Is COP really necessary?

Jay Owen Latest Headlines

 

Unraveling the COP conundrum

Joel Makower
November 28, 2022

 

It’s a major step forward.

It’s profoundly disappointing.

It represents the best of international cooperation.

It shows just how divided we are.

It’s a critical annual event in the race against climate catastrophe.

It’s a total waste of everyone’s precious time.

And so goes the love-hate relationship many have with the United Nations’ annual two-week climate gathering — the “conference of the parties,” or COP. I recently returned from the latest edition, COP27, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt — my fifth or sixth COP, having lost count. And like many others, I share the ambivalence and the perennial question: “Is this trip really necessary?”

In this case, the trip was nontrivial — 24 hours of travel, door-to-door from home to hotel. I showed up toward the end of COP27’s first week raring to do my thing: meetings, interviews, moderating, schmoozing and simply soaking up the ambiance in a quixotic quest to assess the event’s zeitgeist.

If you’ve been reading the post-COP27 analysis, you know that the assessments have been all over the map, from triumph to failure. That’s par for the course with COPs. Given their extraordinarily broad range of interests and participants, from diplomats to corporate chieftains to street-smart activists from every country and continent, there’s an inherent good-COP-bad-COP aspect to these events, as there surely was this year.

People far more insightful than I have analyzed the final COP document, “The Sharm el-Sheikh Implementation Plan,” hammered out in the wee hours of the final morning, along with the negotiations’ other outcomes. You likely already know the good and not-so-good news:

  • On the one hand, a long-sought “loss and damage” provision will compensate poorer nations for climate impacts largely caused by greenhouse gas emissions from richer nations. Finance loomed large, with an acknowledgment that funding the global transition to a low-carbon economy would require “a transformation of the financial system and its structures and processes, engaging governments, central banks, commercial banks, institutional investors and other financial actors.” And there was a growing focus on biodiversity and food systems, both in the official negotiations and in countless side events.
  • On the other hand, there was little to encourage nations to keep their emissions below the goal of capping temperature rise at 1.5 degrees Celsius, beyond what already had been agreed to at COP26, last year in Glasgow. A call to phase down fossil-fuel use — supported by 80 countries, including the United States, Canada, Australia, small island states and Latin America — was scrubbed from the final text.

Little wonder for that last item: As Reuters reported, “Oil company CEOs were on hand at this year’s summit, after having been pushed to the margins at COP26. Natural gas chiefs were billing themselves as climate champions, despite gas companies having faced lawsuits in the United States over such claims.”

There was, by one account (and with no small irony), an “explosion” of fossil-fuel lobbyists present, hoping to exploit this moment of concern over energy security in many countries. Those players will no doubt be out in force again next year, at COP28 in oil-rich Dubai.

It’s complicated

Back to my earlier question: Is COP really necessary? The answer, as always, is complicated.

It may help to appreciate the multi-ring circus that comprises COP events. First and foremost, there are the negotiations — 190-odd countries digging into a broad range of complex and nuanced issues. That takes place in a secure part of the secure Blue Zone, which also houses a massive global trade show, in which nations, trade groups and NGOs tout their concerns, achievements and thought leadership.

Most of the Blue Zone pavilions double as small conference venues, with camera-ready event spaces, private meeting rooms and, often, some kind of come-on to draw people in, from coffee to swag. (Coffee seemed to be the higher-value commodity.) A business pavilion was hosted by some of the leading sustainable business NGOs, including BSR, We Mean Business and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), along with their corporate members.

That’s all in the Blue Zone. There’s also a Green Zone outside the secure area, an expo and event space in which NGOs from around the world showcase their stuff. And a separate Innovation Zone, where I had the privilege of hosting a number of panels and fireside chats on the Climate Action Stage.

There are also scores of side events that take place in nearby hotels at every COP, including the World Climate SummitSustainable Innovation Forum, Bloomberg Green, the New York Times’ Climate Forward and events hosted by the UN Global Compact, the WBCSD and others. And 1,001 smaller events around the city, from panel discussions to cocktail receptions to more intimate gatherings in hotels and restaurants.

Net-net, there are two distinct and separate COPs: the official negotiations and everything else. Altogether, it’s massive and overwhelming, not to mention logistically challenging. (Almost every event in Sharm el-Sheikh was a 10- to 20-minute cab ride away.) At best, most participants experience only a small part of the multifaceted gathering.

Size matters

There are some who argue that the whole shebang has gotten too big — and too far removed from the critical business at hand.

Outside the negotiations, much of COP amounts to chest-beating: companies, business groups, governments, activists and others strutting their stuff and weighing in on any of a mind-boggling range of topics. Of course, it’s also an unparalleled networking and meeting opportunity, with tens of thousands of climate-concerned attendees from around the world.

Assuming you can find them, that is. As with previous COPs, there was no master directory of events, pavilions or people. Many of my best meetings were serendipitous, real-time encounters. Some of my prearranged meetings were changed or canceled, usually for logistical reasons, by one party or another. It’s more than a little chaotic.

It also may be broken. The two distinct events at times seem a distraction from each other. At best, they seem disconnected.

And perhaps that’s how it should be. I’m in favor of cleaving the UN negotiations from the global conference and expo; the latter could be akin to the Global Climate Action Summit convened in San Francisco in 2018, which drew tens of thousands of people over several days for hundreds of events large and small.

Such gatherings could become the convening spots for companies, organizations and individuals that now flock to COP. These events could be held on various continents throughout the year, giving attendees multiple opportunities to be seen and heard, likely closer to home than, say, an isolated, hard-to-get-to resort town on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula.

So, is it all worth it — the jet fuel, the time away from home, the confounding agenda and logistics, the tepid outcomes? I have yet to see a cost-benefit analysis of COP, and any such assessment would be subjective, based on the goals, from the personal to the planetary, each individual brings to these events. Everyone has their own calculus.

As such, while COPs may be pilloried by many as a colossal waste of time and resources, and a needless exercise that changes little, I expect they’ll continue to grow even past their already-monumental size as climate issues become increasingly front-burner. COPs will always be events that everyone complains about but can’t seem to avoid attending.

 

Me? I’ll be back next year.