The UN climate talks provoke frustration every year. Here’s what’s on the agenda this year.
More than 30,000 people representing governments, businesses, and environmental and human rights groups around the world are expected to gather next week to talk shop on climate change. The occasion is the United Nations’ annual climate summit, called the 27th Conference of the Parties, or COP27, which is scheduled to take place from November 6th through 18th.
Every year, the conference is billed as an opportunity for the world to come together to tackle the climate crisis. World leaders sometimes make new commitments to curb their country’s greenhouse gas emissions or pen agreements with other heads of state to transition to clean energy and funnel money into building a more resilient world. More often, advocates walk away disappointed with meager progress made. There’s a lot of hype to wade through, so The Verge put together a guide to this year’s climate talks.
What is COP27?
Once upon a time in 1992, nearly every nation on Earth signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. That committed them to working together to limit global warming that’s driving extreme weather disasters, pushing species into extinction, and drowning low-lying islands.
The countries that have ratified that convention (there are 197 of them now) became the “Conference of the Parties.” And in 1995, they held their first COP meeting in Berlin, Germany. Now, we’re at COP27 — the 27th time these countries have gotten together to try to save the world. At this point, the COP meetings have become a bonanza for anyone with anything to lose or gain from climate change. Indigenous peoples send their own delegates to represent their interests. Activists from the local area and from around the world flood the streets outside the conference. Corporations from Big Tech to the fossil fuel industry set up shop to try to sell themselves as part of the solution.
If climate change is still getting worse after 27 years, why do we still care about this conference?
This is a raging debate, even within the conference. “As it is, The COPs are not really working,” youth climate activist Greta Thunberg, who was a media sensation at last year’s conference, said during an event in London this week after announcing that she will not attend COP27 this year. “The COPs are mainly used as an opportunity for leaders and people in power to get attention, using many different kinds of greenwashing,” Thunberg said.
For many activists, it seems as if glaciers are melting faster than countries can come to an agreement on policies to limit climate change. It took decades until COP21 yielded the most significant decision yet to come out of one of these conferences — the landmark Paris Agreement adopted in 2015. That agreement is a foundation for many efforts today to take action on climate change. It set a research-backed limit on how much global warming countries are willing to tolerate, making countries accountable for “Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.”
The world has already warmed by 1.2 degrees Celsius — so we don’t have much wiggle room left. Staying below that 1.5-degree threshold requires reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions over the next few decades. That’s a short timeframe to transition the entire world to clean energy. The alternative is that we’ll reach a whole new magnitude of climate devastation, including wiping out the world’s coral reefs and turning twice as many of the world’s megacities into “heat-stressed” locales.
And despite all the pledges that have come out of COPs, the world is still careening toward warming beyond 2 degrees Celsius. That’s even after countries submitted updated national action plans at last year’s COP, which marked a major deadline for nations to ratchet up their commitments under the Paris agreement.
What’s new about COP27?
Given how disastrous the situation still is, this year’s COP will focus heavily on figuring out how to live with the consequences of climate change. So one of the big buzzwords at COP27 is “adaptation.” Specifically, delegates from more affluent countries will need to hammer out how they’ll make good on a promise they made last year to double finance for “adaptation” measures — a pledge of about $40 billion a year by 2025.
The money is supposed to go toward new and improved infrastructure that might help keep people safe in a warming world. That might look like cities designed to be better at beating the heat or communities that are less likely to be wiped out in a wildfire. Or it could mean expanded early warning systems that can warn people about a flood or storm headed their way. There’s a push this year to secure even more funding for these kinds of adaptation projects, particularly since adaptation costs in developing countries have been projected to reach upwards of $300 billion a year by the end of the decade. Advocates are also pushing for more locally led solutions since what it means to live with climate change looks different from place to place and the people most affected by climate disasters haven’t always been included at planning tables.
There’s also growing outrage this year about the lack of support for communities that have already suffered irreparable damage from climate disasters. Small island nations, for instance, have already had to evacuate entire populations from disappearing islands. They’ve had to shoulder those costs even though they’ve contributed very little to the pollution causing climate change.
Wealthier nations, headed by the US, have emitted vastly more greenhouse gas emissions historically. So the argument is that they should cough up some of the cash to pay for the consequences. Advocates and delegates from some of the most vulnerable nations want a funding mechanism for this kind of “loss and damage.” And while wealthier nations have poo-pooed this idea over and over again in previous COPs, they’re faced with an upswell of support for loss and damage financing from developing countries as climate change takes an ever greater toll.
Of course, there’s still a lot of pressure on countries at COP27 to do more to prevent planet-heating pollution in the first place. Environmental groups are hoping to see more updated national commitments come out of COP27, especially since countries agreed last year to “revisit and strengthen” their targets for 2030.
Where is COP27 happening?
The conference is taking place in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. As a result, there’s one more elephant in the room at this year’s UN Climate Conference: Egypt’s crackdown on climate protests — and dissenting voices more broadly. Dozens of people have reportedly been arrested in the days leading up to the climate conference in an effort to quell demonstrations, adding to tens of thousands more political prisoners believed to be detained currently in Egypt.
That has added to skepticism around what might be accomplished at this climate conference, particularly if local voices go unheard. This year’s conference is being called “Africa’s COP.” The entire continent of Africa is only responsible for around 3 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. But many countries within the region are facing outsized climate impacts. The Horn of Africa, for example, is in the midst of its longest drought in decades as climate change heightens the risk of drought. With five parched rainy seasons in a row, more than 50 million people in seven countries stretching from Sudan and Eritrea down to Kenya and Uganda face acute food insecurity this year. These stark disparities are another factor that’s made adaptation and loss and damage priorities at COP27.
What comes next?
Bear in mind that these annual climate negotiations are really only supposed to be a starting point for action. Leaders might make promises at these conferences, but then they’ve got to go home and pass legislation or complete some kind of project that’s supposed to have an impact on people’s lives. Ultimately, what happens to keep countries accountable for following through — or perhaps going beyond — what they committed to in these conferences is the exciting part. If that doesn’t happen, we’ll be in for more of the same at next year’s COP.