22 November 2022 – We’re the clowns, smiling manically as weak pledges are presented as progress, amid mayhem.
COP27 has ended. After more than two weeks of negotiations at the climate summit, there is a deal of sorts that keeps the climate negotiations ticking over, but it is weak and is covered with the fingerprints of petrostates. Everyone – many scientists, companies, NGOs and climate activists included – is terrified of calling time on the COP process. Yet, for the sake of humanity we must ask what purpose the UN’s yearly COP conferences serve, question how these events are run and wonder whether we have all become clowns in the climate circus.
I have attended ten COPs. COP27, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, was the only time I have broken down in tears on stage and questioned whether it was time to stop the COP charade. I arrived in Sharm with hope. The power of Mia Mottley, the prime minister of Barbados, and her call to reform the world’s financial institutions was incredible. The strong words and commitments from certain governments and business leaders on maintaining 1.5°C (the temperature-rise limit decided in the Paris Agreement), tripling renewable energy investments and supporting front-line communities and indigenous peoples were inspirational.
Yet as the week continued I witnessed once again the huge disconnect between those advocating ambitious climate action and those doubling down on the status quo. This year, on top of the poor outcome of an international climate summit, the event will be synonymous with questions over human rights abuses, sexism and a general lack of organisation.
Of course, every country in the world should have the right to host a climate conference – and it is vital that Western countries, which have tended to host COP in the past, hand over the reins to countries in the Global South, which are suffering the worst impacts of climate change. Yet every country must also be capable of ensuring that a COP is safe and affordable for everyone, and carbon neutral – which was not the case in Sharm el-Sheikh.
Criticism abounds around all COPs. There was no shortage of stories about outrageously expensive accommodation in Glasgow last year. Yet Sharm took such concerns to another level. Even before the summit kicked off questions were being asked about Egypt’s human rights record and its high number of and treatment of political prisoners. Holding a climate summit in a luxury resort was also questioned.
On the ground, it was a logistics and health and safety nightmare. Egypt had promised electric buses. Many were diesel. Petrol taxis were plentiful at the venue and hotels, but too many attendees hired cars to drive further afield. There were tales of women being dismissed or ignored by COP officials, of NGOs and activists left without meeting rooms or hassled by security.
Too many of us delegates remain tight-lipped, afraid that any criticism of COP will mean an end to the process. Yet I fear that COPs are becoming little more than a circus, with the petrostates as the ringmasters and us – civil society, progressive business and financial institutions, heads of state and negotiators from countries wanting climate action – are the clowns. We smile manically as incremental promises and weak pledges are presented as progress.
COP28 is due to take place in the United Arab Emirates. Either lessons from Egypt are applied and insisted on by the UN, or this charade should end for the sake of the climate and the future of humanity.
First published in The New Statesman