UN climate chief plans shake-up of COP annual talks after criticism


The recently appointed UN climate chief is planning a shake-up of the annual international summit to ensure it is transparent and produces results after a controversial conclusion to this year’s COP27 in Egypt.

Speaking hours after the climate conference closed in Egypt, Simon Stiell, head of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, said he intended to review the COP process to make it as “effective as possible”. 

This year’s event ended with some key participants expressing dissatisfaction with the handling and negotiations at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, which drew more than 45,000 participants.

While many vulnerable and developing countries praised an agreement for a fund to help poor countries cope with the effects of climate change, others hit out at the handling of the fortnight of talks and all-night wrangling that ended without any progress on global warming targets.

Some diplomats questioned the integrity of the COP27 Egyptian presidency. “I’ve never experienced anything like this: untransparent, unpredictable and chaotic,” said one delegate.

Countries’ negotiating teams were given a short amount of time in the early hours of Saturday morning to review draft texts for several key issues, people familiar with the matter said. That was “not a usual procedure”, said one EU official.

The dragged-out talks took the summit into a second day of overtime, and the final plenary session took place on Sunday after 3am.

Stiell has been on the other side of the COP process as the former minister for climate resilience and the environment for the Caribbean nation of Grenada, prior to his appointment in August to lead the UNFCCC.

He said he was aware of the concerns about COP27, and would review the summit and the broader COP process upon returning to the UNFCCC secretariat in Bonn, Germany.

“What we will be doing when we get back home is to review, and to look at areas of improvement,” he told the FT.

There were elements of the process that “can be done better”, Stiell said, and the UN body intended to provide recommendations to the next presidency held by United Arab Emirates ahead of the 2023 conference.

“The process needs to be as streamlined as possible, it needs to be as effective as possible,” he said.

People attend the closing plenary at the COP27 climate summit taking a nap
Germany’s climate envoy Jennifer Morgan and colleagues napping at the conference that ran through the night on Saturday with the final plenary starting after 3am © REUTERS

The COP27 conclusion on Sunday drew mixed reactions, with the finance minister of Tuvalu lamenting the “missed opportunity”. Other western negotiators blamed neighbouring oil and gas producing countries such as Saudi Arabia for watering down the final deal.

And the attendance of more than 600 lobbyists from the fossil fuel industry provoked complaints from a group of scientists and climate advocacy groups.

The final hours of the summit were marked by a push from dozens of countries to include a pledge to phase down all fossil fuels, which was ultimately unsuccessful.

Addressing the industry presence, Stiell said “you can’t ignore them”.

“The question is how do you engage them and where do they fit within the process,” he said. “I believe it’s absolutely essential that the process is completely transparent.”

On whether transparency had been lacking at COP27, Stiell said “I can’t answer that but it is something I’m going to look at”.

One potential way to improve the process might be to look at involving future COP presidencies alongside the presidency-elect for a given year, Stiell said. “Can we work together in creating an expanded agenda?”

Despite the disappointment voiced by many as COP27 concluded, the UNFCCC head said it had not been a failure.

“There was no backsliding in an environment that is very difficult, with the energy crisis, where you have seen increases in the use of fossil fuels,” he said. The absence of backsliding was “noteworthy”, but next year “there is an opportunity for greater performance”. 

At next year’s UAE-hosted summit, a focus on the energy sector “was an obvious place to start”, said Stiell. The science was clear about the need to “transition away from fossil fuels”.

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