EU Executive Vice-President Frans Timmermans attending UN Conference of the Parties in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt.

Progress and setbacks from COP27

The European Union cannot rely on the United Nations process to deliver and must reinforce its own climate efforts.

This article was originally published in Social Europe by Patrick ten Brink, Luke Haywood, Katy Wiese and Alberto Vela.

The European Union went to COP27 with an ask—that countries increase their ambition on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions and put strong commitments on climate mitigation into the text agreed in Sharm El Sheikh. In exchange, the EU would eventually agree to a fund for countries negatively affected by climate change in the ‘loss and damage’ process so important to many developing countries.

The first part was the more important for arresting the climate crisis: the more quickly we stop harming the climate, the less loss and damage we shall produce. But this was the part that did not go well.

Simply, the countries selling fossil fuels did not want to go along with policies that would undermine their business model. And the COP process of climate summitry under the auspices of the United Nations is based on unanimity, making any progress cruelly slow. The EU must now draw the consequences: reduce emissions more quickly and ratchet up its 2030 reductions target.

Doing its fair share

Given the pledges of emissions reductions countries have offered, it is far from obvious whether a 1.5C temperature ceiling above preindustrial levels is still containable—with all the catastrophic consequences breaching it could entail. What can the EU do if it is serious in its commitment to fight for (only) 1.5 degrees?

The EU is a large emitter of greenhouse gases. And its own targets are most probably not in line with a 1.5C limit worldwide—especially if one takes into account Europe’s historical responsibility for accumulated atmospheric carbon dioxide.

If other countries are not living up to their responsibilities, it is then all the more important that the EU does at least its fair share. This will inspire others to do more.

The EU must go beyond the -55 per cent 2030 goal—and even the -57 per cent announced by Frans Timmermans, vice-president of the European Commission responsible for the European Green Deal, at COP 27. The European Environmental Bureau and many other groups have been calling for years for a raising of ambition to -65 per cent, in line with the research. Some may argue that going for -65 per cent by 2030 is impossible, but isn’t living in a world with warming beyond 1.5C even less imaginable?

Increasing ambition

Recent evidence shows that increasing ambition is in fact more realistic than ever. A 100 per cent renewables world is not only desirable, but possible, before 2050. Ambition is however just the first step: the EU must show with effective policies that its member states will deliver on the green deal as promised—without investing in fossil-fuel lock-ins.

The Just Energy Transition Partnership deal struck by the EU and partners with Indonesia at the G20 summit in Bali, in parallel to COP27, will provide funding of $20 billion for concrete coal-exit plans. It is the second such deal, after one with South Africa.

Rather than rely on complicated funding mechanisms via international carbon markets (the ominous article 6 of the Paris Agreement), these deals have taken place outside the UN system. Ideally, they are simple and efficient. They also help move beyond the idea that a right to development includes a right to pollute: they ensure countries have the opportunity of developing without polluting.

It is only fair that countries that have contributed to climate change contribute to such leapfrogging. In the case of Indonesia, the current plan still lacks ambition, but the direction is set: the international community, and especially the G7 countries, are willing to contribute to ensure a just transition.

Loss and damage

Contributing to the costs of mitigation is an important part of accepting responsibility for the climate crisis. Industrialised countries have a duty to help countries suffering the worst consequences despite having contributed least to global warming. If only one dollar were paid per tonne of greenhouse gases emitted, this would amount to $50 billion for one year alone—enough to both compensate fairly and mitigate much more radically that we do now.

At COP27, the creation of a much more limited fund to address loss and damage was finally agreed, but clear and binding commitments for its financing are still lacking. As with previous COPs, China has resisted the wish by the Europeans (and others) that it be treated on a par now with other large economies and principal emitters.

The creation of the fund signals that countries that have polluted and will continue polluting will not be able to ignore the consequences. It therefore represents an important turning point for all discussions on climate change. Ideally, this will reinforce the message to all polluting industries and countries that ‘business as usual’ is not only contrary to international agreements—and the desires and dreams of the world’s young—but may also present considerable financial risks.

The fund represents a timid but significant step towards climate justice—the rallying cry of civil society at this summit. The more than 100,000 signatures gathered by the #ClimateOfChange campaign, which seeks to raise awareness about climate change as a multiplier of inequalities and driver of forced migration, represent a good example of how loudly the social question resonated at COP27. Certainly not only climate goals matter, but also how we get to them.

Greenwashing and surveillance

There were however also more than 600 fossil-fuel lobbyists at COP27—more still than at COP26 in Glasgow, where they outnumbered even the largest national delegation. How can it be right that there are so many representatives of an industry causing the climate calamity? Can we really expect them to lobby for solutions that run counter their immediate interests? There is a fundamental problem of governance here which erodes trust.

This underlines the need to question how much progress we can expect from COP28 in the United Arab Emirates. Only if the UAE commits to 100 per cent renewables can there be some hope. Its current targets are 30 per cent of electricity from renewables by 2030 and 75 per cent by 2050. They are too little, too late—especially for a country with such solar potential.

There was already criticism of the lack of civil-society engagement in Glasgow. Much stronger criticism could be levelled in Sharm El Sheikh, with several reports of harassment and surveillance of COP27 delegates and civil-society groups. Should the UN allocate such important events to countries that do not allow civil society to express opinions on such an important issue?

The summit at least did not provide the public image lift sought by Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. Protests drawn international media attention to Egypt’s dismal record on human rights, with 65,000 political prisoners, including the democracy activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah, who started a hunger strike in his cell during the event. Quickly the chant “free Alaa, free them all”, became one of the main claims of COP27 attendees. There is no meaningful climate action, without human rights and political freedom.

‘Green growth’?

Despite the many claims made at COP27, the elephant in the room remains—rich countries’ dependency on fossil fuels and economic growth, the main driver of environmental degradation and social inequalities. Proposed solutions focused on ‘green growth’, the established policy response to climate change and ecological breakdown. There was much talk about new technologies, such as carbon capture and storage, which are unproven, expensive and dependent on diminishing material resources.

It is increasingly clear that if the EU continues on a ‘green growth’ trajectory, holding global heating to 1.5C will be close to impossible. This was confirmed by the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which advocates a focus instead on reducing demand for products and services that come with significant climate impact.

Even the UN secretary general, António Guterres, has urged going beyond gross domestic product. If leaders of the EU truly have the interests of younger and future generations in mind, it is time for them to tackle the root causes of ecological unsustainability and focus on reducing its fossil-fuel and material footprint.

The good news is that alternatives to economic growth exist. Tools such as material-reduction targets and other alternative indicators can help us on the path to a wellbeing economy, beneficial for both the planet and its people.

The EU has the responsibility and the capacity to redefine its priorities and policies in favour of wellbeing, in so doing ensuring that it does not exacerbate the destructive socio-environmental milieu at home and across the globe. Only this will give a chance to lower-income countries to develop their economies sustainably and provide the essential goods and services many still lack.