This year’s COP 27 climate conference may prove UN negotiations on global heating dead for some. But for others, the annual, marathon negotiating summits are a crucial forum to exert soft power, keep checks on Big Oil, and remind corporate interests that the Amazon is much more than just a business opportunity.
And however much or little this year’s COP achieves, there’s still a lot going on around the world to curb greenhouse gas emissions and address climate impacts, even if those gains aren’t reflected in the formal process.
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“No matter how dire reports out of Sharm el-Sheikh get,” writes climate columnist Adam Radwanski, in a pre-COP post for the Globe and Mail, those failings must not be mistaken for a sign that “the world is otherwise incapable of collective climate action.”
The European Union’s determined acceleration into a green economy, driven in part by Russia’s war in Ukraine, is one of several recent opening acts in a global push for climate action, Radwanski says.
The COP may be “increasingly ill-suited to the climate fight,” he writes due to a non-binding consensus model “which requires near unanimity for anything to get through.” Consensus is getting harder and harder to achieve, thanks to “rising economic nationalism, right-wing populism, and authoritarianism—plus a U.S.-China cold war and a Russian hot war,” and the ill will that wealthy countries have accumulated after their repeated failure to deliver on their 2009 promise of US$100 billion in annual climate finance for developing countries.
But international climate diplomacy is not dead in the water, Radwanski writes. It’s just happening in smaller increments. The just-announced insurance-based Global Shield initiative between the G7 and the Vulnerable 20 is one example.
“While there are drawbacks to these narrower approaches, including the risk of some countries being on the sidelines, they offer a nimbleness COP lacks,” he says. “It wouldn’t be surprising to see more take shape, as the UN process’s limitations become inescapable.”
Still, the limitations must be acknowledged and corrected, writes Politico, observing that out of the 196 countries that signed the Paris Agreement, only about two dozen have followed through on their COP 26 promise to update their 2030 climate targets over the last year. Of these, only Gambia’s is aligned with the targets in the Paris agreement.
Julia Levin, national climate program manager at Environmental Defence Canada, said she decided to attend COP 27 even though the process does not “deliver transformative change.” That’s because not attending would mean leaving bad actors to further hobble COP processes.
“There’s a huge amount of influence (from big oil companies), and that’s why we get all kinds of false solutions—from offset schemes that mean fossil fuel companies don’t have to actually reduce their own emissions, to carbon capture, to fossil hydrogen,” Levin told the Toronto Star. “There’s still a tremendous amount of work to be done to ensure that governments at COP serve people and not polluters.”
Others say the COP process has already moved beyond government negotiations.
“The pavilions for the non-state actors are where the action is really happening: where asset managers, insurance companies, and investment banks are operating,” veteran COP participant Jorge Gastelumendi told Politico.
Others argue that the COP will long remain a critical global space for wielding “soft power.”
“As one country or corporation announces their commitments, its counterparties don’t want to be left behind or seen as laggards,” Nelson Switzer, managing partner of Climate Innovation Capital, told the Star. “This leads to deeper commitments and deployments of capital, technology and policy.”
Speaking to the Star as he packed his bags for Egypt, Chief Ninawa of the Huni Kui Indigenous people in Brazil framed the situation differently. “Unfortunately, COP reproduces the same paradigm that created the problem of climate destabilization,” he said. “Many governments and companies attending want to turn the climate crisis into a business opportunity.”
But “for Indigenous leaders like myself, the COP is a space where we can fight, with all the complexities and contradictions that entails… because we believe this reality can change.”