The 27th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP27) is taking place in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt from November 6-18, 2022. This year, Princeton is sending a delegation of graduate students, researchers, and faculty to attend the proceedings.
At these annual conferences, the Parties assess their global progress in addressing climate change, including country reports on greenhouse gas mitigation targets and reports of subsidiary bodies. At this major global convening, heads of state, ministers, and negotiators as well as civil society representatives, researchers, local government representatives, climate activists, industry representatives, and others come together to discuss a range of issues related to addressing climate change.
In addition, governments continue their negotiations to work out details for implementation of the Paris Agreement. This year's official proceedings will focus on topics of adaptation, climate finance, technology transfer, and "loss and damage" -- reparations for irreparable harm caused by climate change beyond what communities can (or have the resources to) adapt to. With Egypt serving as host country this year, all of these discussions are taking place against the backdrop of larger considerations of climate justice and requests by developing countries for greater financial support for addressing the impacts of climate change. Read additional background on the lead-up to COP27.
On this page, we'll be posting the reflections of students attending COP27 throughout the two weeks of the conference.
Monday, November 7
COP started well before we touched down. On Hilary’s botched flight and unintended two-day layover in a Long Island convention center, she chatted on the shuttle with a climate activist from Mexico and shared dinner with a climate writer focused on agriculture, forestry and land use at the hotel bar. On a not-so-botched flight, Claire chatted with a former European Union/United Kingdom negotiator, collected her luggage next to the French delegation, and took the bus with Palestinian climate documentary makers. These interactions are only a small snippet of what it is like to attend COP.
For outsiders, COP feels like a black box, so we want to bring you along with us as we figure it out. This COP – called COP27, CMP 17 (implementing the Kyoto Protocol), CMA 4 (implementing the Paris Agreement), the Africa COP, the Implementation COP, or the Food Systems COP is in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Here in Egypt, there are clear distinctions between spaces. The formal negotiations are on the far side of a walled off compound, filled mostly with people holding pink Party badges. On the other side of the compound, near registration, are the delegation pavilions. The pavilions are the trade show part; different countries, multilateral institutions, INGOs, and research organizations all have pavilion or booths of varying sizes sharing their successes and angles on the climate crisis. This is all just the blue zone. It is so large and complicated to navigate that we haven’t yet made it all the way through. About ten minutes away by car is the Green Zone, which still requires badges but is open to more parties.
The first thing on the agenda is the agenda, and that’s probably the biggest story thus far. Late Sunday night, negotiators finally reached an agreement to formally include loss and damage in this year’s negotiation. Since the 1990s, small island nations and least developed nations have been asking for help to deal with loss and damage from countries historically responsible for climate change. As economic and physical losses mount in the countries least responsible for climate change, pressure to create a financing mechanism grows. To finally have it in the agenda is an accomplishment, and we’ll be joining many others in tracking how the negotiations develop in coming days.
This first day is the World Leaders Summit, with 110 heads of state convening to declare support for tackling climate change. Compared to coming days, Day 1 is quieter as many listened to the plenary sessions – although we had an eventful sighting of Boris Johnson. Stay tuned for our updates while we find our bearings in this mini-climate-city and share updates from meetings and events on the themes we’re tracking.
- Claire Kaufman, MPA2 & Hilary Landfried, MPA2
Tuesday, November 8
My journey to and from each event in the Blue Zone is always an adventure.
I start by squinting intently at the various incomplete maps on the walls trying to figure out which building I should be in, and which buildings I have to go through to get there. On my way, I usually encounter a new booth and have an unanticipated and much longer-than-intended conversation. And I nearly always get lost, circling the pavilions with crowds of others navigating the massive venue.
On day 2, I began at a session on climate finance in cities at the UN Innovation Hub and stopped by the US Pavilion as Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry and Mike Bloomberg gave opening remarks and launched the Subnational Climate Action Leaders Exchange. Next, I made my way to a session on building resilient global solar supply chains with the International Solar Alliance. I ended at the Climate Justice Pavilion, listening to inspiring environmental activists share strategies of community resilience and climate litigation.
