Every year, nations from around the world gather for a meeting on climate change. It's called the Conference of State Parties, or COP, and this year it took place in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. To speak about the big trends of COP 27 and the major takeaways for what happens next, we have Mark Nevitt, a professor at Emory Law School and an expert on climate change and national security.
Paras Shah: Does it seem like there’s a new climate disaster every time you turn on the news? From raging fires, to devastating floods, to blinding blizzards, the threat from climate change is only growing.
News clips: The number of weather-related disasters has increased five-fold in the past 50 years, on average an event linked to weather, climate, or water hazard has killed 115 people every day since 1970. Devastation spans six states, the massive tornado with winds as strong as a Cat. 5 hurricane touched down in central Arkansas and remained on the ground for more than 200 miles. Kenya’s worst drought in four decades is wreaking havoc on wildlife, the crisis has affected nearly half of the East African nation’s eight provinces, leaving humans and beasts very few food sources. The storm is named Hinnamnor and has been recorded in the history books as the eighth strongest typhoon to impact the country, ever.
Paras: Hello and welcome to the Just Security podcast! I’m your host, Paras Shah.
Every year, nations from around the world gather for a meeting on climate change. It's called the Conference of State Parties, or COP, and this year it took place in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. To speak about the big trends heading into COP 27 and the major takeaways for what happens next, we have Mark Nevitt, a professor at Emory Law School and an expert on climate change.
So, Mark, help us understand how these climate talks work. Every year, the COP takes place in countries that have signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate. What is that Convention?
Mark Nevitt: That’s the international governing body, the treaty that has been widely ratified by most nations in the world since it entered into force in 1994.
So, this is an international, legal meeting under the umbrella of really Article VII of the Framework Convention on Climate Change. And Article VII essentially lists 13 different tasks for the conference of party to undertake, which can all be summarized in implementing, operationalizing, and making climate progress as we make new scientific and technological advances.
Paras: You might recall COP 21, which took place in Paris back in 2015. That's where countries around the world signed the Paris Climate Agreement. Basically, countries with the highest emissions were to be held most accountable for combating climate change. So as emission levels continue to increase, commitments from countries like the United States and China would increase as well.
Mark: The Paris Climate Agreement was, I would call, a breakthrough COP, where nations of the world put forth their greenhouse gas emissions – what's called nationally determined contributions – and then report on climate progress within their respective borders. And the hope is that these commitments will just sort of ratchet up over time.
Since the UN Framework Convention was signed in the 1990s, Mark says we’ve seen three big trends in climate: Mitigation, adaptation, and loss and damage.
Mark: The framework convention was really initially focused on climate mitigation, which is the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, reducing reliance on fossil fuels. That has been sort of the core focus of the Framework Convention on Climate Change. Since 1994, it's been omnipresent.
However, at some point in time, we realized that we couldn't mitigate our way out of the climate crisis, and so the Framework Convention had more emphasis on the second trend, which is on adaptation, which at one point frankly was sort of not a word widely spoken because there was a fear that wealthier nation might just try to adapt their way out of the climate crisis and not follow through on their climate mitigation commitments. And adaptation just looks to invest in more resilient infrastructure and other adaptation tools cognizant that we're just not making enough mitigation progress. In other words, the water, the sea level rise, the wildfires are going come, so adaptation has to address this. We have to reduce our emissions and adapt, you know, walk and chew gum at the same time.
The third trend – this is relatively recent in the last, uh, few years – is loss and damage. There was a realization that we are simply not mitigating or adapting fast enough, and real climate impacts are affecting many nations, particularly those developing nations in the Global South. You saw that right before the climate conference in Pakistan which suffered extreme flooding – I think one-third of the nation was underwater. And of course, Pakistan is a developing nation and has just contributed a very small percentage of greenhouse gas emissions.
So, the question of climate justice – some climate activists refer to loss and damage as climate reparations, other people refer to it as compensation – but the general idea is how do we make whole or address the real harm that climate change is causing developing nations in the Global South.
Paras: Here’s what Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Muhammad Shehbaz Sharif, told the UN General Assembly in September.
