COP27, the annual, UN-hosted climate change jamboree takes place next week in Egypt. Here are 10 Questions and Answers to help Reaction subscribers navigate their way through the various hot takes from the tofu-eating wokerati on the one hand and the Piers Corbyn climate deniers on the other.
- What is COP27? Didn’t we have one of these last year?
COP stands for Conference of the Parties. These are the attending countries that signed up to the initial UN climate agreement back in 1992 and they now meet at a climate conference every year. COP26 took place in Glasgow last year and was supposed to be part of Boris Johnson’s post-Covid incarnation as a Global Statesman™ alongside the G7 meeting in Cornwall. Unfortunately for Johnson, PartyGate broke just after COP26 concluded so whatever political benefit he might have accrued evaporated very swiftly to the extent that after COP 27 finishes this year, Johnson is speaking at a Blockchain conference in Singapore. I doubt he would have predicted that a year ago.
- What happened at COP26?
COP26 was not a COP for the ages like Kyoto, Copenhagen or Paris and, for the avoidance of doubt, they were vital conferences that really mattered: these COPs recognised the problem, recognised the scale of the problem and set a limit for temperature rises for all nations to work towards. COP26 didn’t have the same impact but was never likely to either. The Covid pandemic was still raging with the British insouciance about infections in late 2021 being the exception rather than the rule. But that’s not to say that it was a flop, despite what the cynics from both sides of the argument might tell you. The conference agreed to take further action to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees, agreed to phase down (but not phase out) coal and hydrocarbon subsidies and made further commitments around funding for developing countries from 2025 onwards.
- Why is this year’s conference in Egypt?
I don’t know. The bidding system for COP27 must be a Buggin’s Turn of some sort within the UN, the undisputed world champion of Buggin’s Turn but I cannot see anything that explains how the venue for each COP is agreed. Suggestions from Reaction subscribers are most welcome.
Whatever mechanism was used, Egypt is not a popular choice as the venue for COP27 and for fairly obvious reasons. Egypt is a repressive state which has effectively banned public protest and uses both its very large army and police force to keep its population under control. Can anyone really disagree with Human Rights Watch who said, “”Egypt is a glaringly poor choice to host COP27 and rewards the repressive rule of President el-Sisi despite his government’s appalling abuses.”? Egypt has also been accused of greenwashing – saying a lot about its green intentions but doing nothing in practice. On this, Egypt’s critics are on shakier ground. Egypt does produce a lot of hydrocarbons, but it’s focusing more on natural gas not oil and it is a leader within Africa on wind and solar energy.
- Who’s on the guest list?
Around 90 Heads of State and Governments including Joe Biden, Emmanuel Macron, Olaf Scholz, Rishi Sunak (probably) and Nicola Sturgeon. Boris Johnson says he is attending unless I’m a Celebrity signs him up first. Greta Thunberg won’t be there: it’s all greenwashing, any progress is too gradual and not radical enough. King Charles III isn’t going but will be hosting a pre-COP27 meeting. Putin and Xi Jinping are busy while Lula Da Silva’s hero’s welcome is likely be scaled back after some very unfortunate comments around Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
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- Why don’t they do this by Zoom rather than in person?
This is a very good question. The carbon footprint for every COP27 meeting is eye-watering with Presidents, Prime Minister, Ministers arriving from around the world on private jets with vast security details, myriad flunkies and bulging media teams. And this is before you get to the hosting of said delegations plus the venue itself and the security arrangements which in Egypt are likely to be less kindly even than the Glaswegian wing of Police Scotland. However, while it’s easy and fun to be cynical, this is important stuff and agreements need to be reached and reviewed and, as far as possible, be made binding. With all the best will in the world you can’t do that while Joe Biden is working out how to unmute himself.
- Has the Russia-Ukraine war changed things since Glasgow?
Without question. This time last year, the Russia-Ukraine situation was bubbling up but there was no sense, then, that this year’s crisis would unfold. That said, gas prices were rising to above 100p/therm which is some way above the historic average which suggested two things. First, that demand for natural gas was continuing to rise and second, that supply was challenged. This was due to a very rapid recovery from Covid and long-term underinvestment in global gas supply from 2014 onwards after the oil price slumped. As we all know, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine magnified those effects substantially and world leaders have been dealt a sharp lesson about society’s reliance on hydrocarbons. It will require skillful diplomacy and careful thought to weave together a credible platform that acknowledges rising hydrocarbon demand and emissions reductions.
- What are they trying to achieve this year?
The themes for this year’s conference are variations on the themes of last year’s conference: reducing emissions; helping countries to prepare and deal with climate change; securing technical support and funding for developing countries for these activities. With Egypt hosting the conference and wanting to be Africa’s renewables champion, we can expect to see African countries advocating, as they did last year, for significant assistance from OECD countries in dealing with the Energy Transition but also making the case for them to be able to benefit from their natural resources as developed countries have in the past. President Nana Akufo Addo of Ghana made the point at COP26: “The Almighty has blessed our lands with abundant natural resources, and it would be wholly unfair for the world to demand that Africa abandons the exploitation of these same resources needed to finance her development, and help us to cope better with the threat of climate change, at a time when many countries on the continent have only just discovered them.”
- Where are the likely flashpoints?
They’re going to have another run at coal and see if they can beef up last year’s commitments. They’re also going to try to get developed countries to truly commit to climate finance for developing countries. They’ll be lucky to get any progress on either: China is building over half the world’s new coal-fired power stations and won’t want to take lessons from Western countries who are realizing that they’re short of power without coal: in the UK, National Grid has made much of the fact that they have 2GW of power on call from previously shuttered coal-fired power stations in England. As for the cash, getting more money out of OECD countries during a global cost of living crisis means this will get punted down the road as it has been previously.
- What does success look like?
It’s hard to see how COP27 is going to be a stunning success. The programme is a build on the programme from COP26 so it is not ground-breaking as the COPs of legend have been in the past. Perhaps this is how COPs of the future will be? After all, no one can be in any doubt about the issue of climate change or in any doubt what needs to be done. The only real questions are how it is to be achieved and how the world can work together. But the world is also very busy right now with war in Ukraine and the various threats to global peace and harmony that Russia’s war now represents. My own guess is that there will be as many discussions about grain supplies to the Global South as there will be about emissions.
- Is it all a waste of time?
No, it isn’t. Our climate is changing and, to put it bluntly, you have to be pretty obtuse to think that climate change is not real. In my view, it is not up for debate as the evidence is all around us: the highest ever temperatures recorded in the UK this year which easily broke previous records; a major, months-long drought affecting all of Europe with all sorts of knock-on effects on trade and power; temperature spikes in American North-West in 2021 that saw British Columbia record a highest ever temperature of 49.6 degrees; the driest rainy season in the Horn of Africa for 70 years leading to a major drought affecting almost 40 million people; record low Antarctic sea ice this year. This is not weather as Donald Trump might have you believe – this is climate.
We can be confident that the very worst climate outcomes have been avoided by action taken already but we also know that we have missed the chance to mitigate the crisis entirely. This makes taking action now to restrict temperature rises as much as we can right now absolutely vital. The COP conferences are not perfect by any means, but they do provide a critical annual opportunity for the most important global challenge to be tackled by the world’s most senior politicians. They have also been shown to work: despite what Greenpeace and Greta say, the world has made plenty of good progress towards reducing emissions and that’s progress that wouldn’t have been made without the COPs.
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