Activist countries

Developing countries feel ‘betrayed’ by rushed negotiations at COP27

This special COP27 briefing was originally published on November 17 in our flagship daily newsletter, network today. register here to get the context and consequences of the news in your inbox every day.

As this round of climate talks enters its home stretch, the apparent lack of progress on the biggest issue here – a fund to address loss and damage for poor and vulnerable countries – has prompted a press conference impulse from representatives of the G-77, the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), the bloc of least developed countries and the Independent Association of Latin America and the Caribbean (AILAC).

“We felt we could rely on [last year’s talks in] Glasgow, and one of the basic elements was to establish a fund for loss and damage. This has been clearly stated, and this is clearly the expectation,” said Molwyn Joseph, Minister of Health, Welfare and Environment of Antigua and Barbuda, on behalf of AOSIS. “Anything less than the creation of a loss and damage fund at this COP is a betrayal.

The overall message from the group was that at the very least, the world must emerge from Egypt having established at least the concept of such a fund, as a demonstration of the political will to move forward. The details – where the money will come from, how it will be spent, etc. – can be dealt with later.

“It may not suddenly trigger a flurry of finance,” said Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s climate change minister, speaking on behalf of the G-77 bloc of 134 developing countries. “Give us a political message that we are all ready to take this forward as a community of countries and nations.”

While there is a general consensus on the existence of a fund for loss and damage, some rich countries are still delaying the tangible creation of such a fund due to various concerns. They include the fact that in some places like the United States, it is probably not an option to appropriate money that amounts to reparations for other countries. The latest draft text of an agreement contains detailed language on loss and damage, although under a heading regarding funding arrangements it reads ominously: “{Placeholder for relevant results of ongoing negotiations}.”

As I wrote in yesterday’s bulletin, there is no indication that the COP will end on schedule. The obvious frustration of delegates from the developing world here only underscores the impasse; the negotiators are here for a few long nights before it’s over.

A discounted social cost of carbon

A few days ago here, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island, noted that buried in the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed new methane rule was an update to how the agency calculates and uses the social cost of carbon.

“This is perhaps, quietly, the most important thing the United States has announced here at this conference,” he told reporters.

The social cost of carbon is a dollar figure representing the harm caused to society by the emission of one ton of carbon (in carbon dioxide, or methane, or other greenhouse gases). I reached out to Whitehouse to find out more about why this update, which would set a baseline of $120 per tonne (with potential variation depending on the details of its calculation), was so important.

“This new social cost of carbon of $120 per ton can be a game-changer if applied broadly throughout government decision-making,” he told me. “Federal agencies will make more informed choices about rulemaking, procurement, investments and other policies if they consider the true costs of pollution.”

This is most notably manifested in regulations such as the methane rule, where an accurate carbon price can properly demonstrate the costs and benefits of a policy. During the Obama years, a social cost of $43 was initially used; the Trump administration has decided to magically eliminate emissions damages and set them at less than $10 a ton. The Biden administration started with a price tag of $51, so this update would mean the EPA now considers every ton of emissions to be more than twice as damaging as before.

Heard at the COP

At an event for young African climate activists, a speaker shouted something like, “We don’t want to do COPs forever! She received enthusiastic cheers.

This made me think: under what circumstances will these annual climate conferences stop?

The original United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – the UNFCCC, under whose auspices all the COPs have taken place – actually provides some kind of answer. Article 2 of the 1992 document states that the ultimate objective is to achieve “the stabilization of concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at a level which would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”.

Of course, this ship has been sailing for a long time: concentrations of greenhouse gases have already caused dangerous interference with the climate system, and as I have written before, even bringing global emissions to zero today will still result in more such interference in the decades to come.

So maybe the key is to focus on the term “stabilization”. A rosy future where emissions have fallen to zero and gases in the atmosphere have descended to a livable plateau would represent victory under this original charter.

At the moment, such a future is not exactly on the horizon. So while these young activists may not attend COPs “forever,” it will be some time before the same logic that started the conferences can reasonably bring them to an end.