COP27 took place in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt in November 2022 – the latest in the annual series of global UN climate conferences. While the formal negotiations made some progress, it was in the adjacent arenas that many of the cutting edge policy discussions were taking place. This article focuses on those discussions, aiming to highlight some of the key issues, challenges and solutions that are worth talking about.
At the center of any COP are the multilateral negotiations, which have traditionally focused on agreeing to common targets and frameworks for implementation applying to all countries under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This was true of COP27. But with most of the rules for implementing the Paris Agreement already agreed upon, the Egyptian hosts billed the conference as the “implementation COP,” calling for the conference to galvanize practical action and the delivery of commitments, rather than focus on new negotiated agreements.
In the end, the negotiations still drew widespread coverage internationally, although countries only agreed to a mixed set of outcomes. The most significant achievements related to dealing with climate impacts, with countries agreeing to establish a new multilateral fund for responding to loss and damage. But more disappointing results were seen in efforts to reduce emissions. Countries were unable to agree on a peaking date for global emissions or a phasedown of all fossil fuels, despite the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and International Energy Agency findings that tell us these goals are needed. Many participants and observers were familiar with the incrementalism and glacial pace that lies a long way from the transformational change we know is needed.
But while the formal negotiations winced forward, more dynamic and forward-thinking conversations were happening in the panels, pavilions, and corridors of the conference center. In the ‘Blue Zone’, many country governments, international organizations, and NGOs were showcasing their climate plans and actively engaging with one another. Conversations covered the full range of policy challenges, opportunities, technologies and solutions. Often it was here, rather than in the negotiations, that you could get a clearer picture of a country’s plans and progress.
In this article we want to point to the landscape of these dynamic conversations. The following areas were all points of focus for a group of Princeton University graduate students and faculty during their attendance at the conference. Together they provide a taste of the cutting edge debates, questions, and solutions that an event like COP27 fosters.
Climate policy starts with science. COPs are used as platforms to launch important reports, analyses and science-based coalitions. The cyrosphere was an important area of focus in COP27 discussions on climate science.
Josh Rines: Earth’s polar and high-mountain regions have been called the canaries in the coal mine for climate change, and for good reason. Retreating mountain glaciers, melting ice sheets, ice shelf collapse, disappearing sea ice, permafrost methane release, and the many Arctic and high-mountain communities that must continually adapt their ways of life frame a grave image of the warming planet. What happens in the cryo-regions does not stay in the cryo-regions, as melting ice has severe global consequences for sea-level rise, water security, and climate feedback systems. Though crucial scientific advancements in understanding and constraining the impacts of climate change on the cryosphere are made each year, the idea that a warming climate has the potential to induce catastrophic changes to our icy regions is far from new. To put it simply: ice melts when it gets warmer. Scientists have been studying and warning of this issue for decades, yet the political message has felt similarly lackluster for decades: it’s a complicated issue, and we will consider the situation slowly.
This year, however, at COP27, the high-level group “Ambition on Melting Ice (AMI): On Sea-level Rise and Mountain Water Resources” was formed. Co-chaired by the polar and mountain states of Iceland and Chile, the goal of the group is to ensure that the global impacts of climate change on the cryosphere are clearly and effectively communicated to and understood by global policy makers. A total of 20 governments signed the founding declaration, including nations in cryo-regions and distant nations who also directly feel the effects of cryo-change. This marks a formal step forward in the recognition of the urgency of the climate crisis as it relates to the cryosphere. It is clear that policy lags behind the science. The science may even lag behind the true severity of the crisis. There is little to no room for error. The cryosphere is a problem of global complexity and will require a solution of global effort and scale. If anything was made clear at this COP, it is that we must boldly act immediately if we want any hope of keeping 1.5o, and consequently today’s cryosphere, alive.
Although the formal negotiations may struggle to address specific technologies and solutions in more than a superficial way, discussions on the most important emerging issues are taking place. Hydrogen’s role in the energy transition drew substantial attention at COP27.
Glen Chua: Hydrogen is an important component of a future decarbonized economy: it can be produced via electrolysis of water, and when burned as a fuel, it produces water rather than the carbon dioxide emitted from fossil fuels. Hydrogen can be used to fuel hard-to-decarbonize sectors like industrial heating and heavy-duty transportation and also can act as long-term energy storage to help accelerate the green transition by smoothing out intermittency. At the Blue Zone, it was exciting to see many countries announce decarbonization plans involving hydrogen. This includes the US which has allocated billions of dollars to develop the domestic hydrogen economy through the recently-passed Inflation Reduction Act.
