Politics is a slow process, and the meeting of the world’s nations for the 27th Conference of Parties (COP27) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Sharm el-Sheikh, an Egyptian resort, proved that slow changes add up while demonstrating that the climate response must be faster. The choices we make in our lives and work are the most immediate tool for achieving the rapid reduction in CO2eq emissions, pollution, and environmental damage. Nations are dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s on agreements that will lead to systemic change, but when it comes to change, individuals and businesses are in the driver’s seat.
COP27 was a disappointment for most. Wealthy nations grudgingly agreed to create a loss and damage program that will help offset the trillions of dollars in damage to emerging economies but failed to agree on funding. There was no decision to establish policies that discourage the continued use of fossil fuels and much of the conversation in Sharm el-Sheikh revolved around adaptation — what will need to be done after we miss the Paris Accord’s 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold for global warming. For many, it felt like giving up on the dream of avoiding the worst of climate change.
No one can deny the scale of loss and damage we see around the globe,” U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres told the diplomatic gathering, while the remainder of the 45,000 people who attended lobbied from outside the meeting. “The world is burning and drowning before our eyes.” The final report from COP27, authored by the host country, Egypt, avoided substantive changes to global policy while reiterating the concerns raised at previous COPs.
Here’s what happened and ideas about what each of us can do to send the message that the time is now — not tomorrow and not a decade from now — to change the way we make, use, and dispose of everything we use. The “trick” of sustainability, if there is one, is learning to think like part of nature. How do we build a society that reuses everything just as nature does? How does an organization that delivers a product or service also mimic natural organisms like fungus and bacteria by breaking down materials for reuse? We need to bring nature to the table in COP negotiations by thinking like nature.
COP27 took place in a world with record-breaking greenhouse gas emissions. The cost of damage caused by climate change is at least $5 trillion and may have cost as much as $29 trillion since 1993 according to recent research. And this fall, half of Pakistan was flooded by rains clearly tied to climate change. Yet, we’re still waiting for the political will to appear to act decisively. Research and funding are needed to, among other things, fill in more than 100 major gaps in our understanding of carbon removal. Meanwhile, carbon mitigation remains unaddressed, the world’s poor nations lack an early-warning system for extreme weather and climate impacts, and the U.N. reported that COP26 pledges made at Glasgow in 2021 have had negligible effects on global emissions. There is much to be done.
“I’m angry at the failure of our leaders,” 350.org’s Agnes Appiah-Hall wrote in an email. “I’m disappointed that, once again, fossil fuel lobbyists succeeded in delaying vital progress to keep our planet livable.”
The irony of 45,000 people descending on a Red Sea resort was not lost on anyone. Greta Thunberg stayed away, but if attendees traveled an average of 2,243 miles — the distance from New York to Las Vegas — the carbon footprint of just the travel associated with COP27 exceeded 55.6 million pounds of CO2. To put that into a deeper perspective, on average each attendee at COP27 contributed 1,236 lbs. of CO2 to the atmosphere. That’s more than the annual per capita emissions in 173 of the world’s nations.
We need the two-week physical meeting of the COP to become a year-round virtual collaboration that makes a physical meeting unnecessary. That also means that each of us can help by creating solutions in our communities that contribute to progress that can be shared globally. It’s time to act and learn, not just declare unfunded goals. But declare unfunded goals COP27 did.
Loss and Damage Fund
The key breakthrough at COP27 was the agreement to establish a loss and damage fund to support low-income countries that suffer climate damage, such as Pakistan’s $30 billion in flood losses this year. The EU drove the debate about supporting counties that contribute a tiny fraction of emissions but endure huge losses; the loss and damage fund promises an undefined amount of funding to compensate impacted nations. The United States was a reluctant participant in creating the fund and because of the newly elected Republican House, we may never approve any money for the program.
There will be little movement on the loss and damage fund until COP28 or 29, when the parties agreed to reconvene and work out the details of the program. While it is a form of kicking the can down the road, this was celebrated as progress. The lack of concrete funding commitments also reflected the sense of surrender to missing the 1.5 degrees Celsius target that represents trillions of dollars in additional losses due to runaway global warming.
What can you do?
