I arrived in Dubai last night at around 2am. I know the city well, and was expecting a lot of celebration for the COP event, with welcome posters and strong messaging everywhere. I was disappointed; it was all fairly subdued, with the exception of the excited taxi drivers zooming back and forth across the city.
I did not attend Sharm El Sheikh for COP27, but I still have vivid memories of COP26 in Glasgow in 2021: the city was taken over by climate events, youths, dancing and calls to action in the streets… the public transport service was all rebranded and electrified. It really seemed to be an event that mattered not just for delegates like us, but to everyone.
Dubai is different: better organised, with more staff and more space. Apparently there are 70,000 attendees here (compared with 25,000 in Glasgow), long queues which get processed in minutes and toilets with more cleaners than users.
The venue itself is spectacular, but it’s so massive that in a full day I still have not quite managed to get my bearings. Events in the Green Zone are better curated, with interesting themes and speakers at the direct invitation of the COP President Dr Sultan Al Jaber.
Many talks re-visit previous themes: climate change can no longer be ignored; the loss of lives and livelihoods hurts; and we need to accelerate the response.
Today’s royal heads of government echoed many of the same messages including support for ambition and pressure for action. King Charles III, however, was very different: precise in his identification of political obstacles, specific in the human impacts and very open in calling for a different relationship and reciprocity with nature, even quoting indigenous peoples’ worldviews. It is well worth hearing in full: (https://youtu.be/eWd5QsZf9oE?si=GReZaASboFknLd8I)
His clearly expressed and compelling viewpoint is in sharp contrast to the utterances of prime minister Rishi Sunak and foreign secretary David Cameron (with whom I nearly had a close encounter, as I was watching my phone just as he was walking directly towards me while being interviewed).
Nevertheless, there is a real sense of progress at COP28. The ‘operalization’ through the World Bank of the Loss and Damage Fund, conceived last year at COP27, under the auspices of United States' special presidential envoy for climate John Kerry, was widely expected and good that it happened already.
But the general tone goes further. It is rapidly moving from pilot initiatives and testing of technologies to real plans for integrated change. From standalone projects to system re-design.
A theme that cropped up more than once on my first day here is the transition of heavy industry, especially construction materials (steel, concrete, aluminium), urban waste and transport from a high carbon intensity activity to an increasingly more complex and integrated low-carbon supply chain.
China is massively ahead of its targets, investing substantial amounts in integrated systems and digital platforms to create a circular carbon market for its heavy industry, waste and renewable energy. Sweden and India are also preparing to scale up Swedish technology for green steel and move forward with green concrete, integrating secondary sources from waste at the same time. These initiatives focus on the integration and mutual balancing of processes enabled by technology, rather than silver bullet solutions. They require stronger leadership and partnerships across public and private sector – and frankly sound far more convincing.
Another theme addressed at COP26 and revisited here is that of the need to recognise ‘multilevel action’, the international community jargon to indicate action not driven by nation states: the parties of the COP process. This would involve welcoming local and regional government at the table of national negotiations. For the western developed countries around 60% of emissions are from cities – and cities, being part of domestic policy and local governance, do not sit comfortably with the UN structures and legal remit centred on international and multi-lateral approaches.
Alongside this is the call for action from indigenous peoples, recognised as ‘nations’ in the UN even if not formally recognised as such. I attended an extraordinary debate in which a representative of tribal peoples of the Eastern European and Russian steppes was exchanging ideas with a woman from Easter Island in the Pacific. The blackening of snow in one case and the plastic in the ocean in the other are issues that both bring into sharp relief the need to respect nature – as stressed by King Charles at the end of his speech.
The parallel themes of scaling from projects to systemic change and extending scope and power from the indigenous (and youth groups) hyper-local to cities and regions to states will surface again and again, probably in the themes of urbanisation, transport and mobility likely to be discussed in the days to come.
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