Trust and ambition - the Cambridge Zero Policy Forum analyse COP27

13 January 2023

Trust and ambition - the Cambridge Zero Policy Forum analyse COP27

Reported by Meg Groom, PhD student, Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge

In November 2022, members of the Cambridge Zero Policy Forum gathered at Darwin College, Cambridge to discuss the outcomes of COP27. Several members of the Forum attended the COP in person, which was held in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. Others chose to attend online, and some closely followed reports in their specialist areas.

For those that attended, there was agreement that COP27 felt disjointed and lacked the action necessary to reach climate targets. Participants described the COPs as a five-ring circus, ranging from country and organisation pavilions, negotiations and experts events to education or protest agendas, like several COPs taking place alongside each other, each offering a different experience to the Parties, observers and other stakeholders. Overall, this lunchtime discussion reflected on the emerging themes of trust and ambition from COP27.

Egypt as the host

One topic of discussion was the location of this year’s UN Climate Conference. There was agreement across the Forum that it was positive that the COP was held in Africa. However, some raised the concern that the increasing size and scale of the COP could potentially put unnecessary strain on future hosts from the Global South. Some participants who have attended many COPs felt the absence of protestors and usually strong and vibrant presence of the host country’s student community. In addition to the restrictions on protests, some participants were critical of the Presidency’s discussion during the COP opening about the role of oil and gas in decarbonising. As such, there was a balanced analysis of the benefits of hosting the COP27 in Egypt against the tone it set for climate negotiations and the restrictions in access for some civil society and student voices.

Political outcomes

Overall, there was a sense that COP27 simultaneously had high expectations imposed by the previous COP in Glasgow and was destined to not meet these expectations. The clear success of COP27 identified by participants was the agreement of a loss and damage fund. The efforts of over 134 highly climate vulnerable countries to secure this outcome were highlighted with respect. However, participants were sceptical of how to ensure that the currently nearly ‘empty envelope’ would be funded beyond the commitments of the EU and other countries, particularly given that previous targets for climate finance support from developed countries had not been fully realised. Some participants felt that the UK should take a leading role in this effort, especially given British commitments on finance in Glasgow, and the country’s leadership in designing the finance roadmap, together with others, that underpins the Paris Agreement. Participants in the discussion recognised that in the build up to Sharm El-Sheikh mistrust between the Global North and Global South has been driven by many factors including COVID-19 vaccine availability and the triple crises of energy, food and cost of living, largely caused by a conflict in the Global North. Whilst it was acknowledged that the loss and damage fund may have alleviated some distrust between developed and climate vulnerable countries, there was a sense that it wasn’t enough on its own to bridge the gap.

Another positive highlighted was the Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP) announced for Indonesia at the G20, following the launch of the first JETP for South Africa at COP26. There was reported encouraging interest from African nations on setting up structures analogous to the UK Committee on Climate Change and the European Scientific Advisory Board on Climate Change. A further positive highlight included the Climate Law and Governance Initiative, partly led by Cambridge law and public policy experts, which had pledged in Glasgow to accelerate capacity from 600 to 6,000 specialists by 2024, and had trained over 1,600 further registrants from over 140 countries through Climate Law and Governance Day 2022 and a legal specialisation course held entirely online during COP27, with extra access for learners from Egypt and North Africa. Participants were positive about these cross-national partnerships, however, they did not feel that these isolated points of progress outshone the tangible sense that limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees was in doubt and in danger. Looking to 2023, Policy Forum members who attended this discussion seek proactive steps to move from the implementation ‘theme’ of COP27 to the vitally necessary actual implementation and delivery on the ground, and globally.

The Green Zone

For Forum members who attended COP27, the Green Zone felt isolated from the negotiations, though it featured many thought-provoking and educational art, music, film and other exhibitions designed to inform, innovate and inspire participants. The Green Zone is normally designed for outreach, especially to encourage wider stakeholder participation in climate change action, including and featuring participants from academia, business, youth, civil and indigenous society of the host country and regions. Again, seasoned COP attendees expressed sadness at not seeing the usual protests, members of the public, or student participants.

Commercial representation

The role of commercial representatives from fossil fuel and other industries also sparked debate amongst the lunch attendees. Forum members felt this year’s commercial representation was the largest yet. Some participants felt that it was talking to itself. There was debate about the representation of fossil fuel and meat-based food lobbyists. Some participants didn’t feel they should be as strongly represented, whilst others felt it was important that they are part of the discussion and solutions. One participant felt that there was progress from COP26, noticing that many roundtables had matured from discussing ambitions to showcasing pilot projects. On the theme of translating ambition to actions, research was highlighted that shows climate commitments by corporations do not match the actual emissions reductions observed.

Youth representation

Whilst there wasn't the same buzz of youth-led protests in Sharm El-Sheikh, the youth representatives at COP27 left a marked impression on members of the Policy Forum who attended. The enthusiasm, motivation and fear for the future held by young people at COP27 was presented to the discussion. The real risk of disillusionment was raised, one participant felt the youth were frustrated at the lack of progress in the negotiation process. They did not feel that COP was promising the appropriate rate of change. This raised the question of the role of universities like Cambridge to empower and impassion the youth, equipping them with evidence and the necessary skills to drive change themselves. Some participants were also concerned that, absent proper context, youth from Global North institutions who arrive to negotiations expecting to draft agreements on behalf of governments might end up both missing out on a broader potential contribution to climate action, while also inadvertently reducing the voice and space of least-represented countries and communities. There was agreement that universities need to reflect on their role in relation to COP, and the young people they educate.

Trust and ambition

As the lunch came to a close, participants recognised that the theme of trust was woven throughout the discussion. The Cambridge Zero Policy Forum reflected on the dire impacts of climate change being felt worldwide for humanity and all species, the increasing distrust leading into COP27, and their hope for opportunities to build trust through response funds and partnerships. Specific political and commercial partnerships were discussed, but there was also an acknowledgement of the important role that unofficial partnerships play in the background.

Overall, the participants agreed that while there were positive and exciting discussions at COP27, that greater action is needed. Many felt frustrated and worried that this lack of action was also likely to feature at the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15) in Montreal. They hope to see the ambition of nations and corporations mature to implementation and delivery for COP28 in Dubai.

Resources highlighted during discussion

Image by Mika Baumeister from Unsplash