COP27 ends in historic win for solidarity, fails to tackle the causes of climate change
Thousands of people sighed with relief when the gavel came down on Sunday at dawn in the city of Sharm-el-Sheikh and COP27 finally ended, with more than a day and a half of overtime.
Amidst tepid clapping, hundreds of exhausted delegates politely welcomed the breakthrough of this year’s summit: the creation of a fund for losses and damages to compensate the nations most affected by the impacts of climate change.
“A mission thirty years in the making has been accomplished,” Molwyn Joseph, the Antigua and Barbuda Minister of Environment and chair of AOSIS, said in the closing plenary.
"On one hand, [we have] a landmark decision to establish a loss and damage fund to address the devastating consequences of climate change, on the other a major failure to finally name and tackle the cause of the climate crisis: fossil fuels"
But despite this significant outcome, many denounced a text that seriously lacks ambition and fails to address the root causes of global warming. “What we have in front of us is not enough of a step forward for our planet,” the EU delegation said during the closing plenary.
The Climate Action Network (CAN) stated on Sunday: “While COP27 delivered on addressing the consequences of the climate crisis – it failed to address the root cause of the crisis: fossil fuels.”
Desperate to get home after more than thirteen days of negotiations, delegates finally gave in to a watered-down compromise that made no one happy and merely reflected minimal common ground between parties.
The cover text – a statement that summarises the main outcomes adopted by consensus during the summit – doesn’t even mention fossil fuels, a leading cause of global warming.
“On one hand, [we have] a landmark decision to establish a loss and damage fund to address the devastating consequences of climate change, on the other a major failure to finally name and tackle the cause of the climate crisis: fossil fuels,” Catherine Abreu of the advocacy group Destination Zero publicly regretted as the final decision came out.
This, scientists, NGOs and dozens of states have warned, will not put us on track towards the Paris Agreement goal of trying to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. To make sense of these conflicting views and understand the key takeaways from this year’s top climate talks, here is a dive into the good, the bad and the ugly outcomes of COP27.
The good: states agree on a historic fund for loss and damage
The best news to come out of this COP was the creation of a fund to compensate those most affected by climate change, an issue that developing nations have been campaigning on for over thirty years.
This historic victory owes much to the leadership shown by Egypt, this year’s president, who pushed to put this issue on the agenda despite the reluctance of developed nations. From the early days of the summit, the presidency dubbed loss and damage “a priority” and proposed the creation of a fund dubbed the “Sharm-el-Sheikh Finance Facility for Loss and Damage” (SSFFLD).
It then took days of wrangling and bickering between states to get to a consensus. Countries first disagreed on whether to create the fund at COP27 or postpone it to COP28 in Dubai.
Then, on Friday morning, the European Union put forth a proposal to fund loss and damage for “vulnerable” countries - a label that would exclude middle-income countries like Pakistan, recently affected by catastrophic flooding and one of the strongest advocates on this issue.
Developed countries also pushed to include other “high-income” countries who historically contributed less to global warming, including Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, or Qatar, to the donor base for the fund.
"Looking ahead to next year, the UAE - as the COP28 host - will need to act in the global interest by sending a strong message that the Dubai summit will not be turned into another greenwashing event for the oil and gas industry, or else COP28 will fail before it even starts"
As states bickered over who should pay, China and Saudi Arabia were singled out for stalling the talks, weary of any language that would commit them to contribute. “The main debates playing out now are around how to class countries, with divisions about definitions of vulnerability and of who is responsible for paying,” a former negotiator from an African state told The New Arab on Friday morning. Meanwhile, the United States blew hot and cold until the last hours by refusing to say whether it would back the fund.
On Thursday, no agreement on loss and damage was in sight, so civil society took over one of the plenary rooms and called COP parties to action. The “People’s Plenary” started with a ritual blessing by indigenous groups and ended with chants of “Free Alaa, Free Them All”, calling on Egypt to free Alaa Abdel Fattah, a prominent British-Egyptian political prisoner who went on a hunger and water strike throughout the first week of COP.
Loud protests and sit-ins then broke out throughout the venue, while developing nations led by a group of small island states (AOSIS) convened an emergency press conference calling developed nations to pay up for losses and damages.
It wasn’t until Saturday at 1 pm that a consensual text on loss and damage emerged following sustained pressure from these groups, only to be adopted later that night. But even that remained fraught with weaknesses and lack of ambition.
Worn out by thirteen days of negotiations, all parties finally gave in and agreed to create a fund - but most major blocking points, like who will pay and who will benefit, remain to be ironed out at COP28. Get ready for a big fight next year between developed and high-income developing countries on who should be part of the donor base!
