Delegates from around the world are en route to Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt for the 27th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, better known as COP27. The conference lasts from November 6th to the 18th.
These COPS are key moments for international climate diplomacy. And since the 2015 Paris Agreement, it is the main mechanism in which countries renew, review, and assess their progress towards the Paris Agreement goals to limit global warming to at least 1.5 degrees celsius.
In this episode, we give a preview of the key stories, debates, and outcomes expected to drive the agenda in Sharm el Sheikh with a Twitter Spaces roundtable we recorded on Thursday, November 4th with guests Pete Ogden, Vice President for Energy, Climate, and the Environment at the United Nations Foundation, Nisha Krisnan, Director for Climate Resilience in Africa with the World Resources Institute, Mark Hertsgaard, executive director of Covering Climate Now and the environment correspondent for The Nation, and Dr. Omnia El Omrani, the first ever Youth Representative for COP27.
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What is COP27?
Mark Hertsgaard [00:00:00] This is a local news story because what happens at COP27 and what doesn’t happen is going to go a long way towards deciding how bad climate change gets in your local community.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:03:00] Pete Ogden, I’d like to start with you. Broadly speaking, is there an overarching theme or set of issues you foresee being prominent during this COP?
Pete Ogden [00:03:12] Yeah, absolutely. And I think one of the things that’s interesting and notable about this topic is that it’s really the first one in the Paris Agreement era where those themes are not being substantially shaped and determined by negotiating deadlines. Just the way that the Paris Agreement timeline sets out the timing for this COP, unlike, say, last year’s COP in Glasgow, which had agreed a deadline for countries to revisit their national targets under the agreement. There isn’t that kind of single action forcing feature of the agreement that has a mandate that necessitates that it be dealt with at this COP at the highest level. What’s interesting is that what you do have, though, is the climate crisis itself and the urgency of the situation defining those themes. And I think it’s well reflected actually by two of the ways in which Egypt has described its COP. One is as an implementation COP and the other as an Africa COP. And I think the former really speaks to the fact that one of the major themes will be how and what can countries do to demonstrate that they are getting on the track of the Paris Agreement goals and of taking the additional action necessary to bend their emissions to get in line with that goal and ultimately the 1.5-degree world. The other sort of piece of that on the Africa COP and it’s not just Africa, but it is shorthand for the unique set of experiences of developing countries that because of where we are in the climate crisis, our failure to get on top of the situation more quickly are experiencing increasingly severe impacts. And it has become clear and they’re making it very clear that a priority for the COP is to try to ensure and try to get access to the kind of support from developed countries to help them to Cope with these impacts. Its shorthand is the term of loss and damage, how to Cope with these problems almost entirely, not of their own making, but which they’re bearing right now. So, I think those are two major, broad themes that we’ll see play out over the next couple of weeks.
How will Russia’s war on Ukraine effect COP27?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:05:24] Pete, sticking with you, you’ve described these kind of two overarching themes, one being the implementation of everything that has previously been agreed upon, that this is the implementation COP, and this is also the African COP. I’m going to speak with Nisha a bit about that latter point. Still, this COP is happening in a very unique geopolitical circumstance in which energy prices are shooting through the roof, and countries that have formerly been very committed to the energy transition are now starting to ramp up coal development and increase their reliance on fossil fuels in the midst of the fallout of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. To what extent can that issue be separated from what’s happening at COP, or do you foresee the broader geopolitical context being an integral part of the mood and tenor of COP this year?
Pete Ogden [00:06:27] Oh, I think it’ll be very pronounced there. I mean, the decisions that countries are making about climate change are fundamentally also about their energy security. And as you pointed out, in some ways, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the consequent spike in fossil fuel prices and energy shortages are pulling in two different directions. One is to try to make near-term decisions, to try to do whatever they can to keep prices under control and maintain access. On the other hand, it’s never really been clear, even though it was obviously very foreseeable that dependance on fossil fuel is not an economically, or from a security perspective, a tenable place to be. And so, the question is whether I think the climate discussions happen against a backdrop of whether there are steps that they can take that would help them to accelerate the transition off of those fuels and to be able to benefit from their climate policies in the economic and security spheres as well.
Why is COP27 being called the African COP?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:07:24] Nisha, so as Pete noted, this is being billed as the African COP. Is there a specific set of issues or outcomes that African countries in particular are seeking to achieve during this conference?
