COP27: A Turning Point for Climate and Human Rights


This analysis outlines the main critical areas of the upcoming negotiations and key demands from civil society ahead of the COP27 Opening Plenary.

COP27: Sharm El Sheikh

Climate impacts, from unprecedented floods in Pakistan to continued drought across Africa, record destruction by forest fires in Europe, and intensified storms in North America, are raging across the globe. Each event underscores that climate change is a human rights crisis.

Human Rights and Civic Space

At COP26, tens of thousands of activists and frontline leaders took to the streets while Greta Thunberg declared that the “real work begins outside these halls.” Their message is unchanged: governments must treat climate change as the emergency it is, and their responses must respect and protect human rights and the rights of future generations.

COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt is the first COP held outside of Europe in six years. It should be an opportunity for polluting nations to see and hear from affected communities first-hand. But the African continent has become one of the biggest frontiers for the neocolonialist expansion of oil and gas infrastructure, and this has been aided, in large part, by the suppression of civic space.

The Egyptian government is notorious for an escalating human rights crisis that builds from shutting down protests and systematic cracking down on dissent. Egyptian groups — supported by a broad range of international organizations — are calling out the country's brutal clampdown on civic space. Recent reports from human rights groups reveal the current state of human rights: restrictions are being used to target environmental and climate groups, dissident voices are facing repression, and women, girls, and LGBTIQ+ people are facing discrimination.

Given that the necessary work of centering and upholding human rights in negotiations requires open civic space, there is particular concern about what may happen during — and after — COP27. Consequently, it is imperative that governments, UN agencies and civil society call vocally for the immediate release of the political prisoners — starting with but not limited to Alaa Abdel Fattah, whose powerful voice for democracy is close to being extinguished — and to ensure that all eyes closely monitor whether it is possible to provide critically important and genuine public participation. There are also concerns about safety, security, the need for solidarity with Egyptian activists participating in the COP and events or demonstrations held in relation to the conference, and whether there is any prospect in the context of COP27 for rights-based decisions that center on effective solutions.

As a consequence, international institutions, governments, and civil society participants must draw the links between climate justice, human rights, and civic space for several key reasons:

  1. Making these connections builds an essential lifeline for Egyptian civil society and tens of thousands of political prisoners in the country.
  2. There will never be so many eyes and public pressure on the Egyptian government and so this is an extremely rare opportunity to support Egyptian civil society in the lead up and during COP27, in bringing the human rights violations of the Egyptian regime to light and press for greater civil liberties in the country.
  3. There are broader implications for strengthening effective climate action worldwide once COP27 concludes. This includes a) the resistance efforts led by communities on the frontlines of fossil fuel expansion that have been effective at slowing the buildout and b) protecting individuals’ access to justice, which has resulted in some of the most game-changing court decisions having real impacts on government policies and corporate practices affecting the climate.

There are several opportunities on the agenda for States to do this, including the ongoing, first-ever Global Stocktake assessing the level of progress toward implementing the Paris Agreement. Here, Parties can — and should — promote empowered climate responses from communities hardest hit by climate change or whose rights are threatened by ruthless policies implemented under the guise of climate action.

Fossil Fuels: War, Windfalls, and the Way out of Dependence

36. Calls upon Parties to accelerate the development, deployment and dissemination of technologies, and the adoption of policies, to transition towards low-emission energy systems, including by rapidly scaling up the deployment of clean power generation and energy efficiency measures, including accelerating efforts towards the phasedown of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, while providing targeted support to the poorest and most vulnerable in line with national circumstances and recognizing the need for support towards a just transition;
(First ever paragraph adopted in a decision of the COP and acknowledging the need to phase out fossil fuels)

The UNFCCC’s silence on fossil fuels ended with the Glasgow Climate Pact. Despite this step toward progress and the release of multiple reports documenting the necessity and feasibility of a rapid phaseout of fossil fuels, countries and institutions are failing or taking back their climate commitments.

Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine should be a wake-up call for countries to stop financing dangerous dictatorships by purchasing fossil fuels in favor of choosing a different path by accelerating the transition to a fossil-free future. Instead, it has prompted a neocolonialist rush for gas. High-emitting European countries seek new supplies to feed their fossil fuel addiction, such as through deals with COP27 host country, Egypt, as well as Senegal and Israel. Other countries are exploring partnerships with authoritarian regimes turning a blind eye on their human rights track records for the sake of increased fossil fuels exports. Meanwhile, fossil fuel companies are cashing in on the boom, reaping windfall profits while millions across the globe struggle to access or afford basic energy. And financiers are threatening to leave institutions designed to increase climate accountability, such as the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero.

State and Civil Society Momentum for Phaseout

Some States and civil society groups continue to pressure countries gathering at COP27, calling on them to commit to an unqualified and immediate phaseout of all fossil fuels through a halt to all new investments in oil, gas, and coal and a rapid, managed decline of production. Three campaigns that will feature prominently at COP27 typify this pressure.

  1. Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance (BOGA) — A coalition of governments launched at COP26 issued a statement in September reiterating the need to deliver climate and energy security through massive investments in flexible, efficient, and renewable energy systems. Such clear-eyed acknowledgments of what the UN Secretary-General has called the “moral and economic madness” of investing in new fossil fuels are welcome. But real leadership requires more: BOGA must transition from an aspirational initiative into ambitious action.
  2. Don’t Gas Africa — Over the last several months, African civil society and international allies have been coming together to push back on the scramble to access the continent’s fossil energy resources; debunk the myth that fossil fuels are essential for “development” in host countries and local communities; and to demand decentralized renewables, energy access, and adequate finance from the biggest polluters. The needs and demands of African peoples must be at the front of any conversation about opening the continent for new oil and gas infrastructure. Their perspectives will provide a concrete context for discussions on financial obligations, global solidarity, compensation, and reparation.
  3. Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty (FFNPT) — Momentum for the campaign calling for countries to halt the expansion of oil, gas, and coal and manage a global, just transition to a fossil-free future is continuing to grow. Now, more than 60 cities have joined, and there is significant support from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the European Parliament. At the September UN General Assembly, Vanuatu became the first nation to call for an international treaty. It was soon followed by Timor-Leste and Tuvalu, with New Zealand offering in-principle support for the proposal.

Looking Beyond Energy

Negotiations to address fossil fuels must look at current use and projected demand over the coming decades, namely, petrochemicals, including plastics, pesticides, and fertilizers. While these are often viewed as disparate issues, they are deeply connected, and finding solutions to these crises requires breaking down silos. Governments gathering at COP27 can and must address these challenges by confronting the wider fossil economy. They can:

  1. Reduce fossil fuel consumption by cutting plastic production. A new report shows that plastic production is the largest industrial user of oil and gas in the EU. Therefore, dramatically reducing the plastics produced will have profound consequences for the climate, environment, and peace.
  2. Lay the groundwork for cooperation with the forthcoming plastics treaty. Two weeks after COP27, States will begin the first round of negotiations toward a plastics treaty. A vital part of that work will involve developing cooperation mechanisms between this future instrument and other multilateral agreements, including the UNFCCC. Given the short timeline for those negotiations, COP27 must begin the conversation on how this new, critical legal framework can accelerate the transition away from fossil fuel-based products.
  3. Raise awareness of the climate-plastics connection. While Coca-Cola’s COP27 sponsorship is a blatant attempt at corporate greenwashing by one of the world’s leading producers of single-use plastics, it provides the opportunity to highlight that plastics are one of the fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions. It helps make the case that the only viable solution to the plastic crisis is urgently reducing plastic production.
  4. Turn attention to industrial agriculture — simultaneously addressing toxics and fossil fuels. Just like plastics, synthetic nitrogen fertilizers are also fossil-fueled petrochemicals, propping up a polluting industrial agriculture and food production system that destroys ecosystems and biodiversity.

