Greta was right about COP blah blah blah

We don’t need any more climate change goal-setting or discussions about the process, what is needed are specific policies and implementation 

SO, IT begins. An estimated 70,000 politicians, business leaders, scientists, activists, journalists and others from around the world are pouring into Dubai for two weeks, maybe more, for climate events and deliberations. In a year that saw the average global surface temperature breach 2°C (3.6F) of warming on multiple days (that’s deeply concerning!), the need for faster progress toward climate targets is more urgent than ever. Many will be waiting with bated breath to see whether this meeting winds up being a success or a failure. 

Held in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a kingdom built on oil, this particular iteration of the United Nations Climate Change Conference, known as COP28, has already been one of the most controversial COP meetings ever, raising fears that it’ll be deemed another letdown. 

Back at the start of the year, I noted that it was deeply problematic for COP28’s president-designate, Sultan al-Jaber, to be the CEO of Abu Dhabi National Oil Co, the world’s 12th-largest oil company by production while presiding over a summit aimed at reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. Opponents to his nomination likely felt vindicated when, on Nov 27, BBC revealed leaked briefing documents that the UAE planned to discuss fossil fuel deals with 15 nations at the conference. 

For some context: The aim of the summit is for governments to get together and make decisions on how best to tackle climate change. The Conference of the Parties (COP) is the supreme decision-making body, bringing together everyone who’s formally joined the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). 

COP28 will cover a broad range of topics, from finalising the Loss and Damage Fund, intended to provide financial assistance to vulnerable nations impacted by the climate crisis, to the culmination of the first Global Stocktake — a mechanism built into the Paris Agreement to assess progress toward goals and ratchet up ambitions. 

But we arguably know what’s going to happen. There’ll be a big fight over some words on fossil fuels, particularly over whether we ought to “phase out” or “phase down” their use. Plenty of concessions will be made at the behest of powerful polluters. And the culmination will be a series of political statements and perhaps an operational Loss and Damage Fund, but none of it will be enough to save the planet. 

It’s beyond time to ask whether COP works as it should. After all, we’ve had nearly three decades of summits, yet emissions continue to climb. There are clear problems: The voting structure means that all decisions must be made by consensus, meaning that all 198 countries that are members of the UNFCCC must agree. That ensures that the lowest common denominator wins out. Much of the talk also focuses on long-term targets with broad scopes — a recipe for diplomatic disaster. 

COPs have done a good job of building consensus, setting global goals and establishing the principle that every country should do something. But as Simon Sharpe, director of economics for UN Climate Champions and former deputy director of the UK government’s COP26 Unit, points out to me, we don’t need any more global goal-setting or discussions about the process. Instead, we need implementation. We need to be talking about specific policies and practical cooperation. 

Sharpe says a better format would be sector-specific discussions between the most influential countries for each field. These deliberations need to focus on actions to take now to achieve rapid structural change in the global economy. 

This is happening on some level. At COP26 in Glasgow, the “Break-through Agenda” was launched. It’s a commitment by 45 countries covering 70% of the global economy to work together toward reaching technology tipping points, making “sustainable solutions the most affordable, accessible and attractive option” in emitting sectors — currently clean power, road transport, steel, hydrogen and agriculture, though more will be added — before 2030. An annual independent review, authored by the International Energy Agency, the International Renewable Energy Agency and the UN Climate Champions team, helps set priorities. 

The latest report showed that modest progress has been made in strengthening international collaboration, but opportunities are still being missed. If the focus at COP28 was on these initiatives, it’s not hard to imagine things moving along at a more productive pace. 

We’ll soon find out how many people attend, but, if accurate, the 70,000 figure represents a huge increase over previous years. At COP21 in 2015, the year in which the Paris Agreement was adopted, 30,372 people turned up. Today’s size reflects a growing interest in the negotiations and the expanding role of the trade show that surrounds them. 

That’s a concern for some. Sandrine Dixson-Declève, co-president of The Club of Rome, worries that the focus on the large COP gathering has taken away from the important diplomatic meetings held throughout the year. When thoughtfully led, these meetings ensure that a deal is reached. The 2015 Paris Agreement wouldn’t have come together without a lot of hard work before COP21, when it was adopted. 

Tens of thousands of people descending into one place also have the habit of making accommodation and travel much more expensive, potentially pricing out delegations from frontline communities and other important stakeholders. Meanwhile, fossil fuel lobbyists have been showing up in force. Given the sense that the UAE can use COP28 as a platform for fossil-fuel interests, it’s hard not to feel like COP has lost its integrity. 

An open letter to the UN secretary-general and COP executive secretary, signed by Dixson- Declève and a group of experts, scientists and policy leaders, argues for smaller annual COP meetings complemented by more frequent gatherings that focus on “targeted deliverables” rather than pledges. The focus should be on ensuring multistakeholder involvement, including non-state actors such as NGOs, businesses and indigenous peoples. Smaller, frequent meetings would hopefully have the effect of making participation more accessible. 

I think there’s probably still a role for a big annual gathering. There’s nothing like in-person networking to foster new partnerships and international collaboration, which we’ll need to move the needle on many clean technologies and financing. We should remember that COPs have also come a long way. Richard Kinley, a senior official at the UNFCCC from 1993 to 2017, told me that climate change used to be a problem for the weather department. Now, there’s a strong awareness that it’s a problem for every sector. Heads of state are now judged for not turning up. 

Still, it’s clear that the current format isn’t producing what we need. So, as you keep track of the barrage of news set to come out of Dubai for the next fortnight, just think: Wouldn’t COP be so much more exciting, so much more hopeful, if we were talking about concrete action plans rather than, in Greta Thunberg’s famous words, “blah blah blah”? Bloomberg

  • This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  • This article first appeared in The Malaysian Reserve weekly print edition