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 November  7, 2022. GrowthPolicy is proud to present "Dispatches from COP27".  This is the first in several posts from our affiliates who are on the ground at COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt

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Dispatch from COP 27, by Wake Smith, Research Fellow, M-RCBG 
November 7, 2022  Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt 

My connecting flight from Cairo to Sharm El Sheikh yesterday was packed with a global assemblage of delegates and observers pursuing a common pilgrimage to COP 27.  By contrast, the guests at the rather random beach resort I booked appear completely unaware there is a competing event in town.  They are here for sun and sand, and are overwhelmingly from – Russia.  This isn’t new for Red Sea resorts, which have built their contemporary business models substantially upon Rubles.  Nonetheless, in an era of hot war in Ukraine and resumed cold war with the US, it is curious to encounter unselfconscious Russian holiday makers.  I wonder if I am in Rick’s Café in Casablanca rubbing shoulders with the enemy, but these are families and the toddlers wriggling in the strollers are really cute. 

In all events, the Russians seem reasonably likely to depart Sharm with what they came for – renewed spirit and sunburns.  Success seems far less likely for the COP attendees.  The best conference outcome would be for large emitters to announce substantially more ambitious emissions reduction pledges, but few expect such upward ratchets, and yet fewer would have confidence in such pledges were they made.  After all, national targets under the Paris agreements are entirely non-binding, and there remains a distinct gap between aggregate pledges and actual performance.   

Consequently, as the COP spooled up today under the proud gaze of host President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, most of the attention was not on revised emissions targets, but on redoubled financial pledges.  There are continuing recriminations that the annual pledge of $100 billion in adaptation financing promised by the global north in the Paris Agreement has fallen short, and such funds as have materialized were mostly conditional loans or previously-intended foreign aid rather than additional unconditional grants.  Consequently, the south is dunning the north for non-payment.  But this is mostly old news – unfinished business from last year’s COP 26 in Glasgow. 

The heat at COP 27 seems mostly to revolve around “loss and damage” payments, which many in the global south believe ought to be additionally due from the historical heavy emitters.  The idea is that beyond the new sea walls and air conditioners that the south may be required to purchase due to climate change (adaptation), they should also be reimbursed for future damages caused by acute climate catastrophes (storms, floods, heat waves) that would also result from climate change imposed by the north.  The intended recipients seek to characterize this as a distinct ethical obligation that should give rise to an additional stream of payments.  Jaded constituencies in the north will see this merely as a clever new pitch by the usual supplicants.   

Nonetheless, as with the adaptation funds prescribed in the Paris Agreement, there may be a deal to be had based less on ethics than on realpolitik.  Both emissions and emissions reductions are non-excludable goods.  The actors involved have no way to ring-fence impacts of mitigation and allocate them only to cooperative countries.  If we warm the planet, the climate changes for all, and if we mitigate our emissions, the benefits derive to carbon saints and sinners alike.  Ethics aside, the less developed countries can ransom their cooperation in a climate agenda from which all will benefit but whose shepherds seem to reside primarily in the global north.  Few expect a breakthrough on loss and damage at COP 27, but it is where the energy resides as the delegates gather, and John Kerry has signaled a new US willingness to engage on the issue. 

All that said, I am struggling with the paradox of some 44,000 climate advocates flying to the tip of the Sinai Peninsula to convince the world to reduce its carbon emissions by, for instance, flying less.  It is approximately true that anyone who gets on a long-haul jet in a given year has committed themselves to exceeding the annual per-capita carbon budget that the world can afford if we are going to limit climate change to the 1.5/2°C targets prescribed by the IPCC.  I say this as a former senior commercial aviation executive who diligently did my part to structure our excessive emissions profile as it is.  It is therefore with decidedly mixed feelings that I have jetted in to join the global conclave of carbon apostles/sinners.  I am still trying to wrap my head around it, but the Russians by the pool at my hotel seem untroubled.  Theirs remains an unrepentant fossil fuel economy, and it’s another sunny day in Sharm.  

Wake Smith is a Lecturer in Yale College, where he teaches what is understood to be the world’s first undergraduate survey course onWake Smith headshot climate engineering. The core of that course was published in book form in March 2022 by the Cambridge University Press under the title Pandora’s Toolbox: The Hopes and Hazards of Climate Intervention. As a Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, he has published papers on the aeronautics, costs, and deployment logistics of stratospheric aerosol injection as well as on the proper governance of research into these technologies. 


Links: Fellows Page | Recent Publications on Growthpolicy | M-RCBG Associate Working Papers

Pandora's Toolbox - The Hopes and Hazards of Climate Intervention by Wake Smith