Katherine Cann, a PhD student in the department of Geography, shares her reflections on attending this year’s Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC), or COP27, with a delegation from Rutgers University. The delegation included Robin Leichenko, Professor of Geography and Co-Director of the Rutgers Climate Institute; Danielle Falzon, Assistant Professor of Sociology; Isatis Cintrón-Rodriguez, PhD Candidate in Atmospheric Chemistry; Shimbi Rhode, a Mandela Washington Fellow at Rutgers; and Rokiatou Traore, Mandela Washington Fellow at Rutgers and Executive Manager of the Herou Alliance. Cann’s research centers on just adaptation to climate change in urban coastal environments in the Northeast United States.
Flying into Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, the host for COP27, I started to gain an understanding of why the city is an international tourist destination. The resort town where the expansive desert of the southern Sinai Peninsula meets the turquoise waters of the northern Red Sea is normally a hotspot for beach goers and SCUBA enthusiasts from around the world. However, from November 6-18 of this year, Sharm El Sheikh was hosting different visitors—climate negotiators, researchers, heads of state, and advocates from an estimated 190 countries across the globe. Participants of COP27 were gathered in Egypt to chart a path forward in international climate action and to take stock of national commitments made under the Kyoto Protocol and Paris climate agreements. Negotiators had a lot to address: in 2022, an estimated 37.5 billion tons of carbon were emitted from fossil fuels, a new record high. Scientists warn that under current emissions trajectories, the world will warm by 1.5 degrees C, the aspirational limit set under the Paris Accord, in just nine years. Additionally, finance for loss and damage–compensation for climate-related destruction of properties and livelihoods in countries with historically low carbon emissions from countries with historically high carbon emissions–was on the formal agenda for the first time in UNFCCC history. Delegations from countries in the global South were determined to establish a loss and damage fund during COP27, but many wealthy countries, including the U.S., remained opposed to the idea before the conference started.
COP27 was the largest ever UN Climate Change Conference and attended by more than 49,000 people. Attendees included world leaders, government envoys, and observers from countless NGOs, corporations, and research institutions–including six researchers from Rutgers University. The conference was hosted at a sprawling indoor/outdoor complex comprising dozens of buildings linked by outdoor pathways–a navigational challenge for most participants.The first stop for all people after spiraling through a long registration and security line was to stop and stare at a giant map to attempt to find some orientation.
I arrived in Sharm El Sheikh on November 13, just ahead of the second week of COP27. Many of the 100+ heads of state had already said their piece and gone on their way. Leading climate justice advocate and Prime Minister of Barbados Mia Mottley, who spoke on the opening day of the conference, called for an overhaul in climate finance and urged industrialized countries to fund grants for rebuilding in developing nations. U. S. President Joe Biden spoke on Friday November 11, highlighting the rejoining of the Paris Accords, the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act. Biden’s speech also called on wealthy countries to support the climate transition, as well as adaptation and resilience, in developing countries, but did not reference the hot-button issue of “loss and damage.” By week two, the stage was set and negotiations were well underway.
It is difficult to overstate just how much is going on at every minute of the day at COP27. Negotiations are spread across the complex's offices and negotiating rooms with different teams working through specific articles of the UNFCCC, Kyoto Protocol, and Paris Accord treaties. I decided to sit in on some of the ongoing negotiations around the Global Goal on Adaptation (GGA). The GGA serves to elevate the role of adaptation within the UNFCCC bodies and was established under the Paris Accord in 2015. The GGA remained relatively undefined until last year at COP26 in Glasgow, when delegates came up with a two-year work plan called the Glasgow–Sharm el-Sheikh work programme (GlaSS) to turn the goal into concrete deliverables.
Negotiations took place in large rooms where Party delegates sat around long tables with microphones and placards displaying their country’s names. Large televisions placed in the center spotlighted the delegates as they offered suggestions to the texts that were being crafted over the course of the conference. As observers, we were invited to watch many negotiating sessions and even sit among the parties at the table when space permitted. Many researchers from institutions around the world were following the negotiations carefully. Danielle Falzon, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University has been following the GGA process for years. “There was some initial disagreement on what approach to take in the GlaSS next year, but in the end Parties agreed to establish a framework that will finally define clear parameters for adaptation,” Falzon explained. “This concrete outcome will help vulnerable countries assess their adaptation needs and hold wealthy countries accountable for providing them with the necessary resources and funding.” Isatis M. Cintrón-Rodriguez, Rutgers PhD Candidate in Atmospheric Chemistry, was following closely and was able to influence negotiations text in Loss and Damage and Action for Climate Empowerment, a mandate under the Paris Agreement and concrete outcome of COP27 to enhance effective public participation in climate decision-making.
