Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

PoliticsDecember 4, 2023

What you need to know about Cop28

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Commitments made at this year’s global climate-crisis conference will impact everyone’s future – as will any failures to seize the moment.

When I checked in for my flight to Dubai earlier this week, the lovely woman at the counter asked if I was going to Cop. She explained she and her colleagues had been forewarned there’d be a few of us coming through Auckland Airport. I replied yes, I was. She then lowered her voice and asked, “So, are you a policewoman?”

I’m not recounting the story to poke fun. My own family only has a vague notion of where I am right now and why. But it speaks to the fact that this conference doesn’t mean a whole lot to everyday people. Why would it? There’s been 28 Conference of the Parties so far (the first was held in Berlin back in 1995) but every year the climate crisis only seems to get worse.

So, what’s the point? Here’s five things you need to know about Cop28, and why it matters.

What happens at Cop?

Cop is a gathering of almost 200 countries, including Aotearoa New Zealand, that have previously agreed to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It’s an international treaty that aims to drastically reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, with each country, or ‘party’, able to determine their own path to achieving that.

The parties come together annually to negotiate new agreements on climate change mitigation, adaptation, mobilising finance, leveraging technology and building capacity in developing countries to address climate impacts.

This year, Cop will begin a process called the Global Stocktake which requires countries to essentially submit a report card, have that evaluated, receive feedback, and then get on with the job.

The devastating effects of climate change were felt by thousands of New Zealanders this year. (Pictured: The devastation caused by Cyclone Gabrielle in the Karekare valley near Auckland. Photo by Ted Scott)

Is Dubai the most ironic place to ever host Cop?

Yup. While the city is a site to behold, and the rate of progress is striking, Dubai is bankrolled by the fossil-fuel industry and has been largely built on the backs of poorly-treated migrants, forced by poverty to leave their home countries and travel to Dubai to work.

A 2022 report by several NGOs claimed as many as 10,000 migrants from South-East Asian countries die each year across the six Gulf states. Half of those deaths are unexplained and most involve construction workers.

I woke up last night with some serious jet lag and decided to go for a walk at who-knows-what time. I was surprised to come across a young Nepalese man clocking off from a building site. We got talking and I learned he’d arrived a few months ago. His family had been subsistence farmers for as long as anyone could remember. He thought that would be his path too, but increasingly unpredictable and extreme weather had made relying on the land untenable so he came to Dubai. He was tired, miserable, missed his baby sister and said he faced discrimination daily.

Participants arrive at the venue of the COP28 United Nations climate summit in Dubai on November 29, 2023. (Photo by Giuseppe CACACE / AFP) (Photo: GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP via Getty Images)

What is Aotearoa on the hook for?

Participating countries are subject to two agreements which are similar but different. There’s the UNFCCC, which covers a broad range of issues related to climate change, and then there’s the Paris Agreement which is a more specific pledge to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, and ideally 1.5 degrees, compared to pre-industrial levels (i.e. prior to 1850).

Back in July of this year, Aotearoa ramped up its commitments by:

  • Increasing its climate finance contributions to $1.3 billion over four years, to support climate action in developing countries.
  • Committing to reduce methane emissions from the agricultural sector by 30% by 2030;
  • Hastening the transition to renewable energy.
  • Protecting and restoring native ecosystems.
  • Investing in domestic adaption efforts such as resilient infrastructure and supporting communities living in at-risk areas.

Whether the new government honours these commitments remains to be seen. It has already said it plans to resume offshore oil and gas exploration, something many see as being at odds with achieving net-zero (balancing greenhouse gas emissions and removals).

The Green Party launched a petition against the move, which has already exceeded its target of 25,000 signatures, while Kiwis in Climate, a group of climate professionals has issued an open letter asking the government to reconsider its stance.

Climate change minister Simon Watts will be attending Cop28 and while the oil and gas situation may mean he’s not flavour of the month with some, he’s sure to find some friends in the petrostate.

Who is going to Cop28? 

This year’s Cop will the largest ever with some 70,000 people from around the world having registered. In addition to Watts, former climate change minister and co-leader of the Green Party James Shaw will attend, along with a raft of policy-makers, business-leaders, NGOs, youth delegates and iwi representatives, some of whom will be sharing indigenous knowledge about climate solutions.

Cop28 has a massive carbon footprint, with most attendees, like me, clocking up air miles to be there. Is it worth it? Well, like most things, it depends. Some Cops have been considered flops while others have been responsible for significant climate wins. For instance:

  • Cop3 in 1996 resulted in the Kyoto Protocol, the very first international agreement by countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. It also paved the way for carbon markets including New Zealand’s own (imperfect) Emissions Trading Scheme.
  • Cop16 in 2010 saw the creation of the Green Climate Fund which supports developing countries mitigate and adapt to climate change and transition to low-emissions economies.
  • Cop21 in 2015 saw countries agree to keep global warming well below two degrees Celsius (Paris Agreement).
  • And this week at Cop28, the United Arab Emirates and Germany will kickstart a loss and damage fund (both chipping in USD$100 million) for countries struggling with the impacts of climate change.

Important work and connections happen here. Policy-makers are doing the heavy lifting and brokering agreements. Journalists and NGOs are holding decision-makers to account. Activists and community leaders provide valuable lived experience, and representatives from the business community share knowledge and explore ways to partner for impact.

How is any of this relevant to me, my whānau, whenua or business?

Climate change is already having a tangible impact on Aotearoa. There’s been significant kōrero around ‘managed retreat’ since Cyclone Gabrielle and the Auckland floods. Both those events have resulted in some homes becoming uninsurable or subject to higher premiums.

A warming planet puts the very young and elderly at particular risk, while increased use of air-conditioning won’t make the cost of living easier for anyone.

If you own a business you may experience disruptions to your supply chain, or find yourself subject to increased regulatory requirements. Your bank or insurer may even begin to require proof of your company’s environmental sustainability.

This is just the tip of the (melting) iceberg. All of us should be very aware of whether New Zealand is meeting its climate obligations fast enough, and hold our decision-makers to account if it’s not. Our lives, and that of future generations, quite literally, depend on it.

Laura Gemmell is the chief executive of Eco Choice Aotearoa, New Zealand’s official ecolabel.

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