COP27 has moved us forward – but there is still a glaring accountability gap that we all must work hard to close says Soben Head of Sustainability, Dr Bonahis Oko.
COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh offered the world’s most powerful governments and business leaders the chance to see climate change from another perspective: through the eyes of the developing world. Whether they will act on what they saw remains to be seen.
There were many encouraging developments and initiatives to emerge from the conference. These include moves to ensure more transparency and accountability in net zero goals and the important issue of adaptation and decarbonisation of building materials. And history was made in the final hours, with the establishment of the long-awaited loss and damage fund to assist developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change.
However, there are still some very fundamental issues that remain unresolved when it comes to a fair and just transition to a low carbon world. Chief of these is the financial resources that are required to go to scale; to make transitions on energy and in the food systems, and to take the 1.5-degree goal off life support.
Calling out greenwashing
Corporations and local governments can no longer hide behind unsubstantiated net zero plans and liberal carbon offsetting. This is the message in Integrity Matters, a first report from the United Nation’s High-Level Expert Group on the Net Zero Emissions Commitments of Non-State Entities (Expert Group), a group of 17 people hand-picked for the task by the UN Secretary General in 2022.
The Group has not pulled any punches. Among its 10 recommendations are that corporations, local governments and financial institutions must publish clear plans on how they will get to net zero, with measured and reported milestones along the way; organisations cannot claim to be net zero while continuing to invest in new fossil fuel supplies; and they must decarbonise throughout their whole supply chain rather than relying on often cheap and unregulated carbon credits.
The Expert Group also calls for a just transition to net zero globally. Financial institutions, multinational corporations and development banks must take a new approach to risk on clean energy projects in developing countries. And any business operating in developing countries should demonstrate how they are contributing to the economic development of the regions in which they are operating.
Decarbonising the built environment
Initiatives to tackle the thorny issue of construction’s two heaviest carbon-emitting materials, steel and concrete, were unveiled at COP27 with commitments from governments and industry to accelerate decarbonisation efforts.
The Breakthrough Agenda, a coalition of governments from 45 countries which together account for over 50% of the world’s GDP, was launched at last year’s COP. This year it set out action plans for decarbonisation under five sectors: power, road transport, steel, hydrogen and agriculture. Germany and the UK are co-leading the Steel Breakthrough actions.
Also launched at COP26, the First Movers Coalition is a group of multinational corporations, now 65 strong. At COP27, the Coalition announced that the concrete and cement sectors had joined their group with First Mover companies pledging to purchase at least 10% ‘near zero carbon cement’ by 2030.
Though the built environment is currently a fringe sector at the COPs, many believe it needs a seat at the main table. France and Morocco are leading a Buildings Breakthrough group with the aim of ensuring that near-zero emissions and resilient buildings are the new norm by 2030. So far 15 countries have signed up with France looking to host a global meeting in 2023.
Adaptation on the agenda
Egypt used its presidency at COP27 to launch the Sharm-El-Sheikh Adaption Agenda which calls for action to make our world resilient to the changing climate by 2030, focussing particularly on the most vulnerable communities. Among the actions called for are better homes, smart early warning systems for disasters, nature-based solutions and the increased use of waste as a secondary resource. Battery systems must be part of resilient decentralised power generation and transport infrastructure should be resilient to climate hazards.
Adaptation should be on the risk management agenda of every country – and every business. From a built environment perspective, 80% of the buildings in cities in 2050 already exist today, yet few countries have adequate retrofit programmes in place.
Back in 2017, the Taskforce on Climate-Related Financial Disclosure (TCFD) said that organisations should be reporting transparently on climate change risks and opportunities and their strategies to deal with them. Earlier this year, the UK mandated that its largest registered companies and financial institutions must report in line with TCFD recommendations.
Movement on methane
Sometimes we forget that when we talk about ‘carbon emissions’, we are really talking about carbon dioxide equivalent emissions – the global warming that comes from all the greenhouse gases, expressed as the amount of carbon dioxide that would be needed to do the same damage.
One of the big hitters is methane. Although it doesn’t hang around as long, its global warming potential (GWP) is 25 times that of carbon dioxide.
Some countries signed up to a pact to reduce methane by 30% over the next decade at COP26, but this year more countries signed up, bringing the total to 150. This is encouraging – although details of how countries will actually do this remain thin on the ground.
Polluter doesn’t pay
Amongst the positives to emerge from COP27, there were some significant negatives too. While developed countries appear to be making progress with pledges, plans and initiatives, they are conveniently ignoring the fact that the gap between them and the rest of the world is getting wider.
In Western countries, a common principle is that the polluter pays. Yet that doesn’t seem to apply to climate change. A 2009 pledge by wealthy countries to contribute £100 billion a year by 2020 to combat climate change and adapt in poorer may be reached next year but countries including the US, Canada, Australia and the UK are accused of failing to pay their fair shares. The adaptation fund pledge at COP 27 was 35% less than Glasgow despite the UN’s call for more support.
As Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif reported, over 1,700 people died and over 2 million homes were destroyed in recent floods, while Pakistan contributes less than 1% to global carbon emissions, yet it is one of the ten most climate-stressed countries on the planet. The creation of a loss and damage fund may prevent the Global South losing more trust and belief in the Global North, but the developed nations still need to pay into the fund.
Against such a backdrop, pledges such as the US’s $2bn for solar projects in Angola or the EU’s €1bn for adaptation and resilience in Africa feel a bit like trying to use a piece of chewing gum to plug a failing dam.
Watch: Reduce carbon, without compromise
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A version of this article also appeared in BE News in November 2022.