By Pooran Desai, founder of OnePlanet
COP27 is over. I am often asked if any single COP was a success or not, or whether we can place our faith in the COP process. Until now I have struggled to give a clear answer. After almost three decades of climate negotiations, where are we? It is only by imagining what an attendee at COP1 would think, can we have a clear perspective. So here goes.
What is a COP?
A bit of background first. Conferences of the Parties (COPs) are the annual meetings to review progress and agree next steps on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The UNFCCC was established in 1994 as an international environmental treaty to combat ‘dangerous human interference with the climate system by stabilising greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere in a time frame which allows ecosystems to adapt naturally and enables sustainable development’. COP27 was the twenty-seventh in a series of annual meetings which started with COP1 in Berlin in 1995.
To decide whether COP27 was a success or not, I think we need to look at it through the eyes of the hopeful attendees of COP1. What would they think about COP27? What would their hopes have been?
The first COP
At COP1, the world had already agreed that we needed to halt the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The attendees understood its importance. Scientists, thinkers and communicators like the great, late Professor Carl Sagan had been clearly warning for a decade that if we did not come together as a global society, we would face calamity by the middle of the 21st century.
The attendees of COP1 were worried about the future but also hopeful. There had been one great example of global society coming together to tackle an environmental crisis: the destruction of the ozone layer which protects life on earth from dangerous levels of UV radiation. Ozone layer depletion was being caused by gases including CFCs from refrigerators and propellants in aerosol sprays. In 1987, with the signing of the Montreal Treaty, member states of the United Nations agreed to phase in a world-wide ban which came into force in 1989. By the mid-1990s and COP1, the level of ozone-depleting chemicals in the atmosphere was decreasing and there were signs of the ozone layer starting to heal. The world had come together and agreed to actions which would be of benefit to all of humanity.
The atmosphere at COP1 was one of hope: that the world would come together to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, that there would be timely action which would avoid dangerous climate change and damaging ecosystems and threatening the lives of people. It may take a generation, but we could get there.
COP27: success or failure?
So where are we after COP27? Carbon dioxide emissions are still rising and will reach a record high in 2022. There has been no discernible impact yet in reducing its rate of rise. Climate catastrophes are unfolding around the world. Whole nations are under threat to their existence from rising sea levels. New oil and gas reserves are being opened. The issue of energy security aggravated by war in Ukraine has driven a resurgence in coal. For the first time, the emphasis of the COP has been paying damages to vulnerable countries for the impacts of climate, with an agreement to set up a Loss and Damage Fund, in effect accepting we have failed to avert climate change. The UN Secretary General has gone from saying it’s ‘Code Red’ to saying we are on a ‘suicide path.’
So what if we were at COP1 and played back to them the highlights of COP27? What would be the reaction of a COP1 attendee? Horror? Rage? Grief? Resignation?
Let no one kid you otherwise. COP27 was a failure. The UNFCCC process has failed. That is not to say we shouldn’t be grateful to those who have tried so hard, like Christiana Figueres, and continue to try.
We must connect to regenerate.
But let us also face the reality. The onus now lies on us as citizens, companies and local governments to start collaborating, connecting the dots and building the resilient and regenerative communities which will be our life rafts to the future.