The backdrop for the 27th United Nations Climate Conference was always going to be an odd one.
Sharm El-Sheikh is a beach resort town built by the Israelis during their occupation of the Sinai Peninsula in the 1970s, and dedicated pretty much to the hedonistic pursuits of European and Arab charter groups. Picture a faux Roman amphitheater, a Hollywood theme park and 10-lane highways through the desert. And then picture 30,000 climate actors, advocates and activists crowding into the Tonino Lamborghini International Convention Centre to tackle, without a hint of irony, the future of our consumption-based society.
From the get-go, COP27 had to be a kind of Truman Show of climate conferences—a conceit wrapped in a bubble, cloaked in a narrative at odds with reality outside. In the centre of that bubble, in a “blue zone” of temporary hangars that gave the feel of a military encampment, climate visitors tried their best to draw in the world and project their intentions back. The stakes were otherwise too high. But the odds of success were also daunting.
During a year of economic disruption, this was a critical chance to reconcile the growing tensions between energy security, climate security and economic security. Here are some of my takeaways of what was achieved and what was not.
1. The “Implementation COP” needs more implementers
COP26 in Glasgow was all about ambition, with nations committing to deeper emissions cuts by 2030 to ensure the world meets its Paris agreements. Sharm El-Sheikh was meant to be about implementation plans, and how countries can do what they say. Five G7 leaders came: France’s Emmanuel Macron, Germany’s Olaf Scholz, Italy’s Giorgia Meloni, Britain’s Rishi Sunak and America’s Joe Biden.
They each must have noticed a sign, “Act Now,” on their way into the main hall. The European Union upped its goals—remarkable given its energy crisis. So, too, did Indonesia. Canada noted the prevalence of climate action, from carbon capture projects in Alberta to green steel mills in Ontario and manure methane plants in Quebec.
Biden, in his keynote speech to COP27, recommitted the U.S. to its promise of cutting emissions by 50% from 2005 levels by 2030, a key part of his presidency. Businesses, too, came with greater commitments; there’s been a ten-fold increase in companies with science-based climate targets since 2019. But those implementers are still a minority. Among 196 countries, only 29 came to Egypt with revised action plans.
2. 1.5 may not be alive for long
A signal achievement from Glasgow was the endorsement of the 1.5-degrees-Celsius imperative–that is, all climate action needs to contribute to containing global warming to that threshold, after which catastrophic results accelerate. “Keep 1.5 alive” was the Glasgow mantra, as it’s the threshold at which, according to the UN climate scientists, we can say goodbye to coral reefs such as the ones off the beach at Sharm. To contain temperature increases, the world needs to cut emissions by roughly 50% this decade.
Instead, we saw emissions rise 1% last year (even more in the U.S.) and are on course for a 10% increase this decade.
A draft Sharm declaration maintained the rhetorical commitment to 1.5, but in the corridors there was a striking number of questions about the authenticity of such commitments, and whether the world should begin focusing on a more realistic ambition, such as “well below 2.0 degrees.”
3. Coal’s not dead
Glasgow declared a death knell for coal. What a difference a year makes. Germany is using more coal. China and India, too. But it’s not inevitable.
If COP27 can claim meaningful success, it might be through the curiously named JET Partnership, for a Just Energy Transition. The partnership of wealthy nations and financial institutions is designed to help developing countries wind down coal. JETP had its first partner in South Africa, and moved quickly at COP27 to sign on Indonesia, to help it reach peak power sector emissions by 2030 and get to Net Zero by 2050. Vietnam may be next.
The costs are enormous, and raise concerns about burdening poorer countries with more debt–and likely seeing them shift from coal to natural gas, which still warms the planet.
But the effort also misses the elephants in the room. China consumes 50% of the world’s thermal coal; India close to 20%. Neither is moving quickly away from it.
In fact, India sidetracked the COP discussions with a provocative challenge of its own, to cancel coal when the rest of the world agrees to cancel oil and gas. There weren’t many takers. African nations were among the most vocal at COP27 for an enhanced role for gas, which they see as an essential energy source as they transition away from coal and wood.
