A COP of Unmet Expectations The Disappointment of COP27

Like all international climate summits, COP27 began with high hopes but will be remembered as the COP of unmet expectations. So, what’s next for the international climate community? 

Editor’s note: This essay is available in our print issue, Godfathers: An Introduction. Buy the issue here.

Before the dust settles, the postmortem of the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference, commonly referred to as COP27, can begin. The outcomes of the second most attended climate summit, held in the Egyptian coastal resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, have continued to attract mixed commentary. The annual conference is the world’s primary forum for stakeholders, including political leaders, civil societies, businesses, and other observers to reach agreements on tackling the climate emergency.

As UN Chief António Guterres starkly put it, ‘Climate change is on a different timeline and scale than other global crises. It’s the defining issue of our age; the central challenge of our century.’  

The devastating impacts of climate disasters in the year 2022, more intense than many ‘doomsday’ scientists predicted, are dominant backdrops at COP27—from the biblical-level flooding in Pakistan and Nigeria, to the longest-running drought fuelling hunger in Somalia, punishing temperatures and wildfires across Europe, then Hurricane Ian pummelling western Cuba and southeast United States.  


Egypt, one of the oldest continuous civilizations in the world, is the first African country to host COP since Morocco in 2016. The Egyptian presidency under Sameh Hassan Shoukry, the country’s minister of foreign affairs, framed it as an ‘Africa COP’, to emphasize the importance of climate action on the continent. Despite contributing a small share of the global greenhouse gas emissions, Africa faces the sharp end of climate change as eight of its countries are among the ten most vulnerable countries to be affected by climate events in the world. 

The Egyptian presidency split COP27 the conference into eleven thematic days—finance, science, youth and future generations, decarbonization, adaptation and agriculture, gender, water, age and civil society, energy, biodiversity, and solutions. This helped focus attention on developmental challenges felt by vulnerable African communities, including food and water security, finance, energy security and futures,  and the eventual transition away from fossil fuels.    

COP27, with more than 45,000 registered participants from 190 countries, went deep into extra time to announce a breakthrough agreement on finance for loss and damage. The 10-page draft deal document delivered little, establishing the Santiago network for averting, minimizing and addressing loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change.  It was especially lacking ambition to tackle the emissions causing climate change. For the first time in the history of climate negotiations, loss and damage finance narrowly made the agenda COP27 after like-minded developing countries, including India, Africa and small island nations aligned to assert their influence.  


Loss and damage in the international climate negotiations debate broadly covers effort to ‘avert, minimize and address loss and damage associated with climate change impacts, especially in developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change.’  

There is general consensus that COP27 delivered on one point—the decision to set up a loss and damage fund for vulnerable low and middle-income countries hit hard by climate disasters, and made worse by pollution disproportionately produced by industrialized nations.  

The loss and damage fund is meant to address climate impacts that people can’t simply adapt to. The deal marks the end of a 30-year wait, since developing countries had demanded this compensation mechanism. It also represented a diplomatic coup for African and small island nations in winning over the 27-nation European Union and the United States, which had long resisted the idea for fear that such a fund, could open them to legal liability for historic emissions.  

UN Climate Change Executive Secretary, Simon Stiell, a loss-and-damage finance advocate in his previous role as Grenadian environment minister, said ‘This outcome moves us forward,’ adding ‘We have determined a way forward on a decades-long conversation on funding for loss and damage – deliberating over how we address the impacts on communities whose lives and livelihoods have been ruined by the very worst impacts of climate change.’ 


The investment needed globally to meet the climate goals set in the Paris Agreement is enormous. It is estimated that annual clean-energy investment needs to triple by 2030, exceeding $4 trillion, while adaptation in developing countries will cost up to $340 billion a year.  The Sharm el-Sheikh Implementation Plan highlights that a global transformation to a low-carbon economy is expected to require investments of at least $4-6 trillion a year. 

