Another year, another round of climate negotiations, and another round of comment across the world questioning whether it’s all worth it.  I argue it is. 

We arrived in Egypt to find a government that appeared to be more focussed on getting as much cash out of everyone as possible –COP27 entrance from instructing all vendors in Sharm el-Sheik to demand US dollars, to the extortionate hotel fees and overpriced and scarce food at the COP.   It also appeared intent in getting as much information on as many governments – and delegates – as possible: everywhere you looked there were QR codes to download the COP27 app that cyber experts warned could do all kinds of surveillance.  

Loss and Damage

The warnings were there in the pre-COP meetings around the agenda that went late into the nights leading up to the official opening, when it wasn’t at all clear that the issue of a Loss and Damage mechanism would even BE on the agenda, let alone get a decision.  

Loss and Damage is a concept that’s been around for 30 years: in the early 90’s, on learning about the slow onset of sea level rise as a result of global warming, the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) started calling for a fund to pay for losses and damage from climate change that would never be able to be adapted to, like loss of land to the sea, the loss of lives…

The issue was put formally on the UNFCCC table in Warsaw, but had stagnated since, largely due to the US’s firm red line on anything that could be construed as making it liable to pay for damages.  

But over the course of the two weeks of negotiations, and especially in the second week, AOSIS and the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) convinced the G77 – the group of all developing countries, to hold out for a mechanism, the setting up of an actual fund for Loss and Damage. 

It took perseverance but they finally managed to get the EU on board around setting up a process to set up a fund. 

This was a huge win for the developing world, and especially for AOSIS and the LDCs, the countries most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, and already suffering from the 1.15 degrees of warming we’ve already had. That the G77 was chaired by Pakistan, where 30 million people have been displaced by floods that still haven’t receded, certainly helped. 

There’s still a LOT of work to iron out the details, but this was a bigger step forward than any of us could have hoped. 

The (fossil) Gas COP

Against a background of a year of an energy crisis caused by Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, gas was front and centre in the global energy conversation, usurping climate change by a country mile.  With African nations being wooed by European customers for their gas, the gas industry had COP27 in its sights.  

Deals were being made everywhere: but it was also an opportunity for studies and investigations to land, which they did every day. 

For example, the Climate Action Tracker (for whom I work at COP), released a devastating piece of news: in the panic for new sources of fossil gas to replace Russian gas, governments had overreached, and if all the proposed, approved and under-construction LNG projects went ahead, they add up to twice the Russian gas they’d be replacing, taking emissions in the opposite direction from a 1.5˚C pathway.

New LNG projects would blow 1.5 out of the water.

Price of Oil dug in further, coming up with an even bigger number.  

Every day there was another report published about fossil gas. Indeed, thanks to COP27, it has now been clearly established in the world’s media that fossil gas is NOT a “transition fuel” – it may have marginally lower emissions, but it’s not a low emission fuel. The International Energy Agency’s Net Zero Emissions report, released just ahead of COP27, confirmed that gas needs to get out of the energy system almost as much as coal. 

The IEA also later released its report on coal. This fantastic twitter thread (unrolled into a single document for ease of reading) sets out its conclusions:  a clear takeaway is that we’re nearing the end of coal.  

Mitigation goes nowhere, but were we surprised? 

The fossil fuel industry was all over the COP, and especially the Egyptian government. The fact that the mitigation text in the final decision was exactly the same as that agreed in Glasgow was testament to this influence. 

Was this a failure? Of course it was. To have governments fail to agree any stronger action in light of the devastating warnings coming from all sides, was pathetic.

But let’s be clear: governments know what they have to do. They agreed in Paris in 2015 to limit warming to 1.5˚C, they called for a special report on 1.5 from the IPCC and there have been endless reports and modelling showing the clear need for deep cuts in emissions with peaking by 2025 and going to 43% by 2030. 

It’s not as though a line in UN decision 1/CP27 to phase out fossil fuels would suddenly make them act.  They’ve already agreed to 1.5 and they know that means getting out of fossil fuels. 

