COP27: Does Science Set Long Term Goals of UNFCCC? – Dr Anji Seth

Sunset at COP27The pace of global warming is accelerating. Impacts are coming faster and more furiously.

Scientists around the world have stepped up to publish 6 new reports* in less than 5 years. Major new findings include that additions of CO2 are the direct cause of further heating and even small increments will continue to worsen impacts on human and ecosystem well-being.  The Science clearly states that a 1.5C temperature limit would result in the lowest impacts and related costs globally. The 2022 report on Mitigation makes clear that losses and damages being experienced already result from the cumulative emissions from large historical emitters.  So how is this new knowledge incorporated into the policy decisions being negotiated?

Like most processes within the UNFCCC, there is a formal review which can take a few years to complete. A review of the reports mentioned above has been ongoing for two years and is due to be completed at COP27. A strong statement from this review process, commensurate with the science, would demonstrate to the world the urgent need for transformational change across society.

As a climate scientist at my seventh COP, I was an observer in the room where it happened. I can share some insight into this particular negotiation.

A short draft “decision” document summarizes the latest science that will informs future UNFCCC policy negotiations, including Mitigation, Adaptation, and now Loss and Damage.

I am in the room on Thursday (Nov 16). Negotiators are meeting to finalize the document. They are apparently close. The draft “reaffirms the long term global goal” (from Paris: 2C and to pursue 1.5C), “expresses alarm and utmost concern that human activities have caused around 1.1C “ warming to date and “recalls that the impacts of climate change will be much lower” for 1.5C. This much is agreed upon.

But there is a tension in the room. Two statements in particular are in contention: (1)  the affirmation of 1.5C as the target “underscores urgent action is needed” to ensure peak emissions by 2025 with deep reductions by 2030; and (2) language related to Loss and Damage that details the responsibilities of developed countries given their disproportionate historical contribution to cumulative CO2 emissions.

The delegates are seated at tables arranged in a square. China, India, Saudi Arabia and Brazil are in one corner. The US, UK, Canada, Switzerland, and Japan are across the room. These two groups are taking opposing stands on the two issues.

Led by India, the First group wants to weaken the target to 2C, a step back from the consensus achieved in the Glasgow Pact last year at COP26.  And this group wants the strong language that would detail the responsibility of large historical emitters for Loss and damage. The second group led by the US states clearly that the 1.5 C affirmation must remain in the text, but will not accept the strong language that details developed country responsibility for Loss and Damage. The meeting is at an impasse.

There is talk of a ‘procedural’ conclusion that would nullify two years of work and agreement on many advances in the scientific basis for action. Or equally as bad, kicking the decision down the road to next year at COP28. A strong statement is needed to demonstrate to the world the need for urgent action to peak emissions by 2025.

No one wants a failure.

This meeting concludes with no agreement. The issues are referred to the COP Presidency for review.

At the sunset of COP27 there was a compromise, with both statements weakened. The mention of peak emissions by 2025 was removed (par 8). The language on equity, the role of historical emissions and the remaining carbon budget was also removed (par 20).

All sides can claim success, as the report is now complete with a consensus document that includes important new science.

But I must express alarm and utmost concern that Nature and science do not compromise.  Weakened language will not reduce the tragedies ahead. We can and must do better.


Anji Seth is a climate scientist, Professor, Head of the Department of Geography at the University of Connecticut, and co-director of the UConn@COP program – bringing a dozen students to the Conference of the Parties since COP21 in Paris.