Optimism and determination abound - but can Cop28 turn fine words into decisive deeds?

Dubai’s teeming Expo City is a testament to the seriousness with which the planet’s future is being treated

One of the many slogans encouraging action, progress and decisions at Cop28. Reuters
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At Cop1 in Berlin, in 1995, there were 3,969 delegates. This year’s Cop28 in Dubai will host more than 80,000.

In those 28 years, what’s also soared is global carbon dioxide emissions, from 23 billion metric tonnes annually to 37 billion. What’s occurred, too, in that period, is an acceleration of the effects of climate change.

We’re at the “tipping point” if we’ve not passed it already. The latest BioScience journal from the American Institute of Biological Sciences could not be more stark. In the first sentence of The 2023 state of the climate report: Entering uncharted territory the scientists write: “Life on planet Earth is under siege.”

For a body of people charged with preserving the world as we know it, the attendees at Cop28 are, for the most part, surprisingly upbeat.

He’s enigmatic, deliberate. Stiell is one of those at Cop with the ultimate must-have

Many are greeting each other like old friends, which they are. Like going to a concert by a band from the 1970s and spying grizzled rockers still wearing the original tour T-shirt, albeit shrunk and faded and somewhat tight over an enlarged tummy, there are folk wearing badges and souvenirs from the early Cop years.

Not a lot, it must be said, since anyone in their fifties back then would now be well into their late seventies, early eighties. Nevertheless, there is a feeling of continuity, that these “Conferences of the Parties” have slipped into a rhythm.

If the first week was lighter, but with the unveiling of a historic announcement on an agreement over the setting up of a loss and damage fund, something long sought by the Global South as the ravages of a hotter planet worsen and they look to the wealthier nations to pay for the harm, this next is more serious.

The Cop28 President, Dr Sultan Al Jaber, said so when he declared, at his press conference heralding the beginning of the second week: “This is where the hard work begins.”

He was being modest. The press conference was also to allow him to introduce his team of ministerial advisers drawn from around the world. Al Jaber made it plain he’d been working with them for a while, a change he’d made from previous Cop presidencies.

He’d studied past gatherings and his was to be different. The ministers sitting alongside were not strangers to each other and to him, they’d been immersed in the detail of a possible outcome for Cop28 for several months.

On stage he seemed to enjoy a good rapport with Simon Stiell, the UN’s Executive Secretary for Climate Change, and after the president, the most powerful person at this Cop.

Stiell is an enigmatic character, formerly Grenadian politician, ex-tech for Nokia and GEC Plessey-turned property developer, before stepping up to the UN full time last year.

Stiell talks punchy. “Cop28 must deliver a big switch: not just ‘what’ governments must do, but also ‘how’…” “It’s go-time for governments at COP28 this week..” “I urge all ministers and negotiators to think outside the box. Climate action needs that paradigm shift.”

We’ve listened to his idioms.

“As Yoda would say: ‘Do or not do. There is no try.’” And “We need Cop to deliver a bullet train to speed up climate action. We currently have an old caboose train chugging over rickety tracks.”

'Let's get this job done': Cop28 President calls for climate action

'Let's get this job done': Cop28 President calls for climate action

He’s enigmatic, deliberate. Stiell is one of those at Cop with the ultimate must-have. There’s the free accessory for all: a fetching, dark green water bottle complete with UAE Cop28 logo. There are the different levels of official pass, with red lettering denoting someone important.

But Stiell, he has an entourage. Wherever he goes, Stiell is accompanied. He’s got his assistants and then, those in the know, are attempting to watch and follow his every move. They can’t of course, because for the most part, Stiell, Al Jaber and their teams are tightly ensconced behind closed doors.

So the majority of the crowd on the vast Expo 2020 site are reduced to little more than watching and waiting and engaging in lesser initiatives and agreements to be achieved. That’s not to knock them, they’re significant.

One theme is reforestation and carbon removal. Amid the flurry of announcements, one catches the eye, from British company Carbonaires, that it’s partnering local landowners to develop new forests and carbon removal projects in Patagonia. Why isolated, beautiful Patagonia? “Chilean Patagonia’s protected areas store almost twice as much carbon per hectare as the Amazon’s forests.”