4. The oil COP?
Sharm El-Sheikh proved to be a good summit for the oil industry. For proof, you only needed to look out your window on the drive in from the airport. A 10-lane road, financed by the Saudis and named for King Salman, took COP-goers past another striking display of Saudi swagger.
The green-lit, twin-dome Saudi Innovation Park, built in a patch of desert next to the main conference centre, was an early indication of how the oil world, led by OPEC, has shifted to its front foot.
UN Secretary General António Guterres kicked off COP with a provocative metaphor—“a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator”—that captured the point, but his PR machine met its match on the test track. The Saudis, who share the Red Sea with Egypt, vowed to increase oil production and intend to produce oil past 2100. The United Arab Emirates, who will host COP28 in Dubai, described the region as “superheroes.”
The Arabs argue they will develop carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies that will bring their net emissions to zero. Indeed, the Saudis plan to open the world’s biggest CCS facility by 2027. Environmentalists have fought to marginalize so-called abatement technologies, to ensure they don’t facilitate more fossil fuel production. Expect that debate—reduction versus abatement—to define the Dubai COP.
5. A loss for developing countries; damage for the UN
If host Egypt had one ambition for COP27, it was to win global support for “loss and damages”—a popular term that essentially translates as compensation for countries hardest hit by climate change and least able to pay for it.
Pakistan was a poster child for Egypt’s campaign; the diplomatically savvy South Asian country used pretty much its entire COP presence to advocate for a mechanism to compensate it for some of the estimated US$30 billion in damages it has suffered from this year’s floods caused by global warming and early snowmelt.
Sadly, the Egyptians didn’t think through the levels of concern from the wealthy countries they hoped would pay. The U.S. has a deep allergy to anything in the UN that hints at reparations, not least because of legal fears (never underestimate the influence of government lawyers) over unlimited liabilities. A draft agreement recognized Egypt’s concern, but offered only pennies to the dollars that developing countries were pushing for.
6. America’s back. China’s not
A striking feature of COP27: America’s climate ambitions. Fresh from midterm elections that kept the Senate in Democrat hands, Joe Biden landed in Sharm El-Sheikh en route to the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, to promote his Inflation Reduction Act and the US$370 billion it will allocate to climate.
His administration has a tech-forward approach, betting on five key technologies: batteries, heating and cooling systems, electricity grids, aviation fuel and de-carbonization of the chemical, steel and cement industries. It’s clear the U.S. is going to use more carrots than sticks to get to its 50% emissions cut and assert itself globally as a clean-tech superpower.
A few years ago, China wanted that mantle. Today, it’s a diminished power as the Xi regime struggles with a hostile relationship with Washington, rapidly aging demographics and COVID lockdowns. China has not abandoned its green ambitions as it’s still one of the world’s leading developers of wind and solar power, and electric vehicles. But Beijing’s no longer the climate champion it was during the years of US President Donald Trump, nor is it a leader of nations. The rest of the world may be more dependent on the U.S. than ever. For better and worse.
7. #WTF: Where’s the finance?
There are not a lot of economists at a COP, which is too bad, because economics drive political action. No more so than when money’s getting tight. The sharp rise in interest rates this year is quietly becoming a drag on climate policies, especially in developing countries.
Few appreciate this more than Mark Carney, the former central banker who helped launch the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero at COP26. Carney’s alliance now consists of 550 financial institutions in 50 countries, representing trillions of dollars in assets. It’s a grand coalition with a grand promise to mobilize capital for Net Zero—and it’s leading to a grand array of criticisms.
Carney came under fire at COP27 for overpromising and under-delivering; for most developing countries, the capital hasn’t arrived. The concern even fuelled a COP-meme, #WTF, as in “where’s the finance?” One reason is a lack of sufficiently large projects.
Egypt tried to bend that curve at this COP, announcing a massive renewables project. Carney believes the world needs US$1 trillion a year of projects like that to quadruple the ratio of renewable energy to non-renewable investments to 4:1. The capital is there. But a challenge lies in the U.S. Federal Reserve’s aggressive campaign against inflation, which has jacked up U.S. interest rates and attracted a lot of capital to, well, the U.S.
