Observations and Reflections from COP27 (Part 1)
December 16, 2022
It was at dawn on a cloudless November day over Cairo, Egypt. I was onboard the last leg of my journey to Sharm el-Sheikh, the Egyptian Red Sea resort town, for this year’s UN Climate Change Conference, commonly known as COP27—formally the 27th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties, UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. This was my fourth time attending a climate COP (the third one with an observer badge), and I thought I was prepared.
The plane was climbing up to its cruising altitude. From my window seat, I could see below the landscape of Cairo and its vicinity, almost crystal clear, lit by the early morning sun. Although I was exhausted after almost 30 hours of travel from Vancouver (plus an 11 hour time zone difference), I felt like an excited grade school kid anticipating a glimpse of the Great Pyramid nearby.
Instead of that legendary Wonder of the Ancient World, something else on the horizon caught my attention. Something I found disturbing. On the desolate expanse of yellowish desert I saw cluster after cluster of North American-style suburban development, complete with single detached houses, luxurious low-rise residential buildings and automobile-dominant street patterns with features like cul-de-sacs and multi-lane motorways. In the heart and mind of this former urban planner, that type of development epitomizes energy-intensive lifestyles, excessive consumption, extractive and exploitative economies, and a mentality that outsources the inevitable problems of this system. In fact, this development style is a primary cause of the environmental degradation, biodiversity loss, and climate calamity we are facing today. To me, it’s also sadly ironic that such excessiveness has been exported to a “developing” country, which is laden with huge debt, heavily reliant on foreign aid, and struggling with many internal tensions including the enormous gaps between the extreme rich and the impoverished, between the powerful and the marginalised. And all these dynamics are within a context of acute, unprecedented global environmental, economic, and geopolitical challenges.
The sight made my heart sink with a certain unspeakable sadness which accompanied me throughout my time at COP27 the following week.
Soon afterward, the plane flew over the Gulf of Suez and approached the Sinai desert. While I was still shocked and saddened by the scene a moment ago, I noticed that the landscape beneath was gradually changing from desert plain to mountain ranges. Also desolate, yet “beautiful” in their own way. Suddenly a thought came into my mind. I immediately pulled out my mobile device, turned on the offline map and compared the map with the scenery below. “I might be flying over Mount Sinai soon!” It dawned on me that the desert and mountains below were probably the very setting where the Israelites had wandered for forty years on their way to the Promised Land – a profound “collective memory” of ex-slaves whose story has shaped not only the Jewish people but the whole of the Western world and beyond.
“Wandering…” A small voice whispered in my heart, “Am I wandering all alone, as the Israelites did? What am I wandering into now?”
While approaching Sharm el-Sheikh International Airport, I noticed that the narrow strip which constitutes that coastal desert town in the middle of nowhere was dotted with numerous luxurious vacation resorts and villas. Each one had a swimming pool at its centre, surrounded by white hotel-styled buildings and palm trees. An arresting sight and yet another sign of anthropogenic extravaganza and excessiveness in the middle of desolation. From my vantage point, the irony of COP27 taking place in such a setting could not be more striking.
Sadness, sinking heart, whisper of “wandering,” scenes of extravagance and excessiveness. This was how my in-person engagement at COP27 began. I thought I was prepared. Apparently not.
This is the first in a series of five reflections from COP27 in November 2022.
Featured photo: Samuel Chiu
(This post was first published at A Rocha Canada’s blog – COP27: En Route to Sharm el-Sheikh. Special thanks to my colleague Rick Faw, for his tireless efforts of editing and streamlining the text of these posts, making them a much better read.)