Three big takeaways from this year’s United Nations climate conference

Trying to save the planet looks less like a Marvel movie and more like tense climate negotiations that just wrapped up in Egypt over the weekend.

Tens of thousands of delegates and activists from around the world gathered for the United Nations climate summit called COP27. It’s become more urgent than ever to figure out how to live in a much more hazardous world. And the only way to stop things from getting worse is for every country to live up to pollution-cutting commitments they made in the landmark 2015 Paris agreement. But they’ll have to overcome their own drama and in-fighting to get there.

They’ll have to overcome their own drama and in-fighting to get there

There were a few major victories and some disappointing losses at the summit, and there’s still a lot of work left to do. Here are the key takeaways from the negotiations, which opened in Sharm El-Sheik, Egypt, and ran from November 6th to 20th.

“What we have is an empty bucket”

For years, developing nations have pushed for the creation of a “loss and damage” fund, sometimes referred to as climate reparations, to account for the toll that climate change has already taken on their countries. After some 27 years of climate negotiations — plus hours of overtime that stretched into the night in Egypt — there’s finally an agreement to create that loss and damage fund.

“This COP has taken an important step towards justice,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in a video statement after the deal was brokered.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks during a press briefing at COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, Nov. 17th, 2022. 
Photo by Sui Xiankai / Xinhua via Getty Images

How exactly that fund works is going to be up for debate in coming climate talks. But the idea is that wealthier nations responsible for the most climate pollution will contribute to the fund. That fund can then be used by developing nations that are often the most vulnerable to climate change even though they’ve emitted very little of the pollution causing the problem. The devil will be in the details when it comes to who will have access to those funds — as well as who’s going to foot the bill.

“We have the fund but we need money to make it worthwhile. What we have is an empty bucket. Now we need to fill it so that support can flow to the most impacted people who are suffering right now,” Mohamed Adow, executive director of think tank Power Shift Africa, said in a press statement. Already, developed nations have missed a 2020 deadline to provide $100 billion a year in climate finance to limit greenhouse gas emissions and help developing nations adapt to climate change.

Fossil fuels aren’t going away

Since they adopted the Paris climate pact in 2015, most countries have had a clear goal: limit global warming to about 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. At this point, human beings have already warmed up the planet by 1.2 degrees Celsius — so we have very little wiggle room left. The science is clear — pathways to limit warming to 1.5 degrees include the end of coal, oil, and gas development.

Nevertheless, delegates at COP27 axed language in the final text of agreements that would have explicitly called for the “phase-down” of fossil fuels. Even more alarming to some climate advocates, the text calls for countries to turn to “low-emission and renewable energy” (emphasis mine). That kind of language could keep investments flowing into gas since it produces less carbon dioxide when burned than coal and oil. Activists point to the watered-down language as part of the influence industry lobbyists have on climate negotiations. After all, the fossil fuel industry sent 636 attendees to COP27.

Fossil fuel industry sent 636 attendees to COP27

The big problem with using gas is that it creates carbon dioxide and methane pollution. Gas is made up of mostly methane, which escapes routinely from wells, pipelines, and appliances. And when methane reaches the atmosphere, it’s up to 80 times more potent than CO2 when it comes to heating up the planet. Thanks to a big bump in new commitments at COP27, more than 150 countries have agreed to a global pact over the past year to shrink their methane emissions. But unfortunately, that still excludes China, which currently creates more methane pollution than any other country.

Business as usual?

A new corporate carbon offset scheme called the Energy Transition Accelerator launched at COP27, spearheaded by the Bezos Earth Fund, Rockefeller Foundation, and US State Department. The initiative sets out to design a new kind of carbon credit for companies seeking to offset their emissions by investing in developing nations’ clean energy transitions.

The problem is that carbon offsets credits have a record of failing to reduce emissions in the real world. “Junk carbon offsets” allow dozens of big brands to misleadingly sell themselves as “carbon neutral,” according to an investigation by Bloomberg published today. The Bezos-backed Accelerator is “not anything new,” Adrien Salazar, policy director at the nonprofit Grassroots Global Justice, tells The Verge. “Carbon credits and carbon trading have never reduced emissions directly at the source.”

Offsets and carbon neutral claims can essentially become smokescreens for companies whose emissions are still ballooning. Bezos’ own baby, Amazon, actually saw its greenhouse gas pollution grow a whopping 40 percent since the company’s 2019 pledge to become carbon neutral. More than 90 percent of companies will miss their “net-zero” emissions goals unless they at least double the pace at which they reduce their emissions, according to another recent report by consulting firm Accenture.

“The problem is that the criteria and benchmarks for these net-zero commitments have varying levels of rigor and loopholes wide enough to drive a diesel truck through,” UN chief Guterres said upon the release of a November 8th United Nations report that lays out recommendations to put a stop to greenwashing.

The work isn’t done yet

There’s another year until COP28 starts in the United Arab Emirates. There, negotiators and activists will once again push for bigger pollution cuts and argue over how to dole out climate funds. But there’s plenty of work to do between now and then. Back home, delegates will have to “think globally, act locally,” in the words of Scottish conservationist Patrick Geddes.

There are policies to enact, polluters to hold accountable, and increasingly more climate disasters to harden ourselves against.


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