Sharif: Mr. President, Pakistan has never seen a more stark and devastating example of the impact of global warming. Life in Pakistan has changed forever. For 40 days and 40 nights, a Biblical flood poured down on us, smashing centuries of weather records, challenging everything we knew about disaster and how to manage it. People in Pakistan ask “why?” “Why has this happened to them?” One thing is very clear: What happened in Pakistan will not stay in Pakistan.
Mark: Since the Paris Agreement, loss and damage has become more center stage. In the last Conference of Parties 26 in Glasgow, loss and damage did not make enough progress, in the view of many, many nations, and so there was a hope that there could be more progress made on that third trend in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, and it was placed on the formal agenda for the first time in Framework Convention history.
So that's the big macro trend. Of course, in the last year, Paras, we've seen Russia invade Ukraine, U.S. and China, the two largest greenhouse gas emitters, stop negotiating on climate change, as a bilateral matter following Representative Pelosi's trip to Taiwan. But on the positive ledger, the U.S. passed major domestic climate legislation, the Inflation Reduction Act.
Paras: President Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act over the summer. It provides over $365 billion for climate action and could reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions up to 40% by 2030 through investing in electric vehicles and supporting state-level climate initiatives.
Mark: So all this sort of international geopolitical stew kind of came together at Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, in the last month. And the question was, would these geopolitical issues and this issue of loss in damage, how would that impact climate negotiations?
Paras: So what happens at the conference? What happens to that stew?
Mark: Progress was made on loss and damage. There was an agreement, called the Funding Arrangements for Responding to Loss and Damage that was agreed upon by parties.
Paras: Loss and damage are two terms for the consequences of climate change. Damage is where restoration is still possible. Like damage to property and infrastructure. Lost refers to damage that is irreparable, such as loss of life and biodiversity. The washing away of shorelines and cultural sites. Island nations have been particularly vocal about loss and damage. Here’s Seychelles President Wavel Ramkalawan speaking at COP 27.
Ramkalawan: The carbon emissions of Seychelles are very low. And we clean up our CO2, plus that of the world, through our mangrove and seagrass meadows, making us a zero contributor to the destruction of the planet. And yet, our islands are disappearing and our coasts are being destroyed.
Mark: Loss is irrevocable. That is the loss of economic and non-economic, just harm. Loss of life. It could be culture, biodiversity, cultural heritage. It's never coming back. So we do have a funding for loss and damage, that is now distinct, Paras, from adaptation funding. So for your listeners, maybe they receive a lot of emails about Giving Tuesday. So we now have effectively a Giving Tuesday for loss and damage where nations have a mechanism to provide assistance to developing nations and addressing climate harm.
That is a distinct bucket from adaptation funding. So now we have a formalized bucket. A lot of questions associated with that, whether or not nations will actually follow through on funding this loss and damage bucket, and frankly that requires congressional appropriation in the United States to do that, right. And that seems very, very, very difficult in the face of Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in just a month or so. But so loss and damage, there was certainly progress made, but it remains to be seen how it's implemented.
Paras: And what about the geopolitical dynamics with the U.S., China, and Russia?
Mark: Well, I think it was notable that both Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin were not there in Egypt. President Biden was there briefly. This issue of energy security I think did cast sort of appall over the climate negotiations, particularly Europe was really, really reliant upon, uh, Russia as a petrostate.
I will say on a positive note that the U.S., via Secretary Kerry and his counterpart in China, did, uh, meet, they did discuss. So there is some actual work being done between the U.S. and China on climate negotiation. That's really, really important that China is the second largest economy. It's the world's largest emitter on an annual basis today. Any progress on climate change, you have to have the U.S. and China at the table working this through.
Paras: At last year’s COP in Glasgow, thousands of protesters marched outside the talks. They felt that these international meetings weren’t going fast enough, and that the world needed to meet the problem of climate change with greater urgency.
News clip: This morning, the most famous climate activist in the world, Greta Thunberg, is leading young people in the biggest protest this week.
“Shame on you!”
They say it’s not just about a lack of leadership and accountability, but the most powerful politicians don’t represent their climate realities. Alongside Greta Tunberg, Mitzi Jonelle Tan from the Philippines, and Vanessa Nakate from Uganda, and other high-profile activists got to meet with the U.N. Secretary General.
