The historic loss and damage victory at COP27 was thanks to the unity of developing countries and civil society
A loss and damage protest at COP27

The historic loss and damage victory at COP27 was thanks to the unity of developing countries and civil society

By: Dorothy Guerrero
Date: 23 November 2022

The 27th Conference of Parties (COP27) under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreement, attended by 47,000 delegates, delivered on the promise of being an ‘Implementation COP’. It was the third longest in the history of the annual climate summit, with parties working overtime thirty-six hours after the conference’s scheduled closure. As dawn broke in Sharm el-Sheikh, the host city of this year’s summit, located on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula and the coastal strip of the Red Sea, on 20 November, the landmark agreement on loss and damage was gavelled by COP27 president and Egypt’s foreign minister Sameh Shoukry.

The biggest news of COP27 is the global consensus on loss and damage, which was a positive, surprising outcome of the talks. The two-week annual meeting attended by over 100 heads of states and governments started at a tense temperature, as there was a clear divide between historic and huge-emitter countries (US, UK, EU) and the Group of 77/China bloc on the issue. Developing countries – the resource-rich but climate-vulnerable countries, and those suffering intense impacts from climate change despite very little contribution to it – view the UN climate negotiations as a way to secure much-needed funds from those they deem as historically responsible for climate change. Many developed countries, on the other hand, have resisted being held financially accountable.

The general public perceive the UN COPs as a global governance body where diplomats, politicians, climate scientists, business leaders and civil society actors gather each year to solve the climate crisis. Under that surface, the COP’s annual two-week conference was actually a battlefield wherein various simultaneous intense negotiations occur. Parties fight for their national and regional interests and the processes are actually full of conflicts.

Corporate agenda in full show

When COP17 was hosted in Durban, South Africa in 2011, civil society groups dubbed that COP as the ‘Conference of Polluters‘ due to the sponsorship by mining companies of the talks. Ten years since, COP27 was criticised as a trade show, as there were over 100 more fossil fuel lobbyists in the list of attendees in Sharm el-Sheik, or 25% more than at COP26 last year in Glasgow. There were at least 636 fossil fuel lobbyists, affiliated with some of the world’s biggest polluting oil and gas giants such as Shell, Chevron and BP. The BBC also reported that BP’s chief executive Bernard Looney was registered on the official UN list as a delegate of Mauritania. This flagrantly shows the increasing influence of the fossil fuel industry at the climate talks.

Our research at Global Justice Now showed that the Big 5 oil companies – Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP, Shell and TotalEnergies – have made over $170 billion of profit in the past 12 months. That’s more money every day than the sum committed so far to loss and damage finance by rich countries ($272 million). These five companies alone are also responsible for 11% of historic emissions. If we apply that share to the estimated costs of climate chaos to the global south, that means they could be responsible for an $8 trillion climate bill that is instead being footed by the global south.

Loss and Damage: a paradigm shift

In the context of the climate negotiations, loss and damage dates back to the original drafting and development of the UNFCCC in 1991 when the Alliance of Small Island States was formed, which includes 40 states, many of them developing countries within the G77 groupings. They called for a mechanism that would compensate countries affected by sea level rise. Since 1990, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) through its comprehensive assessment reports has shown evidence of increasingly severe predictions of the future impacts of climate change and how to address them. It was set up by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) and the UN Environmental Program.

There has been a shift in the last 20 years in the global climate change regime. Previously, the primary focus was on mitigation, which means preventing the planet from warming to more extreme temperatures by avoiding and reducing emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. It then shifted to both mitigation and adaptation – climate adaptation refers to adjustments in ecological, social, or economic systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli and their effects or impacts.

Finally, loss and damage has emerged as a key fixture on the agenda with the establishment of the Warsaw International Mechanism (WIM) on loss and damage at COP19 in November 2013. This shift can be attributed to the realisation that mitigation and adaptation efforts can avoid future losses and damages, but in some cases this will be insufficient.

The historic outcome of the establishment of a loss and damage fund was delivered in COP27 by the unity of the G77/China bloc led by Pakistan, the Egyptian presidency that kept that unity, and civil society groups that supported the G77/China bloc and put pressure on the United States, which had been the main blocker to having the fund. The developed nations have been blocking and delaying this outcome for years.

This first victory is indeed huge, but developed countries still need to deliver on this fund because an empty fund is an empty promise for the millions of people all over the world who are already suffering from the consequences of climate change they cannot adapt to any longer. Details about the fund are still to be discussed at next year’s climate summit in the United Arab Emirates.

Unfinished business

While the loss and damage fund will need future negotiations to be filled, there was no significant development on finance in Egypt. The Santiago Network on Loss and Damage (SNLD), set up at COP25 held in Madrid in 2019 to lead on a technical assistance facility for developing countries, is also devoid of any financial commitments. The finance decisions adopted only pushed developed countries to deliver the still unfulfilled $100 billion per year by 2020 pledge and new pledges of more than $230 million to the Adaptation Fund. Given the scale of the needs of developing countries, this is a meagre sum.

Climate justice movements and campaigners will need to keep vigilance, though, as there will be a role for multilateral development banks to respond to loss and damage. This could be done through increased capitalization or loans, including from regional development banks. The UK pushed not just for the role of private finance, but also philanthropic organisations.

There will be more future fights on fossil fuels and energy. The final COP27 text included a message that “low-emission” energy should be part of the world’s response to rising seas and searing heat waves. This could include nuclear power, or some forms of hydrogen. It could also mean to include gas. There is certainly a debate on what this means. The Paris Agreement goals require most fossil fuel use to be ended within a generation.

Most importantly, national plans that countries had submitted on cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 were not enough to meet the vital goal of limiting global temperature rises to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, in line with scientific advice. As the UN secretary general António Guterres told world leaders at the opening of the summit, humanity is on a “highway to climate hell”. The national plans are not adding up and we have very little time left. The fight for a liveable planet will be won or lost in this decade.

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Photo: Kiara Worth/UNFCCC