Nisha Krisnan [00:07:39] Yeah, that’s a great question. And I would say yes, absolutely. You know, I think one of the things is around adaptation. So how do you actually deal with the impacts of climate change? Right now, finance for adaptation is still quite lagging behind that of mitigation. So how do you reduce emissions? And the continent is really struggling, as Pete outlined. You have sort of ground zero for a lot of climate impacts happening on the continent. It’s a confluence of droughts, floods, even climate related pests. You’ve got extreme events here so it’s really hitting the continent hard. And at the end of the day, governments do have to be able to adapt their infrastructure to change how they actually do financial decision making. And all of that requires investment and adaptation and reducing sort of the vulnerability and the impacts of climate change. And right now, in 2019, 2020, the last numbers we have for the continent is about $7 per capita for adaptation, which is minimal. And there are some estimates around there that the African continent would need about $124 billion per year to really adapt its infrastructure and people’s right to deal with the impacts of climate change. And this is not including the other issue of loss and damage, which I’ll get to. And last year at Glasgow, developed countries committed to doubling adaptation finance to a grand total of $40 billion per year by 2025. So, as you can tell, probably, adaptation finance is still high on the agenda for African countries to see that scaled up to see more action on that front. So that’s priority number one. Number two is this issue of loss and damage.
What is climate-related loss and damage?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:09:20] Can you just briefly define loss and damage for those not steeped in the language of climate diplomacy? What do you mean by loss and damage? Because I know this is going to be a key issue at the outset of this COP.
Nisha Krisnan [00:09:32] Yes. So, I think as we all see, climate impacts are accelerating and we are actually only seeing disasters because we are not able to deal with them, right? So, we haven’t prepped our communities, we haven’t adapted our infrastructure to deal with some of these impacts. And even if we were to adapt right to most of these impacts, what the interpanel government on climate change, which is sort of the overall scientific body on climate issues, they released their recent report in February of this year and one of the reports outlined the fact that impacts are accelerating in severity and frequency and that even if we were to adapt at this point, we would still be not able to actually avoid the worst of these impacts. Right, so there is still going to be loss and damage. So, things that are irreversibly going to change for us, whether that is the loss of land, whether that is impacts, for example, of the floods we’re seeing in Pakistan, there are just things that we are going to experience now that are going to be irreversible. And that’s what we mean by loss and damage. It is you are going to have to change your way of life. You’re going to have to move. You’re going to have to do something else different. And so that’s what we mean by loss and damage. It is what is left once we have tried to mitigate and tried to adapt, and we still can’t actually address the problem that we’ve caused.
Why will loss and damage be a key discussion at COP27?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:10:56] And this requires money to be put up by countries that caused the damage of climate change as sort of reparations for countries that are experiencing the worst brunt of it. And it’s my understanding that at day one of this COP, there might be potential for some high drama as developing world countries seek to formally include conversations on loss and damage into the conference agenda, which it’s not currently set to be. Can you sort of set up that drama for listeners?
Nisha Krisnan [00:11:30] Sure. I think we as the public probably want more drama than there might actually be, at least at the start. But basically, day one of these conferences is when all the countries get together to actually adopt the agenda for what they’re talking about. So there’s never been an agenda item to really talk about loss and damage finance before and this year, as a result of the disappointment of last year’s conversation in Glasgow, when finance for loss and damage was taken off the table, the biggest grouping of negotiating countries — so at the COP every year there are different negotiating blocks; here’s the Africa Group of negotiators and the biggest one is the G77 and China, which is actually a group of 134 countries, and this was actually led by Pakistan — they tabled a request to add an agenda item about talking about a loss and damage finance facility, because that is still not on the agenda. And getting on the agenda means that you have a political space to actually discuss the issue, and so you’re also validating these concerns. And for the longest time, I think pre-Pakistan, probably this year so pre-September, there was quite a lot of reluctance, I would say, from probably the developed world in general, the EU, the US, others in having this conversation and having this frank conversation about what does it mean to financially address loss and damage. But I think because of Pakistan there has been a come to moment, like, you can no longer avoid the pictures in the news. You can no longer avoid the community stories out there about what is happening around the world. And so, I think there has been quite a lot of movement in the last couple of weeks to acknowledge and validate these concerns. And from what we’re hearing, for example, the UNFCCC presidency, the secretariat, and the Egyptian presidency, who’s the host of the conference this year, have actually appointed co-facilitators and two ministerial peers to help bring everyone together. And so, they’ve had lots of conversations with different countries about this agenda item to make sure that there isn’t potentially this showdown on the first day, because that could really derail all of the conversations, not just about loss and damage, but, you know, the hundreds of agenda items that they would have to cover this year.
What are the potential big outcomes from COP27?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:13:51] Mark, what stories are you following during COP27: are there any specific personalities that you’ll be looking towards? And in general, how will you be following this conference?
