Report from Dubai: The size of COP28 is becoming a problem

Report from Dubai: The size of COP28 is becoming a problem
The main drag down the middle of Dubai’s Expo City. The conference space extends for at least a half mile in every direction, with the massive outdoor dome in the center.

Good Afternoon from Dubai,

The first few COP meetings were two to five thousand delegates. In those early years, the majority of attendees were country representatives, and then a smattering of observers and press. For a long while meetings stayed in the few thousands size unless something big was expected. The 2015 Paris meeting, COP21, brought almost 15,000 attendees, largely because for months, word had been percolating: this will be the meeting where the U.S. and China will both agree to a big treaty. And they did, the Paris Agreement. The next year, 2016, attendance was less than half.

Since then, meeting attendance has steadily grown. Last year’s meeting in Sharm Al Sheikh, Egypt was almost 35,000 people. Normally a medium-sized resort town on the Red Sea, Egyptian leaders built dozens of hotels to house the thousands of expected residents – and those rooms didn’t come cheap. As a result, representatives from less developed countries were hard pressed to afford high priced lodgings for a town surrounded by empty desert. Connecting flights from Cairo to Sharm weren’t easy either, as Cairo’s airports are hardly a model of efficiency.

Today’s COP28 is attracting over 70,000 registered participants, most of those observers, although the media contingent is expected to bring over 2,000 people of their own. Dubai is ready for them, hosting the meeting in an unbelievably vast emporium, welcoming delegates with a crisp registration process, and a venue filled with helpful guides and dozens of food venues.

Dubai’s Expo City 2020 Is divided into a Green Zone and a Blue Zone for the climate meeting. The Blue Zone is limited to badged delegates, observers, and press. It is a vast outdoor campus, with three theaters, countless meeting rooms and dozens – dozens! – of buildings scattered throughout the space. Walking from one end to the other, my step tracker counted over 8,000 steps, and the morning desert sun sent me scurrying for water and air conditioning after an hour of investigation.

While one part of the Blue Zone is meeting rooms in a giant air conditioned building, most of it is comprised of smaller, permanent buildings divided up into “pavilions”, essentially convention space for each delegate country, numerous think tanks, and multilateral development banks. Some organizations use their pavilions as office space, some as a spot to host panel discussions, others, like Indonesia, have tricked their space out like a convention booth, welcoming visitors to discover the wonders of their island state, and to maybe make some kind of energy investment there.

And then there’s the Green Zone, which is still being completed and doesn’t open until the conference’s fourth day. It’s breathtakingly three times larger than the Blue Zone, filled with dozens more buildings and pavilion, as well as designated protest spaces for activists to fill as the meeting moves on.

COP participants talk about “the two conferences”, the first being the diplomatic work of the conferences, and then “the circus”, as some call it. Tens of thousands more unregistered attendees are expected to fill the Green Zone with meetings, panels, and protests, creating a whole different vibe from the negotiations we’re all supposedly here for. Exactly how this year’s giant circus will impact the negotiations is an interesting wild card we’re all waiting to see played.

For the most part, the COP “circus” has become a trade conference, as energy project developers, financiers, and governments converge to see what kind of deals can be struck up – both in negotiations and business. The promise of commerce is unavoidable when so many big wigs gather in one place. Through happenstance, I ended up sharing an Uber from the airport with a budding energy CEO, who took business calls about investments as we hurdled down Dubai’s ten lane central expressway. Perhaps, as COP becomes more about how to pay for greening the world, the hum of business deals will become the new reality of U.N. meetings.

Although the Emiratis have clearly bent over backwards to provide a well-run COP28, the sheer size and complication of the meeting has become a problem in and of itself. From the beginning, the meeting has rotated between different regions every year – Europe, North America, Asia, Africa, Middle East. As next year’s meeting hurdles towards 100,000 delegates, the number of cities that could effectively host a meeting dwindles.

Next year’s meeting is supposed to be in East Europe – Warsaw was one potential location –but all U.N. decisions are consensual, and Russia is blocking any meeting held in a country that opposes its war in Ukraine. Instead, the Russians have suggested Armenia as a host, a clear non-starter since Yerevan lacks the resources to host tens of thousands of people, and its recent war with Azerbaijan has embittered many Europeans against the country.