However, hydrogen is not a panacea, and there are many supply chain challenges that need to be addressed adequately. Care must be taken to minimize leaks of hydrogen (which is an indirect greenhouse gas) and other greenhouse gasses. Sadly the conversations around these issues were lacking. When asked about these challenges, many panelists either claimed to not understand the questions or dismissed these concerns as unimportant. Supply chain justice is also an increasingly important issue, as some developed countries that are unable to produce enough renewable energy to power hydrogen production via electrolysis of water (‘green hydrogen’) are starting to make deals to import green hydrogen from developing countries. In these cases, care must be taken to ensure the rich world’s legacy of resource extraction is not continued. Some evidence of the burgeoning conversation around these issues was seen at the Blue Zone. For example, at the Germany Pavilion, there was a discussion on Germany’s plans to import more than 50% of the green hydrogen they are planning to use from their global South counterparts from Namibia and South Africa. Hopefully this signals the start of efforts to engage the Global South in the decision-making process. Lastly, some stakeholders are advocating for continuing to produce hydrogen using fossil fuels (for example, via steam methane reforming which is a current, common industry practice), but then capture the resultant greenhouse gas (‘blue hydrogen’). However, technology for carbon capture and storage is still nascent and this process risks further entrenching fossil fuel infrastructure. Even worse yet, some countries like Saudi Arabia are planning to utilize the captured carbon to enhance oil recovery, potentially negating the climate benefits of a hydrogen economy.
Overall, while hydrogen can be part of a country’s decarbonization toolkit, it must be adopted with care, and countries must not be blinded by its appeal lest they lose sight of the decarbonization target and also perpetuate global inequalities.
Loss and Damage
The loss and damage caused by climate change was a central theme at COP27, with the establishment of a UN facility to finance loss and damage a key agenda item and diplomatic priority for low-lying island states, their regional organizations, and the G77+China negotiating bloc.
Barbara Buckinx: The Blue Zone pavilions hosted a number of wide-ranging panels and other events that broadened the discussion about loss and damage in meaningful ways. First, there were attempts to expand the understanding of loss and damage beyond short-term, material concerns towards longer-term challenges, including loss and damage to cultural and social goods. Delegates talked about the loss of cultural capital and ways of life. Second, loss and damage was discussed alongside mitigation and adaptation in a fluid way, a move away from the historical practice of keeping these categories apart. In a high-level panel on loss and damage, government ministers from atoll nations insisted that mitigation was a priority alongside loss and damage and adaptation, resisting attempts to prioritize one over the other or discuss the issues in an analytically distinct way. Third, at COP27, loss and damage was connected to a range of other concepts and ideas receiving lots of attention at the conference, including climate justice, fairness, compensation, reparations, and “carbon colonialism.” These notions weren’t always clearly defined, making some of the discussions opaque or unclear at times, but this may have been intentional, to keep the diverse loss and damage coalition intact. In any case, the consensus seemed to be that ‘of course’ loss and damage should be understood in this broader context. The final negotiation text was lauded as a real achievement by organizations and institutions which are betting that the establishment of a loss and damage facility will facilitate a more substantive discussion about power, obligations, reparations and justice in the future.
Agriculture and Food Security
The linkages between climate change and global food security have become increasingly clear, in a further alignment of climate and human rights goals, and there were increased efforts to address these interconnected issues at COP27.
Hilary Landfried: With the backdrop of increasing global food insecurity, COP27 made history by including food, rivers, and nature-based solutions in the cover decision for the first time. Party delegates negotiated and renewed the Koronivia Joint Work for Agriculture, the only formal UNFCCC workstream for food. In the negotiation rooms, food security and agriculture had greater prominence than in any other previous COP. The same was true for the pavilions and side events surrounding the formal negotiations. The Egyptian government hosted an Agriculture and Adaptation thematic day, and there were three pavilions dedicated solely to food. Here, how to tackle climate and food security was up for debate.
Agriculture is both extremely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and a primary contributor. In negotiations, the Koronivia workstream remained narrowly focused on production, which is particularly important in parts of the world that are chronically food insecure and rely on agriculture for economic growth. But a singular focus on production risks continuing unsustainable systems. Reimagining and transforming our food systems will not be easy. For example, what role should policy play in diet changes?
At the Food4Climate pavilion, there were sessions on shifting to plant-based diets and repurposing agricultural supports, such as subsidies. At the Food Systems Pavillion, there were sessions on regenerative agriculture and the contribution of livestock to sustainable systems in East Africa. Finally, at the Food and Agriculture Pavilion, there was an important discussion about how small, medium, and large food businesses can reach net-zero quickly. The presenters (all working on bringing plant-based meat to market) hotly debated transitioning diets. It is hard to make blanket prescriptions for how to transform our food systems. Solutions that might be appropriate in one part of the world or society may not be feasible in another.
Clean Energy Supply Chain Justice
The clean energy transition is essential if we are to meet the Paris Agreements goals, which means a rapid increase in metals for batteries, EVs, and renewable energies. Discussions at COP27 highlighted the international community’s nascent conversation regarding the environmental and social justice issues associated with these supply chains.
