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The ESG Review: A quiet COP that shows the need for environmental action beyond carbon

What a difference a year makes.

Think back to the closing remarks around Glasgow’s COP26 and the talk was of the need for businesses and governments to stay the course on net zero commitments amidst multiple reminders of why rapid decarbonisation was needed to help tackle global warming.

As the next COP draws to a close in Egypt, it has been somewhat overshadowed in media terms by the war in Ukraine, spiralling inflation, food security concerns and political upheaval.

Despite all of that, COP27 has in itself felt like a relatively quiet affair compared to its predecessor.

Central to that was the general sense of despondency about the drive to cap warming at 1.5 degrees, thankfully countered by the G20 pledge on Wednesday that reaffirmed the world’s largest economies to the commitment.

But generally, as The Guardian put it, much of what has been going down in Sharm El-Sheikh has been set against a fear of backsliding on what was agreed a year ago.

The details of an international agreement that countries sign up to by the end of the event are still being worked out, but in the initial draft made public on Thursday, the main points seemed to echo the sense that this COP has been about reaffirming past goals rather than new ones, although critics will doubtless see some of that as a backwards step. There were, for example, no details of a fund on loss and damage financing for poorer countries, no unified call for a phase down on all fossil fuels, and underlining the importance of exerting all efforts to meet Paris Agreement goal of holding global average temperature to well below 2C and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 C. In short, little new news.

Elsewhere, it was a question of questions still remaining. European Commission vice president Frans Timmermans highlighted the EU’s continued commitment to carbon finance, but noted that there was not yet “broad agreement among developed and developing countries on what form any new finance mechanism should take.”

Yet despite a relatively muted outlook, there were bright spots in the attention drawn to environmental risks beyond cutting carbon emissions, and the growing focus on - from a business perspective - the environmental ESG factors beyond the central net zero focus.

UK Environment Secretary (and recent former Health Secretary) Thérèse Coffey spoke at COP27’s Biodiversity Day about the need to reverse biodiversity loss, Government pledges to invest in doing so, and how preserving nature was inextricably linked with action to lower emissions in the drive to achieve carbon net zero.

That point was highlighted in stark terms by the World Wildlife Fund in warning that the Amazon rainforest would “cease to function” as a global climate ‘regulator’ within a decade unless action was taken to preserve its biodiversity.

Meanwhile the United Nations Environment Programme led calls for world leaders to act in making commitments to nature conservation as well as carbon reduction. “Without protecting and restoring our ecosystems, we have no chance of achieving the Paris goals, getting to the 1.5C target or buffering the impacts of an already disrupted climate,” said its head, Mirey Atallah.

Yet while COP27 has done much to highlight biodiversity, water management and energy management risks alongside greenhouse gas emissions, the question remains whether any major new promises will be made by the largest nations to take action to address them, or whether the main highlights of this year’s event will be that at least they didn’t row back on commitments made at previous COPs.

The ESG News Review is written by Steve Earl, a Partner at BOLDT.

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