This post is by Sarah Mukherjee MBE, chief executive officer of the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA) and former BBC environment correspondent.
How well do you perform after you have been up for two nights in a row? Are you irritable, cranky? Do you find it difficult to concentrate on detailed or technical issues? After you have derived any possible benefit left from caffeine or sugar in keeping you awake, do you find yourself in a near hallucinatory state?
The only times I have attempted to stay up night after night is when I have been covering international multiparty negotiations. Nobody would be foolish enough to do this voluntarily. And I can attest that even covering other people’s decisions for that length of time makes you eventually weep for your bed.
And yet, somehow, the world has ended up in the position where this is how we decide the future of the planet every year. Despite all the detailed and endless pre-meetings, despite doing this now 27 times, we still end up with negotiations of the “who blinks first“ variety. A process which, as several negotiators from the G77 group of less developed countries pointed out to me, favours more developed countries, who have the resources to change flights and the numbers to ensure that they are still represented at the table when Global South nations have had to go home.
Why are we still talking about mechanisms?
It’s sometimes easy to forget that the original Rio Earth Summit in 1992 was as much about creating a better and more equal world as it was about reducing global heating. And yet it always seems far easier for negotiators to talk about how we might do some things than actually commit to doing it. Someone who has not seen a ‘cover text’ (the overall document that sets out the upshot of the discussions) before would be shocked at how much is “noted” and “urged” and how little is done. One friend of mine who has been part of a national negotiating delegation from the first COP said to me “Why are we still talking about the mechanisms? When we started we expected to have clear processes and targets by now. But we seem to have been on a giant loop for the last 20 years“.
It’s hard not to disagree. After the vigorous efforts to ‘keep 1.5 alive’ in Glasgow, it’s difficult not to see the COP27 final cover text effectively as a step backwards. No ambition to phase out fossil fuels, just the importance of enhancing a “clean energy mix”. No commitment to 1.5, just a resolutions to “pursue further efforts” towards 1.5.
Big decisions have been kicked down the road
There has been criticism of the Egyptian presidency for not reflecting the view of many countries, that the absence of a specific reference to fossil fuels is a huge gap in the world’s statement of intent, if we are really going to get to grips with global heating. There was vigorous opposition to its insertion from several countries, including the Russian Federation and Saudi Arabia, who wanted to disconnect action on fossil fuels from the emissions they create. I understand one member of the Russian Federation suggested that fossil fuels, as energy, should be dealt with at an energy conference, whilst emissions alone should be discussed at COP. Decisions on carbon markets and bilateral corporation, under Article 6 of the Paris agreement, were kicked down the road until next year.
Alok Sharma MP, the COP26 president, expressed his frustration on all these points in his intervention at the final plenary, before the gavel came down on the final text to a smattering of weak applause. It was not, he said with British understatement, “a moment of unqualified celebration”.
But, despite the obvious flaws, despite some of the sharply suited teams from international organisations merrily chatting about what the hotels are like in the UAE (the site of COP28), in the face of glacially slow process (if only the actual glaciers were melting as slowly), there seems little will, appetite or ability to think of another process that could be more organised, more productive and less reliant on 48 hours of no sleep.
We’ve gone from graphs to proof in pictures
And, despite the rather anaemic final cover text, there are some positives from this conference. It is fair to say that developing country negotiators were delighted that loss and damage is now part of the overall process, and that the world has agreed there should be some form of fund or support for those most and first at risk of the effects of climate change, although most of the details are yet to be sorted out.
Despite the trade fair feeling of the country and organisation stands in pavilions that surround the main negotiating areas, there is now more awareness and acceptance of the need to change the way we live and do business.
But it may be that the most powerful argument in favour of reducing our impact on the planet is people’s experience of the increasingly bizarre, extreme and lethal weather we are seeing. Jay Inslee, governor of Washington State in the USA, said when he talked about climate change he used to have to show a graph. Now he showed pictures of forest fires in California.
And so, talks about talks start again next year and, before too long, the cavalcade will be pitching up in the UAE for further conversations. It’s better than nothing, but the decisions made this week at Sharm el Sheikh have not really changed the planetary trajectory towards unsustainable global heating. Whilst 1.5 is still just about alive, it’s probably heavily medicated and in intensive care. Roll on the next 48 hour blink fest.