8 December 2023

COP28: carnival of chaos

The climate negotiations have become a sideshow at the world's biggest sustainable finance conference, writes Peter Cripps

I have a love-hate relationship with COPs. On one hand, the idea of flying to a climate conference – particularly one that has a reputation for failing to make meaningful progress – troubles me greatly.

On the other hand, climate change is arguably the biggest threat humanity faces, so anything that can be done to raise awareness and enhance communication and understanding of it – and hopefully move the needle in the right direction – must be a good thing.

So, conflicted and guilt-ridden though I was, I (eventually) decided to dip my toe back into the COP waters this year, after a few years of absence.

Some of the signposts could have been more helpfulAnd what a spectacle it was. It was more like a festival than an international summit, a climate carnival, a Glastonbury for the sustainable finance wonk.

Started more than two decades ago, as the conference of the parties (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, these gatherings were a place where negotiators tried to thrash out a global agreement on climate change. But nowadays, COP has become so much more.

Some 97,000 people are reported to have registered to attend this event. I can believe it: the site, an exposition centre in the desert on the outskirts of Dubai, was a seething mass of humanity.

Like everything in the country, this COP was futuristic, ambitious, grandiose, shiny – and air conditioned.

The site is centred around a vast dome on which lights are shone and from which eerie music sounds. Giant metal palm tree-like structures and other abstract pieces of art give the site an otherworldly feel.

Thronging around this surreal city are people wearing business suits, traditional Arab attire and traditional dress of various indigenous peoples. The beauty of the event is that all of humanity seemed to be represented there (although the crowd seemed disproportionately young).

The site is centred around a vast dome on which lights are shone and from which eerie music soundsIn the desert heat, people gather on benches shaped like Arabic words to chat over coffee, while protestors shout chants demanding climate action, air conditioning units roar, and mean-looking feral cats look on.

Against this bizarre backdrop, picture me: sweating, stressed, struggling to get my phone to work, scampering across the sprawling site, trying to navigate my way from one event to the next.

There is just too much going on! Despite the 'COP28 app', I simply cannot manage to pull together a comprehensive list of events and, while I attend numerous absorbing sessions, I am constantly hearing that I had missed other great events.

"Did you go to the session on how emerging markets are preparing for the EU's Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism? Oh, you didn't, it was fascinating!"

Suffering from FOMO, I resign myself to the fact that it is impossible to go to everything, and the best tactic is to come up with a rough but flexible plan and absorb as much information, and meet as many people, as I can.

One of the best things about COP is the serendipity it provides: the people you bump into, the events you stumble across.

On my first morning, I am walking through a building to a meeting when I chance upon a very small event at which Hillary Clinton is speaking. She is talking about people having to take shelter from the heat of the sun by sitting under trees. But that is as much of her wisdom as I have time for – I have to move on.

Another morning, I am late for my first meeting of the day – there was a massive queue to get through the airport-style security to get into the site. Because our meeting is very short, I accompany my contact to her next meeting in the 'nature' hub – yes, happily there is a building dedicated to nature at this COP – and I notice an event about marine protection zones in Indonesia. I listen, enthralled for about half an hour, until I have to tear myself away because I have a meeting scheduled on the other side of the site (everything always seemed to be on the other side of the site).

In another random episode, I am walking towards an agriculture-themed building when I am distracted by a man holding up a piece of card on which is scrawled 'SCOPE 3', much in the same way that a chauffeur would hold up a piece of card bearing a client's name in an airport lobby.

"If you're looking for Scope 3, people have been trying to pin that down for years," I quip. He explains that he is advertising an event about measuring Scope 3 emissions in the building outside which he is standing.

So, in I dive, to learn about emissions from company supply chains and the use of their products. But the problem is that none of the buildings have any maps or timetables, so looking for events always involves wandering around numerous offices, traipsing from one floor to the next, asking people for directions.

Dyogo Oliveira, president of Brazil's association of insurers, with his colleague Ana Paula de Almeida SantosWhile searching for the event, I bump into a familiar face – Butch Bacani, head of the UN's Principles for Sustainable Insurance. He introduces me to Dyogo Oliveira, president of Brazil's association of insurers, who is kind enough to summarise, in 10 minutes, the main ways in which climate change is affecting his members.

By the time I find the Scope 3 event, it is winding up, and it is time for me to march across the site for a panel on how regulators are addressing the voluntary carbon market. So, I never do get to grips with the elusive Scope 3.

The scope of COP has also sprawled. The agenda includes not only nature, but also finance, adaptation, inclusivity and – for the first time – health. Which is great, as all of these themes are important and relevant to climate change.

This broad array of topics brings a unique mix of people, particularly in the 'blue zone' (where the negotiations happen, behind closed doors of course).

Where else can you find politicians, asset managers, NGOs, insurers, pension funds, regulators, corporates, industry bodies, academics and people representing indigenous tribes all rubbing shoulders?

"The conference gives small, often downtrodden, countries – and peoples – a voice. And these voices are often angry"

Every country has its own pavilion in which they organise events, and the conference gives small, often downtrodden, countries – and peoples – a voice. And these voices are often angry. More than one person explained to me that their country was suffering the impacts of climate change because rich countries keep on burning fossil fuels.

With the conference being held in an oil-rich Arab state, this year it has a keen focus on adaptation to climate impact. There was an early breakthrough on the 'loss and damage' fund.

I ask numerous people what they would like to see announced in the final text. A surprising number seem to have given it little or no thought. Perhaps they have no hope of an ambitious outcome, seeing as the head of an oil company is COP President, and is reportedly trying to strike oil deals ahead of the negotiations. Or perhaps they are just there on business.

COP has now become a finance event. Finance and business is everywhere, and in some ways seems to have taken over, as if the negotiations that started it all are now just a distraction.

"Finance and business is everywhere, and in some ways seems to have taken over, as if the negotiations that started it all are now just a distraction"

The burning of coal in Asia seems to be mentioned at most sessions I attend (I hear much less about phasing out oil and gas), and the debate is about how to pay Asian countries to stop burning it.

There is much talk about how to structure these payments, particularly whether multilateral development banks should play more of a role, or whether the carbon markets can be better utilised.

This means COP is now probably the biggest sustainable finance conference in the world. So big, that this purpose-built exposition city cannot cater for all the demand – there are countless events dedicated to sustainable finance being held across Dubai at the same time as COP28. I cannot get to them all. There is just too much going on. Information overload. Chaos.

Trying to work in such a hectic environment is stressful. I would much rather have gone there on 'holiday': I would just absorb information, wandering into the national pavilions, and learning about some of the things I didn't have time to go to.

Then the half-hour queues at the plant-based food stands wouldn't seem so stressful. The green zone in particular, judging from the hour I spent there, seemed to have a festival atmosphere, with live music and cold beer (which I wasn't expecting). Perhaps then I would love COP?

Peter Cripps is the editor of Environmental Finance. Email: peter.cripps@environmental-finance.com

CHECK OUT ALL ENVIRONMENTAL FINANCE'S NEWS ON COP28 HERE: COP :: Environmental Finance (environmental-finance.com)