Between serendipitous conversations and the sessions I’ve attended, it is increasingly clear that there are concurrent but not quite converging conversations here about how to address the climate crisis. There’s nuance and a whole spectrum of views and opinions about how the clean energy transition ought to happen, but most tend to gravitate towards one of two camps. There are those who say we need to move quickly to reach net zero while not sacrificing energy security. This view necessitates a green energy transition within the existing economic system, including utilizing carbon credits, carbon capture, blue hydrogen, and other technologies and market tools that reduce emissions. There is money to be made in this transition and some continued level of fossil fuel use is inevitable.
On the other side, there are calls for a fundamental remaking of the current economic system on the path to carbon-neutrality. This view places communities front and center, and seeks to ensure the most vulnerable throughout the world do not continue to bear the unjust burden of pollution, the danger of extractive livelihoods, and the degradation of their natural environments.
The question isn’t in the goal – on that most everyone is in agreement. Rather, the question is in the process; in the ‘how we get there’. Although these conversations might be happening in the same building, from my vantage point, I’m not so sure they are happening with each other. Although these views are different, there is often overlap. After all, (most) everyone here shares the overarching motivation to work on climate change. This is part of what makes COP27 so fascinating. As I listen and learn, I wonder which theory of change will pave the way out, and what type of world we’ll live in when it does.
- Claire Kaufman
Wednesday, November 9
On the flight to Egypt, I listened to an episode of Irregular Warfare Podcast. On it, the guests argued the natural order for humans is peace. One of their points resonated with me, coming up multiple times this past week: we should design processes that help people “go with the grain” and encourage collaboration instead of conflict.
Due to technical difficulties, EgyptAir housed my entire flight in a Long Island hotel for two days before departing JFK. The kindness of my flight mates turned an incredibly frustrating situation into one that was somewhat enjoyable. We ate meals together and shared long conversations around round tables. New friends chased me to the elevator to share the latest updates from the airline, and we celebrated when our flight was finally rescheduled. On the morning our flight departed, the dynamic started to shift. Buses pulled into the hotel haphazardly, and what started as an orderly line, turned into each of us trying to get on a bus first. When we arrived at the airport, the ticketing counter lines were not yet set up, creating a competition for the front of the line and best seats on the plane. The bonds we created started to fray.
My facilitator eye is trained to notice details. There are ways to smooth processes to encourage collaboration, make people feel welcome, and ensure focus on the issues at hand. Little details can set a mood, priming people to be frustrated or at ease. At COP27, I can see some of these details tended to for Party delegates, but less so for observers.
On Tuesday, I attended the first agriculture and food security-related negotiation session open to observers. The meeting kicked off with a quick reference to the previous day’s closed sessions, quickly diving into comments on paragraph 14. I struggled to follow. My fellow yellow badge holders and I sat on the floor along the wall because there were not enough chairs for us. The air conditioning poured loudly out of vents over our heads, making it hard to hear, and since we were seated on the ground, we could not see the video screens used to highlight speaking delegates. As a new observer at COP, I am finding it easier to track the negotiations through media reports or well-established NGOs than attending myself.
Participation of observers is important to the negotiations. Our role provides transparency and encourages accountability. As COPs begin to focus more on implementation, the importance of NGO constituencies will only grow. Multi-stakeholder processes are complicated and unwieldy; the facilitator in me always wants to make inclusion more effective. Small details that would make it easier to observe, for example more seats, extra headsets, or a brief message about where the conversation is starting, would help more stakeholders “go with the grain” and encourage more fruitful engagement.
- Hilary Landfried
Friday, November 11
Thursday was the first day I saw protests at COP27, usually a prominent feature of these annual climate conferences. Gathered on the path between the pavilions and negotiation rooms, a group dressed in white with gags around their mouths chanted for the release of political prisoners. Alaa Abd El-Fattah, the pro-democracy activist imprisoned in Egypt, has been on a hunger strike since April 2022 and has been refusing water since the beginning of COP. As calls for his release have grown louder, so too have calls for the release of environmental protectors around the globe and for their inclusion in shaping the climate agenda.
