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'Cooperate or Perish': Why the UN's COP27 Climate Change Summit Is Such a Big Deal

Government officials, climate experts and activists gather in Egypt to fight for the future of our planet.

The Egyptian Pyramids illuminated with COP27 logo
The Egyptian Pyramids were illuminated to mark the start of COP27.
COP27

This story is part of CNET Zero, a series that chronicles the impact of climate change and explores what's being done about the problem.

After Hurricane Ian ravaged the US and Caribbean, a monsoon flood devastated a third of Pakistan and the hottest summer on record baked Europe, Mother Nature has shown that climate change is creating a material impact on our lives in 2022. It's too late to protect against the damage done, but there's still time to avert future tragedies.

The science is clear about how to do this: To mitigate the worst effects of the human-made climate crisis, humanity must prevent temperatures from rising 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels (we're currently at around 1.3 degrees). That benchmark represents a tipping point, after which the Earth will experience irreversible destruction. Our path to achieving this goal will require countries and businesses to halve emissions by 2030 and reach net zero before 2050.

Zooey Liao/CNET

That's why the United Nations' COP27 climate conference, which brings big companies, world leaders and environmental experts together in Sharm-el-Sheikh, Egypt, represents the best chance for everyone to get on the same page about how to deal with this crisis. 

Speaking at the event on Monday, UN Secretary General Antonio Gutteres called for a new climate pact between developed countries and emerging economies.

"Humanity has a choice: cooperate or perish," he said. "It is either a climate solidarity pact, or a collective suicide pact."

The stakes couldn't be higher: Two reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, this year have given yet more scientific backing to concerns raised by activists and climate experts that action needs to be taken urgently if we're to hit these targets and avert further crisis.

The first, published in February, said that humanity's ability to deal with climate change will become more difficult unless we rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The second, published in April, said it's still possible to halve emissions by 2030 but that it'll require immediate action.

Which is why there's no time to waste as these countries and companies come together early next month. Here's what to expect at the UN conference. 

What is COP27?

COP27 is the most important climate event to take place in 2022. 

Taking place in Egypt, from Sunday, Nov. 6, through Friday, Nov. 18, COP27 is bringing together leaders, policy makers, civil society members, activists and other climate experts from around the world for the UN Climate Change Conference.

It'll be the 27th COP -- an acronym for "conference of the parties" -- since the summit was founded in 1995. COP27 will continue the work that was done at COP26, held last November in Glasgow, Scotland, and lay the groundwork for COP28 in Dubai next year.

The two-week meeting is an opportunity for the 190-plus countries that signed up to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992 to take action to mitigate the worst effects of the climate crisis and adapt to its impacts.

A significant part of the work that takes place at the summit will involve ensuring that all 193 signatories to the 2015 Paris Agreement are doing their part to keep global temperature increases to as close to 1.5 degrees Celsius as possible, and to not let them go beyond 2 degrees Celsius.

This year's COP comes with the added complication of taking place against the backdrop of Russia's war in Ukraine, which is affecting food and energy prices globally. The invasion and its impact could affect diplomacy efforts at the summit. Egypt has urged countries to rise to the occasion and show leadership on climate in spite of geopolitical conflict.

"No country in the world disagrees on the need to move forward to show more ambition," Egyptian Ambassador Wael Aboulmagd said earlier this month at a pre-conference media briefing. "Most importantly, we urge everyone not to use this unfolding geopolitical situation as a pretext for backsliding."

Why is COP27 being called 'the African COP'?

This is the first COP held on the African continent since 2016, when COP22 took place in Marrakech, Morocco. Holding the UN summit in Africa instead of Europe gives some of the least-developed and most-affected nations an opportunity to lead the negotiations, in theory tipping the balance of power away from the dominant voices coming from Europe and US.

As a continent, Africa contributes less than 4% of global greenhouse emissions, but it suffers disproportionately from the negative impacts of climate change. Widespread drought and habitat destruction have led to conflict and the displacement of whole communities, as well as contributing to death, the spread of disease, and poverty.

Climate experts and policymakers from Africa see this year's summit as an opportunity to center Africa in global climate negotiations by addressing the lack of funding being provided for adaptation and to compensate for the losses and damages already being suffered due to climate change. "There is a legitimate grievance across the continent that many of their concerns have not been paid enough attention to," said Aboulmagd.

The Egyptian COP Presidency, which will lead this year's summit, has repeatedly expressed a desire for COP27 to prioritize loss and damage -- securing reparations for the people who are suffering immediate death and destruction due to the climate crisis but who've done the least to cause it. This is something that's of great importance not only to people in Africa, but to those living in other less-developed countries and in small island states around the world.

Last year at COP26, the language pledging to create a "loss and damage facility" (a financial mechanism) was watered down to "loss and damage dialogue" at the last minute in the Glasgow Climate Pact. But by creating an official agenda item on loss and damage this year, Egypt is paving the way to finally putting financing in place -- something that the last few COPs held in Europe have all failed to do.

"Failure to act on loss and damage will lead to more loss of trust and more climate damage," UN Secretary General Antonio Gutteres said in his pre-COP speech earlier this month. "This is a moral imperative that cannot be ignored and COP27 must be the place for action on loss and damage."

Who will (and won't) attend COP27?

COP27 will see many of the world's most powerful and influential figures gather together under one roof. US President Joe Biden has confirmed his attendance at the summit, and he'll be accompanied by John Kerry, his special presidential envoy for climate. 

New UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak initially said he wouldn't attend the summit, but changed his mind in late October. He'll be accompanied by Alok Sharma, a member of Parliament and COP26 president, who will lead the UK delegation. Meanwhile, King Charles III, a passionate lifelong environmental campaigner, canceled his plans to attend COP27 on the advice of former UK Prime Minister Liz Truss. Both Kerry and the Egyptian Presidency asked him to reconsider, but he instead held a pre-COP reception at Buckingham Palace in London.

Other big names missing from the attendee list are Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Russian President Vladimir Putin and China's president, Xi Jinping. Along with the US, China and Russia represent the world's top three countries when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, but Russia's war in Ukraine and China's suspension of climate talks with the US are standing in the way of progress.

Representatives from Egypt and the UN have asked heads of state to prioritize the work that needs to be done and not get sidetracked by other geopolitical issues. "I am urging leaders at the highest level to take full part in COP27 and tell the world what climate action they will take nationally and globally," Gutteres said ahead of COP. In his speech at the summit, he called on China and the US by name, saying that they have a "particular responsibility" to make a COP27 climate solidarity pact a reality.

Most leaders will stay at the summit for only the first couple of days, before leaving to allow national delegations made up of representatives from participating countries to delve into the negotiations.

Also in attendance will be representatives of observer organizations, including NGOs, activists and other influential voices on climate from the worlds of science and industry. Last year at COP26, these included the likes of Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos. In addition, media from around the world, including CNET, will attend the summit in person to report on the progress and major announcements.

What's on the agenda at COP27?

The first two days of COP27 will be dedicated to the World Leaders Summit. Traditionally, this has involved heads of state for participating countries delivering pre-written speeches. Egypt is shaking things up this year by adding six round tables in which heads of state can make pledges and engage with one another, as well as with civil society, the private sector and international financial institutions.

After the departure of the heads of state, negotiators will get to work, and a series of thematic days will encourage governments and observers to collaborate on different issues. They will, in order of date, be:

  • Finance (Nov. 9).
  • Science and Youth (Nov. 10).
  • Decarbonization (Nov. 11).
  • Adaptation and Agriculture (Nov. 12).
  • Water and Gender (Nov. 14).
  • Energy and Civil Society (Nov. 15).
  • Biodiversity (Nov. 16).
  • Solutions (Nov. 17).

The final day of the summit will see negotiation draw to close -- though this part of the process is fraught and often overruns.

All of the above will happen inside the COP27 Blue Zone, a high-security area dedicated to registered COP27 participants. Meanwhile, the COP27 Green Zone will play host to the business community, youth, civil and indigenous societies, academia, artists and the fashion community. Here, a separate program of events, including workshops, talks and performances, will run alongside the main event.

What did COP26 accomplish?

COP26, held in Glasgow last year, saw a massive gathering of activists and civil society organizations from around the world, raising the profile of climate justice both inside the summit and through protests. Many of the participants felt the event was a failure, and even COP President Alok Sharma broke down in tears at the end of proceedings out of frustration.

Nevertheless, the summit did produce the Glasgow Climate Pact, which called for nations to "phase down" coal, deliver financial help to developing countries and increase ambitions to cut greenhouse gas emissions. More than 100 countries signed the Global Methane Pledge, promising to slash methane levels by 2030, and more than 140 countries promised to end deforestation.

One of the more unexpected announcements of the summit was a deal between China and the US that they'd work together to cut emissions in the coming decades. Relations between the two countries have been tense this year, but John Kerry's relationship with his Chinese counterpart remains strong, paving the way for more progress at COP27.

What's the goal of COP27?

A report published by UN Climate Change on Wednesday showed that the combined climate pledges of 193 parties under the Paris Agreement could put the world on track for around 2.5 degrees Celsius of warming by the end of the century. The current promises aren't enough to hit the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The Egyptian Presidency's priority for COP27, said Aboulmagd, is to move away from talking and to ensure pledges made under the Paris Agreement are implemented. Kerry, too, has referred to COP27 as "the implementation COP."

Egypt is asking countries to update their nationally determined contributions, or NDCs, which summarize the effort each country will take to reduce emissions. More ambitious NDCs can mitigate the effects of global warming by paving the way to "keeping 1.5 alive."

One issue that cuts across all others at COP27 will be the need to find the money to pay for mitigation, adaptation and loss and damage. As well as encouraging countries to meet the financial commitments they've already made, there will be discussions about how to secure some of the trillion dollars needed to pay for climate action through private sector investment.

Egypt is keen to secure one pot of money in particular. Back in 2010, developed countries promised to provide developing countries with $100 billion annually by 2020 for mitigation and adaptation. This promise has been broken, which was a huge cause of contention between wealthy and poorer nations at COP26. Any progress made on the delivery of this money "will build more trust between developed and developing countries, showing that actual commitments are being fulfilled," said the Egyptian Presidency in its stated goals for the summit.

Making progress on finance, and loss and damage in particular, is being touted as something of a litmus test for COP27. Now that even the most reticent countries, such as the US, have agreed that loss and damage financing is important, this summit could well spark a multilateral agreement. "There is no time for pointing fingers -- or twiddling thumbs," said Guterres ahead of COP. "It is time for a game-changing, quantum level compromise between developed and emerging economies."