The Global North’s scramble for energy-secure futures dominated the COP27 last week in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Corporate and mining lobbyists promoted high speed trains, lithium car batteries, hydrogen mega projects, and wind farms to transition from fossil fuels and reduce carbon emissions while Indigenous activists resisted those same projects which are already causing irreparable environmental devastation and worsening climate change.
The myth of “clean energy” has long been a guiding logic of the UN climate conference. COP27 illustrated not just a tension between financial strategies which environmental activists say are pointless, such as net zero carbon trading, but a battle over what transitioning from fossil fuels will look like.
“[If] everything is based on stopping emitting carbon then the solution [proposed] is electromobility, renewable energy, (solar, wind, green hydrogen),” said Indigenous activist Lesley Muñoz Rivera, a member of the Plurinational Observatory of Andean Salt Flats (OPSAL in Spanish) and the Colla people from Chile who attended COP27. “The problem is being looked at in a segmented way thinking only about gas emissions and not seeing that water, communities, and ecosystems are also affected. The problem is not seen as a whole. They only propose the zero-carbon solution, but they have not quantified the cost of these solutions. The proposals to bet on this type of energy would greatly affect Indigenous peoples, their territories, waters, and ecosystems — for example in the case of lithium extraction in the salt flats.”
This year’s COP keyword was the term “loss and damages,” a legal phrase which evokes liability, compensation and reparations. But at COP27, loss and damage was reframed through the lens of adaptation strategies as a new iteration of carbon trading logics and investment in energy infrastructure ventures that disproportionately impact Indigenous peoples and the global south. Indigenous peoples are demanding an immediate end to fossil fuel and rejecting greenwashed mineral extraction. They question whether it is ethical to label infrastructure funding as justice for irreparable damage and permanent ecological and cultural loss.
Trade Show in the Face of the Apocalypse
As human rights activists around the world called for the release of the U.K.-Egyptian Activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah, grassroots communities attending the COP27 proclaimed “No Climate Justice without Human Rights,” addressing not just the exclusive context of the meeting hosted in Egypt but the violence directed at environmental activists and Indigenous land and water protectors globally. Funding generated by the UN climate process has largely been allocated to infrastructure projects that many Indigenous activists say will displace them rather than towards reparations for Indigenous and frontline communities harmed by the impacts of industrial development.
COP27 was a frenzied tradeshow or a county fair expo for technologists, mining companies and the energy sector. “I see that the focus is distorted, it is only based on selling products and presenting themselves as responsible with the environment in the market,” observed Muñoz Rivera. “Indigenous peoples, although they are given a space in the COP, are not part of any negotiation, nor can they issue an opinion in official meetings, therefore the COP is only complying with saying that there is participation of Indigenous peoples, but such participation is limited to the blue zone, parallel events.”
“All these situations lead to Indigenous peoples being the main victims of these false solutions, whose only logic is to continue producing, damaging everything in their path,” Muñoz Rivera explained. “The peoples are not being consulted as established by Convention 169 since the pressure [began] to reach carbon zero, increasing [energy] demand and selling solutions is [put] higher than respecting rights.”
The number of delegates with fossil fuel ties increased 25% compared to last year with 636 oil lobbyists in attendance including the heads of British Petroleum and TotalEnergies. One third of the event space was designated as a corporate innovation room while communities impacted by climate change were corralled in a specially designated free speech area outside. The prospects for improving affordability and accessibility to affected peoples and grassroots climate activists in next year’s COP are even grimmer as the gathering will be held in the oil-rich United Arab Emirates (UAE) — a nation with a dismal human rights record and one of the heaviest fossil fuels and carbon emitters per capita.
Greenwashing Will Not Save the Planet
Invoking the goals outlined in the Paris Agreement, big tech and mining companies used the COP27 to accelerate lithium market expansion. In a pre-COP27 statement, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe said, “An estimated 50 more lithium mines, 60 more nickel mines and 17 more cobalt mines will be needed by 2030 to meet global net carbon emissions goals.”
The World Bank is also campaigning for “critical raw mineral” extraction. Technologists have promoted lithium as their leading decarbonization solution, surging lithium’s market value. The anxious rush for lithium mining prospects at COP27 directly conflicted with the dire warning from Indigenous communities that water-intensive lithium mining is environmentally destructive and dangerous for human life.
Colla Indigenous activist Lesley Muñoz Rivera attended the COP27 to denounce the “white gold” rush on Chile’s Atacama Flat. The brine evaporation technique used in lithium mining threatens to permanently deplete water resources, drain wetlands and cause irreversible ecocide in the driest desert of the world. Mining innovations promoted at COP27 attempt to prolong the potential usefulness of lithium, despite the devastating impacts of lithium mining and the fact that it cannot support long-term global energy needs.
Ramón Balcázar, a Chilean rural development scholar and co-coordinator of OPSAL, critiqued how COP27 seemed to legitimize green extractivism and greenwashing of lithium through “responsible mining certifications” created by technology and mining companies that he said, “in the practice are validating companies that have denied the right to consultation and that systematically deny the loss of water through evaporation [caused by their industry], as well as the affectation of wetlands and biodiversity found in the marginal area of the Salar de Atacama.”
Muñoz Rivera is concerned that too many open questions remain about whether the approval process will protect the human rights of Indigenous peoples. “I believe that these certifications are only for these extractions to be approved, but they will not prevent the eventual damage to ecosystems and indigenous communities.”
The Colla and Likan Antai communities stand in active resistance to electric vehicles and the expansion of lithium battery mining to protect their only access to fresh water in the Atacama desert. COP27 illustrates how the climate crisis is taking on a new shape, a war between energy demands and water needs.
“Loss and Damages” Normalizes Colonial Environmental Destruction
In the final hours of COP27, the European Union finally agreed to a loss and damages fund for poorer countries amidst defiant debate from the world’s top GHG producers. And yet still the promised award of financial recompense to vulnerable countries fails to describe the immense and irreparable ecological, social, cultural, spiritual, historical, and health costs to those on the frontlines of the climate crisis. How do you calculate the cost of ending ancestral ways of life, the dissolution of the social and ecological fabric, and the death of loved ones from climate catastrophes?
Real loss and damages are not limited to financial terms. Lithium mining in the Atacama desert has propelled environmental degradation, damage to water systems and biodiversity loss. Despite this, narratives of lithium scarcity and control loomed in COP27 talks, Chile signed agreements with the World Bank and InterAmerican Development Bank to boost mining agency Corfo. Having just secured $150 million USD from the U.S. Department of Energy in October, U.S-based Albemarle advanced its own partnerships with lithium technology developers for “sustainable” electric vehicles.
Climate activists and heavily climate-impacted nations have a legitimate cause for concern that COP27 loss and damage funding will be used only for green energy infrastructure mega projects that create more environmental loss and colonial damage, particularly impacting Indigenous peoples. It’s unlikely that industrial centers will pay for the destruction green energy ventures inflict upon land, water, and life — instead it seems that they will perpetuate the cycle of harm and monetization that generated the climate disaster in the first place.
“They insist on maintaining this economic model that does nothing but destroy us,” said Muñoz Rivera.