Comment Editor Gwydion Elliott describes the problems with the location of this year’s COP while explaining why it’s nonetheless important

Images by Kelly Sikkema

The upcoming COP conference, where world leaders and delegations gather to agree pledges on halting climate change, will be held this November. The host this year is Dubai, capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), one of the world’s most prolific oil-producing nations according to the US International Trade Administration. The Climate Action Tracker describes the nation’s climate policies as “highly insufficient”

The conference, which should be directing its efforts towards rapidly phasing out fossil fuel use, is instead to be headed by the CEO of UAE’s oil company. This year’s conference looks to be full of that kind of paradox, but it’s the sort of problem that has plagued the institution for years. We need a better solution. 

it’s the sort of problem that has plagued the institution for years

As well as the “breathtaking conflict of interest”, as Oil Change International’s global policy manager put it, of this joint presidential role, several other employees at the oil company have been given positions at the conference, according to the Guardian. 

At this point, with the UAE committed to expanding fossil fuel production, it’s almost impossible to imagine COP28 achieving the one aim it ought to have – leaving fossil fuels in the ground. 

Meanwhile, the IPCC – which brings together the world’s scientific expertise on climate change – predicts that emissions need to peak and start falling by 2025 at the absolute latest, in order to have a chance at limiting global warming to 1.5°C. Beyond this level, the impacts become more and more dangerous

COPs have sometimes given encouraging outcomes – from the Paris Agreement to limiting warming to as close to 1.5 degrees as possible, to last years’ commitments to fund reparations for ‘loss and damage’ caused by climate change in developing nations. That being said, no COP agreement has ever mentioned phasing out fossil fuels. In fact, representatives of the industry are always invited in droves, with the Glasgow summit committing only to a “phase-down” of coal, and a phase out of “inefficient” fossil fuel subsidies. Further, the commitments and targets set at these summits have little guarantee of being fulfilled.

the commitments and targets set at these summits have little guarantee of being fulfilled

The stark and worrying contrast between the urgency to act, and the incremental pace at which the world is moving, have led some to suggest giving up on COP, in favour of a new and less extravagant approach. The global stage on which COP sits is both a blessing and a curse, giving a platform both for climate activism and media attention, but also for fossil fuel companies and other polluters who wish to bolster their green credentials whilst expanding their damaging actions

It remains critical that we pay attention to COP28. The meagre progress we have made would be none at all without that pressure. There is hope, so long as we fight for it – we just can’t expect COP to achieve much at all without that. It’s a depressing position to be in, to be babying the world leaders we rightly expect to protect us, but solving this crisis requires system change they rarely have the stomach for. As Greta Thunberg said: “the COPs are not really working, unless of course we use them as an opportunity to mobilise”. 

We can still use COPs to rally around, while acknowledging the increasing ridiculousness of the slow pace of change. While we’re at it, let’s call for a summit free from fossil-fuel influence and the bloated parade of greenwashing, where policy-makers can be honest about the problems we’re facing, and get to work fixing them. 

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