Claire Kaufman: As demand for clean energy technologies grows with net zero plans, the issues with mining for these critical metals has launched a conversation about environmental justice in the supply chain. Lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese, and graphite are crucial to batteries; rare earth elements are essential for wind turbines and EV motors; and copper and aluminum are key components of electricity networks. Extracting metal requires large amounts of energy and water, often involves dangerous working conditions, and leaves behind toxic waste. In many places, grassroots resistance and subsequent repression has formed in response to mining. Mining is also a geopolitical issue, with certain metals concentrated in specific countries, like cobalt in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Certain countries are trying to control many of the supply chain industries altogether; while others like the US are trying to ‘onshore’ mining and domestic manufacturing. However, weak regulations and a lack of standards even within the US have created divisions between which communities are home to the new and expanded mining operations – a new type of ‘sacrifice zone.’
At COP27, there was a prominent debate about who should be responsible for setting ethical standards for supply chains: businesses or governments. These conversations are just beginning, though the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe is making efforts to align critical raw materials with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, and the UN Secretary-General has a Working Group on Transforming Extractive Industries. At the conference there were also groups, like the Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy, focused on ways to make these manufacturing processes less wasteful and integrate mineral waste back into the manufacturing process downstream so as to reduce demand for new metals. Although the clean energy transition needs to happen fast, it is critical to consider the social and environmental impact of the materials and processes that are integral to it happening – and ensure community voices and needs are centered in any approach.
Effective climate action must respect principles of decent work, social inclusion, and poverty eradication.
Lucas Frye: It is clear that a transition to renewable energy resources is necessary to satisfy our energy consumption while minimizing loss and damage from climate change. While many estimates predict that the development of sustainable production will bring broad economic gains and net employment growth, these metrics belie localized disruptions to communities reliant on fossil fuel supply chains. The anticipated new jobs will often have distinct training and relocation requirements, rendering them inaccessible to many of the workers displaced by the loss of carbon-intensive industries. Anyone transferring to a “green job” may also face lower compensation, harsher working conditions, and weaker collective rights than those already won in their previous workplace. A poorly managed transition is likely to exacerbate economic and social inequality by undermining the livelihoods of already vulnerable communities. The just transition framework was developed by the labor union movement to ensure that the clean energy transition is necessarily coupled with economic and social protections for working people.
In recent years, just transition has occupied a growing place at the UN Climate Change Conference. This year, The Just Transition pavilion operated by the International Labour Organization hosted a full schedule of panels and workshops centered around policies to ensure that green jobs are decent jobs. At these events, representatives from environmental NGOs and trade union confederations discussed successful collaborations on just transition initiatives in locales such as Quebec and the Netherlands. In the US context, 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). 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 also featured elsewhere at COP27: a broad array of business, NGO, and labor groups participated in themed side events, including the launch of the Green Jobs for Youth Pact and panel discussions on gender equality in the energy transition. Seeing the concrete outcomes achieved by organized labor and civil society groups was a breath of fresh air amid the stagnation of the conference’s formal program.
One key aspect of a just transition involves achieving gender equality.
Anna Jacobson: COP27 consisted of several discrete themed days. One of our first days at Sharm El-Sheikh was "Gender Day." The sessions du jour focused on women's place in climate science. It was made clear that women see the brunt of many climate damages (indoor pollution from sources of heat, increased difficulties in feeding their families due to crops' spoilage or inaccessibility of electricity, damage to household property that needs repair.) As a corollary, it was posited that femme-centric perspectives may shed valuable light on the biggest risks facing their communities as well as the feasibility of any proposed solutions. Some of the pavilion events lauded mothers’ ability to spot needs in their communities and distribute funds effectively. Making women the focus of climate remuneration, they stated, would make it more likely for funds to diffuse into communities equitably. This feminist approach to climate science was a novel perspective to me as I entered these discussions.
With COP27 as the first COP happening outside Europe for six years, many were hopeful about the progress that could be made in addressing the needs of the Global South. While progress certainly was made on these needs through the formal negotiations, it was clearly not enough.
Delegates seem to recognize the value of these Blue Zone discussions as opportunities for pushing the global agenda forward. Sometimes these discussions were important in encouraging negotiating teams to be more ambitious, for instance towards a more expansive understanding of our responsibilities towards vulnerable populations and future generations. Many of the best-attended panels were also the most critical – critical of the outcomes of previous COPs or the UNFCCC process itself.
The Blue Zone is also traditionally the site of organized protests during any COP. Though they were not particularly noisy or intrusive this year, protests were another source of criticism that was difficult for negotiators to ignore. Of course, the interests on display extended far beyond calls for climate justice, with the Blue Zone hosting fossil fuel lobbyists, green energy corporations, intergovernmental agencies, states, and universities. Talking shops, greenwashing and fossil fuel deals were all taking place. But this did not disguise the energy and ambition of the Blue Zone and the significance of the conversations happening there, a small snapshot of which have been captured in this article.
There is widespread recognition that for the COP process to stay relevant it needs to signal its shift in focus to practical action more clearly. Part of this should mean finding ways to build a stronger, more hopeful narrative about the dynamic, cutting-edge progress being made across the wide range of issues that the negotiations don’t address. It’s in these areas, bringing together policy-makers, scientists, companies, civil society and others, that the solutions, coalitions and momentum for addressing the climate crisis will be found.