COP27 Dispatch: Can the COP Process Deliver Climate Action?

COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt has been called the “implementation COP”. Yet concern exists that the COP process may be ill-suited to putting climate plans into action.

Experts from the University of Pennsylvania are on the ground at COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. In this special series from Energy Policy Now, they share their observations from the global climate conference and insights into key issues under negotiation.

Koko Warner, manager of the UNFCCC’s Vulnerability subdivision, explains why COP27 in Egypt has been declared the “implementation COP.” She also examines why implementation – the process of putting into practice the mitigation and adaptation plans developed during past global climate meetings – presents a challenge for the COP framework.

Andy Stone: Welcome to the Energy Policy Now podcast from the Kleinman Center for Energy policy at the University of Pennsylvania and to this special series on COP27 which is underway in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. Over the two weeks of COP, I’m holding short conversations with experts from the University of Pennsylvania on a number of key issues that are being discussed at this year’s Global Climate Change Conference. In this episode, I’ll be talking with Koko Warner, a Visiting Fellow at Penn’s Perry World House. Koko is Manager of the UNFCCC’s Vulnerability Subdivision and a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth and Sixth Assessment Reports.

We’ll be talking about COP27, which has been tagged as “The Implementation COP,” and why implementation may itself be the Achilles heel of the COP process and the global effort to address climate change. Koko, welcome to the podcast.

Koko Warner: Andy, thanks so much. It’s a pleasure to join you from Egypt, where COP27 is reaching its last little bit here.

Stone: It was a pleasure to meet you last week, as well, when I was in Sharm. It was a very new experience for me.

Warner: It was noisy.

Stone: I know you’ve been through this process many times.

Warner: Yes. That’s right.

Stone: So you’re in Sharm for the entire two weeks of COP27, and one of the things that I learned last week — again, on my first visit to a COP — is that week 1 and week 2 are very different. I wonder if you could tell us how?

Warner: Sure. A couple of things, and I’m going to describe what happened at this COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. So at the very, very beginning, many, many world leaders actually came, and they opened the Conference of the Parties. You’ve seen that happen at a few of our conferences. It happened, for example, in Paris, which ushered in the Paris Agreement in 2015. So just to get started, world leaders came together and pointed to the horizon and said, “We’re going there. We want to go to a resilient, adapted, low-greenhouse gas emissions world in the future.” And that’s a future everyone can look forward to.

And then the technical work began. So in that first week, after the world leaders had pointed the direction, the really hard work of figuring out how countries actually implement the Paris Agreement together continued. And this is something that countries are working together on for many years, but the urgency is growing. And the way that our process goes is that at the end of that first week, it’s almost as if there are multiple lanes, like you have in a swimming competition. And there’s a lane for mitigation, and a lane for transparency, and a lane for adaptation, and a lane for whatever — finance, technology, implementation. And all of the different delegates are working as teams, going down their lanes, trying to deliver a set of draft decisions about how countries want to work together, or in their own kind of national or regional areas of work, in order to get implementation of the Paris Agreement.

And then the second week, which is what we’re in right now at the time of this recording, ministers start coming in. As you can imagine, at a technical level, there are some things that you can’t resolve at that level. So ministers come in and help provide that political gravitas to say, “Look, it’s hard, but we do want to do this together. So let’s get over those hurdles.” And they bring us, then, to the next level.

And then finally, right at the end, the President of the Conference of the Parties — every year there’s a different one. This year it’s Egypt that will come in and do the final fine touches, often to the highest levels of government and reach an agreement that will then move the process forward. And then we begin for the next year.

So that’s a broad description of the first week and the second week.

Stone: So you’re very much in the middle of everything that’s going on at COP in your role. I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about exactly what you do at COP?

Warner: Yes, sure. So my day job and my COP job are complementary. Here at the Conference of the Parties, for each one of those lanes that I described, there’s a support team of the secretariat to the UNFCCC process. That’s the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. So the teams that I lead support each one of those negotiating items. So each lane — again, if you’re thinking of a swimming competition — comes from the agenda. And so there’s one agenda item and a team supporting it. And then the teams are tiny — two people, sometimes a whole team, supporting different agenda items. But what it looks like is my support teams go, they listen to parties discuss the different items. And then afterwards they come back, they write up their notes. There are two team captains, by the way. They’re called “co-facilitators” for each one of these agenda items. And the co-facilitators, if they’ve been given a request by the parties — the parties are countries. If the countries ask the co-facilitators to produce a draft, that’s what my team then actually does. They take the notes. They’ve listened, and they’ll create a draft document. And that draft document will go in, then, to the discussions the next day.