Industrialized countries have failed to meet the long-standing pledge to jointly mobilize $100 billion per year in new and additional finance for climate action in developing countries by 2020. Despite attempts to remove this commitment, COP27 reinforced the $100 billion goal, settling on a ‘new collective quantified goal on climate finance’ in 2024, taking into account the needs and priorities of developing countries. 

For Africa, adaptation finance is a priority given the region’s vulnerability to climate change. The cost of climate adaptation for Africa could reach $50 billion per year by 2050 and $350 billion by 2070, yet African countries struggle to mobilize climate finance, securing less than 4 per cent of global climate finance, most of which are made as loans, not grants, and burdens African countries with debt. 

US president, Joe Biden,announcedthat the US would aim to provide $11 billion annually by 2024, including a down payment of $150 million to support climate adaptation and resilience initiatives across Africa. The European Commission also announced a program of about $1 billion as part of the EU-Africa Global Gateway Investment Package to help fund climate change adaptation and resilience in Africa.  


The decision text adopted on 20 November at the gavelling of the final deal at Sharm el-Sheikh was weak, as it failed to include a reference to the phasing out, or at least phasing down, of all fossil fuels with grave implications for the achievement of a climate neutral world by mid-century. The text says limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels as enshrined in the legally binding Paris Agreement requires ‘rapid, deep and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions’ by 2030.  

Despite the inclusion of ‘efforts towards the phasedown of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies‘, the document invariably opened the door to the growing use of natural gas, a fossil fuel contributing to both carbon dioxide and methane emissions. The attempt to rebrand gas as a ‘transition fuel’ could mean many things, including possible justification of new fossil fuel development.   

This was underscored by comments from President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates—host of next year’s COP28 climate summit—who said his country would continue to deliver oil and gas ‘for as long as the world is in need.’  


In February 2022, a climate adaptation agenda setting report by the Working Group II Contribution to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report delivered a stark warning about the impacts of climate change on people and the planet; these impacts will become more severe as global temperatures rise. The report ‘shows that climate change is a grave and mounting threat to our wellbeing and a healthy planet. Our actions today will shape how people adapt and nature responds to increasing climate risks,’ said Hoesung Lee, Chair of the IPCC. Dubbed the ‘Adaptation COP’, COP27 failed to harken to Lee’s admonition that ‘half measures are no longer an option.’ 

While adaptation means making adjustments and investments to mitigate the negative consequences of climate change, as well as taking advantage of its positive implications, it lacks concrete goals, akin to the 1.5 degree Celsius limit. COP27 failed to establish the Global Goal on Adaptation that would set clear indicators, targets and timelines to galvanize collective global action and support. The lacklustre attitude showed towards adaptation by developed countries left several vulnerable countries disappointed with the outcome of the negotiations.  

The head of the South Africa delegation and SA minister of forestry, fisheries and the environment, Barbara Creecy, expressed her disappointment with the slow progress on the Global Goal on Adaptation. ‘We think adaptation is very important… we are all living through climate change, it is a reality of our lives and is already impacting on infrastructure, lives and livelihoods,’ she said 


COP27 was an unusual tough terrain for civil society activists, who typically serve as the moral compass of climate negotiations. Egypt has tight restrictions on public gatherings; protests are effectively banned and illegal in Egypt and the Egyptian government put strict limits on protesters attending the conference. The venue of COP27 temporarily became international territory governed by the UN and witnessed hundreds of campaigners marching while demanding climate reparations and freedom for Alla Abd El Fattah, Egypt’s most prominent political prisoner. 

We cannot have our voices heard outside; but we will certainly have our voices heard here,’ Tasneem Essop, Director of Climate Action Network, said during an address to a gathering. Nakeeyat Dramani, a 10-year-old Ghanaian activist, received a standing ovation in the plenary after calling on the delegates to ‘have a heart and do the math.’ 

