Hope, yet concern

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Chris Hegarty, Chair of our Ethical Oversight Committee, reflects on yet another year of post-COP mixed emotions.

I go into every COP full of hope, yet full of concern. If a global gathering of world leaders on the climate crisis didn't exist, we'd have to invent it. It's an issue that can only be solved collaboratively. The science is clear. Leaders are generally saying the right things. Yet with 26 previous COPs having fallen short, was it realistic to think that COP27 could be different?

Consensus is hard – and slow

Can a process that's designed to work by global consensus accelerate as rapidly as we now must? If it can only go at the pace of the slowest/most reluctant, is it time to consider other ways of decision-making? How can those willing to go further and faster be encouraged to race to the top?

And, in that context, what role can investors play? Should they be encouraging political leaders to go further and faster within the UN process? Should they focus on driving change within the companies in which they invest? I'd argue, both

Turning words into action

The first week of COP fortnight is when the political leaders turn up and try to set the overall tone and ambition for the conference. The second week is when the negotiators knuckle down and try to come up with an actual text that can be agreed. The danger is that, while the politicians acknowledge the scale and urgency of the problem, their words are not translated into action that's even close to being sufficient.

Agreeing a text often involves word-by-word negotiation, with brackets around wording that hasn't been agreed, and sometimes brackets around brackets. It's laborious and painstaking - and can result in huge frustration (remember Alok Sharma’s tears in COP26 when, in the last breath of the conference, the commitment to 'phase out' coal power became 'phase down' instead).

The ‘polluter pays’ principle

The issue of 'Loss and Damage' was one marker of progress or otherwise at COP27. Loss and Damage relates to funds being paid from wealthy nations to those countries most affected by - but typically least responsible for - climate change, to reflect the losses and damages to their culture, economies and societies. It was formally on the COP agenda for the first time. An agreement has been reached, albeit with many details still to be fleshed out.

The frustration is that the predicted extent of losses and damages in future is directly related to the extent of climate change that we continue to allow to happen.  In that respect - the central issue of cutting greenhouse gas emissions - there was painfully little progress at COP27.

From hellish to hopeful

The rhetoric was stark, with UN Secretary General António Guterres describing us as being on a 'highway to climate hell, with our foot on the accelerator'.

With temperatures already 1.1 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels, and with global emissions remaining at or near their historic peak, he may be right.

Yet there is hope, in the feeling that political leaders might be behind the curve. While they squabble over brackets around brackets, maybe the world's people and companies will just get on with moving to a zero-carbon world. Power is unevenly distributed, but most of us have at least some - for example, as voters, consumers, investors, employees, educators, or campaigners. We need to use it.

Fair COP or COP out?

Alongside at least some progress on ‘Loss and Damage’, COP27 saw particular spotlights shone on how to guard against greenwash in net zero commitments from the financial/private sectors, and the relationship between climate change and debt (particularly the sovereign debt of those countries suffering from climate-related natural disasters).

But many questions remain. This is a process that allows hundreds of lobbyists with links to fossil fuel interests to play an important part.  Where women are seriously underrepresented. And where  a small number of laggard participants can exert disproportionate influence on the outcome.

A platform for progress

To end with a positive thought, the progress made on Loss and Damage at COP27 is an important building block of mutual trust. And that trust is crucial in agreeing on the mitigation (cutting of emissions) side of things too. COP27 can - and must - be the springboard for greater and faster action from now on if we’re to rein in the scale of the climate crisis.

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