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Egypt takes heat for hosting chaotic U.N. climate summit

Diplomats and activists have criticized Egypt for presiding over a climate change conference characterized by delays and shouting matches over human rights

Attendees arrive at the U.N. Climate Change Conference, known as COP27, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. (Islam Safwat/Bloomberg)

Alden Meyer has attended 26 of 27 U.N. climate change conferences, crisscrossing the globe each year to pressure diplomats to strike deals that will slow the Earth’s catastrophic warming. But he has never seen a summit this chaotic and behind schedule.

Meyer, a senior associate at the independent climate think tank E3G, laid blame squarely on the Egyptian hosts of this year’s conference, known as COP27, for failing to anticipate and address some of the thorniest issues facing negotiators, such as the contentious debate over whether wealthy nations should compensate poor countries for the costs of coping with disasters fueled by climate change.

“They got off to a slower start, and all the big negotiating issues are still on the table,” Meyer said in an interview from the bustling conference venue in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh. “So they are a little behind the curve and playing catch-up to try to get an acceptable outcome.”

Unlike past hosts, Egypt has taken a haphazard approach to organizing the high-stakes negotiations, according to interviews with half a dozen diplomats, activists and other longtime observers of the talks. The approach threatens to undermine global progress on climate action at a critical time — top scientists say the world has only nine years to stave off the dire consequences of unchecked global warming, from vanishing coral reefs to intensifying extreme weather events.

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From the outset, observers had lower expectations for this summit, which comes as Russia’s war in Ukraine squeezes global energy markets and the fossil fuel industry experiences a remarkable rebound. But veteran negotiators say Egyptian diplomats have further eroded the prospects for progress by failing to communicate their top priorities or anticipate the issue of “loss and damage” — the irreversible, unavoidable impacts of climate change — that has dominated the discussions.

“To be an effective COP president, you have to be clear on what you want to achieve,” said Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, the former environmental minister of Peru who served as president of the COP20 climate talks in Lima.

“That has not been clear this COP,” said Pulgar-Vidal, who is now the global lead for climate and energy with the World Wildlife Fund. “So we are suffering from a lack of clear vision.”

Egypt’s record on human rights has also come under intense scrutiny, and has at times siphoned attention away from the climate negotiations, observers say.

As the conference opened on Nov. 6, Egypt’s most famous political prisoner, Alaa Abdel Fattah, stopped drinking water as he stepped up his 200-day hunger strike. A dual British Egyptian citizen, Abdel Fattah was a prominent activist during the country’s 2011 revolution but has spent much of the past decade in prison. Last week, a news conference devolved into a shouting match when an Egyptian lawmaker berated Abdel Fattah’s sister and was escorted out of the building by U.N. security.

Climate talks in Egypt overshadowed by shouting matches over human rights

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, the COP27 president, has criticized journalists and activists for focusing on human rights instead of climate policy, telling the Associated Press that some countries would rather “avoid having to deal with what they need to do, how they need to implement their obligations and responsibilities.”

A spokesman for Egypt’s Foreign Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

At last year’s U.N. climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, the British hosts started consulting other countries on the “cover decision” — a political document that signals a consensus among nearly 200 nations — in the first few days of the talks. By contrast, the Egyptians began these consultations on Saturday and had still not unveiled a draft of the cover decision as of Wednesday evening, midway through the second week.

The Egyptians also waited until Tuesday evening to assign ministers to moderate negotiations over the most contentious issues, increasing the likelihood that the talks will stretch into the weekend, rather than concluding Friday as planned.

A Latin American delegate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk freely, said the “Egyptians seem to have used the COP as a PR opportunity” aimed at bolstering their standing on the global stage.

“I don’t see them pushing for strong language in line with science,” the delegate said. “They won’t do [it] for language on the [phasing] out of fossil fuels in the cover decision, and they won’t do it for loss and damage.”

Further complicating matters, Egyptian officials have used the conference to strike deals to increase exports of natural gas, even as scientists say the world needs to rapidly phase out fossil fuels to avert catastrophe. The number of fossil fuel industry representatives at the conference — at least 636, according to one analysis — dwarfs the number of delegates from any single country.

“I can’t think of a COP in recent memory where the gas industry or the fossil fuel industry has been so present,” said Rachel Kyte, dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University, who has attended more than a dozen U.N. climate summits.

When past conferences have culminated in successful outcomes, the hosts have typically spent at least a year preparing for the negotiations, meeting with key world leaders and ironing out any differences. In 2015, when France hosted the summit that produced the landmark Paris climate accord, then-French President François Hollande took a “total-government approach for months in advance,” Kyte said.

Six years earlier, negotiations had spectacularly collapsed in Copenhagen, ending without an official deal. But the French managed to muster support for ambitious treaty language that called for limiting the Earth’s warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) over preindustrial levels — and ideally to the safer threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit).

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In 2010, when the talks were in Cancún, then-Mexican President Felipe Calderón and his top diplomat, Patricia Espinosa, worked for months to lay the groundwork for the creation of the Green Climate Fund, which funnels money from wealthy nations to poorer ones to cope with the ravages of climate change.

In an interview, Calderón recounted how he flew to Ethiopia before the summit to attend the Assembly of the African Union and “talked one by one with all the leaders of the African Union” about his vision for the Green Climate Fund. By the time he flew back, he said, every leader was supportive of the idea.

Today, however, Calderón said he worries that the more ambitious goal of the Paris agreement is slipping out of reach, as prospects fade for any significant agreement at the talks in Egypt and the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continues to climb.

“We are completely far away from the goal of 1.5 degrees from Paris,” he said. “It is not going to be said in the final document, but that’s the reality.”

Kyte said this year’s conference has prompted some existential questions about whether the structure of these negotiations — cramming diplomats from nearly 200 nations in close quarters for two weeks to hammer out a deal to save the planet — needs to be fundamentally reexamined.

“There are some legitimate questions about how we organize these COPs,” she said. “You hear these questions asked every year, but especially in a year when it feels like the pace of progress is really wildly at odds with what we need.”

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