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COP27’s loss and damage deal isn’t a win. It committed us to devastation

This COP made no clear commitment to decarbonisation and stopping the climate disasters that cause loss and damage

Amelia Womack
22 November 2022, 5.23pm

Simon Stiell, UN executive secretary for climate change, speaks at the closing ceremony of COP27

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Christophe Gateau/dpa/Alamy Live News

As the final agreement of COP27 was published, the powerful words of Pacific Climate Warrior Joseph Sikulu echoed in my mind.

“Today we wear black not just as a representation of us fighting to get the phase-out of fossil fuels in the text, but because where we come from we only wear black when we are in mourning,” Sikulu had told a press conference earlier that week.

In a reference to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which was signed 30 years ago, Sikulu continued: “So today we are mourning a process that is failing us, a process that continues to stall and fail our people, a process that continues to be cumbersome and doesn't take into account our realities. We are here to mourn UNFCCC in this COP process because it is failing everything that we are.”

Reading through COP27’s final agreement, we should all be in mourning. COP27 may have committed to a loss and damage fund to compensate countries most harmed by a climate emergency they did not create, but it has also committed to a pathway of devastation. This pathway will mean loss of life, livelihoods, cultures and species. It is one that could wash away island nations and turn agricultural land into desert.

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Loss and damage funding is a win but without a clear commitment to decarbonisation and emissions reduction, it is a failure because there is no way to stop the climate disasters that cause loss and damage. There is also a lot of ambiguity about the fund, which neither outlines a funding process nor specifies who will pay and who will be eligible to receive the money, let alone defining ‘loss and damage’. Clearly, there is work to be done.

And with the world’s biggest emitters already failing to pay into the Green Climate Fund (GCF) – which was set up within the UNFCCC framework to help poorer countries adapt and mitigate climate effects – we will believe in a loss and damage fund when we see it. In September, it emerged that the UK alone had missed the deadline to provide $288m to the GCF, and failed to pay the $20.6m it had separately pledged to the adaptation fund.

We have been given clear and consistent warnings by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: emissions must peak within a window of just three years if global warming is to avoid breaching the 1.5°C level that would destroy habitats and lead to further extreme weather disasters. This gives us just 25 months to reduce emissions. COP27 committed to this, with world leaders, including President Biden pledging to keep 1.5°C alive. But words are meaningless without targeted action, which clearly isn’t happening.

Pacific Climate Warrior Joseph Sikulu at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh

Pacific Climate Warrior Joseph Sikulu at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh

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Amelia Womack. All rights reserved

Annual COPs began with Berlin in 1995 and ever since, we have seen regular annual increases in carbon emissions (except for a small drop during the pandemic), as well as a rise in climate-related disasters. In Glasgow last year, an 11th-hour change to the document to “phase down” rather than “phase out” coal reportedly brought COP26 president Alok Sharma to the brink of tears. This important nuance wasn't revisited in Egypt, and efforts led by India to create a further commitment to phase down all fossil fuels – not just coal, the most polluting one – extended the negotiations but ultimately failed.

This was meant to be the COP of implementation, but it has been just another of ‘blah blah blah’. These negotiations are currently the only available mechanism to tackle the biggest crisis in human history. We need to radically rethink how we deliver change, hold countries to account for failing to deliver on their promises and ensure that we are genuinely progressing towards a net zero future. In short, COP needs to transition from words to action.

Since Glasgow, the force of the climate emergency has been felt around the world, whether in the floods that devastated a third of Pakistan, the ongoing drought in the Horn of Africa, or the first time a temperature of 40°C was recorded in the UK. It's clear that we are living in a state of emergency, but how much of the world needs to be underwater until decisive action is taken?

A negotiator claimed Saudi Arabia seemed to like being the ‘bad guy’ because it benefits its fossil fuel investors

In fact, COP appeared to have been hijacked by fossil fuel lobbyists. A negotiator I met leaving the venue claimed Saudi Arabia seemed to like being the “bad guy” in these negotiations because it benefits its fossil fuel investors. It was a chilling reminder of how a country with a significant petroleum sector can actually compromise progress.

The negotiator I spoke to was on her way home. As the talks went into overtime, she highlighted the reality of the divide between rich and poor nations. The poorer ones, she said, are excluded from a summit’s conclusions if it overruns because it’s not easy or cheap to rearrange flights home. This COP was extended by 40 hours, reducing the diversity of negotiators from around the world, as well as the delegates present and the scrutiny of the press.

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At COP27, there might not have been much action from the negotiating rooms but during the full two weeks, the venue was filled with climate action. It came from the delegates who had made their way from around the world to Sharm el-Sheikh to try and make their voices heard. From the woman in Senegal asking for renewable electricity to the Amazonian chief telling the world of the rising temperatures his community faces, action was everywhere.

The mantra of the Pacific Climate Warriors is, “We are not drowning, we are fighting”. It is a message of possibility in the face of potential tragedy. As we start down the road to COP28 in Dubai, it is important to remember those words and work together to fight for faster action on the climate emergency.

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