So, it’s not exactly clear where next year’s meeting will be – although Geneva has been floated since it already has a U.N. meeting facility. Still though, Geneva has a mere 200,000 residents and it’s expensive to visit, creating a housing problem for many developing country delegates.

Sizing down COP meetings is also difficult, since U.N. decision making is consensual.  Business interests like the size, since lots of deals are getting done. Who exactly does the meeting size hurt? COP meetings are going the same direction of the Olympics, their success makes them bigger, more unwieldy, something only a few places would want to host, and thus something less international, with less of the international spirit they began with.

Members of the media are crawling all over the conference. Just by walking around, you can become a background international media star.

The Major Issues

The COP28 meeting might be most defined by the fact that everyone clearly understands that time is running out. Last Spring’s IPCC AR6 Synthesis report made it very clear that the world’s current policy path sends us to 3°C of warming. In today’s opening plenary, UNFCCC Executive Secretary, Simon Stiell drove that nail home: “Science tells us we have around six years before we exhaust the planet’s ability to cope with our emissions. Before we blow through the 1.5 degree limit.”

As a result, everything on the agenda seems urgent. There’s a huge list of items to tackle:

  • Agreeing to operationalize the Loss and Damage Fund;
  • Financing the Loss and Damage Fund;
  • Agreeing to triple renewable power by 2030;
  • Establishing carbon credit trading rules;
  • Set a fossil fuel use end date;
  • Make methane emission reduction pledges – by nations and oil and gas companies;
  • Pledge to end new coal plant construction;
  • Set rules for international carbon credit trading;
  • Create solutions for developing country green energy financing; and
  • Set a location for COP29.

It would be a miracle if all these items were successfully tackled, in fact already there’s expectation that the coal plant freeze and setting a fossil fuel end date will attract some arguing this year, but ultimately get punted to next year.

What Happened Today

The meeting managed to kick off on a positive note as the negotiating group devoted to operationalizing the Loss and Damage Fund announced, before the meeting even began, a proposal for approval by COP. The Loss and Damage Fund, is a new $100 billion fund devoted to financing repairs in developing countries resulting from climate disasters. Everything from Ethiopian drought to Libyan floods. The U.S. threw a last minute wrench into the operationalizing plan by insisting that all contributions to the fund be voluntary, rather than required.

Anyone familiar with the U.S. Senate will understand that no agreement signed by the U.S. requiring financial outlays would survive ratification. Still, many non-U.S. attendees at this meeting lack that inside U.S. political knowledge, and instead just think of the U.S. as evading their financial responsibility to fixing climate.

Next up, COP28 President Sultan Al Jaber managed to pass his first big test by enacting an agenda in the opening plenary session with no added items. This rather dry result is important purely because negotiators endured nine days of fighting over the agenda in Bonn last June. It was only at the last minute that the agenda was salvaged – and it managed to sail through OP28’s first meeting.

Today’s opening plenary session included a speech from Al Jabar to the delegates. As a reminder: Besides being the President of the world’s biggest climate meeting, Al Jaber is also the CEO of ADNOC, the Emirates state-owned oil company and earlier this week the BBC reported plans by the UAE to conduct side meetings with countries to advance oil and gas deals.

Predictably most of his speech was devoted to the urgency of the meeting’s agenda, but on two occasions he took on fossil fuels head on. The first, “We must include language about fossil fuels,” a statement that managed to dodge the question of whether there should be an actual “phase out” date of fossil fuel use, a top priority of the European Union negotiating group.

The second time, Al Jaber said, “This is the presidency that made the bold choice to engage with oil and gas companies. Now today many of these companies are committing to zero methane emissions by 2030 and net zero by 2050.”

The comments were met with audible titters among delegates, a clear signal of the doubt many have of Al Jaber’s sincerity on the issue.

Tomorrow

After a day of setup and opening speeches, we get some more opening speeches, including national statements from each delegation. King Charles III will be making the United Kingdom’s opening statement, so he is expected to be one of the first speakers – long before most of the other 197 countries give their speeches. Negotiators also begin their meetings in earnest, although few breakthroughs are expected on the first day.

I’ll also plan to visit some of the country pavilions. I’ve been told that often country negotiators make themselves available to all visitors in their pavilions. We’ll see if I get a conversation or two.

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