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COP27: absent leaders and fossil fuel lobby weaken climate change fight

Prof. Syed Munir Khasru

South China Morning Post (Hong Kong)
November 17, 2022



The latest UN climate change conference, COP27, is taking place with record-breaking drought in the Horn of Africa, famine warnings in Somalia and one-third of Pakistan devastated by deadly floods.

One of the central issues being debated is challenges that many developing countries face on the front lines of the climate disaster, despite accounting for a relatively smaller percentage of global emissions.

These countries are advocating for a “loss and damage” fund for offsetting damage previously incurred. Growing threats of conflict, global warming and economic crises are taking a toll on every continent, striking the Earth’s most vulnerable the hardest. The bone of contention in this year’s negotiations is the issue of what wealthy, industrialised nations, which produce most of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, owe to those suffering the most from climate threats.

As host, Egypt aspired to project itself as a leader in renewable energy, a popular tourist destination and a credible player on the global stage. It has made an effort to position itself as the developing world’s climate champion. However, those initiatives appeared at odds with the nation’s alarming human rights and environmental records.

Additionally, the protests which were a common occurrence at previous climate summits, have been conspicuously absent in Egypt, in part because of tight security measures and the conference site’s distance from major cities.

As it becomes difficult for many people to live healthily on a warming planet, there are increasing calls for wealthy countries to pay climate-vulnerable nations. Rich countries have long opposed the establishment of a fund to address loss and damage, despite producing most of the historical greenhouse gas emissions.

Although underlings are negotiating, the leaders of China and India – two of the top three greenhouse gas-emitting countries – did not attend the conference in Egypt.

US President Joe Biden, the head of the second-largest polluting nation, arrived in Sharm el-Sheikh days after most other leaders. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also passed on a chance to demonstrate leadership in the struggle against climate change.

Even Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who has spent the last six months portraying Australia as a climate leader, upheld his decision to not attend COP27. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had first planned not to go, but he changed his mind after pressure from the public and the decision to attend by Boris Johnson.

Even Greta Thunberg, the Swedish climate campaigner who has previously attended conferences, decided not to go this time. She characterised the occasion as “more greenwashing, lying and cheating” by those in positions of authority.

Last year, given the strained relationship of COP26 host Britain with both Russia and China, it might not have been a surprise that neither President Xi Jinping nor Russian President Vladimir Putin attended the conference. In contrast, Russia and China both enjoy friendly relations with Egypt with increasing economic cooperation, leaving others wondering where Egyptian climate diplomacy went wrong.

Perhaps they wanted to avoid getting embroiled in climate change talks when neither has much appetite to give up either selling or consuming fossil fuels, being caught up in economic recession or having to finance a war.

Although previous climate change meetings did not often culminate in implementation of climate policies, even critics still saw value in participating.

There have been more than 600 fossil fuel lobbyists, 25 per cent more than the previous year and outnumbering any single frontline community affected by climate change. COP27 saw a dramatic increase in attendees from some of the world’s biggest, most polluting oil and gas companies, signifying growing influence of the fossil fuel industry on the debate.

At a time when scientists think it is necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change by keeping global temperature increases under 1.5 degrees Celsius, civil society organisations are concerned by the growing influence of fossil fuel lobbyists which could stall negotiations at a crucial time.

The ability of affluent nations to deliver on reparations – a contentious subject that is viewed as a key issue of climate justice – will largely determine the success or failure of the UN’s flagship climate summit. Little has changed over the years, but rich nations have indicated they will now walk the talk about new loss and damage finance methods.

The question is how these nations will send a credible signal that they will adapt and assist others when their absence damages the significance that COP27 deserves.

There have been numerous decisions and agreements made over time. Most of these agreements have finance at their core, and lack of funding is the main reason most agreements fail.

The purpose of these conferences is for nations to address climate change, and the yearly series of conferences continues to be the only arena for doing so. However, they work by consensus among nearly 200 nations which have diverse viewpoints.

Within this decade, radical transformation is required for both mitigation and adaptation, and the necessity for this action is emphasised when nations come together at COP27. Rising absenteeism by those whose meaningful presence can have a positive influence on the deliberations, discussions and debate and the growing presence of those from the opposite side of the aisle does not help either the case or credibility of climate action and COP27.