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Reporter’s diary | From Fossil of the Day to speed dating: A look under the COP28 hood

Policy reporter Will Worley just spent a week covering the festival-like climate jamboree that is COP. Here’s his behind-the-scenes take.

A view of the buildings hosting COP28 in the UAE. Will Worley/TNH
Extravagant decorations at the COP28 site in Expo City, Dubai.

So, the diplomatic dance in Dubai has finally concluded. As ever, this year’s COP failed to do enough to fix the climate crisis, but it did manage to get nearly every government in the world to take another tentative step on the long road to managing global warming.

As I found, the summit is much too large for one person to cover everything, but here are some notes and observations that didn’t make it into my reporting. 

Setting the scene

Dubai is a wacky city of brightly lit skyscrapers. It’s also a city serviced by an army of immigrant workers, and many of them take the metro to work.

The two-hour Red Line to COP28 runs parallel to the SUV-choked highway, stopping at stations like Sobha Realty, Dubai Internet City, and max (yes, the sign is lower-case). The majority of passengers cram into the middle of the train, which is bookended by a car for women and children and a “gold class” carriage. They are joined this week by thousands of extra passengers headed to “Expo 2020” – the final stop – where COP28 is taking place at what is now, confusingly, called “Expo City”.  

On the train are three members of the Somali delegation. It’s a big day for their country: President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud will launch Somalia’s first NDC implementation plan (laying out how they will achieve their climate goals). One Somali delegate tells me they much prefer to receive climate finance compared to humanitarian aid because, with emergency relief, nothing seems to improve: “It’s the same the next day.”  

The event is jammed. People are waiting for Mohamud, who is late. There’s a clear difference in tone between Somali speakers, who talk of national ambitions and their determined people, and Westerners in the room, who speak of fragility and conflict.

The event takes place in the small Somalia pavilion that will host many of the country’s events over the coming days. Most countries, and some organisations, have these areas at COPs, and they act as a home base for national delegations.

In previous years, these pavilions, jammed together in large halls, were the beating heart of the summit – places for chance meetings and free coffee. But this year, each country pavilion is in its own room, and they are spread out all across Expo City.

Someone likens the setup to a “ghetto” approach. This reflects a wider nostalgia among some attendees for the chaos of COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, where water was scarce and sewage exploded in the street, but there was a good buzz in the air.

The festival-like atmosphere of some previous COPs has also been dialled down a few notches in Dubai. But with every national dress imaginable proudly on display, COP28 still maintains a unique feeling of the entire world being gathered in one place to focus their minds on something big. For instance, there aren’t many places where you’ll see someone in traditional Maasai dress walking in the street alongside Indigenous Amazonian people bedecked in feathers. 

Humanitarians out in force 

December 3 is the big day for humanitarians at COP28. My report on the main events of that day – the launch of a climate-peace declaration and a renewed push for anticipatory action – has already been published. Being denied access to two events by overzealous security didn’t make it into the story, although I’m told that a discussion on climate, peace, and security in the Horn of Africa saw none of the region’s scheduled ministers show up anyway.

African climate activists throw a demonstration inside the Blue Zone at COP28

Fossil of the Day

That same evening, Fossil of the Day kicks off. This COP tradition – dating back to COP5 in Bonn, Germany in 1999 – is an initiative by campaigners at Climate Action Network (CAN) to highlight countries they believe are impeding the negotiations.

As COPs have grown and become more corporate, this is one of the few visible reminders of the special status activists have at these summits. Unlike at other high-profile diplomatic events, they can hold small, designated protests and are granted observer status to the talks.

To the sounds of the Jurassic Park theme tune, New Zealand is promptly awarded Fossil of the Day for its “U-turn on the way to a liveable future”. 

The event enjoys a small audience, but many more people are gawping at the grandiose musical light show simultaneously playing on the huge dome marking the central point of the Expo City site. It’s a nice metaphor for the flashy, PR-driven nature of the COP28 jamboree, which at this early point overshadows the official negotiations. 

Entrance to the main thoroughfare at COP28.
Will Worley/TNH
Entrance to the main thoroughfare at COP28.

In a nod to the ongoing conflict in Gaza, the 8 December Fossil of the Day goes to Israel, because “there is No Climate Justice Without Human Rights”. Separate protests are held on the same theme throughout COP28.  

The presence of veteran activists like Harjeet Singh – the head of Global Political Strategy at CAN who spent the year observing loss and damage talks – helps to keep a loud focus on core climate policy issues.

