COP27 host nation Egypt’s hard line against dissent will sideline civil society and business at next month’s key climate summit

Opinion: Sharm el-Sheikh is an evocative place for the nations of the world to hold COP27, their next round of climate negotiations, beginning on November 6.

Until the last three decades or so, very little had happened at that spot on the Egyptian coast, at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula where the Gulf of Suez meets the Red Sea.

There was only a tiny community of fishing families. The big event was Israel waging war against Egypt twice and winning control of the peninsula for a total of 15 years between 1956 and 1979.

Once Egypt regained the territory, it decided to turn Sharm and a short stretch of coast to the north into a major international tourism destination. An ideal climate and some 250 reefs and 1000 species of marine life gave it great potential as a diving centre.

From 1982 to 2000, the number of visitors soared from 16,000 to more than 5 million. By comparison, New Zealand hosted 4m visitors in 2019, the year before Covid struck.

In addition, the Egyptian President ordered construction of a huge convention centre, and designated Sharm The City of Peace. Some major international peace conferences turned up. So did terrorists. On July 23, 2005, fundamentalist Islamic groups triggered a wave of car bombs that killed 88 people and injured more than 200 others, mostly tourists.

Exponential economic growth, exploitation of nature, escalating greenhouse gas emissions, endless negotiations and constant conflicts are also some of the essential human activities creating our evermore dire climate crisis.

And yet again in their annual ritual, countries will meet to seek solutions. Africa has hosted the UN’s COP summits twice before –Marrakech held COP7 in 2001 and COP12 in 2016.

But since then, Africa has become the most consequential continent in climate terms. Over the next few decades, it will contribute the planet’s greatest growth in population, economic activity, and emissions. And it is already suffering some of the worst climate impacts such as drought and famine, and the political convulsions they trigger.

Today’s 1.4 billion Africans –17 percent of the global population – account for barely 3 percent of global emissions from energy and industry, according to the UN. Minus Egypt, Algeria and coal-consuming South Africa, it’s closer to 1 percent.

But adding in rapid deforestation caused by land use change, plus methane and nitrous oxide, mainly from agriculture, the continent’s global share is closer to 6 percent, McKinsey, the global consultants estimate. But the continent also has abundant opportunities for green growth and climate resilience, their report says.

For example, the Congo Basin is the world’s biggest carbon sink on land after the Amazon Basin.

Africans’ current per capita emissions are only 0.7 tonnes a year, compared with 4.5 tonnes for Britons and 14.7 tonnes for Americans. But by 2060, the World Bank estimates the continent’s population will double. If their per capita level matches India’s current rate, African emissions will then be larger than those of the US.

Thus, it’s blindingly obvious that Africa, along with all other developing regions of the world, needs massive financial and technical support from developing countries to help them respond to “loss and damage” – the simple term describing multiple and profound climate impacts – and to grow their economies in deeply sustainable ways.

As president of COP27, Egypt says loss and damage will top its agenda at the Sharm negotiations. At the Paris COP in 2015, developed nations pledged to fund US$100 billion to help developing countries rise to the extensive challenges of loss and damage. But they still haven’t honoured their pledge. Meanwhile, the true cost of loss and damage plus investment in green growth is now measured in trillions of dollars.

And it is still highly developed countries that bear the greatest responsibility. Last year, at COP26 in Glasgow, all nations promised to increase their pledges in time for COP27. But the UN’s latest tally of each nation’s climate pledge, just released, shows that only 26 out of 193 countries have done so. New Zealand is one of the many that hasn’t.

The world’s two largest emitters, the US and China, accounting for a third of the global total, have taken some steps in their own countries. But their escalating geopolitical conflict has caused their bilateral climate negotiations to break down.

The UN’s latest tally says that current trends, if they continued, would lead to a rise in global temperature of between 2.1C and 2.9C, far above the 1.5C threshold beyond which climate scientists say the likelihood of catastrophic climate impacts significantly increases.

This new video from The Economist describes the vast difference in climate impacts between 1.5C and 3C.

In the face of these towering challenges, this COP has a great disadvantage compared with previous ones over the past 10 or 15 years. Civil society and business will likely play smaller, less integrated roles alongside government negotiations. This reflects the host country’s hard-line against dissent, and its dominance over business.

This constrained engagement will curtail whole-of-society actions, which are so crucial for meeting intensely complex climate challenges.

These are just a few of the most critical themes that will course through the 13 days of COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh. I appreciate the privilege of being back at COP so I can send daily reports back to Newsroom’s readers.

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