Journeys in an ironical land
I was at the COP climate conference in Egypt last week – and foresaw the end of tourism as we know it
The road to good intentions: Sharm el-Sheikh from the airport highway
November in a resort on Egypt’s Red Sea coast. It’s the breakfast buffet, and the guests are divided pretty equally into two groups.
The first: teenage tennis players, here on a boot camp in the winter sun and to play a qualifying tournament. They are all nationalities and ethnicities, but all are tall and tanned and toned. Some of the players have obviously formed a mixed doubles team off the court. Some are with their coaches. A couple – the Asian ones, I notice – are with their parents. But most look glum and homesick as they load their plates at the buffet ahead of a hard day’s slog on the courts.
The other group are in dark suits, both men and women. Many have grey hair, all look prosperous and preoccupied. They have quiet, earnest conversations in groups of two and three. At 8.30 pm, SUVs and dark taxis arrive at the forecourt to take them away.
They are the delegates for the COP27 climate conference.
Well, good for Sharm el-Sheikh’s Sierra Savoy resort for filling their rooms at a downtime between school holidays and Christmas. Later in the week, a third group, once a very familiar sight in this region, Russian package holidaymakers, supplement the ranks milling around the dips and hot plates. They seem a lot quieter and low-key than other Russian resort guests I’ve encountered in the past: but that may be my imagination.
The resort on the edge of a era
Delegates leave the Sierra Resort for the day’s COP show
I was with the COP lot – even when not in my navy blue suit, no-one would mistake me for a snowbird from Sochi or a teenage tennis prodigy (though let me briefly note here that Graham Littlehales and I did carry off the Hastings High School doubles championship crown in the third form. In truth, he did most of the hard work).
It was a strange feeling, walking every day past the deserted mini-golf course and the huge swimming pool with the lifeguards staring into space or into their phones. It’s a resort geared up for families and pleasure seekers, and there weren’t any.
Less important – or organised – than the other COP guests, our team waited every day for a normal city taxi. This was a threadbare fleet of cars, in truth, with rusty doors, broken boots and it was a rare one that had a functioning rear seatbelt.
The drivers were uniformly cheerful as they greeted us with the usual cry of ‘English! Mohamed Salahhhhh!!!’ As ever, it is the names of star English Premiership footballers that transcend any language and cultural barriers – especially if this one happens to be Egyptian, and a god. It’s maybe a lesson the COP people could learn as the tricky negotiations wear on. ‘Before we get back to the climate rebate question, Rishi, do you reckon Arsenal can hang on at the top of the table?’
Mo: king, striker, Egyptian. honorary scouser
The only not-so-cheerful driver I encountered had a long beard, a traditional tunic and played the call to prayer loud on the car radio, turning it up to full blast as I got in. Then he took a call on his mobile and turned the prayers off. The call to work, or from home, transcends any religious obligation. He held the phone in one hand, shouting into it as he swerved past two police cars coasting watchfully along the highway with their lights flashing.
Out of the dusty windows of the taxis, two scenes sped by. To the right, golden, dusky, rocky outcrops guarding the desert. Between, an expanse of derelict land, a buffer zone between the airport and the COP venues. Male figures in black picked their way across the stony ground at intervals of 200 metres or so. By 9pm it was already 28 degrees and the UV was 7. Whatever they had been ordered to look out for, it wasn’t there today, or any day. What a job.
On the left, we saw the gates of the resorts that made it through the crises of the past seven years and the half-built shells of the ones that didn’t.
Sharm el-Sheikh was once a great success, but times have been hard since the early 2010s, which were marked by two revolutions in Egypt and a distinct cooling of tourist feet.
That on-board bomb (it was almost certainly that, planted by an ISIS offshoot) brought down a Russian charter plane shortly after take-off from the airport in October, 2015.
Flights only opened up again to the British market in 2019. I went out to write about the place’s prospects. I thought I did a decent piece, but it doesn’t seem to have had much effect. ‘Where are the British?’ one waiter laments at supper time. ‘I miss you guys!’
A Scottish couple I met at breakfast at Gatwick’s Premier Inn said they’d love to go back to Sharm, but they were ‘too afraid’.
