Developing countries must take lessons from the outright attack on their rights and the potential fractures that were exposed this year.

Zero sharm game: COP27 saves face with minimum common agreements

COP27 will be a memorable episode in the saga of multilateral climate action for reasons both good and bad

The roller coaster that was COP27 was marked by fraught and contentious negotiations through its two-week duration. Right up to the last minute of the conference, which was extended by over 36 hours, the fate of the talks hung in the balance as parties grinded it out through endless huddled negotiations. The conference was ultimately salvaged with many of the most important decisions seeing progress, even if “dissatisfaction all around” was the overall expressed sentiment, along with overwhelming exhaustion that had swept across the venue in Sharm el Sheikh. The COP27’s Egyptian Presidency managed to save face as the historic verdict on the setting up of a dedicated loss and damage fund was delivered and minimum common agreements were ultimately hammered out in many other negotiation tracks.

This hardly seemed the case going into the last day of the extended conference, when disaster seemed certain, with very little consensus on the vast majority of the texts on the agenda. After dramatic twists and turns, and intense disagreements that raged through the two weeks in Egypt, COP27 will be a memorable episode in the saga of multilateral climate action for reasons both good and bad. While the decision to establish a fund to address loss and damage is indeed historic, the matter is far from closed.

Battle fronts are likely to open up again at COP28 when countries are tasked with working out the modalities and responsibilities toward this fund. On both adaptation and mitigation, new work programmes are now set to continue over coming years where principles of equity and CBDR-RC enshrined in the convention and the Paris Agreement will likely continue to be challenged. The potential of setting these principles against the urgency to accelerate emission cuts and enhance financial flows, in order to strain the developing countries coalition, is something that the developing world must be wary of and prepare for in the run up to COP28.

Cover decision: A good deal is when everybody involved is unhappy?

As negotiations dragged on with track after track deadlocked, attention shifted to the COP27 cover decision. The cover decision is essentially a document developed by consensus between all parties that sets out the core political goals and targets from the meeting. The document is typically a reflection of commonly agreed priorities for action, and serves as an umbrella document that sets the context for and introduces decisions taken under the main frameworks and agreements adopted under the UNFCCC. The Egyptian presidency had its work cut out, with parties all around refusing to budge on their priorities.

For developed countries, the brief was clear. The cover decision had to show an increase in ambition over last year’s Glasgow pact. This meant it had to include language that prioritised the 1.5°C warming limit of the Paris Agreement, timelines for global emissions peaking and the shared burden of climate action explicitly stated. For developing countries, these were a no-go and priority remained securing the right to pursue developmental objectives in line with the principles of equity and CBDR-RC. For the subset of developing countries that are confronted with immediate and existential threats from climate change impacts, the priority was to include decisions that clearly stated the urgency of stepping up action.

Ultimately, the gavel came down on a watered-down text that showed neither ambition nor conviction. The ‘Sharm el Sheikh Implementation Plan’ barely matches the ambition expressed in last year’s Glasgow Pact and contains only references to the guiding principles of the climate change convention and no clear defence of them. Kicking off the final day of negotiations as the draft of the decision text was being circulated among parties, COP27 President Sameh Shoukry, clearly deflated by that point, told press, “The Presidency has done all it could and has tried to reflect the views of all parties in creating this decision. Now it is up to the parties to agree. Although the feeling is one of dissatisfaction all around, we urge parties to show flexibility and willingness to compromise in the spirit of collaboration.”

For India, the cover text offers some solace in that it includes some language on sustainable production and consumption to lead climate action, which has been the stated objective of LiFE— the climate movement launched by PM Narendra Modi last month, and the theme of India’s Pavilion at COP27.

Geopolitical contexts meets disorganisation

COP27 was held under challenging circumstances, perhaps more so than any moment in the 30-year history of the collaborative forum. The world remains rattled and scrambling to respond to a poly-crises that has seen convergence of insecurities in energy, economy, food and public health and topped off with an especially bad year in terms of climate change impacts.

Geopolitically, the environment was hardly fertile or conducive for easy consensus among parties. But the COP27 presidency did itself no favours as confusion and disorganisation left strong imprints on the two-week conference. Complaints over accommodation costs, high food prices, sanitary concerns and an inconvenient layout of the venue flew hard and fast in the first week. The big issue in terms of the negotiations, however, came from organisational matters. The first week saw several scheduling clashes with last-minute changes and cancellations, which was a cause for frustration among negotiators who had to navigate the maze that was the venue, often at a minute’s notice. While schedules often saw several negotiation tracks planned for the same slot, which is a challenge for countries that come with small delegations, there were also long periods of time where no negotiations were planned, despite it being clear from the beginning that achieving consensus would require several rounds of consultations. 

“Everything has been a challenge with the presidency this year. It has been quite a nightmare to schedule and plan negotiation sessions smoothly, or expect their inputs in a timely fashion,” said one high-ranking member of the UNFCCC secretariat, which is tasked with working with the COP presidency on organisational and procedural matters. 

As things heated up toward the end of the conference, the presidency took charge of producing draft versions of texts with a view to force through consensus. Several delegates from both developed and developing countries found the way this was done problematic as well. Many complained of the lack of transparency in the process, claiming that inputs would often not be reflected in the drafts, or worse still, inexplicably disappear between versions of texts that the presidency was preparing. “There were too many changes in drafts that were coming in very fast. Several times, they were circulated through unofficial channels to parties and we often got no more than minutes to go over the drafts before having to give our inputs,” said one African negotiator. The sentiment was echoed throughout the corridors of COP27.

