Learnings from COP28
Weeva wasn’t officially at COP, but sustainable travel expert Juliet Kinsman was reporting from Expo City, Dubai.
Was it much cop? Or was it a cop-out?
COP28 was the biggest climate conference the world has ever seen: and it consisted of more than the high-level negotiations dominating the headlines. Whatever you think of the language and loopholes in the final Global Stocktake document, there was a positive-to-some-degree outcome — things moving in the right decarbonisation direction is encouraging. But we need more than lofty promises. We still need to overhaul our financial systems and ensure accountability. What boggles my mind is that impact-minded tourism doesn’t get more airtime.
What is COP?
COP stands for Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC, the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference — the 28th annual conference, it’s been running since 1995.
It’s the world’s largest climate conference, which started as a get-together of UN member nations for an inter-governmental alignment of climate action plans. A lot hinges on these commitments — the Paris Agreement, which was adopted by 196 Parties at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP21 in 2015 to keep global warming capped at 1.5 degrees — and as we know, many parts of the world have already exceeded this target and many have reneged on their emissions commitments.
Where and when was COP?
Dubai, rather incongruously, in the oil-producing region of the UAE was a very urban setting in the Middle East. Cop29 next year will be in Baku, the capital of another oil-producing nation, Azerbaijan. Cop30 has been confirmed to take place in Belém, Brazil.
COP started on 30 November and ran until 12 December, running over by a day for extended negotiations — the final Global Stocktake document needed all 198 countries to agree on the exact wording of the final document.
Who attended COP?
Tens of thousands of attendees descended over two weeks to spend time in Dubai’s Expo City — many for the official high-level presentations and negotiations in the Blue Zone, the UN’s area (around 90,000 delegates registered for badges — almost double the number at Egypt for COP27 last year) and many for the three-times-as-big Green Zone, which was open to public and free, with sustainability-related programming, and where social justice activists, entrepreneurs, storytellers, and creatives were connecting and learning — it was a shame more locals didn’t engage with it.
World heads of state at COP28 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Credit: COP28 / Neville Hopwood / UNclimatechange
As the UN Secretary-General António Guterres emphasised, the focus needed to be on fossil fuels:
“Not reduce. Not abate. Phase out — with a clear timeframe aligned with 1.5 degrees C.”
The Blue Zone hosts the participating 198 countries and their tens of thousands of representatives, and it was double the size of COP27 in Egypt. What the annual United Nations Climate Change Conference also did — memo to the UN, can we call it a Climate Crisis — is give a platform to the smaller, developing countries most affected by increasing world temperatures, rising sea levels and extreme weather. Small island nations were crying out for funds for adaptation. And this is where tourism can help.
My experience at COP28?
It was mixed — there were moments of overwhelming optimism, and times, wandering around what seemed little like a sustainability-themed Disneyland, past plastic plants at the Saudi Pavilion to the big screens shouting climate clichés, it felt like satire — but at least COP kept climate action in the news. Having weighed up the trade-offs of my economy-class flight and time spent in this oil-producing nation, I attended to help amplify messages about how a significant sector can unlock climate solutions.
And what’s different now from when COP started in 1995 is that there are a lot more corporations up there on the stages — you know the top 100 companies in the world are estimated to be responsible for around 80% of all emissions. At least fossil fuels are now held culpable in the final document — with so many more topics raised which require more discussion.
What do the experts have to say about COP28?
Glenn Mandziuk of the Sustainable Hospitality Alliance said:
“The heavy reliance on tourism and limited resources for economic diversification makes these countries particularly susceptible. Our goal should be fostering resilience and sustainable growth in these vulnerable areas.”
Campaign For Nature’s Brian O’Donnell said:
“Biodiversity is declining at rates unprecedented in human history with habitat loss, overexploitation and climate change cited as leading causes. Halting and reversing this decline requires urgent and transformative actions to safeguard forests, marine areas, mangroves, wetlands and other essential ecosystems while rapidly reducing emissions.”
When it comes to the travel sector — even though tourism employs one in 10 people, it doesn’t have a dedicated day or significant representation. I wanted to be there to amplify voices explaining how tourism can unlock climate solutions. I hosted a panel discussion in the Extreme Hangout stage in the Green Zone, with Riva Kapoor, the UK Town and Country Planning Association is lucky to have you; Nicole Robinson, Chief Marketing Officer of andBeyond; Ed Jenkins, development manager of Extreme; João Dinis, Councillor for Climate Action of Cascais. What was especially poignant hearing about the importance of supporting Indigenous peoples from Domingo and Teresa of the Amazon Sacred Headwaters Alliance, who travelled from Ecuador. The total number of Indigenous peoples represented was just over 300 — the number of fossil fuel lobbyists who were given passes was just under 2,500.
