Has the UN climate change conference gotten too big to work?

By Bob Berwyn | December 5, 2022

climate activists at cop27 holding signs that read we are watching and do somethingClimate activists at COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. (UNclimatechange/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Editor’s note: This story was originally published by Inside Climate News. It appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

The madness of COP27 started at the airport, where 50 diesel buses idled under the hot sun with doors wide open and air conditioners blasting until they headed out, often with just a handful of attendees aboard, delivering them to a far-flung network of hotels sprawled along the reef-fringed coast of the southern Sinai Peninsula.

Each day the fleet of buses drove hundreds of miles in endless rounds, spewing thousands of tons of carbon dioxide and soot into the air as they rolled past expanses of partly excavated desert, where more resort hotels and strip malls continue to spring up.

The carbon footprint of last year’s COP26 in Glasgow was 102,500 tons of carbon dioxide. At a price of $100 per ton that adds up to more than $10 million dollars. Might investing that money in green infrastructure upfront, before the conference, leave a lasting legacy better than the mountains of plastic waste produced at the talks each year? That conversation isn’t on the agenda.

The buses rolled on. Police cars clustered at the intersections where the bus doors open to admit new riders with their COP27 credentials flapping in the desert wind. Every quarter mile or so, black-suited men carrying clipboards stand along the road, seeking out shade under scruffy palm trees, monitoring who knows what.

The final approach to the conference halls was through an industrial district lined by miles of tall chain link fences with surveillance cameras clearly visible every few hundred feet—we are watching you, and we want you to know it, the Egyptian government seemed to be saying, a reminder that COP27 was held in an authoritarian state that has jailed thousands of people for speaking out against the government, and that reportedly installed spyware in the official app for the conference.

Holding the global climate conference here at a time when the links between human rights and climate justice are becoming clear felt like a slap in the face to some climate and justice activists.

“This dystopic COP laid bare the steep challenges, but also the inherent connections, between climate justice and human rights,” said Jean Su, energy and justice director and senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The credibility of these climate talks are at stake when they are hosted in countries that violate basic human rights and continue fossil fuel expansion in spite of climate science.”

COPs have previously been criticized for greenwashing, said Matt Henry, an assistant professor of environmental humanities at the University of Wyoming who studies climate justice. “But this year’s meeting under a repressive authoritarian regime amounts to the greenwashing of human rights,” he said.

Food fights and climate justice. It’s Monday, Nov. 14, the start of the second week of climate talks, and I’ve joined about 40,000 people who have gathered in this unlikely location to discuss the fate of the world, and, perhaps, to finally take decisive climate action. Most of the delegates know the latest climate science reports say that, without immediate and deep greenhouse gas emissions cuts, the planet is heading toward a hellishly hot future, with certain death for thousands and indescribable suffering for millions more from heatwaves, floods, fires and crop failures.

To avert the worst, the world has to stop the unchecked burning of fossil fuels, but so far, after six days of talks behind closed doors, in plenaries and corridors, not much has happened, so some news reports instead focused on shortages of snacks and cold beverages, a manifestation of the sense of entitlement that is one of the many roots of the climate crisis.

The food fights represented a concerning lack of collegiality that can hamper progress in negotiations, said Cara Augustenborg, an assistant professor of environmental studies at University College Dublin, Ireland, who attended COP27 as a member of Ireland’s climate change Advisory Council.

“I was in a line where the snacks were running out,” she said. “People got very aggressive and cut the line to try and get to the last croissant. I couldn’t help think, ‘Wow, if this is how we treat each other for a croissant, how on earth are we supposed to negotiate a global climate treaty?’”

The scuffle over snacks hints at some of what is at the root of the climate crisis, said Amit Singh, a climate activist in the United Kingdom. Research shows that the richest 10 percent of people produce half the world’s individual-based greenhouse gas emissions, and they always want more, he said.

“Greed and power have been built together,” he said. “There’s a long history of it and it comes from a geographical set of locations. It comes from places that have colonized the world, such as Europe, the U.K., and are still colonizing the world right now.”

At a Monday event about halting deforestation, carbon offset traders roamed the U.S. Center of the climate summit handing out business cards as they sought to cash in on the millions of dollars earmarked for such schemes in the Inflation Reduction Act. Outside, forest defenders and Indigenous groups protested, warning that the programs will result in more displacements of Native peoples.

