This year’s UN Climate Change Conference took place under difficult conditions and in the midst of an escalating global crisis. The negotiations were correspondingly dramatic and sometimes hardened by national, regional, and geopolitical interests. Until shortly before the end, it looked as if the conference would conclude without any result and it was extended by two days to avoid that outcome. Ultimately, negotiators reached a compromise that is cause for both joy as well as anger, sadness, and frustration. The conference took place under the motto “Together for Implementation”, but it did not yield sufficient results to tackle the climate crisis.
Nadja Charaby is head of the International Politics and North America units at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and an advisor on climate policy.
Translated by Hanna Grzeskiewicz and Joseph Keady for Gegensatz Translation Collective.
The devastating consequences of climate change are already evident in recurring and destructive extreme weather events, affecting countries of the Global South in particular. Negotiators made it clear in their speeches in Sharm el-Sheikh: many countries have reached the limits of their adaptive capacities and are confronted with situations that are a matter of survival for their populations.
This is happening amidst global warming of 1.1 to 1.2 degrees compared to the pre-industrial era. Even if the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees, as outlined in the 2015 Paris Agreement, were to be achieved, massive ecological destruction and disastrous socio-economic consequences will still occur worldwide.
Both the UN Environment Programme’s recent Emissions Gap Report and the UN climate secretariat’s Synthesis Report on national greenhouse gas reduction targets show that the global community is far from getting global warming sufficiently under control to meet the agreed target. Instead, we are on a path of ignorance that accepts warming of more than 2.5 degrees. The responsibility to counteract this lies particularly with rich countries, whose use of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and gas has triggered and further fuelled the climate crisis — while also representing the foundation of their industrial model of prosperity.
Negotiations under Difficult Conditions
The consequences of climate change are not the only problem facing the countries of the Global South. Following the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine, many of them find themselves in a spiral of debt, and rising energy and food prices.
In the countries of the Global North, politics is also marked by concerns about energy supplies and inflation. Germany’s energy policy is currently geared towards global gas purchases and accepts the temporary extension of coal-fired power plants, which repeatedly and rightly brought on criticism in the context of the climate negotiations.
These circumstances shaped this year’s COP. At the start of the second week of negotiations, poor countries’ sharp demands for debt relief and a restructuring of the global financial system were still circulating in drafts of the final text. Poor countries need significant financial resources in order to enact the necessary transformation of their economies away from fossil fuel dependency and toward the adaptations they need against climate change. Due to current debt levels, as well as forms of climate finance that may cause further debt, this is currently unfeasible.
The final text of the climate conference, however, shows that the global community is not ready to initiate this transformation and the urgent passages insisting on the necessity of debt reduction disappeared in the final version. The fact that any result was achieved in Sharm el-Sheikh under the circumstances, in the midst of a deep crisis of multilateralism, can be seen as a success — at least that is the assessment of the Executive Secretary of the UN Climate Secretariat in his closing statement.
One achievement from Sharm el-Sheikh that should not be underestimated is that heads of state were able to agree on the establishment of a fund for climate loss and damage. The affected countries and civil society, as well as the G77+China group at the UN, can rightly pat themselves on the back for this. This outcome would not have been achieved without years of struggle for recognition of the need for financial compensation led by these groups.
However, a bitter aftertaste remains: it is unclear how this fund will operate and how it will be filled. It is also disappointing that the negotiations around the fund dragged on for so long that not more concrete results were reached — certainly in part because of the attitude of the largest greenhouse gas emitter, the US, which has always been opposed to such a fund, and because of the almost obsessive attempts of countries like Germany to break up the unity of G77+China through their diplomatic actions.
No Phase-Out of Fossil Fuels
The negotiations around the willingness of industrialized countries to invest in climate loss and damage say a lot about the level of understanding of global justice in the Global North. Instead of acknowledging historical responsibility, fund negotiations were tied to the 1.5-degree target: industrialized countries, such as the EU, were only willing to agree to such a fund if, conversely, all other countries agreed to continue their efforts to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees.
