Episode 4: The fight for real climate action continues
After an extended negotiation, COP27 concluded on November 20th with, for the most part, a disappointing outcome. Despite the hopeful decision to create a dedicated Loss and Damage fund for countries most impacted by climate disasters, COP27's final agreement fell short of what we need to keep the planet under 1.5 C degrees of warming. In our final episode of the series, we discuss how the conference played out, and what's next in the fight for real climate action.
I think people have to get louder. And I think the electorate has to get louder in every capital of the world.
00:00:09 Lilly Richard
This is the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy’s Podcast, Uprooted, with a limited four part series: Talking COP27.
From the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, I'm Lilly Richard, and throughout the course of this series, I've spoken with some of the policy experts at IATP about the intersections between climate and agriculture and this year's global climate conference, COP27. We're now three weeks out from the end of the conference. In this final episode, we'll unpack some of what happened there and what it means going forward. The short version is: the outcome of COP 27 was disappointing. If the goal of the conference was to agree to an implementation plan for mitigation, that would keep us under 1.5 degrees Celsius of catastrophic global warming, then it fell short, with countries refusing to commit to phasing out fossil fuels, lots of talk about agriculture with no real action, and officials setting the stage for giant loopholes to be carved out in the form of carbon offsets. But we'll get to all that later.
One significant bright spot of hope was the last-minute agreement to establish a Loss and Damage fund for countries most impacted by climate disasters. This was thanks to the hard work of global S delegates and climate justice organizers who had been fighting for this fund for more than a decade, and that shouldn't be discounted. But beyond that win, the conference failed to deliver. Looking back on COP 27, there's still a lot to proces. In the weeks leading up to the COP, and while it's going on, there's a flurry of activity: announcements, reports, public pledges. From the outside looking in, it's difficult to keep up with everything that's happening; and from the inside, it's often just as hard. The COP can be a platform for drawing attention to climate-related issues (for example, the enormous and totally unregulated methane emissions from the industrial livestock sector, or the industrial food system’s dependence on fossil fuel based synthetic fertilizers), but it's also a negotiation over the text of a specific international agreement – one that shapes the global policy landscape we're operating in – and NGO's with limited resources and people power tend to be shut out of those negotiations by design.
IATP's Sophia Murphy and Shefali Sharma spent a week at the conference in Sharm El Sheikh, participating in side events and coordinating with allies to follow and respond to the official action. Here's a little bit of our conversation about how that actually played out:
00:03:00 Sophia Murphy
I mean, it's really hard when you're there to know what's going on. I think there's actually really great tag teaming that happened between people who could sleep and people who didn't – people in different time zones, because the meetings go sort of 16 to 18 hours a day. So actually one person tracking it just falls apart anyway.
00:03:17 Shefali Sharma
And you know, in addition to like the thousands of emails or just the chats, right, we just had a lot of chats going with hundreds of messages in it and trying to keep track. And this is where you would get the intelligence about what was actually happening between the different governments and what was changing, and why was the text different?
But also to say, I mean, people couldn't hear – you couldn't see who was speaking. You couldn't hear what was being said in the room. So just like physically, how to have a conversation? It was sort of surreal how poor the conditions were, for people who already don't agree and have way too much of an agenda; the fact that they also, just physically in the room, it was very, very difficult to follow what was going on. It's really hard on people. The negotiators find it hard. The NGOs. But the only people who enjoy it are there people who come to the trade fair; like that, that's fun. But if you're really there to try and see something happen, it's incredibly disspiriting.
But we also need a translation of all of this to everyday citizens and other groups that are not following this process, because this is such a costly process and time consuming process; it's really tricky. It's tricky to balance the amount of investment it takes to engage in this process. And the only thing I can say is that what we need investment in is like translating what these outcomes mean for political action, for a broader set of actors – you know, for citizens or other NGO's, for other movements that are taking place in different countries to understand and say, this is what's happening in this very closed technical space, and it needs to stop. And how can we stop it from a broader political perspective than just you know these two weeks at the COP. But the bottom line is they're such technical processes that so much of civil society is out of it and feels like it's not worth the investment. And yet, even though they're doing incremental changes – one step forward, 2 steps backwards – what they decide has huge implications for humanity, right? For all of us.
So we know the process is difficult and the scales are tipped from the start. But we also know that it's important for civil society to be present there so that governments and corporate interests can't just operate inside a black box. We need to understand what happens at the COP so we know how it relates to broader global movements and policy fights. So, what happened?
I mean, I think everyone is walking away saying it was incredibly hard and I feel like the fight was all to hold ground from last year, which is incredibly depressing, right? Like we should not be having to re-fight those battles. And we lost some ground, even, I think, on last year.
Yeah, I mean we're going to take, you know, the next weeks to look through the different final texts that came out of Sharm el-Sheikh. But I think what's pretty clear is that when it comes to the 1.5C target and loopholes, what came out of Sharm el-Sheikh is a step backwards.
