COP 27 took place in a ‘cop state’ amidst unprecedented geopolitical turbulence. The agreement on loss and damage could prove historic, but climate diplomacy needs to be strengthened outside the annual climate conference. Delegates left with much homework to do and little time to act.
A comment by Ole Adolphsen and Sarah Zitterbarth
“The clock is ticking. We are in the fight of our lives. And we are losing.” That’s how UN General Secretary Guterres – never one to mince words – opened COP 27 in Egypt. He had good reason to demand urgency. Just before the conference began, the United Nations Environment Program made clear that there is still a significant emissions gap. Even if countries fully implement all promised mitigation measures, 1.5 degrees will be missed. And with current policies, we are en route to 2.4 degrees of warming. The 1.5 degree temperature target is slipping out of reach.
The list of global issues competing with the climate crisis for attention and money has grown dramatically. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; the resulting energy and food crises; a new Cold War between the US and China – all while the world is still in recovery mode after the shock of the Covid-19 pandemic. The impacts and consequences of climate change are increasingly intertwined with some of these processes – what commentators now call the ‘polycrisis’.
COP 26 in Glasgow had set more ambitious emissions reduction targets, and completed the Paris Agreement’s rule book. COP 27 was supposed to be the ‘implementation COP.’ What that meant was less clear and part of the negotiations even before delegates convened in Sharm el-Shaik from 6-22 November 2022. Increased financial assistance was high on the agenda for African countries, while North American and European states categorically opposed any legal liability for past pollution. With Egypt as host, the narrative of an ‘African COP’ that could deliver on finance for loss and damage picked up steam.
Bad Cops: Policing climate action
Egypt tried to control the agenda in other ways as well. The one issue it did not want to see discussed was its domestic human rights situation, as Egyptian delegates’ reactions at side events by the sister of human rights activist Alaa Abdel Fattah showed. However, pressure from below galvanizes climate action. “Without global movements and climate protests, we would not be where we are today”, youth activist Molly Rahal emphasized on the recent Transatlantic Climate Bridge Podcast (TCB).
At the venue itself, civil society reported a general atmosphere of intimidation. Women in particular experienced overstepping by Egyptian security personnel around the venue, as the TCB’s guests recounted. The German delegation protested what they perceived as surveillance measures. Logistical and organizational issues like a lack of transparency during crucial moments in the negotiations meant that the host’s performance proved to be a central feature. At least the fear that Egypt would be able to ‘greenwash’ its record was unfounded.
Good COP: Tackling Loss and Damage
‘Loss and Damage’ (L+D) – adverse impacts of climate change that cannot be adapted to – was the talking point. It’s the lodestar around which every evaluation of COP 27 revolves. Small island states have pushed the agenda on L+D for over 30 years, but the Global North categorically resisted anything that could establish liability for past emissions. The Egyptian presidency, backed by the G77 group, secured it on the conference agenda. After negotiations reached a deadlock, the EU presented their compromise: We pay for some L+D, but without historic liability, and only to the most vulnerable countries. China, still classified as ‘developing’ under the Kyoto Protocol, should pay in, not cash out. A concurrent meeting between Xi Jinping and Joe Biden at the G20 summit softened remaining resistance. As Cassidy Childs, activist and researcher at the Center for American Progress, argued on the TCB, the agreement is historic: “This might be the first time that global south nations are walking away from UNFCCC negotiations with a huge win.”
Skeptics and pessimists rushed to point out the danger of the diplomatic ‘strategic ambiguity’ in the text: The difficult decisions – the fund’s size, who pays and how much, and who receives assistance – have been postponed to next year’s COP. In the interim, a transitional committee will work on the details. Just weeks ago, such an accomplishment was thought impossible. And it might not be an outlier, as it corresponds to two trends underlying global climate politics.
First, a normative shift. The suffering in vulnerable countries has become too real, too obvious, and too unfair to be completely ignored. Historic liability may be excluded – an impossible domestic proposition in most Western states – but the basic moral case has been made.
