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The Sharm el-Sheikh Implementation Plan — what the world did and didn’t agree to at COP27

Author: Ethan van Diemen

With the first Conference of the Parties (COP) to be held on African soil in this decisive decade now firmly in the rearview mirror, Our Burning Planet unpicks the final cover decision text — or Sharm el-Sheikh Implementation Plan — from COP27.

After delays and disagreement took negotiations well beyond the official end of the conference, COP27 (27th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, ended with an agreement that can be described as a mixed bag of outcomes that have probably teed up COP28 in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to be the site of yet more contestation and geostrategic to-ing and fro-ing.

In the background, the dirty fossil fuels that have for decades powered the global economy will continue to be extracted, refined, beneficiated and burnt, sending millions of tonnes of planet-heating gases into the atmosphere and taking the Earth ever closer to the thresholds that herald “dangerous climate change” and irreversible changes to the habitability of the planet.

So what does the COP27 cover decision text — or Sharm el-Sheikh Implementation Plan — say and what were the major breakthroughs and disappointments? Our Burning Planet was there and sought some of the answers.

On backsliding amid complex, interconnected global issues related to war, energy and the coronavirus pandemic, the agreement was solid.

Ahead of COP27, there were concerns that countries would backtrack on their climate commitments as a result of energy-related difficulties caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as well as inflation and the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Sharm el-Sheikh Implementation Plan says the COP: “…stresses that the increasingly complex and challenging global geopolitical situation and its impact on the energy, food and economic situations, as well as the additional challenges associated with the socioeconomic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, should not be used as a pretext for backtracking, backsliding or de-prioritizing climate action”.

While there was a strong call for the global geopolitical situation not to be used as a pretext for backtracking on climate action, the plan did not move the needle on taking more ambitious measures.

In Glasgow, parties agreed that the COP “expresses alarm and utmost concern” that “human activities have caused around 1.1°C of global warming to date and that impacts are already being felt in every region” and “stresses” the “urgency of enhancing ambition and action in relation to mitigation adaptation and finance in this critical decade to address gaps between current efforts and pathways in pursuit of the ultimate objective of the Convention and its long-term global goal is to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change”.

While the Sharm el-Sheikh Implementation Plan merely “reiterates that the impacts of climate change will be much lower at the temperature increase of 1.5°C than 2°C and resolves to pursue further efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C” and “recognises” the “impact of climate change on the cryosphere and the need for further understanding of these impacts, including of tipping points”.

This seeming lack of ambition was most poignantly displayed in the hotly contested reference — or lack thereof — to fossil fuels in the final text.

Fossil fuels escape formal condemnation — again

The COP26 cover text — or Glasgow Climate Pact — made history in 2021 as the first to explicitly target action against fossil fuels, calling for a “phasedown of unabated coal” and “phase-out” of “inefficient” fossil-fuel subsidies.

At COP27, activists, certain parties and negotiating blocs wanted to broaden this call to include a phase-out/down of all fossil fuels, not just coal. It started with India making the call and was soon taken up by leaders, from small island states all the way to the European Union.

In the end, a phase-out/down of fossil fuels did not make the cover decision at COP27. This may or may not have had something to do with the 636 fossil fuel industry representatives present at the conference in Egypt — major fossil fuel-dependent parties also considered the inclusion of a call to phase out/down fossil fuels a red line.

Responding to the plan, Jeni Miller, the executive director of the Global Climate and Health Alliance, said: “Despite support from over 80 countries, governments’ collective failure to deliver a clear commitment to phase out all fossil fuels puts us on course to go beyond the already dangerous 1.5° Celsius global temperature rise, and locks in further increase in loss and damage due to climate impacts on people’s health and livelihoods.

“Limiting warming to 1.5°C, essential to avert catastrophic health impacts, requires phasing out all fossil fuels; and only full fossil fuel phase-out will deliver the maximum health benefits from clean air and a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.”

Wanjira Mathai, vice president and regional director for Africa at World Resources Institute (WRI), added: “On mitigation, we need to see more ambition. The current text does not improve on the Glasgow one. The absence of oil and gas phase-out among the biggest emitters is crucial for the deep and sustained decarbonisation required to keep within 1.5 degrees.”