The logic is correct: the more greenhouse gases are produced, the more climate damage occurs. However, instead of producing a text that included the necessary conditions for mitigating global warming — namely the phasing out of all fossil fuel energies — negotiators struggled for days over wording that was meant to convey that developing countries were also responsible for reducing emissions.
Accordingly, the outcome of COP27 with regards to developing a programme to reduce climate-damaging emissions as soon as possible — i.e. before 2030 — is simply a denial of the causes of climate change. Only phasing out fossil fuels can seriously mitigate climate change. Instead, the agreed final text uses terms such as “ocean-based action” or “negative emissions” (removals) to keep the door open for false solutions such as technologies that pull emissions out of the atmosphere, geoengineering, or ocean fertilization. The participation of 636 lobbyists from the coal, oil, and gas sectors also undermines the credibility of the entire negotiation process on climate protection.
The role played by the host country, Egypt, and the political situation in the country itself also left a bitter aftertaste. For all the joy in civil society about the loss and damage fund, which is a mark of success for this COP, the extent to which the Egyptian regime was vying for just such a moment cannot be overlooked. The conference in Sharm el-Sheikh was a first-class display of greenwashing, coupled with intimidation and surveillance of civil society and delegations. International civil society’s solidarity with Egyptian activists and political prisoners, especially with the family of Alaa Abd El-Fattah, was certainly not planned by the regime and grated against its interests.
There is a danger of massive repression against the Egyptian human rights and environmental activists who dared to use the COP as a platform for their struggle. Alaa Abd El-Fattah is still in prison. It will be the task of the climate justice movement to ensure that international attention on the human rights situation in Egypt does not dwindle and disappear. Climate justice is a question of political participation and the protection of human rights, indigenous rights, and the rights of other disadvantaged groups. It does not reflect well on the UNFCCC that these are precisely the points that were repeatedly at issue at COP27 and that a climate of fear of security forces prevails in UN negotiating rooms.
Germany’s Contradictory Policy
The actions of the German government in and around the climate negotiations also raise big question marks. What does it mean when Chancellor Olaf Scholz publicly advocates for the release of Alaa Abd El-Fattah or when State Secretary Jennifer Morgan sits at an event together with his sister Sanaa Seif — while it’s business-as-usual with the Egyptian government?
For example, shortly before COP27, Germany finalized two memoranda with Egypt on promoting green hydrogen projects and a new cooperative agreement on fossil liquefied gas. During the COP, Deutsche Bahn was able to secure a deal worth single-digit billions as Egypt’s rail network operator. Germany deservedly fell short of polishing its image as a climate saviour. Its massive global purchases of gas and prolongation of coal-fired power, even if only for a short time, were not lost on the attendees.
At the COP, Germany emphasized its financial contributions to the G7’s Global Shield against Climate Risks initiative, but its commitment in this area can also be viewed critically. Rather than relying on voluntary payments for insurance solutions, which are controversial anyway, Germany, if it is serious about climate justice, should instead advocate for more binding payments to the planned UN fund for climate loss and damage.
This year’s climate conference was overshadowed by global crises. The cracks in the multilateral structure became clearly visible in the negotiations on the 1.5-degree target and the question of who has to contribute what. Even if a loss and damage fund is successfully established, it will remain only a compromise with a bitter aftertaste due to the vagueness of its design as well as the failure to decide on promptly phasing out fossil fuels.
In addition to the fundamental criticism of world climate conferences, which do not produce the transformative decisions necessary to save the climate, the Egyptian security apparatus’s surveillance of participants this year went beyond the limit of what is acceptable, particularly with regard to civil society. Especially in light of the upcoming COP in the United Arab Emirates, a country with an equally devastating human rights situation, and in view of the expectation that a joint civil society mobilization with local actors will once again be made difficult, the overall process of the COPs must be fundamentally questioned, now more than ever.