And so countries look at these draft texts or these one-pagers so to speak, and they’ll look at the words on those documents, and they’ll say, “Do we agree on this? Do we not? How can we refine further?” And it is through those documents we advance towards the end of the week, when there is a draft decision that all of the parties, all of the countries actually agree upon. And then it goes into the second week.

So that’s what my team does, and my job is to provide moral support, to provide guidance, to be an editor — all of those things. To make sure that they are maybe caffeinated at strange hours of the night. [LAUGHTER]

So that’s my job here at the Conference of the Parties. It’s challenging, wonderful, really interesting, and fantastic and challenging, as I said, to listen to countries discuss issues that are of common importance, and to listen and to try and forge a way forward together.

Stone: So COP27 is the implementation COP. And the tagline for this year is “Together for Implementation.” Why is implementation sharply in focus this year?

Warner: The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change is 30 years old this year. If you go all the way back to 1992, there was enough science at the time that scientists had indicated that human activity was changing the concentration of gases in the atmosphere — oxygen, carbon, methane, or all of the — I’m not a chemist, so you can imagine. But these changes in the Earth’s atmosphere also translate into changes for people like us on the ground.

So back in 1992, countries came together and agreed, “Oof, we definitely don’t want to interfere with the Earth’s atmosphere because that could be dangerous for all people on Earth and nature.” And so they set this big agreement: “Let’s avoid dangerous anthropogenic climate change.” And that was the original convention.

Of course after that, countries have to decide, “Well, how are we going to do that?” It took several more years to decide on that “how.” And the first instrument, legal instrument of the UNFCCC was something called the Kyoto Protocol. A lot of people have heard about the Kyoto Protocol, but maybe aren’t quite so familiar with what it’s about, and that was a commitment, especially by industrialized countries, to reduce their emissions or the greenhouse gasses or pollution that they put into the atmosphere. And they did that for several years.

But what happened in the meantime is in some ways the good news about development. Many countries, including China, went from the state that they were at the end of the Cold War to really being industrial powerhouses today. And so their greenhouse gas emissions, the pollution they’re putting into the atmosphere, grew. So in spite of our convention, being successful in a way — the real root cause of the problem for humanity kept growing.

Then you have the Paris Agreement. And now here we are seven years after the Paris Agreement, and people all over the world, whether you’re in the South living on a small island, whether you’re in the far, far North, having very hot temperatures and forest fires. In every region in the world, people are feeling climate impact, and that is what brings us to implementation.

You’ll hear just even today, walking into the conference venue, youth are out in front with signs saying, “Secure our future. We need a future, too. Let’s get this done.” And what I said about my teams producing texts and agreements — that’s good. Countries do need a space where they can decide the way forward together. And now because of the speed of climate change, we have to change gears and continue an upscale what we’re doing on the ground to protect our communities and to help countries make this shift in our energy systems, in our agricultural systems, et cetera — to keep life safe and to keep nature thriving into the future. So that’s why we’re talking about implementation together here at COP27.

Stone: Now you did mention when we spoke last week, that as you just started to get through right here, that implementation is a daunting challenge for the COP process. Why is it possible that the process is not “built for implementation?”

Warner: At the very beginning of the COP, I’ve had a chance to walk just through the conference venue with a business leader, a big industrial kind of group, and he’s the leader of their foundation. And as we were walking through, he was drawing some analogies to the business world. It’s like, “Oh, okay, I can see how you’d need coordinated action and milestones and agreement, and then you go out and do and come back together.” And as we finished our walk around, he looked back at where negotiators were talking, and then he looked just ahead of him, to where civil society and church groups and islanders and indigenous peoples and farmers — and like we have this whole pavilion area. And he said, “Oh, the negotiations are like the engine room, or they’re really the center that’s giving the directions and pointing the direction that all of these different actors in society that are here in this pavilion area are like the gearbox. And the trick is you need that interlocking space.” And governments really know how to talk to governments. And business talks to business. And civil society is so good at all of the networks. But the trick to implementation is getting our different worlds to talk with one another and to figure out the interfaces.

