The COP27 conference in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh was full of heated haggling over how to tackle climate change, as these meetings always have been. But there’s one thing that many attendees warmly agree on this year: the huge annual two-week gatherings sponsored by the UN need a serious restart.
It was time. Now that the 2015 Paris Agreement is in place, there is growing frustration over a system that even seasoned insiders admit is not doing enough to meet its central goal of reducing greenhouse gases.
“The COPs were designed to bring countries together and they did that in 2015,” says Tom Rivett-Carnac, a former UN climate chief. “What the world needs now is action to reduce emissions and therefore COPs are no longer fit for purpose.”
Halla Tómasdóttir, chief executive of pro-climate business coalition The B Team, is a newcomer to the COP, but says the need for rewiring is “clearly evident”. “The speed and scale needed to solve these challenges won’t happen in this format,” she says.
The format dates back almost 30 years to the first COP, or conference of the parties to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change treaty. This COP27 is the 27th meeting of these parties, or nations, and like the one last year in Glasgow, he is a monster compared to his ancestors.
Early gatherings were typically smaller and focused on government negotiations to reach global climate agreements. On the sidelines of these talks, companies, think tanks and activists have organized side events to make their views known or show their efforts.
A reversal began with the adoption of the Paris agreement, which aims to reduce greenhouse gases enough to keep global warming well below 2C since pre-industrial times, and ideally at 1.5C. The COP fringe has since exploded in size, as businesses, banks and industries have been encouraged to join in the effort to reduce emissions.
The UK government, host of last year’s COP26 meeting, accelerated the trend. It has become a stage for eye-catching promises from government and industry to end sales of internal combustion engine cars by 2040, or halt forest loss by 2030, or reduce global methane emissions by 30% by 2030.
These promises have featured in many series of business roundtables, panel discussions and incessant presentations presented this year in Egypt. But a smaller, less glamorous event put that fuss in a jarring context. An international team of scientists has reported that emissions in 2022 have remained at such record highs that if they persist, there is now a 50% chance of rising temperatures exceeding 1.5°C in nine years.
This gap between promise and reality gives rise to a host of welcome ideas for bringing more scientific rigor and accountability to COP commitments. Many people want to see formal scientific advice for, say, how many electric cars are needed for which year, or how much methane should be cut and when.
“It would be nice to know where that 30% came from,” says climate scientist Bill Hare of last year’s COP26 pledge to cut methane emissions.
UN scientific reports show the figure should be higher, says Hare, a member of a UN panel set up this year to monitor the net-zero pledge madness of corporations and financial groups. He also thinks that the Bonn-based UN climate secretariat, which helps countries host COPs, should follow through on pledges, to avoid announcements being made one year and then rejected the next, because a new host country arrives with other priorities.
Benito Müller, a professor at Oxford University and a longtime climate adviser for low-income countries, would replace today’s expensive “mega-COPs” with a smaller annual meeting held in Bonn. Rotating cities could host “global weeks of climate action” each year.
Christiana Figueres, a former top UN climate official who helped shape the Paris Agreement, agrees that important aspects of those meetings have become “outdated”. It would retain the current two-week format but devote the first week to progress reports on concrete achievements by governments and the private sector. The second week could focus on identifying areas where additional and faster action was needed.
It would also remove what it calls “a hangover from the past” that classifies private sector participants as COP observers rather than formal participants.
“There is no easy answer to the question of how COPs should evolve,” she says. “But they need to evolve to reflect the reality of where we are.” She’s right. Hopefully, next year’s COP in the United Arab Emirates will chart a new course for the climate action the world urgently needs.
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