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Why Cop27 has a confidence problem

This year's UN climate conference could be the most challenging yet.

By India Bourke

We all know the plot: heroes only pull through once they have been tested to the extreme, and victory is all the more certain if said hero was an underdog to begin with. With that in mind, perhaps there is still hope for the upcoming UN climate conference: hope that Cop will shake off its bad press and triumph over gloomy geopolitical circumstances to become the “implementation” event that the climate crisis so urgently needs.

The context in which Cop27 is taking place is arguably the toughest in the event’s 27-year existence. The war in Ukraine has frayed diplomatic relations, leaving many nations distracted and their economies stretched. The human rights record of Egypt, the Cop27 host, has raised concerns about the limited scope for Egyptian civil society to make its voice heard. And even though nations pledged at last year’s Cop26 to increase their carbon-cutting ambition, the latest UN assessment has found that current commitments still put the world on course for 1.8°C of warming above pre-industrial levels – with even that target “not currently credible” given today’s rate of emissions and nations’ stated short-term goals. 

At just 1.5°C of warming, a catastrophic wave of “tipping points” could be unleashed, including the melting of methane-rich permafrost. Yet instead of an increased sense of urgency, there is a sense that this year’s Cop is optional. Even politicians in the UK, which presided over last year’s Glasgow Pact, have seemingly been quick to forget that the agreement’s stated aim of making each annual Cop count: “It is quite standard practice that every five years is the big political gathering [on climate],” the new environment secretary, Thérèse Coffey, told reporters last week. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is only attending after receiving a backlash of criticism for initially saying he would not.

Activists like Greta Thunberg are understandably exasperated with a process that has failed to deliver, both between nations and within them. Last Sunday, the ever-passionate 19-year-old told an audience that she fears the “Cops are now mainly being used as an opportunity for those in power to get attention, using many different kinds of greenwashing”.

But even Thunberg is not without hope. As she told the singer-songwriter Björk Guðmundsdóttir in her guest edit of the New Statesman magazine last month, the Cops’ failure to date “doesn’t mean that [they] are not useful”; there are still opportunities to push for the necessary change. It is of course not enough for political leaders like Sunak, Joe Biden, Emmanuel Macron and Brazil’s new leader Lula da Silva, along with around 70 others, to simply turn up at Cop27. Yet if they turn up and show that their nations are serious about delivering on both emissions reductions and financial support for developing nations, then those leaders not in attendance this year (notably China and Russia) may yet feel pressured to follow suit.

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Last year, the then UK prime minister Boris Johnson said that a successful Cop26 would entail keeping hope of limiting global warming to under 1.5°C alive. That hope is thinner than ever – but Cop27 is its latest best chance.

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[See also: What is on the agenda at Cop27 in Egypt?]

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