A sprawling venue and over-subscribed pass system presented barriers for delegates, however, Jose DiBella shares that COP remains a key annual gathering in a transition to low-carbon future 

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of the Parties (COP 28) convened in Dubai, drawing over 80,000 participants to discuss progress made towards curbing a warming planet and addressing the increasing impacts associated to climate change.  Over two weeks participants attended to negotiate, observe, and report on a process which has become a multi-target action agenda.  

Jose DiBella headshot

Disneyland-like venue impacts networking and alliance-building 

Upon arriving at the venue in Dubai, one of the most striking elements was the sheer size of the venue. It was a sprawling Disneyland-like venue covering over 80 acres between blue and green zones. There were dozens of buildings with hundreds of meeting rooms designated to the meetings taking place across the two weeks of proceedings. Attendees, starting in dress shoes and blazers quickly switched over to comfortable sneakers to cover the sometimes 30 minutes of walking distance between meeting sites.

While the architecture and digital screens in the venue were impressive, it had consequences for the networking ability of the delegates who were navigating the sessions. Due to travel time between sessions, observers were severely limited in their capacity to fully engage in conversations. Alliance building and collaboration has been a vital aspect of past COP proceedings where likeminded organizations from across the world will connect and strengthen each other's initiatives. To further hinder participation, access to some rooms was limited with broken communications lines between organizers and people guarding the entrance to the negotiations. This was brought up in the first meeting between the presidency of the COP and the observer organizations. 

It might be important to recognize that organizing an event of this scale comes with challenges. However, on this occasion, some aspects of the conference design hindered networking and coordination among constituencies pressing for more robust commitments. 

A fivefold increase to oil and gas representative sends a wakeup call 

Coordination among constituencies was further hindered by an expanded pass system that saw the inclusion of 2,500 oil and gas sector lobbyists. This was a reported increase of fivefold compared to those which attended the last COP27. This must not become a point of outrage, as naivete about the power and influence of the system that the Paris Agreement itself is posed to change, has been present in the process, now more evident than before. This may indeed be positive, as experts and advocates come to the realization that the process of implementing the Paris Agreement will require their presence and influence on the negotiations as a counter-balanced to oil and gas representative through their constant observer pressure to keep the process moving forward to what ultimately will unavoidably lead to a clean world energy system.  

In the meantime, these oil and gas delegates will continue to directly dialogue with those in positions of power and money to ensure the process yields the profits and economic benefits of the transition to the investors they represent. In this sense, this COP28 is about sobering realism of the world which has been built around capitalist intensive and oil-soaked economies. 

COP28 venue outdoor walkway
COP28 Dubai venue outdoor pavilion

Finance at the core of this COP proceedings: Loss and Damage fund still needs to mature 

This COP was more about money and finance than in previous years. It was the beginning of vocalization of the need to reshape the financial architecture of climate adaptation funds to ensure how the billions of dollars committed by the parties are we going to flow for climate actions. It is here that there is a rapid and urgent, almost tactical need to ensure that capacity is built for small businesses, civil society organizations, local governments and municipalities, and community groups to develop blueprints for investment in sustainable and resilient oriented solutions. We saw the counter argument to make sure the world does not rely on smart accounting and carbon markets to mobilize climate action. These markets were identified as tempting sources of profits, without delivering on the results they promise. It is no surprise that there was no agreement on carbon credits due to concerns around the integrity of the trading rules. 

In contrast, the Loss and Damage fund was celebrated as a success with commitments rising to over 700 million dollars over the course of the conference. Amongst this success, constituencies still have doubts on how this money will be allocated and the cost the funds will create for countries. These speculations are because the funds continue to be set up using traditional development mechanisms with debt creating support and a high cost of financial resources for the global south. Furthermore, the global south has cause for concern as adaptation finance and investment were reported to have gone down since the last COP.  

COP28 Dubai presenter with digital screen backdrop

A celebration of a Loss and Damage fund is premature, as the operationalization and rules, even the secretariat, have not yet been decided. Some argue for its location to be in the small island developing state of Barbados, or in Nairobi, but ultimately negotiations seem to point towards Geneva. 

Financial commitments made are not sufficient to addressing impacts of climate change 

The financial commitments made at COP28 will not be sufficient for addressing the pressing needs of those countries already experiencing the most direct impacts of climate change. In turn, the world will likely experience disrupting supply and food chains, and leading to systems risks which we have yet to fully understand. There is a looming sense that investors in the private sector are holding capital hostage until it complies with the expected returns, yet those are principles of an economy built on very different parameters oriented towards growth, not survival. The ask, once again, is for the developing world to create the conditions for investment to flow, this means policies and risk sharing conditions. This is not ideal, and many lessons should have been learned since the neoliberal policies of the post Washington Consensus. As the secretary general of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) (an institution already highly mistrusted in the global south), that “capital flows like a river, if it finds a rock, it simply flows elsewhere.” 

This strategy in the long run is concerning and suggests that even in the community of climate leaders, there is a belief we have time. This perspective extends to include the belief that we will be able to contain problems posed by climate change impacts.  

COP28 indoor meeting
COP28 protester with "no more fossils" sign

Cities are starting to take centre stage for robust climate action 

As cities become the focus and promise of robust climate action, it is foremost important to prepare municipalities and local governments to be able to capture resources, create incentives, and invest in the best most appropriate climate solutions for their local realities. At COP28 it was evident cities are willing to move faster, but national counterparts are arresting climate action.  

It will be here, in cities that National Governments must work with local governments to build capacity and create the enabling conditions for municipal governments to absorb international finance opportunities, undertake more ambitious climate innovation programs, and develop innovation systems. Engagement of young people, experts, indigenous communities, and all stakeholders will materialize the ideas that will bring us into a new stage of climate action implementation. 

COP is not one overarching goal, but a series of negotiations moving us forward 

We have seen ongoing critiques to the governance of the COP28, but this multilateral dialogue and negotiation process remains a crucial platform for governance of planetary challenge and represents our best chance to address the complex and challenging issue of climate change. It was assumed that one overarching goal would be sufficient for the world to come together, but it is in fact ongoing negotiations, inside the rooms and in the hallways of the conference that move us forward. COP has become a multi-target conference where participants continue to be enthusiastic and committed, both in their critique but also their conviction on the overall goal. A planet that remains viable and full of life in the future. 

The urgency highlighted in COP28 should serve as a wake-up call for global leaders, urging them to collaborate, innovate, and reevaluate economic architectures to meet the climate crisis head-on. As we navigate this critical juncture, experts and civil society must focus on the bigger picture and in the longer run, not on the carbon footprints of participants or the number of attendees. We must not disengage. We need to confront the new oil and gas constituencies seeking to expand carbon and fossil fuel side deals. We need to press on and take care of the process, recognizing that through these actions significant change will happen. Action that is not only necessary but achievable.