COP 27: Hope and controversy

The twenty-seventh United Nations Climate Change Conference, more commonly known as COP 27, begins this Sunday. Representatives from countries, businesses and NGOs will meet and discuss international environmental strategy in Sharm El Sheikh for two weeks with the aim of addressing the world’s biggest environmental problems. However, a growing number of controversies and a history of limited success raises an important question: can COP 27 live up to its promise of preventing climate disaster?

A Brief History of Limited Success

In 1992, the need for international action on environmental issues had become clear. The United Nations hosted the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), more commonly known as the Earth Summit, with the aim of organising international co-operation on environmental issues. At this conference, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was adopted. This international treaty targets dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system’, aiming to take effective action against climate change. Amongst other things, it established that representatives from the parties would meet annually to discuss international strategies for implementing the framework. At the time, 154 states signed this treaty but since then 43 states and 1 regional economic integration organization have signed, bringing the total number of parties to 198.

Carbon Emissions – Unsplash: Chris LeBoutillier

The first COP occurred in Berlin in 1995 as the parties met to discuss the implementation of the UNFCCC. It became clear that curbing greenhouse gas emissions would be the conference’s largest and most difficult task. Rising global temperatures pose perhaps the biggest threat to the planet but a reduction in emissions is seen as economically challenging. After some delay, this goal saw some success in 1997 at COP 3 when the Kyoto Protocol established international targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Targets varied from country to country, acknowledging the different capabilities and historic responsibilities of countries. More developed countries, who are responsible for a higher percentage of carbon emissions and better situated to reduce their emissions, are expected to cut their emissions by a higher percentage than developing nations. The protocol could not be brought into effect until 2005 when Russia and Canada ratified the treaty. However, even with the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, global emissions continued to increase, lending credence to the criticism that it is ineffectual.

Finally, in 2015, some of the Kyoto Protocol’s shortcomings were addressed with the Paris Agreement. As the first legally binding global treaty on climate change, the Paris Agreement occupies an important place in history. It obliges members to keep global warming to under two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels with promises to reduce carbon emissions as soon as possible. While this treaty has also been criticised for not going far enough to address climate change, it is still a notable achievement. In fact, earlier this year the supreme court of Brazil declared the Paris Agreement a human rights treaty which means, within Brazil, it takes precedence over national law. This theoretically means that Brazil cannot pass a law if it conflicts with the Paris Agreement, potentially a very impactful outcome of the agreement.

Current Controversies

The UK has had a succession of controversies in the run up to COP 27. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak originally planned not to attend the conference, claiming that it was necessary to focus on domestic concerns. This decision elicited criticism from a range of organisations and individuals including British MPs, climate campaigners and the Egyptian government. Failing to attend the conference was seen by many as an indication that the UK would not be prioritising action against climate change. In fact, MP Caroline Lucas described it as ‘an embarrassing mis-step on the world stage’. Mr Sunak has since changed his mind and will now be attending the conference.

Downing Street – Unsplash: Jordhan Madec

Broader issues surrounding the intersection between human rights and the climate crisis have been raised by the choice to host the conference in Egypt this year. In 2021, Amnesty International ranked Egypt as the third worst country for known executions. Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch has criticised Egypt for, amongst other things, imprisoning journalists, carrying out torture and war crimes. They believe the history of and ongoing human rights abuse in the country may ‘hinder the full and meaningful participation of journalists, activists, human rights defenders, civil society, youth groups, and Indigenous peoples’ representatives’ in COP 27.

Looking to the Future

One conference will not fix the climate crisis. Any event that brings together such a large and diverse group of people will inevitably struggle to reach consensus. Historically, the United Nations Climate Change Conference has been criticised for failing to take the necessary action against climate change. However, the progress it has brought about is still significant. It would be difficult to claim that international agreements of the same proportion could be achieved without it. Whether COP 27 will meet our expectations remains to be seen but, as the effects of the climate crisis become increasingly apparent, it’s clear that the decisions made in the next two weeks will have serious consequences in the years to come.

Image: Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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