The COP27 conference in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh has been full of fractious haggling over how to tackle climate change, as these meetings always have been. But there is one thing that many participants warmly agree on this year: the huge, two-week annual UN-sponsored gatherings need a serious reboot.
It’s about time. Now that the 2015 Paris agreement is in place, there is rising frustration about a system even veteran insiders acknowledge is not doing nearly enough to meet its central goal of cutting greenhouse gases.
“COPs were designed to get countries to agree and they did that in 2015,” says Tom Rivett-Carnac, a former UN climate official. “What the world needs now is action to reduce emissions and as a result the COPs are no longer fit for purpose.”
Halla Tómasdóttir, chief executive of The B Team coalition of pro-climate action businesses, is a COP newcomer but says the need for rewiring is “blatantly evident”. “The speed and the scale needed to solve these challenges is not going to happen in this format,” she says.
The format dates back nearly 30 years to the first COP, or conference of the parties to the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change treaty. This COP27 is the 27th meeting of these parties, or nations, and like last year’s one in Glasgow, it is a monster compared to its forebears.
Early gatherings were typically smaller and focused on government negotiations to secure global climate deals. On the fringe of those talks, businesses, think tanks and campaigners held side events to push their views or show off their efforts.
A reversal began with the adoption of the Paris agreement, which aims to cut greenhouse gases enough to keep global warming well below 2C from pre-industrial times, and ideally to 1.5C. The COP fringe has since exploded in size as businesses, banks and industries have been encouraged to join the emissions-cutting effort.
The UK government hosts of last year’s COP26 meeting turbocharged the trend. It became a stage for eye-catching government and industry pledges to end internal combustion engine car sales by 2040, or halt forest loss by 2030, or cut global methane emissions by 30 per cent by 2030.
These pledges have featured in many of the relentless rounds of business roundtables, panel talks and presentations on display this year in Egypt. But one smaller and less glamorous event put this bustle into jarring context. An international team of scientists reported that emissions in 2022 have stayed at such record levels that if they persist, there is now a 50 per cent chance that temperatures will soar above 1.5C in nine years.
This gap between promise and reality is spurring a welcome raft of ideas to bring more scientific rigour and accountability to COP commitments. Many people want to see formal scientific guidance for, say, how many electric cars are needed by what year, or how much methane should be cut by when.
“It would be good to know where the 30 per cent comes from,” says climate scientist Bill Hare of last year’s COP26 pledge to cut methane emissions.
UN science reports show the figure should be higher, says Hare, a member of a UN expert group set up this year to monitor the splurge of net zero commitments by businesses and financial groups. He also thinks the Bonn-based UN climate secretariat that helps countries to host COPs should track pledges, to avoid announcements being made one year, then discarded the next, as a new host nation comes in with other priorities.
Oxford university professor Benito Müller, a longtime climate adviser to low-income countries, would replace today’s costly “mega-COPs” with a smaller annual one held in Bonn. Rotating cities could host “global climate action weeks” each year.
Christiana Figueres, formerly the UN’s top climate official who helped to shape the Paris Agreement, agrees important aspects of these meetings have become “obsolete”. She would keep the current two-week format but devote the first week to progress reports on concrete achievements from governments and the private sector. The second week could focus on identifying where further and faster action was needed.
She would also do away with what she calls “a hangover from times past” that classes private sector participants as COP observers rather than formal participants.
“There is no easy answer to the question of how COPs should evolve,” she says. “But evolve they must in order to reflect the reality of where we are.” She’s right. With luck, next year’s COP in the United Arab Emirates will plot a fresh path towards the climate action the world urgently needs.