5 tensions that could derail COP 27

By Sara Schonhardt | 11/04/2022 06:35 AM EDT

Set against a backdrop of severe weather disasters, this year’s gathering of world leaders collides with soaring energy costs, food insecurity and a looming recession.

A vehicle drives near wind turbines at Lekela wind power station, near the Red Sea city of Ras Ghareb, some 300 km (186 miles), from Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2022.

A vehicle drives near wind turbines at Lekela wind power station Oct. 12 near the Red Sea city of Ras Ghareb, some 186 miles from Cairo, Egypt. Amr Nabil/AP Photo

The biggest climate event of the year kicks off Sunday in Egypt as a raft of challenges threaten global efforts to tame rising temperatures.

Set against a backdrop of severe weather disasters, this year’s gathering collides with soaring energy costs, food insecurity and a looming debt crisis that undercuts resilience measures in peril-prone countries.

Other complications include sharpening tensions between many of the world’s biggest climate polluters, a string of broken promises to lower emissions and failures to deliver money to people on the front lines of emissions-driven catastrophes.


“The geopolitical context may not be conducive to ambition,” said Alden Meyer, a senior associate at E3G. “Yet the world expects governments to cooperate on three big issues: climate impacts, accelerating mitigation ambition and delivering greatly scaled up climate finance.”

The Egyptian hosts of the summit have prioritized action over new pledges. That suggests that tangible responses to climate impacts will be a pillar of the negotiations like never before. And that means coming up with money — billions and billions of dollars.

President Joe Biden will make an appearance Nov. 11, about half-way through the two-week conference, along with a pared-down U.S. delegation. Two new leaders, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Brazil’s incoming president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, will use the talks in an effort to show their climate bona fides. The leaders of China and Russia, the world’s first- and fifth-largest climate polluters, respectively, are planning to skip the event altogether, as are officials from many of the largest economies, including India and Australia.

Here are a five things to watch as more than 40,000 attendees descend on the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, for the 27th round of global climate talks.

Mutinous nations

Cooperation has been a vital — and often elusive — element of climate talks over the past 30 years because decisions can’t be made without consensus. But leaders bring baggage to these gatherings, and this year, relations between some of the world’s largest emitters are particularly fraught.

Russia is ostracized on the world stage for its brutal war in Ukraine. The climate impacts are dizzying. The war has led to food insecurity by preventing grain shipments, caused higher prices at grocery stores and lowered supplies of fertilizers. It’s also raising energy prices worldwide and driving some nations to burn more fossil fuels, at least in the short term.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin won’t be at the talks, but his delegation will.

Climate cooperation between the U.S. and China remains suspended, raising concerns that the conference could fail to make headway if the world’s two largest emitters are not speaking to one another. U.S. climate envoy John Kerry said last week that conversations remain “in limbo.”

But those frosty relations could have smaller consequences this year than at previous conferences. There will be fewer backroom negotiations between nations in Egypt, putting an emphasis on public speeches by world leaders early in the talks. And Xi Jinping, China’s leader, is not expected to attend.

With middling representation from major economies, according toa provisional speakers list, the likelihood of confrontations could be smaller, according to observers. Instead, tensions may be higher at a Group of 20 major economies meeting in Indonesia during the second week of the climate talks.

If leaders undermine climate action in Indonesia, it could bleed into the conference in Egypt and potentially water down the outcome.

“It’s going to take collective solidarity and a commitment to try to weather the storm together rather than sort of a fortress mentality,” said Meyer from E3G.

Money, money, money

Money is always top of mind at climate negotiations. But the severity of climate-fueled disasters this year has brought the issue into the spotlight. It’s been punctuated by the widening gap between what countries have committed to pay and what’s needed to adapt and respond to those impacts (Climatewire, Nov. 3).

Closing that financial gap is crucial for countries that are moving away from polluting energy sources and toward renewables. It’s also needed to help nations shore up their defenses against inevitable climate impacts, such as rising seas and heavier rainfall.

Developing countries will be expecting rich nations to outline how they’ll deliver on a pledge made last year in Glasgow, Scotland, to double support for adaptation. At the same time, the private sector has underinvested in developing countries and will be under pressure to deliver (Climatewire, Nov. 2).

There’s been a wave of interest in new ways to unlock that money. That includes reforming multilateral development banks, and eyes will be trained on the World Bank following criticism that it has been slow-walking climate finance.

A plan by Barbados to transform the global financial system could gain traction (Climatewire, Sept. 29). And progress on an initiative launched last year aimed at helping coal-dependent countries transition to renewables — what’s known as the Just Energy Transition Partnership — is expected.