Returning Indigenous lands helps the climate, but native peoples can’t negotiate without it. Negotiators released draft texts on Tuesday morning, Nov. 5, but they dealt with issues deep in the weeds that have little to do with the big questions of whether to phase out fossil fuels more rapidly to maintain a chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius or how to help developing nations that are being hit with the worst climate disasters but have done little to cause them. Nonetheless, experts parsed every word for meaning and signs of progress, while pundits explained how world events like the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine affected the climate talks.

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Maybe the conferences have just grown too large to tackle the issue. The directory mapping the venue shows how participation in the climate talks has ballooned over the years. It lists countries, regions within countries, cities within regions, associations of cities, associations of countries and industries, international associations of sub-associations, all of them bringing their own representatives to participate in the climate side events that seem to dominate the space at the expense of focusing on the actual talks.

a conference attendee lays her head down on a table
An exhausted delegate sleeps on the table at COP27. (UNclimatechange/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The entrance plaza was swarmed by Indigenous people from around the world, once again unified in response to weak global climate policy. Passionate speeches and angry faces broadcast impatience with the U.N.’s grinding bureaucratic process. Nearly everyone is wearing red to protest land taken by colonizers, and stolen Indigenous children. Those with no red of their own got a bright scarlet sash that they tie on their heads or hands.

“What do we want? Land back!” was a call-and-response mantra. Speakers representing tribes from every continent but Antarctica explained how science shows that restoring Indigenous control of land that was stolen from them is crucial to building a more just world that will also help stabilize the climate with more sustainable use of resources, a concept that is now even supported by the World Bank, hardly a hotbed of radical activism.

Yet, within the COP27 process, there is little room for meaningful Indigenous participation, said Eriel Deranger, a Dënesųłiné climate and civil rights activist and director of Indigenous Climate Action from Alberta, where Indigenous lands have been exploited for fossil fuels.

“There’s flowery language to recognize human rights and Indigenous Peoples’ rights,” she said. “But it’s watered-down, weak language with no processes or mechanisms … that actually give us seats at the table. Right now it’s just a lot of hot air.”

Currently Indigenous people also don’t always have the ability at home to challenge false climate solutions or projects that violate Indigenous rights, she added.

“Our independent sovereign nations, as defined by the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, are not being respected or recognized,” she said. “We have to fight tooth and nail to get accreditation to participate in these spaces. We’re still observers, and not true decision makers.”

One of the biggest challenges, she said, “is that, in order to be recognized as a nation by the U.N., Indignous people must have land.

“Our people have been dispossessed of our land through different forms of colonization, she said. “Until our people have land back and are able to assert ourselves as sovereign nations with land, the U.N. will never recognize us. So I think it starts at home in our states, to rematriate or lands back to our peoples.”

Mixed messages. Fossil fuel lobbyists were reported to arrive at COP27 in record numbers. They roamed every nook and cranny of the conference searching for new prospects, especially in the Global South, where they see vast and as-yet untapped reserves and hungry markets in the rapidly developing countries of Africa and Asia. With fossil gas, they promised those countries they can have a safe climate and economic growth at the same time. But many of the lobbyists’ prospective customers, even in the Global South, say science shows that is more a fairytale than a solution.

But it’s clear from the hordes of lobbyists and their messaging that they have not given up on efforts to write the narrative for the negotiations, which calls into question the U.N.’s idea that the industry most responsible for the problem can somehow be part of the solution.

Activists from Africa said they want energy, yes, but many of them want to leapfrog past fossil fuels to a renewable energy future. They accused their own governments of making deals with oil and gas companies that will benefit ruling classes at the expense of people who depend on forests and coastal fisheries for their livelihoods.

Still, only a tiny percentage of the thousands at the conference watched the raucous protests in the main plaza. Most days there were more people clustered around the coffee shops at various pavilions, smiling,taking selfies and enjoying the Starbucks vibe, while nearby, scientists described the coming apocalypse, showing, for example, how much of the Nile Delta, Egypt’s breadbasket, will be under water in 2100 even if all greenhouse gas emissions miraculously ceased today.

Why go outside into the bright heat when you can stay inside the wonderful climate mall, where the air is cooled by row upon row of car-size air conditioners that are hidden out of sight except from the local workers taking cigarette breaks. There, the units hum and groan and creak and the air swooshes in and out and it feels like the last gasp of a dying planet.

