Op-Ed: Is there still time for COP27 to hold back climate catastrophe?

Guests enter the convention center hosting the COP27 U.N. Climate Summit, Friday, Nov. 4, 2022, prior to the start of the summit on Nov. 6, which is scheduled to end on Nov. 18, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)
Guests enter the convention center hosting the latest U.N. climate summit in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, on Friday, prior to the official start on Sunday. (Peter Dejong / Associated Press)

Following a year of horrific and deadly heat waves, floods, droughts and storms, global leaders will converge this week on Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, for the 27th Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. The looming question for COP27 is whether nations will strengthen their pledges enough to get us on a path that averts catastrophic climate disruption.

It’s worth a reminder that the goal of the original convention, first signed in 1992 and ratified by enough nations to hold the first COP in 1995, was to prevent "dangerous human interference with the climate system” — an aim that has clearly not been met. As billions of people worldwide can attest, human-caused climate disruption has passed the “dangerous” threshold. What was a serious problem in the 1990s has snowballed into a full-blown crisis of extreme weather, displacement and destruction. What we must now strive to avoid is climate catastrophe.

While there is no precise warming level that defines “catastrophe,” climate scientists have reasonably concluded that warming beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) would lock in devastating and irreversible climate impacts. The Paris agreement incorporated that threshold in 2015, and time is running out to avoid crossing it.

The good news? There has been substantial progress this year. The bad news? It’s not nearly enough.

The United States, the world’s largest cumulative greenhouse gas emitter, finally passed major federal climate legislation in the Inflation Reduction Act. While far from perfect, it is a $370-billion national investment designed to move markets away from fossil fuels and toward clean electrification across the economy. It is projected to cut U.S. emissions by about 40% from 2005 levels by 2030 — close to but still falling short of our national commitment to a 50% reduction.

A more ambitious U.S. climate policy would require a larger congressional majority that supports appropriately aggressive action — a scenario that depends in part on whether voters turn out in the midterm elections to vote for climate champions and against deniers and delayers. Some international elections this year bring promise, including the replacement of Australia’s fossil-fuel-coddling conservative government with a climate-friendly coalition of moderates and Labor Party members, and the toppling of the Amazon-paving Jair Bolsonaro regime in Brazil.

The recently released U.N. Emissions Gap report, however, finds that the international community is falling short of the Paris goals, with no credible pathway yet in place to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. It estimates that current policies point to a 2.8-degree Celsius rise by the end of the century (or at lowest a 2.4-degree rise if all pledges are met). More encouraging, a recent study in Nature shows that warming could be held below 2.0 degrees Celsius if all pledges — unconditional and conditional — were implemented in full and on time. But the pledges are still just promises at this point, not actions supported with policies, and even if kept, they won't fulfill the 1.5-degree Celsius goal.

That means there is both an ambition gap — current pledges are not nearly ambitious enough — and an implementation gap — countries do not have sufficient policies in place to make good even on those promises.

In that context, perhaps the most urgent goal for COP27 is to reckon with the lunacy of continued fossil fuel expansion. The International Energy Agency and other researchers have concluded that no new oil and gas development can take place if we hope to meet the 1.5-degree target. Meanwhile, several major coal producers are planning on continuing or increasing production, and most major oil and gas producing countries are on track to increase production through 2030 or beyond. In fact, energy plans indicate that governments around the world are planning for more than twice the amount of fossil fuels in 2030 than would be compatible with the Paris agreement.

These plans violate the first rule of holes: When you’re in one, stop digging. Despite these realities, countries have never come close to committing to phase out new fossil fuel development. At last year’s COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, a hard-fought agreement to phase out coal was watered down to “phase down coal” because of a last-minute intervention led by India and China. COP27 provides an opportunity for nations to try again to reach an agreement to end all new fossil fuel development.

Another major issue on the COP27 agenda is reckoning with the global north’s emissions having disproportionate impact on the global south, which is experiencing more climate destruction despite causing less of it. Developed countries should answer demands from vulnerable nations for funds to recover from climate-change-fueled unnatural disasters that are already wreaking billions of dollars’ worth of havoc on those who can least afford it. They should also step up to offer global south countries more financial and technical support for clean energy development and adaptation to improve resilience.

These things are all doable. The obstacles are not technological. They’re not physical. They are entirely political. The false belief that we are making no progress at all can be too easily exploited by polluters and their apologists to support inaction and business as usual. What we need instead is more ambition, as well as near-term plans and deadlines to keep us on track.

We must wrap our minds around two seemingly opposing realities: We are making substantial progress, and yet it’s wholly insufficient to the scale of the challenge. At COP27, we must seek to change that.

Susan Joy Hassol is director of the nonprofit Climate Communication, publishes Quick Facts on links between extreme weather and climate change and received the 2021 Ambassador Award from the American Geophysical Union. Michael E. Mann is Presidential Distinguished Professor of Earth and Environmental Science at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.