COP27: An African climate summit with an African angle

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A woman stares at a dried-up well in Mozambique

A woman stares at a dried-up well in Mozambique (2016). © Aurélie Marrier d’Unienville/IFRC

The 27th climate summit (COP27) in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, 6-18 November 2022, will primarily focus on the laments of poorer countries. But the much-needed reduction of greenhouse gas emissions will also be on the agenda. We asked Ulrik Lenaerts (FPS Foreign Affairs), the number 2 of the Belgian climate delegation, for an explanation.

Since the last climate summit in Glasgow, in November 2021, we have once again been living in a different world. We had only just more or less contained COVID-19 – though vigilance remains necessary even today – when Russia's invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 plunged the world into new crises: energy, food, etc. Exploding energy prices caused many countries to revert to coal. Had it not been the intention to decisively ban coal, and by extension all fossil fuels?

Sense of urgency remains intact

With all these additional crises, regard for the climate crisis might appear to be waning. But that is not an accurate picture. In 2022, there was almost no place and no people on Earth that were not overwhelmed by climate extremes. Europe was ravaged by heat waves and extreme drought. In Flanders, drinking water supplies were hanging by a thread. Pakistan was groaning under extreme drought and heat for months until violent monsoons flooded a third of the country in summer.

"The sense of urgency really does remain intact," says Ulrik Lenaerts (FPS Foreign Affairs), the number 2 for the climate delegation that negotiates for Belgium within the EU and the UN. "It is not the case that the countries that are making greater use of coal are suddenly flouting their climate plans. These are emergency measures. The EU even adopted its Fit for 55 package – the plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 55% by 2030 – extremely fast and, with its REPowerEU initiative, it is even aiming to go one step further."

With REPowerEU, the EU is aiming to accelerate its exit from Russian gas and oil. This can be done by encouraging citizens and businesses to save energy, by making a strong commitment to renewable energy and by looking for other suppliers.

Poorer countries are demanding greater regard for adaptation and damages suffered

A clear trend has been noticeable since Glasgow, though. Precisely because the disrupted climate is striking so fiercely everywhere, poorer countries are demanding greater regard for adaptation to the effects of climate disruption and to compensation for the harm incurred (loss & damage).

A justified lament. For often the poorer countries suffer the greatest harm, even though their greenhouse gas emissions are so limited that they have contributed little to climate disruption. Rich countries in particular contribute to global warming, so they must take responsibility, they believe.

View of the floods in Pakistan

View of the floods in Pakistan (September 2022). More than 1,300 people lost their lives, tens of millions were left homeless and a third of the country was under water. © UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

A warming of 2.1 °C is dramatic

Yet mitigation – reducing greenhouse gas emissions – remains the foundation of the battle against climate disruption. Because the more greenhouse gases, the higher the warming and the greater the damage. "Since the Paris Climate Agreement, a great deal of attention has been paid to mitigation," Lenaerts said. "It was also a priority at the Glasgow summit. The main goal was to keep the 1.5 °C target alive. This was why countries that had not yet submitted adjusted national contributions for limiting their emissions by 2030 were strongly encouraged to do so as soon as possible. They were also asked to make the commitment to being climate-neutral by mid-century."

And that worked well enough. Lenaerts: "151 parties to the Paris Climate Agreement submitted increased national contributions and 74 countries, including virtually all major economies such as China, pledged to become climate-neutral by 2050 or 2060."

Only, after the Glasgow summit, the momentum for increasing national contributions has somewhat dissipated. Lenaerts: "Since then, only 20 additional countries have submitted their increased contributions. Superficially not a bad result, but if you add up all the efforts, at best – if everything is implemented effectively and in the long term – you arrive at a warming of around 2.1 °C."

And that is dramatic. Especially considering that the current warming of 1.1 °C is already having such a big impact. Not only in the form of severe hurricanes and extreme heat and drought, but also, for example, through the melting of glaciers and the degradation of coral reefs.

The critical decade: it needs to happen before 2030!

