The Cop27 climate summit ended in a desperate and confused flurry more than 40 hours late with a qualified victory clutched from the jaws of complete failure, but with the big issues unresolved.
If this sounds familiar, like so many climate summits before it, well… yes. There were genuine developments over the past week, some of which could reshape the global response to the crisis. But there was also intransigence and blocking where it mattered most. Some of that is getting worse.
Here are five takeaways from the conference, including Australia’s role.
The good news: a loss and damage response fund.
For more than 30 years, developing countries have been demanding the wealthy take responsibility for rescue and reconstruction costs after climate disasters fueled by skyrocketing emissions. For more than 30 years, the wealthy have resisted.
That changed in Sharm el-Sheikh, and it is a genuine and surprising step forward. It wasn’t confirmed that what is known as loss and damage would even be on the agenda until the eve of the conference. Two weeks on, there is agreement to establish a response fund to help vulnerable countries rebuild social and physical infrastructure after extreme weather events exacerbated by greenhouse gas emissions. The example cited time after time in Egypt was the devastating floods that wrecked Pakistan this year, affecting 33m people and causing an estimated US$30bn in damage. Pakistan’s climate minister, Sherry Rehman, was a quietly powerful advocate for change.
Negotiations over losses and damages were typically fraught, and the design of the fund is not yet locked in. Australia got involved as part of a group that pushed for a fund that would be paid for through a “mosaic” of channels, which means multilateral development banks and existing climate funds as well as rich countries.
Contentiously, it also brings in emerging economies such as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and other Opec members that are now among the biggest historical and ongoing contributors to the problem. None of them think they should have to pay, and the final wording of the agreement leaves that point open to interpretation – for now.
While the details are to come, developing countries ended the conference in a rare moment of genuine celebration. If you believe in an equitable response to the climate crisis, this keeps that hope alive. But the hard decisions are still to come.
The bad news: a lack of ambition to cut emissions
Cop27 continued the fundamental failure of the UN process – a refusal to accept that fossil fuels are driving the climate crisis and must be curbed.
The final hours of the conference were a mess, as developed countries and small island states fought a rearguard action to keep the previously agreed goal that the world would attempt to limit global heating to 1.5C. As Australia’s Chris Bowen argued, removing it would have been a major backslide from last year’s Glasgow pact and a statement that countries were prepared to accept substantially worse climate breakdown.
In the end, 1.5C survived in the text, but the goal was only acknowledged, and there is no plan to get the world there. We’re already at 1.1C.
Dozens of countries argued for a long-overdue recognition that all fossil fuels, including oil and gas, must be phased down. They also wanted a statement that global emissions would peak by 2025. Both were blocked.
Instead, the conference just repeated a previously agreed and weakly worded statement that “unabated coal power” should be phased down (but not necessarily out). The need to accelerate renewable energy got a few mentions, but inserted alongside it was a new reference to “low emissions” energy. It was widely interpreted as meaning gas, which does not actually have low emissions.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the Egyptian hosts welcomed more than 630 fossil fuel lobbyists to the conference, many from the gas industry, and a swath of new gas deals were signed across the fortnight.
The New Zealand climate minister, James Shaw, summed up the views of many, including Australia, when he blamed the “petro-states” – Saudi Arabia and other Opec members – for trying to “unravel” the Glasgow pact.
Bowen used his moments in the Egyptian sun to argue firmly for keeping the 1.5C target and the need to go big on renewable energy. He did not directly address the need to phase down fossil fuels before leaving the conference on Saturday morning, but the Australian delegation backed the unsuccessful push for its inclusion in the final hours.
The old divides remain
The divisions that prevent greater action at climate summits are not new, though some of them may be getting stronger. Because the UN operates on a consensus model, anyone can hold up progress, and the Saudis and their allies remain determined to block any progress on fossil fuels, arguing the focus should be on emissions, not sources of energy (those two things apparently not being connected). They are not alone but were the biggest roadblocks to a better agreement, along with the hosts’ apparent unwillingness to bring any urgency to the agenda.
The basis for the talks is the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change of 1992, under which it was agreed that wealthy countries needed to act first. The list of developed nations did not include China, India, Saudi Arabia, Russia or Brazil. That clearly makes no sense now but support for it persists. This is why China can argue it should not be expected to pay into a loss and damage fund, even while it spends vast sums across the developing world through its belt and road programme.
The counter argument is that the developed world has never lived up to its side of the bargain. Emissions targets from the wealthy have now improved but are still not where they need to be to meet the goals agreed in Paris in 2015, and it has taken decades to get even to this point. Similarly, commitments to scale up climate finance have not been met. And some – notably Australia – are still vast producers of fossil fuels.
Australia is back. But what does that mean?
It was a common refrain, heard on buses, in coffee queues and in ministerial speeches.
After years of Australia blocking and gaslighting on climate, Bowen and Australia’s delegation were warmly welcomed by the global community, including its Pacific neighbors. In the words of Vanuatu’s climate minister, Ralph Regenvanu, the new government was “a breath of fresh air” after the Scott Morrison era.
The US special climate envoy, John Kerry, was particularly pointed, introducing Bowen as “doing an incredible job of demonstrating the difference an election makes”. And the Egyptian presidency drafted the minister to co-lead a negotiation stream dealing with climate finance. It’s safe to say that wasn’t happening last year. Even observers usually critical of Australia’s climate targets and continuing fossil fuel growth said they had been constructive and good faith actors inside the talks.
But the delegation clearly benefited from following an administration that was considered a laggard. Labour’s new targets and policies are a significant improvement but do not yet match Bowen’s rhetoric about aiming for 1.5C. The government came to the conference without any new commitments on climate finance or money for loss and damage. Meanwhile, the country’s fossil fuel exports remain world-leading.
Privately, there is a view in the government that the investment shift to cleaner energy will mean most proposed fossil fuel developments won’t go ahead. Bowen says there will be no more subsidies. It will be noticed internationally, and particularly in the Pacific, if this is not the case.
There was a noteworthy speech by Australia’s chief negotiator, Sally Box, in the final plenary in Egypt when, addressing the conference on behalf of a developed country bloc known as the umbrella group, she said it was “deeply disappointed” and called for an “ urgent escalation of our efforts” as countries “must go further in light of the stark findings of the latest science”.
It is the right rhetoric, and the standard that the Albanese government should be judged against along with everyone else.
The Pac Cop may be on its way
Australia appears well placed with its bid to co-host the 2026 climate conference – Cop31 – with Pacific countries. Switzerland, a potential rival, has pulled out and is backing Australia. Turkey is in the race, but Australia is considered more likely to win support from the “Western Europe and Others” group that will decide hosting rights that year.
While it has yet to puncture the public consciousness, hosting a UN climate summit with tens of thousands of delegates and observers could be a genuinely transformative moment in how Australia thinks about climate change. There would be increased focus on policies, targets, green energy potential and plans for fossil fuels. Pacific countries would want a say in how it was run. We should know if the Albanian government has been successful before the next election.