COP27 had many descriptors. For starters, it was billed as the Africa COP, the Implementation COP (with the hashtag #Togetherforimplementation), and the Food Systems COP – and it had many other slogans based on one’s area of personal focus.
As with any Conference of the Parties, multiple themes were covered in Egypt – emissions, energy, agriculture and food systems, water, biodiversity, cities, industry, innovation, finance, justice, and more – because climate change is closely linked to so many social and environmental challenges.
It’s a lot to absorb over a few days, bordering on overload – but in a positive way.
I have multiple observations and takeaways from COP27 in Egypt, and like many of my colleagues I will be continuing to process many of them for weeks and months to come.
But after considerable reflection to date, I find myself currently centered on takeaways related to five main themes: energy level, food systems, impact (with a front line focus), action, and inspiration.
I was unsure of what to expect from this COP. The mood in the days running up to the event did not seem overly optimistic, as captured in a piece from the Financial Times entitled “Dark clouds overshadow opening of COP27 climate summit in Egypt.”
Yet from the start I was excited by the energy level of the thousands of participants on site each day. Multiple sustainability topics were being covered across the venue every hour of every day; from a pure educational experience, it is exciting.
I felt a pervasive pulse of energy running through the event from the participants. At times it felt a bit frenetic and disjointed, but through it all I sensed clear recognition of the need for urgent, collaborative, and meaningful (i.e. non-incremental) action throughout all of my interactions – from random conversations to one-on-one discussions in various pavilions to panel discussions, policy meetings, and plenary sessions with national leaders.
There was a definite spirit of compassion and justice as well, which was heartening to see, and recognition that climate change knows no borders and is wreaking havoc on vulnerable communities. I was heartened by the sense of common humanity and inclusiveness at the event. There seemed to be a deep sense of caring among the people there, and we need to care in order to drive needed action.
And amid the positive energy there was an air of impatience, buoyed by an active and vocal youth contingent who should be impatient, and who were determined to make themselves heard.
Food Systems and Climate
Second, food was on the agenda at this COP, as it should be, because food is central and critical to all that we do, and because the food system accounts for more than a third of global greenhouse gas emissions. Food is climate.
Food was the subject of multiple discussion sessions daily at the first Food Systems Pavilion, with a broad theme of accelerating #actiononfood for people and planet. Major topics included enhancing resilience to climate and shocks, enabling a culture of sustainable, healthy, and nutritious diets, boosting nature positive production and soil health, scaling climate resilient agriculture, and more.
The presence of the Food Systems Pavilion appropriately built on the UNFAO’s work from the 2021 Food Systems Summit, which highlighted the need to transform the global food system to accelerate progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals.
Food was also covered in many side sessions at COP27, particularly at the FAO Pavilion, where I attended one session focused on putting healthy diets and nutrition at the center of food systems transformation, and another on unlocking young farmers’ potential for sustainable future food systems moderated by Danielle Nierenberg of Food Tank. Further, I participated with the Future Food Institute in a session at the Italian Pavilion entitled “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life” and another session at the Thailand Pavilion with colleagues from the University of Pennsylvania, the FAO, and Thailand’s Department of Environmental Quality Promotion (DEQP) on Shifting Food Systems for Climate Smart Agriculture.
Recognition of the linkage between food systems, climate, and multiple SDG challenges was apparent at COP27, and food is now set up to be an important component of COP28 as well.
Impact Stories from the Front Lines
One critical theme that was also eminently clear at COP27 was the impact of climate change on many vulnerable less developed countries, especially those on the front lines of the climate crisis, like the Small Island Developing States (SIDS). Tragically, these countries are contributing the least to climate change but are paying the highest price.
At a high level, most people understand this, but like many aspects of sustainability challenges it is easy to skip over because those countries are far away, and their challenges are not visible to us. So it is essential that we listen to their stories and that we engage deeply with what they are experiencing.
In that spirt, below are several examples from country leaders at the Plenary session of National statements that provide insight into what some of those vulnerable countries are facing:
Gaston Browne, Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda, speaking on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), noted that some of their member states lost 200% of GDP in one day from a single climate event. Browne called for urgent collaborative action to reduce emissions, an end to fossil fuel subsidies (with associated redirection of the proceeds to fund adaptation and mitigation efforts as well as loss and damage), a renewed commitment to the 1.5°C goal, and the establishment of a Loss and Damage response fund at COP27.
And with that, Browne effectively set the tone for COP27 in one fell swoop.
Botswana’s President noted that while their summer has barely begun, temperatures can easily get to 40°C (104°F) on any given day. He cited the new normal of unpredictable patterns of rainfall compounding the unreliability of rainfed agriculture, declining rivers, and the decline of ecosystems supporting species such as flamingos and elephants. He added that while we all acknowledge the science and warnings of climate change, implementation of adaptation actions and deliverables has remained elusive and “a mirage.”
Suriname’s President stated that they are one of just three countries in the world that are carbon negative, but they are threatened by rising sea levels (and impressively, he mentioned a number of steps that Suriname is taking despite having very limited resources).
The President of Somalia, Hassan Sheikh Mohammed, noted that sub-Saharan Africa is experiencing one of the worst droughts in history, and that Somalia is in the midst of a humanitarian crisis due to recurring drought along with extreme flooding which has destroyed key infrastructure as well and prime farmland. As a result, over 7 million people in Somalia are unable to meet their basic food needs (thus requiring urgent assistance). Significantly, President Mohammed also noted that countries like Somalia that produce the least amount of greenhouse gas emissions “pay” twice – first because they have not experienced the benefit of industrialization achieved by the developed countries, and second because they lack the ability to respond to the changing climate driven by those countries.
The Prime Minister of Malta echoed the vulnerability theme, noting that countries all over the world are being “battered by climatic extremes” such as rising sea levels, storms, droughts, floods, excessive heat, and water scarcity – and that it is “no secret” that the most vulnerable countries of the world are paying the highest price despite the fact that they are among the lowest in terms of emissions.
The Prime Minister of Tuvalu, Kausea Natano, stated that as sea level rises their population (and that of other island nations) will be displaced, and that “drowning islands and flooded nations require a reassertion of our basic human rights.” Natano added that the climate emergency can be distilled to just two factors – time and temperature – and his action call reminded us that it’s getting too hot and we have little time to change course.
But one of the most significant set of comments about the impact of climate change on vulnerable countries came from the President of Palau, Surangel Samuel Whipps. Whipps crystallized the central theme of COP27, referring to a saying in his country which means spending too much time talking about the impending disaster and only acting when it is too late.
He cited a number of destructive climate-related events (drought, floods, storms) reinforcing that the time to act is now. And specific to Palau’s experience with climate change, he referred to his remarks from last year, in which he said that in terms of destructive impact, “you might as well bomb us – that might have been an easier fate.”
Whipps added that Palau is being “drawn and quartered” – Covid decimated its economy, and as they work to rebuild, “the climate crisis is “tearing us apart, limb by limb.” He noted that extreme storms and floods continue to destroy their crops, homes, and infrastructure, while sea level rise is eating away at their coastline and negatively impacting farms – therefore weakening food security. Droughts are causing water shortages, and the extreme heat of this past summer is destroying species which are critical to their tourism industry.
So Palau’s reality effectively underscores the call for all nations to take the steps to limit global warming to 1.5°C.
Whipps called for the largest emitters of greenhouse gases to take responsibility for the damage that they have caused, full operationalization of Loss and Damage, and easier access to adaptation and mitigation funding through grants. He also called on the developed nations to double their provision for climate finance adaptation by 2025.
In closing, Whipps added a final point of inspiration, stating that he was not giving up on the 1.5°C goal, and that if we work together, nothing is impossible. He called for action at COP27 to stop the torture, save the world, and provide hope for our children.
Calls for Responsible Action
And while these many statements from developing and front-line nations were powerful in elucidating the obvious need for urgent action to assist vulnerable regions, I was also pleased to see several positive action calls from developed world leaders indicating a clear sense of responsibility to take appropriate action on climate.
For example, Estonia’s President, Alex Karis, began his statement by noting that “the fact that tipping points and planetary boundaries are nearer than we previously thought means only one thing: We shall not delay or dilute the Glasgow and Paris Agreements.” He added, “to save human lives, both adaptation and mitigation are required.” Further, he stated that climate change knows no borders, and neither should our response.
Significantly, Karis noted that often the biggest benefits that will accrue to us will come from investments outside of our orders – in areas of the global South or the Arctic that are literally burning – and he called for us to think not just locally and regionally, but globally.
The President of Austria, Alexander van der Bellen, began his remarks by referring to the 1.5°C goal of COP21 with a reality check, stating “let’s be honest, we are far from reaching the 1.5°C goal – and in fact the opposite is happening.” He added that large parts of the global South are being hit particularly hard by the climate crisis – and that “rightfully so, the most affected countries demand financial support for climate adaptation as well as measures to address loss and damages.” And he went further, noting that the global North is responsible for a large portion of emissions, and that Austria will demonstrate responsibility by significantly increasing its budget for international climate finance. He made a personal connection, noting that it was important for him that Austria do its part to protect the rainforests and oceans and support vulnerable nations, and he called for concrete actions and binding commitments.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen pointed to the EU’s legal requirement to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 55% by 2030 while also calling for tangible progress on adaptation. Citing the EU’s contribution to the $100 billion adaptation commitment, she called on others in the global North to increase climate finance transfers to the global South.
Ireland’s Prime Minister Micheal Martin pointed to climate events around the globe and noted that people in the poorest parts of the world are being driven from home regions that can no longer support them. He cited our responsibility to future generations, adding that “as leaders, it is our responsibility” to drive the needed transformation. He pointed to Ireland’s legally binding emissions reduction targets, and its doubling of climate finance funding by 2025 – and he concluded with an action call, noting that every tonne of carbon warms the world, and every delay makes our task larger.
So to me, the recognition of the need for concrete actions from many developed world leaders to address climate change and assist vulnerable nations is clear and encouraging.
Getting Real, Getting Transparent
Also on the action theme, Philip Davis, Prime Minister of the Bahamas, made a unique call to the developed world nations. Noting that while he was speaking his countrymen were preparing for yet another powerful storm, Davis made a simple request: “Let’s get real.”
Davis stated that the 1.5°C goal is on life support and called for conference members to confront that radical truth.
He correctly noted that without action, the impacts of climate change will only get worse, driving more extreme geo-political and economic uncertainty.
And he brought this back to self-interest, questioning the leaders of the world what it was worth to them to prevent tens (or hundreds) of millions of climate refugees. Similarly, he pointed to industry, noting that without action to address climate change through a transition to clean energy, their profits were in jeopardy.
Davis reiterated that we need to get real about what’s coming, and what we need to do next. And he called for those organizations with climate smart solutions to partner with the Bahamas to address their front-line vulnerabilities and turn them into cutting edge solutions all nations.
A final encouraging point on the action front involves the work of Al Gore and ClimateTrace.org, which, as UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres noted in his introduction, will be “ushering in an era of radical transparency for emissions tracking” to plug critical data gaps and guide climate action through measurement.
Gore and team led a powerful presentation (link here) describing how human-generated emissions are driving climate change, detailing the impact with a number of compelling statistics and images on environmental, social, and financial costs. Among those statistics, Gore noted that 20 of the 21 hottest years ever measured with instruments have occurred since 2002, and the eight hottest years have been the last eight. He added that this past summer was Europe’s hottest ever, with multiple heat records broken.
Gore also pointed to the economic cost of extreme weather disasters ($2.5 trillion in the past decade) from storm damage, infrastructure loss, species extinction, famine, climate refugees, etc.), adding that climate change is the number one threat to the global economy.
Thereafter, Gore turned to the positive, stating that the world is now at a turning point, and that we have the needed solutions to address fossil fuel-generated emissions. On a compelling note, he added that “enough solar energy reaches Earth every hour to fill all the world’s energy needs for one year.” Further, he noted that renewables made up 90% of all net new electricity capacity added in 2020, and that within the next two years solar and wind were expected to be the cheapest source of energy.
He then detailed the work of ClimateTrace.org, which uses satellites and remote sensing technologies to measure emissions at the source. This transparent reporting allows policymakers, business leaders, and other stakeholders to understand where emissions are coming from and how much each site is creating – which in turn allows for planning and prioritization efforts on how to target those emissions for reduction.
Coinciding with COP27, ClimateTrace.org released its inventory of emissions sites in over 200 countries, which included more than 70,000 of the largest point sources around the globe in 20 sectors – and the organization will provide data (at no cost) to any nation seeking to develop net zero plans.
Inspiration to Move Forward
Paul Hawken once stated that “If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand the data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse.”
I had that feeling at COP27 as I sat in on many sessions, reflected on powerful messaging, explored numerous pavilions, conversed with multi-disciplinary thought leaders, and heard from a very engaged youth contingent.
I noted the energy, the focus on food, and the power in the action calls from the front lines. And I noted what seemed like a fairly robust feeling of responsibility to assist vulnerable countries in addressing the impacts of climate change, which of course ultimately led to a significant agreement on Loss and Damage funding.
For anyone spending much time at this COP, it was hard not to pick up on the urgency theme, and it was also hard not to be inspired by the many innovation efforts and action calls.
As noted above, Palau’s President Whipps reminded us that nothing is impossible if the nations of the world work collaboratively.
And Bahamian President Davis challenged, it’s time to get real.
In concluding his presentation, Al Gore referenced the IEA’s recent report in reiterating that we have all of the technologies needed to achieve the needed deep cuts in global emissions by 2030, and the policies to deploy them are proven.
He also referenced a compelling line from poet Wallace Stevens: After the final no there comes a yes, and on that yes the future world depends.
Poignantly, Gore suggested that “we are now getting to the final no’s” and are moving toward the yes that will accelerate the transition to sharp emissions reduction and a sustainable future.”
These are all inspirational points to guide our actions and behavior change efforts as we move forward facing Sustainable Development Goals and emissions reduction goals that are squarely on the near-term horizon. Echoing them:
Let’s get real.
Let’s work through the final no’s that block urgent action for emissions reduction in multiple sectors.
And perhaps most important, let’s overcome the distance gap and put ourselves in the place of front-line countries like Palau and other vulnerable regions, and act collaboratively with urgency as if nothing is impossible.