is left to the stretched resources of governments of the Global South to lead the climate vision. In the UK, the demotion of Alok Sharma out of Cabinet by Rishi Sunak the new Prime Minister, (who himself has now decided at the last minute to attend the meeting after previously ruling it out), together with a distracted US Presidency facing tough domestic mid-term elections;  and a going dangerous war in Europe between Russia and Ukraine has exacerbated lack of real progress to reduce emissions or take proactive steps to protect the world’s most vulnerable populations.

That said this leadership vacuum can provide an opportunity for New Zealand to support the Small Island States in their strong push to bridge four key gaps in climate action at COP.

1. The first gap is in commitments to reduce emissions (called National Determined Contributions). Last week the UN Environment programme calculated that a shortfall in government efforts leaves our world on track for a temperature rise of 2.4-2.6°C by the end of this century. The science body IPCC has been very clear that temperatures over 2°C risk immense suffering to many millions more people. So, it is crucial governments increase their commitments to reduce emissions at COP27.

We could expect New Zealand may come under some scrutiny in this context to show that a unique Kiwi approach to accounting for agricultural emissions is fair and reflects our particular national circumstances while also aiding ambitious efforts for emission reductions.

In a welcome move, the New Zealand government has also joined a small core group of 11 nations supporting Vanuatu’s climate leadership at the UN and International Court of Criminal Justice -Vanuatu is calling for a legal opinion “on the obligations of states under international law to protect the rights of present and future generations against the adverse effects of climate change”. While this is not a step that makes failure to deal with climate change a crime of ecocide, it nevertheless could be a very important way to hold governments to account for their inaction in the future. 

2.  The second gap which the Global South will be looking to narrow at COP is finance. So far only USD 86 billion of the 100 billion pledged to assist Global South countries to meet their climate-related mitigation and adaptation bills has been raised by developed nations and Small Island states in particular are also pressing the UN to create financial mechanisms to address damages from climate change. While money can never compensate for the loss of human lives, loved places, cultural history and economic stability, Small Island states will push hard at COP for mechanisms to distribute funding rather than just more dialogue. 

3. The third big gap that I expect will dominate a lot of debate at COP is over adaptation planning. Article 7.1 of the Paris Agreement calls for enhancing adaptive capacity, strengthening resilience and reducing vulnerability to climate change. However, a 2022 report by the IPCC indicated that while many countries now have adaptation plans in place, far fewer governments have implemented these plans. Again, the Global South will be pushing hard for a global agreement and funding to support climate adaptation, and this is a goal that the new Egyptian president of COP Abdel Fattah Elsis has emphasised in his speeches. 

4. Fourth and finally monitoring the implementation of the Paris Rule book to ensure that countries can’t wriggle out of their responsibility for making real change will be part of the debate about the Global Stock Take, which is a new process of evaluating national efforts to cut emissions fairly. effectively and transparently. 

Overall, I expect this to be a very difficult COP where pressure from civil society and businesses will be needed to hold governments to account, but given Egypt has strong laws governing protest and new tools of surveillance, it’s hard to see how any real public momentum will build in the streets of the resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh. Looking ahead to the next COP in 2023 makes me more cautious again, that meeting will be held in one of the oil states United Arab Emirates so overall it’s hard to see international leadership for the transformative change we need, emerging in the next two years.

If we are not to waste precious time, we have to make a difference for a safer climate future we can do that through leadership by ordinary people, Indigenous communities, Small States, businesses and the Global South, who understand the extraordinary climate risks we now face, that will create the real lasting momentum for change. 

Professor Bronwyn Hayward was a coordinating lead author of the IPCC Adaptation, Implementation and Vulnerability report and is a member of the IPCC core writing team. She writes here as a Professor of Political science and International Relations at the University of Canterbury and declares no conflict of interest

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