The US was named the ‘colossal fossil’ of the climate talks by campaigners, fresh from reversing an almost 30-year-long opposition to partaking in a loss and damage fund. Unveiled at a ceremony featuring a person dressed as a dinosaur, the ‘award’ is an annual event staged by Climate Action Network International to shame the countries deemed to be blocking climate progress. ‘Dishonourable mentions’ in the awards went to Russia for bringing a large contingent of fossil fuel lobbyists to COP27, and Brazil for the ‘climate disaster’ under the outgoing government of President Jair Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro’s successor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, received a largely warm welcome from activists at COP27 due to his promises to stamp out deforestation in the disappearing Amazon forest, the world’s largest rainforest and most important ecosystem. 

International climate negotiations are diplomatic opportunities for countries and blocs to pursue their foreign policy objectives and strengthen their roles as globally responsible actors on the world stage. ‘The political process at climate conferences is designed to create momentum by generating political peer pressure and competition, which in turn spur domestic action,’ political science professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington DC, Jonas Nahm said. 

At COP27, the US attempted to exchange its longstanding image as global climate villain with China. The US climate envoy, John Kerry, used his closing remarks to shift the focus on to China. Kerry said that ‘all nations have a stake in the choices China makes in this critical decade. The United States and China should be able to accelerate progress together, not only for our sake, but for future generations – and we are all hopeful that China will live up to its global responsibility.’ China, which joined the G77, the most powerful bloc demanding for the loss and damage fund, has been described as both a ‘developing’ poorer country and a ‘developed’ wealthier nation. 

In addition to the fear that a loss and damage fund could open the door to admitting culpability for climate change with potential future legal implications, the debate around donors —limited to countries deemed developed under the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), to the fund was intense. Nations classed in 1992 as developing have eclipsed many developed countries to become major greenhouse gases emitters. The US and EU demanded that China and other countries with high per-capita income such as Saudi Arabia, Russia, Brazil, Indonesia, India South Korea and Singapore should contribute to the fund. Today, China is the world’s second biggest economy, and responsible for more cumulative emissions than any country other than the US. Frans Timmermans said, ‘[We have to] take account of the economic situation of countries in 2022, not 1992.’  

‘The UN framework convention on climate change was written from a 1992 perspective,’ Ireland’s environment minister and Leader of the Irish Green Party, Eamon Ryan, said. ‘The scale of the climate crisis here and now is something we did not expect then.’  

These views were attacked by climate activists. Mariana Paoli, of Christian Aid, said:It is clear that the US and Europe are trying to divide the developing country bloc of countries at COP27.’ China’s Climate Envoy, Xie Zhenhua, maintained that though China did not have any obligation to provide loss and damage funding, the country would be willing to support lower-income countries for loss and damage caused by climate change. 


Coca-Cola’s role at COP27 garnered an exceptionally large amount of criticism from climate activists, despite being a lower-tier sponsor than the conference’s partners, which include Google, Microsoft, IBM, Hassan Allam Holding, and Bloomberg Philanthropies. Plastics are largely manufactured using fossil fuels, and Coca-Cola makes roughly 4,000 plastic bottles from fossil oil every second; the beverages giant is the world’s leading polluter of plastics in 2021.  

Emma Priestland, a coordinator for Break Free From Plastic, a global alliance of organizations and individuals, described the sponsorship as ‘pure greenwash’. Over 240,000 people petitioned the Cairo-led conference to drop the partnership with Coca-Cola and take down logos plastered at the venue belonging to companies enmeshed with the oil and gas industry.  

Only two out of the 20 COP27 sponsors, renewable energy provider Infinity Power and real estate developer Sodic, have no strong ties to the fossil fuel industry. Google remains the medium of choice for oil and gas adverts. Microsoft deploys cloud-based artificial intelligence to help the oil industry optimize oil and gas extraction. IBM works with pesticide and fertilizer companies to promote carbon farming. In 2018, Siemens helped Cairo-based Orascom Construction to build the world’s largest gas-fired combined cycle power plants. This year, Hassan Allam Holding, one of the largest privately owned corporations in Egypt, announced plans to invest billions of dollars in fossil fuel projects. Cairo-based Afreximbank plans to finance new oil and gas projects through the creation of a multi-billion dollar energy bank. Mashreq PSC, the oldest private bank in the United Arab Emirates, refinances oil and gas projects and The Boston Consulting Group works with Anglo-Dutch oil major Shell.   

