International reporter Nina Cerasuolo discusses COP27, touching on both highlights and pitfalls of the latest edition of the climate change conference.
The 27th United Nations Climate Change Conference – also known as the Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC – was held from November 6 to 18 in Sharm-El-Sheikh, Egypt.
The conference (widely known as COP27) is of great importance – COP21 is hailed as a historic success for resulting in the Paris Agreement: the first global, legally binding climate change agreement, aimed at reaching climate neutrality by the end of the century. This time, however, the event did not inspire significant expectations. Since COP26 (held last year in Glasgow, Scotland), only 26 of the 193 countries that had promised climate action improvements actively pursued their plans. COP27 was preceded by the latest “Emissions Gap Report”, published last October by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). In the report, UN experts signal how current policies would bring the planet to a 2,8ºC rise in temperature by 2030, which could only be reduced to 2,4-2,6ºC with the implementation of current pledges and plans. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres effectively phrased it, the report illustrates that “we are on a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator” and, if the rise is to be stopped, a worldwide paradigm shift is imperative.
The intensification of the climate crisis, and the lack of response to it, were not the only problems faced by COP27. The event was also set within a gripping and concerning geopolitical context – that of the full-scale Russian Invasion of Ukraine. The war started in February 2022 and has since then severely impacted the global energy market. It has reshaped relations between gas and fuel-exporting nations (such as Algeria, Qatar or Norway) and developed nations (such as those within the European Union). The latter have found themselves juggling their need for energy with the political necessity of the sanctions they imposed on Russia, which was previously their main energy provider.
Lastly, hopes set on COP27 were lowered by its location: Egypt. Egypt is officially an Islamic, semi-presidential republic. The Egyptian government has been repeatedly considered guilty of suppression of social and personal freedoms, as well as of systemic violations of human rights. The obstacles faced by civic activism in this context are what led climate activist Greta Thunberg to refuse to participate in this “greenwashing” event. Egypt’s human rights violations were brought to the attention of the public during the COP27 event by Alaa Abd El-Fattah, an Egyptian-British blogger and activist. El-Fattah was convicted to five years in prison in 2019 for spreading news the government deemed fake. The activist started a hunger and thirst strike during the event, leading the United Nations to publish a statement which expressed the organization’s support for El-Fattah. They further condemned his incarceration and, more broadly, Egyptian laws on censorship and freedom of speech.
COP27 started on November 6 with the main objective of carbon emission reduction, setting the target maximum temperature rise by 2030 at 2ºC. Furthermore, it aimed to create a plan to limit the catastrophic impact of climate change in developing countries, while also accounting for the fact that they are facing the need to limit emissions while not having been able to benefit from carbon-driven industrial growth as much as developed nations. Because of developing countries’ need for fossil fuels, and developed nations’ difficulties in dealing with the current energy crisis, the participating states decided to shift to the idea of “reduction” (as opposed to elimination) of emissions. In doing so, they fell short of the tasks assigned to policymakers both by the UNEP’s report and by the World Energy Outlook report developed by the International Energy Agency, which described gas as an “unacceptable energy source”. Rishi Sunak, Britain’s new Prime Minister, powerfully expressed his disappointment with the resolution, stating that: “Putin’s abhorrent war in Ukraine and rising energy prices across the world are not a reason to go slow on climate change, they are a reason to act faster.”
Debate was also sparked regarding the second target topic of COP27: the development of a fund, subsidized by economically developed nations and aimed at the protection of developing nations from the consequences of climate change. Early on in the conference, UN climate chief Simon Stiell expressed feeling positive about the inclusion of the topic in the agenda, and so did the leaders of many beneficiary countries. “What we seek is not charity, not alms, not aid — but justice,” Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, Pakistan’s foreign minister, had already made clear in September. 20-year-old Kenyan activist Eric Njuguna followed, explaining: “We need for this COP to deliver climate justice for Africa”, because, as South Africa’s president Cyril Ramaphosa explained during COP27, “[Africa] only contributed 1% of the damage that’s been done to the climate,” and industrialized economies “need to live up to the commitment that they have made.” Last year, economically advanced nations promised to provide $40 billion per year by 2025 to facilitate developing countries’ transition to sustainable energy, yet this is less than a fifth of what is likely to actually be needed, following a UN report.
When conversations about this “loss and damage” fund started coming up during the conference, reactions were mixed. While the European Union showed support for the proposal, French President Emmanuel Macron expressed his frustration towards other advanced economies: “Europeans are paying, [they] are the only ones paying”. This reaction was linked to the refusal by US President Joe Biden to offer a contribution to the fund, based on the argument that it is sustainable corporations–and not states–that should be financed. From the US’ perspective, it is improper for China to be considered a developing country as the world’s most significant CO2 emitter.
Despite its unpromising precedents, COP27 ended in what Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s minister for climate change, defined as a “historical” agreement on a “loss and damage” fund. Broadly, the fund is to be financed by 200 wealthier countries and will aim to redimension the damage caused by catastrophic climatic events in more vulnerable countries. A committee consisting of representatives from 24 countries will determine the details over the next year.
“We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator.”