A while back, I used to be a climate finance negotiator for Israel in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meetings. I would spend most hours in discussions or consultations with little time or interest to explore the premises and see the pavilions, hubs, zones, exhibitions, side events, or whatever else the COPs had to offer. Despite my apperception that without the existence of a supranational entity—which would sandbag states to comply with international law or agreements—our world is doomed to reach the lowest common denominator, I did my best to contribute even a little to the joint effort to reach meaningful action on climate finance.
Climate Champions, Global Ambassadors, and climate influencers, observers have, to a certain extent, the ability to impact the outcomes of the negotiations.
Yet, this was in the past. This year, I arrived at the 27th
Conference of the Parties (COP27
) in the resort town of Sharm El-Sheikh with an Observer Organisation. Observer organisations
are an important part of the UNFCCC framework because they represent the views and interests of non-state actors, either the United Nations System and its Specialised Agencies, Inter-governmental organisations, or non-governmental organisations (NGOs). NGOs at the COP
consist of representatives from the private sector, environmental groups, farmers and indigenous populations, local governments and municipal authorities, research and academic institutions, labor unions, and women, gender and youth groups. Along with individuals like activists, Climate Champions, Global Ambassadors
, and climate influencers, observers have, to a certain extent, the ability to impact the outcomes of the negotiations.
My obligations this year did leave some time to wander about and see what COP27 has to offer with regards to side events, exhibitions, and social activities. While strolling around the boundless and busy passageways of the venue, I couldn't help having the feeling that most of the people there were useless for the primary purpose of the COP and it was more of a festival or even a fair than anything else, just like the Eurosatory or the ITB Berlin in their respective industries. The profusion of people who are holding the COP “Party Overflow” badges (those people who are sent by the Parties, but not for the negotiations part of the COP) illustrates this well. In addition, the number of events and activities during the COP is so ridiculous that just riffling through all the lists of events in the different zones takes hours. Going around the vast areas of the venue is excruciating and exhausting, and, except during the early or late hours of the day, are crammed with people, which just demonstrates how many people are at the venues.
The profusion of people who are holding the COP “Party Overflow” badges (those people who are sent by the Parties, but not for the negotiations part of the COP) illustrates this well.
The commotion and social activities at the COP are decoys which make people forget we are at war. Climate change is a war. We are at war with ourselves. At the high-level opening of the conference, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres
said that humanity faces a stark choice between a Climate Solidarity Pact or a Collective Suicide Pact in the battle against global warming. He added, "We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot still on the accelerator." In such circumstances, high-level side events, cocktails, and social events make delegates forget the severity of the situation.
One can appreciate the COP being a good opportunity for the whole climate community to convene in one place, exchange opinions, showcase new technologies, and present new strategies and best practices. In just one day, participants can have a dozen in-person meetings with people from a dozen different countries. Indeed, there are positive points with the format; I can even testify to that myself. Activists can also lead at the COP publicised demonstrations and protests that create resonance. However, one can also ask whether the benefits of the festival side of the COP exceed the costs, including the environmental costs and carbon footprint.
In June of this year, Egypt's Minister of the Environment, Dr. Yasmin Fouad signed a document for the transfer US $7 million aimed to transform Sharm El-Sheikh into a Green City
in preparation for the conference. According to reports
, to accommodate the transportation needs of the thousands of participants and the electricity to power the venues, a fleet of electric vehicles and installations of solar panels have been brought to Sharm El-Sheikh. In addition, hotels have also adopted green practices, including proper wastewater management, recycling, the use of renewables, and energy efficiency practices.
Activists can also lead at the COP publicised demonstrations and protests that create resonance.
Making COP itself net zero
These are all nice to have, but I would like to challenge the UNFCCC, the Parties to the Convention and their climate commitments and actions. According to the Climate Action Tracker
, as of November 2022, around 140 countries have announced or are considering net zero targets, covering close to 90 percent of global emissions. Net Zero
refers to a state in which the Greenhouse Gases (GHGs) emitted into the atmosphere are balanced by removal out of the atmosphere. To reach net zero carbon emissions, countries would need to increase the use of renewable energy, use natural climate solutions, and transition from high emitting GHG technologies into low, zero and negative (i.e., carbon removal) emitting technologies. Only when these mitigation actions are exhausted, according to the net-zero concept, offsets (paying someone else to cut your GHG emissions) can be used.
It would be a useful exercise for the UN, the host countries and all the participants at the annual climate change COPs to have the annual convention become a net-zero event, addressing all three Scopes
: Scope 1 GHG emissions (direct emissions), Scope 2 (indirect emissions from purchased electricity or heating/cooling) and Scope 3 (indirect downstream or upstream emissions). Yes, this would require all the stakeholders to take note of their carbon emissions and identify, estimate, and measure direct and indirect GHG emissions. In fact, it would require measuring the carbon emissions for every activity across the whole value and supply chains, and afterwards reducing them to zero. The Parties to the Convention and the UN would have to operationalise the GHG Protocol
, which has become the most acceptable global standardised framework to measure and manage GHG emissions from private and public sector operations, value chains, and mitigation actions.
Net Zero refers to a state in which the Greenhouse Gases (GHGs) emitted into the atmosphere are balanced by removal out of the atmosphere.
Participants would have to disclose and offset their carbon footprint with regards to their participation at the COP at a certified and UN-verified offsetting provider to avoid greenwashing. Suppliers would also be required to reach a net zero carbon bottom-line and enter the carbon market. This complexity might discourage many from being a part of the event. Perhaps sponsors like Coca Cola, an official sponsor for COP27
and the world's biggest plastic polluter, would find it difficult to comply in the near future with such a decision. Not only that, but the organisers would have to conduct several due diligence processes to avoid greenwashing of carbon accounting and greenwashing in the offsetting industry, just like any other entity which truly wants to become net-zero.
This seems like a very complicated bound-to-fail task, especially when the suppliers of equipment, transportation, food and beverages, accommodation and so forth are probably decades away from transforming into net-zero. Countries that have indicated their willingness or thought of suggesting themselves as potential future hosts of the COPs might be reluctant to do so because of the idiosyncrasies of a net-zero event. However, one should ask: If you cannot have one net-zero event per year, how can one expect whole countries to become net zero? Most probably, in the first years, offsetting would have a much higher share in the total reduction of carbon emissions generated by the event, nevertheless, the UNFCCC can, like countries, create its own net-zero COP transition plan, which will set specific goals for future meetings.
Countries that have indicated their willingness or thought of suggesting themselves as potential future hosts of the COPs might be reluctant to do so because of the idiosyncrasies of a net-zero event.
One should appreciate the benefits of such a process. Adopting a net-zero strategy for the COP for the coming years would push the whole ecosystem into full swing. It would help consolidate the practices related to the green transition. It would accelerate the adoption of carbon accounting standards and the creation of market solutions for organisations and individuals in need of eliminating their carbon emissions. It would also shift more investments towards carbon removal technologies and would mainstream all the terms used in this article to other groups of society who are not familiar (yet) with the jargon.
While the concept of net-zero events has already sprung into the creation of companies assisting those who desire them, the UNFCCC should, by all means, be the first in line to go through such a process. The annual event of those who decide or work in the field of mitigating or adapting to the effects of climate change should spearhead the whole revolution necessary to stay on the path of limiting global warming to 1.5°C degrees. While conducting such a pilot, decision makers will be exposed to information regarding the difficulties and all the intricacies of implementing net-zero. After all, the Egyptian Presidency has set the focus of COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh on "Delivering on the Promises of Paris
" and "Moving from Pledges to Implementation". Well, here's one idea for implementation.
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