COP27​ was held in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm El-Sheikh, at the tip of the arid Sinai Peninsula, just around the corner from the world’s busiest shipping lane. Ursula von der Leyen showed up early to make deals for the European Union. She signed a contract to buy rare minerals from Kazakhstan; made a timber deal – presented as a plan for the ‘sustainable development and management’ of forests – with Congo, Guyana, Mongolia, Uganda and Zambia; bought hydrogen from Egypt, and lithium and cobalt from Namibia. Egypt’s minister of petroleum and mineral resources signed seven memoranda of understanding with Bechtel, Shell, General Electric and others, covering things like the development of decarbonisation technologies and feasibility studies for producing ammonia. Egypt is setting up a carbon trade market in Africa, and Singapore was looking to buy carbon credits from Morocco (if you are a major emitter, you can buy carbon credits from a neutral emitter to offset your pollution). In side meetings, Caribbean engineers gave lessons on ways to secure funding from the Global Climate Fund and oil companies, and how to build carbon capture and storage units.

The whole thing took place in the vast grounds of the Tonino Lamborghini convention centre. The presidency occupied the permanent buildings and most of the rest of the conference was held in temporary structures. It’s amusing that a climate change conference was held in a venue named after a gas-guzzling sports car, though for the duration of the conference it was rebranded as the International Convention Centre. Alongside many salons named after pharaohs, there were three large halls containing the pavilions for individual countries, NGOs and transnational organisations. The most easily accessible hall included the pavilions of the host country, the EU, the US, the UK, Germany and India. It also included the vast, opulent, high-tech pavilions of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. The UAE is set to host COP28 next year and sent 1073 delegates to Egypt, a number of them non-citizens recruited for forward planning. Saudi Arabia built two geodesic domes not far from the convention centre to publicise the Saudi Green Initiative, which concentrates on ‘emissions reduction, afforestation and land and sea protection’. It is also building the ‘smart city’ of Neom, seventy miles away as the crow flies across the Straits of Tiran and the Red Sea, and its pavilion gave a vision of an eco-future replete with robot technologies seeding forests in the desert, mechanisms to warn of oil spills and sandstorms, and alternative fuels. Saudi Arabia held a two-day forum on its green policies but refused to commit to the 1.5°C climate change pledge.

The US sent just 136 delegates to the conference (there were 35,000 in all), but all the meetings at its pavilion were packed. Most of its delegates were senior diplomats and civil servants who were met by embassy officials when they got off their planes so they wouldn’t have to mix with the hoi polloi on the shuttle buses from the airport. An official from the Department of Defence spoke about the US military’s domestic and overseas disaster relief role and its efforts to reduce its carbon footprint. The US special envoy for biodiversity and water resources had a discussion with the head of the US Chamber of Commerce, who expressed gratitude to the Biden administration for welcoming the private sector into the green game. A number of delegates representing NGOs and businesses were former US government officials. China’s 65 delegates had a discreet corner decorated with flags, pandas and Xi Jinping’s red book. Israel’s pavilion, placed near the one for the US, held events on agri-tech and on ‘maximising every drop’ of water, much of it drained from Palestinian aquifers into pools and farms in the settlements.

The next hall had smaller spaces allocated to delegates from a handful of European countries and many African ones. The third hall hosted the pavilions for Brazil, Australia and Malaysia and the stands for many businesses. Green capital and its blue maritime sister were all the rage. The International Chamber of Commerce adopted ‘Make Climate Action Everyone’s Business’ as its motto. Its pavilion had comfortable meeting areas, and held events online and in situ for corporate executives from around the world. Most of the sessions I attended were dominated by businesspeople from the US.

Ikea sponsored a pavilion, and the names PwC, Deloitte and EY appeared on lots of stalls. Nigeria displayed the logos of its partners: Agip, ExxonMobil, Shell Nigeria, Chevron, Total, Indorama petrochemicals and the Pan Ocean shipping company. Citi, 3M and SalesForce partnered with the United Nations at its main stand. JPMorgan Chase and Deutsche Bank, along with the Atlantic Council (‘a nonpartisan organisation that galvanises US leadership’), had underwritten the Resilience Hub. Representatives of ESG divisions – environmental, social and government – were everywhere, talking about carbon trading, sustainability credits and community engagement. Most of the ESG representatives were women, people of colour, or both. The business pavilions all had daily networking events and were always full of people. Where impenetrable acronyms were not used at their meetings, there was much talk of innovation, disruption, resilience, energy security, community engagement and a ‘just transition’.

