The annual climate Conference of Parties (COP27) in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm-el Sheikh is underway. Since the initial UN Framework Convention on Climate Change entered into force in 1994, nations from around the world have gathered annually to address the climate crisis. Each COP culminates with all 190+ nations (hopefully) signing a legally binding instrument to tackle the aptly-named “mother of all collective action problems.” The last true breakthrough COP occurred in Paris in 2015 with the signing of the Paris Agreement. Paris set the stage for each nation to submit nationally determined contributions (NDCs) of their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions—public commitments that would “ratchet up” over time.
Despite a flurry of scientific reports on the need for immediate climate action, there is less fanfare and excitement for COP27 than during the runup to COP26 in Glasgow last year. Just 24 nations have submitted updated emissions reports, and we have not seen an uptick in bold climate pledges like we witnessed last year. And the war in Ukraine has disrupted global energy markets, making many nations rethink their relationship with fossil fuels and energy security more broadly.
But make no mistake—the climate negotiations occurring in Egypt are critical and represent the best international forum to address the climate crisis. Nations must make substantive progress on an increasing menu of climate issues that transcend the reduction of GHG emissions. Indeed, further delay in climate progress imposes a costly “climate opportunity cost” as the emissions stay in the atmosphere for decades while the earth’s warming continues apace.
Furthermore, a flurry of natural disasters across the globe punctuate the need for climate action now as developing nations push for climate funding. In what follows, I highlight four key questions to help frame these complex international negotiations.
(1) Will Progress be Made on “Loss & Damage”?
Many people are familiar with climate mitigation—reducing GHG emissions—and climate adaptation—protecting communities from future climate harm. Those will be on the COP27 agenda as well as a new item: “loss and damage,” a controversial topic that is poised to take center stage in Egypt. Loss and damage seeks to address climate harm suffered by poorer nations despite our best mitigation and adaptation efforts. Scholars have defined “loss” to encompass the irrevocable loss of life, culture, and diversity, and “damage” refers to climate impacts where restoration is still possible. Still others use the shorthand “climate reparations” for loss and damage.
Poorer, developing nations equate loss and damage with climate justice. They argue passionately and persuasively that wealthier, developed nations can no longer ignore the harm they caused, particularly as poor nations suffer from devastating climate impacts.
Powerful, outside events are poised to inform loss and damage discussions, but how much weight will they ultimately hold? Just over a month ago, Pakistan suffered torrential flooding, engulfing one-third of the nation and killing 1,700 people. Pakistan—which emits just 1% of global GHG emissions—is leading 77 developing nations in loss and damage discussions. African nations suffered from another historic drought, and Hurricane Ian battered Small Island Developing States with 180+ mph winds.
Demonstrable progress on loss and damage could be made in two areas at COP27. First, climate negotiators could define “loss and damage” with greater precision. Remarkably, despite its growing importance, loss and damage does not have a universally-accepted definition, discouraging wealthier nations to evade taking responsibility for harm that may impose future liabilities. The lack of a precise definition also complicates efforts to calculate just how much loss and damage covers. One study found that loss and damage could top $1.7 trillion by 2050. Defining loss and damage with greater precision would help address these problems, which could foster a more meaningful discussion on climate justice.
Second, there is not yet a formal loss and damage facility that could set the stage for channeling loss and damage payments, and it remains to be seen how loss and damage could be operationalized for affected communities. Developing nations in the Global South sought an establishment of a loss and damage facility in Glasgow, but fell short and had to settle for a dialogue. COP27 could pick up where Glasgow left off, establishing the parameters for such a facility and setting the stage for more concrete financial commitments.
Loss and damage is now on the formal agenda for the first time in COP history. And the U.S. climate envoy, John Kerry, has stated that he will participate in loss and damage discussions. Failure to address this drastic problem head-on may make loss and damage Egypt’s “climate spoiler,” disrupting climate negotiations in other areas.
(2) How Will U.S. Domestic Action Inform International Climate Action?
The United States will use the Egypt summit to reassert U.S. global leadership on climate issues. U.S. President Joe Biden signed into law the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) over the summer, an historic legislative effort that promises over $365 billion for climate action. By some measures, this pledge will reduce U.S. GHG emissions by 40% by 2030. The law has already increased U.S. climate standing and could spur other nations to update their climate commitments. India and Australia, for example, have recently done just that.
Of course, the congressional midterm elections in the United States are taking place in the middle of the climate talks. A major Republican takeover of the House and Senate could complicate U.S. messaging and strategy in Egypt, as well as impact U.S. domestic funding for climate projects.
(3) How will U.S. Relations with Russia and China Impact Climate Negotiations?
Notably, neither Russian President Vladmir Putin nor Chinese President Xi Jinping plan to attend COP27, although Biden will join the climate talks. Russia’s war in Ukraine has severely complicated many nations’ planned transitions away from fossil fuels, even as it has spurred investment in wind, solar, and nuclear technology due to concerns about energy security.
Tragically, the two largest GHG emitters, the United States and China, are not engaging in open climate negotiations due to the fallout from U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) summer visit to Taiwan. Nevertheless, the fact that Kerry and his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, have worked together on climate negotiations for more than twenty years offers a glimmer of hope for potential backchannel negotiations.
As I have argued elsewhere, all roads to climate progress lead to China, which is still years away from peak emissions. It’s a major problem that the world’s largest (China) and second largest (the United States) emitters refuse to engage in open bilateral climate discussions.
(4) Will Climate Protests Impact Negotiations?
Egypt has framed COP27 as “Africa’s COP,” shining light on climate justice: those nations that contributed the least to global emissions will suffer the consequences most severely. Still, the resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh Egypt is somewhat at odds with this message. It is remote, expensive (you have to fly there), and Egypt has criminalized demonstration protests. In Glasgow, the streets were filled with climate protesters. At times, it appeared that what was happening outside the Glasgow conference was as important as the actual climate negotiations. That won’t happen in Sharm el-Sheikh. There will be no “Greta Thunberg” moment (she is boycotting the conference) where the media focuses on the actions of Ms. Thunberg or the demonstrations of other climate protestors. Still, climate protests may take place elsewhere. The scope and scale of such protests remain to be seen, but it appears that climate protest and civil disobedience will play a muted role in the negotiations.
Regardless of how the answers to these four questions unfold in the coming weeks, climate change’s security impacts will continue to grow, and scientists estimate that world is far off-track from meeting the goal of keeping global temperatures below 1.5 degrees Celsius. And climate change poses an enormous security challenge – a point reinforced by the U.S. National Security Strategy and other policy experts such as Erin Sikorsky at the Center for Climate and Security. While Egypt is not expected to be a “breakthrough COP,” the stakes are too high for COP27 to end in failure. Real substantive progress must be made toward mitigation, adaptation, and loss and damage to keep climate momentum alive.