At the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, known as COP27, leaders from around the world are gathering to discuss solutions to climate change and global warming. Brookings experts explain what is on the agenda, and how the negotiations may play out.
With catastrophic floods that submerged a third of the country under water, Pakistan became a prime example this year of the devastation that can be wrought by climate change. The flooding — caused by melting glaciers and torrential monsoon rains, both linked to climate change — made lakes out of villages, killed more than 1,700 people, displaced tens of millions, and caused upward of $30 billion in damage, with vast swaths of cropland destroyed and rampant disease.
As Pakistan asked the world for support for flood relief and recovery, it framed it as a call for climate justice, not humanitarian assistance. It is responsible for less than 1% of global carbon emissions, but is the eighth most climate vulnerable country in the world. But those calls for climate justice — a fraught issue for developed nations — didn’t find widespread traction, other than a forceful advocate in U.N. Secretary General António Guterres. So Pakistan set its sights on COP27 to advocate its case, and sent a solid delegation to Sharm el-Sheikh, headed by its prime minister, foreign minister, and minister for climate change. It made its case (as did Guterres), but the matter is beyond its control alone.
The most likely framework for climate justice for Pakistan and other vulnerable countries is the concept of loss and damage — which is helpfully on the agenda at COP27 for the first time, and which has started to collect some funding from European capitals, but which still finds resistance from the U.S. and other developed nations. The expectations of anything major coming out of the meetings in Egypt in terms of a well-financed loss and damage facility are slim. Realistically, Pakistan’s calls for climate justice aren’t likely to receive a full, positive resolution anytime soon — but at least the issue, finally, is on the agenda.
DAVID G. VICTOR
Nonresident Senior Fellow, Energy Security and Climate Initiative
Research Associate, Decarbonization Initiative, University of California, San Diego
Over the next two weeks, the spotlight will be on global climate diplomacy.
On the formal agenda is money and other resources. Developing nations are rightly demanding that richer nations keep the promises they’ve been making for over a decade, notably the supply of at least $100 billion per year in new climate-related finance, spending a bigger share of it on building resilience to climate impacts, and talking seriously about compensation for poor countries when those impacts result in damage. Rich countries have consistently failed to deliver. This year, with so much else on the global agenda, will probably disappoint too. The conference may even end in gridlock with no formal agreement, as it did in 2009.
Even in good years, universal consensus doesn’t generate much in the way of transformational change. Last year in Glasgow, for example, a global pledge to “phase-out” coal was diluted to a “phase down” at the last minute — much effort is spent on these words, with essentially no practical impact.
Cooperation is important — it helps create bigger markets for new, clean technologies for example — but that kind of collective action revolves around small coalitions of highly motivated firms and governments. Part of Glasgow’s success was how many sectors embraced this approach—from finance to electric power, cars, agriculture and forestry, shipping, aviation, trucking, steel, and cement.
Especially if global diplomacy fails in Egypt, it will be key to keep momentum on what matters — small groups of actors who invest in creating new facts on the ground.
COP27 is taking place in Africa, which brings special focus to the plight of developing nations. Talks will center around funding, for developing nations to transform their energy systems and adapt to a changing climate. Numbers for this year are not in yet, but the wealthy world is almost certain to break its promise of $100 billion per year in climate finance to developing countries, a level they promised to reach by 2020 and reiterated last year in Glasgow. Additionally, a concept called loss and damage will be on the agenda. The idea is that the countries most responsible for past greenhouse gas emissions should help pay for climate-related damages occurring in countries that contributed little to today’s level of warming. This may be morally correct, but even Europe is not ready to commit to a fund to pay for such damages.
All is not lost, however. The “rulebook” for the Paris Agreement was completed at Glasgow and now the agenda turns to implementation. But much of this implementation will not happen through the consensus-based U.N. process, but through bilateral and multilateral deals and in agreements including sub-national governments and private sector actors. Finding areas of agreement in smaller groups will be the way forward. Some of the most important achievements of Glasgow happened this way, including the Global Methane Pledge and the group of wealthy countries that agreed to assist South Africa in phasing out coal. Look for progress on the sidelines to be the main story.
