What You Need to Know About the COP27 Climate Summit

World leaders are gathered in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, to discuss climate action

A young woman speaks at COP27
Ugandan youth climate activist Leah Namugerwa speaks during the Sharm El-Sheikh Climate Implementation Summit of the UNFCCC.  Sean Gallup / Getty Images

The United Nations Climate Change Conference, also called the Conference of the Parties (COP), kicked off on Sunday. Leaders from across the world flocked to Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, where they are discussing and negotiating action on topics surrounding climate change. Following a year of devastating climate impacts felt heavily in developing nations, this conference is expected to focus on how countries should distribute financial responsibility for the crisis.

Here’s what you need to know about the summit.

What is COP27?  

The climate summit brings together 197 nations that have signed the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), an international environmental treaty. Every year, leaders from these nations meet formally to negotiate, make decisions and come up with solutions for human-caused climate problems.

The first of these conferences was held in Berlin, Germany, in March 1995. During the 21st summit, held in Paris in 2015, nations agreed to limit warming to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius) above pre-industrial temperatures. That was the first COP to result in a binding climate change agreement between countries. This year marks the conference's 27th session.

“This is where we hear about the big climate agreements that countries are going to hopefully implement in the next few years,” Belinda Archibong, an environmental economist at Columbia University, tells Smithsonian magazine. “We're all keeping in mind this 1.5-degrees-Celsius benchmark.”

This year’s two-week conference is being held in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, from November 6 to 18. This is the first time since 2016 that the conference is taking place in Africa. 

two men talk and smile, sitting in front of their respective countries' flags
President William Ruto of Kenya and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of the U.K. meet during COP27. Pool via Getty Images

Who’s there? And who has declined to attend?

Delegates from nearly 200 countries will be in attendance, including President Joe Biden, who will reportedly arrive on November 11, after the midterm elections. Academics, activists, the media and members of the public are also invited to the conference. 

Absentees include Russia's President Vladimir Putin, China’s President Xi Jinping and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, who has attended past conferences, will also not attend this year. She has dismissed the event as another chance for powerful people to get away with “greenwashing, lying and cheating,” per Reuters’ Lottie Limb.

Rishi Sunak, the U.K.’s new prime minister, made headlines last week when he announced he would not attend “due to other pressing domestic commitments, including preparations for the autumn budget,” Downing Street told BBC News’ Kate Whannel and Becky Morton. But he later reversed his decision and is in attendance. Charles III, on the other hand, will be absent

This year, the Smithsonian Institution has official representatives at the conference for the first time and is focused on launching a new program called Life on a Sustainable Planet. “This initiative brings together all the powers of the Smithsonian—our amazing collections, our educational programming and our expertise in history, art, culture and science to develop solutions that allow us to live sustainably,” Ellen Stofan, the Smithsonian's under secretary for science and research, tells Smithsonian magazine.

What will be discussed?

Climate financing, or paying for addressing and coping with the impacts of climate change, will be a big topic this year, Lily Odarno, director of the Clean Air Task Force's Energy and Climate Innovation Program, Africa, tells Smithsonian magazine.

“We are going to see huge conversations around finance for adaptation, mitigation and for loss and damage, but I also think that we are also going to see developing economies try to assert their voices more in the climate debate,” Odarno says. “The impacts of climate change are being felt so tangibly around us every day. So, we are going to see more of a push for the developed countries to take responsibility for historical emissions.”

Other topics of discussion include food production, biodiversity, water, women and climate change and energy.

World leaders meeting in a room
US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, French President Emmanuel Macron, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz meet on the sidelines of the COP27 climate summit.  Photo by Ludovic Marin / Pool / via Getty Images

What is loss and damage? 

For the first time, funding for loss and damage—also called climate reparations—appears on the conference agenda. Loss and damage refers to the unavoidable social and financial impacts countries are already facing because of climate change. 

Developed countries have contributed the most to carbon dioxide emissions, but developing countries are most affected by extreme weather events fueled by climate change. By the end of this decade, developing nations might have to pay an estimated $340 billion per year to adapt to climate change. 

Because of this gap between major polluters and those who are affected most, some are proposing that developed countries help bear the financial burden brought on by their greenhouse gas emissions. This idea has received pushback from wealthier nations, Odarno says. If these countries admit blame, they fear they could be held legally and financially accountable for climate change.

“It comes with issues of liability and compensation, and developed countries don't want to see that on the table,” Odarno explains. “We expect to see quite a bit of conversation around who pays for climate change. It has been a rolling topic for several years.” 

The idea dates to a 1991 plea from the island nation Vanuatu that polluters should pay for their damage. Progress on the idea has been slow, but earlier this year, Denmark became the first U.N. member state to offer loss and damage compensation. It pledged 100 million Danish crowns—more than $13 million—to the Sahel region in Africa and other impacted areas.

How are we doing on current climate goals?

Based on countries’ current pledges, the latest U.N. emissions gap report puts the globe on track to warm between 4.3 and 4.7 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century—a rise that far surpasses the Paris conference goal of 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius). 

“We basically are off-target in terms of meeting our climate goals, even if countries have implemented their NDCs, which is their nationally determined contributions, as they currently stand,” Odarno says.

During last year’s conference in Scotland, all countries pledged to revise and strengthen their promised emissions reductions. But only 27 out of 193 had actually submitted updated plans to the U.N. as of November 8, per the Climate Action Tracker. Also at COP26, a smaller contingent of countries signed off on the Global Methane Pledge, a plan to reduce methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030. Several nations have made progress toward this goal, including the United States, which “passed its first-ever charge on methane as part of the Inflation Reduction Act,” per the Washington Post’s Sarah Kaplan.

In 2009, developed nations promised $100 billion per year in climate financing to developing countries by 2020. This target has not been met, and estimates say it won’t happen until at least 2023

Al Gore speaks at COP27
Al Gore speaks during the Sharm El-Sheikh Climate Implementation Summit of the UNFCCC COP27 climate conference on November 7, 2022. Sean Gallup / Getty Images

What might be different this year?

The Egypt conference may allow the needs of developing countries to be centered. Recently, the voices of leaders from small island states have been given more attention, says Archibong, which she has been “very happy to see.” 

“They're kind of the canary in the coal mine,” she says. “What happens to them… the most vulnerable regions in the world due to climate change, is going to be a signal for the rest of us in terms of what we are expecting to see in the future.” 

Odarno adds that this conference is happening at a “very unique time in history.” 

“We are seeing the price of the energy crisis in Europe,” she explains. “In Africa, we are already feeling the impacts of climate change on our agricultural systems, on our energy systems. We have farming communities at the brink of famine in the Horn of Africa. In North America, in Asia, we have seen the impacts of climate change being felt all across… What we are talking about, it's about real life. It's about real people who have been affected.”

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