When the red carpet turns green: spotlight on attendance at COP27

After months of preparation and discussions, COP27 officially started this weekend, albeit perhaps with less UK media fanfare in the build-up than COP26. The climate emergency remains one of the most pressing issues the world currently faces: last month, a stark warning from the United Nations reiterated that the global effort to cut emissions is “woefully inadequate” meaning the world is on track for “catastrophe”.

Putting aside musings that COP is no more than a ‘talking shop’, like any other conference, attendance is still one of the fundamental requirements for constructive progress to be made. But just how important and exclusive is the COP27 list of attendees? Is attendance merely to ‘be seen’? And what can be deciphered from the list of people who have confirmed they will – and will not – be attending?

The UK political climate has been particularly volatile in the lead up to COP, following Truss’ mere 44 days as Prime Minister. Newly appointed Rishi Sunak deliberated travelling to Egypt due to domestic turmoil, making a U-turn on his decision not to attend less than a week before the start date. There is no denying that the UK is currently grappling with serious socio-economic challenges: but if Sunak’s indecisiveness is any reflection of how importantly he views the climate crisis, then this raises serious alarm bells for the UK’s net zero journey.

Individuals further from official political roles have not shied away from expressing their opinions. Greta Thunberg – one of the globe’s most renowned climate activists and undoubtedly a huge influencer – said she will not be attending COP, referring to the summit as ‘a forum for greenwashing’. It is difficult to disagree, given this year’s sponsor is Coca-Cola, which sparked immediate criticism from climate activists and beyond. Despite having bold sustainability goals in place for the coming years, including a target to reuse 50 per cent of materials in bottles and cans by 2050, Coca-Cola is one of the world’s biggest plastic polluters: between 2019 to 2021, their total plastic use increased 8.1 per cent to 3.2mn tonnes. Big corporates have huge power to be part of climate solutions, but this did seem at best, incredibly naïve, at worst – obfuscation.

Thunberg also stated how ‘COPs are mainly used as an opportunity for leaders and people in power to get attention’. Testament to this is Boris Johnson’s attendance at this year’s COP, confirmed amid Sunak’s then refusal to attend. Though some sources said this was simply an indication of Johnson’s climate concerns, others have suggested it was executed with the intention of critiquing Sunak.

Despite his longstanding passion for environmental issues, King Charles too will be absent from COP27. While the reason for this was supposedly due to insufficient time to prepare following Sunak’s recent appointment, previous media reports stated that Truss advised Charles not to attend. His presence is of course only symbolic – but it would have helped again validate the climate crisis as an issue for global focus, especially due to his previous involvement in environmental summits.

For Thunberg, some may argue that her absence will do more harm than good, but her point around prioritising action, and constructive agreements, and not ‘the green carpet’ has sparked conversation.

Attendance at COP is important, but it counts for nothing without tangible action. A summit with a full house but a list of empty promises and deadlines is not enough. Several countries will not be sending leaders down COP’s ‘green carpet’, including Japan, Mexico, and unsurprisingly Russia – which means the pressure is on for other world leaders involved.

A global climate summit with tokenistic – or low – attendance is rendered pointless. Thankfully COP27 is not that (yet), but a global climate summit sponsored by one of the world’s biggest plastic polluters certainly sets a tone…

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