COP27 continues the climate summit ritual of words without action

This has become, sadly, a yearly ritual by now. The world’s governments gather together to discuss what should be done about global warming, and finish their time together by issuing statements of concern while doing little concrete to actually solve the problem. And so it is with COP27.

The 27th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, to use the formal name for COP27, ended with what has the appearance of a breakthrough: An agreement on the establishment of a “loss and damage” fund for Global South countries severely affected by weather and environmental disasters triggered by global warming, and for which they bear almost no responsibility. This finally fulfills a pledge made at the 2009 Climate Summit in Copenhagen. 

Will this fund truly provide compensation to offset the costs borne by underdeveloped countries most at risk from climate upheaval? Given the past records of pledge fulfillment, you may be excused for being skeptical that the fund will come to full fruition, or that sufficient action will be taken to fulfill the goal of previous COPs to cap global warming at 1.5 degrees C. above the pre-industrial level.

On the latter, there is not much time remaining to reverse the ongoing increases in greenhouse gas emissions that continue to be poured into Earth’s atmosphere. According to an analysis published a year ago, Carbon Brief says: 

“In total, humans have pumped around 2,500bn tonnes of CO2 (GtCO2) into the atmosphere since 1850, leaving less than 500GtCO2 of remaining carbon budget to stay below 1.5C of warming. This means that, by the end of 2021, the world will collectively have burned through 86% of the carbon budget for a 50-50 probability of staying below 1.5C, or 89% of the budget for a two-thirds likelihood.”

A view from Mount Sinai in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula (photo by Daniel Fafard)

Despite this looming disaster, the “implementation plan” announced at COP27, “excluded any mention of winding down the use of fossil fuels. It also provided little indication that nations were serious about scaling up efforts to cut emissions,” Carbon Brief reports

The implementation plan “requests” countries that have not yet done so “revisit and strengthen” their 2030 climate targets by the end of 2023 so as to to align with the Paris Agreement. 

Maybe if they are asked politely, polluters will stop?

Note that word: “requests.” Oh please consider stopping your environmental destruction if it’s not too inconvenient. Weak-tea wording that is consistent with past COPs. The “we were happy to talk and we will be happy to talk some more” concluding themes of past years wasn’t quite the case this year — the “loss and damage” fund would be a concrete victory should it actually be seriously implemented — but there was no noticeable move to prod the world’s governments, and the polluters and greenhouse-gas emitters they protect, to make it possible to cap global warming at 1.5 degrees. Consider the most recent conference results.

  • COP26, held last year in Glasgow, concluded with the world’s governments agreeing to strengthen their greenhouse-gas emission reduction goals, but the commitments were well short of meeting stated goals nor did they have enforcement mechanisms.
  • COP25, two years ago in Madrid, ended with a statement that the conference “Notes with concern the state of the global climate system” but limited its action to announcing two more years of roundtables.
  • COP24, which featured the host Polish government promoting coal, ended in an agreement to create a rulebook with no real enforcement mechanism to meet greenhouse-gas emission goals that also have no enforcement mechanism.
  • COP23 in Bonn ended with a promise that people will get together and talk some more.

Lots of talking and not much doing is, unfortunately, par for the course. Last year saw a strong push to have the COP26 negotiators agree to a “phase out” of coal that was ultimately watered down to a “phase down,” a vague formulation with no specific meaning. Representatives from dozens of countries at COP27 wanted to expand that call to a “phase down” of all fossil fuels, but pushback from Russia and Saudi Arabia and reported foot dragging by the conference’s Egyptian presidency apparently succeeded. There is no such reference to fossil fuels in the conference’s communiqués.

Graphic from Carbon Brief

There was some success in getting the “loss and damage” fund for Global South countries passed, overcoming opposition from the United States and European Union. This was a last-minute triumph for proponents, with the G77 group representing underdeveloped countries and China pushing for the fund to be established. No funding mechanism, however, was agreed to. How much Global North countries will pay and how money will be distributed are to be decided in a series of workshops in 2023. The 2009 agreement that committed developed countries to pay $100 billion per year has never been reached. Some years barely more than half that total was paid and Oxfam argues those reported totals actually overstate what was really delivered.

