TAPAS.network | 29 November 2022 | Editorial Opinion | Peter Stonham

Good COP, Bad COP: Bunker Mentality at Sharm el-Sheikh

Peter Stonham

ANOTHER YEAR ON, another COP over — but little evidence of any greater urgency or resolve to make real progress in tackling the challenge of climate change and the need for decarbonisation. It is something that must be an over-riding concern for all those engaged in the world of transport, because of the sector’s major contribution to CO2 emissions. And beyond the direct effects, a raft of other first and second order consequences related to both the natural and industrial pressures brought by transport, travel and movement investment and activity, including the unsustainable implications of current lifestyle behaviour patterns and aspirations.

The Sharm el-Sheikh Implementation Plan that emerged from the COP27 summit in Egypt runs to 10 pages including 16 sections and 62 clauses. The word ‘transport’ does not appear anywhere in the document, which is perhaps an indication of its highly procedural and bureaucratic formulation rather than what outside onlookers might expect, and hope for, from such a document. It does, of course, acknowledge the important consequences of climate change and its impacts.

But it wraps this up in the context of issues now dominating global political discussions, including the increasingly complex and challenging global geopolitical situation and its impact on energy, food and economic situations, as well as the additional challenges associated with recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

In a rather striking departure from its otherwise measured language, the statement stresses that these “should not be used as a pretext for backtracking, backsliding or de-prioritizing climate action”. It reiterates that the impacts of climate change will be much lower at temperature increase of 1.5°C compared with 2°C, and resolves to pursue further efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C, recognising the impact of climate change on the cryosphere and the need for further understanding of these impacts, including of tipping points.

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The Plan that emerged from the COP27 summit in Egypt runs to 10 pages including 16 sections and 62 clauses. The word ‘transport’ does not appear anywhere in the document, which is perhaps an indication of its highly procedural and bureaucratic formulation rather than what outside onlookers might expect, and hope for, from such a document. 

But simply limiting global warming to 1.5°C requires rapid, deep and sustained reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions of 43% by 2030 relative to the 2019 level, the Implementation Plan records. It notes with serious concern the existing gap between current levels of adaptation and levels needed to respond to the adverse effect of climate change, in line with findings from Working Group II to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Sixth Assessment Report.

It urges parties to adopt a “transformational approach to enhancing adaptive capacity, strengthening resilience and reducing vulnerability to climate change”. But there is little evidence of such an approach really happening yet.

To support those in a position to get transport to play its full part in the actions required, it would surely be helpful if the sector did get a mention in the document, or indeed its own section. Separate sections are there on oceans, and forests, and a newly added one on agriculture.

In respect of the oceans, the Implementation Plan encourages parties to consider ocean-based action in their national climate goals, and in the implementation of these goals, including nationally determined contributions, long-term strategies and adaptation communications.

As far as agriculture is concerned, there will now be a four-year joint work on implementation of climate action on agriculture and food security, as well as the establishment of an online portal on this topic.

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London, Glasgow and Bristol are among cities across the world striving to meet net zero targets well ahead of what national governments seem prepared to do. But global frameworks are urgently needed to provide a clearer strategic plan for the work at local level to integrate with national and international approaches

As our special contributor on COP27 in this issue, Martina Juvara points out, despite the widely acknowledged weaknesses in the inter-governmental agreement, one encouraging step forward is that recognition of the issues that need to be addressed in respect to transport has been strengthened in this year’s proceedings compared with previous COP events.

At COP26 in Glasgow “the role of transport in addressing climate change was just about electric cars”, she notes, whilst the ‘built environment track’ was limited to low carbon standards for new buildings. “Encouragingly, an awful lot has changed since then,” she says.

“Cities and local transport are finally in the spotlight”, with collaboration over initiatives at a local level – particularly in some major urban areas – gathering pace.

In this regard, the IPCC AR6 scientific reports had a chapter each on the need to improve cities as ‘systems’. These technical – and frankly hard to read reports – have now been encapsulated in the “Summary for Urban Policymakers”. This has finally put the lens on cities. A Special Report on cities and climate change, part of the IPCC AR7 process, has now also been commissioned. It is rumoured that COP28, in Dubai next year, will have a full day on cities and urban areas.

