1992 was a landmark year. The Cold War had just ended, India was on the road to recovery after opening up its economy the year before and China had set course to becoming an economic powerhouse. Nations across the world had also come together in an unprecedented (and eventually successful) effort to mend the ozone layer.
But an even bigger event took place that year. Countries decided to mount a global environmental effort that required them to make hard choices.
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC, signed in June 1992, pledged to cut the emission of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. The atmospheric concentration of these gases—which increases owing to burning fossil fuels and cutting down trees—had crossed a tipping point; it threatened to trigger catastrophic weather changes. At the same time, cutting emissions posed a threat to the world economic order, built on cheap fossil fuels.
The convention was signed in the hope that it would all work out.
“It was an age of innocence,” recalls Sunita Narain, director general of the Centre for Science and Environment. “We felt like we would mitigate emissions at the scale needed and find ways to do it. That rules would be made such that all countries would be forced to make reductions and countries that need to grow would grow differently. We thought that strong climate action was just around the corner.”
This week, representatives of the 198 parties to the UN convention have gathered at Sharm el-Sheikh, a resort town in Egypt’s Sinai region. The event is the 27th Conference of Parties, or COP27, a two-week affair that takes place every year in a different continent. It is a time when the parties review progress towards the ambitions of 1992, and agree on new treaties and methods to get there.
At this year’s gathering, which got underway on Sunday, it is clear that the age of innocence has long receded from memory. It has been replaced by the age of desperation, or, put another way, the age of disasters. At the conference, there are many who acknowledge that it has come at the end of a year that has seen an unprecedented number of extreme climate events—from the floods in Pakistan and Nigeria to the heatwaves and erratic rainfall in India.
“We’re coming to this conference in the context of back-to-back and devastating climate events, which have affected millions in the global south who are least responsible for the crisis in the first place,” Tasneem Essop, executive director of Climate Action Network International, a network of civil society organizations around the world, told reporters during an interaction on Monday.
There is thus an increasing push to include long-ignored aspects of the climate process—ranging from adaptation to the impact of climate change to compensating poorer nations for the losses and damage caused by the crisis—on the agenda.
A shift in focus
Sharm el-Sheikh is surrounded by the sand-colored hills of the Sinai desert. Like the rugged peaks that cast their shadow on the city, the conference too is being held in the shadow of extreme climate events and research reports that predict that these would become more common.
For instance, earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its sixth cycle of reports that summarize all the science on climate change. The previous cycle was published close to a decade ago.
The latest reports said the world had not done enough to avert a climate crisis and warned that impacts were already being felt globally. Climate change was causing “substantial damages and increasingly irreversible losses”, they found. Heatwaves, for instance, had intensified. And, economic damage had been detected across agriculture, forestry, fishery, energy and tourism sectors, which were most exposed to the climate.
Then, on Sunday, just as the conference opened, the World Meteorological Organization, or WMO, released its own assessment of the world’s climate. It found that the last eight years were the warmest on record. It also found that the rate of sea level rise had doubled since 1993, and that the last two and a half years alone accounted for 10% of the sea level rise since then.
“The tell-tale signs and impacts of climate change are becoming more dramatic,” the organization said in its press statement.
The IPCC reports had warned that global warming over pre-industrial era levels was inching close to 1.5 degrees Celsius (the WMO estimates it is about 1.15 degrees at present) and that near-term actions were needed to avoid further damage.
But hopes of such actions are low. Ahead of COP27, on 26 October, the UNFCCC released its study of all the promises to reduce greenhouse gas emissions under the Paris Agreement. All nations were expected to submit revised and more ambitious targets ahead of the conference.
The study found that total greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 were expected to be 52 billion tons of CO2-equivalent (a unit of measurement wherein the warming potential of non-CO2 gases are measured in terms of an equivalent quantity of carbon dioxide). That amounts to just a 0.3% reduction over the level of emissions in 2019, while the requirement is for a 43% reduction. The lack of sufficient action is apparent in a chart provided in the study.
