By Kathleen Biggins
Are the COP talks an “abject failure” (former President Al Gore’s words at an event Monday night) because oil companies and the president of the summit, who is affiliated with them, are blocking real progress? Or is this one of the most ambitious and successful COP summits ever, significantly accelerating the clean-tech transition?
The first take is all over the news. As the Guardian revealed over the last few days and other newspapers have reported, Sultan Al Jaber, the controversial oil company leader and president of COP28, stated before the summit that there is no evidence that the phase-out of fossil fuels is what’s going to achieve the 1.5°C limit. In addition, there are more fossil fuel lobbyists at COP than before, and there is great concern that reaching an agreement to “phase out” or “phase down” fossil fuels is out of reach. Without that pledge – which has to be unanimous – Gore and many activists say this summit cannot be considered a success. They are demanding a change to how COP is organized and decisions made.
But the second narrative is worth noting. According to Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates, much more has been accomplished at this COP than in the past. U.S. Special Climate Envoy John Kerry noted the same thing, recognizing that there had never been an agreement on day one on anything, much less a contentious topic like loss and damage dollars to help poorer countries handle the physical and economic threats of climate change. An executive from Citigroup said during an Axios interview, “This is a different kind of COP. There is a significant shift to implementation and scaling up.”
And while it is true there are more oil lobbyists here than in the past, there are more people of every kind here – 80,000-plus attendees is almost double the size of last year’s COP. Specifically, there are more people from the global south, and several noted that this COP was organized to showcase their needs. (As one person explained, Dubai sees itself as a bridge between the global north and south because of its geography and economic strength.)
Perhaps most important, business has shown up in spades. Entrepreneurs, financiers, big pharma, and CEOs of conglomerates are here. They, too, noted the different feel this year. “In the past, business was here more to observe. This time we are here because of the business opportunities. This could almost be a finance conference, not a climate one,” one Pfizer executive said to me.
That may be a critical point – business leaders are here because they see opportunity. And the most difficult thing about the transition is finding the funding for it. We’ve heard over and over again that we cannot transition fast enough to stay at safe levels unless the private sector steps up. And so far, the show of attendance and enthusiasm at this COP shows more of a readiness to do so now than ever before.