November 2022, and the world’s governments have finally agreed to establish a funding mechanism for loss and damage to assist developing countries most vulnerable to climate change, 30 years after the Rio Earth Summit that led to the creation of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Three decades of time lost to debating the veracity of climate science while countries got hotter, drier and wetter and sea levels rose 10cm, according to Nasa. Three decades of climate negotiations nearly collapsing over loss and damage and the developed world’s refusal to agree to it, lest it open the door for further liability claims.

An activist at COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, demands ‘climate reparations’ from rich countries for loss and damage from climate change. (Photo by Dominika Zarzycka/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The EU’s decision late in the talks to accept that high-emitting countries should pay into a loss and damage fund is credited with breaking the logjam and enabling COP27 to produce the outcomes it did – while also shining a light on other nations that are sizeable emitters yet are classed (in the UN’s 30-year-old system) as ‘developing’. As one of my contacts said, “I bet it’s put the shits up China”. Quite. Notably, this isn’t the first time the EU has tried to split the G77 nations from China – a gambit that in 2011 resulted in parties agreeing to develop a framework under which they would all commit to cut emissions for the first time, leading to the historic 2015 Paris Agreement.

Honestly, as a long-time climate reporter, I am amazed at the loss and damage breakthrough, while also thinking it is long overdue; I grew up with the mantra of you break it, you fix it. I am trying to hold on to my usual optimism that the fund’s operationalisation won’t be bogged down by politicking and cheap point scoring – we have already wasted so much time fighting and denying while the climate crisis grows more urgent by the day.

Other things of note in COP27's outcomes: language on a need for financial system reform, establishment of a four-year work programme on agriculture and food security, and recognising the need to work on forest preservation. However, the biggest win of the two weeks didn’t even take place in Egypt but at the G20 in Indonesia, where the country’s Just Energy Transition Partnership was announced (a HUGE deal for a coal-dependent country).

Where this leaves me is that, aside from the loss and damage fund, I am struggling to find much to be upbeat about in the COP27 outcomes, chiefly the Sharm El-Sheikh Implementation Plan. Great, parties are recognising the need to transform the financial system – we already knew we needed to do that, and have known for years. Great, parties have reaffirmed their commitment to the 1.5˚C goal and to a just transition and to transitioning energy systems. Aside from the aforementioned other small steps on finance, forests and agriculture, a lot of the plan reads like a copy and paste of the 2021 Glasgow Climate Pact. What was the point of COP27?

Maybe I am being too pedantic, but where is the implementation? How is repeating the same affirmations year after year going to move the needle? How are governments going to turn all their wonderful words into action? What happened to India’s push to have language calling for a phase-out of all fossil fuels (a nice riposte to last year’s coal phase-out versus phase down debacle at the Glasgow talks for which India copped the blame)?

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Yeb Saño from Greenpeace rightly noted the cognitive dissonance of not including the language on a fossil fuel phase-out that many had pushed for. “In the end, if all fossil fuels are not rapidly phased out, no amount of money will be able to cover the cost of the resulting loss and damage,” he said. “When your bathtub is overflowing you turn off the taps, you don’t wait a while and then go out and buy a bigger mop!”

It feels disingenuous to call the centrepiece of COP27's outcomes an “implementation plan” when it isn’t really telling us how things will be done nor anything new and that, for the most part, wasn’t already recognised in previous COP decisions. Talking with a fellow climate geek after the final decisions were published, we were both at a loss to say what the two weeks had achieved, besides the loss and damage fund (and I don’t mean to sound like I am diminishing it – this was a huge and long-overdue win). That some are celebrating that there was no backsliding on the 1.5˚C goal is a pretty damning statement of COP27’s “achievements” – we should be aiming higher at this point, not to maintain the status quo.

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At the closing plenary (which finally began at 4.10am local time on Sunday – only to be suspended ten minutes later following a request from the Swiss delegation for parties to have time to read all the documents, which were released just as the meeting began), EU climate chief Frans Timmermans didn’t hold back his disappointment. He said the bloc’s acceptance of COP27's decisions was reluctant and lamented the time lost. “This is the make-or-break decade, but what we have in front of us is not enough of a step forward for people and planet,” he told the plenary.

He continued: “It does not bring enough added efforts from major emitters to increase and accelerate their emissions cuts. It does not bring a higher degree of confidence that we will achieve the commitments made under the Paris Agreement and in Glasgow last year. It does not address the yawning gap between climate science and our climate policies.” I agree, Frans.