No one was claiming before COP27 that this would be a COP for the ages, and it really wasn’t. This was a COP of low ambitions that were barely met and was overshadowed by Russia’s war in Ukraine and the myriad global consequences. With 45,000 delegates, rotten food, sewage running down the street and, worst of all, intermittent wi-fi, this appears to have been a bleak experience for all involved. The Egyptian government won’t be sorry to see the COP circus leave town either. As with Qatar, they will wonder why they were so keen to host a global event with all the much-deserved scrutiny that hosting such an event brings.  

What passes the casual adviser by is that each COP is a two-week event with the glitzy stuff taking place at the beginning when the world leaders show up and make their pitches. Having had a jolly and successful time in Indonesia and given Putin a healthy kick in the balls along the way, Biden, Sunak and the rest made their brief appearances at COP but were on their way pretty swiftly. What followed was 12 days of negotiation, lobbying and a traditional all-nighter on the last night of the conference to get “the agreement” over the line. The agreement had two main strands to it: first, the agreement took the Glasgow agreement from last year around “phasing down” coal and improved minutely on it by adding a reference to renewables. India had wanted a reference to all fossil fuels but the petrostates and their vast armies of lobbyists successfully argued against this, making this year’s fossil fuels statement close to, if not actually, pointless. 

The second – and more interesting – strand was around the creation of a “loss and damage” fund through which developed nations will compensate developing nations for the now irreparable damage caused by their emissions. The “loss and damage” fund was set up as a consequence of emotional and intelligent lobbying by those countries most affected but also – and crucially – as a quid pro quo for having made no progress on fossil fuels. As the UK’s Alok Sharma, the President of COP26 pointed out, the 1.5 degrees limit on warming is “on life support” and there had been no “definitive steps” towards reducing emissions and hydrocarbon use at COP27. The establishment of this fund may have seen developed nations concede a crucial point but there’s not a lot of point being compensated for loss and damage if that loss and damage means the loss of your nation. 

There’s also no point setting up a fund if the funders aren’t serious. Pakistan has suffered $30bn of damage through recent, climate change-induced flooding; in response, the EU has committed 60m Euros to the fund. The UK’s commitment under the current government will be minimal too: a country in recession that recently axed its development spending by almost a third to cover off threats from the right is unlikely to be a willing contributor. It would be wrong to underestimate the significance of the setting up of this compensation fund – a genuinely important point of principle has been conceded and future leaders of G7 countries may curse those that agreed to it – but without a proper funding framework, this initiative will go nowhere. 

The fund will also struggle because countries like the UK do plenty of “loss and damage” type reparations anyway but want to control the use of their taxpayers’ money. If you look through the speeches made by President Ramaphosa of South Africa during his State Visit this week, you will see lots of reference to his country’s JETP – Just Energy Transition Partnership – an $8.5bn programme launched last year and funded by an international group of partners (IGP) consisting of the US, UK, France, Germany and the EU. This is a programme designed to help South Africa wean itself off its massive coal fired power stations which provide 80% of its (intermittent) power and onto renewables. Indonesia has just launched a $20bn JETP with the same group which will see the IPG “mobilise” $10bn of public money for energy transition in Indonesia. Even the briefest analysis suggests that the UK’s contributions to both those programmes in terms of loans and grants are sure to dwarf anything they pay into a loss and damage fund. 

In the end, then, COP27 achieved almost nothing and not least because it came too soon after the last one for there to be any real change. While physical events – droughts in Europe and Africa; floods in Pakistan; heatwaves in the Arctic – suggest that governments are wasting time that the planet doesn’t have, COP27 came just 12 months after COP26 and the middle of a brutal, existential war in Ukraine that only the most sagacious foresaw this time last year. COPs are supposed to take place every year but the Covid-enforced gap in 2021 suggests that, for these events to be meaningful, COPs might be better off taking place every other year at least. Alternatively COP could take place every year but every third COP, say, would be in a top 10 global city and with an agenda and ambitions to match which the previous two COPs would have built up to. After all, a meaningful climate agreement every 1,000 days would be far better than the current annual cycle of perennial disappointment which seems nailed on to be continued next year in – and this is not made up – Dubai. 

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