Climate activists protest outside the Sharm el-Sheikh International Convention Centre, during the COP27 climate conference in Egypt's Red Sea resort city of the same name, on November 17, 2022. (Photo: Mohammed Abed / AFP)

COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh: a Geopolitical Cop-out

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The COP27 meeting in Egypt yielded some significant outcomes, such as a historic loss and damage provision. But geopolitics reared its ugly head and might have an impact on future meetings.

Many major summits, such as the annual ASEAN meetings, the Group of 20 forum and APEC, have been overshadowed by geopolitical tensions. The annual two-week-long Climate Change Conference in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt (COP 27) was no exception. 

Tensions resulting from differences over Russia’s actions in Ukraine, Taiwan, growing American calls for the decoupling of the US economy from China have led to the suspension of cooperation between the US and China. This stands in stark contrast to COP26. Last year, the US re-joined the Paris Agreement and expectations were that the Biden Administration would advocate closer cooperation with China on issues like climate change. COP26 saw a promising joint US-China declaration to cooperate on forestry, methane, clean energy transition, and the circular economy. But by mid-2022, US-China climate cooperation to “enhance climate action in the 2020s” had pretty much ground to a halt. The meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and his United States counterpart Joseph Biden on 14 November gave a modicum of assurance on bilateral cooperation on climate issues, but the overall tenor is less than enervating.

Here are 5 key takeaways on the COP27:

1. Historic Loss and Damage provision

COP27 ended with a historic provision to set up a loss and damage fund to help vulnerable countries adapt to the impacts of climate change after a series of climate-induced disasters inflicted catastrophic economic impacts in the Global South. Admittedly it successfully brought together almost 200 countries to agree on the much-needed fund but was it a significant win for the developing countries in Southeast Asia? The provision means that there will be compensation awarded to “injured parties” such as Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam which are frequent victims of climate-induced disasters. But the bigger question moving forward is who will cough up the money and how it will be disbursed fairly.

2. Modest Progress to Reverse Forest Degradation

COP27 saw the continuation of the pledge to solidify efforts to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030. Leaders from 26 countries and the European Union (EU) agreed to establish the Forest and Climate Leaders’ Partnership (FCLP) to mobilise public and private financial resources, support indigenous communities’ initiatives and establish an incentive mechanism to preserve high-integrity forests. Two countries in Southeast Asia, Singapore and Vietnam, agreed to join this initiative. Indonesia will also consider joining. The initiative demonstrates that countries have started to value the contribution of forests for climate mitigation.

3. Failure to Agree on Phasing Out of Fossil Fuels

If COP26’s attempts to phase-out fossil fuels were contentious last year when the world was a more peaceful place, it was mission impossible this year with the Ukraine conflict and worsening global energy crisis. The final COP27 deal drew flak for its failure to rein in climate-damaging emissions, both by setting more ambitious national targets and scaling back the use of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas. The text called for efforts to phase down the use of coal and the phasing out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies. But the use of fossil fuels is here to stay, at least for the near future. This outcome is not surprising considering the increase in global energy prices and the fact that there were more lobbyists from the fossil fuel industry at COP27 than delegates from the ten most climate-affected countries (Puerto Rico, Myanmar, Haiti, Philippines, Mozambique, the Bahamas, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Thailand, and Nepal).

Despite phase-out disagreements, concrete initiatives to assist developing nations in transitioning to clean energy has gained momentum. Indonesia, the fifth-largest greenhouse gas emitter, sealed a US$20 billion deal with the G7 to shut down coal plants and accelerate renewable energy investments. Vietnam is also soon expected to sign a US$14 billion clean energy transition deal with donor countries led by the European Union and the United Kingdom at the upcoming EU-ASEAN Summit in December.  

COP27 saw the continuation of the pledge to solidify efforts to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030. Leaders from 26 countries and the European Union (EU) agreed to establish the Forest and Climate Leaders’ Partnership (FCLP) to mobilise public and private financial resources, support indigenous communities’ initiatives and establish an incentive mechanism to preserve high-integrity forests.

 4. Some Southeast Asian Countries Demonstrating Leadership

After 27 COPs, leadership performance continues to be hard to measure. COP21, which resulted in the Paris Agreement, is often considered the most successful one. One of the best ways to measure the success of COP is by examining the progression of pledges or the helming of voluntary leadership initiatives. This year, Southeast Asian countries demonstrated leadership in various negotiations. Continuing from its pivotal role in finalising Article 6 — a voluntary carbon credit cooperation mechanism— Singapore joined efforts to advance carbon markets’ technical operationalisation and co-facilitated various ministerial consultations. The Philippines was proactive in pushing relevant parties to expand the definition of loss and damage from only covering extreme weather events to slow-onset changes such as biodiversity loss and sea-level rise. Indonesia, with the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Brazil established a strategic alliance to protect their forests. Together, the three countries are home to more than half of the world’s remaining tropical forests.

5. Expect geopolitical tensions to persist in future COPs

Many countries failed to demonstrate consistency in balancing short-term interests and long-term goals. Earlier this year, India set a target to achieve net zero by 2070. During the COP27 negotiations, India demanded that countries phase down all fossil fuels rather than a narrower deal to phase down only coal, a COP26 decision. This broader definition of a phase-down of fossil fuels could shift the spotlight from India as the country continues to be the world’s second-largest coal buyer. Lack of consensus on terminologies has been a persistent challenge in climate negotiations. The EU recently labelled gas and nuclear energy as “green” under its green taxonomy. This has led to accusations of greenwashing. 

Another issue of contention between India and the West is New Delhi’s unwillingness to reduce its dependency on imports of Russian oil. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the use of high energy prices as a justification to end dependence on fossil fuels continue to preoccupy the minds of Western leaders. The EU bought as much as 45 per cent of its gas from Russia in 2021 but plans to end fossil fuel imports from the country before 2030. 

While there has been some level of progress at the marathon (and tiring) COP27 sessions, the current political and economic realities have further undermined an already ineffective global climate regime. In the coming years, geopolitical tensions and inconsistent levels of progress are likely to be a defining feature of COPs, putting Southeast Asia and the rest of the world at greater risk from climate change. 

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Sharon Seah is Senior Fellow and Coordinator at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.


Mirza Sadaqat Huda is Lead Researcher in the Climate Change in Southeast Asia Programme, ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.


Melinda Martinus is the Lead Researcher in Socio-cultural Affairs at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.