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‘Cooperate or Perish’: Showdown in Sharm El Sheikh

Updated: Jul 4, 2023

Matt Gillett previews this week’s crucial climate summit in Egypt. 

Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, the host for COP27. Photo credit: Juanma Clemente-Alloza

After the high-stakes, high-drama climate bonanza known as COP26 swept through Glasgow last November, this year’s Conference of the Parties, taking place over two weeks this November in the scenic Egyptian beach resort of Sharm El Sheikh, was meant to be a more routine, rather lower-key affair. However, amidst a maelstrom of global crises from war to food shortages to extreme weather events, and this year’s host having already stirred up a dizzying amount of controversy, from greenwashing sponsorship deals to allegations of widespread human rights violations, COP27 has the potential to be another dramatic international encounter, and yet another twist in the tumultuous tale of climate change mitigation.

What is COP?

The Conference of the Parties (COP) is an annual meeting of 196 ‘parties’ (countries, as well as organisations such as the EU) to establish and enforce global climate change mitigation policy. It was set up in 1995 to ensure countries kept to their commitments agreed at the Rio Summit in 1992 – a groundbreaking meeting where the first substantive climate agreement had been signed (the Climate Change Convention) – and to create further goals once these commitments had been reached. Each year a different country hosts the summit, with responsibility for planning and running the event and helping to set the agenda. It is attended by tens of thousands of people, from world leaders to business executives, the media, activists and lobbyists. These conferences have been the source of some fantastic drama and often chaotic scenes, but also much of the progress on fighting climate change, from the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 to the Paris Agreement in 2015 (do read this brilliant article for an exhilarating history of COP in more depth). These summits are a rare and invaluable chance to get world leaders and decision makers around a (very big) table and make them talk to each other about climate change, and are only going to be more vital in the future as the crisis intensifies.

A climate protest in Bonn, Germany, 2019. The Paris Agreement committed the nations of the world to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees C. Image credit: Mika Baumeister

What happened at COP26?

COP26 was held in Glasgow, Scotland in November 2021. It was the first major policy-making summit held since COP21 in Paris in 2015. That conference had produced the Paris Agreement, which committed countries to a ‘ratchet mechanism’, wherein every 5 years countries would agree to increasingly stringent climate change mitigation measures. COP26 served both to check on progress made since Paris, and an opportunity to secure further agreements on the agenda. 

The key outcome was the Glasgow Climate Pact. Although a promise to ‘phase-out’ coal was replaced at the last minute by the seemingly-identical-but-actually-completely-totally-different phrase ‘phase-down’ due to a dramatic intervention by coal-dependent countries including India and China, the Pact was nonetheless the first climate agreement to feature an explicit commitment to reduce the usage of coal. It also included agreements to provide climate finance to poor countries, which could otherwise not afford to transition away from fossil fuels, nor survive the devastating impacts of climate changes on their people. 

Finally, and most relevant to this year’s summit, a pledge was agreed to revisit emission reduction plans in 2022, in order to try to keep countries to the targets set in the Paris Agreement, in particular the target to keep the rise in global temperature levels to 1.5°C.

A protest during COP26 in Glasgow, November 2021. Image credit: William Gibson

What’s on the agenda this year?

COP27 was intended to be a lower-key affair, checking on the progress of targets and commitments set at Paris and Glasgow. But after the chaotic, publicly bungled end to Glasgow and continued procrastination on a range of key issues, Sharm El Sheikh looks set to be an unusually high-profile and important event.

Of particular interest to both climate activists and developing countries is the notion of climate ‘reparations’ – where those states most severely impacted by climate change are compensated for damage caused by rising sea levels, natural disasters and other effects of the climate crisis. This was meant to be a central outcome of COP26 last year but, in what has already become a running theme, negotiators put the issue on the backburner, delaying it for a year. Now, after a series of devastating crises over the past year – massive flooding in Pakistan, deadly heatwaves across Europe, hurricanes wreaking destruction through the United States – it’s hoped that the big players will finally be spurred into action and set up a mechanism for climate reparations. How this will work and who will pay for it will be the big questions for world leaders and the negotiators in Egypt.