November 10 is “Science Day” at COP27. Science is at the core of the climate change assessments of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). These are based on large-scale modeling under the auspices of the World Climate Research Programme and its network of research organizations and scientists. Two leading climate models inform this work: the Atmosphere-Ocean General Circulation Model (versions of which are employed by Australia, Canada, Italy, France, Germany, Japan, Norway, Russia, the U.K., and the U.S.) and the Earth System Model (employed by Canada, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Russia, Switzerland, and the U.S.). Both employ massive supercomputing to analyze vast sets of data on atmosphere, oceans, land, and ice.
Artificial intelligence (AI) can be a powerful tool to take these models to new levels of power and granularity, building on established technology and available data sets. By identifying patterns or anomalies within massive, complex environmental and energy datasets, AI can help optimize resource use, identify climate impacts in real time, and predict future trends. By analyzing satellite and sensor data, it can identify methane leaks, track heat and lighting within buildings, optimize transportation schedules, predict wildfires, and more. Such applications can enable more granular monitoring of climate change and its effects and lead to better management of mitigation and adaptation measures, energy usage and carbon emissions, and other responses. And the wide aperture of earth observation systems can help overcome challenges of inclusion and representation of low-to-medium income countries that have an existential stake in climate change.
In a recent report, we detail how using AI for these purposes was the leading choice in an exploration of international AI R&D collaboration in the Forum for Cooperation on Artificial Intelligence, a joint project of Brookings and the Centre for European Policy Studies convening officials from around the world with experts from industry, academia, and civil society. The EU has launched a similar project: Destination Earth, a digital model of Earth that will help predict climate change effects and build resilience. Scaling this effort up among more partners should be part of the follow-up to COP27.
COP27 could be especially consequential for Africa. The continent is not only hosting the summit but also one of the worst affected by climate change. Severe food insecurity plagues the Horn of Africa, which is facing a fourth consecutive year of drought, while flooding in 2022 affected 17 countries in West and Central Africa, displacing more than one million people in Nigeria alone. Current discourse at the summit reflects rising tensions over policy sovereignty that have been mounting between Africa and advanced economies. Several policy narratives have already, and will continue to, shape Africa’s engagement.
One relates to the perception of hypocrisy by developed countries. As several African countries hope to benefit from Europe’s search for alternative sources of natural gas in Africa in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, others are being criticized for pursuing new oil extraction projects. In particular, the governments of Uganda and Tanzania insist they will proceed with the East African Crude Oil Pipeline, which they claim is necessary to advance economic development despite objections from the EU and domestic civil society groups. A second narrative relates to the cost advanced economies are willing to pay for African countries to forfeit extracting their resources. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is gradually opening up auctions to companies to bid for oil and gas blocks in parts of the Congo Basin that contain the largest tropical peatland, which absorbs about 30 billion tons of carbon. To avoid drilling in the peatlands, the DRC government is willing to also sell carbon credits to fund their conservation but has argued that to make this attractive, the price of carbon per ton issued by the credits needs to be significantly high.
Similarly, South Africa’s Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP) — aimed at supporting the country’s transition away from coal via $8.5 billion from the U.S., EU, U.K., France, and Germany — was one of COP26’s main achievements. The details of the Just Energy Investment Plan were released to South Africa’s Presidential Climate Commission just days before COP27. Many countries will wish to negotiate similar deals, even as South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has noted that the JETP is not sufficient and that most of the financial commitments under JETP are via loans rather than grants. This points to a third challenge, which is what format is most effective for transparent resource transfers to a region with high debt and relatively weak public accountability.
Bridging climate finance is the top priority for Africa at COP27. The Climate Policy Initiative estimates that from 2020 to 2030, Africa will need a total of $2.8 trillion to mitigate the effects of climate change, based on its countries’ submitted nationally determined contributions (NDC). This equates to about $277 billion per year for a successful implementation of the NDCs to achieve the 2030 climate goals. With climate finance flows of about $30 billion a year, the gap between the current financial flows and needs is about a quarter of a trillion dollars. Climate finance flows in Africa are dominated by traditional instruments, including multilateral development finance institutions, governments, and bilateral development finance institutions. None of these are sufficient.