Little progress over decades at a time when every year counts. On Friday, an end times atmosphere settled over the proceedings. Global solidarity seemed to have frayed, as some countries started to blame others for the lack of progress, while official communiques from the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change gloss over the tensions with diplomatic language. Vast waves of information wash over the attendees—more data, verbiage, images and messages than a single human could reasonably process in a year, much less a couple of weeks. Any expectations for a last-minute save-the-climate plan are fading.

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Instead of asking themselves why the process has struggled for 30 years, delegates blamed the host country for running an unorganized conference. There’s talk of backing off the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and no sign that negotiators will formally acknowledge that the only way to reach that goal is to end the uncontrolled use of coal, oil and gas.

The final language needs approval from every country at the table, and there are a handful that have made it clear, publicly and privately, that they intend to keep producing fossil fuels until the bitter end. A comment attributed to a Saudi official urges the world not to target sources of energy, but to focus on emissions.

Petrostates from every region of the Global North were in Sharm el-Sheikh—Norway from Europe and Canada from North America—that have all blocked language critical of fossil fuels at one time or another.The United States has been blocking effective climate policy since it failed to ratify the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and more recently, when the Trump administration used the COP process to try and advance the interests of U.S. fossil fuel industries, so the blame-Egypt card seems misplayed.

Teams of bleary eyed diplomats huddle in corners of the negotiation zones and sidestep into meeting chambers to try and come up with something, anything, to maintain at least the illusion that something is being done about this existential threat to humans and the ecosystems they depend on. On this last scheduled day of COP27, the United States seems to be more in step with the growing majority of countries that want a document clearly stating that limiting warming to the least dangerous level possible—1.5 degrees Celsius—requires phasing out all fossil fuels, not just coal.

An agreement to create a fund compensating developing countries for the loss and damage they are enduring from climate change suddenly seems within reach, providing a crack of light in the accumulating gloom as time runs short at the conference.

delegates in conversation over a clipboard
The final negotiations went hours into overtime as delegates hammered out a deal on loss and damage. (UNclimatechange/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Stumbling across the finish line. As COP27 went into overtime on Saturday, a new draft of the final cover letter provided some bright spots suggesting that perhaps some of the delegates listened to the demonstrators outside. For the first time, there’s a reference to “Mother Earth”—acknowledgment of the cultures that have maintained their relationships with the natural world. In another first, the draft recognizes the fundamental right to a healthy environment.

And, seemingly from out of nowhere, a loss and damage deal is nearly finalized, a huge step toward climate justice. Finally, developed countries, including the United States, long a holdout, found common ground for creating a fund to pay for climate damages in poor countries.

The silver lining is thin. Brazil, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Indonesia have agreed to a conservation pact encompassing about 80 percent of the world’s rainforests with the hope that they can take up enough carbon dioxide to offset increasing fossil fuel emissions, even as research shows that many forests won’t be able to handle the rising heat much longer.

And another group of 150 countries has made more non-binding and non-enforceable promises to cut emissions of methane, which traps much more heat than CO2. The promised cuts of 30 percent by 2030 could theoretically slow the rising global temperature in the near term until enough clean energy has been deployed to replace fossil fuels. But global warming is driving methane releases from natural sources like thawing tundras and tropical vegetation, which could offset the cuts even if all the promises turn into action.

The negotiators appear convinced that concerted action can still limit the catastrophic effects of driving the global temperature above the 1.5 degree target of the Paris Agreement. But some scientists at the conference suggest it’s time to be more realistic, raising questions about the wisdom of setting a temperature target in the first place. Instead, they say, the goal should be to end uncontrolled emissions, not only from coal, but also from oil and gas.

But the political process lags behind the science. Petrostates and fossil fuel lobbyists have again blocked language that would have called for a phase-out of unabated oil and gas use. Instead, the final cover letter repeats the wording from last year’s COP, calling only for a phase-out of “inefficient subsidies,” a phrase so open to interpretation that it has allowed the continued rush of investment in new oil and gas projects worldwide.

The final words on the conference from the top of the United Nations also seemed to be a grim echo from the weeks leading up to them.

“Let’s be clear,” United Nations General Secretary António Guterres said after the talks ended. “Our planet is still in the emergency room. We need to drastically reduce emissions now, and this is an issue this COP did not address.”

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