28 February, 2023

Climate COPs are working, but follow-through on pre-2030 climate ambition is a must this year to keep the faith

The UN-led climate response has achieved a great deal, but time is not on our side. International diplomacy and climate action must move faster than ever before, or we risk losing public faith in the process.
Tobias Rademacher, Unsplash

If this were any other issue, the UN-led climate response over the last eight years would be seen as a unique success in multilateralism. But climate change isn’t just any issue – time is not on our side. International diplomacy and climate action must move faster than ever before, or we risk losing public faith in our best hope of meeting this enormous challenge.

The adoption of the Paris Agreement in 2015 (COP21), and its express entry into force in 2016 ahead of COP22, was a game changer. Just shy of 200 countries legally committing to shared climate goals and unified in their resolve to act.

Then we had hard-fought negotiations and agreement on a highly technical set of international rules to guide and provide transparency for countries in implementing the Paris treaty – key milestones achieved in 2018 (COP24) and 2021 (COP26). Yes, there were hiccups and delays along the way amidst geo-political challenges, negotiation gridlocks and a global pandemic. Yes, the rules are not perfect and will need to be road-tested and improved as we go. But by the end of 2021 in Glasgow, we had the international climate architecture in place, ready for implementation. A significant achievement.

Last year, climate science of the IPCC (Sixth Assessment Report) also returned centre stage to re-shine the light on the urgency of our global predicament. And this reminded us why the climate challenge is no ordinary issue amidst our multilateral landscape. Every tenth of a degree of warming matters. With the climate clock rapidly running down, the shiny Paris architecture is not enough on its own, nor is the re-commitment to increase 2030-ambition without follow-through.

Our only measure of success can be on the follow-through – for parties not only to strengthen their 2030 NDC targets, but to produce real emission cuts aligned to the agreed 1.5°C warming limit. And follow through means actions to scale up finance and shift financial flows to transform and decarbonise economies, to tackle adaptation challenges head on, and to address escalating loss and damage in particularly climate-vulnerable countries.

Against all the odds, last year’s COP27 showed that the global community can change course – and rapidly. The last-gasp agreement in Sharm el-Sheikh to establish a loss and damage fund was indeed historic – 30 years in the making, championed by small island developing states (SIDS) and least developed countries (LDCs). The brick walls that confronted SIDS and LDCs at COP25 in Madrid and at the Glasgow COP26 the following year were suddenly dismantled.

All governments not only agreed to set up the loss and damage fund at COP27, they promised to get it running by the end of this year. Delivering on this promise for particularly climate-vulnerable countries – and, of course, having money flow into the fund, will be crucial to the system being perceived as fair, especially after long-standing climate finance targets have passed by unmet.

But despite all these achievements, if we don’t bend the emissions curve to a 1.5oC-compatible pathway this decade, adapting to climate change will become impossible in many places and loss and damage costs will spiral out of control.

On this measure, 2022 was a glaring failure. Progress on strengthened targets and accelerating emission cuts stalled. The G20 didn’t step up. Indeed, hardly any countries did. With COP27 only just clinging on to Glasgow Climate Pact calls to keep 1.5°C within reach, many left Sharm el-Sheikh feeling disillusioned.

Another lost year in 2023 would further erode public trust. Meanwhile, the science tells us with confronting clarity that we can’t afford another wasted year on increasing ambition and accelerating action – each year in this critical decade is critical.

The IPCC has shown that the Paris temperature goal is still in reach, but to achieve it, emissions need to peak around now and halve by 2030. The science also warns us that if we have any hope of moving onto a 1.5°C trajectory there can be no new fossil fuel projects. A finding backed by the International Energy Agency. The world needs to close down coal-fired power by 2040 and gas-powered generation by 2045 – we can’t offset our way out of this reality.

Those pushing for more gas infrastructure are building a bridge to nowhere. A renewable energy transition is not just good for jobs, it holds the answer to energy poverty. And as all countries recognised in decisions at COP26 and COP27, fossil fuel subsidies can’t be a part of a 1.5°C world – real progress on that front in 2023 would do much to keep the faith.

That all said, we can see that the Paris Agreement is having an effect – projected growth in global emissions is slowing down (10.6% increase by 2030 on last year’s assessment compared to 13.7% increase the year before). But that’s not even peaking emissions, let alone bending the emissions curve down. Incremental at best, and so far from being transformational. Thankfully, with ever-decreasing costs of renewables compared to fossil fuels, the economics and technologies are in place for the transformative shift. We just need the political will and to act – to follow-through.

The loss and damage fund outcome at COP27 helped keep the faith that our best hope of coordinating this level of global change is through multilateral engagement under the UNFCCC and Paris Agreement. It’s easy to blame the COPs for slow progress, but the truth is, the level of ambition is set by governments and all the climate action on implementation happens when delegates go back home. With the international legal architecture now in place and countries’ continuing commitment to it, there’s no time to change tack.

For this year, the agenda for COP28 in December is looking fuller than ever, with high expectations on delivery after the foundations set at COP27. However, without a step-change on climate ambition, the progress and credibility of COP28 will at its core be empty. This year, none of us can afford for there to be no follow-through.