By Professor Daniella Tilbury
As world leaders meet again at the annual UN Climate Summit, many ask what the point of these expensive and carbon-consuming gatherings is and what progress has been made since the last meeting. Given what is at stake, these questions merit deliberation, especially by those who travel to the Summits each year. I certainly wrestle with these considerations annually.
These UNFCCC-convened climate summits are commonly referred to as CoPs – Conference of the Parties. They go back to 1995, when the first annual meeting was held in Berlin. This year’s summit, CoP28, is convened in Dubai between December 1st and 12th and will hone its attention on the most pressing issues associated with climate change, including adaptation and mitigation, finance, and perhaps most significantly, the fate of fossil fuels.
My view is that if those travelling to Dubai have the expertise, influence, or power to make a difference in any of these areas, then the carbon footprint associated with attending the meeting will be worth it – as the agreements and actions have the potential to secure our future and those of generations to come. Unfortunately, a large number of attendees join solely to attend events, network, or simply have a selfie opportunity; if this is the case, then I suggest these participants follow the Summit on the virtual platforms and stay home.
Last year, I stayed home as I quickly came to the conclusion that the Egyptian hosts offered few opportunities for upscaling ambitions and that I would have limited scope to exercise any influence, especially given where conversations were headed. I followed developments via the delegate virtual platform and contributed to events via Zoom. This year, making the decision was a far more complex one.
The framing of agendas and plans for the UN Summit starts in January each year, and it is then that we can get a sense of what is at stake and what is likely to be attained. I have been meeting with UK government colleagues and the core UN agency staff every other Tuesday morning since the start of 2023 as we review ambitions, statements, pledges, treaties, and agendas for political leaders attending CoP. As planning progressed this year, it became increasingly clear to me that there was a heightened need to address the elephant in the room —the end of the fossil fuel era.
We held meetings during the windiest winter and the hottest summer and watched how Europe, China, and the US were shaken by successive heat waves and forest fires. In the meantime, Vanuatu, Chad, Somalia, and Syria were defined as the most vulnerable countries, with 2023 serving as a preview for some of the security threats these and other countries face as a result of the climate crisis. Given this context, Dubai negotiations needed to get to the heart of the problem, now more than ever.
However, as the media were quick to point out, the credibility of the Summit was cast under a dark cloud from the start, as the host country chose Sultan Al Jaber – CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company – as President and convener of the meeting. Some feared that the Summit would be used to broker oil and gas deals behind the scenes. Against this backdrop, there was subdued hope that negotiations would progress enough to address the most important issue of the day – and so, on two occasions this year, I cancelled my travel plans. Then, as autumn approached, I changed my travel plans again as opportunities to influence agendas opened up further and it became apparent that financial agreements for loss and damage would finally be announced on day 1 of the Summit. In addition, despite the controversy surrounding the hosts, CoP28 was likely to decide whether we would phase out or phase down fossil fuels; the significance of this decision cannot be underestimated and is perhaps the most ambitious move in climate diplomacy to date.
Secondly, the Dubai Summit will share the first ‘Global Stocktake’ that will enable the world to see what progress has been made towards meeting the 2015 Paris Agreement to limit global temperature rise to below 1.5°C. CoP 28 will be the first attempt to hold member states accountable to commitments, and tangible, verifiable evidence will point to where countries are falling short.
So, as I finalised plans and make my way to CoP, I prepared for the breakfast meetings and the early morning briefing sessions; both provide critical entry points and can influence the direction of the Summit. I looked forward to speeches such as those delivered by António Guterres or King Charles that urged on the negotiation, and to the civil society demonstrations that push for ambitious agreements and remind leaders of what is at stake. I will sit at the canteen and food outlets to view the hustle and bustle of the CoP and see the creation of new meaningful alliances, as well as the lobbyists with their delaying tactics that slow down the pace of implementation. In the end, decisions are taken by consensus at the Summit, and this means that reaching agreement can be a highly charged process, as evident by the sweaty figures you see on the corridors of the venue and the late-night decision-making.
A lot is at stake in this year’s Summit, as it is much about oil-rich states facing the reality that the end of the fossil fuel era is neigh. After all, the fossil fuel industry is the ‘giant’ behind the climate crisis. If the energy industry does not redirect its attention to renewables, national plans, in line with the Paris Accord, cannot be fulfilled. We cannot decarbonise our economies without investment, innovation, or these private-public partnerships. The United Arab Emirates Summit must provide the decisive moment for international climate action, and the energy sector must earn the people’s trust by adopting new business models that will help accelerate the inevitable low-carbon transition. They need to make stronger promises and live up to them, as reports presented at the Summit confirm that coal, oil, and gas production planned for 2030 is more than double the levels consistent with 1.5°C.
COP28 presents a critical opportunity to put the world on a more sustainable path, and if you are in a position to make a difference, please be there. I end with words from the UN Secretary General’s speech on the 1st December, directed at the fossil fuel industry: “Protecting our climate is the world’s greatest test of leadership. And so, I urge you to lead. Humanity’s fate hangs in the balance. Make this COP count.”
Prof Daniella Tilbury is a formally accredited UNFCCC expert and participant of the CoP28 Climate Summit. She is the UK government’s focal point at the UN Economic Commission for Europe on matters related to sustainability and education as well as a European Commission adviser on the green transition.