The global climate confab that begins on Sunday is on a nasty crash course with reality.
Organizers of the U.N. climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, known as COP27, are framing it as a forum for discussing actions, not promises — and in particular, as an opportunity for wealthy nations such as the United States to spell out how they plan to deliver on their pledges of financial assistance for poorer countries facing climate disaster.
But events around the world are spoiling the vibe before the event has started. Those include soaring energy costs and Russia’s war in Ukraine, which together have brought a renewed push to produce fossil fuels, as well as the rise of far-right politicians who oppose taking action on global warming.
This is the inconvenient truth: Governments are undermining the Paris climate agreement just seven years after they signed it. And nearly all the large companies that announced pledges to bring their net carbon emissions down to zero have failed to produce plans matching their words.
Dozens of national leaders are scheduled to come to the desert resort town for the conference, which runs through Nov. 18. Among them is President Joe Biden, who the White House has said will attend next Friday to “highlight the need for the world to act in this decisive decade.”
On the other hand, Chinese President Xi Jinping, whose country ranks No. 1 among current greenhouse gas polluters, plans to skip the summit.
Those leaders who do attend can expect their green promises to meet a lot of skepticism.
Around 170 countries, including the U.S., have failed to update their 2030 greenhouse gas reduction targets, as they had promised to do by now at last year’s climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland.
While the climate bill that Biden signed this year will help reduce U.S. emissions if implemented in full, the legislation will not be enough for the country to meet the administration’s existing pledge to cut those emissions in half by 2030. Nor will it poise the U.S. to go beyond those goals, as the Paris agreement envisioned.
That collective failure to hand in homework, on top of rich countries’ failure to deliver promised climate finance to the world’s poorest countries, leaves just one nation on track to meet the Paris goals: Gambia.
Even the United Nations’ Environment Programme admits that “no credible pathway” exists for meeting the Paris agreement’s ceiling for global temperature rise, 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. Exceeding that threshold significantly increases the danger of climate-related scourges such as drought, floods, wildfires and the spread of tropical diseases, scientists say.
Despite all these setbacks, people outside the national governments continue to embrace the convening power of the annual summits.
“A lot of the news seems like we’re moving in the wrong direction, and that’s a fair assessment,” said Microsoft President Brad Smith, whose company is a “Strategic Principle Partner” of the Egyptian COP27, in an interview before the summit.
Then he qualified those comments.
“In the short run, people in some cases may have moved faster than their ability to achieve their goals. But they put big stakes in the ground,” meaning he insists he has long-term optimism.
If the annual climate conferences are failing, the world has no obvious alternative.
The G-20 — the only forum that brings American, Chinese, EU, Indian and Russian leaders together at an intimate level — doesn’t appear ready to take up the mantle. The most viable bilateral forum — U.S.-China dialogues — is paused at Beijing’s insistence: payback for Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August.
These are some other trends to watch out for at Sharm:
Corporate numbers don’t add up
Corporate and banking climate pledges appear to be as weak as government promises.
Banks say more than $130 trillion of private capital has been committed to transforming the economy for net-zero carbon emissions. But the Rockefeller Foundation and Boston Consulting Group have calculated that the combined private and public capital deployed so far meets only 16 percent of the world’s climate-finance needs.
While around 700 of the world’s largest companies now have net-zero emissions targets set for 2040 or 2050, a new report from Accenture says that “93 percent of companies with net zero commitments will miss their targets,” based on their current trajectories.
Xi worse than Trump?
Former President Donald Trump has spent years serving as the chief villain in global climate talks, for withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris agreement and fomenting the climate-denial wing of the Republican Party.
Xi now has a credible claim to Trump’s title.
While the world is likely to miss the 45 percent cut in emissions needed by 2030 to stay on track for the 1.5-degree Paris target, drastic action by China — a country responsible for 28 percent of current annual global carbon emissions — is one of the few actions that could change the outcome.
Instead, China will keep its 2030 emissions roughly steady with its 2020 output and that, according to the Climate Action Tracker NGO, is consistent with global warming by 3 degrees.
Rich and poor countries in parallel universes
The world’s most climate-vulnerable countries, often among the poorest, need only a sliver of the trillions of dollars committed to green energy transitions in rich countries to address the worst effects of climate change.
They’re not getting it, and are now upping the ante by pursuing claims for climate reparations — compensation for facing climate havoc they did not create.
While that campaign is unlikely to deliver significant results at this month’s conference, the U.S. is offering a new message about climate reparations after years of resisting them. Washington is now open to discussion — but says China, which has shown no interest in contributing, should pay as well.
At the same time, fundamental disputes exist about what types of energy the rich countries should be funding.
There’s pressure on multilateral development banks and private finance to stop funding fossil fuels. But — thanks to Russia’s war against Ukraine — even rich European nations have a growing appetite for natural gas, and they need to get it from somewhere that isn’t Russia.
That puts countries including Nigeria, Algeria, Senegal, Mozambique and COP27 host Egypt in a tight spot. To get climate finance they often need to ditch natural gas, but to earn lucrative export income from Europeans they need to tap natural gas.
As financiers and governments debate whether natural gas is an acceptable energy source, they risk being torpedoed by rising interest rates. “Persistently high interest rates are pressuring the buildout of new infrastructure, particularly capital-intensive clean energy projects,” said Joe Webster, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
No one expects a new global breakthrough at this COP27 conference, but Jorge Gastelumendi, who has been to more than 20 COP conferences, including as Peru’s negotiator, said “the COP process has moved beyond government negotiations.”
“The pavilions for the non-state actors are where the action is really happening: where asset managers, insurance companies and investment banks are operating,” he said.