The world’s wealthy nations contributed the lion’s share of CO2 emissions in the past and still wildly out-pollute most of the world. If you agree that these countries should be held responsible for the pollution they create, write your Congressional representatives and urge them to allocate funds to the U.N. loss and damage program. Climate change is a global problem, and just like individual states that never experience hurricanes help storm victims recover, the loss and damage program can establish the good will necessary to keeping nations working collaboratively to transition off fossil fuels.
Fossil Fuels Still Unleashed
India and other nations called for a plan to end the use of fossil fuels. But the language of the final report, which is the first COP declaration to mention fossil fuels, was cleansed of references to phasing out fossil fuels. Instead, the phrase “low-emission and climate-resilient development” was added. “Low-emissions” is a clear concession to the idea that some fossil fuels, notably natural gas, are necessary to the post-carbon transition. Additionally, the world’s development banks issued no new guidance to avoid financing carbon-emitting technologies during the meetings.
Various researchers and organizations have concluded that $4 trillion a year in renewable energy investment is needed to meet the goal of reducing CO2 emissions by 50% in 2030. About 27% of the funding over the next seven years, or $5.9 trillion, needs to be directed to low-income nations to accelerate their transition to renewables. But the world’s wealthy nations have failed repeatedly to keep an earlier promise to deliver $100 billion a year in funding for emerging economies. Yet, oil and gas companies continue to pour money into lobbying to avoid new regulations and to quash subsidies for renewables — while fossil fuels are subsidized to the tune of $5.9 trillion annually, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Instead of pivoting to renewables, fossil fuels companies will continue to drill and pollute, despite clear evidence of the climate and health consequences. While the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act did create new incentives and tax breaks for renewable energy and electrification, the total funding represents less than 10% of the support the oil and gas industry receives annually. Each COP meeting will return to this question and it’s unlikely to be answered differently until the damage caused far exceeds the short-term cost of rapid decarbonization.
What can you do?
We urge you to write to Congress and your state legislators to demand action, following the example of new rules that will ban the sale of new internal combustion vehicles by 2035 in California, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Washington, and seven other states. You can also send a signal by driving less and switching to public transportation or an electric vehicle. Another easy target to reduce your support of the oil industry is refusing any single-use plastic you can. Or, if you want to indulge in a bottle of soda, buy only products available in recycled PET packaging — and always recycle to reduce the need for more oil extraction.
None of these changes is too small because our collective action can reduce demand for oil. Tell the companies you buy from to join you. And each time you visit the grocery store, drop a note to the manager that lists the items you decided not to buy because they are wrapped in plastic or do not provide visible environmental impact information.
Sustainable forestry was in focus at Sharm el-Sheikh. Notably, three nations that host the largest remaining rainforests — Indonesia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Brazil — declared they would work to halt deforestation. Recently elected Brazilian president da Silva was welcomed as a hero after his defeat of climate denier and rainforest foe Jair Bolsonaro, and he followed through by launching the “OPEC for rainforests.” These countries, which host 52% of still-existing rainforests, will seek to establish economic incentives to prevent deforestation. That will require the emergence of a robust carbon market to compensate for the value of keeping trees and rainforests intact. OPEC is a telling comparison. These countries could profit immensely by halting and reversing the loss of the world’s lungs.
The proposed cartel needs to expand beyond the three founding countries to incorporate all the world’s critical forests. But the COP27 summary underplayed the progress on forest management with tepid language: “Parties should collectively aim to slow, halt, and reverse forest cover and carbon loss, in accordance with national circumstances.” That last bit, about national circumstances, is a nod to the challenge faced by low-income countries that have natural resources to sell, which underscores the importance of the international renewables and climate mitigation investments discussed above. The rules and roles for participants in deforestation efforts and carbon markets will be worked out over the next several years by the United Nations Environment Assembly, which does not reconvene until February 2024.
What can you do?
Start with what you buy. Avoid virgin wood products whenever possible, and choose recycled or renewable fiber alternatives in packaging, toilet paper, and other paper items. You can also write to Congress and state legislatures to demand improved funding for paper recycling. If you want to put your money where your mouth is, keep an eye on carbon markets developments. The value of a ton of carbon will continue to rise until the end of the fossil fuel era, perhaps much longer, and could produce significant returns if held in a long-term portfolio.