The official COP27 website is dominated by propaganda, full of baseless articles with titles like “Egypt Climate Champion.” The Egyptian city of Sharm el-Sheikh was the conference host, despite Cairo’s relentless human rights violations and poor environmental record, including repression of environmentalists. The United Nations Climate Change website offers breathless coverage of what it calls a “breakthrough agreement to provide ‘loss and damage’ funding for vulnerable countries hit hard by climate disasters,” but does acknowledge that “a global transformation to a low-carbon economy is expected to require investments” of US$4 trillion to $6 trillion per year, and that “Delivering such funding will require a swift and comprehensive transformation of the financial system and its structures and processes.”

Noting concern, but not matching words with action

Alas, that transformation was not so much as hinted at in the communiqués issued at the conclusion of COP27. Past conferences have ended in a series of statements expressing concern and alarm, but little sense of actually doing something about those concerns and alarms. COP27 has not been an exception. 

The Sharm el-Sheikh Implementation Plan, which functions as the “final communiqué” that had been issued at the conclusion of past conferences, “Underlines the urgent need to address, in a comprehensive and synergetic manner, the interlinked global crises of climate change and biodiversity loss.” Furthermore, the conference “Notes with serious concern the existing gap between current levels of adaptation and levels needed to respond to the adverse effect of climate change” and “Notes with grave concern … the adverse effects of climate change, resulting in devastating economic and non-economic losses.” The conference also “Takes note of the report on the determination of the needs of developing country Parties related to implementing the Convention and the Paris Agreement and in this context urges developed country Parties to provide resources.” 

Is there something other than hand-wringing here? Alas, no. The plan merely “Reiterates its invitation to Parties to consider further actions to reduce by 2030 noncarbon dioxide greenhouse gas emissions, including methane.”

So there remains no enforcement mechanisms or globally agreed standards for any country to meet.

The world’s governments agreed at the Paris Climate Summit in 2015 to hold the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above the pre-Industrial Age average, a change from the previous commitment of 2 degrees. This goal is nowhere near being met. Following last year’s COP26, Climate Action Tracker found that if there were full implementation of submitted and binding long-term targets and 2030 targets, the world’s temperature would increase by 2.1 degrees Celsius from the pre-Industrial Age average. Worse, what the Tracker calls “real world action based on current polices” would result in a temperature increase of 2.7 degrees.

And now? The Tracker, in assessing the latest pledges, this month found that if all current pledges and targets for 2030 and longer-term emissions are met, a temperature rise of 2 degrees C. would be likely be endured by 2100. If only all 2030 emissions targets are met, then a rise of 2.4 degrees is likely. But current trends are for even these inadequate levels to not be met. The “real world action based on current polices” — what is actually currently being done — would see a rise of 2.7 degrees by the end of the 21st century.

“The world is heading for 2.4°C of warming under current 2030 targets. If that number looks familiar, it’s because it is the same as last year,” the Tracker said in its report. “There have been no substantial improvements of existing net zero pledges since COP26. Warming could be 1.8°C, if all targets under discussion are fully implemented, unchanged from last year. Stronger 2030 targets and policy implementation are needed to make these pledges believable and actually provide a reason for optimism.”

Grassroots activists vs. corporate interests

Other environmental organizations are not impressed, either. For example, Sanjay Vashist, the director of Climate Action Network South Asia, had this to say:

“Even as we welcome the announcement of the Loss and Damage funding facility, it is indeed unfortunate that the COP27 failed to deliver on any of the three key outcomes that could have accelerated climate action to avert the worst impacts of the climate crisis. In a year when Pakistan floods reminded the world of the need for urgency, COP 27 had nothing new to offer on ambition to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. At a time when island nations like Sri Lanka are teetering under economic and climate crises, it has failed to find ways to expedite the delivery of promised billion dollars per annum, forget any new or additional financial assistance.”

Asad Rehman, executive director of War on Want and the lead spokesperson for the Climate Justice Coalition, in an interview with Democracy Now, called the conclusion of COP27 “a recipe for disaster.” He said:

“Rich countries have long blocked that idea of an equitable phaseout of fossil fuels. What they’ve wanted to concentrate on is coal, because, largely, developed countries have moved away from coal. And, of course, they’re expanding. I mean, it’s shocking that President Biden, for example, has authorized more permits for expansion of fossil fuels than even Donald Trump did. And, of course, we would widely recognize that President Trump was a climate denialist. So, what we’re seeing is not that kind — not the language that we need in terms of actually a phaseout. Now, what we’ve seen also, of course, because of the pressure of the hundreds of fossil fuel lobbyists and many countries who are relying on fossil fuels for their own economic development, they began to water down their language around fossil fuels.”

