Welcome to Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt’s popular resort town and venue for the 27th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP27. Or, as some critics would say, the Conference of Polluters.
My first impression upon arrival was that I entered a giant theme park. The roads leading to the resorts were lined with brilliantly lit green and yellow palm trees and street lamps draped in dazzling colored lights. Bright spotlights from the venue flashed the night sky to draw attention to the climate emergency facing humanity.
This is my fourth cop and I have no plans to go back again. Given how little these conferences have achieved since they started in 1995 — not to mention their gigantic carbon footprint — I’m convinced it’s time they stopped.
After 27 years of negotiation, conflict and failure, the nations of the world are essentially in agreement: (1) climate change is a serious problem; (2) something needs to be done to fix it; (3) rich nations should do more; and (4) based on the 2015 Paris Agreement, each country should set its own emissions targets and do its best to meet them.
The UN says the Paris Agreement is “legally binding,” but there are no enforcement mechanisms or sanctions for countries in violation. Even current commitments will not be enough to meet the goal of limiting global warming to the 1.5℃ target agreed in Paris.
How COP works
There are three worlds that inhabit COP meetings but carefully avoid each other. The country’s official delegates attend meetings and policy projects. Then there are businesses and trade associations, which are by far the most significant and powerful presence here.
More than 600 fossil fuel industry lobbyists participate. This is more than the combined delegations from the ten most climate-affected countries, and the second-largest delegation after the UAE, also an oil powerhouse. Among those 600 lobbyists, some have even been invited as part of 30 national delegations.
The third group at the COP are civil society organizations from a wide range of countries, but dominated by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from developed countries. A growing number of NGOs representing the interests of business and industry (BINGO) are occupying civil society space in COP meetings to promote particular agendas on resource and energy use. Funders include large oil companies like Shell and Exxon, nuclear giants like Areva, and large miners like Rio Tinto and BHP.
Delegates from business and civil society participate in climate negotiations and host side events showcasing their climate action. It seems that these take place in parallel realities. Immediately following a session organized by the international NGO Global Witness on the killings and disappearances of protesters against mining projects in Africa, Asia and Latin America was a session on “mining governance for a just energy transition”.
In this latest session participants from the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the International Council for Mines and Metals described inequalities, environmental impacts, tax avoidance and corruption as challenges facing mining in Africa . No mention was made of the violence and killings documented in the same region in the previous session.
The presence of the police
These opposing narratives are a feature of the COP, but only become visible during protest marches. Notably, however, COP27 is the first to be held in a “police state”. Before reaching headquarters, I spent a few days in Cairo in a hotel near Tahrir Square, the site of the 2011 revolution. The square had heavily armed police in armored vehicles on every corner. I photographed the obelisk in the square with a police tank in the foreground and was immediately scolded by an enraged soldier.
However, there are very few policemen at the Sharm el-Sheikh office. This is due to the extraordinary efforts made by the organizers to prevent the protests.
This has included pre-trial arrests of local activists, a complicated registration process that limits the public to a “green zone” and unprecedented surveillance including police-monitored cameras in all taxis in Sharm el-Sheikh. There is also a “designated area” for protesters away from the venue to avoid the kind of mass protests that have hampered previous COP meetings.
A policeman’s organization at a luxury resort also sidelined the activists. Hotel rates average US$250 to US$300 (£213 to £255) per night, and there are no ‘cheap’ options. A sandwich at the venue cost US$15, although this was halved after complaints. There aren’t even any roads for people to congregate, just roads connecting the various locations.
So while over 100,000 people marched through the streets of Glasgow at COP26, and even previous COPs such as Copenhagen, Durban and Paris have seen clashes between protesters and police, dissent is effectively neutralized here. Over 1,000 protesters marched inside the venue on Nov. 12 and I couldn’t even find them.
COP and oil
So what else has changed since I first came to a cop in Durban in 2011? In particular, the marketing of both companies and NGOs is much more cunning. And companies have gotten a lot smarter: I can’t see a BP or Shell or Exxon-Mobil logo anywhere. The corporatisation of COP is complete when the BP CEO and four other senior employees are in the official delegation from Mauritania, a country in which BP has major investments.
To further solidify the power of the fossil fuel industry, COP27 has a Saudi Arabia-led ‘Middle East Green Initiative’ with the inevitable net zero commitment by 2050. Saudi Arabia also has one of the largest booths at the interior of the conference venue. And it is no coincidence that the next COP will be hosted by the United Arab Emirates.
In 27 years of COP meetings there has not been a single call to phase out fossil fuels. The only reference was the agreement at COP26 which called for “the phasing out of coal-fired power without stopping and the phasing out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies”.
Meanwhile, a massive rebranding exercise is underway at COP27 in which natural gas is positioned not as a fossil fuel but as a “transitional fuel”. Once this restructuring is complete, the major fossil fuel players will accept all natural gas subsidies.
The great failure of COP
In 1995, when COP1 was convened in Berlin, global carbon emissions were 23.45 billion tons. In 2021 it was 36.4 billion tons. Emissions have increased every year with two exceptions: the 2007-2009 financial crisis and during COVID-19. In both cases this is due to economic downturns, not efforts to tackle climate change.
No one at the COP will be talking about this particular elephant in the room: that it may be impossible to decouple economic growth from carbon emissions. Emissions rebounded on both occasions and are expected to reach the highest level recorded in 2022.
Let’s look at three other quantifiable measures from the COP: climate finance, which is seen as key to helping poor countries cut emissions; climate reparations from rich to poor countries for the damage caused by historic carbon emissions; and the success of technologies to mitigate emissions, in particular carbon capture and storage.
In terms of climate finance, the richest nations pledged in Copenhagen 2009 to mobilize $ 100 billion a year for the poorest countries. However, they never achieved this.
Meanwhile, the world’s 60 largest banks have invested $ 3.8 trillion in fossil fuels since the Paris Agreement. In December 2019 investors paid nearly $26 billion for the initial public offering of Saudi state oil company Aramco. Naturally, both the fossil fuel companies and the banks involved have promised fictitious net zero commitments for 2050.
Climate reparations are on the official COP27 agenda for the first time, which is certainly a step forward. However, it is difficult to be optimistic. The United States will vigorously challenge the creation of any loss and damage fund for poor countries, as it has consistently done at past COPs.
As for carbon capture, it stored just 0.02% of the CO₂ from fossil fuels in 2021. This scoffs at this cornerstone of climate change mitigation.
COP represents a gathering of elites. A recent study found that this was a major obstacle to climate mitigation. It excludes the poor, the underprivileged, and those who bear the brunt of climate impacts but have contributed least to the problem (and will bear the brunt of the energy transitions of rich nations because the necessary minerals and metals will be extracted from their lands). Dissent is increasingly criminalized, not only in “police states” but also in Western liberal democracies.
It’s time to end this show of private jets flying dignitaries and delegates to discuss the climate emergency. Genuine civil society organizations should boycott future COPs and focus on direct action at national and local level. They need to hold their governments accountable for emissions targets and target fossil fuel companies and the banks that finance them.
There is no accountability in COP, just a diffusion of (ir)accountability that legitimizes corporate power. COP27 will follow the path of previous COPs: empty promises, rousing speeches and clever corporate campaigns. And more carbon emissions next year.
So let the COP become another Davos, a conference by and for the rich. There are many luxury beach and ski resorts in countries eager to host the next COPs. Just don’t go there.