COP27 climate talks: What to expect from the big UN meeting in Egypt


COP27 climate talks: What to expect from the big UN meeting in Egypt

This special COP27 briefing originally appeared in our flagship daily newsletter, Grid Today. Sign up for it here to get the context and consequences of the news in your inbox each day.

Tens of thousands of world leaders, diplomats, scientists, activists and others have descended on Sharm el-Sheikh, an Egyptian resort city on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, for the United Nations climate change conference known as COP27. The two-week talks, which started Sunday, begin at a precarious time, with the world’s climate goals teetering on the edge of impossibility even with mounting catastrophic impacts, a geopolitical and energy landscape wracked by the war in Ukraine, and global economic uncertainty.

The early messages from the talks — where one focus this year is making countries’ individual goals for cutting greenhouse gas emissions even more ambitious — are not particularly encouraging. “We are in the fight of our lives, and we are losing,” said U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres in his opening remarks. Former vice president and longtime climate activist Al Gore added: “We are here today because we continue to use the thin blue shell of atmosphere surrounding our planet as an open sewer.”

Here’s our road map to the next two weeks. We’ll be running a special section in the newsletter every day, and I’ll be heading to Egypt later this week to give Grid readers an on-the-ground account.


The history

This month’s meeting is the 27th time that parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change have gathered — starting with COP1 in Bonn, Germany, in 1995. These meetings, though often criticized as lacking the teeth necessary to confront such an existential global problem, have produced multiple important agreements including 1997′s Kyoto Protocol and 2015′s Paris Agreement.

The state of play

The first few days are dominated by visits and speeches from an array of world leaders — President Joe Biden is scheduled to speak on Friday — while negotiations among the thousands of delegates ramp up in the background.

Meanwhile, hundreds of other events will unfold on a variety of climate-related topics, from biodiversity to energy. Expect lofty announcements from various country alliances, company coalitions and NGOs. For example, last year in Glasgow, countries pledged to halt and reverse deforestation around the world by 2030 — only this was a nonbinding pledge and eerily resembled a similar one made in 2015 that has so far failed to reach its goals.

The target

The end goal of any COP is to produce a document, agreed upon by every country attending, prescribing various climate change goals and actions; negotiations often spill past the meeting’s official end and into the following weekend. The 2015 Paris Agreement is the most important of such documents, setting goals of holding human-made warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius (2.7 or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).

This year’s focus will be on increasing national ambitions when it comes to emissions reductions — the latest estimates suggest even if existing pledges are met the world is on track to blow well past that 2-degree-C target, and only a handful of countries have submitted new emissions targets since Glasgow last year — and perhaps most centrally on money.


Bridging the rich-poor divide

On Sunday, countries agreed to include “loss and damage” on the official COP agenda for the first time. This, more or less, means climate reparations: A small collection of rich countries — the U.S. primary among them — is responsible for the vast bulk of historical carbon dioxide emissions and the resulting damage unfolding now at increasingly dire pace across the world, so those countries should pay poorer countries for the carnage they have caused. Estimates for what actual numbers should be attached to loss and damage vary widely, but by some accounts, the bill in the developing world could reach half a trillion dollars annually by the end of this decade.

Of course, putting loss and damage on the agenda does not mean any binding agreement on paying out those many billions of dollars is forthcoming. Former U.K. prime minister Boris Johnson, visiting Sharm el-Sheikh for the start of the COP, already pushed back on the idea of reparations: “The best way to fix this is not to look backwards,” he said. But the dramatic impacts the past several months have unleashed may provide some additional leverage; the U.N.’s Guterres referenced the devastating floods in Pakistan in particular. “If there is any doubt about loss and damage, go to Pakistan,” he said.

Whether these two weeks of negotiation can stable a wobbly global trajectory toward climate progress remains an open question.

  • Dave Levitan
    Dave Levitan

    Climate Reporter

    Dave Levitan is a climate reporter for Grid where he focuses on interconnected stories about climate and science, and politics shaping action around both.