After yet another year of rising temperatures and devasting extreme weather events around the world, COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh came at a critical time in the fight against climate change. In the wake of the conference, the verdict from many environmentalists has been one of failure. Yet even though it may have fallen short in many ways, this COP was significant for finally acting on long-standing demands from the Global South and listening to the voices of those most at risk of suffering irreversible harm.

Was the COP27 summit in Sharm El-Sheikh a success or a failure? The answer to this question depends on whom you ask. If we were to ask a political figure, an activist, or even a scientist from the United States – the country which has historically contributed most to the climate crisis – they would be likely to view it as a defeat, while their counterparts in the Global South – the area of the planet most affected by the climate crisis – might see COP27 as a noteworthy victory.

A hard-won breakthrough

After two weeks of intense negotiation – under the strict conditions imposed by the Egyptian presidency – almost 200 countries represented at the Sharm El-Sheikh summit agreed to create a fund in accordance with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to tackle the now inevitable impacts of the environmental crisis: droughts, floods, disease, extreme, heat and other climate-related natural disasters with high material and human costs. The fund had been a long-standing demand of the Global South, first put forward over 30 years ago by the countries most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. In essence, they aimed to challenge the moral superiority of Global North governments who claim to champion the fight against climate change while profiting from it, leaving lower-income countries, who contribute the least to this phenomenon, to foot the bill for its consequences.

To no one’s surprise, the summit was largely dominated by the issue of loss and damage. This political forum – increasingly relevant to multilateral cooperation – was originally advertised as an African summit at which international climate justice would take centre stage and which would, especially in light of the deadly floods in Pakistan, place the spotlight firmly on the issue of loss and damage.

However, it was not at all clear whether loss and damage would even make it onto the official negotiation agenda, though it eventually did at the beginning of the event. This first step, though widely celebrated by environmental organisations and delegations from vulnerable countries such as island states, did not guarantee that tangible progress would result from the Sharm El-Sheikh meeting. Countries agreed to address the issue but gave themselves until 2024 to finalise the details of what form the loss and damage mechanism would take. The big debate regarding this point unfolded as follows: wealthy nations advocated for drawing on existing funds from within the UNFCCC – such as the Green Climate Fund, widely criticised for failing to reach the annual objective of raising 100 billion US dollars proposed by donors – in order to provide economic support for victims of phenomena related to the climate crisis. On the other side of the debate, states most affected by climate change argued for the creation of a new fund under the UNFCCC umbrella which would channel aid directly to those most in need, and for measures to be put in place to monitor its activity.

The fund had been a long-standing demand of the Global South, first put forward over 30 years ago by the countries most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

This tug-of-war was the subject of many questions during press conferences, in which the EU’s role in recent investments in gas infrastructure on the African continent – a response to the European energy crisis triggered by the war in Ukraine – was also discussed. Reform of the international financial system was the topic of further debate, with proposals led by leaders of island nations such as the prime minister of Barbados, Mia Mottley, and the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, Gaston Browne, the latter also arguing for a tax on the extraordinary profits of gas and petroleum companies to provide a source of funding for the loss and damage mechanism. “In the first half of this year, six fossil fuel companies, and I emphasise six, made more than enough money to cover the costs of major climate damages in developing countries, with nearly 70 billion dollars in profits,” stated Browne. “While they are profiting, the planet is burning.”

The Global South’s rhetoric permeated the summit through its various demands, which included a carbon tax on petroleum companies, loss and damage reparations, the cancellation of debt to help climate action, and slowing the “energy colonialism” of European investment in African gas.

Regarding the possibility of a new fund, the EU insisted that creating one from scratch would delay the mobilisation of aid at a moment when time is of the essence. As the Vice-President of the European Commission Fran Timmermans reiterated on several occasions, this could take “six or seven years” to come into full effect. The European negotiating bloc advocated instead for a “mosaic of solutions” whereby a variety of measures are included to enable countries vulnerable to climate change to have easy access to aid. The G7 countries – the seven largest global superpowers – led by Germany, even ventured to create their own system for distributing climate reparations, Global Shield, which came under heavy criticism from several activists from the Global South who dismissed it as a “distraction” from establishing a real, effective fund.

