COP27 - What Is It and Why Is It Important?

With COP27 in Egypt about to start, we take a look at what the UNFCCC treaty is and the progress made since COP26

COP27 - What Is It and Why Is It Important?
Dr Simone Webber
Nov 4, 2022

At the high profile COP26 event in Glasgow last year, many international climate commitments were made on issues such as deforestation, phasing out coal, methane reduction, and financial aid for developing nations. This November the international community will meet again in Egypt for COP27, to review progress and drive climate action forward.

Both international governments and the business community are racing to reduce their carbon footprint and reach ‘net-zero’, where their emissions are reduced as much as possible and any residual emissions are removed by offsetting. There is an increasing urgency around the need to reach net-zero and with global droughts and devastating wildfires in 2022, it is clear that we are running out of time to limit rising global temperatures.

COP27 is a meeting of international leaders who are part of the UNFCCC treaty at which they will discuss global strategies to tackle climate change. But what exactly is COP27, what is likely to be discussed there, and how much progress has been made since COP26? We take a look at some of the history of the UNFCCC treaty and progress made so far.

What is the UNFCC?

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is an international environmental treaty with the goal of “preventing dangerous anthropogenic interference with Earth's climate system” by stabilising the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The countries who have signed up are committed to reducing their emissions of greenhouse gases, and there have been several subsequent protocols and agreements to provide a framework to achieve this.

The UNFCCC was established at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, where it was signed by 154 countries and there are now 197 signatories who are ‘parties to the convention’. The countries who have signed up meet annually for a ‘Conference of the Parties’ (COP) to discuss progress and adjust the agreements. The UNFCCC is provided with scientific guidance by the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), who present their Assessment Reports every five years, with the sixth one produced in 2021/22. The final synthesis report is due in late 2022.

The IPCC produced a special report on restricting the rise in global temperature to 1.5°C in 2018, demonstrating the difference in impact between a 1.5°C rise and a rise of 2°C, and the dramatic risk of exceeding both these goals. It also recommended a global ‘net-zero’ emissions target by 2050, a goal to which increasing numbers of governments and businesses are committing.

The Kyoto Protocol

The first agreement to set binding emissions reduction targets was the Kyoto Protocol, signed in 1997, which came into force in 2005. The Kyoto Protocol set emissions reduction targets for 36 industrialised countries and the European Union. The protocol aimed for an average of 5% emissions reductions compared to 1990 levels, which was to be achieved between 2008 and 2012. All the parties that signed up to the first phase achieved their emissions reduction targets, in fact they achieved an average 22% emissions reduction, far exceeding the 5% target.

The second phase ran from 2013 to 2020, agreed as part of the Doha Amendment, and required a commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 18%, based on a 1990 baseline. Fewer countries committed to the second phase and the US did not commit to either of the Kyoto Protocol phases. The Doha Amendment was only ratified at the last minute in 2020, but the 37 developed countries had reduced their emissions by an average of 25.3% by 2018 so it was met. The Doha Amendment targets were insufficient to reduce the upward trend in excess emissions, however, so more ambitious goals were required.

The Paris Agreement

The Kyoto Protocol was superseded by the Paris Agreement, which came out of ‘grave concerns’ around the inadequacy of the current agreement expressed in 2011 during COP17 in Durban. It was decided that there should be a legally binding agreement applicable to all parties (not just the industrialised nations), which would be signed in 2015 and come into force in 2016. COP21 saw the largest gathering of world leaders in history and the signing of the Paris Agreement, which aims to limit global warming to under 2°C, ideally no more than 1.5°C.

Each of the 191 countries that committed to the agreement sets their own Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) towards reducing their national emissions, with new and more ambitious NDCs required every 5 years from 2020. The agreement also sets out actions required for adaptation to the effects of climate change, and stipulates that wealthy nations should provide finance and technology to assist poor and vulnerable nations in meeting their goals.

The US signed up to the Paris Agreement, although there was a brief period in 2020 when they left and then rejoined. The Paris Agreement NDCs are not legally binding, although the reporting and review framework is. There is a consensus principle behind the agreement which hopes that political encouragement will push countries to reduce emissions faster.

