We had our hopes pinned on COP27, billed as Africa’s COP, for many reasons.

For starters; climate finance. In 2009 rich nations had pledged a fund of US$100 billion a year to help less wealthy nations adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change. In the face of the projected cost of trillions of dollars every year to meet the 2015 Paris agreement goal of 1.5 this fund was a drop in the ocean. The promise has been broken at every COP since, including COP27.

The second issue, the big one… global decarbonisation; the phasing out of all fossil fuels. The elephant in a room full of fossil fuel states. Note – COP28 will be held in petrostate Dubai.

The third major issue was the recognition of the responsibility of developed nations to compensate developing nations for ‘loss and damage’ – the devastation that climate change wreaks across the globe, so profoundly and increasingly felt by the nations who have benefited so little from industrialisation’s profit.

As we now know, real progress was seen in only one of these areas. What was the reason for this limited success?

There is an argument that the tumultuous state of geopolitics did not offer delegates the space to negotiate freely. Russia’s war in Ukraine cast a shadow over the conference. The G20 summit in Bali caused a diversion as did preparations for the World Cup in Qatar. US midterm elections and domestic chaos in British politics, which at one point saw PM Rishi Sunak shelving his trip to Sharm el-Sheikh to concentrate on the crises at home, will not have helped. Added to this, perhaps the volatile nature of the energy markets and cost of living crises within the context of rising populism meant that leaders were not too keen to act boldly on phasing out fossil fuels at any given price.

Perhaps the location of the event, with its strict controls on public order and restrictions on the media, meant that the pressure was off the delegates and hosts to properly consider public opinion.

So will COP27 be remembered as ‘the one in which the 1.5-degree goal died?’ Where irreversible climate breakdown became inevitable? Has it been a failure, and if so – what can we take away to ensure COP28 in Dubai gets us back on track? What is the secret of a successful COP?

A contributing factor must be the groundwork; the host nation’s efforts during the year leading up to the conference to ensure that all delegates enter negotiations with a clear idea of what will be expected of them and why. Almost certainly, it is also in the effort to rebuild trust destroyed by the broken promises of 2009, which must see the loss and damage fund pledged at COP27 fully implemented with an agreement on who provides the funds and controls set out in a transparent way.

Or is the COP process simply broken?

Maybe it is up to us, the people, to make COP more relevant. The LSA is one of many law sector initiatives that are supporting firms to rise to the challenge to transition to 1.5 both in their own practices but also in partnership with their clients. This is not easy, but collective endeavours across the sector offer the best chance of success. If we put the climate at the centre of our practice then we will be better placed to demand change. Law is central to the transition to net zero, permeating the process at every level.

How can lawyers reinvent COP, forming a process which delivers on its promises and impacts global policy? What is the relationship between law and the environment? Is, in fact, law that holds the key to a successful and just transition? These are key issues we plan to explore in 2023.

A thought from the LSA’s Jim Haywood.

“I feel like COP27 has sent the message that we have lost the battle to limit global temperature rise to 1.5oC or less above preindustrial levels. That’s the ‘red alert’ level of warming which the IPCC warned us about.  There’s good news that the most affected countries will have more funding to help deal with the impacts of climate change but bad news that there was no commitment to wind down all fossil fuel use.  It’s a bit like being given more money to put the house straight after the party but a reluctance to ask our rowdy guests to leave!”