How Cop transformed from a climate champion to a pointless indulgence

The UAE government’s response to the claims about Sultan Al Jaber was that ‘private meetings are private’
The UAE government’s response to the claims about Sultan Al Jaber was that ‘private meetings are private’ - Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Bloomberg Philanthropies

It must be one of the only patio heaters in Dubai. It sits on the balcony of a chalet half way up an indoor ski slope that is kept at a cool -4°C in a country where temperatures reached a record of 49°C last July. It is essentially a heater in the middle of a giant fridge in the middle of the desert.

The United Arab Emirates is an odd place to go skiing. And some might say the phenomenally wealthy petrostate is a strange venue to host Cop28, the UN climate change conference, over the next couple of weeks. But, as that patio heater demonstrates, Dubai revels in its incongruities. For that reason, maybe it’s the perfect venue for a talking shop that is increasingly reviled by both climate change activists and deniers alike for generating more hot air than it prevents.

The contradictions were laid bare on Monday, when it was reported that Cop president Sultan Al Jaber planned to push the commercial interests of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, of which he is also the chief executive, during bilateral talks ahead of the climate summit. The UAE government responded to the claims, based on leaked documents, that “private meetings are private”. But they earned a reproach from the UN and outrage from green groups, who said the allegations had exposed that the conference had been “hijacked by the oil and gas industry”. A Cop28 spokesman later said the documents were “inaccurate” and had not been used by Cop28 in meetings.

The row over the briefings gets to the heart of questions about whether the Cop summits are still fit for purpose to meet the challenge of climate change. The news that US President Joe Biden will not attend (aides blamed his current focus on the Middle East) was a further blow to those hoping for meaningful action.

Three decades of promises

Almost 30 years after the first Cop of 1995, and nearly a decade after the Paris Agreement, the world is heading to 3°C of warming by 2100. The chance of staying below 1.5°C looks vanishingly thin and “the era of global boiling has arrived,” says the UN. Last week it released a report titled “Broken Record”, a reference to all the new temperature records that have been set this year alone. It could also have been a reference to the cycle of rhetoric that comes out of the annual negotiations. What’s gone wrong and can yet another global summit really fix it?

“Dag Hammarskjold [the former UN secretary-general] famously said that the UN exists not to take us to heaven, but to save us from hell,” says Tom Rivett-Carnac, one of the key negotiators behind the Paris Agreement. “And you can sort of say on this point, that it’s not really doing that very well either.”

The annual meeting of the Conference of the Parties (Cop) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change used to be considered just as dull and technical as its name suggests. The event brings together the 197 countries, plus the EU, that signed up to the 1992 convention, to make sure they are staying on track for its aims to combat “dangerous human interference with the climate system”.

It has had its high-profile disasters over the years, in particular the 2009 Copenhagen summit, which ended in bitter acrimony without an agreement. But the event mostly passed with little awareness among the general public.

In 2015, a turning point came as countries meeting in Paris came to a landmark agreement to try and keep global warming to 2°C, and preferably 1.5°C, below pre-industrial temperatures. The world was starting to take notice of climate change, and it seemed the international community was making progress.

In a way, Paris marked the culmination of the climate summit’s original purpose. For the first time, the world had a universally agreed target and a general consensus on how to get there, by reaching net zero emissions sometime around the mid-century.

“We have the shared commitment. But we’re not seeing rapid enough implementation at a national level,” says Rivett-Carnac. “So it will only work if people come, make commitments, go home and do what they said they were going to do.”

Making promises at a climate change conference is different to delivering on them at home, faced with domestic challenges, rising infrastructure costs and international competition. The UK was the first major economy to set a target to hit net zero by 2050 and while it has stuck by the date, Rishi Sunak recently rowed back on some of the policies to get there, putting its achievement in doubt.

“If the Cop is seen as the solution to action on climate change and people think it alone will fix anything, they will be mistaken,” says Mohamed Adow, a veteran campaigner at the talks. Adow, who is director of the energy and climate think tank Power Shift Africa, adds: “In reality, action on climate change takes place at the national and local level, not UN meetings.”

Whether Cop has much impact on the local level is questionable. Recent analysis suggests that China, by far the world’s biggest emitter and a consistent blocker on climate action, may hit peak emissions this year. But this is not a result of fraught negotiations at annual summits, but a cold hard calculation of how to get ahead in the burgeoning global green economy.

