COP27 makes positive progress but small steps are not enough

Joseph Lewis, policy lead at Institution of Environmental Sciences argues that we need a transformational approach to achieve our sustainability goals

A year ago, COP26 was supposed to be a make-or-break moment for climate action. As the Institution for Environmental Sciences published its Manifesto for Transformative Change, we said that the decisions we make “will decide the stories we tell to generations to come about the fight against climate change.” Looking back over the year that followed that statement, much less has happened than we hoped.

Without addressing complex environmental challenges like climate change on the level of the social, economic, and natural systems involved, we cannot embed long-lasting change, and without a transformational approach, we cannot meet the scale or urgency of the challenge we face.

We have seen progress on some challenges. For the first time, meaningful conversations about loss and damage are beginning, with a small but not insignificant amount of funding to back them up. A lack of progress on these conversations will stymie negotiations and it will be very difficult to create the global partnerships necessary for future climate deals to work in practice. To achieve that goal, this can only be the beginning of a conversation about loss and damage, not the final outcome.

Adaptation has been at the heart of COP27, so it is no surprise that it is another area where we are seeing progress: initiatives like the Sharm-El-Sheikh Adaptation Agenda and the Global Shield Against Climate Risks have the potential to wake up global resilience efforts to the reality of the adaptation challenge needed, but to be successful they will need far greater support and financing.

Even as we increase resilience and recognise the role of loss and damage, mitigation of climate change must see a drastic increase in ambitions for our efforts to be meaningful. It is here that COP27 has not sufficiently succeeded in driving forward ambitions. Where COP26 opened the door for countries to ratchet-up NDCs on an annual basis, COP27 has not successfully turned that opportunity into a ritual.

Despite the limited ambition on display, several critical initiatives on mitigation have arisen around COP27, particularly the ISO net-zero ‘Guidelines’ and the Energy Transition Accelerator. However, the recent move away from the Race to Zero by the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero underscores a pattern of announcements at the expense of details and science-led action.

As COP27 draws towards an end, and the final day theme is ‘solutions’. A solution is “a means of solving a problem or dealing with a difficult situation”, and it should be clear that definition does not apply to many of the commitments made in the pursuit of climate action. We urgently need full strategies backed by science, which amount to a transformative solution to the interlinking natural crises we are facing.

COP27 has seen progress and that cannot be understated. At the same time, it has not been enough to set us on the path to transformative change. Current limitations cannot give way to lethargy, and past failures cannot demotivate us. 

Each time the answer we are presented with is only part of the solution, it should inspire us to step up to the possibility of telling a better story about our fight against climate change. Each opportunity we have to inject more ambition, we should take, and environmental science can show us where to seize those chances.

2023 cannot be another disappointing year for the fight against climate change. Taking steps in the right direction is no longer sufficient. The global community has found its feet, and it is now ‘walking the walk’, but if we are going to hold onto the possibility of limiting the rise in global temperatures to 1.5°c, now is the time to run.

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