Photo: Emily Ringer

Polar Bears in Egypt at the United Nations Climate Talks

By Emily Ringer, Senior Manager of Advocacy and Communications



14 Dec 2022

Every year, world leaders from nearly 200 countries gather for the United Nations Climate Talks to make commitments and plans for addressing our greatest shared threat, climate change. Polar Bears International was on the ground at the 27th meeting of these parties in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt—also known as COP27—because what happens at these negotiations impacts the future of polar bears across the Arctic. Global climate warming, caused by burning fossil fuels for energy, is melting the sea ice polar bears depend on.

As the final gavel came down at 9:19am on Sunday, November 20th (39 hours later than planned), a new global climate pact—The Sharm el-Sheikh Implementation Plan—took effect. In positive news, this plan establishes a fund that will help poor, vulnerable countries cope with climate disasters. In disappointing news, the agreement falls short of adequately addressing the greenhouse gas emissions that are at the root cause of climate change. See the end of this article for a high-level overview of COP27 outcomes and shortcomings.

Most often, negotiations and agreements at this scale are not a complete solution to the challenge they seek to solve, and mixed results are certainly a recurring pattern at the Climate Talks. Year after year, we see countries making progress on one front and promising future action while simultaneously falling short on previous commitments. This cycle is maddening against the backdrop of climate change, and yet this forum is an essential piece of the larger climate action puzzle. Since the first meeting in 1995, UN Climate negotiations have brought the planet’s projected warming from 6℃ to 2.4℃. The Paris Agreement’s goal is to limit global warming to well below 2℃, preferably to 1.5℃. We still have a lot of work to do to protect the people and places we love from harm caused by climate change, and every fractional reduction of emissions achieved by these negotiations matters.

Rightfully so, many are disheartened and frustrated that the world’s countries did not commit to stronger climate action plans this fall. These failures will have real costs for global communities, wildlife, and ecosystems. Current commitments by the world's countries to reduce emissions will not secure a livable future for polar bears and most of us on this planet.

But importantly, climate action does not stop at the U.N. Local communities and governments, as well as corporations, hold equally important levers of power and can play a big role in speeding up our transition to cleaner and decentralized energy. We need systemic change across all sectors, at all scales—and each of us, in our corner of the world, influences some system at some scale. Every vote, every call applies pressure for tangible moves towards a just energy transition. Every community project based in local leadership and serving regional ecosystems builds a brighter future.

As the lead representative for environmental nonprofits at the COP27 People’s Plenary said:

“We’ve always known that this will never be won in the negotiating halls alone. It will only be won by the power of our movement, and our refusal to say that our lives and the lives of our brothers and sisters around the world are disposable. For us, they are non-negotiable. Together, we offer love. We offer hope. Not just dreams of a better world, but the reality of a better world.”

Polar Bears International at COP27

Polar Bears International sent a delegation to the climate summit, attending as official Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) observers to the negotiation process. NGO and civil society participants provide an important balance to government delegates at these conferences—voicing the needs of frontline communities, representing goals that transcend national interests, and offering expert and focused knowledge about global environmental issues.

Through a combination of funding support and shared accreditation, Polar Bears International helped nine members of our global civil society—including indigenous leaders, youth, climate communicators, and experts in greenhouse gas inventories and climate action plans—attend this important decision-making space.

While at the Climate Talks, Polar Bears International met with political leaders, broadcast educational programming, and perhaps most importantly, broadened our coalition of climate and Arctic partners. Amongst all the uncertainties about the future, one thing is for sure, our community—including you—is our most powerful tool in this work to conserve a future for polar bears across the Arctic.

Here are a few of our highlights from participating in COP27:

High Level Outcomes and Shortcomings at COP27

  1. Wins for Loss & Damage – Three decades after it was first proposed, parties agreed to create a new fund to provide money for the losses and damages experienced by climate vulnerable developing countries. The shift in countries’ positions on this topic since COP26 in Glasgow has been remarkable. COP27 was the first year loss and damage made it onto the official agenda, and an agreement looked unlikely until the final days of negotiations. This win is an important step towards global climate justice.

  2. Weak Ambition on Emissions Reductions – At COP26 last year, countries agreed to update their national climate targets before arriving in Egypt for COP27. Unfortunately, only a fraction of the 200 countries (or parties) did so. Additionally, the final decision coming out of COP27 repeats earlier agreements on carbon reductions and energy and fails to secure additional mitigation steps—like phasing down all fossil fuels rather than just coal—further threatening our global ability to limit planet warming to 1.5℃.

  3. Appetite for Global Financial Institution Reform – Discussions are developing about reforming multilateral institutions—like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund—to better help developing countries cut greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate impacts. These reforms have the potential to unlock money that already exists but is sitting on the sidelines.

  4. Attempts to Curb Greenwashing – The U.N. secretary general developed a task group to set standards that companies need to meet in order to claim credibility in their net-zero climate targets. Net-zero commitments have long been criticized for their obscurity and lack of immediate, concrete climate action. Establishing criteria for these targets is foundational to ensuring corporate accountability.

  5. Reaffirming IPCC Science – The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) advises the U.N. on science. Its most recent assessment warned of climate tipping points and the importance of trying to avert these through steep greenhouse gas emissions cuts. Some countries advocated for removing references to the latest IPCC findings in the text, but they made it into the final COP27 agreement—reaffirming the need for urgent action.

  6. ‘Firsts’ in the Final Declaration – The main agreement included many important 'first time' references and sections—including nature-based solutions; forests; food systems; rivers; the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment; climate tipping points; and the cryosphere! The cryosphere is the frozen water parts of Earth systems, including the sea ice that polar bears depend on. Reference to these systems and principles in U.N. texts signal greater paradigm shifts in how the global community thinks about the intersections of biodiversity, human communities, and the climate.