The recently concluded 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference (28th Conference of the Parties, COP28), hosted by Dubai, United Arab Emirates, was billed as our last best chance to get the world’s act together and save our prospects of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. On some fronts, modest progress took place — the participating government established a loss and damage fund, and some momentum grew around the notion of phasing out fossil fuels. However, the final outcome fell far short of the wholesale economic, transformational, and binding commitments so desperately needed to keep the 1.5°C target alive.

In many ways, COP28 encapsulated the fundamental flaws with these annual COP spectacles. As expected in multilateral negotiations, securing consensus agreements on complex economic and political issues among nearly 200 countries proved extremely challenging. All it takes is a few recalcitrant states to block or force the watering down of agreement proposals. This leads to lowest-common-denominator agreements and steps going only as fast as the slowest country would.

In addition, at the heart of the 2015 Paris Agreement lies a fatal flaw. Nations have collectively committed to hold the increase in global warming to well below 2°C, and to work to limit the increase to 1.5°C. Yet the agreement gives each country the right to determine what contribution it makes to these efforts, as long as they submit a document outlining what they will — or will not — do. This has inevitably led to a wide gap between the collective goals of the agreement and national commitments.

The seven years since the Paris Agreement came into force have seen many attempts to bridge this gap, which has led to some insufficient narrowing. The Global Stocktake of the Paris Agreement, which was concluded just before COP28, revealed what was already known to all involved: that the parties to the climate accord are off track when it comes to meeting their goals.

Ray of hope or a distraction?

To avoid widespread disillusionment in a COP process that is yet to deliver, and preempt calls for reforming global climate governance, a new approach was gradually introduced to the COP meetings to circumvent the stalemate and shine a ray of hope at such a critical juncture. Starting at COP26 in Glasgow, the climate summits experienced a significant rise in the number of side announcements. These curated proclamations, which came in quick succession during the first days of the summits, were aimed at creating a positive atmosphere from the outset.

Since then, the COP became a venue for publicizing sectoral coalitions, for announcements by the hosts, and for revealing national and sub-national initiatives, none of which are part of the negotiations.

At COP28, these announcements included a pledge signed by 130 countries to triple renewable energy capacity and improve energy efficiency, a pledge by 71 countries to move to net-zero cooling, a pledge by 22 to collaborate in order to triple nuclear capacity, and a pledge by 60 to phase out unabated coal power. Fifty fossil fuel companies signed the “Oil and Gas Decarbonization Charter” to end natural gas flaring, achieve net-zero methane emissions, and align with global net-zero carbon goals. Moreover, 155 participating governments signed a pledge to cut methane emissions 30% by 2030. Over 150 states also signed the Emirates Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems, and Climate Action, which aims to adapt and transform agricultural and food systems to respond to climate change.

These voluntary side declarations created a sense that some progress is taking place, even if they do not lead to closing the gap in emissions reductions. By filling the agenda of the first days with a series of “good news” announcements in quick succession, different organizers have managed to mask the lack of a real negotiated outcome. Inevitably, they also became a yardstick for judging the success of a COP. The more announcements, the more successful the COP is deemed to be. However, the agendas and pet projects put forward by different “coalitions of the willing” — as commendable as they are — cannot replace unified global climate action. These informal initiatives are no substitute for just, equitable national commitments negotiated through the multilateral process.

In this environment where unified global action remains weak and agreements elusive, great-power competition and shifting alliances play out in the negotiating rooms. Certain national agendas end up advanced at the expense of global needs. In the same fragmented environment, lobbyists also appear to thrive, working hard to transform their priorities into new “coalitions of the willing.”

A summit or a whole mountain?

In parallel to this development, another trend was unfolding at the COPs. Observers to the negotiations, such as non-governmental organizations (NGOs), foundations, subnational governments, and indigenous peoples, have become an increasingly strong presence in recent years. At COP26, the number of registered NGOs was 2,873, representing an increase of 22% compared to COP25.

This enlarged observer attendance led to a proliferation of side events that have become nearly impossible to keep track of. Many observers also saw the two-week event as the ideal time to make their most important announcements of the year and to publish their reports. This trend extended to include the private sector, which piggy-backed on the “climate announcement season” and focused their corporate climate and Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) messaging in these two weeks.

Coming into COP27, held in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, the number of NGOs registered to attend increased again by a fifth. Attendance by NGOs as well as the private sector at COP28 also increased significantly, with many businesses attending the Climate Change Conference in Dubai either as NGOs or as part of burgeoning national delegations using the “Party Overflow” badges. Official estimates by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) indicate that 23,000 observers and 44,000 members of national delegations attended COP28. This made last year’s event, the most attended climate summit in history, with 70,000 visitors, twice the attendance at the previous edition hosted in Sharm el-Sheikh.

More than ever before, the official COP28 venue was dominated by these side shows and spectacles, with thousands of parallel side events and hundreds of announcements that had no reason to be inside the United Nations-administered Blue Zone. More than ever, there was a large constituency of attendees who appeared to have more interest in visiting the different pavilions and registering their presence by taking part in side events. They seemed less interested in observing the actual negotiation tracks.

The Conference of Parties can no longer be described as a climate summit. In addition to being a setting for one of the most critical multilateral negotiations in human history, the COP has increasingly become a space for climate activists who want to make their voices heard, a poorly organized program of simultaneous side events, and a trade fair for countries and businesses to promote their climate actions and technologies in sprawling pavilions and booths.

At times, this schizophrenic nature of COP appeared unsustainable. In corners of the cavernous COP halls, the party atmosphere was so palpable that one could be forgiven for mistaking it for some kind of climate carnival rather than a serious high-stakes diplomacy summit to save civilization as we know it.

The future of COP

Given these challenges, it’s crucial to consider the future of the COP process. Some argue that a larger COP is more inclusive, and that it presents an opportunity for different constituents to come together and have better dialogues. However, such dialogue among the different “personas” of the COP remains elusive. The activists continue to criticize the lack of progress in the negotiations; the parties insist on seeing civil society participation as a token one; and businesses remain isolated and sidelined.

Yet COP remains the only formal diplomatic game in town when it comes to international climate cooperation. No other forum comes close to its convening power and authority. Reforming and improving it is the only way forward, short of abolishing the UNFCCC and restructuring global climate governance.

The future of COP lies in refocusing on its fundamental objective: ensuring that countries are held accountable to science-based targets that prioritize the needs of vulnerable communities most affected by climate change. To achieve this, the upcoming COP29 in Baku, Azerbaijan, must pare down its attendee list and minimize distractions, resisting the temptation to devolve into a climate circus. While streamlining parties and agendas will not resolve the inherent complexities of UN climate negotiations, it could help steer discussions toward areas of consensus and urgent action, minimizing unproductive tangents. By returning to its core purpose, COP can more effectively drive the global community toward meaningful climate action that safeguards our planet and its most vulnerable inhabitants. The time for action is now. The consequences of distraction are too dire to contemplate.


Karim Elgendy is an urban sustainability and climate consultant based in London, and a Non-Resident Scholar at the Middle East Institute.

Photo credit KARIM JAAFAR/AFP via Getty Images

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