Meanwhile, ministerial delegates – the official state-level participating parties – for the first time appeared in side events about cities and transport at COP27, and ‘other stakeholders’ – like cities, regions or transport groupings – had direct recognition and legitimacy. “This acknowledged that cities have been moving faster than states and that national pledges and programmes will not succeed without local stakeholders,” says Juvara. This is a hopefully a significant mindset shift. The UN, after all, is all about nations, and multi-level cooperation among nations is already difficult enough, but cities appear able to cooperate better, as they focus at a more practical level.

Indeed, the Implementation Plan welcomes the recommendations of the High-Level Expert Group on the Net-Zero Emissions Commitments of Non-State Entities, launched by the United Nations Secretary General in March. These are designed to enhance transparency and accountability related to, and progress in achieving, the climate pledges of businesses, investors, cities and regions.

London, Glasgow and Bristol are among cities across the world striving to meet net zero targets well ahead of what national governments seem prepared to do. But global frameworks are urgently needed to provide a clearer strategic plan for the work at local level to integrate with national and international approaches, and enable the funding streams required to back up the actions of urban and regional authorities, as Martina Juvara argues.

The adoption of the “Loss and Damage” fund, relating to costs already being incurred in fragile developing countries from climate-fuelled weather extremes and impacts, was the main headline story from the COP27 event. But, arguably, this was largely a diversion from the real global climate challenge. As Alok Sharma, UK negotiator and president of COP26 last year put it in commenting on the failings of the COP27 Implementation Plan: “I said in Glasgow that the pulse of 1.5 degrees was weak. Unfortunately, it remains on life support. Emissions peaking before 2025, as the science tells us is necessary. Not in this text.” He went on: “A clear commitment to phase out all fossil fuels. Not in this text.”

There must surely be a strong suspicion that those wider geo-political issues and North-South tensions overshadowed the real priorities that the COP event needed to address. Developed countries are seemingly seeking to protect their industrial, consumer and service economies, whilst developing countries still hope to emulate these - though blaming the established Western nations for the resultant global warming predicament. There is a time and a place for rehearsing the blame game of past international dealings and the airing of old grievances. But the existential threat to planet Earth and the human race must deserve precedence.

From the 1960s to the 1980s the growing threat of nuclear war led to government Civil Defence activity working to the maxim ‘Protect and Survive’. Everyone who thought about it really knew that it was a distraction from the realities of what would be the disastrous consequences of a nuclear conflict, but many people nonetheless beavered away at setting up bunkers and underground control centres, and designing leaflets explaining how to retreat to cellars and hide under tables until the calamity was over.

Large quantities of a booklet explaining all these probably futile measures to deal with nuclear fallout were held by the Government, though not widely known about until some media publicity in early 1980.

Then Minister of State at the Home Office, Leon Brittan, was forced to respond on the subject in the House of Commons saying that It was “not a secret pamphlet, and there is no mystery about it”. It had apparently been available to all local authorities and chief police and fire officers and shown to interested members of parliament and to journalists. “It had not been published, for the simple reason that it was produced for distribution at a time of grave international crisis when war seemed imminent, and it was calculated that it would have the greatest impact if distributed then”, according to Brittan. The role of such a single leaflet seems laughable now.

But perhaps we should wonder what kind of document and message relating to the real threat posed by climate change would have the greatest impact if distributed in our world nearly fifty years on? As yet, it seems that in terms of both general public and political perception, an equivalent level of concern to that of prospective nuclear Armageddon does not exist in respect of climate change.

As with the nuclear threat, we must surely address the issue of what message, in what form, at what time, will have the necessary impact to impel people to take the best available preventive action, personally and collectively, against the dreadful consequences of climate change and global overdevelopment.

The outcomes of COP27 very much suggest that Governmental-level commitment to stopping, or even slowing down the race to calamity, is not yet within reach. Or should we just plan to be told to head for the bunkers? 

Peter Stonham is the Editorial Director of TAPAS Network

This article was first published in LTT magazine, LTT858, 29 November 2022.

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