The ambitions for this year’s international climate change conference were modest. The outcomes even more so.
As delegates depart the COP27 climate change conference in Egypt, it’s worth remembering that the ancient Egyptian civilisation lasted 3,000 years. The modern industrial society has taken just 150 years to begin destroying our way of life.
Ancient Egyptians were closely aware of their physical surroundings, especially other living creatures in their land. Given that the target of 1.5 degrees is slipping from reach, their lessons are ever more salient. At this point, incremental change is not enough.
The youth activist voice was strong again this year, despite the notable absence of leaders such as Greta Thunberg, but it sounded disenchanted. By the second week, some youth delegates were openly questioning the value of COPs. They called out countries and corporations for greenwashing.
Youth were also vocal about the big issue of COP27, loss and damage finance — how much developed nations are willing to pay to developing nations, acknowledging that wealthy nations have reaped economic benefits from their own unsustainable development. As COP raced towards its late conclusion, a breakthrough occurred, with the EU spearheading a loss and damage fund. It became clear that a majority of countries want to quit fossil fuels, even if they are torn as to who pays the bill.
There was a feeling on the ground that discussions should have further integrated the voices of those most impacted by climate change, such as First Nations peoples, women, and youth. Perhaps this occurred because the voices of minority groups and grassroots civil society were somewhat muted this year, with their attendees largely relegated to an approved protest space.
Some younger delegates described the COP as feeling “dystopian” and “jarring”, also citing the largest number of fossil fuel lobbyists in attendance to date, a lack of food and water in the venue in the first week, price gouging at hotels, looming human rights issues, and the limited integration of voices from the global south despite the setting in Africa.
Still, there was progress made on the Action for Climate Empowerment agenda from the Paris Agreement, which speaks to education, youth and public literacy. This could lead to better integration of the youth voice in national targets. Moreover, youth were not deterred speaking their minds plainly and urgently. They inspired and they mobilised. They found a global community that will no doubt sustain them in their work ahead.
As youth delegate Isabelle Zhu-Maguire said, “Climate action is an exhausting space to be in and can be very isolating. So I hope activists are able to find each other at COP and create a community of love and support.”
Energy, as expected, was a major focus at COP27. The ‘no to fossil fuels’ was the largest lobby group, followed closely by indigenous peoples’ rights. Their voices, however, were relegated to fringe pavilions and the courtyards. It was the proponents of blue hydrogen (a fuel produced using natural gas energy) and green hydrogen (a fuel produced using renewable energy) who occupied the prime pavilions with, it would seem, government support.
For instance, Scotland’s biggest electricity retailer, SSE, provides gas-fired electricity and will switch to blue hydrogen, promising carbon capture and storage technology to address carbon dioxide emissions. Carbon capture and storage has not yet worked anywhere in the world. The person presenting for SSE had to be reminded that the goal was not a ‘low carbon economy’ but net zero.
In the Australian pavilion, Fortescue Future Industries (FFI) spruiked for 10 minutes how green hydrogen will power their heavy transport assets for iron ore mining. Nigeria too is moving toward a blue hydrogen plan. “Gas is a transition energy source” was the mantra according to the presentation from German tech company Siemens in the Nigeria pavilion.
Solar and wind energy seemed to be second-choice renewables at the COP. Perhaps in the quest for ‘jobs and growth’, governments favour infrastructure-heavy renewables, such as hydrogen, not only for domestic use — but for export via underwater transmission. Off the back of COP27, one state in Australia is proposing a Hydrogen and Renewable Energy Act to regulate large-scale hydrogen and renewable energy projects in their state. Most hydrogen facilities will need to desalinate seawater first, and then choose an energy source to split out the hydrogen from water. Questions remain as to how initiatives such as hydrogen will meaningfully reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
The last few days of COP27 and the extended negotiations reflected prioritisation of these same issues. The resultant agreement paled in comparison to what was hoped for in the early stages of the meeting. An earlier draft text paid considerable attention to emerging issues such as the ocean and made progress on some key concepts. Discussions included a “phase out” of fossil fuels compared with last year’s text on a “phase down”. But in the end, phase down remained. Calls for sustained emissions reductions across “all sectors” ended up confined to “applicable sectors”: energy.
The need to reach global peak emissions by 2025 was repeatedly highlighted throughout the meeting, however was not included in the final document. This was a missed opportunity for a true immediate ambition to be agreed by the global community — something that would have appropriately reflected the urgency of the climate crisis.
Perhaps most concerning was the ongoing challenge to the 1.5 degree goal and questions of the science surrounding this. Indeed the issue of 1.5 was an ongoing theme not only in negotiations but also in the pavilions, where the first serious waning of confidence in both the feasibility and likelihood of reaching this target was seen. This was strongly countered by support for clarity and urgency in conveying the science.
Failure to reach an agreement was a very real contemplation at Sharm el-Sheikh. This would have been the first time since COP6 in 2000 that parties did not issue a decision. It was a possibility that some countries were advocating for from the beginning, and that others only began raising when it appeared that there was a very real likelihood that the 2022 text would be a step backwards, not forward, from that agreed in last year’s climate conference.
In the end agreement was reached. By next year, negotiators may perhaps have found a way to overcome the excessive fragmentation witnessed across governments, sectors and UN agencies to embrace the messaging repeated throughout civil society: that incremental change is not enough to reach 1.5 and that a just, equitable transformation of the system is needed now.
Sali Bache is strategic advisor in international policy and ocean at Climateworks Centre within the Monash Sustainable Development Institute.
Diane Kraal is an Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, Monash Business School.
Susie Ho is the director of the Monash Innovation Guarantee in the Office of the Deputy Vice Chancellor Education.
The authors declare no conflict of interest.