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UN simplicities hinder genuine progress at unwieldy Cop

This year's Cop can point to a solid list of achievements – but the next one must downsize

Brazilian representatives at Cop28. Were their voices heard among the background noise of 80,000 people? Cop28/Andrea DiCenzo
Brazilian representatives at Cop28. Were their voices heard among the background noise of 80,000 people?

Cop28 gets down to the serious business this weekend, as armies of negotiators grapple with the wording of a concluding statement.

This document is meant to encapsulate the achievements of the two-week climate change extravaganza and advance the campaign against global warming in a unified, consensual way.

Whether or not it does that in 2023 remains to be seen. There is still a lot of basic disagreement about the final wording, with the “phase down/out” debate still a point of real contention.

Hydrocarbon producers, and many big consumers, are not inclined to agree to anything that talks directly about the imminent and abrupt end of fossil fuels, for the same reason that turkeys don’t vote for Christmas.

Logo, Text

But it’s possible to conceive of some form of words that gets across the message that oil and gas, and the associated greenhouse gas emissions, will inevitably decrease as a proportion of the global energy mix in an unspecified number of years to come.

The word “unabated” will probably figure prominently, too.

Even if there is no agreed final statement, Cop28 can still point to a solid list of achievements: the setting up of the “loss and damage” fund, pledges on methane emissions, and a global decarbonisation pledge by 50 oil companies, for example, as well as an impressive list of other financial commitments.

But, in my opinion, the UAE presidency has had to swim against a tide not of its own making, but largely the creation of organisational and logistical challenges imposed upon it by the UN, the Cop’s ultimate authority.

For one thing, Cop28 is simply too big. It is hard to determine who exactly was responsible for the dramatic increase in numbers in 2023 – the UN or the UAE – but the difficulty of trying to reach serious and long-reaching decisions on such a crucial subject against the background noise of 80,000 people must be obvious.

Much of that noise was simply irrelevant, too. How does it advance the negotiating process to have a rent-a-crowd of protesters chanting obscenities about oil producers?

Or the silly competition to name the “fossil of the day” in a little ceremony near the main plenary hall?

Minorities, indigenous peoples, small countries and environmentalists have a right to take part in the Cop proceedings and to make their point heard, for sure.

But the impression I got over 10 days of slogging round the sprawling Cop site in Dubai was of a cross between Davos and the Notting Hill Carnival – with the positive attributes of neither of those events.

Organisationally too, the UN should rethink some basic elements for the next Cop – wherever that may be held.

The division into Blue and Green Zones make increasingly less sense, and just exacerbates the logistical challenges of such a huge gathering. The distinction should be scrapped forthwith.

Ultimately, the UN has to decide what its role is in the event, the organisation’s single biggest “happening” and one where it obviously tries to make itself relevant in a global sense.

Is the UN an independent arbiter, or a participant in the Cop’s increasingly polarised proceedings?

The address from UN secretary general Antonio Gutterez, with its Dylanesque message to the hydrocarbon producers “your old road is rapidly ageing”, may have won him some boomer credibility, but it also shredded any last vestige of impartiality the UN might have in the climate change debate.

When the UN selected the UAE as the host for Cop28, it was obviously aware of what line of business the country was in. To take sides so blatantly against the Cop presidency and the other oil and gas producers was, at best, ungracious, at worst insulting.

If this Cop is ultimately deemed to be a “flop” because a final statement does not appear, or is deemed to be inadequate by some of the activist parties, whose fault will that be?

Will it be down to the implacable hostility of some in the West who have taken every opportunity to publicise and exaggerate minor peccadillos allegedly perpetrated by the presidency?

Or the UN’s failure to encourage real debate about the urgent practicalities of energy transition in favour of “just stop oil” simplicities?

If Cop does get called a “flop” it will not be for want of genuine effort by the presidency.

Frank Kane is Editor-at-Large of AGBI and an award-winning business journalist. He also acts as a consultant to the Ministry of Energy of Saudi Arabia

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