At first when I went in, I was thinking all of this talk is sidestepping the fact that wealthy countries do not want to pay for the damage they have caused, and so they're looking for other ways. They want more countries to contribute. They were finding ways to avoid it. And we seem to keep multiplying the number of funds but not putting any money into them. But actually walking away, my biggest disappointment is with the lack of aspiration. And of course the money matters! The money is critical and in some ways there was a success with the achievement of the Loss and Damage fund – for all that we don't know yet exactly how much will go in; and we have a pretty good idea that it won't be anything like enough – but that is an achievement. At the same time, the fact that they weren't willing to push any further than they did last year, even on a particular form of energy like coal.
It was obviously hard. It's not as if people sat around twiddling their thumbs and then said, oh sorry, nothing here. They – they work hard. And yet to far too little avail.
In some ways we went into the COP, prepared to be disappointed. We've known that UNFCCC commitments are not adequate to control the climate crisis. This was basically acknowledged in the original Paris Agreement itself, which subsequent COPs have built on, because that text included plans to ratchet up commitments over time. The value of these COP agreements is that they set a floor for climate action that countries can be held accountable to (at least via internal pressure, since there's no real international enforcement mechanism). So basically, we need to go much further, much faster on climate action than our Paris Agreement commitments require, but those are at least bare minimum standards set by the international community; a floor. What seems to have happened at this year's COP is that they lowered that floor.
There's growing consensus in the climate community, including the generally conservative IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, that getting to real 0 emissions and preventing catastrophic climate overshoot will require a total phase out of fossil fuels as quickly as we can manage. But after lots of back and forth, the final agreement out of COP 27 does not include that language, only a watered-down version that aims for a “phase down of unabated coal power and a phase out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.” Meanwhile, despite the known issues with carbon offsets, which have been shown to be ineffective at actually reducing or permanently removing emissions, there was a push to expand carbon removal schemes, including an Article 6.4 of the agreement, which deals with how to finance climate action using an official U.N. carbon offset market. Facing an urgent need to rapidly cut emissions, which would require a major systemic transformation, countries are desperately trying to maintain business as usual and meet their mitigation targets by using loopholes, offsets and creative accounting. But you can't fool physics.
The other thing I would say, just as an impression coming away was just the incredible surge of interest in carbon markets of some kind nature swap. So just ways of monetizing – not even necessarily monetizing – first of all, using land and oceans to offset your carbon emissions, whether you are the government or you are a private entity. And then of course lots of people trying to make money on that as well, and that sort of pushing through in the face of all kinds of logic and science and equity. But just very hard to withstand, how much interest there is and how desperate is the need for money. So how, how would you stop that? So it felt like a big loss of energy for actually mitigating and a huge surge of interest in finding other ways out. Which is not very encouraging.
I mean the text for the scientific body that went in there for Article 6.4 was just horrible. You know you've got a whole framework that is just saying, hey all removals, everything under the sun, let's do it, you know?
Shefali is talking about the article 6.4 draft text that was presented at the beginning of the conference that recommended legitimizing all sorts of risky, ineffective or harmful carbon removal projects, which would undermine real emissions reduction goals and would likely cause a lot of unintended consequences for ecosystems, food, systems and communities. Civil society advocates, including IATP, mobilized to prevent that draft from moving forward into this year's final decision. But the question of carbon offsets is still in limbo, and the fight will continue leading up to next year’s COP.
What are we going to be looking at, you knoww, going into COP 28, in terms of these big loopholes? They want to use the land sector as a massive loophole for polluters to keep polluting and to say, we can just remove all these emissions; we can just, you know, sequester all of this through land. And that's just not possible. And I think it's clear, even attending the industry sessions that were there, that this is a very big technological and a scientific challenge for even the companies that are in this business. You know, Bloomberg is writing about it, so if everyone knows that these offsets are a big hoax, why are we going down that road when it leads literally to, you know, an existential question for humanity? So I think that's an area that we're going to have to look at very carefully. And you know IATP's been doing great work for over a decade on why carbon markets don't work for farmers. And we're just going to have to step it up, and really make it clear. I think it's going to also play out in reality. It's going to play out in the markets. It's going to play out with the climate disruptions that we see, and the economic disruptions that we're going to see as a result of climate chaos.
I mean, you know. So we're coming up with all these loopholes for land-based offsets, whereas what we need to do is phase out fossil fuels, right? This decade. And that's the bottom line. Every political calculus needs to lead to that.
There was also the issue of agriculture and food systems at the cop. After years of being ignored and sidelined in COP conversations, the climate impacts and vulnerabilities of our global food systems are finally being taken seriously and the Koronivia joint work on agriculture was a more prominent feature of this year's conference than in past years. But despite being framed by some as the “Food COP,” there wasn't much progress on agriculture in the final text and where it was mentioned, the phrase “food systems” was deleted and replaced with “food production systems.” This is a step backwards, because instead of expanding the issue to carefully consider all of the ways food systems intersect and interact with eaters, workers, communities, the economy, and the environment, it's an attempt to isolate a single part of that system. Voices calling for agroecological transitions continue to be marginalized in favor of more reductive approaches that reinforce the status quo.
