SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt – Eschewing air travel as a statement against carbon emissions, Netta Granot took to the road to travel the 650 kilometers from her northern Israeli kibbutz to the southern tip of the Sinai peninsula for the 27th United Nations Climate Change Conference, better known as COP27.
The 42-year-old manager of a climate activism consortium was unable to obtain a conference pass, but had hoped to follow in the established tradition of unaccredited civil society protesters on the sidelines of previous meetings of the world’s largest climate conference, attracting attention from the media, negotiators and national leaders who attend.
Over the years, COP has “really become two parallel conferences, the inside one and the one on the street,” said Granot, waxing nostalgic at the massive gatherings of tens of thousands of activists outside of the 2021 COP conference in Glasgow, Scotland.
Egyptian authorities, however, ban public protests, and the streets both outside and inside COP27 have been uncharacteristically quiet. Protests are only permitted within closed conference territory, managed by the UN, severely limiting them
Saturday saw COP27’s largest protest to date, a march of several hundred activists calling for climate reparations from wealthy nations to poorer nations managing the fallout from the former’s industrialization activities. Several also expressed support for jailed and hunger-striking Egyptian pro-democracy activist Alaa Abd El Fattah, whom Western leaders have also pressed Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi to release.
While this sparked much excitement inside the pavilion where the conference was taking place, COP participants were observed by The Times of Israel being blocked from the protest area by Egyptian security officers on site, who were also monitoring the protests.
Despite the scrutiny, credentialed activists felt lucky to participate at all. Liel Biran, 61, from Kfar Saba joined the Saturday climate reparations call. Part of the Israeli delegation, the founder of Teachers for Climate said he was one of the “privileged” able to protest within the “island of free expression” created by the official conference compound.
According to the UN, about 34,000 registered participants have access to the main conference site, a large number but a fraction of the total force generally drawn to the sidelines of the climate conference.
Recalling his experience at COP26 in Glasgow as “amazing” in large part because of the robust protest environment, Biran said that these voices are integral to helping climate activists gain a platform to influence industry and government leaders.
In Scotland, protesters were afforded a physical stage for holding demonstrations and were also able to march through nearby streets and picket at the conference gates.
“There was an anti-COP, held by civil society which freely spoke about injustices done to indigenous communities,” Biran said. The Egypt-hosted conference, by contrast, has “felt damped down and under restrictions.”
Aside from Saturday’s protest, most demonstrations had only a handful of people advocating veganism, pushing for indigenous rights or advancing climate reparations.
Climate activist Shir Shafran, 30, from Beersheba, was unable to secure access to the Blue Zone – the official UN conference space. She expected the Sharm el-Sheikh confab to be “different” – but still made the overland trip to the Red Sea resort town.
“What you see when you walk around is silence. It feels like a business conference,” she said. “Always at COPs when world leaders are negotiating and talking there’s place for a public voice. It’s as if they forgot why they got together here.”
Much as suppressed voices of dissent in Egypt have taken to the internet to get their message out, so have COP27 protesters. Youth activist and Israeli delegation member Nika Berdichevsky, 17, said that she tried to organize a protest timed to US President Joe Biden’s arrival, but did not receive a permit.
After watching a wildcat protester against American climate envoy John Kerry be whisked away – “someone tried to scream something and within two seconds, someone from the police arrived and took him” – she joined other activists moving their voices to social media.
“It’s really hard for the public to be heard,” the Tel Aviv-based Berdichevsky said.
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which hosts COP, did not immediately answer a request for clarification on its policy for protests.