Who knew. It’s like one of this year’s star exhibits: a full-size, driveable racing car ingeniously made entirely from electronic waste products, including abandoned vapes, iPhones and patched-up circuit boards. The Recover-E looks like no racing car you’ve ever seen, but its manufacturer, Formula E’s Envision Racing, insists it is the real thing.

Down to business

Everything, though, pales beside the big one. That’s the agreement which Al Jaber and Stiell are looking to strike, for which this Cop will or will not be acclaimed.

This time it centres on fossil fuels – will they be “phased out”, “phased down” or left unabated? If determined progress in the fight against climate change is to be gained then it has be the former but that will mean nations that rely on oil, gas and coal for their economic well-being having to make landmark concessions. This is what Al Jaber, Stiell and their colleagues are negotiating.

Walk around and you hear the same names trotted out, those whose agreement is essential: China, India, Saudi Arabia. Secure their buy-in, especially to phasing out completely and Cop28 will go down in history as a triumph. Short of that, seeing a huge reduction will be heralded as a good result – realistic, but still had to be obtained. Relative congratulations all round.

Anything less and it will be deemed a failure.

There are doomsayers aplenty. A Sikh, who says it’s all about West and East, and western concerns will not prevail over those of the East. While those in the West worry about the object in the sky getting hotter, those in the East are more worried with what’s occurring on the ground, in staying alive. Their struggle is a daily one.

It does appear extraordinary, that we’re focusing long-term, while short-term there are millions without clean water and sanitation. The bankers and financiers who arrived in the first week, to cosy up to world rulers, could do so much, right now, to aid the world’s poor.

Those high-rollers have departed. Remaining are the country delegations, climate experts and officials. This, the sharp end of Cop, is theirs.

To lend a final push, there are heavyweights due to arrive. John Kerry has been since day one and will be joined by others in the coming days.

Kerry, the US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, is whisked through the security, straight down the red “ministerial” channel at the entrance. The hoi polloi must shuffle along, in the same meandering lines you get at airports and theme parks.

They are at least in the all-important Blue Zone. A shuttle bus ride away is the Green Zone, for the public, climate activists and eco-businesses.

There, the atmosphere is very different. It’s a mixture of agitation and anger, from those who would love to be in the Blue Zone giving what for, and relaxation, without the heavy security and protocol.

The pity is that they can’t all be together, Green and Blue, that the one could press upon the other the need for urgent action, that the latter could explain themselves and just why it isn’t always so simple.

There are activists and protesters in the Blue Zone. They’re allowed in, corralled and in slots, but they’re able to say their pieces.

“No more words, no more Cops” was chanted loudly by one group.

They were holding up signs showing how many fossil fuel lobbyists were in attendance this year. One shouted through a megaphone, to tell Cop28 there were more fossil fuel promoters than the inhabitants of her home town under risk of flooding. Likewise, indigenous peoples threatened even more severely by climate change – they too can petition.

It’s not the case, either, that the Blue Zone this week is devoid of businesspeople. There are those sitting earnestly at their laptops and meeting and greeting whose name badges declare them to be a member of this or that country, party or with some NGO, which they are, but at the same time they also bear corporate associations.

There is, however, above and beyond, committed purpose. Lest we forget, there are notices galore carrying words – “Together”, “Will” – and statements – “Hope Drives Action”, “Action Builds Trust”.

These might have been lifted straight from the Simon Stiell playbook, but there’s no doubting the seriousness of it all.

Not for the first time, a Cop is set to go to the wire. In 1995, Angela Merkel, then Germany’s environment minister, headed Cop1. At the very end, when they were wording the final communiqué, a Saudi Arabia delegate voiced an objection. Merkel ignored him. Thumping her gavel, she said: “I think it’s all agreed.”

Time has moved on, and Cop is now in possession of all manner of procedural rules. At Cop28, in the coming days, Al Jaber may find himself wishing if only he could follow Merkel’s example.

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Published: December 09, 2023, 10:29 AM