And the Koronivia thing. It just seemed to be spinning its wheels as far as I could make it out. Like, there was a ton of discussion – way more debate time than anyone expected. It took a lot more negotiating time than anyone was planning for, and that's just trying to hold the space to define what agriculture should be or how it should be considered, I guess, within the framework.
There were also announcements made about agricultural methane reduction. This was not a part of the agreement text, but 130 countries, including the US, have joined a global methane pledge, making separate commitments to reduce methane emissions from energy, waste and agriculture by 30% by 2030. During the conference, IATP released the 4th report in our Emissions Impossible series, the methane edition. Our report highlights the huge amount of methane coming from 15 large global meat and dairy companies, and the need to regulate the industrial livestock sector, reduce the number of animals farmed and transition to more sustainable agroecological models. Unfortunately, the official agriculture pathway for the global methane pledge does not include any of these solutions. Here's Ben Lilliston:
00:15:26 Ben Lilliston
So the global methane pledge sets a pretty tight timeline, 30% reduction by 2030, and agriculture is our biggest source of methane emissions (globally, but also in many different countries, including the US). So it was troubling, again, to see the methane ministerial at COP 27 sort of repeat this pattern of new announcements, new initiatives, new pathways, but not really getting down to brass tacks about: How much methane is being emitted? How much from agriculture? Are we on track? Right now, almost none of the major ag producing countries have a methane specific ag methane strategy. The US has one; the Biden administration has one. But it's almost all focused around methane digesters on very large dairy, beef or hog operations, and generating methane gas from that and piping it into natural gas pipelines. We would call this factory farm gas because it really only works for one really large system of production where you have thousands or tens of thousands of animals. It requires huge amounts of manure being located in one place that has to align with natural gas pipeline infrastructure. And it creates these weird incentives for farmers to actually produce more manure. So there's real questions about whether it actually reduces methane gas, because it creates incentives for farmers to get larger, add more animals, and hence, more methane emissions. So it was disappointing to see the lack of attention on agriculture again, at the methane ministerial. They did launch one initiative around small scale dairy in developing countries. I think that's maybe a good project; it's hard to know, but that's not the real problem. The real problem is in mostly developed countries with these huge operations and figuring out, how do we need to transition away and out of that system of production?
So if the COP 27 outcome was a step backwards for climate and agriculture and left the door open for false solutions, what are our next steps? Increasingly it looks like action within our own countries and communities. One benefit of following the COP is that we know the terms of the fight. We see how countries and corporations are searching for loopholes to allow them to hide their emissions rather than reducing them. And we can work to close those loopholes in our own countries. For example, the European Commission in the E.U. just released its own proposed framework for certifying carbon removal offsets, which is misleading and driven by corporate interests, and which sets a dangerous precedent for the rest of the world. IATP's Europe office is helping lead a coalition called Real Zero Europe, calling for European governments to reject this framework and take real action to cut emissions. In the U.S., we turn our attention to a regulatory body called the Securities and Exchange Commission, the SEC, which is working to finalize a rule requiring companies to disclose their full climate risks and supply chain emissions to investors. Here's Steve Suppan:
00:18:53 Steve Suppan
The Securities Exchange Commission of the United States is producing climate disclosure rule, and one of the things that we advocated for and that we hope is in the final rule is that companies must report the expenditure on emission offsets – both emission offset projects, emission offset cash trading, and emission offset futures trading. Because that's the only way that investors are going to have an understanding about whether the companies are betting their future on offset trading, or if they have credible plans to manage, reduce the physical risks to their facilities and supply chains through direct investment. So this is – this is going to be a real dogfight.
I think it is true. I think we're going to have to really hone in on these national level processes for sure. I think people have to get louder, and I think the electorate has to get louder in every capital of the world. Certainly industrialized countries have a massive, massive role to play, because we wouldn't be in this climate crisis if industrialized countries didn't bring us here. So this whole finger pointing about, you know, China needs to do it first, or India has to do it. I mean there's no going around the fact that the United States is one of the largest long-time emitters, and so the U.S. has to get its house in order. It's very clear. So, you know Biden has made some progress, but we really need voices in the United States to get louder and louder. There's no doubt about it. But every capital, every government needs to hear from us.
As IATP and other civil society organizations process the experiences and outcomes of COP 27, we're faced with difficult questions about strategy and where best to use our limited resources to try to steer global policy away from false solutions and towards transformative change. Industrialized countries and powerful corporations have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo that's cooking the planet, and presenting false solutions to give the illusion of progress and placate the public. While IATP works to expose these power dynamics and advocate for true solutions, it's clear that true progress isn't coming from the COP. It's coming from the ground up: from climate and food justice movements, and it's going to take all of us getting loud.
Thank you for listening to Uprooted talking COP 27. We're looking forward to bringing you more podcasts next year. If you enjoyed this series or have any feedback or suggestions, we'd love to hear from you. You can leave us a review on your preferred podcast platform or write to us directly at communications at IATP.org. At IATP we're passionate about building just, resilient food systems and advancing true solutions to the climate crisis. And we know you are too. You can help us continue our work and support more projects like this one by donating to us at iatp.org/donate.