Hill and Knowlton Strategies, criticized for its long track record of spreading disinformation on behalf of its fossil fuel clients such as Saudi Aramco, ExxonMobil and the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative clients, led the communications for COP27. The PR firm is known to have worked with major tobacco companies in the 1950s and was responsible for the ‘greenwash’ advert that showcased Shell’s role in powering London’s buses with biofuels partly made from coffee waste.

Companies have been influencing the climate summit since the first COP in Rio de Janeiro 30 years ago. The events have become a branding opportunity for corporations to attach their names to high-profile efforts to save the world.The chief executives of British Petroleum and TotalEnergies, and the incoming head of Shell were contentiously present at COP27. According to Global Witness, a campaigning group, at least 636 of the attendees are fossil-fuel industry lobbyists, a rise of more than 25 per cent from COP26 last year. The influence of fossil fuel lobbyists is greater than frontline countries and communities, a 2022 statement from Kick Big Polluters Out read.  

Fossil fuel’s presence at COP27 cuts a stark contrast to COP26, where the British government took a strict approach to corporate responsibility issues and barred fossil fuel companies from sponsorship arrangements. Pascoe Sabido of Brussels-based Corporate Europe Observatory believes ‘COP has never been about the climate: It’s been about rehabilitating the gas industry and making sure that fossil fuels are on the agenda.   

It seems COP27 was an attempt for the fossil fuel industry to buy social legitimacy, even as advocates of the campaign for such a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, including a growing number of cities and municipalities, also want to ban fossil fuel advertising and sponsorship.  The heavy influence of the fossil fuel industry was seen in the final text that moved to protect oil and gas petro-states and the fossil fuel industries. The summation by Phillip Jakpor, who resides in Nigeria and works with Public Participation Africa, was apt:  If you want to address malaria, you don’t invite the mosquitoes.’ 


Despite facing the harshest impacts of climate change, lobbyists and some electricity-poor nations in Africa pushed for their right to exploit their natural gas reserves to cater for the 600 million Africans who live without access to electricity. Omar Farouk Ibrahim, the secretary general of the African Petroleum Producers Organisation, rejected the idea that Africa should forgo its large reserves of oil and gas in exchange for renewable technology and funding from the richer nations. Akinwumi Adesina, president of the African Development Bank Group, whose group now devotes 85 per cent of all its financing for power generation to renewables, acknowledged the need for Africa to green its economies and industries but argued for natural gas as transition fuel to provide a balanced energy mix and stabilize grids to foster industrialization on the continent. Africa, though endowed with 7.3 per cent of the world’s gas reserves, has the highest bioenergy potential in the world and the richest solar resources on the planet 

I believe that with poor adaptive capabilities to climate extremes but blessed with abundant sources of renewable energy and with majority of new renewables undercutting cheapest fossil fuel on cost, the direction of travel for Africa is away from fossil fuels. 


COP27, like all international climate summits, began with high hopes but will be remembered as the COP of unmet expectations. Notably, it delivered the historic last-minute loss and damage fund though the strong spirit of 1.5C ensured.  The summit survived the onslaught of the fossil fuel industry even if the text was weak, thereby entrenching the glacial pace of decarbonization.  The battle to deal with the factors causing climate change will definitely resume at COP28 in UAE in the first two weeks of December next year. COP28 represents another opportunity to fine-tune the ill-defined concept of loss and damage and make it a veritable symbol of climate justice.  

Loss must have a name and damage an address, not just another ‘placebo fund’. Adaptation remains one of the key pillars of climate action. As such, efforts should be on the promised definition of the Global Goal on Adaptation to garner momentum for enhancing adaptive capacity, strengthening resilience and reducing vulnerability to climate change. 

Despite the current visa ban on travellers from 20 African countries, Africa must have her day in the sun in Dubai. It is imperative that negotiators from Africa and Small Island Developing States or ‘SIDS’strengthen alliances, as hotspots for climate change impact, to achieve favourable emissions-cutting measures at the Dubai gathering next year

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