Dubai’s gold-gilded COP28 summit changes climate talks forever

Dubai, home of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, has applied the same logic of size and opulence to its hosting of the United Nations climate summit — an event with one key goal: to put the world back on track to keeping global warming below 1.5C.

Over 100,000 country negotiators, lobbyists and activists have descended on the conference’s Blue Zone in Dubai’s Expo City, the hub where the meat of climate talks are taking place. It’s an expanse that covers an area roughly the size of New York’s Central Park. An open-air dome in the center of the venue could hold the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

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There’s nearly three times as many attendees as during COP26 in Glasgow, which forged a landmark deal to phase down unabated coal, and around four times more than the 2015 summit that birthed the Paris Agreement, which set the goal of trying to keep global warming below 2C, and ideally 1.5C. Around 400 000 people, mostly local residents, are taking part in activities around the conference.

The summit’s gold-gilded enormity has given rise to fears that a successful outcome for the climate could prove a desert mirage. Negotiators say that impromptu bilateral meetings with other countries in corridors — often the location where key deals are really struck — are impossible due to the size of the venue. Golf buggies are provided to ferry high-level delegates to important meetings.

“The growth is getting a bit unmanageable,” said Kate Levick, associate director, sustainable finance at E3G, who attended her first COP in 2005 with oil giant BP Plc. “Catching someone in a corridor and speaking to face-to-face, there’s really no alternative to that.”

Delegates ride a buggy through the expansive campus on December 1. Image: Bloomberg

Far from a staid business conference, this summit at times has an almost five-star holiday vibe. Hospitality includes the serving of dates during plenary meetings, and an extensive array of refreshments provided around the clock. The Al-Waha theatre invites participants to a 360-degree, Las Vegas-esque immersive screening of whales and endangered dugongs (of which the UAE is home to the second largest wild population globally) in-between sessions.

Country delegates have received lavish treatment. Ministers are offered car envoys to speed past Dubai’s notoriously dense traffic. Where food and water were sometimes in short supply late in the day at other COPs, there’s been no such issue here.

The COP28 organizers have tried to provide an environment and atmosphere that is conducive to providing a result, according to Majid Al-Suwaidi, a former climate negotiator for the United Arab Emirates and director general of COP28. “But there’s a responsibility on negotiators to deliver an outcome.”

“The stakes are that much higher,” he said in an interview. “That is reflecting this large scale of a COP.”

The conference has seen a record number of fossil fuel participants, over 2,000 — equivalent to being the third biggest country delegation — a move seen as welcome by some in order to bring the heaviest emitters on board with climate action, but slammed by activists as one of the most overt attempts of the phenomenon known as greenwashing. Climate protests have been confined to the UN-administered Blue Zone, as it’s banned on the streets of the UAE.

Still, the number of people in attendance shows how much climate has risen up the agenda, even against a backdrop of wars in Gaza and Ukraine, and surging inflation. Concerns over the emissions impact of hosting a summit of this size — with businessmen flying in on private jets — are overblown given they still make up a small fraction of transport’s 25% contribution to global emissions, according to Maruxa Cardama, secretary general of the SLOCAT low carbon transport non-profit.

“We need to look at what it is that we gain from having these kind of gatherings,” she said. “What it allows us as NGOs is putting a bit of pressure and accountability on these processes.”

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The growth of participation and money involved in hosting it are leading some to herald the summit as “peak COP” — simply through the fact that a dwindling number of countries will be able to host a summit of this scale. Last year’s conference in the Egyptian coastal resort of Sharm El-Sheikh, which was less than half the size, saw its infrastructure creek under the sheer mass of people.

The Green Zone — a free-to-enter space for countries and companies to tout their climate credentials is vast. Saudi Arabia and China hawk their wares here, with a giant inflatable panda looming over an outdoor food court. Strangers squeeze next to each other on the back of yellow golf buggies transporting weary conference-goers between hubs, which otherwise would be a half-hour walk apart. Employees of Masdar, a renewables firm whose chair is COP28 President Sultan Al Jaber, have buggies reserved specifically for them.

The Expo Explorer compressed-air train waits for passengers outside the Green Zone entrance. Image: Bloomberg

COP29 — which still hasn’t found a host due to disagreements with the EU and Russia — could by default be held in the German city of Bonn, the home of the UNFCCC, but they have politely declined to host due to its immense size, according to people familiar with the matter. There are also concerns over the impact COP30 will have when it’s located in the Brazilian city of Belem, in the country’s Amazon rainforest.

“We wouldn’t be able to host an event with 100,000 people in Canada,” said Steven Guilbeault, Canada’s climate minister, who’s delegation is holding a step count competition. “There’s no venue where we can do that.”

As talks move into their final few days, the $57 billion of financial pledges — more than half of which are from the UAE — and success over the agenda and a loss and damage fund are now in the rearview mirror. The nitty-gritty of negotiations now begin and a key decision over whether countries will commit to phasing out fossil fuels will be the main barometer by which COP28 will be judged. That will prove whether the bombast of this year’s summit facilitated a deal, or proved a mere distraction.

The UAE is “an incredible host,” said Jacob Werksman, the European Union’s chief climate negotiator. But “the eyes of the world are on this country and the fact that it has built its wealth and all this generosity on the basis of oil and gas fossil fuel production.”

© 2023 Bloomberg

Harry Byrne

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