The polluters conference

Image: Karl Gerber


There are three worlds that inhabit COP meetings, but they carefully evade each other. Genuine civil society organizations should boycott future COPs and focus on direct action at national and local levels

It's a glorious afternoon at a luxury resort in Egypt, with six pools leading out to a small, enchanting stretch of beach on the Red Sea. A water salsa class at one of the pools has a number of enthusiastic participants. Elsewhere, guests relax on lounge chairs sipping chilled cocktails. Cheerful waiters are refilling glasses and serving snacks.

Welcome to Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt's popular resort and host to the 27th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP27. Or, as some critics would say, the polluters conference.

My first impression upon arriving was that I had entered a gigantic theme park. The roads leading to the resorts were lined with palm trees brightly lit in green and yellow, and lamp posts decorated with dazzling colored lights. The night sky was streaked with bright spotlights from the site to draw attention to the climate emergency facing humanity.

This is my fourth COP meeting, and I don't intend to go back again. Given how little these conferences have achieved since they started in 1995 – not to mention their gigantic carbon footprints – I am convinced that it is time for them to stop.

After 27 years of negotiations, conflicts and ruptures, the nations of the world basically agreed: (1) climate change is a serious problem; (2) something must be done to resolve it; (3) rich nations must do more; and (4) based on the 2015 Paris agreement, each country must set its own emissions targets and do its best to meet them.

The UN claims that the Paris agreement is "legally binding", but there are no enforcement mechanisms or penalties for countries that do not comply. Even current pledges will not be enough to reach the target of restricting global warming to 1,5℃, the objective agreed in Paris.


How the COP works

There are three worlds that inhabit COP meetings, but they carefully evade each other. Official country delegates participate in meetings and develop policies. Then there are the corporations and industry associations, which are by far the most significant and powerful presence here.

More than 600 fossil fuel industry lobbyists are in attendance. This is more than the combined delegations of the top ten most climate-affected countries, and the second largest delegation after the UAE, which is an oil power. Among these 600 lobbyists, some were even invited as part of delegations from 30 countries.

The third group in the COP consists of civil society organizations from a wide range of countries, but dominated by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from developed countries. A growing number of NGOs representing the interests of business and industry (the Big International Non Governmental Organizations – BINGOs) occupies civil society space at COP meetings to promote particular resource and energy use agendas. Funders include major oil corporations like Shell and Exxon, nuclear giants like Areva, and major mining companies like Rio Tinto and BHP.

Business and civil society delegates participate in climate negotiations and organize side events that showcase their climate actions. These sometimes seem to occur in parallel realities. Right after a session organized by the international NGO Global Witness on the deaths and disappearances of protesters against mining projects in Africa, Asia and Latin America, a session was held on “mining governance for a just energy transition”.

In this last session, participants from the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo and the International Council on Mining and Metals described inequalities, environmental impacts, tax evasion and corruption as challenges facing mining in Africa. In the previous session, there was no mention of violence and murders documented in the same region.


the presence of the police

These contrary narratives are a feature of the COP, but only become visible during protest marches. Remarkably though, COP27 is the first to be held in a “police state”. Before arriving there, I spent a few days in Cairo at a hotel near Tahrir Square, the birthplace of the 2011 revolution. The square had heavily armed police in armored vehicles on every corner. I photographed the square's obelisk with an armored police vehicle in the foreground and was immediately reprimanded by an irate soldier.

However, there are surprisingly few police officers on the ground in Sharm el-Sheikh. This is due to the extraordinary efforts of the organizers to prevent protests. This included pre-trial detentions of local activists, a cumbersome registration process restricting the general public to a “green zone”, and unprecedented surveillance, including police-monitored cameras in all taxis in Sharm el-Sheikh. There is also a “designated area” for demonstrators off-site to avoid the kind of mass protests that have hampered previous COP meetings.

Holding the COP in a luxury resort also took a toll on activists. Hotel rates range on average from $250 to $300 per night and there are no “cheaper” options. A sandwich at the venue is $15, although it has been halved after complaints. There are also no streets where people can congregate, just roads linking the various resorts.

