The desert dust settles in Sharm-el-Sheikh
…and the COP27 outcomes emerge. There’s pleasing progress on agreement to provide loss and damage compensation to affected nations, but disappointment around commitments to reduce fossil fuel emissions. But surely loss, damage and mitigation will cost richer countries dear, well into the future, if we don’t slow the crisis in the first place?
With continued atmospheric warming, Antarctic ice is melting fast. Experts say 5% of polar meltwater means three metres of sea level rise. For coastal cities and low-lying regions this is existential. We’ve already failed the island nation of Tuvalu, barely three metres above the ocean. Tuvalu plans to create a digital version of itself in the metaverse, ready for when its physical land disappears under the waves. Heartbreaking.
In the UK, East Anglia, particularly Fenland, faces serious flooding risks. By 2050, the Fens and coastal areas will regularly be submerged. This topographic map shows just how much of Norfolk is less than three metres above sea level.
Will East Anglia become a ‘Floodland’?
Hearing of the untimely death last week of author Marcus Sedgwick prompted me to recall his first book, Floodland. Often read in schools, it’s thought-provoking for adults too.
Set in a dystopian future, its premise is not wholly unbelievable. It’s not aliens, zombies or a meteor strike threatening us, but raised sea levels. East Anglia is mainly submerged, with Norwich an island beset by food shortages. Young Zoe was left behind ‘on Norwich’ after her parents escaped by rescue boat. Surrounded by unfriendly gangs, she survives as best she can. One way out is sailing to Eels Island – a loosely disguised Ely. Mercifully Zoe finds a boat, and rows till she spots a ‘floating cathedral’. But it’s not the end of her problems: life in a world with much less land is frighteningly challenging. It would be.
What must school students think, reading of this possible future?
Is COP fit for purpose?
It’s debatable whether COP will prevent this. The COP27 carnival hosted more oil industry lobbyists than ever. Why, when burning fossil fuels is the biggest cause of global warming? Global Witness rejects ‘fossil fuel companies in the room, greenwashing, delaying and pushing questionable technofixes that allow… business as usual.’
None of the 27 COPs have formally agreed to reduce fossil fuels, and since COP1 in 1995, emissions have steadily risen. Unbelievably, COP28 will be in the United Arab Emirates, a huge petrol and gas producer. Vested interests will be influential.
Alok Sharma’s assessment
In his closing remarks, outgoing President Alok Sharma assessed the outcome:
[T]hose of us who came to Egypt to keep 1.5 degrees alive, and to respect what every single one of us agreed to in Glasgow, have had to fight relentlessly to hold the line.
We have had to battle to build on one of the key achievements of Glasgow. The call on all Parties to revisit and strengthen their Nationally Determined Contributions.
We have ultimately reiterated that call here.
And it is critical that commitment is delivered by all of us, including by the major emitters in this room who did not come forward this year.
But we also wanted to take a definitive steps forward. We joined with many Parties to propose a number of measures that would have contributed to this.
Emissions peaking before 2025, as the science tells us is necessary.
Not in this text.
Clear follow-through on the phase down of coal.
Not in this text.
A clear commitment to phase out all fossil fuels.
Not in this text.
And the energy text, weakened, in the final minutes.
Friends, I said in Glasgow that the pulse of 1.5 degrees was weak.
Unfortunately, it remains on life support. And all of us need to look ourselves in the mirror, and consider if we have fully risen to that challenge over the past two weeks.
COP can’t seem to contrive worthwhile pacts which 200 countries will abide by. Fossil fuel extractors will keep selling oil, coal and gas if there’s a market, and leaders seem reluctant to legislate against it.
So other factors may emerge. If consumers stop buying certain things, companies will change. But in economies built round the use of oil, governments must first put in place alternatives to ease the transition, for example in transport.
There will also be political pressure from campaigners and youth organisations, and research shows that only 3.5% of a population are needed to force changes.
Climate justice activists believe that change needs to be driven by, and work for, communities, not corporations. Real transformation may be bottom-up rather than top-down. Ultimately, communities acting unilaterally but towards the same ends could be more effective than fragile multilateral pacts. I don’t doubt that COP attracts thousands of expert delegates, intent on solving the emergency. Sadly, there are also too many different views and self-interested parties there to allow progress.