Water and the effects of the climate crisis on water scarcity will come under scrutiny on Monday at the Cop27 UN climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh as it enters its second week.
The talks are scheduled to end on Friday, though it is likely they will continue at least into Saturday, with new measures and pledges hoped for on issues from greenhouse gas emissions cuts to financial assistance for the poorest nations.
As well as the formal negotiations, the Egyptian hosts have organised a series of “thematic days”, on which discussions will take place on issues that are key to the climate crisis but fall outside the UN framework convention on climate change, the 1992 treaty under which the 27th conference is taking place.
Water is of particular concern to the hosts, as the Nile is still the backbone of the Egyptian economy, agriculture and culture. Some wonder how the resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh, where 45,000 delegates have gathered for the talks, will manage for water in the future.
Gender also takes centre stage on Monday, with discussions on how women face particular problems when it comes to the climate crisis. Research has shown that women and girls face increased violence in areas affected by climate-related disasters, and that they are disadvantaged when it comes to crucial issues such as land rights, and receiving investment and aid.
Including women and girls is also vital to solving the problem. Mary Robinson, a former president of Ireland and twice a UN climate envoy, who arrived at Cop27 on Saturday and who was instrumental in ensuring previous Cops included a “gender plan” for the climate, has called the climate crisis “a man-made problem with a feminist solution”.
On Tuesday, attention will shift to civil society. Egypt, an authoritarian state, has a dismal record on human rights, and jails are full of dissidents. Civil society activities and protest have been much curtailed at this Cop, and the Guardian has been told of instances of intimidation. Civil society groups will use this day to try to press home the need for free expression as a means of bringing pressure to bear on governments on the climate emergency.
Energy also falls under the spotlight on Tuesday, with a flurry of announcements expected on new clean energy deals and partnerships in various countries for a “just transition” away from fossil fuels. This means helping people with jobs in fossil fuel industries to move to jobs in clean energy.
Wednesday will be biodiversity day. The protection of nature and the ways in which it can be combined with tackling the climate crisis – such as preserving and regrowing forests, and restoring wetlands and peatlands, as carbon sinks, or regrowing mangrove swamps as barriers against storm surges and higher sea levels – are known as nature-based solutions in the climate jargon.
Nature-based solutions received much attention at Cop26, but this has been more muted in Sharm el-Sheikh. The next major UN biodiversity meeting, Cop15, will take place in Canada in a few weeks, so expect to hear more about expectations for that conference on Wednesday.
The last thematic day will be solutions day on Thursday, when the private sector will be able to showcase new technologies and ideas. There are plenty of green entrepreneurs at Cop27 eager to present their ideas; there are also more than 600 delegates known to be from the fossil fuel industry, who are assiduously courting governments to insist they offer the solution. Tussles over whether carbon capture and storage is a viable technology, and whether hydrogen from fossil fuels is a “Trojan horse” for the oil and gas industry to greenwash its wares, are likely.
Meanwhile, the negotiations themselves will carry on, mainly in closed sessions where countries can thrash out their differences. The topics include cutting greenhouse gas emissions to meet the 1.5C target, and how to help countries to adapt to the impacts of extreme weather, for instance by restoring mangrove swamps and coral reefs, building seawalls, regrowing forests, or installing early warning systems. Finance for these efforts, from the rich to the poor world, will also come under scrutiny.
Carlos Fuller, the ambassador for Belize, said: “I am very encouraged by the way all parties are engaging constructively [on reducing emissions]. We ran out of time [in the first week] but I am confident that an ambitious outcome will be forthcoming this week.”
But he added: “[I am] disappointed with the engagement on finance, markets and response measures [to the climate crisis].”
The most contentious issue of all is loss and damage. The term refers to the impacts of extreme weather so severe that countries cannot adapt to them – recent examples include the devastating floods in Pakistan in August and September, which left 20 million people in need of humanitarian aid, and the ongoing drought in Africa, the worst in 40 years, which is threatening nearly 150 million people with extreme hunger.
The loss and damage negotiations revolve around how to provide financial assistance for developing countries affected by such extreme weather, which as well as threatening lives can destroy their infrastructure and tear apart their social fabric.
Discussions of loss and damage as “compensation” to developing countries from the rich world, or “liability” on the part of the countries responsible for most greenhouse gas emissions, are specifically excluded from the negotiations, and have been since the 2015 Paris agreement.
Ineza Umuhoza Grace, the negotiator for Rwanda on loss and damage, said: “Loss and damage finance is now on the agenda, but a lot needs to be done to ensure that the finance commitment is going to be new, additional, and accessible to the vulnerable communities, and especially that it will not increase the debt of developing countries. We need a reformed structure, and the developing countries are the ones with the solution.”
Omar Alcock, a lead negotiator for Jamaica, said more financial assistance was needed for poor countries. “Work programmes and workshops are not good enough. Ignoring the obvious is denying the realities associated with climate change. Loss and damage finance isn’t a cure, but a necessity,” he said. “Discussions on loss and damage have been weak, with not much progress made [so far].”
Wording on all of these issues is likely to be included in the cover text of the Cop, a document that sums up where countries have got to on the key issues; what resolutions they make, on which action must be taken; and where the main disagreements are.
Negotiators are poring over potential texts on all these subjects, but they are unlikely to produce an official draft text until about Wednesday, according to sources within the talks. Up to now, the negotiations have been fairly calm, according to insiders, but that is partly because at this stage most of the options within the decisions and texts have been left open.
In the text, these potential options are found within square brackets, which indicate that the wording has yet to be agreed. As the week progresses, countries will be forced to choose which of the many options on each issue are taken forward and which are axed – they will aim to remove as much as possible from the square brackets and leave only what all countries can agree on.
Once an initial draft text is agreed, and issued by the Egyptian presidency, it will pass through several more drafts while every remaining set of square brackets is scrutinised, so the phrase within can be liberated from the brackets, modified, or excised.
By this painstaking process, nearly 200 countries represented by thousands of negotiators will arrive eventually at a cover text that sets out where the world is going on the climate crisis, with obligations and resolutions for rich and poor countries, and a programme of work that should help countries make progress on cutting emissions, cooperating on joint projects, and for those with the means to provide assistance to those without.
At least, that is the plan. Things can, and do, go wrong up to the final moments.
The official draft cover text for Cop26, which when adopted became the Glasgow climate pact, was first released on the second Wednesday of that fortnight of talks. The seven-page document went through four major drafts over the course of the following three days, to early Saturday morning. Up to the very last minute, it was still subject to change – just as Cop26 president, Alok Sharma, thought he had full agreement on Saturday afternoon, China and India intervened to demand that a “phase-out” of coal referred to in the text be weakened to a “phase-down”.
Those last minute tribulations took Sharma to the brink of tears. Sameh Shoukry, Egypt’s Cop27 president, will be looking to avoid the same fate.