These predictions become more grim in the light of many European nations doubling down on fossil fuel due to the Russia-Ukraine conflict, and exploring new natural gas fields in Africa in what activists have dubbed the “dash for gas”.
On the agenda
Within the larger timelines of the UNFCCC process, COP27’s purpose was to follow up on the progress of major decisions that have been taken already, like the Paris Agreement signed at COP21 in 2015. It was also meant to continue a “global stocktake” of climate action, and to continue discussions on a “global goal on adaptation”, which was initiated last year.
But in the first two days, there are signs that major decisions may be taken on adaptation and loss and damage. On Sunday, the conference agenda officially included an item on financing for loss and damage.
Loss and damage refers to paying compensation to poor nations for the impacts they suffer due to adverse climate events like droughts and floods. While a mechanism for loss and damage has been discussed for close to a decade, there was a push for it at last year’s climate conference at Glasgow, as The Morning Context reported. This year, at informal pre-COP discussions over the weekend, developing nations pushed for including the item on the official agenda of the conference. This would bring more attention to the issue and possibly lead to an agreement of all parties.
The item was included in the agenda, though with compromises that satisfied demands from the US and the EU to not include reparations for past emissions.
“The intervening year of catastrophic impacts has had a major effect,” says Aditya Valiathan Pillai, associate fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi. Impacts felt in countries like the US, EU, Pakistan, India and China—key players in climate negotiations—have made the inclusion possible, he explains. “The world in 2022 feels different from the world in 2021, in terms of impacts. The needle is now shifting more to adaptation based on the fact that implementation and pushing of new targets from various parties is slower than expected.”
While loss and damage focus on compensation and reparation payments, the other important component is adaptation. These include a large set of measures—from protecting the coast to developing drought-resistant crop varieties and crop insurance schemes—that can reduce the impact of climate change.
Unlike the reduction of greenhouse gases, which can be measured easily, adaptation actions are varied and depend on local contexts. Discussions at COP27 will focus on finding ways to measure and standardize adaptation measures. These will be as part of negotiations on the Global Goal on Adaptation, which is expected to be in place next year.
Countries are also expected to negotiate on how to report back to the UNFCCC on the progress that they have made on adaptation targets. At Glasgow, countries had promised to double the funding for adaptation to $40 billion by 2025. But the latest Adaptation Gap Report from the UN Environment Programme says the needs for adaptation are in the range of $315-565 billion a year by 2050. “Estimated adaptation cost/needs are currently between five and 10 times higher than international adaptation finance flows, and the adaptation finance gap continues to widen,” the agency said.
Ahead of COP27, India also emphasized the need to discuss impacts at the conference. “Adaptation and loss and damage are two issues at the centre of attention, and a progress on these two issues will complement each other,” it said in a statement on Friday. It has sought progress on the Global Goal on Adaptation and said that there “should not be any hidden agenda” in the form of “nature-based solutions”—a claim it has not substantiated.
Just like reducing greenhouse gas emissions benefits everyone in the world, adaptation actions also have global benefits although the solutions are limited to a particular geography, says Pillai. “Adaptation and impacts are no longer within one country. An impact on one place spreads across borders through global commodity markets and the financial system, as we saw time after time in the last 12 months with disruptions to wheat and rice production and India banning their exports,” he explains. “Having the accountability mechanism and having transparency around adaptation is not just about that country and people; we’re talking about ensuring stability and integrity of a global economy.”
In the past, UN climate conferences have resulted in ambitious instruments like the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, which set legally binding targets for emission reduction by wealthy nations. It recognized the role of these nations in causing the historical emissions that brought on the crisis, and held them responsible for the most action. Now that the impacts of climate change are a reality, a similar outcome is expected out of COP27.
This story was produced as part of the 2022 Climate Change Media Partnership, a journalism fellowship organized by Internews' Earth Journalism Network and the Stanley Center for Peace and Security. It was first published by The Morning Context on 7 November and has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: Negotiators at COP27 / Credit: Getty Images.