DUBAI: Flashy country pavilions, corporate-sponsored cocktail parties and a smorgasbord of side events have turned the annual UN climate summit into what some say is a trade show or circus.

In this year’s gleaming host city of Dubai, billboards advertise the benefits of wind energy, climate ambition and Exxon Mobil’s carbon capture projects. And with a record 84,000 registered attendees, this year’s Conference of the Parties, or COP28, is a far cry from the first in Berlin in 1995, a low-key affair with fewer than 4,000 delegates focused on multilateral climate change cooperation.

This is seen by some as a sign of success and by others as a dangerous distraction from the business of combating climate change as over nearly three decades global oil demand, carbon emissions and temperatures have marched steadily upward.

“It’s a lobby fest where polluters can schmooze with politicians, all under the guise of tackling climate change,” Pascoe Sabido, a researcher at the Corporate Europe Observatory, which scrutinises corporate influence on policy-making, said. The United Nations and COP backers say the planet would be much worse off without them.

For Alden Meyer, a senior associate at think tank E3G who has attended every COP, the carnival-like atmosphere is a positive sign of increasing global engagement in the climate crisis, even if it meant long queues for food and coffee. “It’s a three-ring circus, and it is a good thing. It means the issue has reached critical mass,” Meyer said.

Lisa Jacobson, president of the 65-member Business Council for Sustainable Energy, which represents the energy efficiency, natural gas and renewable energy industries, agrees.

Jacobson recalls that in 2000 in The Hague, the turnout was so low that everyone fitted into one auditorium. Having more than 80,000 people attend is something she only dreamed of. “It’s all we wished for,” she said.

Pledges

Countries have adopted a strategy of announcing voluntary pledges and initiatives at the start of COPs. These are meant to set a positive tone as delegations grind through two weeks of tough negotiations.

In Dubai, this process went into overdrive, with a succession of non-binding agreements: from promises to triple global renewable energy and nuclear power capacity, to speeding the shift from coal and helping farmers improve soil quality.

Others proved more contentious, with oil and gas companies promising to decarbonise their operations rather than reducing production of the fossil fuels responsible for global warming.

In the first five days of COP28, dozens of voluntary partnerships were launched or expanded and at least 37 new financial pledges made, the Global Strategic Communi­cations Council, which is tracking the promises, said. “We’re always and increasingly — cautious about the proliferation of additional declarations and pledges promoted at the COP,” said Daniel Lund, special adviser on climate to the island nation of Fiji.

“Fiji has joined calls in the past that were meant to be long-standing initiatives, but were quickly forgotten.” Indonesia President Joko Widodo at a G77-China summit on the sidelines of COP28 said on Sunday that these pledges look good, but divert attention from what developed countries need to do now to combat climate change.

Published in Dawn, December 5th, 2023

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