8. Agriculture, the new climate champion
Believe it or not, this was the first COP where agriculture took centre stage. Pretty surprising when you realize the food supply system accounts for roughly a quarter of global emissions.
The UN, and many of its members, have shied away from tackling agriculture as they don’t want to alienate farmers, who are central to global development. But increasingly, agriculture is viewed as a climate solution—perhaps even a net positive to the world if farmers can turn their soil into profitable carbon sinks. With a newfound spirit of ag innovation, the conference devoted a day to agriculture, and the “blue zone” of pavilions had plenty on display from every continent.
More sustainable fertilizer practices and lower emitting fertilizers will be key. So, too, will new technologies like anaerobic digesters that turn animal emissions into energy. China, which accounts for 20% of the world’s methane, needs to be a leader on that front.
But the most contentious opportunity may be regenerative agriculture—a series of practices like cover cropping and no-till farming that ensure soils capture and sequester greenhouse gases. The U.S. is racing ahead with voluntary markets that will allow companies and investors to pay farmers for harnessing their soil in return for carbon credits. Other countries are more cautious, knowing soil science isn’t quite advanced enough to prove how much has been captured or stored.
9. Hello, atmosphere. The ocean’s calling. Rainforests, too
This was also the first COP where oceans got a serious look. That’s appropriate as Sharm El-Sheikh is not just a desert town; it sits next to some of the Red Sea’s finest coral reefs, which face extinction if more progress isn’t made.
I sat in on a session with Prince Albert of Monaco, Sylvia Earle, the great oceans champion, and Johan Rockström, a pre-eminent climate scientist with the Potsdam Institute for Climate Research. Rockström explained what rising temperatures are doing to the world, and to oceans.
The Arctic is already 2C degrees warmer, which is not only leading to ice shelves disappearing into the sea; it’s disrupting air currents and leading to heat waves like the one that engulfed Western Canada in 2021.
Some 93% of that excess heat is absorbed by oceans in a massive energy transfer that’s changing life deep below the surface. Global ocean heat was at a record high in 2021. Cue the storm surges. This kind of interplay between oceans, land and air has been appreciated by scientists for centuries but lost a bit of its imperative in recent years. That’s changing, as biodiversity and climate are again seen as two sides of the same coin.
It will be a central theme of the UN Biodiversity Conference in Montreal in December, and got a big endorsement in the final days of COP27 from the incoming Brazilian president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Lula, as he is universally known, got a bigger cheer than Biden, pledging to renew the fight to save the Amazon. It won’t be easy, not when an anxious world is looking for economic growth more than natural growth. But Lula’s message on biodiversity was clear: “There is no climate security for the world without a protected Amazon.”
10. Whose COP is it anyway?
This was the first COP in memory where Canada had a national pavilion. It wasn’t techie like India’s pavilion next door, or bold like America’s. But it did, in that Canadian way, stand out as inclusive. With a design that felt a bit like an upscale donut shop (there was even free coffee), the venue gave voice to more views and experiences than perhaps any other I saw.
Activists, Indigenous leaders, corporate executives, mayors, entrepreneurs, investors—it was Canada in full. And in a way that’s an enduring challenge for COP. This one, in Egypt, adhered to the strict laws and security standards that barred any serious form of protest. Even Greta Thunberg, the young environmental activist, didn’t see the point in being there. Across a major road, a Green Zone was set up for community groups and activists, and was actually more interesting and enjoyable than the conference halls. But even there, one didn’t get the impression the world was on edge.
COP benefits from a diversity of voices, which has grown over the years. Only the most arrogant or naïve delegates believe they have a clear answer to the world’s challenges, and only they would not welcome differing views.
As the world adds Sharm El-Sheikh to a long and growing list of COP hosts, and turns its mind to Dubai, that curiosity will be needed more than ever. It may just be Canada’s best contribution to COP28, and beyond.
John Stackhouse is senior vice-president in the Office of the CEO at Royal Bank of Canada, leading the organization’s research and thought leadership on economic, technological and social change. Previously, he was editor-in-chief of the Globe and Mail and editor of Report on Business. He is a senior fellow at the C.D. Howe Institute and the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy and sits on the boards of Queen’s University, the Aga Khan Foundation of Canada and the Literary Review of Canada.
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