New reports from the International Climate Panel, released this year and receiving little press attention, put the picture in a particularly stark light: with rising temperatures, adverse effects increase exponentially. So with every tenth of a degree increase comes far more flooding, extreme heat and so on. With a 3 °C warming, periods of drought may last as long as 10 months!

"The Climate Panel also points out that emissions must be reduced by at least 45% by 2030," Lenaerts stressed. "So the window of opportunity is extremely short. It needs to happen before 2030! So we are experiencing the 'critical decade'. We must reduce greenhouse gas emissions immediately, quickly and on a large scale! Unfortunately, we are not seeing that happening on a global scale."

Not billions, but trillions: see it as opportunities to invest

The $100 billion a year – mostly public money – that rich countries must make available to poorer countries dwarfs the trillions of dollars needed to limit global warming to 1.5 °C. But that need not be insurmountable. It is especially important to look at it through a different lens. The climate-robust infrastructure and housing, irrigation, reforestation, offshore wind energy and so on that are needed, while requiring huge sums of money, are also all opportunities for investment.

"A society that advances is a society that invests," Lenaerts argues. "The strength of an economy is determined by the level of investment. This is also why Belgian players such as the port of Antwerp-Zeebrugge are showing so much interest in COP27. After all, they can make international contacts there. The energy transition is an absolute growth sector."

The poorer countries are also playing that up, and rightly so. For example, DR Congo is all too eager to develop its own industry to process its vast wealth of raw materials such as copper, lithium and manganese. This requires investment, as well as transfer of know-how. Along with the Pakistani government, the UN Development Fund is puzzling out initiatives for attracting investment there, including in the form of green bonds.

A summit with an African angle

Still, the poorer countries certainly have a point. Lenaerts: "Their reasoning is: what's the point of setting tougher goals if we can't deliver on them? This is why they are asking for support in a fair energy transition. This means, for example, that people who lose their jobs due to the phasing-out of fossil fuels can find employment elsewhere. A sincerely reasonable demand, but it does delay the process. We must never lose sight of the fact that climate action is a race against time!"

In any case, in Sharm el-Sheikh, much of the focus will be on loss & damage, climate finance and climate adaptation (see box: the four main items of COP27). So it will be a summit with a clear African angle. "Yet the Egyptian team organising it has since realised that mitigation remains important, so it is also on the agenda. Egypt wants to make it a successful COP and also allow for other topics to be covered, such as food security, water in agriculture, climate & peace-building, and the energy transition."

High-level Belgian presence

As usual, the Belgian climate delegation will be fully engaged. But many Belgian ministers will also be present. 'The climate summits are growing more and more into a meeting place for politicians, somewhat similar to the UN General Assembly," Lenaerts clarifies. "Prime Minister De Croo will be present for the discussion at the level of government leaders, and of course Minister of Climate and Environment Khattabi will also be there, in addition to the climate ministers for the regions. Other ministers will take some thematic sessions: Minister Lahbib will focus on climate & security, Minister Van Quickenborne has an agenda for ocean protection and Minister Van der Straeten will take care of energy transition."

Minister for Development Cooperation Kitir took the initiative to invite 8 young people from the 4 Sahel partner countries: Senegal, Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. They will represent the voice of the African youth at COP27.

Need for ambitious efforts by all countries

"I don't expect a major breakthrough from COP27," Lenaerts concludes. "The issues around loss & damage, climate finance and adaptation need to be ironed out and reinforced, but in doing so, we are only taking some smaller steps forward. That's why our country, along with the EU, will strongly emphasise the need for ambitious efforts by all countries to keep the 1.5°C within reach." There need to be some updated national contributions that can lead to climate-neutrality by mid-century.

Without the climate negotiations, we would be in far worse shape

Despite the slowness of the negotiations in the face of the gigantic challenge looming ahead, Lenaerts remains confident in the process. "The climate negotiations have adjusted politics and economics more than other multilateral processes. Just look at the huge, tangible impact of the Paris Climate Agreement! The fact that the EU wants no more cars with combustion engines by 2035, that Belgium wants all of its electricity production to come from offshore wind power by 2030, that the ports are fully committed to hydrogen – all of these would have been unthinkable without the Paris Climate Agreement."