Developed countries must show progress on past pledges in order to rebuild the trust needed for future negotiations on finance.

“There’s a lot of headwinds, but there is still a lot that can be achieved. A lot of the channels are still open for dialogue here,” said Joe Thwaites, a climate finance advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

‘Loss and damage’

At the top of climate finance concerns are payments for irreparable losses and damages. Sometimes referred to as climate reparations, this money is aimed at addressing the harms caused to poor nations by emissions from rich countries.

A heat wave in Pakistan, followed by drought and historic flooding, is an example of what those losses look like, and the enormity of the funding needed to recover.

“In parts [of the country] where the water is not receding, the relief needs will continue for a long time,” said Farah Naureen, country director for Mercy Corps in Pakistan. “But really there is not nearly enough money to meet the needs of all this population and especially move toward early recovery and rehabilitation and restoration of livelihoods.”

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has called efforts to address loss and damage the “litmus test” for COP 27.

Countries look close to agreeing on having a discussion around ways to finance payments for climate harms — though a dedicated fund to pay for climate damages is unlikely to be supported by the U.S. and Europe at these talks.

Agreeing to talks could serve as the basis for determining how money for loss and damage will flow in the future. And the shape of those talks will be critical to unlocking progress across the entire package of negotiations.

“There’s a very high chance that something positive will happen,” said Ani Dasgupta, president of the World Resources Institute. “We also feel if it doesn’t happen, there’s a big risk of vulnerable countries just walking away from this.”

Dash to gas

The energy crisis stemming from Russia’s war in Ukraine has driven intense debate over the future of natural gas. Europe’s efforts to break its dependence on Russian gas has led to new plans for building ports and facilities for importing liquefied natural gas from the U.S. and elsewhere. It’s also seen leaders go on the hunt for gas in parts of Africa.

African countries with oil and gas reserves say they want to use that energy to develop and power their own economies, particularly in the absence of other funding. Senegal has been among the most vocal and is leading a push for investments in gas production.

But there are also divisions among African nations themselves, since most don’t have abundant fossil fuel resources but suffer from the climate impacts their use causes. Kenya’s new president, William Ruto, has pledged that the country will get all of its energy from renewables by 2030, and he urged other countries in Africa to follow.

“Right now within African countries the discussion is around how to put forward a common Africa position, particularly around the energy transition and around some kind of flexibility in the use of natural gas in particular, to achieve objectives around electrification,” Zainab Usman, director of the Africa program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said during a recent briefing.

Around 600 million people in Africa lack access to electricity or clean cooking, making energy and sustainable development deeply intertwined.

There is an urgency to act on climate change, said Usman. “But in getting to the future that we all want, whether it’s net zero by 2050, or whatever objective that we have set, we have to be very clear-eyed about what is feasible — what is feasible politically, what is feasible socially.”

Stubborn emissions

Only 24 of 193 countries — and almost none of the world’s major emitters — have updated their national targets to tackle climate change, despite an agreement at last year’s climate summit to do so. And the world has barely made a dent in its ability to keep global temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius, when scientists say climate impacts will become increasingly devastating.

There has been some progress since last year with the passage of major climate legislation in the U.S. The European Union will end the sale of gas- and diesel-powered vehicles by 2035 and has laid out a plan to move faster toward renewable energy. The recent election of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil is seen as a major boost for conservation of the Amazon rainforest.

But ambition has sputtered amid economic turmoil.

Biden has pushed for more oil production to lower gasoline prices. Coal use abroad has gone up rather than down. And Western leaders have retreated from a pledge to end gas investments (Climatewire, June 29).

U.S. midterm elections Tuesday could see Republicans take control of one chamber of Congress, or both, and make it hard for the U.S. to meet its climate finance pledges, which depend on congressional approval.

“COP27 creates a unique opportunity for the world to come together, mend multilateralism, rebuild trust and unite at the highest political levels to address climate change,” Sameh Shoukry, Egypt’s minister of foreign affairs and incoming head of the climate summit, wrote in a letter to delegates. Achieving that outcome will require “solidarity and action, not empty rhetoric,” he noted.

The challenge for Egypt will be to package the outcomes in a way that sends a signal of progress even if the talks don’t result in a big announcement, said Kaveh Guilanpour, vice president for international strategies at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.

“The whole system for decades has been geared around sort of adversarial kind of zero-sum dynamic negotiations with a huge drama around the final plenary. And I fear that dynamic is still there. Whereas the reality is that the system needs to move beyond that,” he said. “It’s about political will to deliver against what Paris says we have to do. And it’s about implementing promises. It’s not really about negotiation anymore.”