COP 27 in review – the last gasps of a dying process?

Long-awaited success on loss-and-damage cannot distract us from the reality of a system which is no longer fit for purpose

Another year, another COP. As the banners come down, the private jets take off for home, and the final headlines fade from the front pages, what are we to make of COP 27?

This year, more than ever before, I know exactly what I think. After two deadlocked weeks, two fraught overtime days, forty thousand participants and endless screeds of analysis, I have somehow broken through to a refreshingly simple conclusion.

We can’t go on like this.

COP 27 has demonstrated that the system is no longer fit for purpose, and this year’s event must be the last of its kind. It has failed too many times, in the same old ways, and we cannot afford to humour the dysfunction any more. We are all out of time.

Either next year’s process is conducted in a radically different manner, or the whole structure should be replaced for good.

Loss and Damage wins through

Before we read the full obituary of a dying process, let’s pay due respect to a genuine achievement – the creation of a dedicated climate damage fund. Reparations is a subject that had been ignored by the global north for far too long, and it is some measure of justice that an agreement was finally struck this year. It’s also good news that the model demanded by developing nations is the one that stuck, rather than the US preference for a ‘mosaic’ of existing facilities (none of which have done the job so far).

We now have our dedicated money-pot labelled ‘loss and damage’; but the jar itself remains empty. Big promises have been made on climate funding before, only for the cash itself never to arrive. The Green Climate Fund – which was set up in 2009 with the promise of $100bn a year for developing nations by 2020, of which only about $2bn has ever been spent – springs to mind. Will it be different this time? This will all hang on delivery, and I’m not celebrating yet.

Talking and performing

Even the success around loss and damage this year highlights the Achilles heel of the COP process – an obsession with talk and performance over implementation and action. COP 27 was supposed to be the ‘implementation COP’ – so perhaps it’s worth unpicking exactly how the negotiations themselves were executed.

Forty thousand elites crammed into Sharm El-Sheik, a tightly-controlled pleasure resort buried deep in the desert, all protected from the inconvenience of meeting anyone actually affected by climate change courtesy of the Egyptian security apparatus. The event was sponsored by Coca-Cola, the biggest plastic polluter on the planet, and infiltrated in plain sight by over 630 fossil fuel lobbyists. The first few days were the usual revolving photo-shoot of world leaders jetting in to be seen by the right people, even as scientists, civil society groups, and indigenous representatives were largely priced – and policed – out of the process entirely. Some observers have called this the most surveilled COP in history. Others called it the ‘worst COP ever’.

Meanwhile, the negotiators themselves got down to the task at hand: talking about how they were failing to get anything done. I say this not to pass criticism upon the many well-intentioned and hard-working people giving the best years of their lives to the UNFCC process. My heart goes out to them. But another year of ‘heroic’ negotiating efforts leave me with a sense of adrenal fatigue. This year’s central achievement only came to fruition after the conference blew through its own Friday deadline, and submitted delegates to a forty-hour, last-ditch session over the weekend. In other words, they spent their allotted two weeks getting nowhere, then suddenly realising they had to act only once the deadline has passed…which sounds a lot like last year, and the year before that. The depressing parallel with the world’s decarbonisation deadlines themselves should not pass unnoticed.

Form and (dys)function

The whole process demonstrated, once again, that the implementation of COP itself is fundamentally dysfunctional. Putting so much weight on this one annual gala only makes climate commitments more of a momentary performance. Once complete, governments can drop their focus for the rest of the year, safe in the knowledge that the cameras have moved on.

The format of the negotiations themselves – a continuous bickering over language – is an example of the kind of foot-dragging techniques that climate denialists now employ, and a few bad actors are more than happy to sabotage consensus to prevent meaningful action.

Even the weight of COP’s own history now seems to be playing against it. Efforts by the EU to force China and other fast-growing economies to pay into the new damage fund met with angry resistance from the majority of developing nations, who saw it as another example of developed nation’s long efforts to divide the G77 as a negotiating tactic. They duly closed ranks instead. This kind of historic baggage only gets in the way of putting genuine pressure on the likes of China to reform its woefully inadequate emissions reduction targets.

The measure that matters

Perhaps I’m over-thinking it. After all, there is one measure above all that tells us the health of the world’s climate negotiation process – and 2022 saw carbon emissions reach record highs.

After three decades of talking, COP 27 was not the herald of genuine action on climate change we needed it to be. We didn’t even see more ambitious promises on emissions, because well-intentioned negotiators barely defended what was agreed in 2015. Many countries put the weight of their delegations behind attempts to abandon 1.5 degrees. Emissions need to peak in 2025 to meet this target, yet that language was cut from the text, as well as language around phasing down fossil fuels. In the words of one Saudi Arabian delegate: “We should focus on emissions. We should not mention fossil fuels.” That is exactly the kind of doublethink that sums up the current state of climate governance – running down the clock with endless hair-splitting on language, even as emissions tick up year on year.

COP 28, of course, is going to be hosted by another petrostate in the United Arab Emirates. It’s lead Climate Envoy, Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, is also CEO of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. I doubt that 27’s reign as ‘worst COP ever’ will last more than a year.

Time for Change

2015 gave us the Paris Agreement, which stands as the high-water mark of climate governance to this day. In truth, this is all the blueprint we really need. The time for endless renegotiations is over. The COP talking-shop should be replaced with a leaner, meaner operation with a relentless focus on execution. There is no reason this can’t run year-round, and be given the tools to broker effective action without being held ransom by intransigent minorities.

We should have learnt by now, from any number of transnational bodies (UN, WHO, IMF etc.), what works and what doesn’t. Creating something new would at least redeem the COP process since 2015 at least as having been a necessary, and therefore useful, failure. Provided we act now, there need be no shame in that.


Written by Chris Caldwell CEO of United Renewables, originally published on Linkedin on November 23rd 2022


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