SHARM EL SHEIKH — World leaders gathered Monday to wrestle with the crisis of climate change, amid a sea of other pressing challenges that threaten to set back already inadequate steps to pivot the global economy away from fossil fuels.
Casting an ominous shadow over these talks is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, itself financed by the sale of Russian gas. The conflict has unsettled the global energy market, spurred inflation and led some to call for more oil and gas drilling. Meanwhile, poor countries suffering from climate effects are increasingly frustrated with wealthy countries whose emissions are driving global warming. And relations between the two biggest polluters, the United States and China, have fallen to a new low.
“We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator,” the United Nations Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, told the gathering of more than 100 princes, presidents, and prime ministers Monday at the summit, the 27th session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations climate convention, known as COP27.
Scattered amid the sprawling conference center were several pavilions dedicated to the promotion of oil and gas. Saudi Arabia had paid for an exceptionally large space to describe itself as an energy hub. OPEC had a space showing off what it called its international development fund. Mauritania boasted of its natural gas reserves.
As the countries of Europe scramble to get off Russian natural gas, rising gas prices are whetting the appetites for new gas production elsewhere, from the North Sea to the Gulf of Mexico to the West African coast. Prince bin Zayed of the United Arab Emirates said flatly that his country would continue to produce gas so long as there was a market for it. He called his country a “responsible” gas producer.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of Britain, who reversed his earlier decision to skip the summit, told delegates that the Russian invasion of Ukraine should prompt developed countries to invest more heavily in renewable energy.
“Putin’s abhorrent war in Ukraine, and rising energy prices across the world are not a reason to go slow on climate change,” Mr. Sunak said. “They are a reason to act faster.”
Mr. Guterres underscored that climate change was not a separate issue that could be deferred, but is linked with the crises of war, unrest and hunger. “It is the central challenge of our century,” he said. “It is unacceptable, outrageous and self-defeating to put it on the back burner. Indeed, many of today’s conflicts are linked with growing climate chaos.”
Mr. Guterres urged the United States and China to resume discussions on ways to cooperate on climate action, saying that the nations had “a particular responsibility to join efforts.”
There is no immediate sign of thaw. The Chinese president, Xi Jinping, is not attending the meeting. Mr. Xi’s single-minded focus on shoring up his country’s sagging economy — and his increasingly closer relationship to Russia’s Vladimir Putin — has raised doubts about his commitment to greening the Chinese economy, while Tuesday’s midterm elections in the United States have brought new uncertainties about the future direction of American climate policy.
John Kerry, President Biden’s climate envoy, is trying to reboot discussions at the conference with his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, but so far, the two have no scheduled meetings. President Biden is scheduled to appear at the meeting on Friday, after other world leaders have departed.
Of the 110 national leaders who appeared at the global event on Monday, seven were women. One of them, Mia Mottley, prime minister of Barbados, gave an impassioned call for reform of the international banking system, saying it trapped formerly colonized countries into deepening debt, as they try to cope with climate hazards.
Leah Namugerwa, an 18-year-old climate activist from Uganda, told the dignitaries, most of whom were middle-aged or older, to move faster. “Politicians, when you stand up to talk, my generation asks that you speak like we are in an emergency,” she said.
The biggest fault line at these talks is over the contentious issue of who pays for climate damages that wreak havoc on countries that have done the least to cause global warming. Several blocs of developing countries have been pushing for payment from rich, industrialized countries, which have been wary of being held liable for what could be trillions of dollars. On this, there was a small breakthrough Sunday. For the first time, the issue of funding for loss and damage is on the official agenda.
But as part of a compromise, negotiators said the discussion would focus on “cooperation and facilitation” not “liability or compensation.”
Now comes the hard part: hammering out the details of what kind of funding arrangement and how much. That will be the subject of negotiations over the remainder of the conference, which is scheduled to end Nov. 18.
The conference opened Sunday in this resort city of sand and sea with a grim, though not unexpected scientific assessment. The years since the creation of the Paris Agreement in 2015 have been the hottest on record, because of rising emissions of planet warming gases, the World Meteorological Organization reported.
The Paris Agreement’s goal of slowing down global temperature rise has worked, but not at the pace and scale necessary. Before the accord, the average global temperature was set to rise by 4 degrees Celsius by 2100, compared with the start of the industrial age. It is now set to rise by 2.1 to 2.9 degrees Celsius. That’s far higher than 1.5 degree Celsius, which is the threshold beyond which scientists say the likelihood significantly increases of climate catastrophe.
Average global temperatures have already risen by about 1.1 degrees Celsius compared with preindustrial levels. Already, that has exacerbated extreme weather worldwide. This year alone, extraordinary heat scorched the Northern Hemisphere and caused severe drought in China while catastrophic flooding destroyed property and lives in Nigeria and Pakistan.
“If the political leaders mean what they say they must act in a new way,” Johan Rockstrom, head of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Research, said Monday evening. “To live up to their words, policymakers must immediately cut fossil fuel use within their own countries.”
Protests are usually a mainstay of these annual U.N. climate talks, an opportunity for activists and nongovernment groups to raise their voices to decision makers. But not this year. This meeting is being held in a convention center heavily patrolled by the Egyptian military, with unusually tight security restrictions that essentially shut down any display of dissent.
The Egyptian government said it would allow some protests and set up a designated zone for activists but it was far from the actual conference and difficult to reach. Monday afternoon, there was no one there save a few Russian tourists and some reporters.
The country’s most well-known political prisoner, Alaa Abd El Fattah, who has been in jail for most of the last nine years over his criticism of the country’s authoritarian government, stepped up his hunger strike on Sunday as the conference began, and began refusing water.
“Unfortunately, the only way I can actually sum up the COP27 summit so far is using two words: poor start,” Mohamed Adow, the director of Power Shift Africa, a group that aims to mobilize climate action across the continent, said at a news conference. “We cannot have COP27 become a sham.”