The UN held its 27th annual climate change conference last November in Egypt, a land where the earth, water and sky were once protected by the citizens with help from ancient gods. The 195 nations involved in official negotiations, with a push from over 45,000 participants (according to the UN), took at least a baby step back toward that future.
Experts and activists called for getting back in tune with nature and shifting to clean energy, to yield healthy food and better living. “Keep 1.5 alive!” pleaded speakers at some of the many sessions during two weeks in the city of Sharm el-Sheikh. That means limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels.
This is a legally binding international treaty on climate change adopted by 196 Parties, mostly governments of the world, in 2015 at the Conference of the Parties #21 in Paris. Results have been mixed. One speaker estimated that the world will surpass 1.5 in 10 years.
Lack of Enforcement
The missing link is lack of enforcement. No mechanism can force countries to live up to their promises. That’s where citizens of the world come in. In essence, only you can prevent global burning. You may have noticed the pressures that keep the Wisconsin and U.S. governments from doing enough to halt climate change. We humans have the technology and the money to do the job, but it requires serious political will and some lifestyle changes.
The most notable achievement of COP27 was the agreement to establish a new “loss and damage” fund for those countries most affected by environmental disasters. The U.S. urged a deliberative process on this new effort but the countries suffering losses every day, like ocean nations losing islands to rising tides, wanted to jump start the process at COP27. It is a step in the right direction, but will it offer enough to enable less-wealthy countries to protect themselves from climate change or even have the necessary means to remedy the damage caused?
The conference occupied about as much space as the Wisconsin State Fairgrounds, but without the fun food. Many governments, companies and groups had booths with displays, speaker programs and glossy brochures. I visited several, including the Ukraine booth, where they described plans to build back greener after the war.
The good thing is that Indigenous peoples, all kinds of communities, civil society organizations (CSOs) and others showcased their worthy projects addressing climate change. They networked and planned in caucus meetings. The problem is, so far it’s not enough, as global emissions and temperatures rise.
Many heads of state, including President Biden, spoke at COP27. “We see our mission to avert climate catastrophe and seize a new clean energy economy,” he said, noting that “the past eight years have been the warmest on record.” Biden talked up the Inflation Reduction Act passed last summer as the “biggest, most important climate bill in the history of our country.” It includes: “$368 billion to support clean electricity, everything from offshore wind to distributed solar, zero-emission vehicles, and sustainable aviation fuels; more efficient electrified buildings; cleaner industrial processes and manufacturing; climate-smart agriculture and forestry; and more [which] puts the United States on track to achieve our Paris Agreement goal of reducing emissions 50 to 52 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.”
The U.S. sent a strong negotiating delegation, headed by former Secretary of State John Kerry. I heard him speak twice and was impressed by description of U.S. efforts protecting the oceans and financing good projects around the world. For example, he talked about zero-carbon cargo ships under construction. The Biden administration does have a good list of accomplishments and plans, many of which get little public notice.
Fossil Fuel Lobby
On the other hand, a speaker at one workshop complained that Biden’s bill gave away too much to the coal and oil industries. It was reported that over 600 fossil fuel lobbyists attended COP27 and, indeed, the final declaration avoided specific criticism of these corporations. Speaking more generally, one speaker declared that “this is the 27th failed opportunity to solve the climate crisis.”
“To solve” is a high bar but I heard some encouraging words about programs that I hadn’t noticed before. At the big corporation level, the 12 largest oil companies have started a venture capital fund for environmental start-up companies, including food. Oil giant Shell has helped Brazil establish a network of electric vehicle charging stations, preventing 320 tons of carbon dioxide. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has donated $10 million for environmental projects, as described by the CSO managing this largesse.
On a smaller scale, new programs are fiddling with food and plants. Food waste contributes about 8% of greenhouse gases, so a program in Brazil is working on this with school lunches. Cows are a significant contributor to global warming, but venture capitalists are putting money into better alternative protein. Plant-based materials can replace some fossil fuel-based plastics with 80% less CO2 produced.
Exhortations to do more and faster —to avoid disaster—rang out in every presentation. One speaker said that, on our present course, “We are now trying to make ourselves extinct.” So many good ideas but such impending doom. Are humans up to the challenge?
Steve Watrous represented the United Nations Association of the USA at COP27; he is president of the Milwaukee chapter of this citizen organization.