- by Prof John Sweeney at COP28 in Dubai

As a veteran of 13 COPs I can confirm that I left disillusioned from 12, with only Paris being different. The pattern is ominously similar here in Dubai. The first week is dominated by world leaders arriving with their entourages and making lovely noises about how this particular COP is crucial, how the window for avoiding the tipping points is rapidly closing, and how much we should listen to the science. In the three minutes allocated to each world leader in the Plenary Hall, we hear noble statements about how much a particular country is doing to tackle the problem. Seldom do we hear figures of how much their emissions have increased since their last appearance or how structural changes in their economies and societies are underway to achieve a sustainable world for the next generation. Of course, there are exceptions, but the first week is mainly designed for domestic consumption back home. If you can’t say our emissions are increasing, instead say we are reducing emissions intensity, or we are a rich country and are contributing finances to ease the plight of climate victims in poor countries or those facing submergence.

The second week is very different. The delegates are given a brief from their bosses, and tortuous negotiations commence. Draft agreement texts are prepared, riddled with square brackets to be accepted or rejected in lengthy, sometimes overnight negotiations. Around the conference venue, activists march and young people demonstrate to keep the pressure up on negotiators to deliver. It makes for a colourful and noisy COP,  especially with reference to the indigenous peoples groups. Amazonian indigenous people in full costume protesting their loss of habitat, Canadian First Nation people protesting their mistreatment by big oil, etc. For most countries, however, their minorities are silent; protests by them would not be countenanced by their national governments. All the while, the men and women in dark suits ply their trade. 2,500 oil and gas lobbyists are active behind the scenes. Taking a lesson from the big oil playbook, Big Agriculture presents a greenwashed perspective loosely draped in what they believe passes for ’food security’.

And then the Saudis send in their lawyers.

Having seen these individuals in action in previous COPs, I can only marvel at their skills. Often Harvard or Yale educated, they are expert at dismembering sentences. A comma here, a semi-colon there and the whole meaning of a sentence is changed. Of course, taking up speaking time with lengthy statements is also a good tactic, especially late at night.

The first draft text that emerged could have been written by OPEC. It contained little of substance and was crammed with aspirational language that promised little implementation certainty. The so-called North Star that the President emphasised as his compass to keep the planet heating up beyond the Paris 1.5oC threshold was certainly not in evidence. The phrase ‘rapidly phasing down unabated coal’ was especially scorned by the delegates. No mention of other fossil fuels being ‘phased down’ far less ‘phased out’. This immediately led to threats of a walkout from the EU. The final text that was agreed upon after a day of wrangling was not that much better. When Sultan Al Jaber finally brought down the gavel on Wednesday morning, the delegates hugged and cheered as usual. But in reality, the concrete achievements of COP28 are not likely to avoid the planet warming above the 1.5oC threshold.

The key phrase in the final agreement called on countries to contribute to global efforts to ‘transition away from fossil fuels in energy systems in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science’. But this contains no timescale or quantification of what transition actually means. It is purely voluntary, reflecting the watering down of intentions that occurs in a system where unanimity is required. Unsurprisingly, after the deal was reached, an oil representative reportedly said the deal ‘does not affect our exports, does not affect our ability to sell’.

Maybe expectations were too high. Maybe the tactics of having an especially poor first draft made any improvement seem good. Maybe the COP did, for the first time, signal a transition to a fossil-free world. But the question hanging over the event is will countries live up to their commitments this time, or will global climate change wait long enough for a sustainable future for the next generation? On both counts, the prognosis is poor.