COP27: Do heads of state make a difference at the climate talks?

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COP27 climate talks: Do heads of state make a difference there?

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.


The first few days of any U.N. climate conference are dominated by a series of short speeches from heads of state from across the world. It’s something of a paradox, at least on its face: These presidents, kings and prime ministers are each country’s most prominent attendees, but the actual work of the talks ends up having little to do with the often-similar speeches given by the heads of state.

There is some variation, of course. This year, French President Emmanuel Macron expressed support for various climate financing proposals, including suspension of debt for disaster-struck developing countries. That would represent a big shift in a growing conversation about the spiral of debt that poorer countries will struggle to escape in a warming world.

And in a two-day sprint that includes words from everyone from the king of Jordan to the president of Kiribati, there are some from smaller countries and economies than France that still carry more weight in this particular discussion. For example, Gaston Browne is the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda (population 100,000, roughly that of the Cheyenne, Wyoming, metro area). He spoke Tuesday morning on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island States, a coalition of 39 countries that are among the most vulnerable to climate change. Among other things, Browne called for a crackdown on the fossil fuel industry’s continued monumental profits.

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“The oil and gas industry continues to earn almost 3 billion United States dollars daily in profits,” he said. “It is about time that these companies are made to pay a global carbon tax on their profits as a source of funding for loss and damage. … While they are profiting, the planet is burning.”

World leaders have intervened beyond just speeches during the first few days of the annual talks. Famously, when the highly anticipated COP15 meeting in Copenhagen was teetering on the edge of failure in 2009, President Barack Obama traveled to Denmark on the conference’s last official day. Through a series of meetings with other leaders including those of India, Brazil and South Africa, the admittedly disappointing Copenhagen Accord did emerge.

Beyond that sort of skin-of-the-teeth intervention, though, many remain unconvinced that the parade of presidents and prime ministers offers much to the world.

“The COP has turned into a PR event, where leaders are giving beautiful speeches and announcing fancy commitments and targets, while behind the curtains governments of the Global North countries are still refusing to take any drastic climate action,” said climate activist Greta Thunberg during last year’s COP26 in Glasgow. “Change is not going to come from inside there. That is not leadership.”

Targeting corporate greenwashing

Among the early announcements of COP27 is a U.N. effort to stop companies and governments from hiding their true emissions impacts.

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“A growing number of governments and non-state actors are pledging to be carbon-free – and that’s good news,” said U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres. “The problem is that the criteria and benchmarks for these net-zero commitments have varying levels of rigor and loopholes wide enough to drive a diesel truck through. We must have zero tolerance for net-zero greenwashing.”

Guterres convened a global expert panel a year ago in Glasgow, and the group has now released a report outlining some steps to increase corporate accountability. These recommendations are, unfortunately, non-binding. Those diesel trucks are likely to keep driving straight through the loopholes until a global mechanism with some teeth emerges.

Breaking the loss and damage logjam?

The concept of loss and damage, or climate change reparations, is on the official COP27 agenda for the first time — but actual pledges of such funding remain scarce. However, some early announcements suggest some progress: Scotland First Minister Nicola Sturgeon built on a promise from last year and pledged about $5.8 million for loss and damage. “There is a real need to make tangible progress,” she said.

In a world where the actual toll of loss and damage could reach half a trillion dollars by 2030, that doesn’t seem like much, but other countries are starting to follow suit. Ireland offered a tentative plan, and Austria pledged $50 million. Whether these promises could open the dam for some much larger economies to join remains to be seen.

  • 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.