It’s been over a month since COP28 ended. The 100,000 people who attended the UN’s annual climate summit this year in Dubai saw many things. This included global leaders staking out national positions, indigenous people defending their rights to their land, and corporate executives of all kinds working deals — all against the backdrop of banquets, lavish hotels, and the surreal wealth of the host city.
The meeting ended with a landmark agreement: a transition away from fossil fuels; tripling of renewables; doubling of efficiency; and many more solid provisions. Still, many people missed a profound shift in the COP proceeding — indeed, in the UN process itself: the shift to building through cooperation.
The Conference of the Parties (COPs), the name of the annual negotiations, started in Rio De Janeiro in 1992. There, the world’s nations ratified the Framework Convention for Climate Change, which agreed to limit global warming below dangerous levels. Fast forward to the present: we live in a world of manifest climate change impacts, costly and devastating, and approaching dangerous levels will alarming speed.
In the intervening years, from 1992 to 2015, one could argue that not much happened. In fact, a great deal happened but was not obvious or splashy. It was more like building the rocket and the launchpad, but still waiting for lift-off — essential work, but neither the mission nor the voyage.
We got a lift-off in 2015 with the Paris Agreement. The Agreement is like a weight-loss club: everyone who joins pledges how much weight they’re gonna lose this year. Those pledges are the Nationally Determined Contributions: each nation decides what they can contribute. Commitments include everything from buildouts of renewable energy to reforestation to efficiency measures and more.
Lift-off is not the same as reaching orbit — that requires thrust and direction. In the last six COPs, much thrust and direction in the negotiations came from raising the ambitions of nations. This work occurs inside nations but opens a big role for external parties — environmental groups, companies, philanthropies — to advocate for greater ambition and specific actions. These groups drove the COPs from a sleepy diplomatic process behind closed doors to a caravansary of thousands. COP26 in Glasgow hosted 60,000 protestors alone.
This all takes place outside the negotiations, including the national commitments, but drove the sensibility inside the negotiations. And that brought us into a metaphorical orbit.
It is now the case that if all nations meet their commitments, the world will be on track to limit warming to 1.7 C — an astonishing positive outcome (it looked like 4 C in 2015, before Paris).
Which brings me back to Dubai. I have attended every COPs since Paris, and this meeting had a dramatically different feel.
Specifically, the focus was not on raising climate ambition but on fielding climate solutions.
Let’s face it: weight loss clubs don’t deliver much if their members don’t diet or hit the gym. The challenge of climate is only met through action, including investments in energy infrastructure, renewable and nuclear power, electric vehicles, clean fuels, carbon capture from steel and cement, and ceasing destructive deforestation.
Compared to the last 7 COPs, this one had a workman-like feel. Announcements were planned in advance, including the remarkable global methane pledge and the new $30 billion Emirati commitment to clean energy projects in developing nations. A new charter pledges to triple renewable power by 2030, increasing to 11,000 gigawatts. Over $3 billion for climate resilient agriculture.
Green finance was a particular new focus this year. Huge pavilions were dedicated to climate finance and energy transition. Banks and governments spend days discussing new forms of partnerships. Deal flow was everywhere, including a fund for electric buses in India backed with US investment.
In part, this reflects both the COP Presidency and the host nation. Dr. Sultan Al Jaber is at his heart a businessman. He said publicly many times that the COP meant business, and towards that end 95% of the deals and commitments were formalized before COP28 even began.
It also requires dedicated commitment to follow-up. Dr. Sultan said upon the approval of the Dubai consensus, “An agreement is only as good as its implementation.” The Dubai consensus will require partnerships of all kinds, including between businesses, governments, stakeholders on the ground, and civil society.
As for the UAE, the nation went from subsistence fishing and nomadic living to extraordinary wealth and a dynamic and diverse economy in two generations. Of course, this is built on oil wealth, a point made by many, but also on finance, tourism, real estate, and more. As a nation, the Emirates build and do, and they do so with a diverse population and the most progressive gender equity policies of the region.
That can-do, get-to-work sensibility was palpable. Equally important, it requires true collaboration. The world of business and deals at its core works on trust, relationships, and mutual benefit. So must the energy transition. Technology, policy, finance, and civil society must partner together and get to yes. That requires an extraordinary level of trust and partnership.
The pivot from angry shaming towards constructive partnerships is essential. I felt that in Dubai. Will it deliver that change for good? We’ll see.
This article is also published on the author's blog. illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.