COP27: Pivoting from negotiation to implementation

Every annual COP is different. Whether from Copenhagen to Durban, from Paris to Glasgow—each I’ve attended has been marked by its own measures of success, expectations and achievements – and in some cases, shortcomings. What can we look ahead to in Sharm El-Sheikh?

If the Egyptian hosts succeed in attracting a significant number of world leaders to attend the start of the COP – they are hoping some 100 will be there—it will signal that climate remains top of the political agenda despite global geopolitical and economic challenges. That in itself will be a success not to be overlooked or underestimated. Add to this the considerable diplomatic experience of the COP27 President Sameh Shoukry and the deep UNFCCC experience of his team: Ambassador Wael Aboulmagd has previously chaired the G77 and Ambassador Mohammed  Nasr has been in the process for close to two decades. Add the support and goodwill of participating countries, including in particular developing countries, and the key elements for a good result from Sharm El-Sheikh are there.

At the same time, with little over a couple of weeks to go before the start of the COP27, delegates and the incoming Egyptian Presidency will face a number of challenges to securing a successful outcome and establishing a solid foundation for enhanced climate action in what the UN Secretary General has coined the “critical decade.” Global emissions need to halve by 2030 in order to have a realistic chance of keeping global temperature increase to within the 1.5 degrees Celsius limit of the Paris Agreement and to help safeguard a habitable planet.

Given the latest IPCC reports, expectations will be high for the COP to demonstrate progress in enhancing formal ambition such as setting the world on a pathway to both stay within the 1.5 degree Celsius limit, as well as to adapt to the worst impacts of climate change. However, new or updated nationally determined contributions (NDCs) submitted by Parties since Glasgow are insufficient to make a significant dent in global emissions. A number of major emitters have not raised the headline targets of their first NDC, and fewer still have responded to last year’s call in Glasgow to do so. And while new domestic policies such as the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) in the United States will help to generate momentum, they do not directly raise formal international targets. The IRA will only go part of the way to delivering on the U.S. target put on the table well over a year ago. Even that degree of progress does not settle nerves globally as the outcome of the U.S. midterm elections may also impact the atmosphere of the COP and global perceptions of U.S. ability to deliver on its climate targets.

Expectations for Sharm El-Sheikh may also be unrealistically high, given the formal negotiations have not been tasked with delivering a high profile outcome. Arguably, there are two prominent issues mandated to deliver at COP27. It is vital that Parties agree on both—they are important in their own right. The first is agreement on the Mitigation Work Programme (MWP), which will be a critical forum to facilitate halving emissions this decade. The MWP – if done right – can also be a vital bridge between the pedestrian five-year ambition cycle of the Paris Agreement and the need to urgently respond to the climate emergency we face. The second is the operationalization of the Santiago Network (SN), which will help to avert, minimize, and address loss and damage (L&D). At the same time, neither the MWP nor the SN will respond immediately to the climate emergency, and a successful outcome on these items will not make front page news (although failure to agree them might).

Other mandates coming out of Glasgow are not set to mature until after COP27, depriving the COP27 Presidency of high-profile negotiated deliverables on topics such as adaptation and finance. Nevertheless, the COP27 Presidency will need to find a way of visibly showing progress in these areas, on the path towards their successful conclusion. This includes the global stocktake, which will be the highest profile outcome of COP28 and vital to enhanced climate action.

Progress on climate finance does not paint a rosy picture either. Developed countries have still not delivered on their decade-old promise to provide US $100 billion per year of climate finance to developing countries by 2020. This will not help the mood in Sharm El-Sheikh nor will it help developing countries as they seek to fulfill their own climate commitments, particularly given the global economic downturn, the ongoing effects of COVID 19, and increasing costs and mounting debt burden arising out of increasingly frequent and severe climate impacts.

Which leads to the question of finance for L&D, which is shaping up to be the most contentious issue at COP27. While it seems unlikely that consensus will be reached on establishing a new finance facility in Sharm El-Sheikh, one must hope that a compromise can be found so as to make progress and not sour the wider negotiations. There is enough common ground emerging to find a way forward on this, and it is essential that a solution is found. The pre-sessional group consultations and the role of the Presidency will be vital.

But even if conditions were perfect and COP27 did not face these challenges, it would still face other, significant hurdles. With Glasgow having largely agreed on the guidance needed to fully implement the Paris Agreement—the “rulebook”—the Egyptian Presidency is essentially the first that will have to oversee the so-called “pivot to implementation.” Commendably, their objectives for the COP revolve around this notion, and rightly so. In the end the atmosphere and vulnerable people around the world don’t care about targets or promises on paper, but real action.

At the same time, implementation is about so much more than the outcome of the formal negotiation process. But the way that COPs have been structured and approached to date, combined with the demand of the world’s media for easy-to-grasp headlines (and let’s face it bad news sells better than good), means that the whole system remains geared to the ‘drama’ of the final COP plenary. The UNFCCC has its own culture, built over decades, centered on adversarial negotiation. This is not conducive to a successful transition to implementation and presents a significant double risk to the COP27 Presidency: achieving their priorities on implementation depends for the most part on processes, entities and stakeholders entirely outside of the climate negotiations; and the formal outcomes agreed in Glasgow and to be delivered at COP27 are not newsworthy. Added to this is the long-held and widespread misconception that levels of ambition of individual countries are determined at COPs. They are not. They are decided in each nation’s capital and certainly are not negotiated in the UNFCCC.

There is a need for a deep discussion of how the COP process should evolve to deal with new realities and the shift to implementation – but there is no time for that now. Parties must support the Presidency in making the first step in the transition to implementation a success. One way to do this would be for Parties to invest more time and focus directly in the action agenda, and help shape it into something that sends clear signals to facilitate enhancement of national level climate action. The negotiations and action agenda are still in their separate silos – and negotiators and their ministers focus mainly (if not entirely) on the negotiations and see the action agenda as background noise. I know – I have been in their shoes. This needs to change.

Another way to move forward the transition would be for Parties to visibly recognize, promote, and commend the significant progress at the technical level that is being made across a range of issues in the UNFCCC. The standard mode of operation in the UNFCCC has for too long been to ask for new mandates, processes or bodies that duplicate what is already there. This is understandable because it is what lead negotiators, who are generally not into the technical details, do. But this is inefficient, splits scarce resources and does not serve the world well in a pivot to implementation.

Implementation is hard, complicated, technical, and not conducive to generating easy headlines. But it is what matters.

Despite all of the challenges, COP27 can succeed if the Presidency articulates, and secures buy in for,  a clear vision for what success looks like in the context not only of COP27 but also the critical decade—including beyond the formal negotiating process. No single COP can solve the climate emergency we all face. But Sharm El-Sheikh can generate further momentum behind the transition to implementation through clear communications, a good signal from world leaders at the start of the COP, and full use of the diplomatic experience of their team. By garnering the goodwill of Parties, the COP27 Presidency can set a strong foundation for what comes next in the new world of a post-negotiations reality.

C2ES COP27 Resources: