United Nations climate summits are dizzying affairs. At the core are the diplomatic negotiations between the official country delegations about an evolving and increasingly complex international framework for addressing climate change. Surrounding that core is the world’s largest climate change trade show: a circus of side events, pavilions, announcements, deal making, protests and press briefings, (almost) all about actions to address climate change.
To capture it all, I present to you the COP27 Awards.
These awards recognizing highlights and lowlights of this year’s conference in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. Like the Oscars, the Coppies (still work-shopping that) included awards for overall achievement, individual performances and technical merit. Also like the Oscars, the Coppies are highly biased, as without human cloning and an all-access pass to closed negotiating rooms, no one person could possibly track even a tenth of what transpired.
The envelopes please…
Best part of COP27: the climate solutions “trade show”
We’ll start with a big award. In contrast to the ever-frustrating and underwhelming diplomatic negotiations, the surrounding events featured detailed discussions of ongoing and planned efforts to reduce emissions, adapt to climate change, develop early warning systems, invest in a just transition and address systemic inequalities. Yes, it was chaotic and crowded, but maybe it should be! Climate change is, after all, the largest collective action problem in the history of the humanity.
Best moral victory: A loss and damage funding mechanism
After years of the United States and many other developed countries resisting calls to provide compensation for climate change impacts in the developing world, the parties agreed to establish a system for providing “new and additional” funding for countries that are “particularly vulnerable to climate change, with a focus on “addressing loss and damage”. This award is for a moral victory because the details on the operation of the funding mechanism, and which countries will contribute, has been delayed until next year’s summit in the United Arab Emirates (more on that to come).
Worst omission from the final text: phase down of fossil fuels
The final text emerging from Sharm el-Sheikh calls for the phased own of “unabated coal power” rather than all fossil fuels, due to objections from the oil and gas producing nations of Saudi Arabia, Russia and other nations.
Best motivator for climate activists: COP2028 is in the United Arab Emirates
If you thought getting agreement on a phase down of fossil fuels was difficult this year, the incoming COP presidency is the United Arab Emirates. It will take a lot of work to change that next year.
Best conspiracy: It is all Saudi Arabia’s fault
Rumours swirled in the hallways that Saudi Arabia was behind the Egyptian presidency’s odd management of the cover text, including the strange choice to delay work on that text until the very end and resistance to mention of a fossil fuel phase down. This wins “best” conspiracy in that it was the most repeated (to me) not necessarily the most correct.
Most consequential term (tie): “unabated coal” and “clean energy”
The use of these deceptive terms in the final cover text opens the door for expansion of fossil fuel production, particularly coal and gas. They imply that a country can invest in coal or gas plants provided those plants use carbon capture and storage technology or have plans to later install such technology. Even if installed, and with advances in technology, carbon capture and burial does not capture 100% of emitted carbon dioxide, often far below. The consensus of experts is that such technology is best reserved for emissions sources that cannot be realistically eliminated, not to allow expansion of fossil fuel electricity when zero-emissions options exists (and are cheaper).
Michael Myers from Halloween award for the debate that will never die: Apportioning responsibility
At the heart of virtually all COP27 debates is the same issue that has plagued UN climate summits for decades: how to apportion responsibility for climate change. Thirty years after the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” was enshrined in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, we are still fighting about which countries should be considered developing, who should give and receive finance, and when different countries should achieve deep emissions cuts.
Most quietly important text: Reforming multilateral development banks
Deep in the finance section of the cover text is a call for the shareholders of entities like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and others to “define a new vision and commensurate operational model, channels and instruments that fit for the purpose of adequately addressing the global climate emergency”. Countries all recognizes that reform of the multilateral development banks is necessary to scale up climate finance without saddling the developing world with more debt.
Best area of agreement: Failure of $100 billion/year climate finance pledge
During the negotiations, I heard to countries of all sizes and levels of wealth agree that the pledge of $100 billion per year to the developing world was poorly conceived, planned and executed. For more, see here.
