COP27 isn’t going to solve the climate crisis — you are

A sobering reminder outside the Climate Action Innovation Zone

Attending COP27 was an emotional rollercoaster. It started at 3am on the first Monday when I stepped onto the conference bus in Sharm El Sheikh airport. I heard so many different languages being spoken, and was immediately struck by the heroic humanity of it all: 45,000 people gathering from every corner of the globe, united in our fight against the climate crisis (apart from the record breaking 636 fossil fuel lobbyists that is).

A jam packed 4 days followed, covering the Blue Zone (where the Government delegates conduct the negotiations), the Green Zone (the other official zone, but more accessible), the Climate Action Innovation Zone (one of the largest fringe events), and side events hosted by the New York Times, Sekem & The Future Economy Forum, and EIT Food. It was a baptism of fire on all things climate. Here are some of the key takeaways from my time on the ground.

Things are grim

As Antonio Guterres, Secretary General of the UN said, “We are on a highway to climate hell, with our foot on the accelerator”. Indeed, it turns out that the COVID-19 pandemic caused barely a blip in the upwards trajectory of carbon emissions:

And the G20 countries who are responsible for 83% of emissions, are all a long, long way away from where we need them to be (red is where they’re currently heading, green is where they need to be):

We also heard that the current commitments of publicly listed companies have us on a path towards 2.9C of warming, not the 1.5C we so desperately need to keep alive:

Missing voices

The omission of women and young people in particular amongst the core COP negotiators was much discussed, especially given that they are most affected by the climate crisis. Representatives from marginalised communities kept telling me: “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu”. For COP28 we absolutely need to ensure that women and young people are represented amongst the official negotiations, rather than being relegated to the side events as they were for COP27.

No urgency

Walking round COP27 it felt like an enormous business-as-usual expo, rather than the powerful response to the climate emergency that we need it to be. I’m convinced this lack of urgency was largely due to the absence of protestors, and so was absolutely *thrilled* to stumble across 4 brave souls briefly protesting outside the Blue Zone. I couldn’t help but give one of them a hug and say thank you, only to discover she was an OLIOer from Singapore! It’s absolutely critical that for COP28 the spirit of protest is back in full force, holding world leaders to account, insisting they go much further, faster.

The ‘implementation’ COP

Last year’s Glasgow COP26 was historic due to the number of commitments made around crucial topics such as fossil fuel financing, deforestation and methane. In contrast, this year’s COP felt distinctly low key as the Egyptian presidency positioned it as the “implementation” COP. And quite rightly so — the time for talk is over, what we need now is action. However with a lack of bold commitments, and with the data showing how horribly off track we are, not to mention all the greenwashing on display, it all added up to a distinctly depressing state of affairs. It was also deeply concerning to hear the CEO of Roland Berger (a global consulting firm to many of the world’s leading companies) tell us that sustainability and innovation are nowhere near the top of the agenda for corporations as they instead lurch from crisis to crisis. And whilst there were plenty of encouraging words from the stages about the “enormous business opportunity” the climate crisis presents, it all felt far too hollow and distant given the tangible action we so desperately need right now.

Perspective is everything

Some of the most poignant COP conversations were the random ones had whilst crammed into the back of a bus or taxi as you shuttled from venue to venue. One that particularly struck me was with a negotiator from Kiribathi — a Pacific island state that according to the IPCC will be underwater by 2050. Through our conversation it became clear that when you have a death sentence over your community, all this talk of emissions reduction is irrelevant. What you need is proper compensation to secure the fate of your people. That’s why COP27’s legacy will without doubt be the historic breakthrough agreement made in the final hours to set up a proper ‘loss and damage’ mechanism, so that the climate polluters provide financing to the countries most impacted. However, given developed countries have so far failed miserably to honour their existing commitment of $100 billion p.a. of climate financing, I’m not yet holding much hope for this loss and damage fund. Especially given that the hard work of who gives what to whom, and when, is still to be thrashed out in 2023.

The USA has only paid 5% of its share of the $100bn in annual climate financing owed to developing countries, whilst the UK has paid only ~50%

Food is HARD

A real bright light of COP27 was the fact that for the first time ever there was proper discussion about the role of the food system in the climate crisis. This is long overdue given the global food system accounts for over 30% of all emissions and is the largest emitting sector. It was also enormously reassuring to hear food waste specifically called out in multiple sessions; and I had the great honour of speaking about our work at OLIO on the Food Systems Pavilion in the Blue Zone on the second day.

Whilst this presence of the food system in the pavilions and side events was wonderful given its prior absence, it’s still not enough. Next year we need food systems and food waste to be included within the main negotiations themselves; and that’s why in the lead up to COP28 the OLIO team will be doing all we can to support the WRAP and WWF “123 initiative” that was launched at COP27 which aims to get countries and companies committing to reporting and reducing food waste.

Speaking to other delegates about why food has been historically excluded, the conclusion was that it’s because fixing the food system is going to be really, really, hard — much harder than decarbonising energy and transport which have been the focus to date. However with almost 10 billion people to feed by 2050, and global food production needing to increase by 60% in order to do so, it’s absolutely imperative that we tackle this elephant in the room.

We all need to be hummingbirds

Whilst there was undeniably some positive progress made at COP27, my overwhelming take away, sadly, was that COP is not going to solve the climate crisis. And it appears I’m not alone:

103 results from a poll I ran with other COP27 attendees on various Whatsapp groups

So what should we do? The answer I think lies in a parable that a young delegate from Kenya shared with me… A forest is on fire. All the animals flee the forest, and look on helplessly as their home burns. The little hummingbird however flies to the nearest river and fills its tiny beak with water and starts to go back and forth putting out the forest fire. The other bigger animals, such as the elephant with its trunk that could carry much more water, ask the hummingbird what it is doing. And the hummingbird replies: “I’m doing the best that I can.”

Given the woeful failing of our Governments, businesses and finance institutions, it’s clear to me that we all need to harness our inner hummingbird and start to be the change that we wish to see — in our homes, in our workplaces, in our voting and in our activism.

Carbon dioxide levels in the air over the past 60 years with notable scientific warnings and political meetings. Data source: NOAA, Credit: Bart Roossien

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Co-Founder & CEO of Olio, the local sharing app. Getting my head around the climate crisis. Passionate about sustainability, startups & diversity.

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Tessa Clarke

Co-Founder & CEO of Olio, the local sharing app. Getting my head around the climate crisis. Passionate about sustainability, startups & diversity.