Second, a geopolitical shift: The increasing tensions between the US and Europe vs. China and Russia give non-aligned countries renewed bargaining power. The at best mixed reaction to NATO support for Ukraine in the Global South has been a wake up call for the liberal international order. It is no accident that in return, the EU and US proposal aimed at finally putting a wedge between the G77 and China. Only the coming year will tell if it has worked. But at ‘Africa’s COP’, the Global South has found its footing.
Bad COP: Fossil fuel renaissance?
However, as a representative from Bangladesh made clear, Loss and Damage is not enough: “No matter how strong institutions established to deal with climate related L+D are, there won’t be any prospect for climate justice if governments continue to accelerate the crisis at the same time”. The science is clear: effective climate action and mitigation require a rapid and complete phase out of fossil fuels. According to the International Energy Agency no new oil and gas fields can be developed if we are to keep global temperatures below 1.5 degrees and the latest report of the IPCC highlights the risks of stranded fossil fuel assets that will lock us into “carbon-intensive lifestyles and practices for many decades”. Therefore, it was an important (though still rather small) step forward when last year at COP 26 the phase-down of “unabated coal power” and the phase-out of “inefficient fossil fuel subsidies” were mentioned for the first time in a final COP declaration. Several countries, including Germany, pledged to end foreign fossil fuel funding by the end of 2022.
This year, however, the energy crisis, which has pushed some European countries to (temporarily) fall back on coal, loomed large during the conference. Although German Chancellor Olaf Scholz spoke out against a global fossil fuel renaissance, much of the attention at COP 27 was on the European dash for gas in African countries to replace Russian energy imports. Furthermore, the fossil fuel industry had an enormous presence in Sharm El-Sheikh: More than 600 fossil fuel lobbyists were granted access to the conference – an increase of 25% compared to the previous year. Fossil fuel lobbyists outnumbered representatives of the ten nations most impacted by the climate crisis.
Despite the urgency to keep the 1.5 degree goal alive and phase out all fossil fuels, there was no progress on this crucial issue. The final text only replicated the language from Glasgow and new wording was added with a reference to “low-emission energy systems”. Many fear this wording could justify further gas development as gas produces less emissions than coal. However, there are also points of optimism: the international community recognized for the first time in a final decision the urgency to accelerate the transition to renewable energy, while outside of the official COP process several countries – Kenya, Fiji, Tuvalu, Chile – became friends of the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance, expressing their commitment to a managed phase-out of fossil fuels.
Between COPs: Climate diplomacy
Good COPs or bad COPs – between hope and despair they confront us with the tragic absurdity of the gap between the impacts of the climate crisis and currently adopted measures. At a COP side-event, being questioned on a possible speed limit on the German Autobahn, a visibly embarrassed Foreign Office official had to acknowledge that domestic politics limited Germany’s ability to further raise ambition in this case. Seated next to him, the climate change minister of the small island state of Vanuatu then laid out how his country might soon be submerged by the Pacific Ocean.
What is clear is that the climate crisis will not be solved at any future COP, despite the importance of multilateralism to build trust and foster connections. As the pre-negotiations on L+D showed, climate diplomacy has to take place more vigorously outside and between these global conferences. It needs to be mainstreamed across international fora and policy areas such as conflict prevention, development and trade cooperation. In Germany, a climate foreign policy strategy is currently being drawn up – it aims to create a whole-of-government approach across ministries and to strengthen bilateral and plurilateral partnerships such as the Just Energy Transition Partnerships. It remains to be seen how this strategy will facilitate Germany’s much needed leadership on climate action for the new phase of implementation and how climate diplomacy will build momentum on the road to COP 28 in Dubai.
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Sarah co-heads the programme Climate & Energy at Polis180. Her main interests are climate foreign policy and climate justice. She studied International Development and Political Science in Paris and Berlin and currently works as a Policy Advisor at the German Bundestag.
Ole is a PhD student in International Relations at Johns Hopkins University. His work focuses on climate security and the politics of geoengineering. After undergraduate studies in Erfurt and Santiago de Chile, he received his Master’s degree from the London School of Economics. He joined Polis180 in 2022.