Stop Wasting Time: False Solutions are Not the Path Forward

As the effects of the climate crisis intensify, there is greater urgency to act. While many are looking at the real solutions such as slashing fossil fuel production, boosting renewable energies, and reducing fossil fuel demand, others are leaning into “net zero” pledges that rely on offset markets, or they are ramping up calls for purported technological fixes, arguing that given the escalating crisis, no option should be “off the table.” But many of these so-called climate solutions are a ploy that will allow a “business as usual” approach to producing and using fossil fuels.

The science underpinning the latest IPCC report is clear — there are mitigation pathways that can limit the global temperature rise to 1.5C without using unproven, costly, and risky technologies such as carbon dioxide removal (CDR) and carbon capture and storage (CCS). Pathways that utilize these technologies delay the necessary phaseout of fossil fuels and increase the risks of overshooting and the further irreversible harms it would unleash. The IPCC report makes clear that CCS is among the highest-cost options with the lowest potential to reduce emissions by 2030 — the most critical period for averting catastrophic warming. CCS and CDR also pose a significant risk to people and the environment, jeopardizing numerous sustainable development goals and the enjoyment of many human rights.

Still, regional and domestic policymaking bodies have been betting big on projects that include CCS, CDR, and other false solutions over the last year. In the US, the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 provides massive new subsidies for CCS. Meanwhile, the EU is putting forward regulatory frameworks that aim to certify carbon removals and voluntary markets that seek to create a wider diversity of carbon offsets.

These policymaking efforts are accompanied by a continued litany of net zero pledges from countries and companies around the world. Like the technofixes described above, these pledges are nothing more than a greenwashed distraction that provide the illusion that it is possible to pollute as long as reductions are purchased elsewhere. But netting out emissions doesn't reduce the use of fossil fuels, which is what is needed to curtail climate change. It is essential that the global community moves to zero real emissions and zero deforestation. In fact, a growing number of judges are ruling that governments cannot rely on unproven technologies, offsets, and distant pledges to uphold their obligations but that their duty of care requires urgent action to reduce emissions through reliable policies.

Given that calls for supporting similar efforts are pervasive in climate change discussions, they will undoubtedly echo through the halls of COP27.

The simple truth is that oil, gas, and coal are not and can never be compatible with a safe climate future. To ensure that the UNFCCC only pursues climate action that meaningfully addresses the root causes of the climate crisis, there must be an urgent effort to close any loophole that would allow for continued fossil fuel production and use. For this to happen, all discussions, processes, and mechanisms created at COP27 to address the lack of ambition and progress, including the Mitigation Work Programme, the Global Stocktake, and Article 6.4 creating a new market mechanism under the Paris Agreement must:

  1. Reference fossil fuels and the need for their rapid phaseout.
  2. Close the door on speculative and unproven technologies, including CCS, carbon capture utilization and storage (CCUS), and CDR.
  3. Reject euphemisms and qualifiers that prolong the illusion that we can continue to use oil, gas, or coal, for example, allowing exceptions for “abated” fossil fuels.
  4. Disallow polluters’ use of offsets or technological removals in lieu of urgently needed measures to end reliance on fossil fuels and slash emissions. Examples of corporate capture of the Paris Agreement for the sake of corporate profits include ongoing attempts to expand carbon markets to include “removals” in addition to reductions or private initiatives that promote carbon removal and solar geoengineering.  

Beyond perpetuating the myth that fossil fuel production and use is sustainable, many of the above discussed technologies and potential loopholes also raise real human rights concerns that must be addressed. For example, if Parties move forward with operationalizing the Paris Agreement’s “Sustainable Development Mechanism” (SDM), they must establish stringent rules to enable cooperation on proven solutions that effectively protect human rights, including the rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Loss and Damage: It’s Time for Polluters to Pay

Humanity has passed planetary boundaries, risking large-scale, abrupt, and irreversible environmental changes. This is evident in extreme, escalating extreme weather fast-onset, and slow-onset events that are disproportionately impacting human rights. The effects of intensifying weather show the need for robust financing for adaptation, mitigation, and for addressing loss and damage. This need is a frequent, if so far insufficiently acknowledged topic of climate negotiations and after COP26 will once again feature prominently on the COP27 agenda.

