The UN’s annual climate summit is always an odd mix of hope, urgency and desperation, but this year’s negotiations here in Egypt feel particularly consequential after what can only be described as a catastrophic climate year.
Cop27 has been dubbed “the Africa Cop”, the first summit to take place in the continent least responsible but most affected by the climate crisis since 2016, when Morocco hosted Cop22. Climate breakdown has accelerated since then. African leaders hope this year’s location will focus attention on the vast, diverse continent where this year alone hundreds of people have died from floods and landslides in Nigeria and Uganda, while 37 million face starvation after consecutive droughts in the greater Horn of Africa.
The numbers, which reflect longstanding racial and economic injustices, are staggering: the 54 countries in Africa combined account for 15% of the world’s population but have contributed less than 4% of global greenhouse emissions. But numbers only ever tell part of the story, and so it’s crucial that the most affected communities have a seat at the table – alongside the power brokers negotiating deals on climate finance, food systems and forests.
‘I have a voice’
Last year there were few African activists and community leaders at Cop26 in Glasgow, as the UK government’s shambolic vaccine policy and extortionate travel costs crushed many travel plans. A few weeks ago I spoke to Goodness Dickson, 29, from Nigeria, who’s part of the youth movement Fridays for Future, and last year was stopped from boarding the plane because he wasn’t fully vaccinated. This year he’s vaccinated, but like hundreds of his fellow activists struggled to get accreditation – until his story was featured in the Guardian. “Despite Egypt being called an African Cop, we’re having a very serious challenge and many countries most affected by the climate crisis won’t be represented. But I have a voice, I want the privilege to speak.”
Another climate justice activist, Mana Omar, 27, from Kenya put it in stark terms. “We are on the frontline of the climate crisis, facing the risk of extinction. I need to be there to advocate for communities like mine to be prioritised in loss and damage finance,” said Mana, who is founder of Spring of the Arid and Semi-Arid Lands.
Loss and damage is another reason why Africa matters so much this year. As we covered in Down to Earth earlier this week, this is the term that refers to the irreversible economic, social and cultural costs of extreme weather events like drought, hurricanes, heat waves and wildfires, as well as slow-onset climate disasters like rising sea level, ocean acidification and melting glaciers. It’s also about holding the biggest fossil fuel burning nations liable for the pain and suffering already caused by the climate crisis – separately and in addition to securing climate finance for mitigation and adaptation to help developing nations prepare for what’s still to come.
Rights and wrongs
The African nations nominated Egypt to hold Cop27 in part because of its firm support for securing loss and damage funding – and for the first time ever it is on the official agenda despite opposition from the big polluters like the US, UK and Australia.
Egypt’s negotiators deserve some credit for this big step forward, but the regime’s dire track record on human rights could lead to the wrong kind of headlines. A decade of brutal repression has resulted in more than 60,000 political prisoners, including human rights and environmental activists, and zero tolerance for protest and dissent. In Sharm-el-Sheikh, protesters have been shunted into a separate building away from the meeting rooms where political delegates mingle and negotiate with multinational corporations like Coca-Cola, BP and Nestle with vested interest in maintaining the status quo.
The fact is, few governments will be minded to take climate action against powerful polluting industries unless they are pressured by citizens who can speak out without fear of reprisals. In Africa and beyond, we cannot save the planet without respecting human rights.