In another section of the conference, through a maze of hallways, outdoor walkways, and past an elaborate Bedouin Tent decorated with carpets and curtains, the pavilion space offered additional programming. Country delegations, NGOs, and companies set up large and ornate pavilions with daily programming of panels and presentations on a host of climate themes. The host country Egypt has a tremendous pavilion highlighting recent climate action at the center of the action. The U.S. Center featured artwork from youth organizations as well as carbon capture technologies from start-up companies around the country. Pakistan’s pavilion stated boldly “What happens in Pakistan will not stay in Pakistan,” as a stark reminder of the devastating floods that have ravaged the country this year. Ukraine hosted a pavilion for the first time ever at COP and very powerfully had a display of soil samples that had been decimated by the war.
The pavilions, as well as official side events hosted by the Egyptian COP presidency, hosted thematic events highlighting best practices in climate action from all around the world. Rutgers researchers participated in a host of events. Rokiatou Traore, Mandela Washington Fellow at Rutgers and Executive Manager of the Herou Alliance, presented in multiple panels on themes ranging from ecological restoration in Mali, youth engagement on climate action, and on a UNESCO organized panel about global climate education. Within the pavilion spaces and during the side events, COP27 offered exciting opportunities for networking with other global leaders working on strategies for climate action. Traore told me via email, “[COP27] has been such an enriching experience that offered me the possibility to host strategic panels, attend the world climate summit in person, meet and interact with investors, carbon offset ventures, and with other youth from all over the world with the only vision of addressing climate change challenges.”
In the spirit of sharing climate best practices in climate action from around the world, Professor of Geography and Co-Director of the Rutgers Climate Institute Dr. Robin Leichenko shared a presentation on her work at the New York Panel on Climate Change (NPCC) at Israel’s pavilion. Following her presentation, a panel of mayors from Israel shared their city plans for climate adaptation and mitigation, prompting a rich discussion around strategies for urban climate planning around the world. Down the hall at the Locally-Led Adaptation Pavilion, Dr. Falzon moderated a panel highlighting the importance of coordinated global action on addressing loss and damage, bringing together panelists with perspectives from Bangladesh, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America.
This year was the first time COP hosted a Children and Youth Pavilion. The Children and Youth Pavilion was organized by youth-led organizations and held a variety of events drawing attention to the intergenerational impacts of climate change and the climate action agenda of youth around the world. Shimbi Rhode, a Mandela Washington Fellow at Rutgers participated in multiple events at the Children and Youth Pavilion, as well as participation in COY17, the 17th meeting of Conference of Youth, that gathered 1,100 young people from almost 150 countries in Sharm el Sheikh in the days leading up to COP27 this year. Rhode, who is from Namibia, also attended events at the Namibian Pavilion, where the country launched the Namibian Green Hydrogen agenda and the SDG Namibia One fund during the conference. Managing the current and future climate risks will require strategies that reflect and support those in the frontlines. Cintron-Rodriguez participated in two presidency events talking about public participation and the inclusion of marginalized communities, women and girls in science and climate decision-making. Additionally, Cintrón-Rodriguez shared best practices of climate governance and locally-led adaptation in side-events in the Pavilions of ICLEI, SDG, Climate Justice Pavilion, and Locally-Led Adaptation Pavilion.
Climate education was another eminent theme at COP27. Educators from around the world gathered for many events to discuss strategies for how best to translate the lessons and real time policy creation at COP back to students in the classroom. At an event in the Climate Education Hub, I was inspired to hear strategies from professors in the U.S., Egypt, Germany and elsewhere on how to best encourage climate action at universities—whether it be in classroom curriculum, via engaged and applied research projects with members of local communities, or through student participation at COP, where students can take lessons from the negotiations back to their campuses and elevate youth perspectives to policy makers.
COP27 was also a space for activism. Throughout the week, activists holding signs and sharing songs and rallying cries gathered in the hallways and courtyards within the conference complex to call for attention to climate justice, and especially the creation of a loss and damage fund. On Thursday, November 17, one of two primary plenary halls, normally reserved for high level meetings and statements from heads of state, was taken over by other constituencies to the negotiations—youth, indigenous people, women and gender, and environmental NGOs to host a “People’s Plenary” and echo the calls of activists and draw attention to the unequal outcomes in the climate crisis. As the conference drew to a close, originally planned for November 18, many were skeptical that any announcement relating to loss and damage would take place. Several wealthy countries, including the U.S, had voiced opposition earlier in the week. However, on November 20, a historic deal to establish a loss and damage fund was announced, after negotiations went into overtime behind closed doors. The details of the fund will be negotiated over the course of the next year by a transitional committee, with recommendations on further action to be presented at COP28 in Dubai. The final outcomes of COP27, released in the Sharm El Sheikh Implementation Plan, also include a recommitment to attempt to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees C above industrial levels and additional financial commitments to adaptation funding. While the establishment of the loss and damage fund represents an exciting and significant step forward in the push for global climate justice, a UN Climate Change report released just before the conference indicates that under current national commitments and policies, the world remains on track to warm by 2.5 degrees C by 2100. There remains a lot of work to be done as we look forward to COP28.