Seeking Accountability Outside the UNFCCC

Nearly 30 years ago, Small Island Developing States (SIDS) identified the need to remedy harms due to climate change. Since then, the call has been recognized multiple times under various UN climate agreements. Despite this, the largest cumulative polluters still refuse to fulfill their responsibility to provide support to developing countries. As the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and climate change put it in his report to the UN General Assembly, "major emitting countries have abandoned their duty to cooperate in line with the principles of international cooperation."

As a result, a groundswell of affected peoples, groups, and countries are looking to the UN human rights system and courts for accountability. Recent examples include:

These avenues are delineating States’ and Carbon Majors’ obligations to provide remedy for climate-related harm. But it is becoming increasingly clear that these historic polluters must step up and provide financial resources that enable developing countries to meaningfully address loss and damage. At the same time, they must fulfill their existing climate finance obligations for mitigation and adaptation.

Revisiting Finance: A Litmus Test for COP27

Near the end of COP26, the question of financing loss and damage became a major point of negotiations. All developing countries, bolstered by a unified civil society, put forward a proposal to install a Loss and Damage Finance Facility. Developed nations completely ignored this call. The final compromise was to establish the Glasgow Dialogue — a three-year program — but it is a program without a clear work plan or intended outcome. Therefore, there are no expectations that it will deliver real support for communities on the ground.

Despite developed nations’ efforts to torpedo the subject in previous negotiations, loss and damage is on the official (albeit provisional) agenda for the first time. All governments, including those that have attempted to side-step the conversation (such as the US and the EU), must now engage in discussions on taking decisive steps to establish an effective financial support mechanism under the climate regime. International civil society has made this a litmus test for the success of COP27. There are already concrete, actionable proposals that stress the importance of establishing a principles-based Loss and Damage Finance Facility similar to the one proposed at COP26. The European Parliament has joined developing countries in supporting such action. The aim is for the facility to become operational by COP29.

In the interim, there is a need for an immediate avenue to create fiscal space for developing countries to address the issue, including by linking climate justice with debt justice. Potential vehicles include comprehensive debt cancellation, improving the quality of climate finance provision, which in the majority is currently provided as loans, and dedicated funding programs. Scotland and Denmark have pursued the latter, putting pressure on other rich countries to provide their fair share of financial support. While laudable, the millions these countries have put on the table are orders of magnitude short of the scale of funding required to redress the hundreds of billions— even trillions — in climate-induced loss and damage. Even though developed countries are primarily responsible for providing public financing and addressing loss and damage, there may be ways to mobilize new and innovative sources of finance, including taxes and levies on fossil fuel producers. These options must be pursued to ensure that resources are not dependent on the whims of cyclical political parties in those countries most responsible for harms.

Given the profound human rights effects of loss and damage, COP27 must deliver new, additional public grants and needs-based finance. These streams need to be both people-centered and gender-responsive to ensure that these resources are directly accessible to communities and people living along the frontlines of the emergency.

As conversations evolve, it will be essential to apply lessons learned from previous failures to fulfill developed countries’ outstanding commitments to supporting developing countries with USD100 billion per year for climate mitigation and adaptation by 2020. The money is there — as illustrated by the resources mobilized in response to war and the pandemic as well as enormous profits of the fossil fuel industry. Governments just need to treat the climate crisis as the emergency it is. These lessons should also inform the ongoing discussions at COP27 on a New Collective Quantified Goal (NCQG) on international climate finance beyond 2025, which seeks to address financing loss and damage alongside mitigation and adaptation.