These protests took place inside the Blue Zone - the official UN zone. I watched as brave individuals from across the globe – primarily women – came forward to share stories and call for solidarity. The words ‘no climate justice without human rights’ reverberated throughout the courtyard, where most stood at a distance or continued to their meetings and events.
These are the only real protests I’ve seen so far, unsurprising as Egypt’s anti-protesting law makes protesting difficult and dangerous. In a concession to the international community, the government designated a small strip of land next to the Green Zone as an official protest zone. Still, there is intense security and protesters are supposed to register with the government beforehand. Not surprisingly, the zone is eerily empty apart from milling guards and a handful of individuals gathered for what seemed to be a staged protest.
This means that everyone at the Blue Zone protest is already sufficiently integrated into the mainstream climate community to have a badge and resources to fund their trip. Getting to COP is expensive, exclusive, and largely inaccessible – especially in the resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh. I myself feel the irony of being at COP when so many aren’t able to.
At the same time, COP is perhaps the best example we have of countries coming together from all over the world to solve a collective action problem. At an official breakout group about loss and damage, I sat behind a circle of negotiators and observers sharing examples of effective implementation, with a focus on engagement, access, and subnational governance. I heard about Kenya’s Climate Change Working Group, the Least Developed Country Initiative for Effective Adaptation and Resilience, Brazil’s AdaptaClima Platform, Seychelles’ Conservation and Climate Adaptation Trust, and so many more.
As I sat by the exit at the end of the day, I watched people walk by, chatting about climate change in languages I do and don’t recognize, in a mix of Western business and traditional dress. Where else would all these people get in a room together? And who else should be in this room? Environmental protectors and those most impacted by the climate crisis are so often those barred from the places where decisions are made, and those who speak truth to power often face dire consequences. How we resolve these issues will determine the fate of our planet. Access, inclusion and justice are the path forward.
- Claire Kaufman
Sunday, November 13
Agriculture is likely to be one of the biggest casualties of our warming world. Higher temperatures reduce yields and create environments where weeds and pests thrive. Changing precipitation patterns increase crop failures and long-run production declines. Governments, companies, and farmers will need to make large investments over the next 30 years to help our food systems adapt.
However, the discussion cannot just be about adaptation. Food systems are also one of the largest contributors to climate change, estimated at 34 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in 2015. Animal-based foods produce about twice the emissions of plant-based ones, and we cannot reach our global target of 1.5°C without addressing agriculture emissions. The Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreement failed to adequately address food systems emissions because of a lack of political will, regulatory difficulties, and concerns about negatively impacting food production. Subsequently, the Paris Agreement does not mention agriculture at all. In 2017, agriculture began to gain more attention in the UNFCCC process through the Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture, and this is the first COP where food systems are featured prominently.
Saturday was Agriculture and Adaptation Day. With my focus on food security, I had a list of over 15 side events I wanted to attend at different pavilions. Meanwhile, in the negotiations, the Koronivia mandate expired, and the Egyptian Presidency stepped in to work on the draft text as divisions remain between Parties. The Farmers Constituency at COP27 released a statement calling for a new cross-boundary, permanent body under the convention, similar to the Standing Committee on Finance.
Since 2016, I’ve promoted climate smart agriculture policies in my work, and it was exciting to see food systems take center stage at COP. But we have a long way to go. Unlike conversations about energy transitions, food systems transitions are still in nascent stages. The global food system is exceedingly complex, a network of systems within systems. It begins with the ground, our aquifers and soil. Then there is a system of crops, livestock, environment, trade, livelihoods, and finance. This interacts with another system of human health and nutrition. And finally, there are our geopolitics and policy and their connections with food availability and access.
