In 1995, the UN launched its first “Conference of Parties”, or Cop climate summit in Bonn, Germany. The city has since hosted it a further three times. This year’s conference has just started in the British city of Glasgow. In 2015, Paris held the one of the most important meetings in the series’ history, which saw the creation of the Paris Agreement. Signatories of the legally binding document committed to limiting global warming to below 2°C, preferably 1.5°C, compared to pre-industrial levels.
Europe has been at the centre of the UN’s climate dialogue for years. But preventing an environmental catastrophe is a global issue, and as the meeting has gone from relative obscurity to one of the most newsworthy international gatherings of the year, getting the world onboard has never been more important.
It is a difficult task, but there is progress, particularly with respect to the Middle East. Egypt is expected to host next year’s meeting, Cop27. And yesterday, the member states of the UN's Asia-Pacific Group announced their support for the UAE's bid to host Cop28 in 2023.
This development is particularly welcome because the region needs action and the UAE has played a pioneering role in leading that action. Temperature in the Middle East is thought to be rising at twice the average global rate, and it is the most water-stressed place on earth. These huge burdens are going to be shouldered by a growing, increasingly young population and the disruption, without action, could hurt fragile societies.
The strength of the UAE’s candidacy is built on two pillars. One is that on a practical level, the country is working intensely on climate solutions and has been for many years, from establishing Masdar to hosting the International Renewable Energy Agency. Last month, it unveiled a strategic initiative to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The UAE was also the first country in the region to sign up to the 2015 Paris Agreement. It manages the world’s largest single-site solar energy farm. And on the economic front, it is working to grow a sustainable finance sector.
The second pillar is that the UAE is well-placed to convene the international community, given its diplomatic record. The success of a Cop meeting is more than the technicalities of new initiatives. Those mean nothing if participating countries do not show up and commit to tangible targets. Unfortunately, as the prominence of the meeting has risen over the years, it has in tandem become at times the victim of wider geopolitical disputes. Tensions between the West and China threatened to see the latter boycott this year’s gathering altogether.
The UAE’s good relations across the West and East could help take the heat out of such tensions, and keep delegates’ minds focussed on the task at hand. This has made it a preferred venue for high-level global meetings and events. In April, John Kerry, the US climate envoy, attended a regional dialogue hosted by the UAE on the environment. And at Dubai Expo2020, 192 nations are currently gathered at an event where fighting climate change is a major theme; an entire district at the site is dedicated to sustainability.
Discord at Cop26 – despite major achievements such as Monday’s commitment to end deforestation by 2030 – is proof that the world’s response to the climate crisis is still far from perfect. But the centre of gravity for the response is shifting to new regions, and that will certainly accelerate progress, as more parts of the world take leading roles in defining future climate policy. In the next few years, the Middle East may prove to be a vital staging ground for the battle against climate change.