The International Chamber of Shipping sponsored a couple of well-attended talks at which the CEO of one of the world’s biggest diesel engine producers for ships and trains, a subsidiary of Volkswagen, expressed scepticism about the viability of new, more eco-friendly fuels – he preferred a slower transition via natural gas. Green financing and newfangled (and sometimes unproven) technologies were promoted ad nauseam by corporations and lobbyists. Carbon capture is the biggest favourite at the moment because it makes no demands on the actual production of CO2 gas. The technocentric fantasy that a new invention will make it possible for us to keep consuming fossil fuels is a salve for the guilt of consuming countries, and a cynical nod at whatever international treaty the world’s biggest polluters have signed.

More than six hundred fossil fuel lobbyists, the most at any COP conference, were registered as delegates. BP’s chief executive, Bernard Looney, and four of his colleagues attended as delegates of Mauritania’s Ministry of Petroleum, Mines and Energy. The head of the International Copper Association, a representative from a Canadian firm that still burns coal to produce electricity, and a range of energy producers held side events. Representatives of an ‘artisanal mining company’, Ford Motors and various consulting firms participated via video link. Lobbyists for agribusiness were also present. The Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate, a joint venture between the US and UAE governments, is listed by the UN as a ‘climate champion’ despite one of its ‘knowledge partners’ being the North American Meat Institute, a major livestock industry lobbying organisation.

The biggest sticking point of the negotiations at the conference was ‘loss and damage’: how to force the world’s industrial nations, which are also the biggest producers of greenhouse gases, to pay reparations to those who suffer most from the effects of fossil fuel use. Industrialised countries don’t want to accept any liability because they fear being flooded by lawsuits or, even worse, being asked to bring in more dramatic policies to curb growth, consumption and carbon production. On the Tuesday of the second week the G77 nations and China proposed to set up a global fund to pay damages, with the specifics to be negotiated at COP28. Lula’s arrival the same day – by private jet – seemed to have energised the negotiations. The next day the Brazilian pavilion was heaving with people trying to catch a glimpse of him.

Everything in Egypt seemed to carry the COP27 logo, even the headrest protectors on Egyptair’s planes – it is the official airline of COP27. Egyptian television channels had the COP27 watermark in the corner of the screen. At Cairo International Airport, a brand new section of the domestic terminal fast-tracked international delegates to Sharm El-Sheikh. You could see all the Egyptians flying to other domestic destinations through the glass. In Sharm El-Sheikh itself, hospitality businesses were happy. They needed to make some money because Russian and Ukrainian tourists were in short supply this summer (though not entirely absent, even during the conference). But scuba-diving businesses had to shut down during the first week of the conference, probably for security reasons, and local taxi drivers weren’t too happy either, since there were numerous electric buses transporting the delegates between their hotels and the convention centre. Smaller vans ferried workers from the convention centre to their segregated cafeteria, and to their residences. Hundreds of Egyptians were recruited to act as technology assistants and guides and have been living in Sharm El-Sheikh since October.

Everywhere you looked Mukhabarat (secret service) guys in spiffy black suits lurked, even in the desert outside the town. Petrol stations serving massive SUVs with tinted windows and ‘Special Security’ emblems must have been doing a roaring trade. The Mukhabarat guys were doing good business too, as they wandered round the conference centre and through the town, or sat in hotel lobbies and restaurants, glowering at human rights activists. They were around whenever anyone dared to speak of Alaa Abd El-Fattah, a British-Egyptian activist held in the Wadi El-Natrun prison, who had been on hunger strike for more than two hundred days and stopped drinking water during the first week of COP27. British officials have made concerned noises about his detention, but not enough to make the Egyptian government feel it has to release him. Their inaction is reminiscent of the Italian response to the murder of Giulio Regeni in 2016 by Egyptian security forces: international trade takes precedence over the lives of citizens. The one unequivocally heartening event at COP27 was the People’s Plenary, held on the penultimate day, during which civil society activists from around the world chanted ‘Free Alaa’ and – his watchword – ‘We have not been defeated.’ What will ultimately determine Abd El-Fattah’s fate, and the future of the planet itself, will be popular politics, not formal meetings at beachside resorts.

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