At each point in the system, there is exposure to risk, and there is a lot at stake. Since 2014, global rates of moderate and severe food insecurity are rising. As of 2021, food insecurity affected more than 30 percent of the world’s population. And now, as the climate changes, we must simultaneously adapt our food systems to be more resilient, grow more food to feed expanding populations, and find ways to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions from that food production and land use.
As parts of our system become increasingly under strain, we will be attempting to transition others. Siloed solutions, many of which I’ve heard at this COP, have the potential to create negative effects in other parts of the food system. For example, fertilizer is critical for increasing production and feeding eight billion people, but ammonia fertilizer takes a lot of energy to manufacture and releases nitrous oxide. Livestock are primary sources of protein and livelihoods around the world, but they are a primary emitter of methane. We need to find more strategies to link these discussions back to the big picture to consider how changes we make to one aspect of food production and consumption can lead to benefits or tradeoffs in other areas.
This is the most the UNFCCC negotiations have ever focused on food systems. For the scale and complexity of the challenge they pose, food systems warrant just as much attention as the energy transition.
- Hilary Landfried
Tuesday, November 15
Two days at COP feel like a lifetime! It’s tough to write a reflection after only a few days here, because I feel like every day I experience so much and hear from so many interesting experts who challenge my thinking, so I might think something completely different by Friday!
Today was Energy Day, and it started with a loud protest (right near the entrance to the Blue Zone) against funding gas as a transition fuel in Africa. I spent the morning at the Africa Pavilion, hearing about the African Green Bank Initiative from the African Development Bank (AfDB). I also was able to connect with a radical climate economist from Uganda to discuss her demands for climate finance to be anti-capitalist, decolonial, flexible and long-term to really make an impact in Africa. In the afternoon, I went to my first ministerial consultation, a continuation of the discussion on loss and damage. I heard impassioned speeches from country representatives whose nations are at the forefront of the climate disaster (like Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Antigua and Barbuda). I ended the day by listening to the mayor of Austin, Texas (a Princeton alum!) talk about how cities could take the lead for a just transition.
What’s special about COP is all of the different people that are here, in one (giant) conference resort talking about roughly the same thing – responding to climate change. In one day, I probably heard representatives from 15 – 20 different countries. My focus issues are also front and center: climate finance in Africa, especially in cities. There are new agreements being negotiated to (hopefully) respond to loss and damage and strengthen existing adaptation and environmental funds. There are also many discussions of how to create or reform various climate finance mechanisms, and in particular, an increasing focus on how governments (both national and subnational levels) can better receive funding when it’s available.
What’s maybe not so special about COP is the awkward focus of this year’s summit. I am a newcomer to the negotiations, but it feels like the focus is almost equally on the side events and pavilions. Negotiations, as noted by many other COP27 attendees, are happening alongside the biggest global climate conference and tradeshow. I can’t quite seem to forget that this COP is sponsored by Coca-Cola, many people flew on private jets to be here, and it’s held in Egypt where protests and free speech can be restrictive. Expectations for the negotiations at times seem to be low, although progress will likely still be made on loss and damage funding. The side events feel like a large conference, which is exciting, but maybe not quite the center of earth-shattering climate progress.
And yet, the conference shines the light on climate change and environmental policy, and facilitates connections between climate activists, policymakers, and citizens from all over the world. I feel lucky to be here and to attend thought-provoking events and meet with like-minded experts, and I am excited to see what the rest of the week brings.
- Jessie Press-Williams, MPA2
Wednesday, November 16
Every day our bus rolls down the flat, dusty beachside highway, collecting attendees as we inch our way closer to the massive COP27 venue. The second you exit the bus you are absorbed by a flow of people that doesn’t ebb until you’re back in your hotel room late at night.
There’s an urge to keep moving in this stream of people, events, and ideas. You’re constantly overstimulated, but it’s amazing what you find if you just stand still.
I chose a water station for this experiment (also to hydrate because water is hard to find here— irony not missed). In the span of ten minutes, I spoke in Spanish with an indigenous delegate from Bolivia, in French (badly) with a French journalist living in Kenya, and in English with an Australian diplomat. Diverse interactions like these pass quickly but collectively form a Gestalt of impressions that grows with each long, 12-hour day.