So the climate negotiations are far from blah-blah-blah. "Of course, it is frustrating to note that with at least 2.1 °C of warming, we are not yet on track, but without the negotiation process, we would be in far worse shape, with much more than 3 °C of warming!"

So Belgian climate negotiators are keeping their cool and will continue to work for the best possible outcome from COP27 and the COPs to follow. By the way, did you know that you can also do your part as an individual citizen? Read our 12 tips for combatting climate change.

The 4 main items of COP27

1. Loss & damage

Loss & damage will be at the top of the agenda. This refers to the damage caused to countries by natural disasters and slow evolutions such as sea levels rising, despite all the efforts to adapt or reduce greenhouse gas emissions. By doing so, the poorer countries that have barely contributed to climate disruption want to force some sort of reparations from the rich countries.

But many rich countries do not want to be held accountable for the damage incurred. Hence, the Paris Climate Agreement says it can be talked about, but not in terms of compensation. What can be talked about, however, is avert, minimise and address.

Avert refers to preventing disasters, for example, by installing early warning systems. Minimise refers to minimising impact, for example by better preparation for disasters and improved collaboration. Address is about addressing the loss and damage.

The summit in Glasgow achieved two things here.

  1. The 2019 Santiago Network was given a permanent secretariat with a phone number, making it concrete and accessible. This network brings together international institutions that can provide technical assistance with loss & damage, such as humanitarian and development organisations, development banks and research institutions.
  2. The Glasgow Dialogue was established until 2024. This brings together relevant organisations and stakeholders – NGOs, insurers, etc. – to discuss how loss & damage can be funded and reinforced.

However, the poorer countries want to achieve this much earlier than in 2024, which is why the issue is prominent on the agenda now. Above all, the debates will bring together solutions that already exist and encourage them to do more. These include climate funds, humanitarian organisations, a UN Secretariat-General initiative for establishing early warning systems in all corners of the world and the Global Shield. The latter was launched by Germany at the G7 to help poorer countries better cope with climate disasters. In addition, the Santiago Network will be reinforced to include an advisory board. COP27 will also seek additional funding for loss & damage.

2. Climate funding

The rich countries promised to pass $100 billion annually to poorer countries by 2020. Currently, this is only $82 billion – $3 billion more than just after the Glasgow summit, but still insufficient. The goal is to reach the $100 billion mark by 2023. In addition, COP27 will prepare a new target around climate funding that will take effect from 2025.

At the EU's suggestion, COP27 will decide to put finance flows on the agenda for each COP. Indeed, the 100 billion climate funding includes mostly public money, but the finance flows for meeting climate goals also embrace public and private investment, both at home and abroad. After all, it is not billions that are needed, but trillions (see box)! The theme of 'finance flows' allows a COP to monitor progress and exchange experiences between countries.

As regards climate funding, the EU is already making a hefty contribution. For the period from 2013 to 2019, the European contribution was doubled to 23.2 billion euros in 2019. Belgium also raised its climate funding. For 2021-2024, it will amount to at least 455 million euros. Along with its Member States, the EU is the largest donor of public climate funding.

3. Adaptation

The poorer countries want to take a more quantitative approach to adaptation to the inevitable consequences of climate disruption. In other words, quantifying how much money can be put towards it. But a general, quantified adaptation target is highly complex; the countries differ too much from one another, or at least the rich countries think so.

Glasgow laid out a roadmap for adaptation with more workable targets such as indicators, benchmarks and regional differences. But that roadmap is only half-finished. Work is continuing on this in Sharm el-Sheikh. Efforts are also being made to devote more climate funding to adaptation so that there is a better balance between adaptation and mitigation.

4. Mitigation

Although many countries have increased their national contributions, the sum is not enough to limit warming to 1.5 °C. So countries will need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions even more drastically. COP27 will continue to discuss this, although there is currently little enthusiasm for it (see text).