To close the financing gap to achieve the climate goals by 2030, leaders should leverage innovative and disruptive financial instruments, drastically expand the role of private sector financing, capitalize on emerging technologies, and multiply and secure the climate financial commitments of the biggest polluters, especially advanced economies. Innovative and disruptive financial instruments could include effective greenhouse gas trading systems, green bonds, green loans, sustainability-linked bonds, sustainability-linked loans, market-efficient carbon markets, debt-for-climate swaps, and forward-looking domestic resource mobilization instruments. A truly conducive enabling environment, agile governance, and effective multi-stakeholder collaboration are also needed to make all this possible.
Militaries are one of the largest producers of greenhouse gas emissions globally, as war and preparation for conflict are fossil fuel-intensive activities. The 2015 Paris Agreement called for countries to voluntarily report these emissions, but most do not, leading to what the U.K.-based Conflict and Environment Observatory (CEOBS) has called the “military emissions gap.” CEOBS and several U.K.-based scholars have called for negotiators at COP27 to agree on stronger reporting and mitigation measures for military emissions. Even where militaries have adopted reporting standards, as in the U.S. and U.K., these do not adequately account for supply chains, emissions in conflict, and lack of coordination between various governmental authorities charged with national security.
A cross-national study of 72 countries between 1970 and 2000 found that carbon emissions increased on both a total and per capita basis as countries increased military spending and employed more people in the military. Emissions from the defense sector go beyond conventional militaries and extend to emissions from complex global supply chains, an array of private and state-owned contractors, and the proliferation of governmental agencies charged with national security. The exponential growth of the global arms sales since the 1970s has created new entrenched economic interests. Global arms exports remain dominated by arms firms based in the United States, Russia, France, Germany, and China, while the largest importers include Saudi Arabia, India, Egypt, Australia, and Algeria.
Egypt, the host of COP27, exemplifies how difficult it will be to hold the military-security sector accountable for emissions. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi first took power in a military coup in 2013, and then held a highly managed election amid a repressive crackdown on civil society and opposition parties. His administration is dominated by military and internal security personnel, the military budget remains secret, and the government’s much vaunted megaprojects in the desert are increasingly majority-owned by military agencies and constructed by various military entities or private firms with close connections to the regime. The regime’s closing of civic space and routine violation of basic civil rights limit any domestic pressure to track, let alone mitigate, emissions from Egypt’s military-security sector.
COP27 is being held in Africa this year, and there are expectations that there will be a greater focus on climate justice, especially for the Global South. The challenge of truly moving the needle, whether it’s for climate justice or even getting back on track for staying within 1.5°C temperature rise, is tradeoffs. Tradeoffs in the name of energy security defined the past year, especially for Europe, which has struggled after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But this has led to the poor also being hit as energy prices rose globally.
How can developing countries become more aggressive without risking human development? India’s Glasgow COP26 pronouncements give us a clue. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced India becoming net-zero by 2070. When India submitted updates in August to its 2015 nationally determined contributions, it promised to (1) reduce emissions intensity relative to GDP to a 45% reduction by 2030, (2) make half its electricity capacity non-fossil by 2030, and (3) focus on lifestyles for sustainability. India’s other goals could be viewed as ambitions or conditional, requiring support from the rich and high-emitters.
There are things that the poor can promise, but they can do a lot more if they get financial, technological, and institutional support. They also need help with adaptation, critical because the impacts of climate change are already here, and worst-felt by the poor.
Not only must the rich deliver on their pledged $100 billion of climate support, but there should also be clarity on the terms. Debt for solar projects shouldn’t cut it, especially because the market is already willing to fund such projects. Neither should nebulous offsets, the worst of which are promises to not cut down specific forests, which should hopefully be kept off the table under Article 6. Climate support should be as aid, more so for adaptation. Given that the poor didn’t create the problem, demands for compensation under loss and damage are fair and provide a rationale and framework for increased forward-looking support by the rich. They are also contentious, which is what platforms like COP27 should ideally be about — addressing the real and hard challenges, instead of just focusing on incrementalism and low-hanging fruit.