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What is the point of COP27?

The 27th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – commonly referred to as COP27 – is upon us. Much of the UK’s domestic coverage has been on whether the Prime Minister, first Liz Truss and now Rishi Sunak, would attend the climate summit in Sharm El Sheikh. But in the grand scheme of things this is an inconsequential debate.

World leaders do attend COPs and they do make speeches emphasising the urgency of climate action and the effects of a warming planet on their country. These climate conferences serve an especially important role in drawing attention to smaller and more climate vulnerable nations. Indeed, the most discussed speech at COP26 was not from the leader of a big economy but from Simon Kofe, Tuvalu’s foreign minister, who pre-recorded a speech standing knee-deep in the sea back home to highlight how rising sea levels have put Tuvalu on the frontlines of climate change. But, aside from these potent reminders, world leaders do not tend to be involved in the negotiations themselves, which have long been left to dedicated teams of negotiators with pre-agreed parameters. 

So if it does not really matter whether the prime minister or His Majesty the King attends COP27 then what does? COPs tend towards two types of outcomes: official agreements and side deals. The official agreements are the ones that grab the headlines – such as the Paris Agreement, the Kyoto Protocol, and the Glasgow Climate Pact – and they are agreed unanimously by the 197 parties (196 countries plus the European Union). As a result of every party having a veto, the eventual deals often end up less ambitious than most would like. Last year, the focus in Glasgow came down to a phase down rather than phase out of coal – a minor linguistic distinction but one which certain countries would not sign without. Because there has to be agreement, the most influential countries often end up being those with the lowest ambition.

Side deals can be a more interesting prospect. These coalitions do not have to include every party so ambitions can be set much higher. Last year’s Global Methane Agreement asked countries to cut their methane emissions by 30% by 2030 – this was signed by 105 countries, representing nearly 50% of global methane emissions and 70% of global gross domestic product, but did not require unanimity from all the COP nations. If implemented, this agreement will certainly have a positive effect on the climate, as methane is nearly 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide in warming the planet. Last year, Britain played a pivotal role behind the scenes in bringing countries together in these smaller coalitions, and this year it can continue to play this role in facilitating side deals whilst still actively encouraging more ambitious deals between all COP nations. 

Of course, one of the most significant features of any country hosting a COP is the chance to show that it is both a global leader on climate change and stable, open and prosperous enough to host an international event.

Though its COP presidency is now over, the United Kingdom (UK) will continue to have a major leadership role at COP27. Alok Sharma, the COP26 president, has been the most hardworking COP president in history due to having twice the amount of time to forge diplomatic connections than usual because Covid-19 delayed COP26 by a year. The name recognition and trust that Sharma can command is much stronger than nearly all other climate envoys. As such, Britain is well placed to continue influencing the negotiations and commit to ambitious climate policies. 

COP27 is likely to be very different from COP26. Last year’s narrative was a triumphant and hopeful one: most of the world was emerging from the pandemic and saw that greater climate action could be a road towards economic recovery. ‘Build Back Better’ was never far from discussion, whether it meant the US’s post-pandemic recovery scheme that eventually became the Inflation Reduction Act, or the Build Back Better World Initiative, the Group of Seven’s (G7) answer to the People’s Republic of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

This year, the picture is less cheerful. Russia’s renewed aggression against Ukraine has triggered an energy price crisis which has spiked inflation in many countries and is leading to a renewed focus on energy security, even if it means new fossil fuel exploration. The assault against Ukraine has also led to a less talked about but just as important shortage in fertiliser, which has had knock on effects for the world’s farmers, who now face tight profit margins during the best of times. When adding several existing famines and drought across much of Europe this summer to the damage caused to one of the world’s leading wheat exporters, it is clear why food security has become almost as big a geopolitical focus as energy security. Countries which last year were riding on the high of successful vaccination campaigns and reopened economies will be much more wary this year about sending money abroad due to the economic situation at home. 

