As COP27 Climate Talks in Egypt Begin, Can We Get Off the ‘Highway to Climate Hell’?

November 7, 2022 | 6:23 pm
Rachel Cleetus
Rachel Cleetus
Policy Director

I’m in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, where the annual United Nations climate talks, aka COP27, just got underway. As world leaders and thousands of civil society representatives gather here, the sobering backdrop of the climate crisis couldn’t be clearer. The world is already experiencing mounting dangerous climate extremes, the last eight years have been the hottest on record, and the current trajectory of heat-trapping emissions is wildly off-course from where it needs to be to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. With his characteristic bluntness, Secretary General António Guterres stated today: “We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot still on the accelerator.”

The only way to get off this fiery highway is urgent, transformative action on a global scale. Here are three things I’m looking for as metrics of success for this COP:

  1. Increased ambition in emissions reduction commitments, in line with the latest science, and clear policies to deliver on them. Current country commitments could put the world on track for a global average temperature increase of as much as 2.8˚C. The Paris Agreement explicitly called on nations to update their emissions reduction commitments regularly, and now is the time for them to ratchet up ambition quickly. The Global Stocktake process, the first of which is underway right now and set to conclude in 2023, is designed to help assess the impact of collective national pledges and identify opportunities to do more. This COP is a critical midpoint where nations must reach a strong agreement to close the gap in ambition in cutting their emissions and sharply phase down fossil fuels within this decade and beyond.  
  2. Renewed, scaled-up climate finance pledges from richer countries to help support both mitigation and adaptation in low-income countries. Richer nations have fallen well short of their existing commitments and must make up lost ground quickly and scale up this funding. Further, the vast majority of these funds must flow in the form of grants, not loans—especially as many low-income nations are already reeling under a crushing spiral of debt exacerbated by the global climate, energy and economic crises. Here at COP, we need to hear how richer countries intend to close the yawning gap in climate finance.
  3. Meaningful progress on addressing climate loss and damage. For the first time, the agenda adopted at the opening plenary of COP27 includes an agenda item on funding arrangements related to loss and damage. This critical first step, albeit filled with caveats, is entirely due to the efforts of climate vulnerable nations and climate justice advocates who put pressure on richer countries including the United States. But the agenda item alone doesn’t guarantee the outcome communities on the frontlines of loss and damage need and deserve: securing a funding facility at COP27 to address loss and damage in low-income climate vulnerable nations. We’ll be fighting hard in the next two weeks to get an agreement to set up the fund here at COP27, and then for getting it up and running within two years, with adequate funding flows.
The Pakistan pavilion at COP27. (Photo credit: Rachel Cleetus)

Our small but mighty UCS team is on the ground in Egypt to push for science and justice to firmly guide the outcomes here at COP27. We’ll be attending the negotiations, engaging with country delegations including the U.S. delegation, participating in media briefings (here’s an opening briefing from the international Climate Action Network that I joined last week), speaking at side events (including on climate litigation), participating in events at the Climate Justice Pavilion, writing blogs and engaging on social media to drive attention to key issues, and participating in civil society actions here at COP to demand action from decision makers.

Ahead of COP27, UCS helped lead a letter to calling on the COP27 PR firm, Hill+Knowlton, to drop its fossil fuel clients and commit to climate action instead. We also sent a letter to Special Envoy Kerry, signed by over 140 organizations, urging the U.S. to engage constructively on negotiations related to loss and damage and agree on a pathway to funding here at COP27.

One of the most inspiring and energizing aspects of being here at COP is working together with and learning from climate justice activists from around the world. At this “Africa COP,” I am in awe of the work being done by the Don’t Gas Africa campaigners who are calling for a stop of further build-out of fossil gas in Africa and instead urging scaled-up investments in renewable energy that can help address the immense energy poverty on the continent. In their words: “We call for an end to fossil-fuel-induced energy apartheid in Africa which has left 600 million Africans without access to modern, clean, renewable energy. Scaling up cost-effective, clean, decentralized, renewable energy is the fastest and best way to end energy exclusion and meet the needs of Africa’s people.”

On Saturday, November 12, you, too, can put pressure on world leaders to secure an ambitious outcome at COP27 by joining the Global Day of Action wherever you are in the world. Many of us here will be wearing red in solidarity. Unfortunately, due to restrictions here in Egypt, we will not be able to participate in the customary mass demonstrations in the streets that have been hallmarks of recent COPs.

Stay tuned for more on these important issues and others as my colleagues and I are blogging on topics related to COP27 here.