As delegates from around the world gather in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt for the United Nations Climate Conference (the “Conference of the Parties”, or COP27), there are growing fears that the summit will in fact result in a rollback of some of the gains achieved at previous conferences, rather than a set of substantial policies that get the world closer to limiting global warming to around 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Roland Ngam works as a Programme Manager for Climate Justice at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Office in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Back in 2015, delegates to the COP21 in Paris agreed that the surest way to avert a sharp rise in extreme weather events was to limit the rise in global temperatures to around 1.5 degrees. To do so, global CO2 emissions would have to be halved by 2030. From then on, all parties were obliged to report what are known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to help achieve this target.
Recently, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) stated that the world currently has no credible plan to achieve that goal. In the Emissions Gap Report 2022: The Closing Window, UNEP writes that “as growing climate change impacts are experienced across the globe, the message that greenhouse gas emissions must fall is unambiguous. Yet … the international community is falling far short of the Paris goals, with no credible pathway to 1.5°C in place.”
Coming on the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic, many have high hopes for a transformative COP this year. Floods in Pakistan, droughts in Europe and the Horn of Africa, famine in Madagascar, and a massive expansion of cattle ranches in the Amazon have heightened demands for radical cuts in CO2 emissions. People expect COP27 to deliver concrete solutions, otherwise the conference risks garnering the reputation of just another pointless talk shop where people gather to engage in some performative activism and empty rhetoric.
Thus, COP27 President-Designate, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, has his work cut out for him, to say the least.
Firstly, he needs to bring all or most of the heads of the highly industrialized nations to Egypt as a symbol of their commitment to the Conference of the Parties. Recently appointed British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak stated that he would be skipping the event to attend to domestic priorities several weeks ago, before making a U-turn following sharp criticism from the head of the Labour Party, Keir Starmer. The news that US President Joe Biden and newly elected President of Brazil Luis Ignacio Lula da Silva are attending the event is also a very important development.
But getting world leaders to Sharm El-Sheikh is the easy part. Actually making some important decisions will be a formidable challenge — and that is Sameh Shoukry’s second priority. So what exactly is on the agenda?
For starters, the conference takes place in the midst of an energy crisis caused by four key challenges: runaway inflation during the post-COVID recovery, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, searing heatwaves, and a stuttering post-Brexit United Kingdom.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine in particular has triggered a scramble for oil and gas that has already driven over half-a-trillion US dollars into Africa for a series of projects, such as the Sangomar gas fields in Senegal, ENI-Algeria, the Trans-Saharan Pipeline, and the Uganda–Tanzania pipeline. South African coal exporters’ order books are full with coal shipments leaving daily for China, India, and Europe. The global hegemony of fossil capitalism appears stronger than ever, and oil companies are reporting record profits.
The belligerent rhetoric between the US and China does not augur well for COP27. Xi Jinping just won an unprecedented third term as the head of the Communist Party of China, which certainly will mean a third term as president. Many experts believe that this will entail China developing a more belligerent foreign policy and, for example, moving to invade Taiwan. If the world’s two richest nations cannot talk to each other, they hardly will be able to work together to reduce CO2 emissions, starting with solid commitments in Sharm El-Sheikh.
Closer to home, African leaders who claim to have been shunned and even bullied at previous COPs suddenly have the upper hand. Europe needs at least 155 billion cubic feet of gas to replace what it used to import from Russia, and African states plan to leverage that situation. The emboldened energy ministers of Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt, Senegal, and even African Union President Macky Sall have already said that Africa must be left to use all resources at its disposal to develop. Translation: let us burn our coal and gas in peace.
President Shoukry must find a way to ensure that the scramble for oil and gas does not cause nations to tear up their NDC plans.
Secondly, the countries that contribute the least to global heating but suffer some of the biggest impacts through extreme weather events like drought, floods, tropical cyclones, and more are calling for what is known as “Loss and Damage”, i.e., compensation for the destructive impacts of climate change that cannot be avoided either by mitigation or adaptation. Developing nations’ efforts to get Loss and Damage officially adopted were thwarted at last year’s COP in Glasgow, and this time around they will not take “no” for an answer.
Africa will require at least 250 billion dollars annually to move towards greener technologies and adapt to the effects of climate change. Unfortunately, it receives only a small fraction of this amount, most of which comes from within the continent itself. This is hardly fair. President Shoukry needs to get the highly industrialized nations to pay their fair share.
Thirdly, there must be a clearer plan to save the world’s rainforests. Some important decisions were made to protect the world’s rainforests and peatlands in Glasgow, but very little has been done to translate those commitments into clear action since. Outgoing Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, who oversaw the clearing of vast tracts of Amazon rainforest the size of Belgium, might be gone, but the world needs a plan to save what remains of the rainforests. The countries situated in the Congo Basin and the Amazon must be supported in their conservation efforts.
Finally, something must be done regarding the corporate takeover of COP by business interests. COP is a special event and it makes no sense that corporate sponsors were allowed to get a foothold. The line-up of corporate sponsors looking to greenwash their way into hearts and minds keeps growing longer.
Somehow, COP seems to be attracting the very biggest corporate producers of plastic bottles — Unilever last year, and Coca-Cola this year. Coca-Cola has already occupied a prominent position in Sharm El-Sheikh, telling the world how environmentally responsible it is. This greenwashing needs to be reined in quickly for the UN’s climate negotiations to be anything more than meaningless spectacle.