A lot of the events are pre-planned speeches given by high-level officials stating vague platitudes about decarbonization, finance, and net zero emissions. What has been most exciting for me so far are events on technology and science, and how these innovations intersect with international development and inequality.
For example, I attended an event on AI for climate change and listened to EU officials debate how this technology can accelerate innovation (big data climate modeling, robotic automation, precision agriculture) but also exacerbate existing inequalities between the countries that have it and those that don’t. Or the fact that while it is impressive that 90% of new vehicles in Norway are electric, two-thirds of all new cars will be bought in developing countries and will not be electric, highlighting a massive gap in tech transfer and funding.
Another event hosted by the German delegation focused on the potential of green hydrogen to revolutionize energy systems, but also its potential to become yet another natural resource extracted from the developing world (which has a huge potential for renewable energy production, especially solar) by the Global North — essentially recolonizing, but this time in the green economy.
Nuclear energy has also been an emerging topic here. I attended a panel on nuclear energy’s potential long-term role in international development through the installment of small modular reactors (SMRs), though several gaps remain – regulatory frameworks, affordability, and supply chain development.
There is so much to absorb and take in, and I’m still gathering my thoughts on all these issues and how I feel generally about the spectacle that COP has become. In my last two days here, I hope to continue learning and engaging with fellow delegates, activists, and observers, and every once in a while, remember to stand still.
- Claire Dennis, MPA2
Thursday, November 17
In international climate policy, it can be said that the more things change, the more they stay the same. As the work of the parties ascends from the more technical work of the subsidiary bodies to deliberation by the world’s environmental ministers, there is a palpable increase in urgency. Negotiation sessions are frequently being rescheduled at short notice if not cancelled in favor of more informal closed-door sessions. Draft texts, when available to observers at all, are published mere hours before parties are expected to provide input. The high-level segment has provided a steady stream of political leaders urging speed, but with caution; ambition, but with flexibility; and decisive action, but only after multi-year deliberative processes. The breakneck pace at which parties are moving only seems to belie the fact that on many issues, everyone is running in circles. Substantial divergence remains in nearly every avenue of the “implementation COP”.
Loss and damage is the site of some of the most dramatic opposition between parties. Yesterday, the G77 and China, a negotiating bloc of developing countries, released draft text establishing a new fund for loss and damage before we leave Sharm El Sheikh. Party groupings like the least developed countries (LDCs) and the African group have insisted that the creation of such a mechanism at COP27 is a top priority. However, several of the wealthy countries are insisting on more workshops, analysis, and technical papers before the structure of such a fund can even be considered. The Alliance of Small Island States decried the efforts of some developed countries as an attempt to stall progress outright. This seemingly unsurmountable dispute has diffused into the myriad technical questions surrounding the operation of loss and damage facilities more generally.
Consider, for example, this week’s negotiations on the governance of the Warsaw International Mechanism (WIM), created by the COP in 2013 to address loss and damage. Here, the central question was whether the WIM will be governed solely by the CMA (parties to the Paris Agreement) or jointly between the CMA and the COP. An apparent distinction without a difference, the dividing lines once again fell between developed and developing countries. Why were the US, EU, and others so dedicated to sole CMA authority? The Paris Agreement explicitly precludes loss and damage from providing a basis for liability or compensation, a potent allergy for the would-be providers of finance. In the end, the parties could agree to only one thing: revisiting the issue next year.