So, while more than 100.000 people marched through the streets of Glasgow at COP26, and at previous COPs such as Copenhagen, Durban and Paris there have also been clashes between protesters and police, dissent is effectively neutralized here. More than 12 protesters marched inside the site on November XNUMXth, and I couldn't even find them.


The COP and oil

So what else has changed since I first went to a COP meeting in Durban in 2011? Notably, the marketing of corporations and NGOs is much more elaborate. And corporations have gotten a lot smarter – I can't see a BP, Shell or Exxon-Mobil logo anywhere. The COP's transformation into a corporation is complete when BP's chief executive and four other senior officials are on the official delegation from Mauritania, a country where BP has major investments.

To further consolidate the power of the fossil fuel industry, COP27 has a “Middle East Green Initiative” led by Saudi Arabia with an inevitable commitment to neutralize by 2050. Saudi Arabia also has one of the largest booths at the conference venue. And it is no coincidence that the next COP will be hosted by the United Arab Emirates.

In 27 years of COP meetings there has not been a single call to phase out fossil fuels. The only reference was COP26 agreement which called for the “progressive reduction of energy produced with untreated coal and the gradual elimination of subsidies for inefficient fossil fuels”.

Meanwhile, a massive reformulation effort is underway at COP27, where natural gas is being positioned not as a fossil fuel, but as a “transition fuel”. Once this reshuffle is complete, the major fossil fuel players will dominate all natural gas subsidies.


The great failure of the COP

In 1995, when COP1 was convened in Berlin, global carbon emissions were 23,45 billion metric tons. In 2021, they were 36,4 billion metric tons. Emissions have increased each year, with two exceptions: the 2007-09 financial crisis and during Covid-19. In both cases, this was due to economic contraction rather than efforts to address climate change.

No one at the COP will talk about this particular elephant in the room: that it may be impossible to decouple economic growth from carbon emissions. Emissions recovered on both occasions and are expected to reach their highest level ever recorded in 2022.

Let's look at three other quantifiable COP measures: climate finance, which is seen as key to helping poor countries reduce emissions; climate reparations from rich countries to poor countries for damage caused by historical carbon emissions; and the success of technologies to mitigate emissions, particularly carbon capture and storage.

In climate finance, the richest nations pledged in Copenhagen 2009 to mobilize 100 billion dollars a year for the poorest countries. However, they never achieved this goal. Meanwhile, the 60 largest banks in the world invested 3,8 trillion dollars in fossil fuels since the Paris agreement. In December 2019, investors paid almost $26 billion for the initial public offering of shares of Saudi state oil company Aramco. Naturally, both the fossil fuel companies and the banks involved have pledged fictitious offsetting commitments for 2050.

As climate repairs are on the official agenda at COP27 for the first time, which is certainly a step forward. It's hard to be optimistic, though. The US will vigorously challenge the creation of any damages fund for poor countries, as it has consistently done at previous COPs.

As for carbon capture, only 0,02 percent of fossil fuel CO₂ was stored in 2021. This makes this cornerstone of climate change mitigation a derision.



The COP represents a gathering of elites. One recent study found this to be a major obstacle to climate mitigation. The poor, the marginalized and those who bear the brunt of climate impacts but who have contributed least to the problem (and will bear the brunt of rich nations' energy transitions because the necessary minerals and metals will be extracted from their lands) are excluded. Growing dissent is being criminalized, not just in “police states” but also in Western liberal democracies.

It's time to end this spectacle of private jets flying dignitaries and delegates to discuss the climate emergency. Genuine civil society organizations should boycott future COPs and focus on direct action at national and local levels. They need to hold their governments accountable for emissions targets and take aim at fossil fuel corporations and the banks that finance them.

There is no accountability at the COP, only a diffusion of the (ir)responsibility that legitimizes corporate power. COP27 will follow the path of previous COPs: empty promises, emotional speeches and sly corporate campaigns. And higher carbon emissions next year.

So let the COP become another Davos, a conference by and for the rich. There are many luxury seaside resorts and ski resorts in countries eager to host the next COPs. Just don't go there.

*Bobby Banerjee é professor of management at The Business School, City, University of London.

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves.

Originally published on the portal The Conversation.


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