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|Monitoring flood waters in Bangladesh in 2018. Photo: Emdadul Islam Bitu/UNDP Bangladesh via Flickr Creative Commons (CC BY-NC 2.0).|
Issue Backgrounder: COP 27 Egypt — From Afar, How UN Meeting Will Affect Climate Change Reporting
By Joseph A. Davis
If ever there was a time for international progress on climate heating, 2022 is it. But the Nov. 6-18 COP 27 meeting in Egypt of nations subscribing to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change has a cloudy, even dim, outlook.
And yet, it may be a chance to confront some of the hard realities of the climate treaty — particularly the vast gap between rich nations and developing ones that struggle to develop the energy and agriculture they need for decent lives.
Case in point: Pakistan is still suffering from the unprecedented, climate change-linked floods that killed hundreds, displaced millions and destroyed food production. Another example: Two-thirds of the people in Mexico suffered a water shortage from drought this year.
There’s more: Heat waves baked India and China (not to mention parts of the United States). Africa is hard-hit, too; famine is developing for tens of millions on the continent, fueled by war, displacement and persistent drought from climate change.
Talk of ‘loss and damage’
The mere fact that COP 27 (the 27th Conference of Parties) is being hosted by Egypt in the resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh makes it likelier that poor nations’ demands for more help will dominate the meeting.
Environmental journalists may be the best hope for translating the legalistic treaty jargon that prevails at UNFCCC meetings. The big buzzphrase at this one will be “loss and damage.” If you were a personal injury lawyer, we wouldn’t have to explain it. But here goes:
If climate change — let’s simplify it to the accumulation of atmospheric carbon dioxide — began with the Industrial Revolution, then it is the rich and industrialized nations in the global North who bear the biggest cumulative responsibility. Conversely, many of the poor nations in the global South who were victimized by extractive colonialism (and contributed the least CO2) feel the worst effects of climate change.
Look, for example, at Bangladesh, which
historically did little to cause climate change,
but stands to be one of the most vulnerable
victims because of its low-lying coastal lands.
Look, for example, at Bangladesh, which historically did little to cause climate change, but stands to be one of the most vulnerable victims because of its low-lying coastal lands.
The loss and damage that COP 27 delegates will be talking about is not just from this year’s floods. It’s historical. And sometimes irreversible.
A question of compensation
The focus on loss and damage won’t be by chance. Egypt, the host nation, is working hard to make it happen.
Valerie Volcovici of Reuters reported that “Wael Aboulmagd, Egypt's special representative of COP 27, told reporters that the host country is ‘putting a lot of effort’ into ensuring that the question of how to compensate countries that have experienced heavy economic loss due to climate catastrophes is prioritized at the forum.” In some discussions, the word “reparations” is being used.
Because the meeting is on the African continent, you can expect African nations’ voices to be prominent. While distracted superpowers gathered at the UN for “Climate Week” this September, African nations were holding their own climate pep rally in Gabon. Egypt has aspired to a stronger leadership position among African nations for decades.
The worst-case scenario for COP 27 is that the loss-and-damage issue will precipitate such bitter conflict between rich and poor nations that it will prevent agreement and leave a cloud of rancor hanging over future climate efforts.
The United States may not be making things better. Ambassador John Kerry, who was a major architect of the Paris accord and is now President Biden’s special envoy for climate, didn’t sound so special when someone asked him about loss and damage at a meeting in September. Kerry said that it would cost trillions and that ending emissions was more important than “feeling guilty.” It did not go over well.
War in Ukraine a factor
Russia’s war on Ukraine, unforeseen at the time of the last COP meeting in Glasgow, has profoundly upended the world’s energy markets (and climate change policy) in many ways.
Over the years, much of Europe (foolishly) allowed itself to become dependent on Russian gas, coal and oil. With the war and consequent European economic sanctions against Russia, Putin has weaponized energy supplies.
The whole idea of a European transition
to green energy has largely been put on
hold for the duration of the war in Ukraine.
The result is a Europe starving for Russian gas and other fuels. The whole idea of a European transition to green energy has largely been put on hold for the duration.
Less obvious, but also important, has been the war’s effect on diplomatic relations between countries. Not that Russia was ever that ambitious about climate — but that nation has frozen itself out of many international dialogues. And it has, in essence, joined OPEC, many of whose members have historically resisted cutbacks in petroleum use.
Also, with related tensions over Taiwan, China has suspended any public climate talks with the United States. Not that those were so productive, either.
Fossil fuel addiction; beyond energy and CO2
While good intentions and optimism soared after the COP 21 meeting in Paris in 2015, the world’s addiction to fossil fuels has not ended. In fact, the globe has relapsed. India, China and Australia, for instance, all seem to have forsaken their vows of kicking coal.
China, which has supplanted the United States as the world’s largest emitter of CO2, has been going through some hard times lately. Not only has the world’s most populous nation’s go-go economic growth slowed, but heat waves and drought (yes, climate change-caused) have plagued it as well. While China may be swearing off coal domestically, it has taken to building coal plants for other nations.
Meanwhile, in recent years — and certainly since Glasgow — the importance of methane as a greenhouse gas has become more fully understood. Climate mavens have taken to calling methane the “low-hanging fruit.” That is: Controlling it may be one of the least painful solutions.
Naturally, much of the attention goes to the fossil methane wasted by the oil industry. One new study (may require subscription) found that much more methane was emitted by flaring than previously thought. With current advances in imaging of methane leaks, the problems are becoming easier to pinpoint and fix. Even journalists (may require subscription) are doing it. And environmental groups are launching their own remote-sensing satellites.
At the same time, attention is spreading to other greenhouse gases like HFCs. These common refrigerant gases are being phased out under the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol. The good news is that the often-recalcitrant U.S. Senate actually ratified the Kigali Amendment on a bipartisan vote this year. The bad news is that the phase-out will take until at least 2047.
A certain lack of ambition
It’s worth remembering that the magic of the Paris accord stemmed especially from the fact that it was voluntary. Almost everybody except former President Trump agreed to it. In the years since Paris, the emphasis has been on the far more difficult task of raising nations’ “ambition.”
So far, few nations have announced dramatically increased goals for reducing climate-heating emissions. Most of the talk about raising ambitions seems to come from the UN and environmental groups.
Trump taught us that — even in the United States — climate action is at its core political. However the 2022 or 2024 U.S. elections come out, political division and close voting margins will mean that some things are politically impossible. As impressive as a hundreds-of-billions U.S. payment for loss and damage might be, it is unlikely to get through the Senate.
Maybe next year.
[Editor’s Note: For more climate change resources and news, see our extensive Climate Change Resource Guide, a new Covering Climate Solutions special report, a wide range of SEJournal coverage in our Topics on the Beat: Climate Change and the latest climate change headlines from EJToday.]
Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 7, No. 36. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.