Fossil fuel lobbyists attended COP27 in even larger numbers than previous conferences. A report by Corporate Accountability, Corporate Europe Observatory and Global Witness said that 636 fossil fuel lobbyists registered for COP27, an increase of over 25% from COP26. There were more fossil fuel lobbyists than any single national delegation, excepting only the United Arab Emirates. “The extraordinary presence of this industry’s lobbyists at these talks is therefore a twisted joke at the expense of both people and planet,” the report said. 

Graphic from Carbon Brief

The United Arab Emirates, the host for next year’s COP28 meeting, at COP27 promoted oil and gas as a clean source of energy and used the Egypt meeting to promote its state oil company. The UAE also promoted its state oil company’s carbon capture and storage efforts, which even if these could be scaled to its 2030 projection, would “absorb the equivalent of just over two percent of the country’s current overall emissions.” Carbon capture and storage, or sequestration, means “capturing” carbon dioxide before it escapes into the atmosphere and “permanently” storing it underground or underwater, thereby removing it from the air and negating its greenhouse effects. The technology required to achieve this at scale does not exist and has both cost and logistical problems significant enough that sequestration is unlikely to be viable in the foreseeable future. 

That oil and gas interests are unambiguously present and shaping policy is perhaps not surprising because 18 of the 20 companies listed as sponsoring COP27 either directly support or partner with oil and gas companies.

Corporate greenwashing not limited to fossil fuel interests

Fossil fuel companies were not alone in attempting to thwart any progress. The number of registered COP27 delegates who were either directly linked to the world’s largest agribusiness firms or participating in the UN talks as part of delegations that represent industry interests more than doubled from the Glasgow conference. DeSmog reported 160 representatives of Big Agriculture at COP27, compared to 76 at Glasgow last year. Further, “The number of delegates linked to the world’s top five pesticide producers (which between them have 27 lobbyists registered this year), are greater than some country delegations,” DeSmog reports.

“Agribusiness delegates attending the climate talks at the Sharm el-Sheikh resort include the head of a U.S. meat lobby group that until recently claimed the extent of man-made climate change was ‘unknown’, as well as influential trade groups that have lobbied against climate action,” DeSmog said. “The world’s largest meat corporation JBS was also found to have gained privileged access to all negotiations, via the Brazil country delegation.” That is all the more alarming considering the dire situation of the Amazon rainforest, often referred to as the “Earth’s lungs.” The World Wildlife Fund reports that 35% of the Amazon rainforest is either totally lost or highly degraded.

The report says, “The situation has begun to show signs of nearing a point of no return: seasons are changing, surface water is being lost, rivers are becoming increasingly disconnected and polluted, and forests are under immense pressure from increasingly devastating waves of deforestation and fire. This could lead to irreversible change in the near future.” As a further insult, Coca-Cola is one of the sponsors of COP27 despite being called the “world’s leading polluter of plastic in 2021.” Coke has long been connected to human rights abuses in Latin America, as allegations reported in detail by the activist group Killer Coke document.

Human rights violations are nothing new in Egypt. Civil society groups reported surveillance and intimidation at COP27 and the case of Alaa Abd el-Fattah has drawn renewed attention to Cairo’s contempt for human rights. “The rights to freedom of expression and association were severely repressed,” Amnesty International reports in its Egypt report. Arbitrary detention, torture, cruel and inhuman detention, and systematic crackdowns on labor strikes, independent unions and workers expressing grievances or criticism is routine. Why would a conference said to be open to the world’s activists be held in such a country?

What else can be expected when corporate lobbyists swarm climate conferences in such large numbers? When the world’s governments not only make themselves subordinate to multi-national corporations but site the conference in one of the world’s most repressive régimes? The world’s economic system can’t function without endless growth, funnels wealth and therefore power into a minuscule number of hands, causes massive inequality, and forces all to engage in a ruthless competition that requires ever harsher measures to survive. A system designed to deliver massive profits, without regard to social or environmental costs and at the expense of communities and employees. 

We’ll need all the energy and effort that environmental groups can muster if humanity is to have any chance at a livable planet in the future, but it will take more than that. After decades of evidence, it is clear that our environmental and climatic crises can not be solved under capitalism.

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