A historic, late-hour deal reached at the U.N. climate change summit to establish a "loss and damage" fund for countries vulnerable to the devastating impacts of a warming world represented "a real breakthrough," said representatives of Catholic and other religious groups.
Saying the establishment of the fund was an answer to their prayers, the faith-based voices recognized the step as a sign of progress in response to global warming, despite negotiations falling short in other areas.
They cautioned, however, that the new fund will fail to aid communities already suffering from extreme heat and storms if the plan follows the path of past pledges that have not yet been delivered, including the elimination of heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions and financing climate mitigation and adaptation efforts.
"If governments stick to paving the way for a future with good intentions and aspirational declarations while widening the gap with the implementation and follow-up needed, they will indeed lock us up on pathways to disaster," CIDSE, a network of 17 Catholic development agencies from Europe and North America, said in a statement.
In addition, only about 30 countries delivered on promises made at COP26 in 2021; they had pledged more aggressive national climate plans in line with meeting the Paris Agreement's ambitious temperature limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels.
The inability to reach a decision on ending fossil fuel usage made COP27 "a lost opportunity," Comboni Missionary Sister Paola Moggi said during a debriefing webinar Nov. 22 hosted by the International Union of Superiors General. She attended the summit on behalf of the faith-based NGO VIVAT International.
"We can cure the symptoms but not address the causes. And this was for me the failure of this COP," she said.
Still, the establishment of a loss and damage fund Nov. 20 -- two days after the summit officially closed -- resonated with religious leaders, civil society groups and climate activists. The groups for years have pushed wealthy countries to take concrete actions to reduce their emissions and provide financing for climate-related destruction, especially in the global south.
Jesuit Father Leonard Chiti of southern Africa called the deal "a huge achievement."
He noted that before COP27 it wasn't clear if loss and damage would be on the agenda or if developed nations, including the U.S., would reconsider their past resistance to such a fund over fears of limitless liability claims.
Days before the conference began, delegates backing loss and damage successfully added the issue to the discussions. As negotiations continued, developing nations were later joined by the European Union in pressing for the fund to be inserted into the final text summarizing the outcome.
The Sharm el-Sheikh Implementation Plan calls for the fund to assist developing countries particularly vulnerable to adverse climate impacts, although it does not define which countries can access it, which ones will contribute to it or how much. Those details are expected to be negotiated over the next year.
Adrian Dominican Sister Durstyne Farnan said the agreement revived the spirits of climate activists, who had given up on government representatives for failing to commit to fighting climate change.
"The final outcome document is hopeful. Many were doubting that COP27 would come out with statements and commitments to fund loss and damage, just transition and climate mitigation," she said.
David Munene, programs manager of the Catholic Youth Network for Environmental Sustainability in Africa, said loss-and-damage financing is "a step toward what we have been fighting for years. This has been on the agenda for the last 27 years, yet no action has been taken. So it's the right time."
Father Vitalis Anaehobi, secretary general of the Regional Episcopal Conference of West Africa, said the agreement brought hope to the world that one day it would be able to eradicate the effects of climate change by preserving the environment.
"This is a great success for all people of goodwill who wanted COP27 not to end in words without concrete actions. With this decision, I can rightly say that COP27 has achieved what many others failed to do," he said.
COP27 was the first conference at which the Vatican was a formal party to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change and to the Paris Agreement. The new status meant the Holy See delegation had a seat at the negotiating tables and a vote on the final outcomes, which under U.N. rules require unanimity.
The Vatican delegation, led by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, met with fellow Catholics to discuss priorities and strategies several times. On the conference's final scheduled day, Nov. 18, 13 Catholic institutions attending the summit issued a statement to the delegation expressing their concerns with the global response to climate change.
"We emphasize that any implementation of climate solutions must be anchored on the following three pillars: justice, equity, and solidarity," the statement said.
Rodne Galicha, executive director of Living Laudato Si' Philippines, said he hopes the lessons the Catholic Church learns from the Synod of Bishops on synodality can be incorporated into how it engages in future climate conferences, especially including the voices and stories from the peripheries where climate change is often felt the fiercest.
"Being officially part of the (U.N.) process, we will be assured as a synodal and inclusive church that our ecological and social concerns are articulated and acted upon," he said.
Even with the breakthrough on loss and damage, the summit's final text did not include a call or a timeline for a phaseout of fossil fuels, and instead repeated language reached in 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland, for "the phasedown of unabated coal power and phaseout of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies."
Nations did agree to a program to rapidly scale up mitigation efforts, with twice-annual meetings through 2030, and reiterated that countries that haven't aligned their climate plans with the 1.5-degree Celsius goal should do so before the end of 2023.
"Incremental progress is defeat. We can't negotiate w/ physics. It's a #ClimateEMERGENCY," tweeted Tomás Insua, executive director of Laudato Si' Movement, which was present throughout the conference.
COP27 also did not see developed countries deliver on their pledge to mobilize $100 billion annually to the Green Climate Fund for mitigation and adaptation efforts in developing countries and has pushed that timeline back to 2025.
A Global Shield fund was launched to help countries facing climate disasters. In addition, negotiators called on multilateral development banks and international financial institutions to mobilize private financing toward "significantly increasing climate ambition" and to reform their practices and priorities to simplify access to climate finance.
By the end of the summit, 150 countries had joined the Global Methane Pledge to slash emissions of methane -- a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide but with a much shorter lifespan -- by 30% by 2030.
With COP27 concluded, many religious leaders and Catholic actors are now urging world leaders to implement the issues that they agreed to in Egypt to save lives and livelihoods.
"My worry is that many things have been agreed on before but have never been implemented," Munene said.
"My prayer now," he said, "is that they stick to what they agreed to and implement it because people have lost many things, including lives, livelihoods, shelter and properties, due to the effect of climate change."
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Ajiambo is the Africa/Middle East correspondent for Global Sisters Report based in Kenya. Roewe is environment correspondent for National Catholic Reporter.