Why is COP27 important?

COP26 marked the five-year anniversary of the Paris Agreement and was due to provide the first statement of more ambitious NDCs from the parties, which were due in 2020. In practice many countries did submit more ambitious NDCs, including the US, although if all commitments were met, the world is still on target for at best 1.8 degrees of warming. One of the outcomes of COP26 was that parties were supposed to submit even more ambitious NDCs by the end of 2022, but so far it seems this is unlikely to happen. The war in Ukraine and ensuing energy crisis has derailed the focus on phasing out fossil fuels to some extent, and an effective outcome at COP27 is essential for refocusing the international community on climate action.

Repeated analyses have concluded that nations are currently off track in reducing emissions, and that targets need to be more ambitious, so COP27 will be a pivotal moment in assessing and applying international pressure where necessary. There will be close attention paid to commitments made by all nations following a year of extreme high temperatures when the effects of climate change had devastating consequences for countries such as Pakistan.

COP27 is being held in Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt, making it the first meeting to be held in Africa, and is expected to highlight the plight of nations at the forefront of the effects of climate change. It is hoped that they will have a stronger voice in requiring developed nations meet their finance commitments for climate finance.

Expected discussion points

Some of the main discussion points are expected to be around funding for loss and damage, the $100bn finance target, and energy security. The debate around climate change has traditionally focused on attempting to limit the extent of global warming, but focus is now shifting to how we adapt to our changing climate, and how we help nations who are most vulnerable to its effects. The debate is likely to fall into three categories: mitigation, adaptation, loss and damages.

  • Mitigation - This is the attempt to limit climate change by reducing concentrations of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane. Net-zero targets, deforestation targets, and commitments regarding the phasing out of fossil fuels fall under mitigation. At COP27 the focus will be on increasing ambition.
  • Adaptation - Adapting to climate change is where much of the $100bn annual finance target needs to be focused. This includes provision to tackle rising sea levels, including improving sea defences, and relocating people who lose their homes. Adapting to rising temperatures can include measures such as breeding drought-resistant crops and planting green roofs to reduce temperatures in cities.
  • Loss and damages - One of the most contentious issues around climate change is the provision of compensation for nations suffering loss and damages as a result of climate change. There is currently no framework for doing this, but with wildfires, floods, and droughts increasing, it is becoming a higher priority.
  • The $100bn finance target was due to be implemented by 2020, but it is still not being delivered. The money is an annual commitment from developed countries which allows less developed countries to access resources to assist with mitigating for and adapting to climate change and protecting nature.

What progress has been made?

Prior to 2020 the news was not promising, with none of the countries performing well against their commitments. In 2017 a study concluded that none of the countries were meeting their targets and that even if they did, it would not restrict global warming to 2°C. In fact it has been estimated that if all countries met their pre-2020 commitments, we would be on track for over 3°C of warming by the end of this century, which would have catastrophic consequences.

To limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C, a global emission reduction of 7.6% is needed every year between 2020 and 2030. In 2020 the reduction was only 6.4% globally, mainly attributable to short-term Coronavirus lockdowns. In 2021 the picture was even worse with a global rise in carbon dioxide missions of 6%. In addition, the UNFCCC parties were supposed to disclose new NDCs in September 2022, but only 19 have submitted targets. However, India has now submitted their NDC and clarified their net-zero target, which represents a step forward as they are one of the major carbon dioxide emitters. China has also started reporting significant reductions in carbon dioxide emissions, with a drop of 8% this year.

However, with the problems in energy security this year, many nations have increased coal fired power capacity, including China and Germany. It is hoped that this is a temporary response and that market pressure to invest in renewable technologies will override the drive to invest in coal. There appears to have been little progress on the promised reductions in methane emissions and deforestation, although detailed updates should be given at COP27. The change in leadership in Brazil is likely to decrease deforestation dramatically based on their previous performance when in power.

2022 has been a turbulent year, with the political focus on energy prices and the cost of living. It is hoped that COP27 can refocus international attention on the scale of the climate crisis and accelerate action on previous commitments.

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