The first United Nations climate conference I covered was the 2009 COP15 dud in Copenhagen. Since then, I have worked the conference mob scenes in Paris, Madrid and, earlier this month, Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. They were duds, too, in the sense that none ended with formal agreements to reduce fossil-fuel use – the only metric that matters as average global temperatures rise to dangerous levels.
The annual COPs have turned into chaotic, bloated carnivals where, in their final desperate hours (most of them go into overtime) the distraught host-country presidency produces a face-saving agreement that allows it to declare a victory of some sort – or at least deflect some of the criticism that the outcome was a total failure. Even a breakthrough that barely fits the definition is billed as a win, since these events operate by consensus; any one of the nearly 200 countries in the room can kill the whole show.
So it was at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheik, the string of gated-community resorts on the southern tip of Egypt’s Sinai desert. Instead of a realistic plan to phase down all fossil fuels, not just coal, the event ended with a vague commitment to launch a “loss and damage” fund. If this concept borne of rich-country guilt comes to life – big if – it would help pay for the damages inflicted in poor countries by catastrophic climate events.
I suspect accounting fudges might allow the fund to be launched officially at next year’s COP28 in Dubai. The temptation to finance it by diverting money from other climate funds, such as the prominent adaptation and mitigation fund, may prove tempting for some wealthy countries. That fund’s goal was to come up with US$100-billion a year, but it has always come up short.
And that’s the problem: these COPs (for Conference of the Parties) always come up short by almost every measure, from financing to emissions reductions. The Sharm el-Sheik event was no exception. It set some new lows that will be hard to beat.
To begin with, there was nothing environmentally sustainable about the conference itself, which was held in a village composed of enormous pop-up pavilions that were chilled to numbing temperatures by noisy, industrial air conditioners. The pavilions were routinely short of food and fresh water. For the vast majority of the 35,000 attendees, the only way to arrive was by airplane.
The conference was sponsored by Coca-Cola, one of the world’s biggest plastic polluters. About 600 oil and gas lobbyists prowled the halls. Their mission was not to see their industry go out of business. It was to keep the fossil-fuel era alive, a fairly easy challenge as the energy crisis sends many countries in Europe and elsewhere scrambling for new supplies of hydrocarbons even as they decry global warming.
And never mind that Egypt is a dictatorship that has no tolerance for most types of public dissent, including environmental protests, and whose prisons contain an estimated 60,000 political detainees.
The COPs started out as a good idea. They were the result of the launch in 1992 of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the goal of which was to prevent global warming from triggering an existential crisis for the planet. The first COP was held in Berlin in 1995.
Since then, these events have expanded to the point that the actual negotiators seem like sideshows to the annual gabfest populated by tens of thousands of extras in the form of oil- and gas-industry shills, environmental groups, journalists, political hacks and fixers, PR men and women, assorted observers and government leaders, most of whom use fleeting photo-op appearances in an attempt to show they care about the environment (Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was a no-show in Sharm el-Skeikh but will surely show up at next month’s COP15 Biodiversity Conference in Montreal).
The whole idea of city-size COPs has become ridiculous, all the more so since their accomplishments are meagre to non-existent: emissions keep rising and are set to reach record levels in 2022. Their time has come. But what to replace them with?
At minimum, they should be slimmed down to their core pursuits, including negotiating emissions reductions, protecting carbon sinks such as the Amazon and Congo forests, and finding ways to help poor countries adapt to a problem not of their doing. This does not need a cast of thousands. It needs small, dedicated groups of negotiators who know their files and have direct access to their country’s environment and industry ministers. Call them mini-COPs
Here, potentially, is an even better idea. Why have COPs of any size at all? Why not replace them with specialized teams who would quietly negotiate all the time, not just at big events once a year, where they come under extreme pressure to announce anything.
A team responsible for the reduction of, say, methane (which is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide in trapping heat in atmosphere) would be composed of negotiators from a broad variety of countries working under the UNFCCC umbrella. They would work for as long as it takes to get the job done. A small summit devoid of human clutter could be used to push any deal over the finish line.
Today’s carnivalesque events have proven expensive, climate unfriendly, chaotic, stressful – and largely useless. The results speak for themselves. Time to kill them off.