The framing of COP27 discussions is led by the host nation, Egypt, and it has made clear that this COP is principally about adaptation. This means that one of the biggest focuses will be providing climate finance, primarily from governments of richer countries, for mitigation, adaptation and most controversially for loss and damage. The Egyptian presidency wants to draw attention to this being the first climate COP held in Africa and to emphasise that climate change is already disastrously affecting many countries. With a promised US$100 billion (£87 billion) a year in climate finance by 2020 still yet to be reached, it is likely to continue to be a difficult topic this year. 

Finance for mitigation is in the interests of those countries giving funding as much as that of those countries receiving it. The more we can do to limit emissions, the smaller the effects of climate change. Unsurprisingly, mitigation receives the lion’s share of climate finance.

Adaptation is a harder sell for many based on the national interest but scientific models are clear that no matter our actions now, some warming is inevitable, at least until the middle of the century. This means that there will be worsening effects from extreme weather events and longer term impacts like rising sea levels, making adaptation absolutely necessary. The more we can build resilience in climate vulnerable countries, the less people will have to leave their homes. Left unchecked, climate change will catalyse mass migration flows and stoke instability and conflict. There is a clear incentive for countries to spend money on adaptation as well as mitigation. 

There may be some progress on the third, most controversial pillar of climate finance: loss and damage. Loss and damage is the name given to the harms caused by manmade climate change, covering climate disasters and longer term effects like sea level rises, as well as the loss of heritage and culture. In other words, the money is not to pay for mitigation or adaptation but simply to compensate for damages. Egypt wants more money to be dedicated to loss and damage at COP27 but with the US$100 (£87 billion) figure still not met and much of what has been supplied being in the form of loans, getting money for mitigation and adaptation has to be the priority. 

Finding ways to get climate finance which genuinely helps mitigation and adaptation without entrenching authoritarian regimes will be one of the thornier issues that countries will have to deal with during COP27 and indeed all future climate conferences.

Of course, one of the most significant features of any country hosting a COP is the chance to show that it is both a global leader on climate change and stable, open and prosperous enough to host an international event. COP26 was the first big international conference in the UK after Brexit and one of the first big diplomatic events after His Majesty’s Government’s Integrated Review of British foreign policy.

The stakes will be considerably higher for Egypt. Since Russia’s renewed aggression against Ukraine, Egypt has struggled with foreign currency shortages and has had to go to the International Monetary Fund for help for the fourth time in nine years. The economy in Egypt has been reliant on massive state spending, largely driven by the military, since Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, the Egyptian president, came to power in 2013. Furthermore, any external shocks have a disproportionate effect in a country that until recently was paying the highest interest rates in the world on its debt. COP27 represents a lifeline of foreign investment as Egypt prepares for the biggest influx of visitors since the pandemic ended.

Many human rights groups have warned about the crackdown on protests in Egypt in the run up to COP27. Understandably, this has worried those who might want to fund climate finance initiatives: to give finance to countries like Egypt, an undeniably climate vulnerable country, risks propping up an authoritarian regime which brutally imprisons protestors and has silenced debate. Recent studies have also shown both that climate finance can be misused and that it is unlikely to reach marginalised communities.

Finding ways to get climate finance which genuinely helps mitigation and adaptation without entrenching authoritarian regimes will be one of the thornier issues that countries will have to deal with during COP27 and indeed all future climate conferences. Every country is affected by climate change and will affect it in turn, so excluding countries altogether cannot work. We will have to continue, to some extent, to include authoritarian regimes and work with them to get help to people who need it most. The costs of excluding these countries and thus not supporting their decarbonisation is too high not to. 

When the dust (or desert sand) settles on COP27 there will be a flurry of post-mortems saying that whatever is agreed does not go far or fast enough. But, if there is progress on finance for mitigation and adaptation, strengthened emissions targets and a renewed commitment to climate action, then COP27 may yet come to be seen as a summit that all the world’s leaders will wish they had attended.

Fin McCarron is the International Programme Manager at the Conservative Environment Network.

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