The Sharm el-Sheikh Implementation Plan instead largely reuses language from the Glasgow Climate Pact, calling on parties to accelerate efforts towards the “phasedown of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies”. In this sense, negotiators in Egypt were jogging on the spot, not sprinting forward in the way the science confidently says is increasingly urgent.

Despite Africa being home to many of the countries vulnerable to the impacts that come from burning fossil fuels, Africa was only mentioned twice on the cover decision text of what was billed as an “African COP”.

While this “African COP” could not achieve a consensus on ending the use of fossil fuels that are the cause of the human-induced climate change that bedevils the continent more than any other, there was a substantial breakthrough in addressing the downstream impacts of those pollutants, which was largely well received.

An important step for climate justice

Negotiators at Sharm el-Sheikh did the nearly impossible, delivering on a 30-year-old goal to establish a financial mechanism to support victims of climate impacts.

Our Burning Planet previously reported that governments from more than 190 countries agreed to set up a fund dedicated to addressing “loss and damage” in 2023.

Loss and damage, in short, refer to the damage done by human-induced climate change that occurs beyond the adaptive capacity of countries. These countries are usually the poorest and least developed and have contributed the least to the emissions that have caused the impacts of which they are today the greatest victims.

Alpha Oumar Kaloga, the regional adviser for the Africa Country Programme Division at Green Climate Fund and lead negotiator for the Africa Group at COP27, called the agreement a “unique moment” and “a win for all citizens of the world”.

Laurence Tubiana, the CEO of the European Climate Foundation, said: “This COP caused deep frustrations but it wasn’t for nothing. It achieved a significant breakthrough for the most vulnerable countries. The Loss and Damage fund, a dream at COP26 last year, is on track to start running in 2023. There is a lot of work still to be done on the detail, but the principle is in place and that is a significant mindset shift as we deal with a world in which climate impacts cause profound loss.”

UN Secretary-General António Guterres called the move “an important step towards justice”.

Ani Dasgupta, the president and CEO of the World Resources Institute, said: “In a historic breakthrough, wealthy nations have finally agreed to create a fund to aid vulnerable countries that are reeling from devastating climate damages.

“This loss and damage fund will be a lifeline for poor families whose houses are destroyed, farmers whose fields are ruined, and islanders forced from their ancestral homes. This positive outcome from COP27 is an important step toward rebuilding trust with vulnerable countries.”

Dasgupta added, “While progress on loss and damage was encouraging, it is disappointing that the decision mostly copied and pasted language from Glasgow about curbing emissions.”

Away from the main points of contention which soaked up all the attention, there was notable progress and movement elsewhere.

News you may have missed

“More than $2-billion will be mobilised for local communities and entrepreneurs to restore degraded land in Africa. The African Cities Water Adaptation Fund established at COP27 will help hundreds of African cities to get the grants they need to provide people with safe, affordable and reliable water,” said Dasgupta.

“Brazil, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Indonesia renewed commitments to preserve their tropical forests and Brazil’s president-elect, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva … reassured the world that protecting the Amazon rainforest and respecting the rights of indigenous people will be among his highest priorities when he takes office.”

Carbon Brief, in a deep analysis of the entire conference, notes that for the first time, a “COP cover decision mentioned food, rivers, nature-based solutions, tipping points and the right to a healthy environment”.

Moreover, the text “noted the need for ‘transformation of the financial system and its structures’, calling on multilateral development banks and international financial institutions to reform their practices and priorities to address the ‘global climate emergency’.”

In news particularly relevant for South Africans, the Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP) model, first launched in 2021 to wean developing countries off their fossil fuel dependency, was emphasised in the Sharm el-Sheikh Implementation Plan as one of many “cooperative actions” countries should look to as they seek to reduce their emissions.

“There is reason for hope after governments came together to protect the more than 3.3 billion people living in areas highly vulnerable to climate change,” said Dasgupta.

“Time is running short, but a liveable planet for people and nature is still within our grasp if leaders take bolder action this decisive decade.” DM/OBP

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