Imagine Parliament, a trade show, an academic conference, and a series of protests verging on performance art, all happening at the same time, involving the same number of people as there are living in Dunedin—that’s COP, says David Tong, a New Zealand climate activist and former lawyer.
This year’s COP, in Dubai—the ninth one Tong has attended—is three times bigger than any previous COP, with close to 100,000 climate negotiators, politicians, lobbyists, activists, protestors, geoengineering entrepreneurs, and other observers.
COP is where the world meets in an attempt to figure out what to do about climate change: this year, it was expected to tackle fossil fuels.
Hopes were not high. The host country, the United Arab Emirates, is one of the world’s top 10 oil-producing nations. The president of this year’s conference, Sultan Al Jaber, is the chief executive of Adnoc, the state-owned oil company—and he would be responsible for helping the 198 parties (197 nations plus the European Union) reach a consensus on what kind of climate action to take.
COP involves meetings. Giant meetings involving all parties. Smaller meetings between individual nations, or between friend groups of like-minded countries, such as the Alliance of Small Island States. Some meetings are secret; others are streamed worldwide for anyone to watch. There’s a constant series of demonstrations as negotiators make their way from one event to another: protestors dressed in flaming outfits, youth activists storming the stage with posters.
Days are spent fighting over the inclusion of certain words in the text of the agreement, because each word carries a specific and loaded meaning.
This time, most of the debate centred around how to talk about reducing emissions. Some countries wanted the words “phase out” applied to fossil fuels. Others wanted just “phase down”. Saudi Arabia fought against the words “fossil fuels” being used at all; they thought “emissions” would do. Observers pointed out that putting down “emissions” rather than “fossil fuels” might allow some nations, such as Saudi Arabia, to avoid reducing fossil fuel-impacts, perhaps by dodging around behind-the-scenes with offsets. Each change in vocabulary—the inclusion of the word “could”, for instance—has a far-reaching impact.
In the end, countries committed to “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science”.
Or rather, most countries agreed to do. On the morning of the final meeting, the Alliance of Small Island States—39 nations—hadn’t yet arrived in the conference room when Al Jaber banged the gavel to signify it was all over. Were the Small Island States caught out? Were they getting coffee? The most likely explanation: by turning up late, the Alliance could say they never agreed to the text without preventing it from passing.
After the Small Island States arrived, Samoa’s delegate read a statement listing the Alliance’s objections to the agreement: it didn’t go far enough, they said, to ensure their futures. They received a standing ovation from the room.
For COP, it’s a historic moment: it’s the first time in the conference’s three decades that the connection between fossil fuels and climate change has been acknowledged. In fact, it’s the first time the words “fossil fuels” have ever appeared in a COP agreement.
The agreement is largely being hailed as a victory, especially for a COP “held in the heart of an oil economy,” says University of Canterbury political scientist Bronwyn Hayward.
“It’s set against a very tense international background of two major wars breaking out, both Ukraine and Gaza, so you’ve got people in the room who are actually at war with each other or funding each other’s wars,” says Hayward. “So keeping those people in the room talking civilly and coming to any compromise is a major diplomatic breakthrough.”
Earlier, Tong had described the agreement as “a buffet of dead rats”. It was substantially revised in the conference’s final hours. “A lot of the dead rats are still on the menu,” he says now, “but we also got something much stronger. It’s not perfect, but it is a step forward.”
From Tong’s perspective, the dead rats involve references to carbon capture and storage: the idea that new technologies will be able to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Currently, none function at a scale which would make a difference to climate change.
“One of the worst things that could happen is that governments and businesses become reliant on the idea that there’s some kind of magical carbon capture and storage technology around the corner,” says Hayward, ”that will enable them to keep on producing emissions, rather than cutting emissions and using carbon capture and storage as a emergency backstop.”
COP agreements aren’t binding, but they are incorporated into other international agreements such as trade deals, which are. For instance, earlier this year, New Zealand signed a new trade deal with the European Union, which becomes invalid if either defaults on its Paris targets.
Climate minister Simon Watts’ speech at COP restated New Zealand’s commitment to its Paris goals. That commitment isn’t shared by all members of the coalition government: “We are not going to meet the 2030 dreamy fairytale aspirational figures,” said Minister for Resources Shane Jones earlier this week. Admittedly, the coalition government does not yet have a pathway to meeting them.
If New Zealand doesn’t reduce its emissions and meet its Paris targets, then the government will need to buy carbon offsets at a cost of $3 to $23 billion, according to a Treasury estimate. If New Zealand was throw the deal out the door, as Jones suggests—and as the Act Party advocates for—it will pay the price in trade opportunities as well as its international reputation.
“We are what we do, not what we say,” Sultan Al Jaber told the assembled nations. In the end, he oversaw a more progressive agreement than anyone expected to emerge from a conference hosted by a petrostate. He also runs a company which is planning to double its oil production by 2027. (The United Arab Emirates may have used the global gathering as an opportunity to strike new oil deals, according to a BBC investigation.)
There’s a similar gap between the new coalition government’s words and deeds. “We’re starting work in our first 100 days in office to enable decarbonisation,” new climate minister Simon Watts told the assembled nations at COP. In fact, the coalition government’s 100-day plan mostly involves stopping work on decarbonisation projects.
Step two of the plan, for instance, halts all work on an initiative to help the manufacturing sector move away from using coil boilers for energy. New Zealand currently burns the equivalent of 108 litres of petrol every second to generate heat for industrial purposes.
Step three of the plan scraps a major reservoir project that would have acted as a giant battery for the years in which New Zealand’s hydro generation doesn’t meet electricity demand and fossil fuels are burned instead.
Step four is a move in the right direction, but one that’s already out of date. It says the government will work towards doubling renewable energy production; at COP, New Zealand signed up to a global pledge to triple renewable energy.
Other steps in the plan remove incentives for people to transition to clean energy. Gone are subsidies for electric cars, fuel taxes, and central government work on major public transport projects in Auckland and Wellington.
In addition, the government has decided to reopen New Zealand for oil and gas exploration in six years’ time. This announcement, made the week before COP, earned strong criticism from other nations and a Fossil of the Day wooden-spoon award. (New Zealand wins Fossil of the Day every few years at COP due to what is internationally considered to be our tepid climate policy.)
For Hayward, post-COP, reopening exploration doesn’t makes sense. The government has signed an agreement to reduce fossil fuel use in the next 10 years; that’s how long it would take for the industry to get going again.
“In choosing to reopen offshore oil and gas, the incoming New Zealand government is going against the tide,” says Tong. “A hundred and fifty-eight countries, including New Zealand, said we need to phase out fossil fuels. For New Zealand to then decide that we’ll reopen fossil fuel exploration—it’s going to make us a diplomatic embarrassment.” Tong pauses and reconsiders. “It’s going to make us even more of a diplomatic embarrassment.”