Mark Hertsgaard [00:14:05] So I speak here both as an environment correspondent at The Nation magazine, which co-founded Covering Climate Now, but also as the executive director of Covering Climate Now. And in that latter post, we have over 500 news outlets that reach about 2 billion people, but they come from very different parts of the world. We have big TV networks like ABC and CBS and Al-Jazeera, but we also have a lot of journalists who are at smaller news organizations, especially in the Global South. And so we’re trying to help all of our partners, all of our fellow journalists around the world to cover COP27, whether they are there on site in Egypt or still back in their home country and the way that we’re doing that is to say to everybody, look, COP27, it may be a big global summit, but this is a local news story because what happens at COP27 and what doesn’t happen is going to go a long way towards deciding how bad climate change gets in your local community. We’re trying to focus our colleagues on that, partly because we learned that the public, they respond more to climate stories when it can be localized and when it can be humanized. And so, we’re trying to urge our colleagues not to just focus on 420 parts per million and 1.5 degrees and all of that as important as they are, that doesn’t reach the average reader or listener or viewer of news. You have to talk about actual people. And so, we’ll be looking at that and we’ll also be trying to keep an eye on the activists. We also say that activists are newsmakers, just like politicians are, just like CEOs are, and we as journalists, we routinely cover politicians and CEOs as newsmakers. We have to get better at recognizing that activists are newsmakers as well. And finally, we’re trying to get all of our colleagues to understand that the planetary house is on fire and don’t be cynical about COP27 and these COPs. It’s very easy to sort of put on your jaded journalistic cap and say, oh, well, these COPs, they’re just a bunch of blah, blah, blah, as Greta Thunberg said they don’t really produce anything. We remind our colleagues, in fact, if it weren’t for COP 21 in 2015 at Paris, there would be no Paris agreement and we would not even be talking about the 1.5 target that is now so urgent.
Will the United States’ midterm elections play a role in COP27?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:16:32] Honing in on this idea of connecting local or even maybe national news stories to what happens at COP. You know, as an American, I am interested in learning how you see the ability of the Biden administration to set the tone at this COP. Over the summer, just a couple of months ago, we saw the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, which was the single largest U.S. investment in climate change mitigation here in the U.S. How do you see the Biden administration being able or not to leverage the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act to meaningful outcomes at COP27, if at all?
Mark Hertsgaard [00:17:18] It’s interesting you ask that, Mark, because Covering Climate Now is just about to publish, in fact, we may have already in the last minutes, our weekly newsletter, Climate Beat, which I urge everyone to sign up for. You don’t have to be a journalist to receive it, just go to our website covering climate now dot org and you can sign up for it. And we’re talking there to our fellow journalists mainly, and we’re talking about that very question: how do you cover COP27? And of course, for U.S. outlets in particular, but not only for them, the start of COP27 coincides with the US midterm elections. So, the answer to your question of what kind of a bargaining position Joe Biden and John Kerry will be in at Sharm el Sheikh in Egypt, it’s going to largely depend on what happens on Election Day, much more so than the Inflation Reduction Act. If the Democrats hold on to both houses of Congress, then Kerry and Biden will be in a relatively strong position in Egypt. They can say, hey, the United States has finally come back to the global situation. We have passed the Inflation Reduction Act. It’s not enough, but it’s a floor and we’re going to do better going forward. If, on the other hand, Republicans end up controlling one or both houses of Congress, Biden and Kerry will be in a much, much weaker position in Egypt because Republicans are not likely to be able to repeal the Inflation Reduction Act because Biden could veto any such effort. But certainly, if they take control of the Congress, that means, no more strong climate action for the next two years. And Republicans can try and weaken the implementation of the Inflation Reduction Act by going after the funding, holding investigative hearings and so forth. So, for US outlets and indeed for news outlets around the world who recognize that the United States is the world’s leading climate superpower, biggest economy, biggest emitter of carbon gases in history, these elections are climate elections, and we’re trying to get our colleagues to make that clear to audiences. Americans so far are telling pollsters the issues on their minds as they go to the ballot box are inflation and abortion rights and to some extent, the future of democracy. In fact, Biden said that yesterday that democracy is on the ballot, but also on the ballot next Tuesday is the future of the planet and most Americans don’t know that yet. And we’re hoping that the media will do a better job of making that clear in the days to come.
