Experts React: Few Triumphs at COP27
Expectations were low for the 27th UN Conference of the Parties (COP27) in Sharm El Sheikh, even though the Egyptian presidency branded it as an “implementation COP.” Last November’s COP26 in Glasgow was the first opportunity to review the more ambitious nationally determined contributions (NDCs) countries were required to submit five years after the Paris agreement. COP26 also marked the return of the United States to climate leadership, after former president Trump withdrew from the Paris Agreement. As such, COP26 felt like a critical test of the world’s commitment to keeping the target of 1.5 degrees Celsius warming alive, even if on life support. By contrast, COP27 always felt like a lower-stakes affair—even before an energy security crisis broke out in Europe and energy costs soared around the world.
Tensions ahead of COP27 were palpable. Developing countries criticized wealthy nations for lack of promised support for a “loss and damage” fund and delivery of $100 billion per year committed climate finance to help poorer countries cope with the effects of climate change. As of late October, only 24 countries had submitted updated NDCs ahead of COP27, suggesting incremental progress toward cutting emissions. And there was a growing sense that an energy security crisis Europe had diluted the focus on climate.
There was little triumphalism after COP27, suggesting that these low expectations were warranted. Developing country negotiators managed to secure agreement on a loss and damage fund, agreeing to create a “transitional committee” to operationalize and capitalize the fund. But details are missing. It is not clear which countries will provide funding and about the supporting role to be played by multilateral development banks. Overall, COP27 did little to raise ambitions on cutting emissions or phasing down fossil fuels.
Positive Steps on Methane Mitigation
Senior Fellow, Energy Security and Climate Change Program
The last COP elevated methane to the top of the international climate agenda, and COP27 showed that methane mitigation is gathering speed. At COP26, more than 100 countries joined the Global Methane Pledge—a collective effort to cut methane emissions by 30 percent from 2020 levels by the year 2030. Last November, the United States proposed new regulations on methane emissions from oil and gas, and soon after COP26, the European Union proposed its own ambitious methane legislation.
This year’s climate conference featured some concrete steps to cut emissions by adopting new technology and implementing new rules. The International Methane Emissions Observatory launched a Methane Alert and Response System (MARS) that will use satellite technology to track methane plumes and hotspots and enable rapid action by regulators and companies. The United States, European Union, Japan and other countries announced an important producer-consumer effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions from traded gas. Several countries announced new commitments to cut methane emissions from the energy sector. Collectively, these are important steps forward.
The most consequential move on methane announced during COP27 came from the United States. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued its long-awaited supplemental proposal to reduce methane emissions from new and existing sources in the oil and gas sector. The proposed rules will cover lower production wells, create more stringent flaring rules, and allow a wider range of methane detection technologies. EPA aims to finalize the rule by 2023.
Politics of Fossil Fuel Phase Down COP27
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Energy Security and Climate Change Program
In 2021, the wording of the final deal at the COP26 was watered down from “coal phaseout” to “coal phasedown” after pressure exerted by India, China, and the United States. After the Indian environment minister explained the last-minute change at COP26, media and world leaders gave India in particular considerable flak for its stance.
Most major economies’ current energy systems are dependent on either oil and gas or coal for their energy security. While they may be undertaking an energy transition, they are still reluctant to phaseout the fuel they most depend on. For many wealthy countries, coal is no longer an energy security resource. They are oil and gas dependent. However, for most developing countries like India, coal remains a key source of energy security. India does not have vast oil and gas reserves and is highly import dependent. Although India has ambitious renewable energy plans, research shows that India will need to rely on coal for decades to meet the growing energy needs of its 1.4 billion people. This illustrates why a “coal phaseout” may be more problematic for developing countries like India.
At COP27, in a bid to counter this previous negative attention around its stance on coal, India decided to push for the “phasedown” of all fossil fuels. This is something that, in principle, no country should disagree with if it is following the science-based pathways for 1.5 degree Celsius targets. India’s call to phase down all fossil fuels, as opposed to selectively signaling out the one that developing countries mostly depend on, was welcomed by the European Union and the United Kingdom. This call did not receive any support from other major economies and did not make it in the final COP27 text. However, India’s call to phase down all fossil fuels has helped ward off negative attention from the global community surrounding its continued use of coal.
COP 27 Carves a New Future for the United States and China
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Energy Security and Climate Change Program
COP27 was no kumbaya moment, but that should not come as a surprise. Just like any other issue that requires government action, concrete steps on climate are constrained by domestic dynamics. Take China, for example. Previously a COP leader, China’s focus this year was on managing internal pressures around its 20th Party Congress. Minister Xie Zhenhua set the tone, breaking tradition by lacing his opening remarks with controversial political discourse regarding Taiwan. Then, China—the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter—refused to curb methane emissions, in opposition to most of the rest of the world. And then China turned its back on its allies in the developing world by refusing to provide financial support to countries suffering the worst from climate change impacts. In contrast, the United States assumed at least a bit of its old leadership role. Riding high on the passage of significant climate legislation and recent successful elections, U.S. climate change envoy John Kerry committed to work to scale up U.S. international climate finance to over $11 billion. If successful, this would make the United States the world’s single largest contributor to global action against climate change.
The COP outcomes emerged after President Biden and President Xi held their first in-person meeting, a few days earlier at the G20. While the meeting did not result in a U.S.-China denouement as happened at the Paris COP, it did suggest that the two countries have some common ground and were willing to begin to sort out new guidelines for a relationship—albeit a competitive one. Clearly, national interests and global ambitions will continue to lead the bilateral U.S.-China relationship away from the closeness of a decade ago. What remains to be explored is if developing countries will be able to leverage the U.S.- China competition to get real traction on climate finance and support for rebuilding after climate loss and damages.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2022 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.