The Wins and Losses of COP27 Climate Summit
Political scientist Thomas Weiss sees the failure to reach an agreement on fossil fuels as a major setback.
The United Nations COP27 climate summit, held last month in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, presented some stark wins and losses on the climate change policy front. The Graduate Center recently spoke to Presidential Professor Thomas G. Weiss (Political Science, Liberal Studies), an international relations scholar, about the results of the summit and the role of the U.N. in addressing global climate change.
The decision to create a loss and damage fund to assist developing countries devastated by extreme weather was hailed by many as a breakthrough, and Weiss agrees. “I think the main success is the fund, which has been under discussion for a very long time,” he said. “I actually didn't think the U.S. was going to agree to it, but they did.”
Representatives from more than 190 nations signed off on the fund — which may eventually cost billions for high-CO2-emitters like the U.S. — as countries such as flood-stricken Pakistan and drought-plagued Somalia are crushed under the weight of the climate crisis.
The fund is expected to pay for the rescue and rebuilding of social and physical infrastructure damaged by climate disasters. However, no consensus was reached on who would pay for it. “Obviously, the proof of that pudding will be whether there's any funding for it,” said Weiss.
Though China is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, it was excused from contributing to the loss and damage fund due to its classification as a “developing country” — a status determined at the U.N. Earth Summit over 30 years ago. “Somehow, China continues to get a free ride,” Weiss said.
“What made sense in the ’70s and ’80s, maybe even in the ’90s, putting China together with Burundi and Chad, makes absolutely no sense now as it’s the largest producer of greenhouse gases,” the professor said. “And they certainly have the finances to throw into the fund … On the face of it, it’s preposterous.”
Moreover, the omission of China as a financial supporter of the fund is likely to breed resentment, Weiss said. “As long as that's the case, the U.S. and the Europeans have a perfect excuse not to put any money in because China ought to be putting money in and they're not.”
Fossil Fuel Cutbacks Fell off the Table
As part of a recommitment to the Paris Agreement goal to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, nations pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions in almost half by 2030. But the quashing of efforts to lower global fossil fuel emissions is being described by many as an unequivocal failure.
“The success of oil producers in making sure that no mention was made of cutting down on fossil fuels is perfectly absurd,” said Weiss, author of Would the World Be Better Without the UN? “That's what a big portion of the agenda should have been about.”
Major oil-producing countries led the way to derail plans to curb fossil fuels — a point on which Weiss did not mince words. “The fact that some combination of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia managed to get that off the table is successful lobbying,” he said. “But it's pathetic.”
Though progress was made on the Methane Pledge, with about 150 countries now committed, a resolution to set a 2025 emissions peak was abandoned altogether. In his closing speech, Frans Timmermans, vice president of the European Commission, provided his blunt assessment, stating, “We have all fallen short in actions to avoid and minimize loss and damage. We should have done much more.”
Speaking of countries that tried to back out of the goal of 1.5 Celsius — reports indicate Saudi Arabia, China, and Brazil — Timmermans said, “Many parties, too many parties, are not ready to make more progress today in the fight against the climate crisis.”
Imperfect But Still Important
Despite its shortcomings, the summit offered an opportunity for world leaders to directly address climate change and work toward tangible solutions, Weiss said.
“There are very few weapons in the quiver of multilateral cooperation except name, shame, and embarrassment,” he said. “So, getting together once a year in order to say, ‘Nothing has happened, this is what we decided last year, we haven't gotten there,’ what have you, is important.”
Equally critical were negotiations that took place on the sidelines of the summit, said Weiss, pointing to informal talks between American and Chinese climate envoys John Kerry and Xie Zhenhua as an example.
“It’s important to get together to take stock,” he said. “Just think about the coverage that was given to it, in the United States and elsewhere, which means the issue of climate, the issue of who's responsible for the damage and who's responsible for trying to make a modest amount of progress, and guaranteeing some sort of future in which we're not all fried alive, stays relevant.”
Thomas Weiss is presidential professor of Political Science at the Graduate Center, a distinguished fellow of global governance at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and director emeritus of the Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies.
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