As the seaside resort of Sharm el-Sheikh gets back to catering for tourists, it’s time to reflect that the outcomes of the UN COP27 climate talks were predictable, surprising and dangerous, all at the same time.
The first success was getting the concept of loss and damage funding on the main agenda. Then, after much backwards and forwards and a day-and-a-half late finish, getting agreement that there should be a fund to cover the irreplaceable losses that climate change is already bringing. This is a great victory after 30 years of hard work. But there is a long way to go to define who will pay how much and for what.
No real surprise was that fossil fuels had a good COP, as I predicted in last week’s column. There was no advance on the weak language of ‘phasing down’ coal and phasing out ‘inefficient’ fossil fuel subsidies agreed last year in Glasgow, indeed there is even implicit support for using more fossil gas. And there is little chance of an improvement next year when the COP is held in the oil-rich United Arab Emirates.
Both surprising and dangerous was the inclusion in the final agreement of support for Nature-Based Solutions.
Of course these sound lovely, who could be against a solution that is based on nature ? There are many good things which fall into this category. Planting trees can be a great idea, as long as it is the right trees in the right places, because it is good for climate and nature, and creates jobs in rural areas. Scotland has strong targets for planting tens of millions of trees every year.
Protecting and restoring peat bogs is also a great idea. Scotland’s peaty soils contain 25 times more carbon than all the trees and plants in the UK but 80% of those soils are degraded. We are already sustaining jobs in restoring Scottish peat bogs and we could be doing even more.
Other good nature-based solutions include protecting areas like the Sundarbans in Bangladesh and India, where coastal mangrove forests provide a home for nature and protect communities from the worst impacts of cyclones.
But nature-based solutions is a very broad-ranging terms that also includes activities disastrous for local people or even the climate, as well as giving companies and countries cover to keep on polluting.
Tree planting can be the wrong trees – bad for nature and may not survive – or in the wrong places – damaging peaty soils or taking indigenous people’s land. The drive to offset carbon emissions mean that everyone from oil and gas companies to airlines and tech firms to supermarkets are interested in buying into nature-based solutions, risking poor schemes and double counting of carbon.
If every big company and most governments wanted to reach their ‘net-zero’ goals by offsetting carbon there would not be enough usable land on the planet and the impact on many communities would be severe. Official endorsement from the UN climate process, even with caveats about social and environmental impacts, is a green light for destructive developments.
Nature-based solutions at their best are a great idea, at their worst they are a new form of colonialism, which makes nature just another global commodity to be traded regardless of impacts on local people.
A version of this blog appeared in the Scotsman on 24th November 2022.