Pete Ogden [00:19:45] Can I just make one quick comment in reaction to Mark’s observation about the impact of the midterm elections happening? I mean, I take maybe a little bit of a different view on that. I think that the significance of the US passing $369 billion worth of climate investment is very significant and really changes a lot the kind of contours around what’s possible at this COP. I mean, if you think back a few months and we’re staring very likely at the prospect of having nothing at all, no credible path forward, and now instead you have the largest piece of climate legislation in the US history. I mean, I think that does actually breathe some helpful life into the whole situation and really, we can’t discount it at this point, even if there’s a Republican take over and there are assuming that the whole bill is not somehow rescinded, which I do not see happening. And we will face other headwinds, but it’s pretty consequential. I worked in the Obama administration for five years in the climate negotiation space and I would have loved to ever be in a position where we had something like this going into a COP. I think part of the challenge, though, is that that’s a domestically focused bill and I think Nisha speaks for a lot of people when she says she’s looking at loss and damage. And that’s an issue that will require ultimately increases in climate finance overseas. And that is not addressed in the context of the Inflation Reduction Act, and that will be impacted significantly by the makeup of the Congress because, you know, they were talking about mobilizing public funding as part of it. So, I think figuring out how to make financial commitments that then can also be credibly met is going to be a real challenge because of that. And I agree with Mark at the outcome of the election that Tuesday will help shape what’s feasible there.
Who is the youth envoy for COP27?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:21:35] And Omnia, I wanted to turn to you now. You are the youth envoy for COP27 and in recent years we’ve seen in response to youth activism an increased willingness on the part of government officials to engage with youth on climate issues. How do you ensure that youth participation is actually meaningful, though, and more than just lip service?
Dr. Omnia El Omrani [00:21:59] Yeah, this is a great question and I think as young people, we tend to be tokenized in many events and global conferences and at the same time we may be given the opportunity to speak, but then there’s no sustainable follow up or meaningful integration of our voices in a way that is standardized or formal. At the same time being now the first ever envoy and the vision that we have as the presidency for that specific position is that in many COPs, young people and the presidency not necessarily interact in a way, except there’s always an annual conference of youth, which is COI that takes place right before COP. And the aim of COI is to build the capacity of young people to understand the complex climate processes of the UNFCCC and see and at the same time develop a global youth statement, which is the official youth input to the climate process with specific policy asks around adaptation, mitigation, loss and damage, all the different agenda points of COP. And as the presidency this year we don’t just want to welcome or receive this global youth statement and then no follow up is normally seen. We wanted to have a young person who is a young civil society representative and not a governmental official to really engage, actually listen from young people way ahead from the beginning of the term of the presidency and see what are the challenges that youth are facing and how can you work around that. A good example of this is that when I started my term, I held the first consultation in Gabon. We had around 100 African youth participate during the Africa Climate Week of the UNFCCC. And the key challenges that they face and communicated to me was, for example, logistics and access to accommodations from el Sheikh and that is why the government of Egypt provided 400 subsidized accommodation places only for young people to be able to come to the conference and stay for two weeks and afford it. And at the same time, they also communicated that we have the Global Youth Statement and then what? And that is why on the Youth Day, which is on November 10th at COP, we are organizing roundtable discussions, not a panel, but a roundtable dialog between the negotiators, ministers and youth representatives and experts to discuss the policy asks in that statement and how can we mainstream it and integrate this in a meaningful way in the negotiation process? We have two or three specific policy asks on each agenda point, which is the youth asks because this statement has been produced over the past three months with inputs from young people from all over the world. At least 100 youth organizations participated in the development of the statement and right now in Sharm, we have over 500 youth coming, convening, and discussing what is the collective youth input to COP. And during these roundtable discussions, we have two of them: One, focusing on adaptation, loss, and damage on resilience. The second, focusing on mitigation and just transition. And in them, we are going with our new thinkers and youth facilitators to come up with policy outcomes that young people are going to use across COP. We have a children and youth pavilion at COP, which means we have a youth space for the entire two weeks of the conference, independently led by young people, developing our own sessions, inviting the policymakers and the negotiators and the heads of litigation to come to us. We have a network, a room for all the bilateral meetings with young people and the climate policy makers. And we also have a room to conduct our sessions, our dialogs, our workshops throughout the two weeks of COP for the first time.
How will youth voices be heard and valued at COP27?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:26:00] So to that end, Omnia, is there a specific outcome that you will be looking towards at COP27 that will indicate to you that indeed youth voices and youth perspectives are being integrated into the conversation.
