Our Burning Planet

REFLECTION

The last thing the climate needs is more hot air spoken at COP conferences

The last thing the climate needs is more hot air spoken at COP conferences
Protesters demonstrate on 12 November 2022 at the COP27 climate conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. (Photo: Sean Gallup / Getty Images)

There are cracks in the United Nations’ climate gatherings, and it’s a good thing too. COP needs remaking if we’re serious about withstanding the climate emergency.

I arrived in Sharm el-Sheikh a COP virgin and left the UN climate summit in Egypt feeling screwed over… and ready for something other than deferred hope that a conference of the parties (COP) gathering in a year’s time is going to deliver anything more satisfying.

The annual high-level gathering, already in its 27th iteration, is meant to be an opportunity to reach consensus to advance collaborative global action to respond with urgency and clarity to the impacts of climate change. It fell short.

There was the eleventh-hour breakthrough in an agreement on a Loss and Damage fund. That was a key win, signalling unequivocal recognition, finally, that the world’s biggest carbon emitters must contribute to a financing mechanism to compensate the most vulnerable nations impacted by climate change that is not of their making.  

It came 30 years late, though, and with qualifiers in the wording of the final text.

The vagueness of the frameworks for the fund, including the conditions and extents of liability; setting out retrospective payouts and the extended time frames means COP outcomes and processes once again settle into the default of a slow stutter forward to thrash out details over the next 12 months. 

It’s desperately out of step for the climate emergency that’s rushing at us. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: “Just not good enough COP27 — time is up and we’re no closer to solutions” 

It could also not be missed that COP27, hosted by Egypt this year, raised red flags for human rights atrocities and a tightening squeeze on civil liberties and freedoms under Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi’s regime. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: “Climate change summit: Gimmicks, slogans and pleasant noises amid human rights abuse” 

And then COP27 in parts just resembled a hollow trade show.

There were country pavilions upon pavilions with gloss and spin mixed in with a few mascots of polar bears and dinosaurs waddling among the ballooning presence of fossil fuel punters and other corporates hoping to bag a deal.

This year, watchdog organisation Global Witness said there was 25% more representation from fossil fuel lobbyists compared with COP26 in Glasgow.

COP27 also ended with the dirty addiction to fossil fuels again swept under the carpet. 

Developing nations, including host country Egypt, and South Africa, might sound the call for richer nations to pay up, but they remain shackled to the idea that fossil fuels are still the key to unlocking industrial growth. 

This wilful blinkering doesn’t allow for a meaningful look at renewables or a keener focus on the likes of shaping up different models for beneficiation, effective community benefiting, sharing or demanding transformation and accountability of extractive industries.

The United Nations Development Programme this year put fossil fuel subsidies at $423-billion dollars of public funds, and said “despite international commitments, subsidies are not being phased out but are increasing”. 

Adding to these COP sins was the carbon footprint of more than 35,000 people who had to be flown in and accommodated in the resort town on the southern tip of the Sinai peninsula. And a key sponsorship for COP27 came from Coca-Cola — named the world’s leading polluter of plastics in 2021. 

Visit Daily Maverick’s home page for more news, analysis and investigations

It makes COP a tragi-comedy; a show performed each year with the same cast of actors: the politicians and world leaders, the lobbyists and polluting industry giants, the civil society campaigners, activists and NGOs and media, all taking up the familiar roles and playing their part in a song and dance of politics, power and illusions. 

It raises the possibillity that COP’s time to bow out might have arrived. At 27, it’s ripe to join the “27 Club” of the likes of Kurt Cobain, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jimi Hendrix and Amy Winehouse. 

Burying COP in its current form would clear the way for new rules of engagement and the adoption of less clunky ways to take authoritative action and bind countries to act. COP, after all, came about pitting developed nations against developing nations — it’s a line in the sand that means the gulf in trust that now exists was inevitable.

Closer interrogation of the intricacies of power imbalances, individual vulnerabilities and greed are more useful to understand that outcomes always hinge on the highest bidder and bilateral pressures. It’s the same for how climate ambitions only hold long and strong enough for a politician’s term in office. 

For activists and civil society, there are lessons after COP27 that the fight for climate action can and must survive without the need to fly halfway across the world to protest outside closed-door negotiations. 

There should also be less reliance on the presence of icons like Greta Thunberg, Naomi Klein or Leonardo DiCaprio. Thunberg and Klein publicly boycotted Egypt’s COP because of the host country’s human rights record. 

Representation and diversity are how people recognise themselves and validate their lived realities in the face of more devastating impacts of climate change. It can spur them on to find locally appropriate ways to resist the doom of a planet turned to uninhabitable crispy bits.

It means different voices in the room matter.

Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley was refreshingly unapologetic and scathing at COP27. She called out rich nations and the World Bank for hiding behind loans and insurance mechanisms instead of committing to new and additional funding. 

There are positives in pushbacks through legal channels and reform as well as through science and research that are more responsive and strident. Also blipping are new private sector partnerships and global political initiatives. These campaigns are made as public commitments, so open themselves up to scrutiny for spin and greenwashing. 

In the legal sphere, the likes of the Ecocide Law Alliance have since 2019 pushed for the introduction of the crime of ecocide to be included in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Increasingly, there are stronger regulatory frameworks for listed companies to measure and disclose their decarbonisation targets and campaigns.

In science, new work on attribution studies, using meteorological data, monitoring and stronger networks of scientists around the world helps join the dots between recent extreme weather events and climate change. It gives science-based evidence for climate change and helps depoliticise the noise over the issues of liability.

There is the UN-backed Race to Zero campaign focused on business leadership to use science-based pathways to commit businesses to halve global emissions by 2030 and to move to a zero carbon world by the middle of the century.

The First Movers Coalition sets the intention to use the purchasing power of multinational companies to decarbonise seven “hard-to-abate” industrial sectors of aluminium, aviation, chemicals, concrete, shipping, steel and trucking and carbon removal technologies that account for 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions. 

According to the World Economic Forum, the more than 50 companies in the coalition “assemble ambitious corporate purchasing pledges” with the aim of opting to purchase low-carbon technologies to drive up their competitiveness.

Also officially launched at this year’s COP was the Climate Parliament. The initiative aims to educate and inform members of parliaments and congresses on climate issues so they are better equipped to exercise leadership and share knowledge on issues of climate action within their governments.

The ideas, the innovations and collaborations exist — and the watchdogs and activists are not backing down. Appetite, will and momentum for climate action grows across sectors — now to get the COP processes and structures to keep up. DM

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  • Thinker and Doer says:

    It is certainly necessary to explore other mechanisms to get action on climate change actually progressing. The COP process involves political leaders making lots of statements but failing to back that up with resources and commitment. Lobbying by the fossil fuel industry means meaningful action is stymied. The ability of single states to stall progress means very little that is meaningful is agreed. The fact that the UAE will host the next COP just highlights what a meaningless process it is. Perhaps smaller groups who actually want to move should just move on their own regardless of those who want to stall the progress. The Group of 77 had some impact at this COP, they could perhaps focus on engaging stakeholders outside of this moribund process. The highly ambitious grouping also could continue working regardless. Civil society must focus on pressuring individual governments to act, and to focus on initiatives that aren’t dependent on governments or at least global agreements that just won’t materialize. We can’t wait around and pin hopes on COP, we need to use all other avenues to act now.

  • Louis Potgieter says:

    COP should ban representatives from carbon energy companies. Their role in the world should be to continue supplying what is economically required. We do not ask of them to come up with green energies. By giving them the opportunity to thought-lead migration they will retard and derail progress.

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