1.5C climate target died at COP27 – but hope must not

When the history of the climate crisis is written, whatever world awaits us, COP27 will be seen as the moment when the dream of keeping global warming below 1.5°C faded.

Does this mean giving up? Absolutely not. The 1.5°C target is not a threshold beyond which hope also dies. Every fraction of a degree means an increase in human suffering and must therefore be fought. How? With everything we have to break down the barrier between us and climate stability: the fossil fuel industry.

The 1.5°C target, beyond which the most disastrous climate impacts occur, is not yet physically impossible to achieve. To achieve this, global carbon emissions must be reduced by 50% by 2030, but record levels of pollution are still being released into the atmosphere.

The scientific warnings before COP27 could not have been stronger: we are on the verge of irreversible climate deterioration. Behind closed doors at the summit, however, fossil fuel states forced other countries to fight tooth and nail simply to preserve the inadequate status quo.

On Friday, a Saudi delegate said: “We must not target energy sources; we should focus on emissions. We shouldn’t mention fossil fuels. Despite the efforts of many other countries, the text of the final decision duly failed to mention the phasing out of fossil fuels.

It is extraordinary that in 30 years of UN climate negotiations, eliminating the root cause of global warming has never been mentioned in the decisions. Given that next year’s UN climate summit will be hosted by an oil state, the United Arab Emirates, it’s hard to see how a crackdown on fossil fuels will play out there either.

The world should be running to rid itself of its addiction to fossil fuels as if lives depended on it, because it does, but it is jogging in place. The 1.5°C target may not yet be physically impossible to achieve, but COP27 has shown that it is politically impossible.

So what now? It remains imperative to get out of coal, oil and gas as quickly as possible. Each ton of CO2 that stays in the ground means less damage to lives and livelihoods.

Can the UN climate talks deliver this quickly? It doesn’t look like that. It’s too easy for fossil fuel states to ransom consensus-based negotiations, threatening to blow it all up if their black gold is named. There were more fossil fuel lobbyists at COP27 than delegates from the Pacific Islands, which their industry pushes under the waves.

Instead, the fossil fuel industry and its unreasonable expansion plans will have to be fought elsewhere. The first place is in the mind. The global oil and gas industry has averaged the equivalent of $1 billion a year in unearned profits over the past 50 years by exploiting a natural resource that belongs to the people. Imagine redirecting that financial firepower towards decarbonizing the world.

The fossil fuel industry can also be fought in the streets, in peaceful protest, and on the lands despoiled by their expansion. Countries could avoid oil states by forming a “climate club”, a G7 proposal to allow the ambitious to race ahead and penalize the laggards.

A fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty would provide a transparent way to keep remaining reserves of coal, oil and gas intact. Even a tobacco-style ban on fossil fuel advertising, already backed by the World Health Organization, would help. All of this, and more, will be needed.

Cop27 has achieved something. The new fund for loss and damage promises to finance the reconstruction of the poorest and most vulnerable countries hit by increasingly severe climate impacts that they did little to cause. It is a long-awaited recognition of the moral responsibility of big polluters in the face of the climate emergency. This is all the more important as the failure of COP27 to significantly reduce emissions means that even worse disasters are to come.

Is there hope? Yes, as each climate action we take reduces the damage. At the close of Cop27, Kathy Jetn̄il-Kijiner, poet and climate envoy for the Marshall Islands, said, “I wish we had phased out fossil fuels. But we have shown with the loss and damage fund that we can do the impossible. So we know we can come back [to Cop] next year and get rid of fossil fuels once and for all.

I hope she’s right. I’m afraid she’s wrong.

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