27th November 2022

COP27: Where do we go from here?

After another weak COP summit, how can our leaders do more to ensure that we prevent disaster?
COP27: Where do we go from here?
Photo: Rory Arnold @ Flickr

After the events of another COP climate summit, this year in Egypt, a number of questions must be raised as to how truly effective this conference is at solving the problems posed by climate change. Whilst it is a key forum for proposing collective action and enabling developing nations to voice concerns, the lack of state action regarding previous agreements suggests this may be a renegotiation of our demise rather than a true search for solutions. In the face of the climate crisis, states must revolutionise how they think and behave. A more powerful international process is likely required to achieve this.

The current geological period is defined by many as the Anthropocene, in which human actions like carbon emissions and deforestation defines the conditions of the earth. As rates of species extinction are between a hundred and a thousand times regular levels and the proximity to a mass extinction event is growing, traditional forms of political thought are becoming impossible. Counteracting the Anthropocene calls for the radical overhaul of societal values, economic systems, and governmental approaches. When directly aiming to counter the climate impacts of the Anthropocene, COP must take these approaches on board.

Yet even in this context, state leaders continue to pursue self-interest at all levels of policymaking. We only have to look to Russia’s undermining of grain exports and weaponization of energy production during an expansionist war, or the fallout of Brexit culminating in ever-increasingly hostile approaches, namely Braverman’s dubbing of immigration as an “invasion”. Day-to-day international affairs continually damage cooperation, with even supranational organisations like the UN failing to prevent irrationality. If the climate crisis requires such drastic measures of cooperation, organisations at an international level need to be stronger in order to improve attitudes.

To look at COP in itself, there remains a failure to be as powerful as is required to incite change. The 2015 Paris agreement was supposed to be a landmark step towards combatting climate change, with commitments to lessening temperatures to below 2°C, avoiding the worst tipping points of a climate catastrophe. However, Trump’s withdrawal of the US from this agreement proves that its impact may be futile, as malleable implementation fails to enforce collective action. Despite Biden having re-joined this agreement, the ability of states to pass in and out so easily is dangerously weak.

The formation of agreements in itself is often an impossibility, with a fear of utter failure continuing right up to the final days of negotiations at almost every conference. Even the UK, who hosted COP26 last year, have failed to realise their rhetoric: plans for the West Cumbrian coal mine remain in existence, and blatant hostility towards climate change measures was a hallmark of the Truss Government. Without taking a stronger, more homogenous approach to this multitude of crises, COP will fail to achieve even a fraction of its intent.

At COP27, we saw these same failures stronger than ever. Concerns surrounding the welfare of activist Alaa ab del-Fattah were a worrying distraction from negotiation. What’s more, former Prime Minister Boris Johnson flew himself out, fostering his own populist cause as an attempt to undermine Sunak. This was both state-level politicking at its worst, distracting from the key issues at hand, yet also served to highlight Sunak’s failures to take climate change seriously. Days of deadlock and midnight negotiations resulted in a lacklustre outcome, a symbol of just how unproductive this conference can be.

The final agreement barely hung on to key commitments surrounding fossil fuels and failed even to definitively uphold the commitment to 1.5c. Loss and damage – a system of payments to improve and repair the infrastructure of developing economies in the face of climate catastrophe – is seen as a historic milestone, yet has no framework for implementation and must be cast in doubt as previous fiscal commitments for the climate fund have failed to materialise.  This conference has been an expensive, time-consuming method of kicking the can, with even its major agreements having very little real impact.

We must go beyond the weakness of COP as a conference to question whether even the intentions are appropriate for the Anthropocene. It has only aimed to limit carbon emissions to a certain level, not to restructure the processes of industry and profit that power pollution. Pledges to developing economies are not only lacklustre, but see throwing money at a problem as the solution to a flawed and heavily imbalanced global economy, damaged far beyond what funding can repair. The malleable nature of conference commitments prevents any kind of reform from being taken seriously and reduces the image of climate change to merely another piece on the political agenda.

Solutions, therefore, must be more radical. A new economic status quo is imperative to replace the failures of neoliberalism, diverting from a tactless growth-focused carbon economy to facilitating selfless cooperation. Social reform must also be enacted to educate on the realities of climate change – for example in NGOs like Greenpeace – as only by mass acceptance and understanding of this dire situation can we incite real change. The capitalist drive for ever-increasing income and efficiency with no regard for outside concern has pushed us to the brink of no return, and it is time to rethink our entire notion of progress if we are even to survive. To profit and die or to change and survive is the decision of world leaders now.  It may seem like a huge leap to take, but it is a necessary one.

The achievements of COP have done much to improve the discourse surrounding climate change, enabling more marginal perspectives and ideas to come to the fore. Yet, this system is too weak to impose the agreements formed under its jurisdiction and fails fundamentally to provide an arena for real change. The agreements of COP must be a stronger force in modernising the discourse surrounding climate change, not a tool for filling a political quota, but a real drive for hope.

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