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Adam Aston

COP27 climate talks kick off: Here’s what people are talking about

Our first dispatch from the U.N. climate conference in Egypt spotlights energy and equity issues in Africa, plus political progress and uncertainty in the U.S.

(Mohamed Abdel Hamid/Getty Images)
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SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt — Welcome to the first in a series of dispatches from COP27, the U.N. Climate Conference being held November 612. What goes on here matters to everyone in the world who’s concerned about energy. For decades, priorities set at the U.N.’s climate gatherings have increasingly rippled out into global financial markets and countries’ long-term energy policies and priorities.

Over the coming two weeks, stay tuned for regular roundups of the big developments, key context and notable news emerging from the discussions. Drafted by on-the-ground watchers from RMI (née Rocky Mountain Institute — of which Canary Media is an independent affiliate), these dispatches aim to keep the jargon to a minimum and make the relevance crystal clear.

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A map of Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt
The red dot marks the spot: Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt (Google Maps)

Setting the scene

The COP process shifted gears in Paris in 2015, when 193 countries and the EU came together to launch the first true global climate plan. COP meetings since have chiseled out the rules of how to deploy the Paris plans. Now, with that set of terms agreed on, this COP is shifting into an implementation stage, focusing on the twin challenges of adaptation (preparing the planet for a climate-altered future) and mitigation (the race to cut emissions to avoid worse climate damage). And this year’s meeting is defined by two profound forces: a growing wave of global climate disasters in recent years and, related, rising tension over the simple question of who will pay for dealing with climate change. Will rich nations, who are mostly responsible for climate change, agree to financially support the poor countries that are experiencing those perils more intensely and sooner? 

🌍 Wednesday is finance day at COP27. Watch for more on the issue of climate finance and loss and damage” in our next bulletin. 

Spotlight on Africa

Africa’s energy future epitomizes a deep rift at this COP. COP27 is going to be a moment for Africa to put in perspective this issue that we are dealing with, and to tell the Africa story,” Ahunna Eziakonwa, assistant administrator and regional director for Africa at the U.N. Development Programme, told RMI in a recent interview. The continent contributes less than 4% of what has brought us to where we are in terms of climate change, yet it bears the brunt of the impact.”

Ahunna Eziakonwa of the U.N. Development Programme talks with Raul Alfaro-Pelico, senior director of RMI’s Energy Transition Academy.

Nearly 600 million Africans lack access to electricity, and extreme poverty is endemic across the continent. Large areas are already hard hit by climate-amplified drought and famine. That’s why, for some countries, the lure of oil and gas projects is proving irresistible, driven by a desire for export earnings to fuel development and alleviate energy poverty. This pressure is lately supercharged by European-led demand and spiking energy prices for alternative sources to Russian oil and gas. 

At the same time, Africa’s leaders face pressure to bypass the oil age, to instead tap the region’s eye-popping renewables potential: Africa is home to 60% of the planet’s best solar resources, but just 1% of the world’s installed solar capacity, the International Energy Agency estimates. The conflict — or hypocrisy — of these conflicting signals complicates the proceedings. 

🌍 Watch for Kenya’s new president, William Ruto, to deliver an urgent appeal to take the green path sometime this week. And check out RMI’s case study of Kenya’s commitment to shift to clean energy by 2030

U.S. 1: Big money, big plans 

As President Biden prepares to jet to COP27 for a visit later this week, U.S. climate policy is on better footing than at any prior COP. With goals set and funding beginning to flow, the White House is focusing on rapid implementation. A trio of recent bills — the Inflation Reduction Act, the CHIPS and Science Act and the infrastructure bill — will steer upward of $1 trillion toward climate priorities.

The IRA will propel the U.S. economy from today’s slower-growth, business-as-usual path to a trajectory that promises both sustained expansion for clean energy and lower energy costs economywide,” John Coequyt, director of U.S. government affairs at RMI, told Energy Monitor. Equity issues are a key priority in this deployment push, such as subsidies targeting low- and middle-income households to upgrade household heating and cooling systems. States are doing their part too; RMI has identified state initiatives that will speed the deployment of some 12 million heat pumps by 2030

🌎 Watch for Biden’s climate team to announce a raft of climate-related initiatives, including details on a plan for companies to use carbon credits to fund emerging nations’ shift away from fossil fuels.

U.S. 2: But what about a Republican win? 

Biden will arrive at COP as results from the midterm elections dominate the headlines. A day out, polling suggests that Republicans may take one or both legislative branches. Fears that such a shift could stymie the U.S. climate agenda may be overblown. Few Beltway insiders predict an outright war on renewables” or substantive efforts to defund the Inflation Reduction Act’s big bushel of financial carrots. 

Much as the GOP’s electioneering flares angrily over green handouts and prioritizes Big Oil, red-state America is long on renewable energy — pols and voters like the tax revenue, jobs and low-cost power the shift is delivering. The money that Democrats like to invest in clean power is largely spent in Republican districts,” as Bloomberg recently put it. Big renewables projects — particularly for large, utility-scale investments — continue to pile up in mostly rural, red regions of the United States.

🌏 For additional content on these and other COP-related goings-on, keep an eye on RMI’s main social feed @RockyMtnInst and check out our COP27 resource page.

Adam Aston is chief storyteller at RMI, an energy and climate journalist, and a Pittsburgh native.