Many firsts were achieved at COP27 to which Aotearoa enthusiastically signed up, but we have a chasm between climate commitment and action

Opinion: We are a tiny country, home to 5 million people with five political parties in parliament. Yet we can’t agree on many core issues essential to our future wellbeing. We argue endlessly about them. We fail to act.

What then are the astronomical odds that almost 200 countries, home to 8 billion people, can agree unanimously on a bunch of new climate commitments?

Well, they did last Sunday at COP27 in Egypt. For example, Russia, China and the US – fighting over many issues including Russia’s war against Ukraine – agreed with each other and all other countries to add some important new elements to the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Moreover, the negotiations pushed some key countries to shift their positions to make consensus possible. Notably, the US reversed its long, strong opposition to a finance mechanism for developing countries suffering escalating loss and damage from climate catastrophes.

Yes, the negotiations were intense, arduous and chaotic. But they did eventually deliver, as they have at many past COPs with varying degrees of success.

And yes, the COP27 agreement failed to significantly ramp up climate action. But it does strengthen the UNFCCC in crucial ways; and the additions were approved unanimously by all countries that are signatories to the Convention, as its rules require.

Such global consensus on the aims and architecture of humanity’s climate response is essential. It greatly helps bring consistency and focus to actions by nations, civil society organisations, philanthropists, businesses and all other actors.

Then the true leaders among them can ramp up their climate actions; which then helps build public enthusiasm and then political support for more; which then helps future COPs achieve consensus on more ambitious goals.

New Zealand has the fifth largest oceanic exclusive economic zone in the world. Yet we have no oceans policy; and have paid scant attention to oceans in our climate plans.

Of course, some signatories will ignore the spirit and letter of these new commitments, as they have long done with many existing ones. The worst offenders are petrostates such as Russia and Saudi Arabia.

Over the coming year, watch very closely how the United Arab Emirates, one of the world’s largest exporters of oil and gas and host of COP28 in Dubai next year, works diplomatic and economic channels to try to shape the agenda. Particularly, how it fights the rising clamour from many countries, including ours, for a phase out of all fossil fuels.

If you need some hope as climate change accelerates rapidly while humanity’s responses lag abysmally behind, then consider this list of COP27’s achievements that were firsts for the UNFCCC. With thanks to Arthur Wyns, a policy analyst at the Climate and Health Alliance in Australia, for crowdsourcing this list via Twitter:

The biggest first at COP27 was the breaking of the fault lines between developed and developing countries, which have plagued the UN climate process since it was established in 1992. This came in the first commitment to a finance facility, funded by developed countries for the benefit of developing countries hit hard by climate for loss and damage.

Agreement to set up the Santiago Network to provide technical assistance to countries and communities affected by loss and damage. It will provide a match-making service between countries suffering and those organisations that can help them respond.

 The first explicit reference to the need to transform the global financial system. Potential reforms include the roles and finances of the IMF, World Bank and multilateral development banks. The aim is to stimulate the flow of private sector capital into mitigation and adaptation, and into recovery from loss and damage, particularly in developing countries. This reference will now strongly hook the pivotal subject into the UN’s climate convention.

 The agreement explicitly mentioned tipping points, which are large, sudden and irreversible changes in climate such as melting of Greenland and Antarctic ice. The text is: “Recognises the impact of climate change on the cryosphere [the frozen parts of the planet] and the need for further understanding of these impacts, including of tipping points.”

 The first commitment to the “human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment”. It is now embedded in the UNFCCC.

 The first COP agreement to include the term “nature-based solutions” and a dedicated section on “forests”.

Nature4Climate, one of the leading alliances in this field, estimates helping forest and ecosystems recover can reduce global emissions by a third in cost-effective ways, while lifting a billion people out of poverty, creating 80 million jobs, adding US$2.3 trillion to the global economy, while preventing US$3.7t of climate-caused damage. Moreover, such solutions are available today, are scalable, and can transform key industry sectors, such as forestry and agriculture.

 A more holistic approach to agriculture, with discussion now expanded into food systems, food security, nutrition, role of indigenous peoples, women, and small-scale farmers. This includes a new four-year work programme on “implementation of climate action on agriculture and food security”.

 The first reference to ocean-based actions, which are crucial given oceans are absorbing a large proportion of our carbon emissions. They are suffering from that, and warming waters and rising sea levels. Thus, countries are encouraged to incorporate ocean actions in their UN climate pledges, goals and policies.

New Zealand has the fifth largest oceanic exclusive economic zone in the world. Yet we have no oceans policy; and have paid scant attention to oceans in our climate plans.

 COP27 hosted the first Climate Ministers meeting on urban issues, facilitated by UN-Habitat, the UN’s urban programme, and the Local Governments and Municipal Authorities Constituency in the UNFCCC. Urban environments, home to 56 percent of humanity, are responsible for a large proportion of emissions, and are suffering the consequences of climate change.

 The first reference to, and a UNFCCC work programme on, Just Transitions, which will be grounded in social dialogue and social protections to climate policies and actions that don’t disadvantage some segments of society.

 A higher profile for youth at COP27, including the first youth climate dialogue, a youth pavilion and youth representatives in some country delegations.

 The first climate march inside a UN-controlled zone. It was the best way to ensure the safety of those involved, given the harsh response to protesters by Egypt’s autocratic government. Frontline communities from around the world participated in the march, chanting “no climate justice without human rights”.

Aotearoa New Zealand enthusiastically signed up to all of the above. But we have a chasm between climate commitment and action. We have many of the right goals in our climate pledges to the UN, and much of the right high-level policy architecture required such as the Zero Carbon Act, Climate Change Commission, carbon budgets and an Emissions Reduction Plan.

But we’re on climate glide time:

 Our farmers, source of half our emissions, are in such blind denial they can’t even see the juicy financial carrots dangled by the government. All they’d have to do to grab them is to make a modicum of effort to reduce their emissions.

 Our current government has postponed a biofuels mandate; and is unlikely to deliver any bold new climate actions or show much of a sense of urgency before next year’s election.

 National and ACT, based on current polls, could form the next government. But National is vague and contradictory on climate; and ACT is opposed to any action other than a price on carbon. Under such a government we’d go seriously backwards on climate policy, as we did when National won back power in 2008.

Given the dearth of climate leadership from our politicians and climate denial by our largest polluters, it’s up to the rest of us to act.

Be inspired by the best of the true leaders at home and abroad. Rise to climate’s mighty challenges and terrific opportunities.

Each of us can only do a tiny bit. But together we can achieve the transformations we urgently need.

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