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COP27: The UN holds a climate summit every year. Is it actually working?

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Picture: REUTERS/Mohammed Salem – Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi speaks during the opening session of the COP27 climate summit, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt November 7, 2022.

By Shannon Osaka

In the city of Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, leaders from around the world are gathering to negotiate over carbon emissions – for the 27th consecutive time. Although this year’s U.N. Climate Change Conference – known as COP27 – will be in a new setting, in many other ways the conference will probably feel like deja vu. For almost three decades, governments have met to discuss the problem of climate change and tried to work toward a solution that will keep global warming from topping 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). They have negotiated, signed treaties, reneged on those treaties and signed new ones.

And almost every year, carbon emissions have continued to climb.

In 1995, when the first United Nations climate conference was held in Berlin, the countries of the world released approximately 23 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from burning coal, oil and natural gas. This year, that number is expected to be about 34 billion tons. Roughly half of all CO2 emitted since 1751, just before the start of the Industrial Revolution, was released in just the past 30 years.

It’s hard to look at those numbers and see the international climate response as anything less than a failure. As global emissions climb, is the system working at all?

David Victor, a professor of public policy at the University of California at San Diego, says the answer depends. “If by ‘working,’ you mean that the global negotiations themselves are producing the change, the answer is no,” he said. But, he argues, that was never the right way to judge the effectiveness of international policymaking on climate.

Part of that is because the Paris agreement – the landmark accord reached in 2015 to try to limit global warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius, and to aim for 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) – has always been a strange sort of treaty. Before the agreement, most people thought the best way to combat climate change on the world stage was to get everyone to sign on to binding emissions reductions. But that never caught on: Many countries, including the United States, refused to agree to mandatory emissions reductions. For decades, global climate diplomacy was essentially stalled.

At the conference in Paris in 2015, countries tried a different approach. They agreed to voluntarily lower their emissions, by making regular pledges known tongue-twistingly as “nationally determined contributions.” There would be no universal mandates for everyone to cut emissions by a particular date – countries could choose their own adventure for how and when to stop spewing CO2 into the atmosphere. If leaders didn’t bring more-ambitious pledges, meanwhile, they would be “named and shamed” by others.

In the seven years since the summit in Paris, many pledges have indeed gotten more ambitious. More than 70 countries, including China, the United States and the European Union, have set targets to slash their emissions to zero by 2050. If all those pledges are followed through on – a humongous “if” – the world will warm approximately 2.1 degrees Celsius by 2100. (That’s if countries follow through on their long-term goals; if they only follow through on existing short-term goals for 2030, a recent U.N. report found the world would warm by 2.4 degrees Celsius.)

Both of those estimates are a far cry from 1.5 degrees Celsius – the “stretch” goal set out in the Paris agreement – but they’re also much better than previous projections, which predicted warming of 3 or even 4 degrees.

Victor says the benefit of the Paris framework is that it allows more flexibility; countries can be as ambitious as they want to be, while also experimenting and forming smaller agreements to tackle specific aspects of the problem. For example, world leaders can join in a vow to decrease emissions of methane, a very strong greenhouse gas, in the short term, or collaborate on a promise to push forward electric vehicle adoption.

The downside, of course, is that none of the targets are binding. So beyond setting up the pledges, COP27 isn’t the place for countries to actually follow through on their promises. The actual emissions reductions will take place at home. “There isn’t a lot more that can be done on the international level with these conversations,” said Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton University. “The limiting factor of what countries do right now is their domestic political systems.”

There is also another issue that has yet to be worked out. When almost 200 nations agreed to the Paris framework in 2015, they did so under the promise that rich, developed countries would send money to poorer, developing countries – both to help them build clean energy and to adapt to rising sea levels and climate-supercharged weather events. But so far, much of that money – including $100 billion every year that was promised by rich countries – has not materialized.

Countries such as Pakistan, which recently faced devastating floods that scientists say were exacerbated by climate change, have also begun to push developed countries to provide compensation for damage caused by warming temperatures. So far, however, rich countries have refused to play ball. That battle is poised to be one of the biggest issues at the upcoming meeting in Egypt.

For years, negotiations over this part of the agreement have been shunted to the side in favor of carbon-cutting pledges. But now developing countries are getting frustrated and impatient. “If this issue doesn’t get resolved constructively, it will eventually get in the way of making progress on other fronts,” Oppenheimer said.

An activist holds a banner, as she demonstrates at the entrance of the Sharm El Sheikh International Convention Centre, during the COP27 climate summit opening, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, November 7, 2022.REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

That discussion will be top-of-mind for many negotiators in Egypt. Even if the ambitious pledges part of the Paris agreement is currently working, the process could unravel if cash doesn’t come through as promised. Developing countries “will always want to bring the spotlight back to this issue,” Oppenheimer said. “It’ll clog up the works – and then there won’t be international progress.”

Osaka is a climate reporter covering policy, culture, and science for The Washington Post.

This article was published in the Washington Post.