Is COP27 the End of Hopes for Limiting Global Warming to 1.5 Degrees Celsius?

SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt—The COP27 climate conference in Egypt may be remembered as the moment when the world gave up on limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the most ambitious goal set by the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Late Friday, the last scheduled day of the climate talks in Sharm el-Sheikh, the heads of the national delegations were still meeting to discuss whether the final documents should include a reference to that temperature target, which scientists call a limit that, if breached, would push some Earth systems past dangerous and irreversible tipping points

This year’s annual meeting was billed as the “implementation COP,” but so far “nothing has been implemented, and it has thus failed to achieve what it set out to do,” said Stephanie Hirmer, a senior researcher at the University of Oxford’s energy and power group. “While everyone knows the 1.5-degree target is off the table, it is not openly discussed in official sessions,” she said.

The only way to stay under that limit, a recent United Nations Environment Programme report concluded, would be for industrialized nations to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions—cutting them by about half in the next eight years and to zero by 2050—but nothing that happened at this year’s two-week conference has increased the likelihood that will happen. 

Right now, according to a U.N. report released just before COP27, the pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions put the planet on a path to heat between 2.1 and 2.9 degrees, which would lead to catastrophic climate impacts, including even more deadly heatwaves, worsening droughts and water shortages, crop failures, as well degradation of ecosystems that could wipe out some species of mammals, insects, birds and plants.

For two weeks, “rich countries have stonewalled, delayed and distracted … trying to kick the can down the road with more demands for assessments, reports and dialogues,” said Teresa Anderson, the global lead for climate justice for ActionAid International, an NGO focused on women’s rights, poverty and climate equity.

The U.N. Environment Programme Emissions Gap report that was released ahead of the climate conference concluded there is “no credible pathway to 1.5°C in place,” and that “Only an urgent system-wide transformation can avoid climate disaster.”

There were no signs of that kind of change at COP27, said Astrid Martins Kabengele, representing the Democratic Republic of Congo at the talks as a rapporteur on economic and social issues.

“It’s an economic COP. It’s nothing more,” she said. “This is the fourth COP that I’ve attended that is the same thing at the end, with developed countries organizing this COP to make their own money. They are not coming up with a solution. They are asking us not to use our oil, not to use our gas. So what are they giving us,” she said. 

Recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change show that it’s still theoretically possible to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, but most of the paths toward that goal rely on removing large quantities of carbon dioxide directly from the air, an option that may never be economically viable at the scale required.

Nevertheless, it’s important that the goal of stopping warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius stays on the table, because its removal “opens the door for delegates here and governments to try to pull more towards Paris Agreement language of 2C, which will be catastrophic,” said Alexis McGivern, a researcher at Oxford University working on net zero standards for non-state entities.

“After a few shaky days where we saw language on 2C shift from ‘catastrophic’ down to ‘increasingly severe climate impacts,’ it’s good to see 1.5 reiterated in the current draft of the cover text,” she said. “The emissions gap report released before COP27 makes it clear that there is still a pathway to 1.5, but the door is closing. We must focus on building that pathway rather than re-hashing whether or not 1.5 is a realistic target.”

Growing Inequality Hinders Progress

Civil society observers at COP27 said they are concerned about a growing imbalance of power between developed and developing countries that threatens to break down consensus on global climate policy and slow progress even more. 

Instead of making headway in reducing greenhouse gas emissions to limit warming, some new agreements on the use of fossil fuels discussed at the conference are likely to keep the world from undertaking those efforts, said Sébastien Duyck, a senior attorney with the Center for International Environmental Law.

Rather than focusing on climate change as a human rights issue, “this COP has been marred with the promotion of false solutions,” he said. One of the draft documents circulating on what was planned to be the last day of the conference even stripped out language that acknowledges core human rights, such as the right to a healthy environment. “This is, of course, the end result of a COP with a wild imbalance of power,” he said.

The frustrations about the COP27 negotiations extended to the highest level, with U.N. Secretary General António Guterres expressing concern about so-called net zero targets that rely on carbon trading and offsets to achieve climate goals. Under such programs, countries and companies can keep emitting greenhouse gases by buying credits, planting trees or preserving patches of forest that theoretically absorb those emissions.

Ahead of the conference, Guterres said that “the criteria and benchmarks for these net-zero commitments have varying levels of rigor and loopholes wide enough to drive a diesel truck through.” 

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That shows that the fossil fuel industry is still driving the climate train, said Brian O’Callaghan, lead researcher with Oxford University’s economic recovery project. He said there have been some successes at the climate talks over the decades, but that it’s mostly been “27 years of obstructionism, delay, and greenwashing. If COP were a football rivalry, it would be amongst the most lopsided; fossil fuel Interests: 27, humankind: 0.”

He said that, in some ways, the process has moved backwards. In 1992, when the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change was adopted, rich countries agreed to pay for all forms of mitigation and adaptation.

“Today, developed countries do all that they can to avoid that promise,” he said. “The multilateral system is based on trust and every year developed countries are eroding that trust.” 

And even though developing countries are eager to decarbonize, they are hamstrung by lack of money.

“Unfortunately, we have seen little change here in Sharm el-Sheikh,” O’Callaghan said.

Current plans to decarbonize the world’s economies by 2050 rely heavily on carbon offset and trading programs, but Guterres said there must be “zero tolerance for net-zero greenwashing.” The pledges must be aligned with scientific scenarios of limiting warming and they should cover all types of greenhouse gas emissions, he said.

“Let’s tell it like it is,” he said. “Using bogus net-zero pledges to cover up massive fossil fuel expansion is reprehensible. It is rank deception. This toxic cover-up could push our world over the climate cliff. The sham must end.”

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                Bob Berwyn an Austria-based reporter who has covered climate science and international climate policy for more than a decade. Previously, he reported on the environment, endangered species and public lands for several Colorado newspapers, and also worked as editor and assistant editor at community newspapers in the Colorado Rockies.

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