(Bloomberg) -- Diplomats from rich and poor countries, observers from nonprofits and activists meeting in Egypt for the UN-sponsored climate talks are finding themselves in the unusual position of agreeing on something: This is chaos. There is collective exasperation among attendees at the COP27 summit over the status of talks essential to advance humanity’s fight against climate change as the summit nears the end.
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Delegates in the Egyptian town of Sharm El-Sheikh woke up on Thursday, just a day before the official close of the meeting, to a 20-page document gathering a wide variety of proposals for the “cover decision,” the political statement outlining the goals and commitments that all climate negotiating parties are supposed to agree upon.
The presidency’s document confused delegations and was mistaken as a draft of the final declaration until Egyptian officials clarified it was just a collection of ideas. Still, the document came out late in the process, lacked key demands by some countries and included statements that outraged others, several delegates and observers told Bloomberg.
“This will be quite a long and difficult journey — I’m not sure where these talks will land,” the European Commission’s climate chief Frans Timmermans told journalists in Sharm El-Sheikh on Thursday. “If this COP fails we all lose, we have absolutely no time to lose.”
Broad statements ratified by the almost 200 nations that make up the annual Conference of Parties climate meeting serve as the basis for climate action globally. In 2015 countries signed the Paris Agreement, pledging to cut greenhouse gas emissions in order to keep global warming below 2C or close to 1.5C by the end of the century, from pre-industrial times. The COP27 Egyptian presidency wasn’t aiming for an ambitious cover text and focused instead on the “implementation” of existing agreements — but very little progress happened there too.
“It has been good to have the first days as days of implementation,” Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, former environment minister of Peru and president of COP20 in Lima, said during a speech on the sidelines of COP27. “These last two days are to take decisions — this COP has to deliver and we are not seeing that yet.”
Across the conference, frustration with the Egyptian presidency built up following a slow first week marred with fears of state surveillance and difficulties to get food, water and accommodation. While informal negotiations on the key issue of loss and damage began before the summit, other talks did not formally kick off until earlier this week, with the presidency appointing pairs of ministers to negotiate key items much later than usual.
COP27 President and Egyptian Foreign Affairs Minister Sameh Shoukry has been notably absent from the process both publicly in press briefings and behind closed doors in meetings with ministers and delegations. Several delegates questioned Shoukry’s hands-off approach, as well as the Egyptian presidency’s lack of direction and preparation ahead of the gathering.
In a meeting with Shoukry on Thursday, COP26 President Alok Sharma, Timmermans and Canada’s Minister for the Environment and Climate Change Steven Guilbeault emphasized the need to make sure the outcome from COP27 is ambitious, according to a senior country official.
“Whatever circulation you might have seen is still a work in progress and I don’t think one should jump to any conclusions,” Shoukry told the Bloomberg New Economy Forum by video link on Thursday morning. “We are still in a phase of deliberations to see how best to provide a cover decision that responds to the interests of parties and doesn’t provide any form of backtracking or relinquishing of any previous commitments.”
To be sure, individual negotiating countries bear responsibility too, veteran COP observers said.
“Clearly, waiting late in the game to get going on the cover text and engaging ministers was the presidency’s decision,” said Alden Meyer, a senior associate of E3G. “But part of it is the games that are being played by other countries — both developed and developing countries — in this process to take negotiating hostages and hold their cards until the very last minute.”
Inside the COP27 main hall, where country delegates met on Thursday morning in the presence of observers, more anger brewed. Videos on social media showed hundreds of people standing up and clapping at the end of the plenary session — usually just a technical update on negotiations — as they chanted “Free Alaa, free them all,” in reference to prominent activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah and the thousands of political prisoners languishing in Egyptian jails without proper trial.
In the past, large marches across the host cities were a COP fixture, with thousands of activists making it a lively affair. This year, no large march outside the conference's premises has taken place. Some activists have reported long waiting times to get Egyptian authorities' authorization to protest, last-minute approvals that made planning impossible, requests to report which slogans would be chanted beforehand and limits on how long protests could last and how many people could attend.
Given current restrictions to protests in Egypt, and as a way to express solidarity with Egyptian activists, most civil society organizations chose to limit their actions to the Blue Zone, the space within the conference administered by the United Nations. On Thursday, hundreds of climate activists staged a sit-in in the Blue Zone and, in the largest demonstration seen at COP27 so far, called for climate justice and climate reparations.
The presidency’s text, a version of which is expected to be turned into an official statement some time this week, lacked any references to phasing down oil and gas in addition to coal, a step that would be seen as meaningful progress over last year’s agreement in Glasgow to phase down unabated coal power. The push led by India had received backing from the EU, the UK, and the US — as reported by Bloomberg News.
Developing nations advocating for a compensation mechanism for the impacts of climate-fueled extreme weather events — known as loss and damage — fumed at the lack of references to a fund, a facility or a mechanism in the text.
“We were promised an implementation COP that would address developing countries’ needs,” said Sherry Rehman, the minister for climate change in Pakistan, which is the chair of the G77 group of developing nations. “Climate justice delay will be climate justice denial."
Another section of the document circulated Thursday morning suggested that poor nations can only cut emissions with contributions from the developed world. E3G’s Meyer said those nations need support for decarbonization at the rate that science demands, but making mitigation contingent on funding is not consistent with the Paris accord and only “inflames passions.”
Perhaps one of the strangest references in the text was a line asking that rich nations dramatically decarbonize this decade and “attain net-negative carbon emissions by 2030” — language that blindsided developed countries.
“It’s always good to call on developed nations to accelerate,” Timmermans said. “But let’s stay real, come on.”
(Updates with more details on protests at COP27, adds photos)
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