The key focus for COP27, however, is the provision in the Glasgow Pact that countries should strengthen their climate mitigation targets by the end of 2022, transforming the summit from a regular health check-up to major invasive surgery as countries desperately scramble to set new (and achievable) targets to limit global temperature increases to 1.5°C. Once again, how many countries will address this issue, and how far they will go, is unclear, and sets the scene for a major showdown between countries at the summit.

Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. Photo credit: Irina Nakonechnaya

What are the chances of success?

At the time of writing, at the start of the summit, things aren’t looking promising. Only 24 countries have so far announced new or updated climate mitigation targets. Neither this year’s host, Egypt, nor last year’s, Britain, have issued revised targets. Despite the ‘polycrisis’ the world finds itself in, rather than pushing climate mitigation to the forefront, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the cost of living crisis, the energy crisis, food shortages, economic recession and social unrest have instead drowned out the climate crisis. The global situation is being used variably as either a cynical excuse or a legitimate cause of countries’ inaction on the climate, and an unwillingness to commit significant resources or effort to a cause that is increasingly sliding down the to-do lists of world leaders, even as the crisis grows ever more urgent. 

Whilst a number of world leaders are attending, a significant proportion are choosing to stay away – only around 90 heads of government will be in Sharm El Sheikh out of 190 states, meaning at least half of all countries won’t be sending their leader to the summit. New British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who forced King Charles to stay at home, had initially planned to skip the conference, before a massive backlash forced a rare u-turn. Yet his initially dismissive attitude betrays a wider perception of climate change among many world leaders as a political inconvenience. Without the attendance and full commitment of decision makers and leaders, COP27 will be hamstrung from the beginning. A key reason for the relative success of Paris in 2015 was the high-profile attendance of US President Barack Obama, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and other key world leaders, without which a deal would have been improbable. 

Fading momentum and absent leaders aren’t the only causes of concern. Egypt’s hosting of the conference has already been engulfed in a range of controversies. The sponsorship of the summit by major polluting corporations, most notably Coca-Cola, has led to accusations of greenwashing – companies using their association with climate change mitigation to cover-up their involvement in causing climate change in the first place. Coca-Cola has long been one of the leading contributors to plastic pollution globally, and their financial contribution to the summit has made many activists uncomfortable, seeing it as tacit endorsement or acceptance of Coca-Cola’s policies by the UN and other participants. 

The choice of Egypt as host has in itself been the subject of huge and persistent controversy, with allegations of human rights abuses and mismanagement. The Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who came to power in a military coup in 2013, has long been accused of human rights abuses in his country. Often characterised as a dictator running an authoritarian regime, these abuses include restrictions on LGBT rights, curbs on civil liberties, mass arrests of dissidents, and voter repression. Whilst the Egyptian government’s behaviour generally is morally reprehensible, its authoritarian instincts have had more specific impacts on COP, as the government has jailed climate activists and shut down environmental groups, and has repeatedly failed to take action on climate change. Therefore the Egyptian government has neither the moral standing nor the geopolitical weight to run a major climate summit effectively, as it is plagued by accusations of hypocrisy and is too toxic to marshall the nations of the world to action. 

With the general sense of global economic, social and political crisis lingering in the background, along with the controversy engulfing the host, it’s easy to feel an overwhelming feeling of pessimism as COP27 gets underway. After the disappointment and frustration of previous summits, and bad omens looming over the current one, it’s difficult to get hopes up. Yet, if world leaders and other stakeholders manage to put the interests of the nations of the world and the environment over their own narrow self-interest and domestic dramas, COP27 does present an opportunity to make real, substantive progress on a range of issues directly affecting people and the planet today, from reparations to finance to temperature targets. Even at this stage, despite the portents, the die has yet to be fully cast.

About the Author: Matt Gillett is the Political Editor of WILD Magazine. He has recently graduated from the University of York with a degree in History and Politics.

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