Good COP, Bad COP

December 26, 2023
Est. Reading: 5 minutes

Reflections on the outcomes of COP28, the annual climate negotiations

Image credit: U.S. State Department

More than 80,000 participants, most non-governmental observers, attended this year’s annual climate meetings in Dubai, COP28. It’s been aptly described as a “climate circus” or “expo,” and part trade fair, protest stage, and debate forum. Friends there reported a physical ordeal moving long distances from among the many pavilions covering 1,000 acres, entertained nightly by a light show. The fair-like atmosphere was confirmed by events immediately following the COP — the grounds were being cleared for the creation of a Winter City festival.

The size of the event generated enormous media attention but also led some climate activists and observers to question whether the process is worth the time, effort, and expense. Based on more than 20 years attending such meetings, my view is that the growth in attendance is understandable, a reflection of the increasing recognition global climate change is an existential and urgent matter. While it may appear to be a large trade show or festival (even for many of those attending), the numbers only indirectly influence the outcomes — if at all.

The initial governmental climate meetings were modest affairs. Along with a few hundred others, I attended some of the negotiations leading to the 1992 Convention. The attendance grew over time to average about 25,000 and varied with the agenda (some meetings had little of significance to negotiate) and the ease and cost of participation (e.g., travel to Bali versus Warsaw). A major meeting such as that in Paris in 2015 attracted 40,000. Meanwhile other forums negotiating climate change related issues (e.g., a 2016 Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol phasing down use of a powerful greenhouse gas) had far fewer participants.

So, what accounts for the astonishing attendance in Dubai, and what are the implications? First and foremost is the increasing recognition that climate change is more immediate and consequential than previously appreciated. This is reflected in the presence of entire communities of interest barely represented in the past including the implications of climate change for agriculture, diet and food security, oceans, the cryosphere, biodiversity, and human health and the urgent need for more sustainable cooling. Many of these topics were the subject of webinars available to an international audience. And those attending still give high marks to opportunities for face-to-face meetings: “Catching someone in a corridor and speaking to face-to-face, there’s really no alternative to that.”

The financial sector now participates actively but initially was largely absent; the first head of the World Bank to attend was Rober Zoellick in Bali in 2007 — and he met only outside the meetings with finance ministers. The COP this year was an attractive forum for financial announcements by governments, development banks, philanthropies, and private investors. The current World Bank president, Ajay Banga, was an active participant in Dubai.

The number attending also has very little to do with the formal governmental negotiations, which take place in a space accessible only to official government representatives. COPs are now two minimally connected meetings, one of government negotiators and the other, much larger, of observers (although negotiators are frequent speakers and sometimes make themselves available for meetings).

While the 2,000 plus fossil fuel lobbyists in attendance have been the subject of considerable criticism, the industry has always had enormous influence on the proceedings. One of the early fossil fuel lobbyists, Don Pearlman, labeled the “the high priest of the carbon club” by climate activists, was a regular presence at the negotiations working closely with oil producing countries. And of course, the fossil fuel industry influence in Dubai came from the very top as the COP was headed by an oil industry CEO, Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber.

Many of the business representatives attending the COP are from companies actively trying to figure out their response to climate change and hoping to discover better solutions. The final language may be of limited relevance to them. The COPs have also become the basis for international collaboration among the growing universe of climate NGOs. The umbrella organization Climate Action Network International is comprised of over 1900 civil society groups in more than 130 countries and an active voice at the climate negotiations through a daily newspaper, Eco.

The COP to a great extent memorializes rather than shapes agreements, as climate journalist Andrew Revkin puts it, building on outcomes from alternative and smaller forums like Mission Efficiency and initiatives like the Methane Pledge to reduce methane emissions. Prior to the COP a group of countries including some oil producers signed on to a commitment to phaseout fossil fuels, while 129 nations led by the EU signed an ambitious renewable energy and energy efficiency pledge. Negotiators can and do meet outside COPS, e.g., John Kerry’s meetings with his Chinese counterpart, and while formalized in Dubai the elements of a loss and damage fund were largely agreed prior to the COP.

The climate convention lacks any enforcement mechanism, so that the outcome is more a high-level message of future direction than a legal document. One reason the Montreal Protocol, the international agreement that protects the ozone layer, has been effective is because in contrast it has a meaningful enforcement mechanism — signatories agree not to use products with compounds from non-signatories, and procedures and resources exist to help bring countries into compliance.

As in many prior COP meetings, much of the focus was on debates about a few words“phaseout” versus “phasedown” and reducing “emissions” versus “unabated” emissions. After many hours of deliberation past the planned closing time (another COP tradition), the final language was celebrated by most of the negotiators for making the first explicit reference to reducing use of fossil fuels. Skeptics called it theater. The carefully crafted text leaves considerable room for interpretation, calling for “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner … so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science.” Despite their opposing viewpoints, Al Gore and Sultan Al Jaber expressed similar opinions about the significance of the agreement, both emphasizing that what matters is the actions that follow.

Yet some valuable outcomes do result from COP meetings, e.g., the 2015 Paris agreement and the creation of a process for country submission of targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The COP is where many significant climate announcements are made, unrelated to meeting outcomes such as programs to reduce methane emissions. COPs also provide many developing nations with a visible platform and negotiating leverage they otherwise don’t have — thus the agreement on creation of a new fund to compensate “loss and damage” (although with so far very modest contributions).

One contentious issue at COP28 was the location for COP29. Given the time required for planning and making the necessary arrangements, the need for a decision had become urgent. The choice of host country circulates among regions and was due to be in Europe next. After much back and forth, Azerbaijan was selected — yet another country largely dependent on fossil fuels for its economy. Attendance will depend on developments related to the agenda but is likely to remain large yet smaller than in Dubai.

My lasting impression of COP28 may be the poignant statement by the delegate from Samoa at the closing session after the celebratory outpouring following the announcement that the final text had been agreed. Noting the small island states had not been in the room when the agreement was gaveled, she declared the actions needed to ensure the survival of the island states had not been secured. And then she cried.

Alan Miller is a former climate change officer in the International Finance Corporation (2003–13) and climate change team leader, Global Environment Facility (1997–2003). Besides other engagements, Alan is an active editor for Climate Conscious submissions on Medium.

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