On a warm afternoon during the week leading up to UN COP 27, I met with the other University of Michigan delegates on the steps of the School for the Environment and Sustainability’s Dana Building to talk about our upcoming trip and the themes of this COP. One theme being promoted by the IFCCC was that this would be “the implementation COP”, at which the negotiated policies to address climate change would be accelerated into action. Another theme was “preparing for the global stocktake”, the recurring five-year assessment of greenhouse gas emissions, and financial commitments agreed to in the Paris Accords. Other themes included the importance of the first COP to be hosted in an African country, and this year’s host country, Egypt, promoted the theme of giving youth “a seat at the table” and their own pavilion to showcase the voices of youth climate activists.
From day one, all other themes were drowned out by the demand for Loss and Damage funding, led by the countries that are most vulnerable to climate impacts. The first Climate Action Network press event made it clear that securing Loss and Damage funding would be the Global South’s focal point for their frustration and outrage, and it was easy to understand why. The developed countries, which continue to emit the majority of greenhouse gases, continue to fall behind on their COP 15 pledge to commit $100B each year to developing countries for climate adaptation financing. Most of the funds that have been committed are in the form of non-concessional loans, which further burden these countries with debt to the Global North. Financing for technology transfer, which could help the least developed countries reskill for higher-value jobs, has been mired in bureaucracy. And finally, the market-based solutions being advanced by the Global North would likely result in the carbon resources of the Global South being sequestered, and rather than enriching the people of developing countries, these solutions are increasingly viewed as resurgent colonialism that remove vital assets from indigenous control for the sole purpose of allowing multinational corporations to continue extracting and burning fossil fuels.
Listening to the activists, I was better able to understand the role of climate activism at COP. While the machinery of the COP grinds slowly, without the constant pressure from civil society and the interpersonal relationships established at the negotiations, we may not have seen the commitment to fund Loss and Damage secured by the end of COP 27.
I attended COP with the intention of tracking the progress of climate adaptation funding, with a focus on technology transfer and climate innovation. Many of the panel discussions I observed during the first week gave me reasons to be optimistic about the progress toward a just transition away from fossil fuels. I was surprised to learn that the IPCCC formally recognizes the importance of indigenous knowledge in assessing adaptation needs, with some parties making further calls to formally acknowledge the importance of climate change impacts on biodiversity. Because climate impacts are location-specific, local municipalities and non-governmental agencies are on the front lines of climate adaptation. On a panel addressing the role of finance and capital in transforming cities, leaders from the Global South shared lessons from their successes at attracting international climate finance to local infrastructure projects. One critical barrier to securing funding for adaptation projects is an accurate assessment of the risks, which requires a shared understanding of locally-sourced data. On another panel, open-source technology leaders talked about the importance of data transparency to unlock financing and presented the decentralized frameworks already in development that will speed up due diligence. At a panel on technology needs assessments, delegates from small island nations and the least developed countries showcased their examples of successful implementation of mitigation and adaptation activities that were assisted by technology need assessments (TNAs) and nationally determined contributions (NDCs). They discussed how moving through the UN TNA process helped connect climate adaptation needs with their overall development plans. At a Climate Innovation Hub panel, the leaders of women-run accelerators in Africa spoke about the importance of gender equity in the climate innovation space, and how gender-focused organizations succeed by taking a different approach with women entrepreneurs.
One aspect of COP 27 that shocked me was the degree of engagement by the oil and gas industry. The pavilions of the oil-producing nations of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were prominently placed, and news outlet The Guardian reported that 636 oil and gas lobbyists registered to attend the event, making oil and gas interests collectively the second largest delegation to attend COP 27. Activists compared this to allowing tobacco lobbyists to attend a healthcare conference, but corporate interests such as the United States Council for International Business pushed back against “any suggestion that there should be limits on corporate interests at the climate talks”.
I had a chance to see the influence of the fossil fuel lobby at work. At a New York Times panel on A Green Transition in the Middle East, representatives of GCC oil-producing nations acknowledged IPCC scientific projections that by 2050, humans will not be able to live in some GCC countries without continuous air conditioning due to rising temperatures. But when pressed on the need to halt fossil fuel investment, the same representatives towed the fossil fuel industry line that “all energy options will continue to be used”. One minister responded that “we will quit producing oil when you [the Global North] stop buying it”, placing the responsibility at the feet of nations that continue to finance and consume that largest amount of fossil fuels.
Not all of the delegates were so evasive in their response to oil and gas industry pressure. During Q&A after the Just Transition & Sustainable Economies panel, an audience member spoke on the necessity of continued fossil fuel extraction and carbon capture and sequestration as the best solution to reducing greenhouse gas levels. Several of the panelists were quick to fact-check the feasibility and economic viability of carbon capture, and a representative of the renewable energy finance sector categorized a focus on decarbonization alone “as a failure to address the social inequities caused by fossil fuel extraction”.
A recurring message from ministers from the Global South and climate finance investors in the Global North was that continued fossil fuel investment is not only incompatible with the IFCCC’s targets, but that new fossil fuels investments would today be uncompetitive without continued subsidies. When speaking at the Financial Times Climate Finance panel, Mark Campanale, a founder of CarbonTracker, said “a renewables-based future is within our grasp, a fact increasingly recognized by finance and investors. But to seize that future, governments must also appreciate that the fossil industry is entering its twilight era and the greenwashing must stop”. The island nations of Tuvalu joined Vanuatu and other nations in calling for a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty “to steer our development model to pursue renewables and a just transition away from fossil fuels.”
In this light, I see the work of the COP delegates to promote investments in a sustainable future and to disinvest from fossil fuels reduced to a political battle between the oil and gas industry, its client states, and everyone else on the planet. It reinforced for me, as a resident of the client state that consumes the world’s largest share of oil & gas, that this fight will only be won by changing the direction of the flow of capital. I was delighted to see that while I was at COP 27, Ann Arbor’s millage to support a net-zero future for the city passed overwhelmingly. When the delegates return home, the work to decarbonize will continue, and like the progress at COP 27, it will be slow and grinding. We can help keep pressure on the university to disinvest from fossil fuels, or at a minimum to disinvest from corporations that actively support climate denial. We can elevate sustainability education at our university. At COP 27 NGOs discussed climate change as a major driver of health outcomes, and that work could inform programming at our medical school. If climate investors are pressuring fashion brands to decarbonize and embrace a circular economy, can we not do the same with our university’s apparel licensees? Despite the too-slow progress on climate agreements, many of the people attending COP already embody the solutions for a just and sustainable future.