“Talking about climate finance, we need an answer. We can’t wait until next year because basically, we don’t have time for that.”
Paras: What about what happened outside of the climate talks? Last year in Glasgow we saw a lot of protesting, did that happen here?
Mark: We didn't really see that as much in Egypt. Part of that is because Egypt, domestically, it's very hard to engage in peaceful protest, freedom of assembly, it’s much more restrictive. So the activism was often off stage, not at Sharm El Sheikh, but elsewhere.
Paras: Where do you think we go from here?
Mark: Sure. So, I think it's important to focus on two things, Paras, in the next year. The first is looking to see the locations of the next COP and future COPs, as well as implementation of what was agreed upon in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt.
I think the place where the COPs are held is important. The next COP28 is in the United Arab Emirates, a Gulf nation in the Middle East. I think you'll see similar sort of dynamics there in the sense that it'll be more difficult for climate activists to get to the UAE for the COP Summit. And I'm looking to see where they're gonna, when they're gonna announce COP 29 and COP 30, which is the follow on COP Summits. Australia's making a bid for COP 29. Brazil was making a bid for COP 30. I think both would be inspired choices. Australia in particular could highlight the plight of small island developing states, and Brazil could highlight some of the challenges in the Amazon. Look for that in the next year or so, it's unclear exactly when that decision will be made. But I think the place of these climate negotiations can drive a lot of overall progress. So that's on location.
On implementation, as one of my former bosses in the Navy once said, “Ideas are a dime a dozen, but implementation is everything.” And that really is true in climate change. So, in fact, so many of the agreements you'll see, it'll say Sharm El Sheikh has an implementation agreement, and they use the terms operationalization, implementation quite frequently. But ultimately it depends on nations following through on their commitments, which oftentimes involves domestic legislation. A lot of nations have committed to achieve net zero emission by a certain date, but the devil's really in the details on how that works out.
So, where do we go from here? I would just say mitigation, adaptation, loss and damage. So, mitigation, nations collectively need to reduce their emissions – worldwide emissions – by 8% every single year by 2030. We’re off track to do that. I will be looking to see how nations come together with the nationally determined contributions and can those NDCs, those nationally determined contributions, be trusted, verified, audited, in a way that makes them credible. So, I'm looking to see how mitigation follow through will be occurring.
On adaptation, we've fallen short on adaptation funding. Wealthier nations committed to provide a hundred billion a year. That's fallen short. There's no penalties for failure to provide adaptation funding, right? This is all ultimately, there's no sort of climate police, you know, putting you in climate jail if you don't follow through on your funding commitments. But you do lose legitimacy and you do sort of lose international credit for following through on commitments. So again, we need to follow through on adaptation and of course, loss and damage. We now have this loss in damage funding arrangement. But how will that actually be fulfilled?
I would just say that mitigation, adaptation, loss, and damage, that's a function of political, well, US and China leadership on the climate stage, and frankly outside pressure from people who care deeply about this issue to hold their political leaders accountable.
Paras: Anything else you'd like to add?
Mark: I study climate change quite a bit and I have to, you know, a lot of the progress we've made isn't quite what we would want, hope it to be, but I think you have to stay optimistic. I think the Conference of Parties do real work in the sense that we come together as an international community and we just do a status update and a status check.
And you've seen a lot of interest in these COPs. They become sort of seminal moments every single year, and that's a healthy sign that people are aware of the challenges that are facing climate change. I speak, I teach climate change law at Emory Law School, and that's always inspiring to see the younger students in my class who are interested in the subject and want to work in this area.
Paras: Mark Nevitt, thanks very much.
The Just Security podcast is produced in partnership with NYU's American Journalism Online program. AJO trains students to become world class journalists, no matter where they live or work. Find out more about AJO, and how you can apply, in our show notes.
This episode was hosted and produced by me with co-production and editing by Tiffany Chang and Michelle Eigenheer. Our music is the song “The Parade” by Hey Pluto! Special thanks to Clara Apt, Alex Kapelman, Ben Montoya, and Mark Nevitt. We’ve linked to Mark’s Just Security piece, which previewed COP 27, in the show notes.
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