Blog: COP27 – One step forward…

Stephen Smellie, NEC member from Scotland, attended COP27 as part of the International Trade Union Confederation delegation. Here he reflects on the outcome.

Early on Sunday morning Sameh Shoukry, the Egyptian foreign minister and President of COP27, the United Nations Climate Conference, closed the proceedings with a tired last flourish of his gavel. Many of the delegates and observers had left, including myself, as it had been scheduled to finish on the Friday.

Mr Shoukry could, at least, be satisfied that an agreement was finally reached. Throughout the second week the gap between the different parties was so great, that it seemed unlikely it could be closed.

There were those seeking greater ambition in achieving the target temperature rise of only 1.5 degrees (a target which remained barely alive after COP26) and those who were willing to forget it.

Those demanding a fund be set up to deal with loss and damage – compensation for the people of the Global South who have benefitted least from the burning of fossil fuels by the rich nations, and suffering most from the impacts of climate change – were opposed by the US and a few others.

In the end, after 27 COPs, it was finally agreed to set up a Loss and Damage Fund. There is no money in the fund yet, and no agreement as to who should be paying into it (the US and EU want China included) nor who should receive the funds – all the developing countries, or just the most vulnerable. But it was a genuinely historic decision, that trade unions helped to campaign for, recognising that those who have caused the damage should compensate those who have suffered most.

However, the Sharm el Sheikh Implementation Plan, following the Glasgow Climate Pact and the Paris Agreement, could be seen as a step backwards. In Glasgow it was agreed to commit to the “phasing down of unmitigated coal.” It was hoped to build on this with commitments to “phase down” the use of all fossil fuels.

But at a conference where, once again, the biggest number of representatives came from fossil fuel companies and the hosts, Egypt, wish to develop their gas reserves, it’s hardly surprising that these hopes would come up against resistance. Furthermore, countries like Saudi Arabia were pushing to protect their vast oil wealth and the most powerful nation, the US, is granting licenses to those fossil fuel companies to expand gas exploration.

The agreement commits to an energy transition towards “lower emissions and renewables.” This means a green light to continue the exploitation of gas, in particular, since it has lower emissions than coal.

The sick man who has been poisoned is now prescribed a slightly less poisonous substance. It won’t cure him, but it might delay his inevitable death a little longer.

The trade unions had campaigned for greater ambition in reducing the carbon emissions that are causing global warming and the catastrophic severe weather events associated with climate change.

We have been pushing for this to be done through social dialogue, involving the workers in the fossil fuel industries with the employers and governments seeking progress, whilst providing the workforce with alternative employment or training in the new industries that must replace the old.

Commitments to this Just Transition are enshrined in the Paris, Glasgow and now the Sharm el Sheikh agreements. However, some parties are less committed to justice for workers and more concerned with protecting the profits and power of the employers, with calls for “labour rights” to be included in the agreements ignored. Therefore, the fight for a Just Transition for workers will continue.

Finally, COP27 in sunny Sharm el Sheikh took place under the cloud of Egypt’s appalling record on human rights, including its suppression of climate change activists and trade unionists.

There were no protests or unofficial meetings outside the COP27 conference centre and at the end of the two weeks 60,000 political prisoners remain in Egypt’s prisons.

There can be no climate justice without human rights and labour rights and so there remains much to be done. I hope UNISON and our members will continue to be at the centre of this struggle.