This is the second in a series of five reflections from COP27 in November 2022:

  1. En Route to Sharm el-Sheikh
  2. A Very Different COP
  3. The Results
  4. “Loss and Damage”
  5. The People I Met

A Very Different COP

Observations and Reflections from COP27 (Part 2)

By Samuel Chiu, Multicultural Program Director

January 5, 2023

This was a very different COP from ones I have experienced in the past.

I had attended three prior climate COPs: COP21 (Paris, 2015), COP25 (Madrid, 2019) and COP26 (Glasgow, 2021). Each was held in a major population centre, with many opportunities for residents of the host cities—and civil society in general—to participate. Even though the general public did not have access to the official COP venues called “Blue Zones” (such access is limited to registered participants with official badges such as national delegations, members of accredited NGOs and IGOs, registered media personnel, etc.), they were invited to participate in events, exhibits, and mini-conferences related to COP at the civil society’s “Green Zones.”

COP27: A Very Different COP

One of the large halls for plenary sessions in the COP27 “Blue Zone.” (Photo: Christian Climate Observers Program)

In contrast, the absence of local residents and Egyptian civil society at COP27 was very apparent. For one, Sharm el-Sheikh is a small town with a population of slightly over 50,000, far away from major urban centres.  Moreover, a fairly large portion of the locals were seasonal workers serving the town’s large tourism industry. Many hotel staffers and shopkeepers we met told us they would return home elsewhere in Egypt once every several months. Perhaps this situation explained the lack of interest, incentive, or opportunity to get involved. The difference from previous COPs was most striking in the Green Zone. In years past, this area was bustling and crowded with people, but in Sharm el-Sheikh, it was largely deserted despite being huge in size, situated in an open air theme park -like setting, and home to many sculptures and large exhibits. And the few Green Zone visitors I saw were mainly COP badge holders. To be fair, the sweltering heat was a significant deterrent, but so was the unprecedented registration process. In fact, all the people I know that attempted to register were rejected! I was allowed entry because of my official observer badge. The overall situation suggested that the general public was far less welcome this year.   

The official Blue Zone was a gigantic complex with a couple of permanent buildings and many temporary structures. It was much larger than any I attended before. It was also far away from the town and encircled by layers of visible and “invisible” security measures. Besides the high metal fences surrounding the whole site and the uniformed UN Security officers (which are usual features of other COPs), security personnel from the Egyptian authority were almost omnipresent, even inside the UN-controlled Blue Zone. I noticed uniformed and plainclothed security everywhere, surprisingly obvious—standing at road junctions, in empty fields, and even behind bushes. Always watching. Not to mention the widely reported electronic surveillance.

Inside the Blue Zone, as was typical, there were large meeting halls for plenary sessions and meeting rooms for negotiations, side events, and offices for national delegations. There were also large “Pavilions”—specially designated and decorated spaces for nations, IGOs (intergovernmental organizations like WHO, etc.), and NGOs to showcase their projects, dispense information, hold seminars, facilitate panel discussions, or simply offer seating corners for people to meet and converse. In the previous COPs, I recall one or two large halls for this purpose accommodating several dozen pavilions. This time, there were six extremely large temporary standalone structures, providing spaces for 180 plus pavilions (reportedly the largest in the history of UNFCCC COPs)! The sheer size and scale meant most people, including COP veterans like myself, found themselves often lost and confused the first couple of days. The overall experience was simply overwhelming.

COP27: A Very Different COP

The Children and Youth Pavilion at the COP27 “Blue Zone.” (Photo: Samuel Chiu)

It was heartening to encounter a wider range of pavilions than ever before. As an “African COP,” there were unusually high numbers of national pavilions from African nations. In addition, for the first time a Children and Youth Pavilion was organized. It was one of the busiest I saw with numerous events consistently crowded with lots of young people (and not so young). Also unprecedented were the four different pavilions dedicated to food systems and food security and a few more focused on nature and the health of ecosystems, both major themes of this COP. Furthermore, the concerns and voices of Indigenous peoples were amplified not only with a dedicated Indigenous Peoples Pavilion, but also by multiple national and IGO/NGO pavilions and associated events.

All these groups, with their daily seminars, panel discussions, and side events within the official venue constituted an essential part of the whole COP, as important as the formal negotiations which often capture the media attention and news headlines. Past history indicates that the issues highlighted in these events often become major themes at future COPs. Equally valuable were the solutions showcased, the connections and networks fostered, and the partnerships initiated in these settings.

Of course, at such an important gathering of official decision makers, the “counter forces” resisting meaningful and urgent climate action also made certain that their voice was loud and prominent, perhaps even more so than recent COPs. According to a report from Carbon Brief, if all 600+ of these fossil fuel representatives and lobbyists were constituted as an official Party at this COP (i.e. a signatory nation), it would be the second largest delegation after that of the UAE (over 1,000), a major oil and gas producer and the host of the next COP. Interesting, eh?

This was the backdrop where all the tensions, hopes, expectations, despair, and frustration played out over the course of the two weeks. Whether in the limelight or a back room, COP27 had its share of high drama.

Open area displaying the site plan of the Blue Zone, giving people a sense of this COP’s sheer scale.

Read the next post in this series: The Results (Part 3 of 5)

Featured photo: Samuel Chiu

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