On the opposite side of the venue, effective dialogue becomes a far more reachable goal. I’ve been attending several events focused on just transition, the concept that energy transition must necessarily be coupled with social and economic protections for workers. The Just Transition pavilion operated by the International Labour Organization has been hosting a full schedule of panels and workshops centered around policies to make sure that green jobs are decent jobs. At various events, representatives from environmental NGOs and trade union confederations discussed successful collaborations on just transition initiatives in locales such as Quebec and the Netherlands. Looking closer to home, Nils Askær-Hune of power company Ørsted discussed how social dialogue with North America’s Building Trades Unions led to the signing of the National Offshore Wind Agreement. NOWA is intended to guarantee decent working conditions, fair compensation, and apprenticeship opportunities for Ørsted’s offshore wind projects on the east coast. Just transition wasn’t just a key focus in the ILO pavilion; a broad array of business, NGO, and labor groups participated in side events celebrating the launch of the Green Jobs for Youth Pact and, later, showcasing the role of gender equality in just transition.
While the escalation of the COP’s work to the political level has only lengthened the list of outstanding obstacles, the work of actors in organized labor and civil society groups has produced concrete outcomes that are on display in these prefabricated halls. Working people, organizers, activists have been the stars of this conference, especially in light of the human rights violations exposed by brave dissidents on the ground here in Egypt. This Friday is the birthday of Alaa Abd El-Fattah, the Egyptian-British political prisoner whose family received communication this week after days of silence following the announcement by Egyptian authorities that “medical intervention” had been used to break his hunger strike. While the proof of life offers some a modicum of relief, this case is far from unique and the end of the conference will likely divert much of the international scrutiny preventing more blatant abuses. The Germany pavilion has hosted multiple events highlighting the work of Egyptian human rights activists, including a panel with Sanaa Seif last week and a discussion between ministers and NGO officials today. The German delegation has complained that the pavilion has since been subjected to increased surveillance by local security personnel. It is starkly clear that efforts to discuss climate change as an issue isolated from economic, social, cultural, civil, and political rights is short-sighted and destructive.
You can find at this convention a steadfast commitment to fighting the manifold crises which threaten human life and dignity, but you have to look in the right places. If access to these spaces can be expanded and democratized, we may yet see worthwhile outcomes, even after the airliners take off from Cairo in their hundreds and thousands.
- Lucas Frye, PhD Student, Chemistry
Friday, November 18
This morning at 3 a.m. Egypt time, most of Princeton’s delegation piled into a cab to head back to the United States. It’s been an exhausting, hectic, rewarding week. We will all need our 13 hours of airplane-time to parse COP27, which flew by so quickly.
The conference proved a veritable watering hole for hundreds of climate-relevant actors across policy, industry, and academia. No matter the topic, be it methane, water, ice, or finance, there were opportunities to speak to experts and dig into meaty issues.
One question raised as a corollary to the sheer number of participants active at the session: where does (and, separately, where should) meaningful progress come from? The negotiations at the conference felt extraordinarily top-down and bureaucratic. One debate saw discrete nations debating for the better part of an hour on whether / how one single footnote should be included in a resolution. The pavilions, on the other hand, felt varied and chaotic. Included were sessions on feminist approaches to mitigation, net zero pathways for the EU, Namibian hydrogen adoption and delivery, indigenous perspectives on climate science, labor and youth movements, biodiversity loss, and seemingly infinitely more.
There was a sense of electricity and movement in the pavilions that, anecdotally, seemed lacking elsewhere. There was a calm sense of ordered cohesion in the negotiation rooms that was absent in the booming, crowded pavilion halls. Progress and power on the world stage are endowed not to activists on the ground but to the persons seated behind nations’ placards in the sterile negotiation rooms; if talks move slowly and climate change is an exigent problem on a tight timeline, one cannot help but wonder whether current systems are sufficient to prevent catastrophic damage to the world and to human life.
Participation in COP was an honor and I am deeply appreciative of the colleagues who attended the second session with me. I left the week having made great new friends and with deep respect and admiration for my traveling companions. I am mobilized, as well, in my own career to leverage every institutional tool at my disposal to effect change in the world around me. I will be thinking deeply about how to include grassroots activism in the more conventional and institutional jobs I envision myself pursuing. It is now starkly evident that passionate activists (it was reassuring to see so many diverse and young perspectives at the table!) are completely prerequisite in pushing for meaningful change.
- Anna Jacobson, PhD Student, Quantitative and Computational Biology