Dark clouds overshadow opening of COP27 climate summit in Egypt

A moment of cheer ahead of the UN climate summit in Egypt was provided by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who put protecting the Amazon rainforest at the heart of his winning campaign for the Brazilian presidency.

But as delegates from nearly 200 countries prepare for the start of the COP27 conference on Sunday, the mood is one of gloom, reflecting the clouds that have gathered since the last summit a year ago in Glasgow.

Russia’s war in Ukraine has ignited an energy crisis that has stoked inflation and threatened food security. Squeezed budgets in wealthy countries are testing their willingness to pay poorer nations to ditch polluting fossil fuels that contribute to dangerous climate change. Serious debt problems are afflicting a number of big developing nations.

“There’s no doubt that the ‘polycrises’ . . . could all combine to make it very difficult to make progress,” said Alden Meyer, senior associate at think-tank E3G.

The Sharm el-Sheikh summit is set to be a more low-key and procedural affair than the plenary that led to the Glasgow Climate Pact, or the summit in Paris seven years ago that produced the deal to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5C. Temperatures have already risen at least 1.1C since pre-industrial times.

Glasgow’s objective to “keep 1.5C alive” looks increasingly in jeopardy after the latest UNEP report concluded that national emissions reduction pledges implied a rise of between 2.4C and 2.6C.

Nonetheless, the next fortnight is expected to play a key role as a forum for turning words into action and building support for more ambitious climate commitments.

Egypt has billed the summit as an the “implementation COP” where climate promises will begin to be delivered. But the hosts will need deft negotiating skills to stage-manage a meeting at which decisions are made by consensus.

“We gather this year at a critical time of cascading risks and overlapping crises,” incoming COP27 president Sameh Shoukry said this week.

The world leaders expected include US president Joe Biden and French counterpart Emmanuel Macron. New UK prime minister Rishi Sunak will attend, reversing his earlier decision. Lula will also make an appearance, despite not taking over as Brazil’s president until January.

Africa’s presence will be larger than at previous summits, which observers say should put a greater focus on the needs of developing nations. Russia is also expected to send a delegation.

The to-do list for negotiators is lengthy. Countries must work out how to make good on existing pledges, including a promise by rich nations to deliver $100bn in climate finance annually by 2020 to developing countries. The total deployed in 2020 was about $83.3bn, according to the OECD.

New decisions to be made include agreeing on a “work programme” for countries to co-operate better and cut emissions faster over the next seven years.

The most vulnerable nations are also pushing for a new pot of money to compensate for destruction already wrought by climate change. UN secretary-general António Guterres said the creation of a “time-bound road map” to address this would be a “litmus test for success at COP27”.

While big polluters, led by the US, have resisted the notion of “loss and damage” financing, this stance has softened amid an outcry from poorer economies. US climate envoy John Kerry this week said he was “anxious to see the loss and damage issue dealt with.”

After a year of floods, fires and heatwaves, the urgency of the climate crisis is clear. Yet the geopolitics of COP27 remain awkward.

Europe, one of the largest emitters, faces accusations of hypocrisy over its rush to replace the gas that it is no longer buying from Russia, potentially undermining its ability to act as a bridge-builder between developed and developing nations

One test of co-operation between rich and poorer countries will be the release of the blueprint for how the wealthiest economies will help South Africa transition from coal to clean energy.

Another concern is the breakdown in US-China relations since House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan enraged Beijing. “Traditionally, China-America relationships have been crucial to realising outcomes at climate COPs,” said Jennifer Allan, strategic adviser at the International Institute for Sustainable Development.

Neither the US nor China, the world’s two largest emitters, have updated their emissions reduction targets this year and Beijing has yet to publish a plan for cutting methane emissions that it committed to developing.

The US boosted its credibility with a $369bn climate package to spur domestic green technology development and cut emissions, but the exclusion of foreign industry from the schemes has drawn complaints.

Yet neither the US nor China want to be seen as impeding progress and Kerry maintains dialogue with his Beijing counterpart Xie Zhenhua.

Then there is the gas lobby, which looks set to have a larger presence this year and at next year’s summit in the United Arab Emirates. At the Gas Exporting Countries Forum in Egypt last month, officials concluded that the two COPs “present a great opportunity to make a case for gas in the energy transition”.

Despite the challenges, there had been a welcome shift in how the links between climate and issues such as energy security were understood, said Laurence Tubiana, chief executive of the European Climate Foundation, who was a key architect of the Paris agreement.

“We’ve had bad geopolitics before,” she said, such as when the US withdrew from the Paris accord only to later rejoin. “The value [now] is that climate is now perceived as more connected with other crises.”

Additional reporting by Aime Williams in Washington and Alice Hancock in Brussels

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