Briefing

What happened at COP27?

Leaders and activists met in Egypt at a precarious time for the planet

Egypt hosted the 27th United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP27, from Nov. 6 to Nov. 18. More than 44,000 delegates from around the world met in the coastal city of Sharm el-Sheikh to discuss plans to address the climate crisis. Here's everything you need to know:

What is COP27?

COP is short for Conference of Parties, referring to 197 nations in the U.N. that agreed to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992. The treaty was forged as part of an effort to address humanity's role in changing the climate, and to curb dangerous greenhouse gas emissions, The New York Times explains. Now the convention occurs annually.

This year's conference took place in Egypt, the first African country to host.

What were the highlights?

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres kicked off the summit on Nov. 7 with grave words, saying, "We are in the fight of our lives, and we are losing." He had previously called the State of the Global Climate Report 2022 a "chronicle of climate chaos." 

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak made his debut at the conference after facing backlash over his previous decision not to attend at all. He cited the climate crisis as an opportunity for a "global mission for new jobs and clean growth." The speech did not go over well, especially among his opposition, the U.K. Labour Party. "You could tell that he did not want to be there," said Shadow Climate Change Secretary Ed Miliband. "He has no real ambition to tackle the climate and energy crisis."

Arguably the largest issue of COP27 was the debate over the establishment of a loss and damage fund — that is, how much industrial countries owe to developing countries that are being impacted more severely by the climate crisis. The fund was controversial, as many developed countries view paying it as an admission of responsibility, CNN reports. Developing nations argue that they need the money to adapt, some even referring to them as reparations.

There was also a sigh of relief at the conference — as The New Yorker put it — over the results of the U.S. midterms, in which Democrats fared better than anticipated. The U.S. is the second largest polluter of greenhouse gases in the world, so the hope was that with President Biden's party clinging to some power, there might be further climate action ahead by Washington.

Finally, to the dismay of some critics, there was a large representation by the fossil fuel industry at the Egypt summit, with over 600 people linked to the industry in some capacity, per BBC. This became a point of controversy, with the fossil fuel representatives arguing that they should get to be part of the discussion in climate talks, while activists argued they get in the way of necessary policy action.

What was the outcome?

In a historic deal, developed nations agreed to pay developing nations for loss and damage. Representatives from close to 200 countries took part in the negotiations. This is the first time in three decades that developed countries have agreed to take responsibility for climate damage, reports The New York Times. Previously, countries including the U.S. avoided making commitments to pay for fear that they would be held legally liable for climate damage. The fund took 48 hours to negotiate and still left some unsatisfied, explains the BBC

Where the agreement fell short was on fossil fuel reduction. Multiple countries, including China and Saudi Arabia, blocked a proposal that would phase out the usage of all fossil fuels over time. "It is more than frustrating to see overdue steps on mitigation and the phase-out of fossil energies being stonewalled by a number of large emitters and oil producers," said German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock.

What about human rights?

One of the more notable issues brought to light during COP27 were the injustices of the host country's government. According to U.N. human rights experts, "Arrests and detention, NGO asset freezes and dissolution, and travel restrictions against human rights defenders … created a climate of fear for Egyptian civil society [organizations] to engage visibly at the COP27." 

The intense attention was amplified by Alaa Abd El-Fattah, a British-Egyptian activist who has been imprisoned for most of the decade. Abd El-Fattah had been on a hunger strike for the past 200 days and at the start of the climate summit, he also stopped drinking water. He required medical intervention because of the risk to his life, reports The Washington Post

Amnesty International Secretary General Agnes Callamard explained how Egypt's civil rights violations were a key part of the COP27 agenda, saying "you cannot deliver climate justice anywhere in the world, including in Egypt, if you don't have human rights protection."

Abd El-Fattah's escalation came just before President Biden arrived in Egypt. The U.S. has long been an ally of Cairo, sending about $1 billion per year in military aid, the Post continues but it has done little to address the human rights issues beyond criticizing them. Abd El-Fattah's family has made pleas to the U.S. that haven't been answered.

"We have been in high-level communication with the Egyptian government on this case," national security adviser Jake Sullivan told the Post. "We would like to see him freed."

What were some of the criticisms of COP27?

Egypt has been accused of greenwashing — that is, gesturing toward climate action by hosting the event but in fact concealing its own environmental sins in the process. Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg did not attend COP27, saying, "The COPs are mainly used as an opportunity for leaders and people in power to get attention, using many different kinds of greenwashing."

The summit was hosted in a famous resort town, and many speculated the intention was to keep regular Egyptians — some of whom planned to protest — from interacting with the conference attendees, The Guardian reports. Hussein Baoumi of Amnesty International commented that hosting the event in Sharm el-Sheikh tells "how the Egyptian presidency and the leadership view their ideal society, it's a gated one without the masses."

Update Nov. 21, 2022: This story has been updated throughout to reflect the highlights of the event.

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