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Reflections on COP28

By Dr Sakshi

Dr Sakshi, Lecturer in Law and Social Justice, shares reflections on COP28, exploring the rituals and political dynamics of global climate negotiations.

The ritual of COP: a first-timers' perspective

The recent UNFCCC Conference of the Parties, COP28, held in Dubai, was received with eager anticipation and customary curiosity. For those who work in the fields of climate change law and policy and for those who have been following COPs for a reasonable number of years now, the process has turned more into a ritual than an enigma that needs comprehension to solve the climate crises.

Whilst COP was constituted to implement an unambitious Convention effectively, with increased public scrutiny in recent years, COPs have become a field where everything is laid bare — the political will, machinations to evade responsibility and symbolic victories. I specialise in environmental jurisprudence and rights, and my work intersects state power and political economy. It was my first time attending a COP, and I decided to travel with a fair deal of scepticism that comes naturally for an academic conscious of the magnitude of social and economic inequity that plague international politics.

COP hosts, fossil fuels and Expo City

It is no small irony that the hosts of COP are increasingly turning out to be one of the major fossil fuel producing nations. In other words, this time, the COP presidency very likely rested with a corporation rather than a country, although one would be hard-pressed to distinguish between the two in the case of the United Arab Emirates. And yet, resource-rich nations that make the best use of extractive capitalism are still less surprising than those such as the US and the UK, which have used colonialism and imperialism to plunder other resource-rich nations and form the lifeblood of vampiric capitalism.

Dubai’s Expo City, where the COP was held, was as surreal as the entirety of the COP negotiations. The metro that carried delegates and observers to the venue shot past the extraordinary infrastructures of oil production every day. However, the Expo City itself was an extremely organised and sanitised space. In this space, those unobservant of how nations wield their power and negotiate their climate obligations believe change is possible without recognising, let alone altering, the political realities. And those responsible for maintaining the illusions of neutrality and objectivity battle over the words and phrases without hiding the real factors that determine state actions. There are plenaries, global stocktakes, and late-night huddles — a whole realm of gestures to invoke confidence in the COP’s promise of procedural justice. Nonetheless, countries like Norway and Australia, whose climate guilt reeks more than fossil fumes, continue to strike deals and push for new explorations.

The significance of the loss and damage fund

During COP28, the loss and damage fund (LDF) continued to draw the most attention. Whilst the concept of loss and damage and the mechanisms for addressing losses and damages which cannot be dealt with under adaptation and mitigation are of academic interest as well, to witness people outside of the intellectual or political processes engaging with them seemed a far more interesting enterprise. The hope and anticipation around the LDF’s potential itself spoke volumes about how the people who are going to be affected by loss and damage are far removed from the concept (and the subsequent mechanism and fund) that is likely to emerge as a product of political consensus.

Every day, the COP venue had pockets of protests and demonstrations, demands to end fossil fuels and pay climate reparations. The hallowed chambers of negotiations swung from phase out to phase down to an orderly transition away from fossil fuels. All this while, academics crept around, bickering about whether their research fields under adaptation/mitigation/loss and damage were more important than others. Like representatives of the oil and gas industries, they too struck deals with each other for potential collaborations, hoping there would be money in the higher education sector to memorialise them before the planet vanishes.

Allyship and national rifts

I had hoped to see evidence of countries of the Global South, least-developed countries and small island nations demonstrating much-needed allyship to confront the challenges of climate change and extractive capitalism. Instead, there was only bountiful evidence of the intrigue and bewildering rift in national positions that would put even fiction to shame. Now and then, countries like Bolivia pointed fingers at carbon colonialism and capitalism that has brought us to this stage. Samoa delivered the iconic statement at the closing plenary:

“(I)t is not enough for us to reference the science and then make agreements that ignore what the science is telling us we need to do. This is not an approach that we should be asked to defend.”

Walking to country pavilions and hearing the collective despair and ambition to redress the situation was reassuring. And yet, it only mattered what nations agreed to do as opposed to what was needed based on the scientific evidence and lived realities of people worldwide.

The future of COPs and a sea change in global politics

As Azerbaijan becomes the next host, one wonders if the rest of us, those who do not matter, have anything to gain by attending COPs. There may be little need for a startling 97,000 people to descend on a country. However, there is a strange joy and hopefulness offered by meeting people from around the world who are still striving to make their voices heard despite state and economic structures actively silencing them. For this reason alone, COPs are successful because one does not expect Indigenous peoples to return feeling content about the mediocre improvement in national commitments.

Similarly, those who see the evasive words of countries for what they are, those who bear the full brunt of vacuous democracies, return home to reorganising and strategising to confront the enemy’s new form. If solidarity was all one was looking for, there were bountiful instances within the compounds of Expo City that reminded individuals to use their privileges and every ounce of strength to keep resisting complacency, colonialism, and capitalism. After all, a sea change in the domestic social, political, and legal landscape finally revolutionises international politics.

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Image Souce: Dr Sakshi, Expo City, Dubai, United Arab Emirates, 2023

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Tags: One Planet, Research Excellence, Sustainable Development, Global