Worst lie: “I am following the Article 6 negotiations”
Article 6 refers to the provision in the Paris Agreement to create a carbon credit trading system. Given the potential pitfalls of such a system, including accurate measurement and double-counting, it is of great interest to countries, companies and activists alike. However, the task at COP27 was to determine some of the technical details of how the system will work. Unless you devote your career to this subject and/or are a lawyer at an emissions trading organization, good luck following most of what is said during the negotiations. For a summary of what was comprehensible to outsiders, read Simon Evan’s summary for Carbon Brief.
Best new word: “predictable”
The loss and damage text recognized the need for “new, additional, predictable and adequate” funding. The unpredictable and project-based nature of climate aid makes it hard to maintain effective early warning systems, disaster relief and adaptation programs in vulnerable nations (see this paper for an in-depth case study of a small island states).
Worst complaint from delegates: It is hard to get lunch
(this may not win me friends) It was difficult get lunch and even water at the meeting, especially in week one. The food that was available was very overpriced. I only had a proper lunch on two out of my nine days at the conference centre. Regardless, climate change has contributed devastating droughts and floods around the world, leaving families struggling to feed themselves. While I am sympathetic to those at the conference who had serious health concerns, for the rest of us, scrounging for lunch at a conference for a few days is an object lesson, not a hardship.
Most bold adaptation plans: Pacific atoll nations
All three Pacific atoll nations (Marshall Islands, Kiribati and Tuvalu) released long-term adaptation plans that involve building higher islands. This is less crazy than it sounds – the Chinese government has done the same on reefs in the South China Sea, as has the Maldives. The question is less whether it is physically possible, and more whether the countries will receive the support necessary to make this happen.
Best trend to eliminate: each host country creating a new program
Each year, the host country creates some international climate mechanism that bears the name of the host city. While some are certainly critical, like the Paris Agreement, the proliferation of new mechanisms makes the COPs and pre-COP work increasingly unmanageable, especially for small countries. It also scatters the attention at COPs. I wonder if it would be better to keep new negotiating items underneath existing frameworks and limit the number of different concurrent work items at the COPs.
Best line during a speech: “red or brown life raft”
An i-Kiribati delegate spoke of his country being asked whether it wants a “red or brown life raft”, alluding to how the COPs focus on modalities and technical issues rather than concrete solutions.
Best attempt at a grand deal: European Union offering loss and damage money in exchange for agreement to peak global emissions by 2025.
This late offer essentially aimed at getting China to advance its target of peaking emissions by the year 2030. Didn’t work, but nice try.
Best lesson for climate scientists: Be careful making more greenhouse gas metrics
One area of negotiation was the common metrics for emissions reporting. The issue is how to sum all gases in the same units, given that they have different radiative effects and different lifetimes in the atmosphere. The common method is to use the global warming potential (GWP) of each gas, which compares radiative effect of each gas to that of carbon dioxide. Here’s where it gets political. Advances in science have led to a higher GWP for methane in recent IPCC reports. Countries with a lot of cattle have pushed to keep the older value for methane and to use another metric entirely, called global temperature potential, which would give an even lower value for methane. The compromise proposal was to keep GWP, but let countries report using GTP too if they want, as long as they document the methods. The proliferation of new metrics in the scientific literature is likely only to further feed what has become a political debate.
Most crowded negotiating rooms: Loss and damage negotiations
Civil society observers came out in droves for these negotiations. Several dozen of us were thrown out of one because security was uncomfortable with people sitting on the floor.
Best speech: Nakeeyat Dramani
This 10-year Ghanaian poet and Climate Vulnerable Forum ambassador received a standing ovation for her moving speech to the plenary on the final official day of the meeting.
Worst effort to learn from the past: The Energy Transition Accelerator
This U.S. initiative announced by climate envoy John Kerry would encourage investment in emission reducing activities in developing nations in exchange for voluntary carbon credits. Countries keep trying these systems, despite ample evidence that they do not contribute to net decrease in emissions, as companies end up getting credit for emissions reductions which would have occurred anyway.