Adversarial politics makes a nasty comeback

It was clear from its onset that the conference was going to be a hard trudge rather than an easy walk. But while exigent circumstances made for a challenging backdrop, few would have guessed that it would result in the kind of Machiavellian tactics that were ultimately witnessed.

Throughout negotiation rooms, it was clear from the get-go that the fight would be over the status of the guiding principles of equity and CBDR-RC as they were articulated in the UN climate convention and reiterated in the more recent Paris Agreement. Negotiations saw clear, coordinated and systematic attacks on these principles from developed countries (including but not limited to the US, EU, the UK, Switzerland, Japan, Australia and Norway), which sought to deny, minimise, dilute and reframe these principles. The agenda was to erase the developing-developed dichotomy that has thus far been used to frame and allot responsibilities for climate action.

Interestingly, there was not one common frame of reference that was used to challenge these principles, but rather a range of framings that were used depending on the area of negotiation. So, while tracks on mitigation saw the attempted insertion of “major emitters” instead of developed countries, those on finance saw attempts to introduce language specifying “parties with capacity” and “major economies”. Across tracks, “national circumstances” (which would include short-term circumstances such as the ongoing energy crisis in Europe) were being used to evade established lines of responsibility. 

There was a palpable push to include language on peaking global GHG emissions by 2025 in pursuit of the 1.5°C warming limit. While this was played up in the media as an attempt to avert disastrous climate impacts, in reality it also serves as a red herring to several developing countries. With most developed countries already having peaked their emissions, the inclusion of such language implies a shift of the onus of reducing emissions to developing countries in contravention with the right to pursue equitable development. Behind the scenes, in closed-door negotiations, the denial of these rights was allegedly even stronger and bordered on outright denial of the principles of equity, per observers and negotiators present. 

While the matter has been framed as a subject of whether or not emissions should be reduced, this is hardly the question. In fact, it is perhaps one of the only questions where there is consensus— of course they must. But which should be the countries that take on primary responsibility to do so? Who should pay for reductions in geographies that cannot afford to do so? How must the remaining carbon budget be divided-up among countries in order to ensure maximum parity in terms of standards of living? Which are the countries that must go net negative in their emissions so that equity can be pursued for those who have not benefited from historic emissions? These are the real questions of relevance here, but there was practically no space for such reflections in decisions made at COP27. It was, after all, India, a developing country that first made the demand to bring in all fossil fuels under the ambit of reductions, before the narrative was hijacked and twisted by the countries of the Global North. 

“We agreed to 1.5°C in Paris and have no problem pursuing this goal. Our problem stems from the attempt to shift the burden of responsibility for doing so. For years now, developed countries have underdelivered on their promises and now they seek to renegotiate the terms of the convention to suit their purposes with scant regard for the norms and rights. How can we in good faith agree to new terms for a contract when the old terms were not met and always blocked, and that too at the cost of developmental priorities in poor parts of the world where energy and resource access continues to be a scourge. Is this a fair expectation?” asked one G77 negotiator when asked about the assault on the principles of the convention.

Following the EU’s “deal” for a L&D facility that sought to link it to global mitigation imperatives and pit developing countries against each other, yet another ploy to weaken developing countries’ resolve to protect their interest came in the form of dragging negotiations and reopening closed texts late hours into the night. For those countries that can afford to send large delegations, this was a minor inconvenience as they could use their substantial bench strength to grind out suitable language. For poorer countries with small teams, such tactics amount to little more than an attempt to slowly and gradually erode resolve through sheer exhaustion. 

“We are very concerned that developed countries do not see the means of implementation for developing countries as a considerant part of the goal. We have been given the impression that it is unfashionable to talk about equity and CBDR. Unfulfilled commitments of $100 billion per year and unfulfilled pledges to the Green Climate Fund and Adaptation Fund. But these are lost in the din of optics and applause. It is time to leave optics aside and focus on real ambition,” said Diego Pacheco, Bolivia’s negotiator, and the Like-Minded Developing Countries (LMDC) spokesperson.

Ominous signs for the future 

COP27 is now done and dusted. While no party can claim to have gotten what they were gunning for, one group definitely lost more than the other. Developing countries must take lessons from the outright attack on their rights and the potential fractures that were exposed this year. In the game of narratives, big developing economies are going to continue to be painted as villains, particularly in western media, while equity and CBDR-RC will be increasingly used as strawmen to justify the lack of climate action. The responsibilities for accelerating action will be increasingly sought to be redistributed and redefined, even if it comes at the cost of developmental objectives of resource- and access-poor geographies of the world. These are things that developing countries must be wary of and for which they must prepare accordingly.

Coordinated attacks require coordinated defences, in the absence of which developing countries will remain on the backfoot, losing ground inch by inch until very little remains of which to protect. Developing countries will also have to coalesce around a fresh way to view equity, the old focus on historic emissions to draw lines of responsibility are no longer solid foundations and articulations must be developed around remaining carbon budgets and equitable shares of the same. For this, strategies must be prepared jointly and well in advance so that they can be sharpened over the course of the year in the run up to COP28, when the attacks are bound to become louder and more difficult to fend off.

Although the threats and what must be done to protect against the erosion of the principles seem clear, past experience provides little hope of coordination among the poorest, most vulnerable people of the world, who have the most to lose. The erosion of the rights to develop in an equitable manner will not guarantee success on the climate action front. If anything, it would only guarantee a reduced ability to absorb the shocks of impending climate impacts.

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