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COP27 Was a Historic Compromise, and Not Nearly Enough

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Ugandan activist Vanessa Nakate at a protest at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt on November 11, 2022.

Ugandan activist Vanessa Nakate at a protest at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt on November 11, 2022.
Photo: Peter Dejong (AP)

Another UN climate change conference has come and gone, as thousands of international delegates ended two weeks of intense negotiations on Sunday morning in Sharm-El-Sheikh, Egypt. Despite the historic conclusions in the final text from COP27, the conference once again failed to commit the world to taking some of the basic steps needed to curb the worst impacts of climate change. It has me thinking once again about the incredible importance, and perpetual hopelessness, of the UN process.

First, the good news: In an incredible win for developing countries, the final deal included a mechanism to create a fund to repay countries disproportionately affected by climate change and natural disasters. Loss and damage, as this topic is called, has historically been a very thorny issue at COPs, and figuring out a way for rich countries that are overwhelmingly responsible for warming to pay poorer, hard-hit ones most affected by that warming has long been the political football punted from COP to COP, as world leaders promise to address it at some later time. For poorer nations, the creation of this fund is a major victory and signifies an important step forward for global climate justice.

But this victory came at a major expense: lagging on actually getting the world to kick its dirty addiction to fossil fuels. Last year, in Glasgow, major emitters came together at the last minute to change language in the agreement about oil and gas use; the final agreement encouraged phasing out coal and fossil fuel subsidies but made no mention of phasing out fossil fuels altogether. This year, there was some hope that the agreement would take a harder line on getting the world on track to phase out all fossil fuel use—but once again, big emitters stalled any potential progress on this, and the text contains no more aggressive language on fossil fuels.

It’s the nature of diplomacy to have some tradeoffs; most effective political agreements include some sort of give and take. Reuters asked Mexico’s chief climate negotiator Camila Zepeda if language on emissions reductions had been a tradeoff for establishing a loss and damage fund. “Probably,” she responded. “You take a win when you can.”

But it’s hard to underscore just how close the clock is on climate issues. Unfortunately, we don’t have time for politics as usual on climate change. Science dictates that we need to start wrapping up fossil fuel use now and transitioning to renewable energies as soon as possible. We’re at a strange point of relying on an incredibly slow, fussy political process to deliver action that needs to happen yesterday. (After witnessing the repeated presence of fossil fuel interests at COPs, including this year’s, it’s easy to see how some of the dead weight on the negotiations may be a direct result of corporate influence.)

I have been covering UN climate meetings in one way or another for seven years now, ever since the 2015 Paris Agreement, when countries came together after more than 20 years of meetings to agree to finally, finally do something to address climate change. It’s been a constant puzzle since then, for me, to convey to normal people why these meetings are both so boring and so important; why the seemingly toothless and endlessly detailed agreements and texts and announcements from the UN are actually something to care about. It’s still an unfortunate truth that COPs are the best global mechanism to address climate change. The UN process is still better than relying totally on market forces, after all, or leaving each country as an island unto itself to reduce its own emissions or do its own mitigation.

Last year, before I traveled to Glasgow to cover last year’s COP, I wrote a piece about why people need to pay attention to COPs, and I stand by what I wrote: that the folks most affected by climate change, like Indigenous communities and developing countries, have the most to gain or lose from these talks, and we owe it to them to pay attention. But this year, it was especially hard for me to listen to my own advice and figure out a way to care about what was going on in Egypt. The creation of the loss and damage fund is a huge victory, but it’s difficult to know that these poorer countries will continue to get hit with increasingly worsening impacts of climate change, thanks, in part, to a lack of action on actually drawing down fossil fuel use. It’s painful to see diplomacy as usual—sacrificing one win for another loss, watching superemitters find more ways to stall—go on year after year, when we simply don’t have the time to play this game.

I know analyses like these are supposed to offer some sort of neat conclusion, but I don’t really have the answers. Even the most ardent supporters of the UN process would agree that it’s not enough, and yet we have no alternatives to large-scale, global action. I think the only way to get any use out of COPs is for more people to pay attention, for more people to be outraged; alas, it may always be too boring, too technical, and too slow for the general public to grasp on to. For now, I’ll take solace in the little wins, and turn toward the endless cycle of preparing for what’s to come next year.

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