Not one word of the COP27 summary is dedicated to reining in plastic production, which is growing and projected to increase by 400% before 2050, contributing more CO2 emissions and other environmental toxins to existing pollution. The same petrochemical industry working to prevent regulation is responsible for most plastic production. Earlier this year, the U.N. announced that it had a mandate to negotiate a global treaty on plastic pollution, a process that will include substantial investment in creating a circular economy for the plastics we decide to continue using.
The U.N. treaty on plastic pollution will be negotiated in a series of meetings that began in Nairobi, Kenya, over the next two years with the goal of arriving at a final agreement by the end of 2024. Scientists last week called on the parties to focus on reducing the complexity and health risks associated with plastic manufacturing and recycling by standardizing fewer, safer chemicals. Here, again, intense lobbying will shape the final outcome. However, the emergence of new bioplastics — which remain controversial — may reveal an intention by the industry to reduce its environmental impact.
What can you do?
Americans don’t have to wait to act. You can ask your state government to impose extended producer responsibility laws that require the makers of plastic and other packaging to support the collection and recycling of the materials they make. Like carbon markets, EPR regulations help to create incentives for collection and processing of materials, and plastic is the most problematic of all the materials humans use because many plastics require specialized recycling.
Your other effective action can be writing to companies and telling retailers that you want standardized, recyclable plastics used in packaging.
Reparations are a hot topic globally, and the nations that rode fossil fuels to extraordinary and inequitable wealth are resisting fiercely. The U.S. hesitancy to participate in the new loss and damage program that emerged from COP27 was informed in large part by the desire to avoid acknowledging liability. Whether reparations or contributions, there is a pressing need for funding to support the transition of coal- and oil-fueled economies to renewable energy, as well as to help when climate-related disasters strike. A global challenge like climate change requires global, not just national, investments.
Likewise, low-income nations are dependent on agricultural practices that contribute to rising emissions as they climb the economic ladder. Denying economic progress to the three-quarters of the world’s population that has not benefitted fairly from progress during the fossil fuel era will lead to greater conflict, increasing immigration as people move to escape drought and extreme heat in search of a better life. Without a clear commitment to share the burden of the carbon transition, the prospects for political cooperation are dim.
We need to find ways to pull together, rather than in our separate, selfish directions. No one gets out of this by relying on themselves alone because the climate response requires a comprehensive human effort. National economies may collapse at different paces as temperatures rise but, ultimately, it is global civilization that is on the line.
The Sharm el-Sheikh action plan invites contributions to two funds to support adaptation — surviving as climate change accelerates: the adaptation-focused Least Developed Countries Fund and the Special Climate Change Fund, which focuses on transfer of technology to low-income countries that lack vibrant university and research systems. There are no recommendations about how much nations should contribute to help the poorest societies prepare for worsening environmental impacts. Both funds are the subject of their own annual U.N. conference of parties meetings.
What can you do?
Raise awareness about the importance of sharing the burden of a global climate response, starting at home. Talk to your family and local representatives. Encourage new sister-cities programs that link U.S. communities to the fate of cities that face existential threats such as sea-level rise, extreme heat, and perpetual drought. Ask your local media to cover those sister cities so that everyone can participate in learning how climate change is progressing globally, not just at home.
Always Just a Start
The world did not get the breakthrough needed from COP27. With next year’s COP scheduled to take place in another petroleum-producing country, the United Arab Emirates, it is not likely we’ll see a breakthrough on phasing down the use of fossil fuels.
It’s not easy to be patient when the world is burning but calm attention is what we desperately need. The politics of a climate change COP meeting are necessary, albeit frustrating, ballets of legal and diplomatic language that are transforming global agendas and national policies. At the same time, the decisions we make in our daily lives can make a more immediate difference by sending signals to the people who want to earn our business. We can bubble up new priorities by linking our spending to climate priorities. Cities, counties, and states are passing legislation and making changes in their spending that can kickstart broad changes in the economy. One company or a state government that decides to electrify its fleet contributes to demand that increases the scale and efficiency of vehicle manufacturing, which leads to lower prices for personal EVs.
Climate is no longer a global debate; it is a global reality that everyone, regardless of their political orientation, is ready to address. That doesn’t mean there is just one path out of the climate crisis. There are 8 billion ways forward. The question is when will we create the global symphony that delivers a sustainable society we can proudly pass to our children and grandchildren. Every generation must contribute, even if not all of us will reach that sustainable promised land.