“We are here for climate justice, we are not here for an expo,” he tells one event. “If you need to only have conversations and share learning, we can do it anywhere. COP is about justice… these loops and loops of conversations that are happening are distracting us from the core issue of climate finance.” 

Put women in charge

On that note, if you want climate finance to go further, put women in charge, says Diann Black-Layne, who negotiated on the loss and damage fund for Antigua and Barbuda.

Black-Layne is winning over the audience with informal, unscripted remarks that stand out at an otherwise stage-managed panel event.

“All grant funding we get, we give it directly to the communities – women there can squeeze six quarters out of a dollar. They have funds left over,” she says. “They have a wisdom I believe in… when the hurricane comes in, I know they will be ok.”

GCF vows to make amends 

As the summit progresses, it becomes clear that self-flagellation from Green Climate Fund officials is something of an emerging trend: The body has been slammed for years for being sluggish and because its much-needed money is so hard to access.

New CEO Mafalda Duarte sets the self-criticism rolling at one event, before comms chief Stephanie Speck takes it further.

“We have huge resources that have been gifted to us from [the] tax-paying public,” Speck says. “We are stewards of those resources and we have not stewarded them as well as we ought.... We are not known for [simplicity, speed, access], but I can guarantee, hand on heart, in the next year that is what the fund is absolutely working towards, so we don't have to keep apologising.”  

Speck also talks a lot about the GCF’s big plans for investing in fragile and conflict-affected settings. After a quick chat with Speck post-panel, I decide to hold out for an interview with Duarte to discuss all this in detail. Stay tuned!   

Who didn't get in?

Most of the action at COPs happens in the sealed-off, UN-run Blue Zone. Everyone there must wear an identifying badge that is scanned on the way in and out. But these badges are hard to come by.

Some people who hoped to go to COP28 – many from peacebuilding organisations – had a very hard time getting these badges, one person from the sector who did manage to get in tells me. To secure access to the Blue Zone, they had to apply 18 months in advance through a very complex process to the UNFCCC, which demanded lots of information, including tax returns. Representatives of a climate-security think tank also complain of the lack of badges they received.

So how, the Kick Big Polluters Out campaign group asks, did 2,456 fossil fuel lobbyists manage to register to attend the two-week long summit? 

Who didn’t get the spotlight?

For those primarily concerned with the world’s dwindling and ever-contested water supplies, COP28 was supposed to be their big year.

Professor Mariana Mazzucato, co-chair of the Global Commission on the Economics of Water, doesn’t try to hide her disappointment at their message not cutting through.

“Water is nowhere,” the renowned economist and academic is overheard saying. “No one's dealing with water except the water people, so nothing happens.”

I’m also told about a protocol fight at a food systems event: Officials for UN agencies apparently became embroiled in heated discussions over whose boss should be allowed to speak first.  

Focus on politics 

Meanwhile, at a climate finance event, Netherlands Deputy Prime Minister Sigrid Kaag raises the importance of politics alongside policy in tackling the climate crisis – after far-right Dutch politician Gert Wilders’ Party for Freedom won the most seats in her country’s November elections. 

“I don’t know what type of government we’ll be getting, also in Europe there are elections… and the mood is quite conservative,” says Kaag.

The risk of a “retrenchment or a reversal” on climate policy is “quite real”, so as well as setting the best goals, “you need to also focus on the politics”, she says.

Kaag has a clear idea of what’s needed: “Political will, a straight back, and have the courage to withstand the tide and sometimes organise in a different manner.”

But what do the insiders really think?

One of the best things about attending COPs in person is that you hear a few nuggets you wouldn’t normally hear: the unguarded moments.

For example, the head of climate issues at one big humanitarian NGO working to reduce the carbon emissions of his organisation tells me his cause isn’t helped by senior management insisting on flying around the world at the drop of a hat. Closer to the ground, he says greening is hard because people “tend to do what they’ve always done”: buy inefficient generators and gas-guzzling vehicles.  

You see things too: An adviser close to the loss and damage negotiations is so dazed and confused from overwork she appears almost inebriated. Many of those closest to the official talks – rather than those who come because it’s the place to be – enter this bewildered state at some point or another, reinforcing the febrile COP atmosphere.

Laughs are shared at the increasingly odd jargon flying around – “inf infs” anyone? – and the word “operationalisation” to describe launching the loss and damage fund.

Over a beer one evening, two UN veterans agree that many people come to COPs more for the bilaterals – which are beginning to feel a bit like speed dating. They’ll have a chance to do it all over again at COP29 in Azerbaijan, where action towards phasing out fossil fuels that is more concrete will hopefully be on the menu.

Edited by Andrew Gully.

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