Diplomatic duels cloud climate goals at COP28

Climate summits are jamborees where idealists joust with pragmatists. Politics drives outcomes, not science. The Dubai conclave was no different but gave the Global South a sure seat.
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)

If the G20 summit that India successfully hosted this year plays even a small part in ballot considerations in Lok Sabha polls in five months, it can be said with absolute certainty that five years hence, the climate change summit in 2028 will have a far greater influence in similar elections to parliament the following year. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has offered to host the 33rd annual Conference of the Parties (COP) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) which will be known in due course as COP33.

There is no plausible reason why Modi’s offer would not be accepted when the time comes for our region’s rotational turn under UNFCCC rules for hosting COPs. By then, 26 years would have passed since India hosted a COP.

If Modi remains prime minister in 2028, he can be counted on to celebrate COP33 as one of the landmark global events on Indian soil since independence, going by the preparations for the G20 summit. A climate change summit is at least five times bigger in participation than a high-level G20 meeting.

The second important message to come out of COP28 in Dubai is that it is politics that drives climate change meetings, not science or considerations about the environment. It is the turn of East Europe to host next year’s COP, usually held around this time every year.

However, as COP28 progressed to its halfway ‘day of rest’, Russia blocked Bulgaria’s bid to host the next COP. Sofia had more or less taken for granted that its bid would be routinely approved by the 198 countries present in Dubai. But Russia insisted that in retaliation for European Union sanctions on Moscow for its war against Ukraine, it would not allow any EU member to host the next climate change summit. The Russian veto meant Azerbaijan—on which there was an eventual consensus—now has less than a year to prepare for the summit.

The mammoth conference needs time not only on the ground but also in substance by way of preparations. Dubai had two years to prepare for COP28. In its spanking new Expo City, this emirate also had a venue tailor-made to handle an estimated 80,000 people who flocked in and out of the two-week conference and associated events. Without a similar venue in Baku or adequate time, progress towards saving the planet, however incremental, would be slowed, if not stalled altogether at the next COP.

Driven exclusively by political compulsions, Russian diplomacy was at its best in the consensus on Baku. Russia brokered a truce between Azerbaijan and its long-time adversary, Armenia, so that the latter did not block Baku as the host of COP29. Moscow even managed to get Yerevan membership of COP’s East European bureau in the process. The unseemly fracas showed that politics rules the roost at such meetings above all else.

It was equally unseemly that the UNFCCC produced an impression that global warming can wait, but not the privileged ‘day of rest’ for UN bureaucrats on the eighth day of the fortnight-long Dubai meetings. It showed that climate change is too important an issue to be left to international civil servants to take the lead in mitigating. Such primacy of privilege for officeholders is not unknown at the UN. For instance, there is a rule for senior UN officials that they may travel for official work by air in business class if a trip is for nine hours or more. Fair enough. The most frequented route for UN officials is between New York and Geneva, both cities with numerous UN agencies. Consequently, the largest number of meetings of the world body take place in either of these cities. Direct flying time between New York and Geneva is about seven and a half hours. But using this route would mean international civil servants would have to travel by economy class, which they find unacceptable. So, they book their travel from New York to Geneva and back via Lisbon. With a layover, the flight time would then exceed nine hours and the business class facility would automatically kick in. UN bureaucrats don’t care that this costs at least four times more in public money. Inspectors and auditors have looked the other way whenever this happened. Such privileges at the world body for senior staff have been sacrosanct for decades. Dealing with climate change is no different and the UNFCCC is no exception. Executive privilege trumps actions to save humanity.

The aforementioned handicaps to fighting global warming are unchangeable. VIPs will institutionally remain VIPs. Big and powerful nations will continue to keep the rest of the world in a chokehold in the present iniquitous global order. Smart politicians such as Modi will turn the opportunity to host big, gala gatherings to their political advantage.

So, what did the COP28 in Dubai achieve? Foremost, it gave a structured voice to dispossessed nations of the world for the first time since the COP process began in 1995. Host United Arab Emirates blessed an initiative by the Cuban presidency of the Group of 77 plus China, the largest country bloc within the UN by population and number of members, to hold its own one-day summit within the COP28 summit. This will now become a welcome annual feature at all future COP meetings.

Climate summits are invariably divided between idealists and pragmatists. The idealists fly high in the first week of every COP and are defeated in the second week, giving the inevitable impression that the summit fell short of its goals.

The highlight of COP28 in its first week was an unrealistic attempt to drive the world back to the cave era by phasing out fossil fuels, mainly oil, natural gas and coal. An unlikely coalition of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, Russia, India, China and many more such countries took the bull by its horns. Notwithstanding the high contribution of fossil fuel burning to greenhouse gas emissions, these fuels contribute 80 percent of the world’s energy at present.

For a change, India and China were not the whipping boys at a climate change summit. The new coalition gives India room for manoeuvre at least until the Baku summit. COP28 president Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber’s final words as the summit wound up are prophetic: “We are what we do, not what we say.”

K P Nayar

Strategic analyst

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