The bad: Saudi Arabia continued to block progress on phasing out fossil fuels
The second key battle of COP27 should have been an easy one. Scientists have long recognised the leading contribution of fossil fuels to global warming and said we cannot keep global warming under 1.5 degrees without gradually phasing them out.
But fossil-fuel-producing states, chief among them Gulf economies, have long stalled progress on the issue, and this year was no exception. In a rare instance of alignment, Iran and Saudi Arabia both repeatedly blocked language on phasing out of fossil fuels from making it in the final text, arguing the world should focus on reducing emissions without worrying about what causes them. “That’s just like saying we shouldn’t talk about money when we talk about the economy,” Abreu mocked during a press briefing on Friday.
As civil society warned against “backsliding” from COP26, Greenpeace MENA slammed the Arab group – a coalition of Arab states that has historically been led by Saudi Arabia - for obstructing progress on this point. “Right up to the final hours of #COP27, the Arab Group of delegations has maintained its historical pattern of blocking ambitious outcomes,” the NGO denounced in a statement on Friday. Contacted by The New Arab, Saudi Arabia declined to comment on the position of the Arab group.
Frustrated by the lack of progress, some CSOs accused the Egyptian presidency of playing foul on this issue. “When it comes to fossil fuels, we are seeing that the presidency is siding with oil benefit. And I’m wondering if the Arab caucus isn’t the one directing the Egyptian presidency on this,” Zeina Khalil Hajj of the advocacy group 350.org said in a press conference on Saturday.
“The problem is that the Arab group is dominated by Saudi Arabia and the interest of fossil-fuel producing states,” the former negotiator said. “But these interests don’t serve many of the Arab countries, who are not drawing revenues from oil and are among those first affected by climate change.”
Still, despite an overall lack of ambition, symbolic victories were achieved at this summit. “Fortunately, there is a growing group of countries in this process who are calling for the phasing out of fossil fuels in this decision,” Abreu said at a press conference on Friday, referring to several countries joining the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance (BOGA), a group of governments committed to phasing out fossil fuels. “We’ve got major producers, major importers, major exporters (…) all coming together to say: we acknowledge that reducing emissions requires us to move away from fossil fuel dependence.”
The ugly: fossil fuel lobbies and high surveillance cast a toxic shadow over the summit
Aside from progress on loss and damage, COP27 also made history by hosting the highest number of fossil fuel lobbyists in climate talks. Over 600 attended the summit, outnumbering the delegates of the ten countries most impacted by climate change, including Pakistan, Bangladesh and Haiti.
To gain access to COP, oil and gas lobbies largely piggy-backed the official delegations of big fossil fuel economies, chief among them the UAE. “The number of fossil fuel delegates in this conference has increased from last year, and seventy of these delegates are on the UAE delegation. That is [COP’s] presidency next year!” Khalil Hajj warned on Saturday. “We have this fear: who is protecting the benefits of the fossil fuel industry instead of putting on the table the prioritisation of phasing out fossil fuels?”
But oil lobbyists themselves were outnumbered by an even more ominous group – Egyptian state surveillance officers reported to be around 700 inside the venue.
The unsettling sight of balding intelligence officers in dark suits dominated the landscape of Sharm-el-Sheikh throughout the conference weeks: easily recognisable from their earpieces, badges and the gun at their side, they roamed through the city, on the roof of buildings, around hotels and on public buses, tainting the whole conference with a scent of repression.
To make matters worse, fears around digital surveillance also ran unusually high. Some delegations gave their members single-use phones, advised them not to connect to public Wi-Fi and warned them that downloading the official application issued by the COP presidency could “compromise” their devices.
This ominous environment has raised many concerns among environmental groups for the next COP. After a particularly restrictive and inaccessible “African COP” that largely sidelined the voices of Global South activists, some fear next year’s “Arab COP” will be the same, only more permeated by the interests of the fossil fuel industry.
“Looking ahead to next year, the UAE - as the COP28 host - will need to act in the global interest by sending a strong message that the Dubai summit will not be turned into another greenwashing event for the oil and gas industry, or else COP28 will fail before it even starts,” Ahmad El Droubi, regional campaigns manager at Greenpeace, gloomily warned at a press conference on Friday afternoon.
This story was produced as part of the 2022 Climate Change Media Partnership, a journalism fellowship organized by Internews' Earth Journalism Network and the Stanley Center for Peace and Security.
Lyse Mauvais is a freelance journalist based in Amman, Jordan. She covers environmental issues in the Middle East, with a focus on Syria and Jordan.
Follow her on Twitter: @lyse_mauvais