When world leaders, diplomats, campaigners and scientists descend on Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt for talks on tackling climate change, don’t expect them to part the Red Sea or other miracles that would make huge steps in curbing global warming.
Each year there are high hopes for the two-week United Nations climate gathering and, almost inevitably, disappointment when it doesn’t deliver another landmark pact like the one agreed 2015 in Paris.
But those were different days, marked by a spirit of cooperation between the world’s two biggest polluters – the United States and China – as well as a global realization that failure to reach an agreement would put humanity on a self-chosen track to oblivion.
This November the geopolitical tiles have shifted: a devastating war in Ukraine, skyrocketing energy and food prices, and growing enmity between the West on the one hand and Russia and China on the other make for difficult conditions at a gathering that requires cooperation and consensus.
‘There’s a lot of high and low expectations around this Egypt COP, a lot of mix of ambition and fatalism,’ said Avinash Persaud, special envoy for the Barbados prime minister.
Here’s what to look out for during the 27th Conference of the Parties, or COP27, from Nov. 6-18 and why it might still end up being a success.
Scientists are more concerned about global warming than three decades ago, when governments first came together to discuss the problem because the pace of warming in the past decade is 33% faster than in the 1990s.
Greenhouse gas emissions are still rising, while tangible impacts from climate change are already being felt around the world.
But there is some progress. Before Paris, the world was heading for 4.5 degrees Celsius of warming by the end of the century compared to pre-industrial times.
Recent forecasts have that down to 2.6 C, thanks to measures taken or firm commitments governments have already made. That’s far above the 1.5 C limit countries agreed to seven years ago, however, and the time for keeping that target is fast running out.
Researchers say the world has already warmed by 1.2 C and capping temperatures at 1.5 C would require emissions to drop by 43% by the end of the decade, a highly ambitious goal. To get to the less ambitious 2 C goal emissions have to fall 27%.
‘The 1.5 degrees is in intensive care and the machines are shaking. So, it is in high danger. But it is still possible,’ United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said. ‘My objective in Egypt is to make sure that we gather enough political will to make this possibility really moving forward, to make the machines work … We’re getting close to moments where tipping points might, at a certain moment, make it irreversibly impossible to achieve. Let’s avoid it at all costs.’
Prices for oil, coal and natural gas have jumped since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Some countries have responded by trying to tap new sources of fossil fuel.
This has raised concerns about governments backsliding on their commitments to cut emissions, including the agreement at last year’s climate talks to ‘phase down’ the use of coal and sharply reduce the amount of methane – a powerful greenhouse gas – released into the atmosphere.
At the same time, rising fossil fuel prices have made renewable energy more competitive. Building solar and wind power plants remains more expensive for developing countries though. To help them cut their emissions quickly, rich nations are negotiating aid projects known as ‘just transition energy partnerships’, or JET-Ps, with several major emerging economies including Indonesia and India that could be finalized during or shortly after COP27.
One of the big sticking points in past negotiations concerned the financial support poor countries receive from rich nations to cope with climate change.
A deadline to provide $100 billion annually by 2020 was missed and now looks set to be achieved only next year. Future funding needs are likely to be in the trillions, not billions, said Mohamed Nasr, Egypt’s lead negotiator.
‘The gap on finance is huge,’ he said, noting that half the population of Africa doesn’t yet have access to electricity, much less clean energy.
Developed countries including the United States have also yet to make good on a pledge to double the amount they provide for adaptation, and make that half of the overall funding.
Discussions on climate finance also include the highly contentious issue of countries being compensated for the irreparable harm they’ve suffered as a result of global warming. Big polluters have strongly opposed demands for ‘loss and damage’ payments in the past, but observers say they’ve seen a softening of positions recently, including by the United States.
‘I think that people are not expecting miracles in terms of a huge fund just miraculously appearing, but they are expecting a credible, meaningful pathway,’ said Inger Andersen, head of the U.N. Environment Programme.
This would give countries that have done very little to cause the climate crisis but are on the front line of dealing with it ‘something to hold on to,’ she said.
Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg is not coming to this year’s gathering and recently called the U.N. process a ‘scam.’
Other activists have also voiced frustration at the slow pace of negotiations, given the scale of the threat posed by climate change. But Harjeet Singh of Climate Action Network International said there is no other space where all countries are equal.
‘Tuvalu theoretically is as powerful as the U.S. and Malawi as powerful as the European Union,’ he said of the talks. ‘For us as civil society it’s also a place to call out these countries, to call their bluff, to put a spotlight on those polluters and raise our voices.’
University of Maryland social scientist Dana Fisher, who studies the environmental movement, said given Egypt’s authoritarian government and an escalation of in-your-face tactics by frustrated protestors, especially youth, she would not be surprised if there are clashes.
‘There’s going to be a vanguard of them who are going to be willing to break the law and engage in probably what will start out as civil disobedience, peaceful civil disobedience,’ Fisher said. ‘And they’re probably going to get beaten up. And it’s going to be very good for mobilizing sympathizers.’
Egypt has insisted that campaigners will have ‘full opportunity of participation, of activism, of demonstration, of voicing that opinion.’
Eye on Africa
The gathering in Egypt will be the first time since 2016 that U.N. climate talks have taken place in Africa. Experts say it is important the continent gets more attention, given how heavily it is affected by rising temperatures.
‘If we look at the 50 countries that are most vulnerable to climate change impacts and who have the least resilience, these are low income countries and most of them are in Africa,’ said Preety Bhandari of the World Resources Institute. ‘So it is fortuitous that we are having this particular COP in Africa to highlight what the vulnerable countries are asking from the climate regime.’
Campaigners say that recognizing the challenges Africa faces and prioritizing the needs of vulnerable countries is essential for a successful outcome this year.