Worst reaction to a protest: Oil Sands Pathways to Net-Zero panel discussion
Five minutes into this panel discussion, a group of activists raised protest signs, and walked out of the small, crowded Canadian pavilion. After they left, people filed in to take the open seats, and the conversation continued on stage. The protest and reaction was, as the person next to me whispered, very “respectful” and very “Canadian”. It was also strange. There was no recognition from the panel that the protest even happened, let alone that the companies and their plans do not have the support of a large proportion of people, young and old, at the conference. Even a quick “we hear you” might have sufficed!
Best unintentional comedy: Egyptian security contractors standing alone in the desert
It seemed like every time the bus turned a corner, you could spot a fit Egyptian man in a suit standing 20 metres off in the desert, guarding the rocks and sand. I was told not to approach them. I just hope someone was bringing them water.
(In all seriousness: security was omnipresent in Sharm el-Sheikh. Guards, passport checks, metal detectors, police checks, and gun-shaped bulges under suit jackets abounded, a reminder of the value of tourism to the Egyptian economy, the number of foreign dignitaries in town, and the ongoing terrorist threat on the Sinai peninsula)
Best presentation of a nationally determined contribution: Kiribati
In true Micronesian style, the Kiribati delegation had a woman in traditional dress dance to the stage carrying a hard copy of the NDC. President Maumau danced along, then received the document, and then presented it to a very uncomfortable looking representative of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Best corporate presentation: Uber
There were only ten people at a presentation in the “Pathways to 1.5 C” pavilion about the company’s plans to shift to entirely zero emissions vehicles in North America and Europe by the year 2030. Most interesting was how a new program that rents Teslas to carless drivers was unintentionally leading to greater electric vehicle use in lower income neighbourhoods where affordability has been a central concern.
Best recommendations: High-Level Expert Group on the Net-Zero Emissions Commitments [of Non-State Entities]
This expert group released ten recommendations for companies and other folks setting net-zero commitments, including not continuing to build or invest in new fossil fuel supplies. If widely adopted, these recommendations will eliminate the greenwashing present in many supposed net-zero commitments.
Best patience: The oil company representative that politely nodded while I argued that his company’s net-zero goal must include producing oil only for uses other than combustion (e.g. plastics, solvents and other products that keep the carbon out of the atmosphere)
Best line in the text: “stressing that the severity of impacts will be reduced with every increment of global warming avoided”
This line in the “second periodic review of the long-term global goal” made my scientist’s heart sing. It is an important reminder that the Paris temperature limits like 1.5°C are as much a product of geopolitics as of science, and that the true message of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is that the more we reduce emissions, the less the planet warms, and the less people suffer.
Best commitment to a protest: The person walking around in what has to be an uncomfortably hot and heavy dinosaur costume
Best slogan: “Show me the money,” from African youth activists calling for loss and damage support
Best Egyptian impersonation of a celebrity: The Egyptian Lionel Ritchie
Some of the local shops go to extraordinary measures to stand out. Near my hotel was a local store called the “Egyptian Lionel Ritchie Supermarket”, run by a friendly chap who claims to be the “Stuck on you” singer’s North African doppelganger. There was some resemblance. Honourable mention goes to the Egyptian George Clooney, whose store I spotted from the bus, but, alas, I did not get to meet.
Best memories: different perspectives on climate issues
My personal highlights of COP27 were one-on-one conversations with delegates from different countries. Given the location of the conference, I made a point of meeting delegates from across Africa in particular and asking their impressions. I heard about the lack of trust in financial promises from the developing world, the mismatch between donor desires and recipient needs, the unintended consequences of seemingly progressive decisions around international aid in North America, the trade-offs between increasing energy access and reducing electricity emissions, and the brain drain to western universities and institutions. I appreciate how much people were willing to share, and hope to incorporate those perspectives in my teaching, research and advisory work.