At this point the debate began to stall. Less wealthy nations stood firm in their demand to create a new fund under the UNFCCC, while the EU and the USA (among others) dragged their heels. As these discussions threatened to eclipse or slow progress on dealing with climate change, the EU, as their negotiators explained to the press, acquiesced, and proposed the creation of a fund to address the matter. However, the EU stipulated that the fund had to come from a wide spectrum of donors, wide enough to include countries not formally considered to be “developed” nations in these forums but which have considerable financial means, including China, which is currently the largest emitter of greenhouse gases and responsible for almost a third of global emissions. These conditions also allowed for the involvement of the private sector. In the same vein, the European bloc made the non-negotiable demand that aid from the fund be extended exclusively to “especially vulnerable” developing countries, as opposed to all those classified as “developing” by the UNFCCC (a category which includes China, Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia among others) as China and the G77 nations had proposed.

Eventually, at the plenary session convened in the early hours of Sunday 20 November, with the summit already in extra time and the delegates exhausted after days of marathon negotiation sessions, the loss and damage fund was given the green light, with no specifics as to its donors, but with allusions as to its recipients: developing countries which are especially vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

The fund was met with applause upon signing and, as many diplomats pointed out, it represented a significant step forward for the countries of the Global South, as well as for other long-standing players in international climate cooperation.

“In a historic breakthrough, wealthy nations have finally agreed to create a fund to aid vulnerable countries that are reeling from devastating climate damage. This loss and damage fund will be a lifeline for poor families whose houses are destroyed, farmers whose fields are ruined, and islanders forced from their ancestral homes,” proclaimed Ani Dasgupta, president and CEO of the World Resources Institute (WRI). “This positive outcome from COP27 is an important step toward rebuilding trust with vulnerable countries,” he added.

If the loss and damage fund was merely “a dream” at COP26, “now it is enshrined and on track to start running in 2023,” declared Laurence Tubiana, architect of the Paris Agreement and CEO of the European Climate Foundation.

A battle won in a war being lost?

However, the final agreement made in Sharm El-Sheikh did not result in any additional commitments with regard to mitigation. This was condemned by various actors from the Northern Hemisphere, with representatives such as Timmermans and the president of the European Commission Ursula Von Der Leyen, along with columnists, activists, scientists, and journalists, publishing critical analyses of COP27 en masse, declaring it a “failure” lacking in ambition. Among the criticisms, it was pointed out that the agreement made in Sharm El-Sheikh was a carbon copy of that made in Glasgow at COP26, and that this had therefore been “a lost year” in the fight against climate change.

Among the criticisms, it was pointed out that the agreement made in Sharm El-Sheikh was a carbon copy of that made in Glasgow at COP26.

One of the main weaknesses that critics cited was the call for parties to “gradually phase out” the use of “unabated coal” (coal burning without carbon capture), as well as to reduce “inefficient subsidies” for fossil fuels, with this point being copied verbatim from what was drafted in Glasgow. They lamented that the efforts of numerous delegations (including that of the EU) to create a text that called for the phasing out of not only coal but all fossil fuels had been in vain – such a process would begin with coal, followed by petroleum and gas in accordance with the recommendations made in the most recent IPCC report.

The text was also criticised for the fact that the “Sharm El-Sheikh Implementation Plan” (as the agreement was eventually named) will not require countries to present updated commitments to reduce their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) on an annual basis, but rather every five years. The plan also included references to the energy crisis and the need to promote “low-carbon energy” (a category that does not necessarily exclude gas) which, according to environmentalists, may even have weakened the Glasgow agreement.

Seeking common ground

The North-South disparity reflected in the final assessments of the event revealed the privileges of wealthy (and polluting) countries in relation to those who most acutely suffer the consequences of climate change. In the aftermath of the conference, this was decried by voices from the developing world such as Mohamed Adow, founder of the think tank PowerShift Africa. “Truth be told, some of these COP27 ‘analyses’ are a bit rich, especially coming from the historic polluters who got us into this climate emergency in the first place,” Adow asserted on Twitter. “Outcomes from COPs need to balance both the causes of climate change and deal with the consequences. For years the UNFCCC process has skewed heavily towards dealing with mitigation, of course without targeting the root cause – fossil fuels, with half hearted and incomplete support for those dealing with the consequences, particularly on adaptation, loss and damage and climate finance. COP27 was a surprise precisely because for once the needs of the vulnerable were actually listened to.”

These reactions exposed some of the fault lines between the verdicts from those in different parts of the world, divisions which risk becoming exacerbated by perceptions of hypocrisy regarding the statements from the Global North criticising the lack of progress on emissions reductions at COP27, in light of both its responsibility for, and failure to act on, climate change historically.

For Adow, a decolonial approach is crucial to tackling these systemic inequalities. “To decarbonise we must decolonise,” he argued on the social network. “For the rest, let’s not also accept their hypocrisy to be used by our elites to repeat their historic mistakes. We can leapfrog their outdated system while also decolonising the system.”

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