The ever-expanding Cop

Instead of winding down to focus on delivering on promises, Cop gets more unwieldy every year. An estimated 75,000 people are expected to attend this year, nearly twice the number at Paris in 2015, and Glasgow in 2021.

“I think it’s too big,” says Chris Stark, chief executive of the UK Climate Change Committee (CCC), which advises parliament on how to reach net zero. “It’s the biggest of the UN’s annual gatherings, probably now bigger than the UN General Assembly.” Yet Stark, who did not attend last year, will go this year, because of the level of interest among the groups the CCC advises.

One of the consequences of the size of the event is that it’s now become almost too big to host, from a purely practical perspective (which is why Glasgow was picked over London, for instance) but also because of the cost burden. That is almost certainly part of the reason for this year’s event being held in Dubai, a wealthy petrostate keen to burnish its green credentials.

Cop hosts are picked on a regional rotation, with the UAE part of the Asia Pacific Group of nations (as opposed to last year’s Middle Eastern host Egypt, which is considered an African nation). As a UN process, the Cop is inherently inclusive of all nations, regardless of their domestic politics. But the country sent climate activists into a rage by picking Al Jaber to be the conference president, a pivotal role that sets the tone and often steers the outcome.

Claims that the UAE planned to use bilateral meetings between Al Jaber and government ministers to make agreements on fossil fuel investments appear to have confirmed their fears. Among the talking points in the leaked documents the UAE apparently planned to express a willingness for cooperation on natural gas pipelines in Mozambique, during a conversation with Chinese representatives.

Whether or not the UAE will be effective Cop hosts, Al Jaber’s role in proceedings is at best perplexing to the casual observer
Whether or not the UAE will be effective Cop hosts, Al Jaber’s role in proceedings is at best perplexing to the casual observer - Hollie Adams/Bloomberg

A joint letter from more than 130 EU and US politicians to the UN leadership in May called for Al Jaber’s appointment to be blocked and said his presence “severely jeopardised” the climate talks. The letter raised concerns about the growing presence of oil and gas companies and lobbyists at the conference, pointing out that 636 industry lobbyists had attended the Egypt summit, a rise of over 25 per cent on the previous year.

Even to those that argue oil and gas countries can hardly be left out of the conversation about how to move off fossil fuels fear the revelations about private deals may undermine the conference.

“If countries show up to negotiate and they feel like the president is not being transparent about their agenda, then trust will quickly collapse and that can be extremely damaging to the process,” says Rivett-Carnac. “That is a basic requirement for success. And right now, the implication is that Al Jaber is not meeting that basic requirement.”

The UAE will now be under even more pressure to reach a successful outcome at the talks, not wanting to risk further embarrassment on the world stage. That will mean agreements on language around fossil fuels, in particular whether they should be “phased out” or “phased down”, the latter taken to imply the continued use of oil and gas, but with untested carbon capture technology. It will also require them to bring together competing views on who should pay what for developing countries that are feeling the worst effects of climate change. On both points, the UAE will come under intense scrutiny for how much it defends its own interests against the greater good.

Grabbing a slice of the trillion dollar green economy

Whether or not the UAE will be effective Cop hosts, Al Jaber’s role in proceedings is at best perplexing to the casual observer, and adds to the perception that the conference is more about greenwashing than action.

Alongside the official delegates, NGOs and activists descending on Dubai this year will be thousands of corporate representatives. No major corporation with even a hint of green policy would dare to stay away from the opportunity to show they care, while seeking a slice of the trillion dollar green economy. So many deals are now done at the annual Cop that the organisers of the World Economic Forum, which occurs a few weeks later in Davos, are reportedly struggling to attract attendees.

“People are there because they can do deals and make money. And that’s something we should applaud,” says Rivett-Carnac. “It still has the function of a multilateral process that has a purpose, but that purpose is increasingly being served by commercial activities.”

But if the climate problem is increasingly a money, tech and innovation problem, a two-week multilateral dialogue attended by dozens of world leaders looks increasingly anachronistic. Corporates are no longer responding to the fraught outcomes of negotiations, but increasingly setting the direction themselves.