And as Greenpeace Philippines Executive Director Yeb Sano pointed out: “If all fossil fuels are not rapidly phased out, no amount of money will be able to cover the cost of the resulting Loss and Damage.  It’s that simple. When your bathtub is overflowing you turn off the taps, you don’t wait a while and then go out and buy a bigger mop.”

In August, I was editing the Climate Transparency report about G20 climate action and I was particularly struck by a couple of datapoints: the fact that the average level of fossil fuels in the overall G20 energy system was 81%. And that fossil fuel subsidies hit a record high in 2021. 

So yes, the fossil fuel industry has a big influence at COP27, but I would argue its most dangerous influence is  back home in nations’ capitals, evidenced by their reluctance to drop subsidies, and the continued expansion of drilling for more oil and gas, and digging up more coal, despite professing to have strong climate targets. The UK is the perfect example, as is the US, whose eye watering gas plans would take gas from making up 4% of the country’s emissions to 24% in 2030, if they’re all built.  So it makes sense that India got outraged that the COP decision was only to phase down coal, and not all fossil fuels. In the end, the big fossil fuel countries like the Saudis and Russia won out, taking advantage of the UN’s concensus decisionmaking process.

COPs are also for movement-building

People at home have express shock that 33,000 people from 192 countries could come together for two weeks and not make huge strides in tackling climate change through the outcome of the negotiations. 

But there’s other benefits of a COP, which are much, much more than those negotiations. They’ve turned into a massive exchange of ideas, a building of movements, a re-connection of relationships between people and governments.  I, for one, reconnected with many friends in the climate movement whom I hadn’t seen in three years. I got to meet colleagues face to face whom I’d only ever met online. 

team meeting at COP

COPs are where global teams come together, and work face to face, often for the first time.

Side events and panels went from dawn to dusk every day on every single issue imaginable around climate, from all perspectives. This learning from each other, and coming together, is an essential building block for human existence, and the more we connect, the stronger we can fight. 

And even in a police state like Egypt, the local human rights activists were very happy to have us there, helping shine a light on the human rights abuses going on, and suppression of journalism, and activism.   The fight to #freeAlaa, jailed Egyptian-British activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah, dominated much of the news in the first week, and the police state’s actions plain for all to see as the BBC and the German delegation, both of whom went to extra lengths to cover the story – or indeed comment on it, complained of being targetted by the government. 

Finally, offsets 

One vexed area of the Paris Agreement continues to be around Article 6: the rules around offsetting.  Over the years we’ve discussed this issue, the mantra was “rules before targets” – because governments wanted to know how much they can cheat through offsets before setting a target. NZ is one of the worst at this.

Most of the bigger decisions have been put off until future negotiations, but the outcome could mean even a bigger wild west in voluntary carbon trading than we’ve got today. 

Of course this is a crucial issue for New Zealand, given that two thirds of the “action” we’re taking to “cut” emissions will be buying international offsets (proportionally, we are a standout “lead” the world on this – a dubious record, at best). 

Also during COP the UNSG’s High Level Expert Group on non-state actors’ net zero targets published its report, firmly advocating against offsets, labelled “greenwashing” by the UN Secretary General, and advocating for cutting actual emissions.  The Secretary General was clear in his remarks:  “A growing number of governments and non-state actors are pledging to be carbon-free – and obviously that’s good news.  The problem is that the criteria and benchmarks for these net-zero commitments have varying levels of rigor and loopholes wide enough to drive a diesel truck through.  

“We must have zero tolerance for net-zero greenwashing.”

US Climate Envoy John Kerry got into deep trouble when he arrived at COP with a ridiculous proposal for US companies to buy even more offsets in the developing world, as a way of delivering climate finance to them in lieu of governments.  It went down like a lead balloon, not least because it came so soon after the UN Secretary General’s report. I listened to our former climate negotiator Adrian Macey on RNZ the other day describing Kerry’s proposal as exciting. But he would, being one of the architects of our terrible position on this issue. 

So in summary, as usual with a COP, you win some, you lose some.  But we all live to fight another day, and the world focussed in great detail on this existential issue for these two weeks.  The work must continue at home. Because without it, COPs will never get anywhere.