Arriving a week in, my first thought when I arrived at this sprawling exhibition centre 20 minutes north of Dubai’s centre, after driving round and round, was it was a sprawling Sustainability Disneyland. As with every aspect of sustainability, there were pros, cons and trade-offs.
“At least we have COP” said Richard Sabin of the Natural History Museum when in conversation with climate activist, Mitzi Jonelle Tan. There’s a lot of cynicism around the efficacy of a climate conference and calling-out of the footprint of an event of this scale hosted in a petrostate: but it’s incredible to see the power of the conversations and connections made.
I’m grateful to have spent time with change-makers from all corners of the world for a rollercoaster of meaningful conversations, despair at the greenwashing, and lunge from existential angst to life-affirming optimism.
On the penultimate day it was looking bleak: all of the world’s 198 countries need to sign the final deal. Was it predictable there might be a clash in ambitions here in the United Arab Emirates, a region that holds some of the world’s richest oil-producing countries where the President is an executive of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company? After two weeks of negotiating all countries were not unanimous in their enthusiasm for a redraft of the final document, which watered-down commitments to phase out and phase down fossil fuels. And there’s still lots of progress to be made around climate finance and adaptation.
And yes, the carbon footprint of the actual event was a concern — there’s no regulating around greenwash in this part of the world — as we know so many adverts these days from companies where you know the sustainability or renewables part is about 1% of their business yet comprises 99% or their advertising. I got quite literally greenwashed in the Saudi Green Initiative stand… They had a little installation at the entrance clearly as Instagram inspiration: fountains and a little curtain of green plants: which were all plastic. Inside it was like the ‘It’s A Small World’ ride at Disneyland.
But there were a lot of wise words shared at COP…
And solutions-led storytelling is to be celebrated.
Nigel Topping talked about exponential change coming from exponential storytelling at the Extreme Hangout in the Green Zone — he says the most important feedback loop is between the stories we tell and the effect – and he said we need stories with optimism to mobilise people!
He said the same at COP26.
Futerra’s Solitaire Townsend was a speaker at the Storytelling for Action Pavilion and they talked about a need for greater support for storytelling capacity to enable more genuinely entertaining, engaging, and evidence-based storytelling.
We’re big fans of Climate Science Breakthrough’s new campaign, which reminds us how people have been bamboozling us with technical words — and we need it translated into human, as we talked about in our recent Greenwash webinar — and Professor Mark Maslin was at the event.
Was it worth me being there?
I work in climate, and I felt I needed to understand what COP is all about; I hope my brainprint was a counter to my carbon footprint. Spending time in a city which is a huge sprawl of concrete, with helicopters buzzing about and bureaucrats bunging lots on expenses was a reminder of how it’s still money that makes the world go around. And you do worry that everyone thinks just showing up somehow is going to change things — when deep down you can’t help but wonder if they just go to take a selfie in the Blue Zone. The challenge from the outside is it all looks like a waste of time — but you can’t measure how many meaningful connections were made and change-making conversations taking place.
We always need to push everyone to justify their own ROE — return on emissions — for every trip that involves flying.
Interestingly, none of my friends who live in Dubai even knew Cop28 was an event open to all via the Green Zone — and what a great waste of all those emissions to bring this event to life. I hope COP29 is better at getting more ROE from their physical event in Baku.
We believe in amplifying the voices of those who challenge the status quo and stand for our shared values. Climate experts and activists like Mitzi Jonelle Tan are devastated by the failure of Cop to reach an unambiguous statement on the fossil fuel phase-out – “it’s a tragedy for the planet and our future”. We couldn’t agree more.
Let’s keep it top of the agenda! Mitzi appeared on episode one of our Funny Old World podcast series.
Sustainability Journalist | Speaker | Consultant | Founder of Bouteco.co
Juliet is a London-based journalist and sustainability expert who is the first-ever Sustainability Editor of Condé Nast Traveller. Author of The Green Edit: Travel — Easy Tips for the Eco-Friendly Traveller (2020; Ebury) and The Bucket List Eco Experiences: Traveling the World (2022; Rizzoli), she’s been in the media for more than 25 years. Founding editor of Mr & Mrs Smith, she created purpose-led non-profit consultancy Bouteco in 2016 to help brands to be better storytellers, free of greenwash. Juliet was part of the initial think-tank that helped shape Weeva.