With no sign that global tensions will be subsiding any time soon, the world will gather in Sharm El-Skeikh from 6 till 18 November to take part in COP27, formerly the United Nations Conference on Climate Change. The previous conference, COP26, took place in Glasgow, Scotland last October, and concluded with the Glasgow Climate Pact. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi headed the Egyptian delegation there, coordinating with the British government to pave the way to a successful follow-up of the Glasgow Climate Pact. As a matter of fact, Al-Sisi and then prime minister Boris Johnson had conferred on the issue by phone before Johnson stepping down last July.
The world has changed since last October, impacting climate change and the strategies and approaches adopted in the Paris Agreement of December 2015 and the Glasgow Pact even if the Biden administration reversed Trump’s decision to leave the Paris Agreement and rejoined early last year. At the end of COP26, no one could have predicted that the world would be convulsed by a major military confrontation which, even if it remains limited compared to previous global conflicts, has polarised the world in a way that led some historians and foreign policy experts to speak of World War III.
COP27 thus takes place in a very challenging international environment because of the negative impact of the war in Ukraine on questions directly related to climate change, notably energy, and whether it comes from fossil fuels or is renewable. The essence of combatting climate change is to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases that have been the main cause behind the rise in temperatures. But the war in Ukraine, raising oil and natural gas prices and using energy as a coercive tool, has led countries that rely on oil and natural gas as their main sources of energy to resort, once again, to coal, and to reevaluate their previous commitments and pledges in the framework of international agreements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
In addition, some developing countries which have discovered promising oil reserves, like Senegal for instance, would like to keep producing oil to finance their development plans. With the scarcity of other sources of finance, be it for development purposes or to finance the transformation to renewable energy, it is hard to blame them.
One of the main conclusions of COP26 was that global cooperation in fighting climate change is vital, and that the risks of complacency in honouring agreed-upon commitments and pledges extend far beyond the environment. Participants in the Glasgow Climate Conference acknowledged that the cost of inaction far outweighs the cost of action. In Glasgow, the need to reduce global greenhouse emissions by 45 per cent was formally recognised. However, in the closing session, instead of a commitment to “accelerating efforts towards the phase-out of unabated coal power and inefficient subsidies for fossil fuels”, the Indian delegation called for the escalation of “efforts to phase down unabated coal power, and phase out inefficient fossil-fuel subsidies”. On the other hand, developing countries deplored the failure of developed countries to allocate the promised $100 billion on a yearly basis by 2020. The final decision was to act speedily on this score, and to increase the amount they provide from 2025 onwards.
My feeling is that COP27 will reiterate a message that has gained more in importance in the light of the devastating flooding that submerged a third of Pakistan during the last monsoon season and cost the country billions of dollars in losses.
In this context, the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (UNFCCC) wrote that COP27 could become the occasion where the international community can regain momentum on climate change, and operate the much needed pivot from commitments and pledges to carrying them out. In a press release, the UNFCCC noted that a synthesis of long-term low emission development strategies suggest the world is starting to set net-zero targets, and COP27 is “the moment when global leaders can regain momentum on climate change, make the necessary pivot to implementation and get moving on the massive transformation that must take place throughout all sectors of society to address the climate emergency”.
Till 27 October, 197 countries have signed up to attend COP27 and leaders from around the world will be attending with Africa heavily represented, reflecting the devastating impact on the continent compared to its contribution to the emission of greenhouse gases: no more than four per cent on a yearly basis.
The White House announced last week that President Joe Biden would travel to Sharm El-Sheikh, and so will French President Emmanuel Macron and other European leaders. The remarks of Western leaders are likely to mirror the present international polarisation pitting the West against both Russia and China while paying tribute to their commitments to climate change. President Biden in particular will no doubt refer to his signature legislation this year in the adoption of the Inflation Reduction Act which is the first to ensure a commitment to green energy in US history.
In the present international context, COP27 is a challenge to both Egypt and Africa. If they unite, COP27 will be remembered as the COP of Africa.
The next COP conference will be hosted by the United Arab Emirates next year. Hopefully international tensions will have relaxed by then, so that the two host countries of COP27 and COP28 can work together and present an effective leadership, with the United Nations, in regaining the momentum in dealing with climate change and keeping the world focused on it being one of the strategic priorities of the international community. As The Economist wrote in its 13 November 2021 issue, “there is still far more work to be done.” It is work that can be done by COP27.
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister
A version of this article appears in print in the 3 November, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly