The recently concluded 27th Conference of Parties (COP27) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, went in the way of rituals and did not rise beyond the low bars set by previous editions. Well, maybe it rose above the bar in one aspect which could be considered, more or less, the brightest glimmer of hope, appearing in the extended time of the conference. For those who were keeping vigil on the deliberations, it was a roller coaster session. Hope glimmered when many nations unexpectedly rose to say that fossil fuels, all of them, should be phased out, not just the phasing down of unabated coal as was cockily suggested at Glasgow. Recall that Glasgow only talked of phasing down (not phasing out) of unabated coal (not all coal). Observers gasped and yelped as some nations notorious for blocking any attempt to name fossil fuels as the driver of global heating in the official negotiations shifted positions. However, the flickering candle was snuffed and smashed at the final plenary. So it came to pass, that a handful of nations, including Saudi Arabia and China, threatened to scuttle the entire COP if fossil fuels were called out and their obituary announced.
Why is the COP playing the ostrich and burying its head in the sand by being unwilling to accept that fossil fuels are literally burning the planet and that the real climate action is to phase out the polluters? How come everyone knows that up to 89 percent of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere emerged from the burning of fossil fuels but the COP choses to ignore this truth? How come even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) which is the COP’s thinking hat says that fossil fuels must be addressed, yet the COP plays deaf? The simple answer is that the swarm of over 600 fossil fuel lobbyists at the COP, with some on official national delegations, simply would not allow reason to triumph over profit. And, as expected, African nations asserted their right to use fossil fuels as the means towards developing their nations even if the dangerously polluting pathways that the industrialised nations used brought the world to where we are now. That argument sounds more like the swan song of a fossil fuel industry desperate to keep itself on life support. And, of course, there is no shared understanding of what the development the African leaders speak of looks like.
Some of us expect leaders in the Global South to demand the payment of the climate debt and a stoppage of accumulating further debt by halting dependence on fossil fuels. The jinx and allure of the fossil age must be broken. It is time to quit denial and accept that fossil fuels must be fossilized. African nations are right to be concerned by poor levels of energy penetration on the continent. However, it is essential to point out that this cannot be solved by allowing fossil fuel corporations to get away with murder, ecocide, and human rights abuses just so that you have fossil fuels to export. Do the leaders not realise that 89 percent of fossil fuels infrastructure in Africa serve export purposes and that Africa’s extractive sector employs less that 1 percent of Africa’s workforce? Moreover, only 5percent of the investment in the sector is done in Africa. Testimonies from oilfield or minefield communities are tales of woes, pains, poverty, and death. With the scramble for new fossil fuels development on the coastline of the continent and virtually all the deltas the continent is the last ditch stand by the fossil fuels speculators and companies.
Assault on the Deltas
The deltas under assault in Africa include the Zambezi Delta in Sofala and Zambézia Provinces of Mozambique; the notoriously ruined Niger Delta in Nigeria; Okavango Delta in Namibia/Botswana and the
Saloum Delta in Sénégal. Add to that the lakes and rivers in the Albertine Rift Valley and the Virunga Park and the continent and the world are set to lose major biodiversity hotspots, protected areas and UNESCO world heritage sites.
The resistance by communities, fishers and knowledge holders in South Africa and elsewhere clearly show that the industry is unwanted by the people and that their persistence is nothing but a waging of war against the people and planet. We should add, too, that militarization, violence, and conflicts are the templates on which the industry constructs its ever-rising inordinate profits.
Considering the above, it should be clear that fossil fuel extraction in Africa has little to do with employment, energy supply or boosting local economies. It is all about meeting the appetite for inordinate profits and of fossil fuels addicts. It is time to rethink the hard-headed marriage with the polluters.
A Harsh Reality
Just before COP27, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) issued an Emissions Gap report that aggregated the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) that countries have made under the Paris Agreement and concluded that the puny pledges would do nothing to ward off impending catastrophic global heating. In fact, the report highlighted that the world should prepare for a temperature rise as high as 2.8 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels by the close of this century. The report emphasised that the window to avert climate catastrophe was rapidly closing and that the world needs urgent transformation and deep actions to cut emissions by at least 45 percent by 2030.
The first jolt of COP27 was the release of a concept note on carbon removal activities under the Article 6.4 of the Paris Agreement. That document defined carbon removals thus: Carbon dioxide removal (CDR) refers to anthropogenic activities that remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere and ensure its long-term storage in terrestrial, geological, or ocean reservoirs, or in long-lasting products. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) and carbon capture and utilisation (CCU) can be part of CDR methods if the CO2 has been captured from the atmosphere, either indirectly in the form of biomass or directly from ambient air, and stored over the long term in geological reservoirs or long-lasting products.
Two things among others in the concept note raised concern. First, the reference to storage in ocean reservoirs. While it is not clear what these reservoirs would be, it signals a huge threat to ocean ecosystems. This was roundly denounced by groups such as the FishNet Alliance because using the ocean as carbon reservoirs or for any other geoengineering experimentation could sound the death knell for their livelihoods, cultures and spirituality. The notion of long-term storage suggests that there will be a terminal point or a time when the storage would cease to work. That means that the proponents of such measures are laying a load of trouble on future generations. Secondly, carbon capture and utilisation and indeed the entire paragraph reads like something lifted from the playbook of the fossil fuels industry. Before geoengineering entered the climate debate, oil companies had been capturing carbon and reinjecting into wells to push out more crude oil for burning and releasing of yet more carbon. If this specious definition is accepted, fossil fuel companies would be earning credits for committing more climate crimes by pumping more and more carbon into the atmosphere. It would again illustrate the hypocrisy of the carbon trading non-solutions and the net zero propositions, keep dirty fuels in business and allow the planet to hurtle to cataclysmic climate impacts.
For many nations and the fossil fuels lobby COP27 was a huge carbon trade fair. However, for civil society groups, indigenous groups, youths, women, and people of faith, it was a great space for interactions, networking, learning and actions. Real and actionable climate solutions were offered while the negotiators were largely busy wordsmithing and birthing non-solutions.
Lost and Damaged
The shining light of COP27 was the decision to have Loss and Damage. The Parties decided “to establish new funding arrangements for assisting developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change, in responding to loss and damage, including with a focus on addressing loss and damage by providing and assisting in mobilizing new and additional resources, and that these new arrangements complement and include sources, funds, processes and initiatives under and outside the Convention and the Paris Agreement.” The COP came to this decision after acknowledging “the urgent and immediate need for new, additional, predictable and adequate financial resources to assist developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change in responding to economic and non-economic loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change, including extreme weather events and slow onset events, especially in the context of ongoing and ex post (including rehabilitation, recovery and reconstruction) action.”
Having Loss and Damage is indeed historic. However, the nitty gritty of the mechanisms to bring it to life is yet to be negotiated. Already there are signals that the USA and some others do not see the decision to have Loss and Damage as having anything to do with reparations or liability. What this portends is that unless those who have already been damaged by global warming speak up and insist that the unfolding crisis has both historical and systemic roots, this may be another tiresome ritual of quirky charity. Another bone that will have to be picked, will be how this relates to the already existing Green Climate Fund and how rich nations who have not met pledges made since COP15 will cross the hurdle to Loss and Damage. This may well be the pivotal time to go beyond celebrating the possibility of payments for loss and damage and demand the payment of a Climate Debt accumulated over centuries of exploitation, despoliation, imperial and colonial plunder. Loss and Damage cannot be charity.
An African COP?
Some had called COP27 the Africa COP but that was mere wishful thinking. Although the COP was held in Africa it did nothing to assure that temperature increases will not burn or cook the continent. Except for the acceptance of Loss and Damage there is no hope that more financial flows will come to the region. With our leaders insisting on digging up more fossil fuels, the hope of rescuing our environment continues to dim. The answer to the question as to what was gained at Sharm El Sheikh is thus blowing in the wind.
Seeing the Red Sea
Sharm El Sheikh is quite a peculiar place. While some could not gain accreditation to attend the COP, the hospitality businesses in the city squeezed all the profits they could from those who could. The people were generally friendly, and the taxi drivers were routinely kind enough to put out their ubiquitous cigarettes as a mark of courtesy. A ride on the Red Sea in a glass bottomed boats was a delight as one could see the state of the coral reefs in the area. Those who found time to visit Mount Sinai came back with tales of getting to the location of the Burning Bush that radically altered the trajectory of the life of Moses in the Bible. For this writer, the highlight of the two weeks in the Sinai Peninsular city were three guys. The first was the guy who took care of my hotel room and was lavish in the display of his artistic creativity. One day he used the towels in the room to create a heart and decorated it with bougainvillea flowers. On another day he used an assortment of items to create a baboon and hung it over the head of the bed. Swans were routine designs. The one that was an overkill was when he used my pyjamas, sandals, hat and pillows to create a full-bodied human form on the bed. It was not a good omen as it spoke to me of a dead or damaged COP. I was happy it was the day to leave and head home!
The other guys who made the stay exciting worked in a panoramic restaurant. They were jolly good fellows who offered excellent service and would get you to enjoy the delicacies they offered until your wallet wept for mercy. Medhat was one of the guys and was popularly known as Mike Tyson, because people said they had a resemblance. The other guy was Rabea, a very engaging guy who paid close attention to what you needed. And they often tried to make us dance, but the music in my head was a sombre climate negotiations elegy. Next time perhaps.