Well, there is a tough guy in charge of Egypt again now. The army and police are everywhere – not just during international climate conferences. What you see a lot less of are the long beards and the zabiba – the raisin-shaped calluses on the foreheads of the pious, a token of the fervour they display in abasing themselves at prayer.
While President Sisi was gladhanding world leaders and doing some handy marketing for Sharm, international media reported daily on the worsening plight of Alaa Abd El Fattah, an activist on hunger strike in an Egyptian jail. El Fattah’s simple argument is that freedom from physical threat and violence is the most basic human right.
Zones and targets
COP in Sharm: the future, green-lit
I wasn’t doing travel writing this time. I ate most nights in the resort or in the neighbouring, not hugely authentically Egyptian Soho Square. No diving, no desert, no exploring at all. Just long days in an air-conditioned dome with a laptop.
There was a Green Zone and a Blue Zone, but I spent all my time in the Irony Zone. This is where people who have flown thousands of miles on a jet aircraft get to write earnestly about our responsibilities to the planet and the wonderful things people are doing to mitigate the damage we are doing. None of these mitigations involve flying thousands of miles for climate conferences. There is no Relativism Zone at Cop, either. This is just as well, as entering such a venue might require those of us piously recycling and reusing our plastic water bottles to do some simple sums about the impact of aircraft emissions from a single flight versus not putting a single small plastic bottle in a dedicated bin.
Alaskan Airlines crew saving the planet while failing to notice they work for an airline
I heard Alok Sharma, the British politician who got pretty good marks for chairing the 2021 COP in Glasgow, stress the unanimous commitment of his fellow leaders and advisors to stick to the 1.5% target for global warming.
Scientists are writing – and a couple I asked confirmed this to me as we chatted at COP – that 1.5 is already a lost cause and we’d be better advised to look at a more realistic target and b) mitigating the damage we’ve done.
The way we are going, there is every chance we will hit +1.5 in a single year over the next decade. The world will panic, will do a little, and soon that will become the average and before long the average will creep up towards 2 degrees, with every 0.1 degree rise causing more floods, droughts, and record temperatures.
As for tourism?
To not go beyond 1.5, we need pretty drastic action. Here’s what my trip to Sharm el-Sheikh would look like in that world.
Of course, I wouldn’t go there in the first place. We’d do the meetings on Zoom (even though that uses significant energy). Transport accounts for 49% of the emissions created by tourism. The widely held figure for tourism and travel’s contribution to the world’s overall harmful gases output is 8%.
Even if I could get there without flying – a train to Istanbul, then walking the rest of the way, perhaps? – Sharm as it is now will have disappeared. The resorts, with their energy-intensive kitchens, swimming pools and concrete buildings, will have to go. In their place, low-impact structures made from local materials: no air conditioning, just wind. All the food and drink will need to come from the local area.
Note: the local area is a desert.
Sharm would cease to exist as a destination for visitors. Thousands of people would lose their jobs, as would those working for the airlines and cruise ships, which – in a 1.5 degrees-compliant world – will only be used for emergencies.
Before any of that happens, politicians who suggest such measures will be booted out, or worse, there will be riots and strikes and… well, there is no point going on. It won’t happen. This week, the tourism industry’s response to its own net zero mandate was described as ‘woefully inadequate’.
But it needs to happen. And it’s all very well me saying that. I am part of the problem. And it seems no-one is going to make me change the travel habits that have provided much of my income and a lot of joy over the years. So, we wait for hydrogen-powered cars and airlines powered by algae, for a net-zero construction industry, for carbon capture plants, for billions of little crystals to be flown around the world to stop the sun shining so brightly.
Or we all go on what tourism expert Dr Harald Zeiss says is the only truly sustainable holiday: ‘camping in the back garden eating berries’.
Songs that take you places
By Loudon Wainwright III.
These days, Loudon Wainwright could pass for a Democratic Party senator – hell, the President, even. But for decades he has been poking the pompous and pricking the pious. While his fellow Canadian Leonard Cohen did mordant, he does mischief.
This song was written in 1986, and could have been written yesterday.
The full Marklands playlist is here.
Best provocation on the COP I’ve read - nice one!
Corker of a song choice, too.