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Without Taking On Capitalism, COP Can’t Save Us

To confront ecological catastrophe, next week's COP would have to confront the profit-at-all-costs world system that locks us into disaster. Anything less is circus.

COP27’s discussions will include decarbonisation targets, adaptation and agriculture. Most significant will be negotiations over climate finance. (Sayed Sheasha / Reuters via Getty Images)

It’s one year since the world arrived to dominate the streets of Glasgow for COP26. For two weeks, the Scottish city was the centre of the world for environmental lobbyists, negotiators, NGOs and climate justice activists. For those fourteen days, COP26 also dominated the UK politics. Boris Johnson was still Prime Minister and the Tory government sought to use its host status to fashion itself an unjustified environmentalist reputation.

This year the climate summit industry converges on the appropriately hot Sharm El-Sheikh resort in Egypt for COP27. Twelve months have passed and, while an awful lot has changed, some things really do stay the same. As with every gathering in recent memory, media and NGOs join together to overstate its significance. An Observer editorial proclaims that COP27 ‘represents one of our last chances to avert global catastrophe.’ The World Health Organisation insists that it is ‘our last chance to achieve a healthy future for humanity’. Gordon Brown said as much of COP15 back in 2009.

Last Chances

How many last chances can we have? For many around the world, this scarcely believable attention mongering is perverse. Since the Glasgow summit, extreme flooding in Pakistan has constituted a humanitarian crisis. Hurricane Ian has wreaked havoc in the Caribbean and southern states in the US, killing over 100 and causing billions of dollars’ worth of damage. In Europe, a summer of heatwaves broke records and killed thousands. The devastating effects of climate change are very much upon us. Our future is inevitably catastrophic; the question now is to what degree.

So what does COP27 actually aim to achieve? The first thing to understand is that not all COPs are equal. Major summits happen every five or so years. COP26 in Glasgow was one of these. So were COP15 in Copenhagen and COP21 in Paris. This is where the real decision-making happens. The most famous example is the Paris Agreement in 2015. The intervening summits like COP27 are about reporting and hashing out the implementation of the major agreements.

COP27’s discussions will include decarbonisation targets, adaptation and agriculture. Most significant will be negotiations over climate finance. Deferred from past meetings, the question of payments for loss and damage—long demanded by poorer countries and resisted by wealthy countries—are likely to be back on the agenda.


To underline the UNFCCC’s status as little more than an annual political circus, the UK’s media coverage of the summit has been dominated by stories who will and won’t be attending, rather than what’s on the agenda. On the request of former and fleeting Prime Minister Liz Truss, King Charles is staying at home. Instead, the new monarch is signalling his oft-flaunted environmentalist credentials by hosting a reception for political leaders, business representatives and NGOs on their way to Egypt.

The current Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, had initially pulled out of attending COP27, provoking Alok Sharma, who is still the government’s President of COP26 but recently demoted from the Cabinet, to criticise him saying he was ‘pretty disappointed’. Boris Johnson—also one to take any opportunity to bolster his eco-reputation—is also planning to attend, inevitably drawing comparisons with his former Chancellor. This internal Tory backlash combined with media condemnation has forced Sunak to U-turn, announcing that he will in fact go to Egypt just days before the summit begins.

Sunak is an easy target on climate. This is the man who accepted almost £150,000 from supporters tied to the oil and gas industry during his first Conservative Party leadership contest. And while he quickly moved to reverse Truss’ unpopular lifting of the fracking ban, the extent of Sunak’s climate pledges have been empty sloganeering and cautioning against decarbonising ‘too hard and fast’. A last-minute and opportunistic visit to Egypt shouldn’t inspire any greater trust in his administration. Contrary to the hype, COP27 is not a major event in the fight against climate change. For Sunak, it is little more than a cynical photo-op designed to maintain the illusion of Tory climate action.


This is predominantly because of the institution’s political flaws and operational impotence. We have already seen that even the UNFCCC’s mediocre ambitions are not upheld by its toothless processes. The Paris Agreement committed member states to an ambition of limiting global average temperature rises to 1.5oC. Ahead of COP27, new research suggests what many of us already knew: there is ‘no credible pathway’ currently in place to meet that target. There is no central coordination and no process of enforcing states’ entirely voluntary decarbonisation targets. Just as COP26 was widely condemned as failing to make adequate progress, COP27 will continue the tradition of making a lot of noise while forging no tangible headway.

The great mistake that many make is believing that COP summits are about stopping climate change. They are not. If that were the case, the agenda would clearly be dominated by strategies to rapidly phase out fossil fuels and states would have long ago agreed to providing the poorest countries with the finance to do so. Instead, successive summits have prioritised upholding the interests of the wealthiest capitalist countries while negotiating on trade and the creation of profitable new carbon markets.

Any COP capable of instigating rapid, global and just energy transition would have to fundamentally reorient towards confronting the capitalist world system at the root of ecological crises. It must recognise that a global political economy putting profit ahead of all else locks us into disaster. But the UNFCCC was designed as part of a fundamentally unequal set of international power relations where the wealthy dominate the poor. As with previous summits, it is right that workers and activists make demands of COP27 to extract what concessions we can. However, we should be clear that those in attendance are simply not prepared to do what is actually necessary.

Those of us interested in climate justice should instead derive our hope from internationalist struggles for an equitable global order based on peace and justice. For example, Lula’s recent victory makes Brazil the latest Latin American country to turn red, promising to safeguard the Amazon following Bolsonaro’s ecocidal destruction. In West Papua, the indigenous liberation movement continues to resist colonial extraction with an ambition for independence to make way for the world’s first Green State.

Globally, we are seeing a resurgent labour movement taking industrial action as part of the fight for a new economy. While workers demand better pay and conditions amid the inflationary crisis, their industrial power is the basis of any successful struggle for economic transformation and rapid decarbonisation. Hope is not found in the sterilised negotiating rooms of stitched-up international diplomacy, but in international solidarities found between those fighting for a better world.