And I’ll give you an example. Other friends here at the Conference of the Parties are working on cities. In fact, some of the University of Pennsylvania’s delegation are really world leaders on cities and mayors’ networks. And in our process, it’s designed for countries. But of course cities are where so many people work and live, and there’s so much infrastructure there and just this — not totally untapped, but you can just imagine the potential of cities and urban areas. And they don’t naturally have a space yet in this process. So it’s a question of how do you get that connectivity? How do you link up networks? How do you make sure that what’s decided here can actually roll out? How would you make sure that cities have public transportation that works, to help people be a little bit less reliant on transportation of today? It’s going to be different in the future.

So I think those are some of the huge opportunities, but also it’s challenging. It’s hard.

Stone: So let me ask you this. What challenges or dangers does this difficulty in implementation and also including all actors raise for reaching the goals laid out in the Paris Agreement?

Warner: So you ask about dangers. There are some real dangers for humanity and for nature. Part of it has to do with time because our greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, and there really is a limited budget in our atmosphere. Without going into all of that discussion, there really is limited time. The best available science suggests that globally, the world may be headed toward the 1.5 degree Celsius — some scientists describe it as a threshold for Earth systems, where after that point, you can get accelerating adverse climate change impacts, whether it’s sea level rise or extreme heats in the summer or changing rainfall patterns, things that really impact nature and people.

Now when we come to people, this is not easy, but there’s also this potential for connections, and big change can happen through networks, if networks are designed to quickly disseminate good practices and results and information about how to do things right. So I think in some ways that’s a little bit like a knife’s edge. When we talk about adaptation, of course you’re going to want to do adaptation to climate change at scale. We’re doing things at a very — we’re going to need to do action at a very large scale, so our risk is that we get it wrong and head off in the wrong direction, and then find out a couple of years later, “Oof! We didn’t want to go in that direction.”

Now, what are some of the ways that we can offset those risks? We’re headed into an uncertain time. There’s a lot of variability, instability, but I think what we’re learning worldwide is — and I’m just going to name one opportunity among many, many, many — I mentioned networks. There are so many youth here. There are so many farmers here. There are women’s groups and people from all over the global South and the global North. If we can find a way to listen and to be inclusive and to make sure that the people whose lives are most impacted also can convey their experiences and their needs to the people here at the Conference of the Parties who are trying to reach decisions together, and if there are mechanisms or consultation processes, so that that listening can turn into action that takes those lessons into account, as we design and roll out transportation systems and energy systems and new ways of feeding the planet. And all of those things will have a much better chance of reaching our ambitious goals that are in the Paris Agreement, without leaving people behind. That is a huge challenge, but it’s also an opportunity that I really hope that we’ll take.

Stone: One final question for you right here, and I don’t want to ignore the current geopolitical context in which all this is happening. We’ve got the war in Ukraine. We’ve got fuel shortages, economic and food price inflation. How might these all create further challenges to implementation?

Warner: Absolutely. If you talk to anybody who’s paying an energy bill — I’ve mentioned farmers out in their fields — so many people around the world are really feeling the pressure, whether it’s economic pressure, pressure to put food on the table. And I think many of us just are trying to get through to the end of the day.

Now bringing that back to climate change and why, again, the theme of COP17 is implementation together — let’s take the example of the price of food. One crisis in Europe, the situation in the Ukraine, one blocked port in Odessa has rippled across the world and has contributed to the price of cooking oil quadrupling, or the price of wheat. We’re here in Egypt, the world’s largest importer of wheat. And the price of wheat is rising. It’s really hard for families. If one blocked port can cause that much chaos for families, we’re learning what climate change could mean for all of us.

And that’s a very hard lesson, but there’s also a silver lining because it really reminds us that we are a system. We are a global community. The solutions are often very local, but we do need coordination. And that’s what brings us together in this process every single year, to touch base and to find out where the challenges are, and how do we address them in a coordinated way? How do we look to the future and make sure that the children of today have a stable future to look forward to? And that’s both the challenge, as well as the opportunity. And again, COP27 — trying to implement all of our commitments together.

Stone: Koko, thank you very much for talking.

Warner: It has been great, Andy. Thank you.

Stone: Thanks for listening to this special episode of the Energy Policy Now podcast and to the series on COP27 underway in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt.

Koko Warner

Visiting Fellow, Perry World House
Koko Warner is a visiting fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House. She is the manager of the UNFCCC’s Vulnerability subdivision, and is a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth and Sixth Assessment reports.

Andy Stone

Energy Policy Now Host and Producer
Andy Stone is producer and host of Energy Policy Now, the Kleinman Center’s podcast series. He previously worked in business planning with PJM Interconnection and was a senior energy reporter at Forbes Magazine.