'The world expects': UK's lead climate negotiator says Cop28 a critical moment

Alison Campbell says there are a lot of tough talks to come

Alison Campbell, the UK's lead climate negotiator. Victor Besa / The National
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The world expects a strong and ambitious response to the escalating climate crisis at Cop28, the UK’s lead climate negotiator has said.

Alison Campbell, who will be a veteran of 10 Cops by the time the talks start, said it was difficult to assess how discussions were going with only weeks to go as the global “political dynamics” were difficult and there were a “lot of differences” of opinion.

But Ms Campbell said she had picked up a sense that parties were coming to the crucial summit determined to ensure an “ambitious outcome”.

We are looking forward to seeing what the UAE brings to the table on discussions with the oil and gas industry because I think bringing them as part of the solution is a positive thing
Alison Campbell, UK's lead climate change negotiator

In an exclusive interview with The National, Ms Campbell also spoke of what might make Cop28 different from previous meetings, the huge challenge of addressing what’s known as the “global stocktake” and the pressure on lead negotiators to deliver.

“Everything is tough,” said Ms Campbell, regarding how talks are poised. “There are a lot of differences. The political dynamics are difficult. We had a difficult G20 but I do get the sense that everyone is coming to Cop28 to make it a success,” she said, referring to the G20 meeting in September.

Ms Campbell was in the UAE for a key "SB chairs' global stocktake workshop" which took place in Abu Dhabi on October 12 to 14 and drew negotiators from around the world.

The stocktake is the first to examine the efforts of countries to cut emissions since the 2015 Paris deal where they agreed to pursue efforts to keep warming to 1.5°C above on pre-industrial levels and well below 2°C.

The UN has repeatedly warned the world is way off track for these targets. The meeting, and others like it, try to chart a way forward for agreement at Cop28.

The critical part of the stocktake, Ms Campbell said, is trying to ensure 1.5°C is kept within reach ahead of Cop28 in Dubai.

“Progress has been made but we are not on track from emission reduction to adaptation to finance,” she said. “We know that, so the big question is 'how do we respond?'”

Ms Campbell, a scientist by background, was part of the UK’s negotiating team for the landmark Cop21 in 2015 when the Paris deal was signed.

More than 10 years later, she sees Cop28 as taking on even more significance in a year that has shattered heat records across the globe.

“That’s what makes this Cop so critical,” she said. “If you look at the science, it could be the last stocktake we have where we can keep 1.5°C within reach.”

At Cop26 in Glasgow, where Ms Campbell was UK deputy lead negotiator, leaders agreed to a “phase down” of unabated coal power after many fraught discussions.

The issue of fossil fuels is expected to be a major point of discussion again when the talks start next month and Ms Campbell said it feels for the first time that the energy transition is “front and centre”.

“The UAE agenda around tripling of renewables is something we are really supportive of. But hand in hand is what are we going to do less of? The fossil fuel issue is an important part of this Cop and I think the UAE is pretty uniquely placed to guide us through that,” she said, with the UK position being for the “phase out” of unabated fossil fuels.

"We are looking forward to seeing what the UAE brings to the table on discussions with the oil and gas industry because I think bringing them as part of the solution is a positive thing."

There are five priorities for the UK, she said, which are keeping 1.5°C within reach; scaling up finance; boosting adaptation; ensuring the loss and damage fund comes into operation this year; and embedding nature in the response to climate change. But it was “pivotal” that there was a good outcome to the global stocktake.

“It is not all on the UAE. We’ve also got a lot to do."

Regarding British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s decision to push back the ban on new petrol and diesel cars to 2035, which has been criticised by some climate campaigners, Ms Campbell would refer only to the three major commitments made by the UK government, which are ensuring the country is net-zero by 2050; delivering on the country’s fresh climate pledges that aim to have UK emissions fall by 68 per cent compared with 1990; and the $2 billion contribution to the UN-backed Green Climate Fund that aims to assist developing countries.

“Those three things show the commitment," she said.

Cop28 runs from November 30 to December 12, and, as the clock ticks down, she said every lead negotiator would be feeling the pressure.

A typical day at Cop starts at about 7.30am and is followed by rounds of intense negotiation and bilateral meetings that often drift late into the night, particularly in the closing days when parties are under pressure to deliver.

“We feel the time pressure," she said.

"One would argue the conversations in that room don’t sound like we do feel that, because you are arguing over a comma or a bracket or words or sentences that might seem crazy to people in the outside world but everybody is there because they feel that pressure.

“And everyone is there because they want to make a difference, even if we all have different perspectives. When you do get agreement, like the Paris agreement, the impact can be huge. That’s what makes it worthwhile.”

Updated: October 16, 2023, 7:19 AM