Choking back his emotions, Tuvalu finance minister Seve Paeniu held up a photo of five youth delegates from his country and expressed his “deep regret and disappointment” that COP27 had been a “missed opportunity”.
More than 80 countries had supported a proposal to phase down the use of fossil fuels at the UN climate summit in Egypt, he said.
Ultimately, the agreement by almost 200 nations reached after all-night discussions did not go further than the weakened Glasgow COP26 pledge to phase down polluting coal power and phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.
Several of the frustrated and exhausted negotiators from western nations blamed the oil- and gas-producing countries led by Saudi Arabia, emboldened by the global energy crisis.
Many of the world’s biggest fossil fuel producers succeeded in staving off the demands for bolder action on climate change as the summit in Sharm el-Sheikh drew to a close on Sunday, in spite of a dramatic threat of an EU walkout the day before.
While the final agreement included a historic commitment for a new fund to help pay for climate-related damage suffered by especially vulnerable countries, a broad range of nations deplored the lack of progress during the two-week summit on how to cut greenhouse gas emissions faster.
“The world will not thank us when they hear only excuses tomorrow,” said the EU’s green chief Frans Timmermans. “This is the make or break decade but what we have in front of us is not enough of a step forward.”
Saudi Arabia had been “playing hardest” in its resistance to faster progress in cutting emissions, said one person involved in the eleventh hour discussions. China also held back progress but was less vocal than the Arab League countries in the negotiations, those familiar with the talks said.
Emotions were on display and resentments obvious during the last 24 hours of the summit.
Glasgow COP26 president Alok Sharma marched furiously away from a negotiating room late on Saturday evening, after a failed attempt by a wide coalition of countries including the UK to link global warming targets to the agreement for a loss and damage fund.
US lead climate lawyer Sue Biniaz shuttled from one room to another with multiple mobile phones, as Biden climate envoy John Kerry worked from his hotel room where he was isolating after being diagnosed with Covid.
At several stages, the final agreement appeared in jeopardy.
A draft text circulated by the Egyptian presidency in the early hours of Saturday said countries should not need to increase their emissions reduction targets, according to two people familiar with the matter. That was “exactly the opposite of what should happen,” said one.
By Saturday morning, the EU threatened to walk away. The bloc cited fears about weakening plans to cut emissions fast enough to meet the 2015 Paris Agreement to keep global warming well below 2C from pre-industrial times, and ideally 1.5C. Temperatures have already risen at least 1.1C.
As the early hours of Sunday approached, the Arab group of nations and Russia resisted wording that emphasised the need for renewable power.
Saudi Arabia pushed for the UN agreement to allow for carbon capture and storage technology, which would limit emissions and enable continued oil and gas production.
Pushing in the other direction, a growing number of countries, including the US and Australia, said they would support a commitment to phase down all fossil fuels.
What emerged early on Sunday morning was an uneasy compromise, with no mention of phasing out fossil fuels.
Some western participants accused the fossil fuel producers of taking advantage of their relationships with host country Egypt. “You have to ask yourself: is this an African COP or an Arab group COP,” said one.
Veteran UN climate summit observer Alden Meyer, a senior associate at the E3G think-tank, said the playbook was familiar. “They [the oil states] traditionally play hard ball in the end stages,” he said. “Clearly they have more influence with this presidency than they have with some others.”
Egypt itself benefited as the host nation on several fronts. It was applauded by African and non-African nations alike for shepherding the creation of the “loss and damage” fund. It was also able to strike a deal with US and Germany to fund a $500mn initiative to help Egypt deploy renewable energy while closing old, leaking gas-powered facilities.
COP27 president Sameh Shoukry, the Egyptian foreign minister, maintained that the agreement had not “backtracked” on the previous Glasgow pact.
“The level of ambition all over the world is equal,” but financial constraints limited what developing countries could do, he said. Nations including Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are classified as developing nations under the UN system dating back to 1992.
Shoukry’s comments echoed the formal remarks to the UN plenary by Saudi Arabia, whose representative thanked the presidency on behalf of the 22 Arab League countries for “titanic efforts . . . to bring about common ground.”
“Technology transfer and funding are essential to allow the developing states to honour their commitments,” said its representative. “We would like to emphasise that the convention needs to address emissions and not the origin of emissions.”
But Tuvalu’s Paeniu, whose country is among the small island states vulnerable to sea level rise, said it was “regrettable” not to have an agreement about those emissions peaking in 2025 to prevent a rise in temperatures beyond 1.5C.
He had brought the youth delegates with him to demonstrate “the rich cultural heritage of our people, our community, in the Pacific,” he said.
“We do not want to compromise their future and we need to work hard now so we can leave a legacy as good as we have had.”
Additional reporting by Emiliya Mychasuk in Sharm el-Sheikh