Dr. Omnia El Omrani [00:26:19] So when we look at negotiations in specifics, there is now a conversation around having — there is an ACE or an action for climate empowerment focal points — what we are pushing for is to have a youth focal point for climate action, and this is one specific outcome we’re pushing for. The second is, as you said, how can we assess the participation of youth? Was it meaningful or not? Are young people represented as part of their official country delegations? And we know that every year the UNHCR releases a report on gender composition. And what we’re trying to push for together with the youth constituency, is to also have a monitoring mechanism around youth engagement. How many young people are part of their official country delegation? How many young people speak? And for how long?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:27:07] And I’m going to go down the list and ask Pete, Mark, and Nisha to give a response, a variation on the same question: What does success look like for you at COP27? Nisha I’ll go with you first.
Nisha Krisnan [00:27:27] I think one thing for me is probably getting loss and damage on the agenda and actually addressed at COP this year. That’s my very quick and no-nonsense answer.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:27:37] Pete, what does success look like from your perspective?
Pete Ogden [00:27:43] I mean, I agree with Nisha, how the loss and damage issue is dealt with is going to be a huge indicator, I think, for whether people feel like they leave satisfied, across the board. I think on another level I am sort of interested in whether the fact that the G20, which falls right in the middle of the COP, whether there is going to be a sense that the climate discussions and what happens in these negotiations is really linked into the big other issues and global crises that we’re facing. And you alluded to this earlier. I mean, are we dealing with climate as a major factor in the energy crisis, or are we dealing with climate as a major factor in the global food crisis? So, I think there could be an opportunity for a lot of success if we see the COP processes not siloed off from these other grand structural crises that we’re facing, but actually can help to contribute to resolving them.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:28:36] Mark, give your take on how you would define success at this COP.
Mark Hertsgaard [00:28:42] The big question is still, how close is the world going to keep eventual temperature rise to 1.5? And the head of UNEP just said the other day that there is no credible path any longer to 1.5. We had our opportunity for incremental change, that time is over now. A root and branch transformation is the only thing that will save us from utter catastrophe. So, the things I’ll be looking at is, one is they’re going to be really credible, ambitious, and far-reaching action pledged by the major emitters. That means the G20 in general and above all the US and China. At Glasgow there was big promises made by the U.S. and China on climate cooperation that have fallen into ruin over the last 12 months because of other tensions in the relationship. We all remember at the final minute of COP26 how India and China together collaborated to essentially water down the final agreement to say that we will phase down rather than phase out coal use. So, what these big emitters do and credibly do is going to be big question number one. And of course, the G20 meeting is happening at the end of COP27. So, I urge everyone to keep your eyes on the ball there. And second, of course, is the question of loss and damage in general, which essentially represents what has always been the fundamental conflict in these conferences going way back to 1992, the Earth Summit in Brazil, which I covered. That climate politics internationally has always been a conflict between the rich countries who have gotten rich by burning all these fuels and the poor countries who have suffered because of that and who are saying that, hey, we have a right to develop and now we need compensation, reparations, whatever you want to call it, loss, and damage. I think that’s going to be a very, very tough hill to climb. John Kerry, who is very ambitious about climate action in general, has been very resistant to talk about anything about loss and damage and his argument is that, hey, we only have so much money and if you can get more votes out of a Republican Congress than we did, great, but how are you going to find trillions of dollars for loss and damage? We have to keep our eyes on the ball and make sure that we keep the temperature rise to as close to 1.5 as possible. So those are the two issues that I’ll be watching.
Nisha Krisnan [00:31:05] So I just wanted to pick up on this whole compensation, reparations, liability sort of conversation and actually one of the things that I would say is that, you know, obviously, developing countries are very scared of this compensation liability thing. And actually, the Paris agreement in its cover decision did put this issue of compensation and liability to rest. Under the Paris Agreement, they have already said loss and damage will not be an issue about compensation, liability. At this point, which basically closes the legal door to any sort of legal cases against countries. The point right now is that, look, we’re beyond compensation, liability, and that’s only a fear really in developed countries minds. It is not a fear or even a request from developing countries and vulnerable countries. Right now, it is we are in the front lines. We would like help because this is now a development and a livelihood and a life issue. It is no longer whether you caused the problem, or we didn’t. It is that we are on the front lines, and we need this in terms of solidarity. And so, it is much broader of a conversation than this whole compensation liability aspect. And I do want to make that clear, and it’s something that’s in the Paris Agreement. It’s been put to rest. And I do think we need to move beyond it and make sure that we have that framing, because it is much more than that at this point.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:32:25] All right, everyone, thank you so much. Huge thank you to our speakers. We’ll see you next time. Thank you for listening to Global Dispatches. Our show is produced by me, Mark Leon Goldberg, and edited and mixed by Levi Sharp.