At Cop26 in 2021, 24 countries and a group of leading car manufacturers committed to ending the era of fossil-fuel powered vehicles by 2040 “or earlier”. Boris Johnson, in a bid to get ahead of the pack, imposed a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2030 – a date which his critics claimed had been plucked from thin air and his fans suggested would help the UK car industry steal a march on other countries. Earlier this year, Rishi Sunak pushed the date of the ban back to 2035.

At the time, there was a very mixed response from the car industry. Ford was furious. Lisa Brankin, the UK chair of the US carmaker, said: “Our business needs three things from the UK government: ambition, commitment and consistency. A relaxation of 2030 would undermine all three.” However, Toyota welcomed the UK government’s announcement, saying it provided “the clarity industry has been asking [for] and recognises that all low-emission and affordable technologies can play a role in a pragmatic vehicle transition”.

The difference, of course, is that Ford has made an all-in bet on going all-electric by the end of the decade, while Toyota has kept its options open. Akio Toyoda, the chairman of Toyota, has probably been the auto industry executive with the most nuanced take on the trade off between top-down targets and letting the market do its magic.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal last December, Toyoda said: “Because the right answer is still unclear, we shouldn’t limit ourselves to just one option.” And, speaking at the Japan Mobility Show in October, he said: “I have continued to say what I see as reality. There are many ways to climb the mountain that is achieving carbon neutrality. If regulations are created based on ideals, it is regular users who are the ones who suffer.”

Indeed many of the emerging climate problems do not have an obvious space for discussion at a multilateral conference. As the 1.5°C target slips away, growing voices are calling for serious discussion of both geoengineering, meaning methods to tweak the weather system to cool the planet, and direct air capture, pulling back emissions after we overshoot.

The dual nature of the event – climate conference vs trade fair – also risks undermining its loftier aims. “A few years ago almost everyone at the summits was focused on the negotiations,” says Adow. “But now there are too many hangers on, too many corporations there to greenwash their activities.

“The Cop and the negotiations are at risk of being tarnished by the corporate jamboree which is why the numbers attending the summit have grown in recent years.”

All this means this year’s Cop has a serious optics problem. For the people watching from home, struggling to pay their energy bills, and being encouraged to make daunting and expensive decisions about how to go green, the Cop process looks like either to be a pointless indulgence or a gross exercise in corporate and government greenwashing. This is exacerbated by the fact its outcomes are often opaque, without tangible real-world implications.

Arguably, that’s a part of the design, and not a flaw. These multilateral meetings are a chance for global governments to meet and hold each other to account, rather than to set policy. “It is not surprising that the place where you take stock isn’t at the same time the place where everything happens tomorrow,” says Bernice Lee of Chatham House.

In that case, perhaps we simply pay them too much attention. “There are plenty of people who spend 11 and a half months of their year trying to work out how they bring down the cost of batteries and then they go to Cop and have a few meetings,” says Rivett-Carnac. “Increasingly, the innovators, the entrepreneurs, the tech investors…they use it for a very specific game and are more strategic about it.”

A conference of doom-mongers?

Undoubtedly, our leaders have played their part in turning up the heat on Cop. Increasingly focus is on the world leaders’ summit which takes place at the beginning of the two weeks. Each year it seems, rhetoric is ramped up, lending an unwelcome sense of urgency to the talks.

In Glasgow, then prime minister Boris Johnson said we were “one minute to midnight” and suggested Cop26 was the last chance to save the world. King Charles the same year said it was the “last chance saloon” for the climate. Rhetoric does not entirely match reality, despite increasing scenes of devastation, because the 1.5°C  threshold isn’t a door we pass through to a different planet. Changes are likely to be incremental as they have been for the last 1.2°C of warming.

Leaders’ fraught pronouncements on the world stage, coupled with the incremental nature of the Cop conferences, risk creating a difficult perception that nothing is being done. “Most of the hard work is done prior to the Cop,” says Stark. “The Cops are there to sort of dot the i’s and cross the t’s.”

A solution to the Cop problem might be relatively simple. Increasingly, there are voices to slim the conference down, to hold it once every three or five years, with a reduced number of attendees. But doing away with it all together may be trickier.

“The thing is,” says Lee, “the smarty pants who says that it doesn’t work can never come up with a viable answer as to what is next that can galvanise the kind of scale of change that is needed.”